Former CIA analyst on transferring skills from CIA to Disney
In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell interviews Rodney Faraon, a former China analyst and 15-year veteran of the CIA, about how he transferred skills he developed at the agency to a variety of roles outside of government. Faraon, now a partner at Martin+Crumpton Group LLC, also held roles at Walt Disney Company and in the film and investment industries. Faraon tells Morell about his experience briefing former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and drafting testimony for the annual Worldwide Threats Hearing.
- From CIA to Disney: “[T]he key skills for great intelligence analysts are twofold. One is your ability to express yourself in writing or speaking or however. The other is critical thinking. So if you’ve got those two skills and you know how to apply them, every day, when when you look through what seems to be just regular data, information, news, it becomes intelligence when you think about what this means for the company that you’re working for. And then being able to explain that to your bosses, to your clients inside the firm, and how persuasive you can be, all of those things I learned at the agency and that was that was critical to whatever success I had at Disney. “
- Drafting testimony for the annual Worldwide Threats Hearing: “[T]his was definitely a bottom-up exercise, which is the way it should be, where the senior experts from around the agency looking at regional as well as technical threats, terrorism, crime, narcotics, would proffer ideas to to the seventh floor for what should be in the testimony. What does the building think are the are the biggest threats to to America and that we are going to be watching over the next year very closely?”
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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – RODNEY FARAON
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
MICHAEL MORELL: Rodney, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show with us and it’s great to talk to you again.
RODNEY FARAON: It’s a real honor and a pleasure to be here, Michael. And it’s been a long time. I’m really happy we could get reacquainted, even though it’s this way.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. In different places, I guess, instead of being in the studio.
So, as you know, Rodney, this this episode is is about life after being a CIA analyst. And we’ll get to that. But I also want to go through the CIA part of your career, if that’s OK. And I guess the first question I would ask is, how did you end up there?
RODNEY FARAON: Well, it’s literally a long story, but I’ll try to be concise. So I first decided that I wanted to join CIA when I was in high school. So imagine 1986, 1987. I’m a high school sophomore, junior, and the best-selling books at the time were the Tom Clancy novels. And, of course, like you and many others from our organization, devoured them quickly. And I decided that, because Jack Ryan was an analyst, I wanted to be that, too.
So I decided at that age that I wanted to join CIA. And so I applied to a college in D.C., Georgetown, to be as close to the agency as I possibly could. The hope here was that it was going to be like the British system, where, if you go to Cambridge or Oxford, some senior professor or don would tap you on the shoulder having noticed you, and then say that there’s a job opportunity that they’d like to talk to you about. But unfortunately for me, no one tapped me on the shoulder. I guess it doesn’t work that way in the United States. At least it didn’t for me.
MICHAEL MORELL: So it used to a long, long, long time ago, but not anymore.
RODNEY FARAON: Yeah, well, so what I did then was – and to tell you how long ago this was, I said, screw it. I’m just going to go and call the agency myself. So I looked up the number in the phone book in the blue pages, and I got the agency. I still remember that main number, by the way.
And I asked for personnel and essentially talked my way into getting an application for a job there. And it worked.
MICHAEL MORELL: Wow. So what did you what did you work on when you first came in?
RODNEY FARAON: I worked on China and in fact, most of my career, which spanned about 15 years, was on China. And what was interesting about this is you never know where where things lead.
So I remember coming in to headquarters on my first day and one of the analysts who was going to be my mentor said that, ‘Well, the managers are trying to figure out where in China division they wanted to put you.’ And of course, like many people, I wanted to do the sexy Chinese internal politics, and then maybe my second choice would be looking at the People’s Liberation Army, particularly the Navy, and then maybe foreign policy. What my mentor said was, ‘Well, it’s either going to be the military or it’s going to be this thing called industrial technology.’
And of course, I said, ‘That’s the most’ – I didn’t say this out loud, but I said in my head, ‘That’s the most boring sounding, anodyne subject matter that I could ever dream of devoting myself to. I hope it’s not that.’
