“Drumhead Trial” is a short story of an intelligence researcher whose report was wrong, for reasons outside his control, but it’s him who gets the blame. Read 3-page story.

The story typifies the danger of becoming a scapegoat at work – in almost any job. Included below are 6 tactics for handling these situations. See tactics.

The story also illustrates other failings of professionalism in the intelligence services. See commentary.

Drumhead Trial: an Adobe Stock photo, representing someone falsely accused

The story: Drumhead Trial

Michel sat stiffly on the hard stool in his pigsty. There were Though Shalt Not notices about Covid-19, pasted to the Perspex partitions to either side. On his left, his director sat staring rigidly ahead from her own pen, and on his right there was a dog-tired man from Legal. Michel looked towards the three judges with their backs to the oversized paintings of Famous Persons, none of whom Michel recognised. The judge’s table stretched from one pillar to the next, giving an unnatural distance between them.

Except they were not judges, but a political minister, a civil servant and a retired military lawyer. It was only the minister who was talking. She reminded Michel of a fireplace, with bright red hair, skin like the soot in the fire, and ruffled black clothes like logs waiting to burn.

“Is this the report you sent us?” The minister gestured to the television screens above her. One showed the faces of people dialling in, and the other showed a copy of the report Michel had written.

“Yes.” Michel’s orders had been to say the least possible. How do I defend myself? he wanted to know. But his intelligence research director had not replied, and her face remained neutral. It reinforced Michel’s impression that he was being used as a scapegoat. Perhaps my director also disapproves of me, Michel wondered, not for the first time. For the last week his sleep had been broken at 3 a.m. with bad dreams and a feeling of fear. And in the daytime when he was entirely alone, he had taken to praying like when he was young. It hadn’t worked.

A picture of a website page appeared on the screen. “And this is the report the journalists published about the atrocities?” the minister asked.

“Yes.” A truck’s horn sounded from the city street outside. Michel glanced sideways to the line of windows, but all he could see were the rooftops of government building.

“And all they had was a team of amateur researchers? And with that they found the culprits and traced the orders back to President Ulga?”

Michel glanced through the Perspex to the lawyer his director had brought, but there was no support from him. So it was like they’d predicted: a drumhead trial, kangaroo court, witch trial.

“Yes,” Michel said. The lack of defence hurt. He wanted to point out that the “amateurs” had devoted vast amounts of their time to their research. His own little team had other urgent matters.

“And your report failed to prove that President Ulga was linked to the atrocities?” The minister’s accusation made it sound like Michel was protecting Ulga. The president was a despot, and the country he ruled suffered for it.

Michel contemplated her words. It sounded like a personal attack on him. His prayers, for what they had been worth, had been for his team. In his mind it was wrong to pray for oneself. “Yes.”

“So you didn’t even realise he was behind the genocide?”

It felt like a trap. “That’s not what we wrote,” Michel said. “The actions fitted with his personality profile and motives, but we had no evidence.” He decided he hated this woman. Attacking him was despicable, but someone who twisted the conclusions of his team for her own benefits? That was the lowest of creatures.

“They clearly don’t have access to the wealth of secret intelligence you do. So why didn’t your research identify the culprits?”

“They focussed on social media postings.”

“You also have that, and you have machines to search through the data,” the minister sneered. “Or are you saying they had spies within President Ulga’s regime?”

Michel noticed his director glance at him. The message was clear: don’t admit to knowing secret human sources. “Our opponents purchased lists and pictures from corrupt foreign officials.”

“So do you. Were their research methods more sophisticated?”

“Their approach is entirely different. It’s based on journalism, and uses open source intelligence.”

“And clearly it was more effective than yours.”

Michel hesitated. But she’d offered a statement, not a question. He was not obliged to answer.

“And do you expect us to take your next reports seriously, given these mistakes?”

Michel heard the word “mistakes” and hesitated. The secret research reports were “published” anonymously, but he was the team lead and his team’s reputation was at stake. He imagined how the customers would receive their future reports, and how it would feel when he gave training courses. Michel loved the human contact in his job. Take that away, and the magic was lost.

“This is about your research team and your leadership, and the damage you have done to your agency’s reputation,” the minister continued.

Michel found himself looking down at the table. He was intensely proud of his team, and he feared he’d let them down.

The minister waited for a response, heard none, and resumed her attack. “You had access to the same information as the journalists.”

“The journalists were harvesting pictures from unaccredited sources, like Instagram.”

“So your intelligence researcher here is too high-and-mighty to use modern social media?” There was a sneer in her voice. “Even my mother is more computer literate than you.” The questioning had turned into insults.

To Michel’s left, his research director leant forwards. “Ma’am, if you have no more questions, then I have something to say,” she said.

The minister turned to her. “Are you taking responsibility for the report?”

“I authorised publication. Michel’s team gave clear warnings about the limitations of their research. They stated at the front that additional evidence may yet be found.”

Michel felt relief that the personal attacks on him had stopped. But he feared it was temporary, and his director would say something that made it worse.

His director slowly stretched her arms out on the table. In body language, it was a submissive movement, exposing her chest to attack by an aggressor. “In the Agency, our primary remit is to focus on direct threats to this country. We also perform intelligence research for political purposes, such as this, but the budgets are caped.”

