The carrot and the stick
The Defense Intelligence Agency, DIA, is the military intelligence mothership within the U.S. government. With over 17,000 employees, it is the slightly smaller brother of its much more famous alter-ego: the CIA. Within DIA exists the Defense Attaché Service, or DAS. The DAS is composed of about 600 people, many of which are defense attachés. These attachés are mostly military officers who have been selected and screened by their Service to serve abroad as the military’s diplomatically-accredited representative in a foreign country. It is a rare and prestigious job. Most officers, upon entering the DAS, have undergone a year-long vetting process. An attaché brings a high degree of operational experience when they enter the foreign service, most having served combat tours, many having commanded. They are nominated and screened by their Service because that Service (Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines) know that their “face” in countries abroad is their attaché. When an attaché speaks, they speak on behalf of the Service chief. It is a highly-sought-after, impactful strategic-level job that few officers attain.
As a lieutenant colonel attaché in the Air Force, I was routinely advising ambassadors on international policy issues. In contrast, many of my peers working on various staff jobs (a job I would eventually land in myself after my service abroad) couldn’t so much as urinate without getting approval from three officers above them. And there I was, with my operational chain of command that, when serving as a Defense Attaché, looked like this: Me -> Ambassador -> President of the United States.
In my assignment after my attaché job, I ended up working on the staff. My chain of command between me and the President was like 19 layers thicker. Hell, I had two tiers of the chain of command above me just in one cubicle farm! No knock on staff work or people who work on them, of course, but my satirical little vignette is to show the relatively high-level impact that a middle-management-level-officer, such as a lieutenant colonel, has when serving as an attaché in an embassy.
I left the quaint neighborhood of Westchester, Illinois in 1995 for the United States Air Force Academy. A scrawny 18-year-old at the time, I had excelled in high school and had set my sights early on attending the Academy and becoming a fighter pilot. Looking back, I’m not exactly sure why I had that goal. I wasn’t raised in any military family, nor any kind of military community. God’s honest truth, I’m not even sure how I even found out about the damn place! But I did and was determined to get in. And I did. I remember the day I got the letter of acceptance – I actually called the Academy to make sure I was reading it correctly. They said I was (they probably also re-considered their acceptance, thinking “did we just accept some kid who had trouble understanding the acceptance letter!?”).
So, there I was, 1995, rolling off the bus onto the famous U.S. Air Force Academy terrazzo. A lot of yelling and a lot of studying later, I was an officer; commissioned in 1999 and headed to pilot training. Two and a half years later, First Lieutenant Sweazey was reporting for duty at the 14th Fighter Squadron, Misawa Airbase, Japan, embarking on a tactical aviation career that would culminate in four flying assignments in the F-16 and an eventual selection to the prestigious Defense Attaché Service in 2016.
When I walked into DIA and into attaché training in 2017, I joined 50 or so other officers just like me: all accomplished in their fields, all having worked hard to get to where they were at. Fighter pilots, special operators, intelligence officers. All of them with advanced degrees, all of them able to speak one or more foreign languages. If you read their CV’s, your eyes would water – combat veterans, commanders, Harvard graduates, the list goes on…it’s like a fricking “who’s who in America” in one room. And on Day 1, we walk into our DAS division headquarters and they begin the indoctrination with “High production, low drama!” I thought: “what the hell does that mean!?” Unfortunately, I would very soon come to find out exactly what that meant…
The Attaché Service was organized in divisions, which were aligned with geographic regions of the world. In charge of my European division was a government civilian in about her mid-40s, let’s call her Tanya. That of course was not her name, but her name isn’t important for the story. Tanya was the quintessential remora that you find in D.C., somehow having landed herself a cushy job within the Agency and firmly entrenching herself in permanence there. I had heard a lot about her background before arriving in the DAS, especially how she had been a problem child in her previous jobs and was “promoted away from them”. Now, she found herself as chief of the largest and most prolific division within the DAS, overseeing offices in Europe and Eurasia. She was a tyrant. You could tell that the minute you started talking with her; most that worked with her attested to the same thing (and many of them eventually filed official complaints to that very end, in fact).
So, here’s the dynamic: a group of highly motivated, accomplished officers and enlisted personnel working for a vindictive bureaucrat who, because she was so toxic, had actually enjoyed “success” within the agency by being punted around it for years. On the flipside, imagine the mindset of the military people entering the attaché service: we had served many years honorably and had worked very hard to get to the position we were in. We had just undergone a year’s long screening process in order to be accepted as an attaché. For many, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For most, it was our first time working in the intelligence community and working in DIA. In that respect, we were young and naïve. We also had a lot to lose – for every attaché sitting in that room, there were probably 25 officers who tried to get that position and all 25 were probably salivating at the off-chance that we would get kicked out of the program and they would get the call. The Agency, knowing full well the “environmentals,” took advantage of this dynamic. Tanya was no exception.