Expert analysis

Doctoral candidate Stephen Marrin (MA, Politics ’02) takes on post-9/11 intelligence reform.

By Melissa Bray
Marrin.

Marrin.
Photo by Jack Mellot.

Steve Marrin chooses his words carefully. He used to work for the CIA; he now analyzes the agency. But having access to some of the nation’s most protected secrets comes at a cost. “I am bound by a post-employment security agreement,” says Marrin. Anything he writes or speaks publicly about intelligence issues must go before an agency review panel — for the rest of his life.

Still, enough of Marrin’s work has become public for him to be named as one of the top 10 experts on intelligence reform by the National Journal.

“Just because Marrin is a 33-year-old, finishing up his doctoral dissertation, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be listened to,” reads the May 2004 article which describes Marrin as a rising star in the post-9/11 world of intelligence reform.

“I’ve no idea why I was chosen,” said Marrin, who marvels at the influential names he sits alongside on the list. “It gives what I do a certain amount of legitimacy.” National Journal reporter Gregg Sangillo, who helped compile the list, comments that Marrin was, “a key thinker. Somebody off the beaten path, somebody different.”

Marrin is different. He is a self-proclaimed creative conceptualizer, and his willingness to share his thoughts led him to be at odds with CIA expectations. “The agency has a one-size-fits-all approach to analysis,” said Marrin. “This doesn’t allow for different types of thinking. I could produce the type of analysis that they wanted once I stopped thinking about it in my way and started to think about it in theirs.

“I ask ‘why’ a lot,” said Marrin. “Because of that my focus is frequently on causation or motivation. The CIA, on the other hand, is very data/fact oriented. Their goal is not to ask ‘why.’”

But the agency still listened to many of his ideas, including creating more links between different parts of the agency structure. Marrin’s proposal, which suggested a university-like structure, led to the creation of the CIA University in 2002.

Marrin’s passion for intelligence reform is driven by his desire to keep the country safe. This desire grew after the father of a high school classmate died in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.

“This was a turning point for me,” said Marrin. “I thought of becoming a cop but that was too much doing for my style. I’m more of a thinker. I want to protect and serve in an intellectual way.”

Marrin left the CIA after deciding to pursue his interest in studying intelligence analysis, rather than working as an analyst. This brought him to U.Va.’s Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, and in 2002 he completed his master’s thesis, which described the CIA’s training program and evaluated possible improvements. Marrin’s study has continued into a doctorate under the guidance of the director of U.Va.’s Miller Center, Philip Zelikow, in what Marrin describes as a “work of mutual interest.”

Marrin’s Ph.D. work addresses the relationship between intelligence and decision making.

“It assesses the organizational mechanisms used to transfer information between intelligence producers and consumers in order to determine if one approach is more effective than others.”

Marrin is quick to dispel any hint of intrigue or glamour associated with his work and describes the CIA as a typical office environment. He cites the example of the television series, “The Agency,” which was canned after one season for not getting the ratings. “The series wasn’t exciting enough,” says Marrin. “It was mainly about office work. It was pretty close to the truth.”

Marrin does admit that there are things he could say that would be cool. “But I can’t talk about them. I have a way of making things uninteresting.”

Far from being uninteresting, Marrin’s ideas and offers are coming thick and fast. “I’m pretty much booked through to May,” said Marrin, citing a long list of papers to write and present while still trying to finish his doctorate. So from here to academia? “Maybe,” Marrin said thoughtfully. “I’ve got all sorts of ideas.”

Steve Marrin (MA '02)