Well. Guess what? It was that. And it turned out to be interesting at the end, because it was China’s defense industries in the early 90s, and this was when the Chinese defense industries were starting to become privatized in many ways. It was also a time when China was proliferating weapons all around the world to sensitive countries.
And my first account was to look at Chinese missile sales around the globe. This ended up being not only really interesting from a technical point of view, but also because of the manner of the work, I got to meet and develop relationships with analysts from other parts of the building who were basically assessing China’s customers, whether they were Syria and Iran or Pakistan. And that served me well later on in my career.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rodney, did you have a lot of extensive China experience going in?
RODNEY FARAON: No, I came in as a rising senior in college, as an undergraduate intern, and what I had done though, was when I was at college, I tried to fill my curriculum up with China-related work: Chinese language, history, politics. I was really interested in becoming an expert in that field. Also in Southeast Asia, because I’m the son of Filipino immigrants and I just love that part of the world.
Some people ask me, ‘What was it that got you interested in China back in 1988?’ And I said, ‘Well actually it’s the story goes back to when I was in sixth grade.’ So imagine this: in 1981, 1982, my mom for some reason brings the Time magazine with Deng Xiaoping on the cover, Deng being the paramount leader of China at the time, and says, ‘You know what, I don’t think Russia is going to be our enemy. It’s going to be China in the future.’
And I never forgot that, especially when I went to my social studies class in sixth grade, said that to my friends, and they just laughed me out the door. Well, that thought about China becoming a future rival just stuck with me. And I think that the big lesson here, though, is always listen to your mother. She’s got some wisdom.
MICHAEL MORELL: Absolutely. So how did you find working with a bunch of people in the China analytic group who lived and breathed China, right? They had studied there, they knew the language, they had devoted their life right to understanding China. And I always wondered what it was like to be a non-China expert who was put into that situation. How did you find that?
RODNEY FARAON: Well, I think I went in with the right attitude, which was, I may know or think I know a lot about China, but these people do it every day, every minute of every hour. It was just fascinating – the education I got from sitting down with someone who had been working on China for 25 years and just talking about his view of the country and how far it’s developed and how it’s changing. I could never get that kind of education anywhere else.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rodney, I don’t want to embarrass you, but you were an outstanding analyst and you had an exceptional ability as a writer. And both of those things gave you some great opportunities. One of them was being the daily intelligence briefer for the second-longest serving director of Central Intelligence ever, George Tenet. So what was that job like?
It was, looking back, it was, I think, the best job I’ve ever had in my life. You’re sitting there at the right hand of a great man who happens to be the Director of Central Intelligence. And every morning when you bring him the President’s Daily Briefing, you listen to him react to the stories. You listen to him calling the White House. It was it was just a fascinating experience. And I was glad to have some small contribution there.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, it’s funny, I list as my favorite job ever when I was his executive assistant. It was working for him, right? He was a pretty special guy. What was he like as a person?
RODNEY FARAON: Really down to earth. You knew he was the boss, you never forgot that. You never forgot that. But he has a great sense of humor. He really listened. And I felt that he cared about people. One of the things that I tried to do when I was his briefer was not only present him with the substance of what CIA was saying to the president that day, but also giving a feel for what I was hearing, what we call ‘around the building’ about things. And George would occasionally just solicit opinions from me.
For example, when he was coming out with his first big effort to change the strategic direction of CIA after so many years, he asked me, ‘What was the reaction of the building to what I said?’ And I told him, and he heard it. And I think – I hope it was useful.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. You also had the pleasure of writing the Worldwide Threat Testimony.
RODNEY FARAON: Yes. Three times.
MICHAEL MORELL: And if I remember – yeah, it was multiple times because you were so good at it. And I think I was somehow responsible for at least one of those times happening.
RODNEY FARAON: Two of those times. Trust me, I counted. [Laugh].
