It seemed like a good idea in 2013.
I ran for Congress as the Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s 8th district during the 2014 election cycle after serving in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for almost a decade. Political handicappers viewed the district, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, as competitive since it wasn’t gerrymandered to an inch of its life by the legislature in Harrisburg. Over the last two decades, 8th district voters have put both Democrats and Republicans in office. All in all, I thought I had a decent shot at winning.
I won a tough Democratic primary but fell far short in the general election against the incumbent, Mike Fitzpatrick. The experience of running a campaign was extraordinarily rewarding, but my CIA experience raised a unique set of issues.
In addition to my background in intelligence, I’m also a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I found when I shook hands and marched in parades that everyone across the political spectrum appreciated my military service—Democrat, Independent, and Republican. On the other hand, many regarded my intelligence background with skepticism. Some believed I had spent my time bombing people in Pakistan from unmanned aircraft, while others assumed that I had overthrown foreign governments.
In one instance I was presumed accountable for the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War, an impressive feat since that effort preceded my birth by two decades. Also, I was constantly asked if I watched Homeland, if I liked Homeland, and if I was trying to “be” Homeland. Let me state for the record: I was not trying to be the sniper-POW-terrorist-Congressman Nicholas Brody. Anyways—spoiler alert—he won his election.
I was an analyst at the CIA. While very comfortable discussing foreign policy issues, I often knew things I could not discuss publicly. I visited exotic places around the world and worked on interesting projects, but my job more closely resembled working in a highly classified think tank than drinking martinis and playing high-stakes card games like you-know-who. It was a great job and it was an honor to serve my country, but being a CIA analyst does not often lend itself to sexy anecdotes. The stories that were interesting I couldn’t talk about anyway.
Over the course of the campaign, media reporting surrounding the intelligence community often drove voter interest in the topic, and usually not in a good way. I was frequently asked about the Intelligence Community spying on American citizens after Edward Snowden began leaking classified information about NSA programs in June 2013. I also was often asked about the attack on the US diplomatic post in Benghazi. There typically was a great difference in tone between these two issues. On the electronic surveillance front, most voters were interested in whether I thought the intelligence community had gone too far, whereas there was no middle ground on Benghazi. People had very firm opinions on what happened in Libya in September 2012 and whether there was a cover-up. Given the number of news stories about the fight between the CIA and the Senate over the soon-to-be-released Senate Interrogation Report, I was surprised how rarely the topic came up on the campaign trail.
I also discovered very quickly that the skills required for being a top-notch Agency analyst are far different than what is necessary to be a successful Congressional candidate. CIA analytic briefings are usually dry and stuffy. They focus on data, nuance, and uncertain outcomes. Policy recommendations are a big no-no. Briefings are presented dispassionately. Suffice to say, the way CIA analysts are trained to give briefings and answer questions will not get people on their feet cheering. Voters expect their elected leaders to be definitive and show passion and convictions for their beliefs.
Take the below exchange from my second debate with Congressman Fitzpatrick in October 2014. In this instance, I critiqued him for a bill that he cosponsored and publicized called the Isolate ISIS Act. The act provides the Treasury Department the authority to sanction companies and individuals who provide financial support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
I noted Treasury actually had had that authority for 13 years under EO 13224, signed shortly after the 9/11 attacks and that Treasury had exercised that authority against ISIS’s predecessor group, al Qaeda in Iraq. This should have been, shall we say, a “slam-dunk” for me. Here’s part of the exchange:
Me: …I appreciate what the Congressman did in terms of passing the Isolate ISIS Act, but I would remind everyone that Treasury has had the authority to do just that for the better part of a decade…
Him: Treasury has the powers to follow the money of ISIS and other terrorist organizations under the Executive Order and…what my bill does is it provides statutory authority so its clear to Treasury what powers they have…
He then goes on to tell a story about his recent trip to Turkey, where he met with members of the Free Syrian Army, and then noted ISIS is a threat to our children.
He clearly won this exchange. My answer focused on inter-governmental processes. He agreed Treasury had the authority, but glided right past that point by telling a story about his personal war on ISIS. Despite having the facts on my side, his answer was far more persuasive because it gave the impression of action.
I have several words of advice for any intelligence officers who want to run in the future. First, remember that exploring nuances won’t help you when you’re speaking publicly because you’re more likely to bore people who want to see what you’re passionate about. Second, be prepared to ask anyone you’ve ever met for money to fund your campaign—that’s unfortunately the way our political system currently operates. Third, make sure your family is on-board with this effort, since it puts a lot of pressure on them. Fourth, watch Homeland.
I had a great time on the campaign, and would encourage all Americans to get involved in the political process at any level. A real lesson from my campaign is that former CIA employees will need to work hard to translate their experience into something most Americans can connect to. I didn’t quite figure out how to do that during my 2014 campaign.
That said, I’m glad I took the chance, and who knows—maybe there will be another opportunity to make a difference. But that’s in the future, and the future is murky. After all, this former intelligence analyst had to give up his government-issued, future-seeing crystal ball when he left CIA headquarters for the last time.
Kevin Strouse ran for Congress in 2014 in Pennsylvania’s 8th District after serving as an analyst for the CIA and as an Army Ranger who deployed Iraq and Afghanistan. Kevin lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his wife Amy and two young children, Walter and Charlotte.
photo: Kevin Strouse utilizing a different communication method than the ones he normally used at the CIA. (Author photo).