The political minister started to say something, then stopped.

Michel’s boss stood. “Thank you. This has been very revealing, as a session.” She gestured for Michel to stand, and on his other side the silent lawyer followed.

“Are we walking out because of the insults?”  Michel asked as they reached the corridor. Compared to the ornate room they left, the corridor was almost bare.

“No. I’ve taken much worse insults than that. We’re leaving because it’s over.”

“But she’s going to go around bad-mouthing my team.”

“No, she won’t. She’s just demonstrated her incompetence in intelligence matters. That’s why she switched to insults. If she goes around suggesting we should take up journalism instead of protecting against our enemies, …” she breathed deeply, “… then everyone will know her as a fool and her career will be set back. Better for her to stay silent. But either way, you and your team are protected.”

The origin of the story, “Drumhead Trial”

The Drumhead Trial was inspired by Eliot Higgins’s autobiographical account, “We are Bellingcat”, https://www.bellingcat.com/book/. Bellingcat provides investigative journalism using open source intelligence. This small unit  investigated the Skripal’s poisoning near Salisbury, England, and identified agents and the chain of command in Russia. They also identified people involved in the 2014 loss of Malaysia flight 370, over Ukraine. Their evidence and methods have sufficiently high confidence to support government and legal actions.

I started wondering how it feels for intelligence staff when they are bettered by journalists or private organisations.

My own story is fictional. The events never occurred, the people do not exist, the intelligence agency could be in one of many countries, and the unnamed “journalistic research” could have been a newspaper.

Drumhead Trial is a story of a perceived failure.  My stories “An Agency Man” and “The Four Seasons” and “Paranoia” also cover this theme. There are other things that go badly wrong, and which researchers and analysts must learn to handle.

6 ways to handle drumhead trials

Drumhead trials, witch trials, kangaroo courts. Different names for the same basic concept. Your guilt has already been decided, and the entire process is weighted against you, and – most important – the person acting as judge will look foolish if they change their mind about your guilt.

Relying on innocence and truth won’t work. Your normal “rights” have been removed. Either you become smart, or you suffer.

Your have options:

#1 Discredit

This is the tactic used in the story above. Michel’s supervisor let the judge (politician) demonstrate her own ignorance of intelligence matters. At that point her validity was destroyed. To use this tactic, you need a stronger grasp of the situation than you accusers. You also need to time it so that the accuser has as much opportunity as possible to display her or his failings.

#2 Display consequences

Reveal something that will happen if you are guilty. It may relate to information that is released, or actions that other people will take. Take care: resorting to “blackmail” is immoral and illegal, it can introduce new problems, and it often fails. However if other people are angered by your treatment, their actions are a threat that’s not of your doing.

#3 Blame someone else

“It wasn’t you who made the mistake, it was him.” Well, you’ll have to prove that, and then live with the consequence of pointing at “him”, and there’s still a risk that the “judge” will be vindictive against you as well as the other person.

#4 Blame the system

“It wasn’t your fault, it was a systemic problem.” To prove that, you need a very good understanding of the system and its failings – or someone who can support you with that information. You also need a judge who is willing to accept arguments that no one person was at fault.

#5 Postpone

Offer something that the judge wants, in exchange for a delayed judgement. For example, more information that you can obtain. Your hope here is that the time will bring a change of judgement. You’re gambling.

#6 Tactical retreat

A “tactical retreat” is a polite way of saying: surrender. If you are encountering a drumhead trial in an office environment, it may be better to accept the penalty and get away from your employer as quickly as possible. It will be humiliating, but it can be the fastest way of recovering your mental wellbeing. … After all, who wants to work for people like this?

Commentary: Intelligence research failings in agencies

There are many things that can go wrong with intelligence research, intelligence analysis, and the communication to the customers (politicians). Many are relatively small, on a planetary scale, but others are dramatic.

Saddam Hussein’s missing weapons of mass destruction is a dramatic example. A more distant one was the ambiguous warning given to Margaret Thatcher before the invasion of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). If the warning from the Joint Intelligence Committee had not been misinterpreted in Whitehall, it’s possible that war could have been avoided.  (See p2 of How Spies Think, by David Omand. Penguin Viking. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/312/312746/how-spies-think/9780241385180.html )

In the Drumhead Trial story, the intelligence agency made mistakes:

– Insufficiently strong warning about the limits of their research. (Standard caveats are often ignored.)

– Lack of training of their customers about the agency’s priorities and processes. (The political minister should not have been so ignorant.)

– Lack of imagination by the intelligence researchers. They should have been supported by intelligence analysts, with their ability to extend logical reasoning with insights, innovation and creativity. (See Chapter 5 of Leading Intelligence Analysis, by Bruce E Pease. Sage publishing. https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/leading-intelligence-analysis/book258717 .)

– Allowing a politician to conduct a drumhead trial and bully a research team leader. (The meeting should have been handled by the director.)

– Not prepping and supporting the researcher beforehand. (Michel should not have been waking at 3 a.m. from fear.)

There is also a broader moral question about priorities. Are intelligence agencies preoccupied with avoiding threats and supporting political and military decisions? Why is it left for journalists to pursue the guilty?