MICHAEL MORELL: So tell people what the process of putting together the Worldwide Threat Testimony is actually like, right. Because you’re not an expert on all of those other issues, right. You’re an expert on one of them, but not all of them. So how how does that process work?
RODNEY FARAON: Well, it was good that I was a PDB briefer at the time because I had a good overview of the priorities that CIA and the president had for foreign policy and a good feel for the overall risks.
But this was definitely a bottom-up exercise, which is the way it should be, where the senior experts from around the agency looking at regional as well as technical threats, terrorism, crime, narcotics, would proffer ideas to to the seventh floor for what should be in the testimony. What does the building think are the are the biggest threats to to America and that we are going to be watching over the next year very closely?
So I would solicit all of these things and then try to compile it into one document. We have great writers at CIA, so it was a matter of stitching together and editing them so that it basically sounded like it was coming from one person. And for me, the greatest part of this was crafting the opening statement and the conclusion. And I that’s where I really got to become creative in my own right, and imagine what the Director would want to say to the American public – since these were televised in public. And fortunately, because I had spent so much time with him, I really got to learn his voice and how he thought.
MICHAEL MORELL: So you’re being, Rodney, you’re being a little bit modest here. So the inputs you got, let’s be honest, were not perfect. People are good writers, but they weren’t perfect. And trying to trying to understand what the analysts are trying to say and being able to take that and make that simple for a smart generalist to understand is a real skill set that you had. So you actually had to do a lot of work, if I remember correctly.
RODNEY FARAON: It’s a lot of work. But at the same time, we have, as you well know, so many smart people there that the work was actually kind of fun. I would say that the biggest challenge for most of our analysts was to ensure that we had a clear point of view. I think too often it’s easy to look at the body of information about a certain subject and say, ‘On the one hand, it could be this. On the other hand, it could be that.’
And maybe the information is inconclusive, but the taxpayer is not paying you to give us a wishy-washy view of what the world is like. We understand there will be gaps and missing information and you won’t be right all the time, but you owe it to us to give us your expert opinion on how things are.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. And did you actually learn from one testimony to another to another, or was each pretty much the same?
RODNEY FARAON: There was a general template. What was different about the third testimony was that that was the first under the Bush administration, as I recall. And although the information was not that much different than before, it definitely, because it was reflecting a new administration and George being a holdover from the previous one, we had to make sure that we got the tone exactly right on that.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rodney, you were doing fantastic at the agency. You had an extraordinarily bright career ahead of you. Why did you decide to leave?
RODNEY FARAON: Leaving was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make. And I remember the day that I went in to announce to the rest of China Division that I was leaving, I bawled my eyes out. I couldn’t help it. It was it was very emotional.
And the reason was that I had come back from three years overseas, after the fall of 2004. Director Tenet had resigned in July of that summer. And we had all sorts of changes happening to CIA and the intelligence community writ large.
You and I know that sticking it out and living through different management administrations is just part of the job, and that was fine. But what I saw was that we had the introduction of the Director of National Intelligence, which to me, it made me feel a little bit diminished, I think, at the agency, because we felt less central than we were before.
And some of the leadership that I was witnessing – they’re great people, smart people. But a lot of the advice I was getting we were getting was, ‘Just hunker down, keep your head down and keep doing what you’re doing.’ And I wanted more than that. I wanted a plan. I wanted a direction. And also what I wanted to do was not infect others with my unhappiness or my pessimism. So calculating how many years it would take for me to retire fully, I decided that instead of waiting, I was going to try to take my career into my own hands and find my way around. And hopefully if they’ll have me back someday, someday, maybe even come back.
MICHAEL MORELL: So how important was George’s departure to your thinking?
RODNEY FARAON: It was critical. It was critical, it was probably the factor that weighed the most. And it wasn’t because his successors were that different or that bad. It was just that I missed his personal leadership style, his touch, and that I knew that things were going to be different, things were not going to be the same.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rodney, you end up at Disney after you leave. How did that happen? And what was your job there?
