Drumhead Trial – an example, and 6 ways to fight it

“Drumhead Trial”. An intelligence researcher is accused of incompetence when investigative journalists outsmart him.

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 more.

3 page story plus commentary
Drumhead Trial: an Adobe Stock photo, representing someone falsely accused
Adobe Stock image, illustrating this entirely fictional story.

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. In the pigsty pen on his left, his director sat staring rigidly ahead, and on his right there was a dog-tired man from Legal. Michel looked towards the three judges. Their table stretched from one pillar to the next, giving an unnatural distance between them. And behind them were oversized paintings of Famous Persons, none of whom Michel recognised. He was certain they’d never got into a position like he had.

There were bags under his eyes. It wasn’t from the workload, but from waking so often that his wife had expelled him from their bed. The pinky-red bags showed against his pale skin, even more than his pale eyebrows. Smiling would help, but smiling made people realise how narrow his head was. Besides, smiling at judges was a bad idea.

Except they were not judges, but a political minister, a civil servant and a grey-suited man with no discernible title. It was only the minister who talked. She reminded Michel of a fireplace, with red hair, skin like the soot in the fire, and ruffled black clothes like logs waiting to be burnt.

“Is this the report you sent us?” The minister gestured to the two 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? Michel had asked the question, but there’d been no reply from his director in Intelligence Research. 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.

A picture of a website page appeared on the screen. “And this is the report the investigative 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 buildings.

“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?” The president was a despot, and the country he ruled suffered for it.

Michel glanced through the Perspex to the lawyer his director had brought, but there was no response. Their poker faces indicated disapproval. Or perhaps his guilt was already established and they were distancing themselves lest they were the next to face a drumhead trial. Or was it called a kangaroo court or witch trial? Michel’s thoughts fluctuated.

“Yes, they found it first,” 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.

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

It felt like a trap. “We suspected,” Michel said. “The actions fitted with his personality profile and motives, but we had no evidence.” He decided he hated this woman politician. 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 people who work on Open Source Intelligence. Or perhaps you look down on OSINT because they work in the low-side security area, not the high-side?”

“We work closely with them, and they’re good friends.” I shouldn’t have mentioned friendship, Michel criticised himself.

“Are you saying the journalists got there first because they have 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. “Not spies. Our opponents purchased lists and pictures from corrupt foreign officials.”

“You could have done that too, if you had more imagination. Were their research methods more sophisticated?”

“Their approach is entirely different. As journalists, they trust sources that we would see as unverified.”

“Clearly you’re over-cautious and their approach 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 reports seriously in future, given these blatant misjudgements?”

Michel hesitated. The secret research reports were “published” anonymously, but he was the team lead and the team’s reputation was at stake.

“This is about the damage your team has done to the reputation of your agency,” the minister continued. “It seems that you are so high-and-mighty you can’t even use modern social media. Even my mother is more computer literate than you.”

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. “Such as taking responsibility for the report?”

“I authorised publication. Michel’s team gave clear warnings that their report was not conclusive and more research was needed. And they stated they were excluding anything that was unverified or low-providence.”

“Those are weasel words, like the terms and conditions on websites.”

Michel watched the minister’s focus shift from him. His shoulder muscles relax fractionally and he had a temptation to lean back in his chair. Stop! Don’t show your thoughts.

His director slowly stretched her arms out on the table. In body language, it was a submissive gesture, exposing her chest to attack by an aggressor. “In the Agency, our 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 had left, the corridor was almost bare.

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

“But you heard the things she said. She’ll go around bad-mouthing my team and all of us.”

“No, she won’t. You smart. You very politely demonstrated her incompetence in intelligence matters. That’s why she switched to insults. If she goes around suggesting intelligence work should be left to journalists…” She breathed deeply. “Then everyone will know her as a fool.”

Drumhead courtmartial: Man standing before outdoor table with single military judge
Drumhead trial (court martial) of the 15th Finnish Brigade, 1944. Picture by Vilho Uomala – http://www.iltalehti.fi/osastot/kuvagalleria/data/yleinen/548/2.shtml, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1613390

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 investigative journalists.

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 the 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.

You have 6 options:


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.

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.

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.

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 get someone who can help. You also need a judge who is willing to accept arguments that no one person was at fault.


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.

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). Some 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 warning about the limits of their research. (Standard caveats are treated in the same way as Terms & Conditions when purchasing online – they’re ignored.)
  • Lack of training of their customers about the agency’s priorities and processes. (The political minister should not have been so ignorant.)
  • No analyst involvement. The intelligence researchers may have been very diligent, but they needed the support of an intelligence analyst 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 .)
  • Bad protocol. The politician should not have been allowed to conduct a drumhead trial and bully a research team leader. (The meeting should have been handled by the director.)
  • Insufficient prep and support from management. (Michel should not have been loosing sleep from fear.)

There is also a broader political question about the priorities given to intelligence agencies by politicians. Why is it left for journalists to pursue the guilty?

This story was originally published 28th January 2022. The story and commentary were lightly revised on 27th May 2024 to improve the story-telling.