RODNEY FARAON: It happened by luck and by chance. So, recall that I was unhappy with the general situation with the agency and the intelligence community. So I decided to try to see what was out there. And I’ll remind everyone that this was my first real job right out of college. So after 15 years, it’s a big decision, a hard decision. And I really didn’t understand what the private sector had to offer.
But what I did know was that I, having served overseas, I did know that there were multinational corporations that should have a use for someone who understands China, who understands counterterrorism, who understands security, who understands the intelligence process and how useful and important intelligence is to decision making. And so I just looked for jobs that way.
And by complete chance and luck, the Walt Disney Company, which had reimagined how to conduct its global security enterprise, decided they wanted an intelligence mission to be part of that. So they were advertising for a Director of Global Intelligence and Threat Analysis. So I read the qualifications. I said, ‘I could do that. I’ve done that before. It seems pretty reasonable to me.’
MICHAEL MORELL:And what did you do in the job? What was an average day like?
RODNEY FARAON: The important thing for me was to find a place to land where I felt I could serve a bigger mission, and Disney was one of those places we all, as Americans, grew up with it. It just felt bigger than just another company. And I took that on board as a mission.
And so the day-to-day was very similar to what we did in regular intelligence work. Let’s understand what the interests of the company are – at CIA it’s the interests of the country. Evaluate the nightly traffic, the daily traffic, what’s happening around the world that could have some effect on how company operations occurred and that could be either from the point of view of risk, which was my main job, but also opportunity. Where else could we help the business strike out and and find new opportunities to grow?
That’s another role of intelligence, I think, [that] is not really talked about very much. We always talk about preventing terrorism, preventing bad things from happening. But also, can we highlight things over the horizon that people aren’t seeing that could lead to good things? And that’s what I tried to do at the company.
MICHAEL MORELL: And how much did you use the the skills that you learned at the agency?
RODNEY FARAON: Every day. Every day. So the key skills – and actually, Michael, you taught me this – the key skills for a great intelligence analysts are twofold. One is your ability to express yourself in writing or speaking or however. The other is critical thinking. So if you’ve got those two skills and you know how to apply them, every day, when when you look through what seems to be just regular data, information, news, it becomes intelligence when you think about what this means for the company that you’re working for. And then being able to explain that to your bosses, to your clients inside the firm, and how persuasive you can be, all of those things I learned at the agency and that was that was critical to whatever success I had at Disney.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rodney, what did working at Disney teach you?
RODNEY FARAON: It taught me to emphasize creativity, Disney being one of those places that values creativity as a central tenet for the business.
I got to know several people who were either screenwriters, I got to know the folks whom we called Imagineers, the ones who were the engineers, industrial engineers usually, who tried to imagine different ways that a customer at a theme park could experience a Disney story uniquely. And so they were constantly coming up with ideas and testing new things and even creating technologies.
And I thought that, you know, we always talked about how imagination is important for the intelligence business. Well, being at Disney really hammered home the importance of it, because what Disney did was they looked for it, right. I think too often at at CIA, we’re looking for a certain set of skills, but we don’t actually come out and and test for creativity. It’s different at Disney. And that’s what I learned.
MICHAEL MORELL: So where did you go after Disney? And what drew you there?
RODNEY FARAON: Well, I spent three years at Disney and then I left because Ambassador Hank Crumpton, who is a CIA legend and operations officer, who was a counterterrorism expert and who planned and helped lead and win the war in Afghanistan, he retired. This is about 2008. And he decided that he wanted to bring the same sorts of services, advice, information, intelligence that we brought to the president of the United States, but in this case to the presidents and CEOs of companies. Because it was obvious to all of us in the intelligence business that the way to get to the best decisions possible, you have to have the best information available. Now, the information may be flawed, the decisions may be wrong, but at least you’ve got a fighting chance to get it right.
So Hank asked me to join his company. And what he said was, I want you to try to do what you’re doing at Disney, but on a broader stage. Because at this point, as a consulting company, we were looking at dozens of clients, not just one main one.
MICHAEL MORELL: And did you did you know Hank at the agency?
RODNEY FARAON: No. No, I didn’t. I didn’t. I was actually introduced by a close mutual friend, Richard Blee, who was living in Los Angeles at the time. And what they told me was that when Hank and Rich decided to start Crumpton Group, they went up to – this is where it all comes full circle, Michael. They went up to New York to go talk to Herb Allen and company, and George Tenet, who was there as well. And George said, ‘Well, you two are a couple of knuckle-dragging operations officers. (It was a joke.) So what you guys need is a product. You guys need an analyst to help you come up with something to sell.” So Rich immediately said that, well, ‘What about Rodney Faraon over at Disney?’ And George just immediately said yes, because he knew who I was.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rodney, what does a business intelligence firm do?
RODNEY FARAON: You know, it’s fun to explain this because business intelligence means different things to all sorts of different people. The way that we define it is that we are going to provide you with the best information that we possibly can so that you can make the most effective, accurate, correct decision possible, and most effectively.
So we work our best when we have an ongoing relationship with a client, something where we’re in the room regularly and we can understand the client’s interests as well as, if not better than, they can. And oftentimes we’re brought on to look at a discrete problems such as, ‘Well, I’m thinking about going to business in China and this particular partner has presented themselves as an opportunity. What do you think?’
And what we’ll do is we’ll tell them what we think based on the research that we do, based on the best locally-collected, available information that we can find. And then we apply expertise to turn this information to something useful for the clients. That’s what business intelligence is.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Rodney, while at Crumpton, you get involved in the film industry and you actually start a production company called Aardwolf Entertainment. How did that come about?
RODNEY FARAON: It was a combination of just the right things happening at the right time.
So first of all, I’ve always had an interest in the world of of entertainment, whether it’s television or film. When I was at Disney, I tried on the side to meet as many screenwriters and producers as I possibly could because I someday wanted to scratch that creativity itch and perhaps join those ranks.
Ambassador Crumpton had written a best-selling book, on the New York Times best seller list, called The Art of Intelligence, that got a lot of attention around, not only around the community and the public, but also in the world of entertainment that’s constantly looking for cool, creative content about about spies.
And when they approached him to see if they could buy the rights from his book, he came to me to ask what I thought, mainly because, even though I’m not a Hollywood executive, I knew more about it than anybody else in the company did.
And I told him, “Look, Hank, here’s what’s going to happen. First of all, you’re not going to make as much money as J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter. It’s just not that kind of book. And secondly, this is what you’re going to be most concerned about: this book is about you personally. So if they turn this into a project, they’re going to own you and they’re going to be able to tell your story the way that they want to tell it, not necessarily the way that you want to tell it.’ So Hank said, ‘Well, I don’t want to do that.’ And then I said, ‘But what we can do with this type of momentum and publicity is try to bring stories to these very hungry producers and financiers about the intelligence community that are accurate, that reflect who the people are in the community, in the building, and would be a lot of fun that they’ve never heard of before. So we we decided to take a chance.
MICHAEL MORELL: So Aardwolf Entertainment. Where did the name come from?
RODNEY FARAON: I’m not sure I’m able to —
MICHAEL MORELL: Yes, I think you can. Yes, you can.
RODNEY FARAON: OK, well, my usual answer is that it’s a hyena-like animal that is native to southern Africa. Which is true. But it also is the code name for a special communication, a cable from the field where the Chiefs of Station in a given country provide their personal assessment of what’s happening. So what was meaningful to us about this name was that we, as former CIA officers, and perhaps as the first producers of this type of entertainment content, want to present our perspective on what intelligence is all about to the public.
MICHAEL MORELL: So tell us what it was like to make State of Affairs, which was, I think, an NBC program, correct?
RODNEY FARAON: That’s right. We pitched it to six different networks, got four offers. It was educational and a blast and a lot of fun. First, what really impressed me about Hollywood was, when we finally went into production, seeing how this machine worked. You have an idea, and then the writers turn this into a script, and then the directors and the crew make it happen visually. And they all know what they’re doing. They don’t have to be told exactly how to do things. They seek advice because they ask me, ‘What does the inside of a CIA vault, an office, look like?’ And it was fun to to try to recreate that. And even down to the point where we got the same sorts of burn bags that we used in the building for the show. It was really fun to do.
MICHAEL MORELL: And you said this was educational. What did you learn from doing this?
RODNEY FARAON: Well, I learned about how the industry worked and really how many people are involved in the creation of a show. Which can be good and bad. I mean, when you get creative notes from network executives to turn the drama in a different direction that you may not agree with, but you have to because they own the show, that’s instructive.
When they come up with an idea for the show that you never would have thought about, but it made it 100 times better, that’s instructive. I didn’t realize that how much authorship – actually very similar to what we saw in the intelligence community, it was a corporate thing. It was a lot of different people doing their best to come out with what they thought was the best product possible.
MICHAEL MORELL: So finally, Rodney, you get involved in investment banking. How did that happen?
RODNEY FARAON: Well it’s more private equity than investment banking. And this was just – one thing that Hank Crumpton taught me about being an operations officer or an executive was, you really got to have allies. You have to have allies and friends, because if you try to do things alone, you’re less likely to succeed. And not only is it easier to do things with friends, but it’s also a lot more fun.
So in the course of our work with our company, we met a lot of folks who are clients or who also are just friends of the firm who were involved in equity investment or investment banking. And in the course of our discussions and as we proceeded with the relationship, we both realized that we’ve got some interesting ideas about the kinds of technologies that may have their roots in national security and intelligence, but that could have great application for the private sector. So we just decided to be as agile as we possibly could and work with a partner to form a fund that could be very similar to In-Q-Tel, but in reverse.
MICHAEL MORELL: It’s the reverse of In-Q-Tel, right? In-Q-Tel looks for commercially available products that would be useful to the to the to the government. And you’re looking the other way.
RODNEY FARAON: That’s exactly right. Yes, that’s exactly right. And in fact, what’s interesting, in the course of –and we’ve only been doing this for less than a year, but I found that the sexy new industry is artificial intelligence, right. It turns out that artificial intelligence, its applications and use, far advanced in the national security intelligence community than it is in the private sector. And there’s a lot of great lessons to learn about it and a lot of great things that we can do if we were able to find the right shareable technologies and experts. So that’s one of the things we’re looking at right now.
MICHAEL MORELL: So a that’s not the conventional wisdom, right. The conventional wisdom is that the government is way behind. It’s interesting that you say it’s the reverse.
RODNEY FARAON: Yes. And I think the reason why is because there is a mission imperative to try to get the best technologies possible to fight the fight, Right. And when it’s national security, when it’s possibly life and death, things evolve a lot faster than they do when the impetus is market share or revenue, Right. So we found a lot of the innovation is actually in the government. And you’re right, it does seem backward from what we’ve seen over the last 20 years or so. But it’s a really fascinating development.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rodney, you’ve been you’ve been amazing with your time. Let me just ask you a couple of more questions. Do you do you still follow China?
RODNEY FARAON: I do.
MICHAEL MORELL: Because it’s important, because of your interest, or both?
RODNEY FARAON: Well, my mom told me so, so.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then you sort of already answered this, but, do you miss CIA?
RODNEY FARAON: Yeah, I miss it a lot. Certainly, I miss the people that I worked with, but I was able to develop a lot of the same sort of happy feelings wherever I’ve been, not because of me, but because I was able to choose places where all the people were looking in the same direction and that we could focus on what that mission is.
But I’ve never lost my love for intelligence nor my my love for this country. And to the extent I could ever give back and make things better, you know, I would still love to do that someday.
MICHAEL MORELL: Rodney, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been great to have you on the show.
RODNEY FARAON: No, thank you, Michael, for the opportunity, and for your friendship and for everything that you’ve done for for me and my family. Thank you.