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WM: Is Our Democracy on the Edge of Breakdown?

When Jim Doyle ’89 walked into the white house to begin his tenure as the Director for Counterintelligence on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC), he was well aware that tensions in the country were high.

“At that point there was mostly just a lot of sniping between the President and Democrats,” says Doyle, a political science major originally from Indianapolis who previously served in the FBI Counterintelligence Division as a supervisory special agent.

He did not, however, anticipate the “cataclysms lurking just over the horizon.”

“The country would soon experience an impeachment, a pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests,” recalls Doyle, “an insurrection, a second impeachment, and the beginning of what turned out to be a botched withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.”

Doyle was the lead counterintelligence policy official at the White House, responsible for developing policy initiatives with the aim of protecting the nation from threats posed by foreign intelligence services. During his two years at the NSC, he could frequently be found in the Situation Room in the West Wing either leading or attending policy meetings.   

“When I arrived in July 2019, a process was underway to develop policy to counter foreign intelligence operations, primarily by Russia, which targeted American democracy by influencing U.S. elections,” says Doyle, “and to otherwise sow the seeds of conflict and division among Americans.

“Our democracy seemed on the edge of breakdown at times, being nudged by malign foreign actors determined to weaken or destroy it,” he says. “It was my job to lead the interagency to develop policy and strategy to counter those efforts and then get it signed by the president.”

After more than 35 years of service to his country as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, FBI, and NSC, Doyle left the NSC in July 2021 and currently works as director of security for the Americas at Cytiva, a global company that makes lifesaving therapeutic medicines.

Since then, he has done a lot of reflecting on his time spent serving under both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden. Doyle gives 星空无限传媒 Magazine insight on working in the White House and his thoughts on America’s future.

Jim Doyle ’89WM: What keeps you optimistic? 

JD: It has now been almost two years since I completed my assignment at the NSC, and I remain optimistic about America’s future. But I see dark clouds on the horizon if we cannot come together to forge alliances based on the many things on which we all agree: freedom, democracy, and the importance of community. It was encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats come together recently to pass legislation to lift the debt ceiling. As President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy observed in their own ways, neither side got what it wanted, but the country got what it needed. That is how democracy is supposed to work and is hopefully a bellwether of more to come.

As I explained to a group during a Wally’s Bookshelf discussion hosted by Emeritus Professor of Political Science Melissa Butler H’85, most of the career men and women who staff the NSC made a commitment to protect and defend the Constitution many years before, when they were beginning their public service careers. Where I worked, we did not wear party affiliation on our sleeves and did not even know each other’s political leanings. Our commitment was to serve our great nation.

Butler reminded me that there are many nonpartisan initiatives which focus on protecting our democracy. At 星空无限传媒, the Democracy and Public Discourse initiative is a good example. The goal of this initiative is to remind us that we are all Americans and to focus on what unites us and not what divides us. If we do, our republic will survive and thrive.

WM: How was the adjustment going from the FBI to the NSC?

JD: The game really changed. I went from working at the tactical level as an agent in the field to working as a program manager at FBI headquarters, leading and supporting programs to identify and counter technical threats, to showing up in a suit and tie as the number one policy person in counterintelligence in the White House. 

When I got there, I was told that I had the power to convene the interagency, which essentially meant that I could call meetings at the White House and pull in senior leadership from the agencies (such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, DOD) to solve counterintelligence policy challenges. Some challenges, for example, included foreign intelligence services trying to interfere in elections or trying to steal government-funded research from universities. I needed to quickly establish and maintain strong relationships with those officials and come up to speed on the larger strategic counterintelligence challenges we faced as a nation. I also needed to keep my finger on the pulse to identify where the threats were coming from, and what policy might help to counter them.  

The focus was on understanding larger threats at a very high strategic level, which was much different than what I had previously been doing at the tactical level. I suddenly had access and was expected to consume the most sensitive intelligence we possess as a nation, daily. And my job was to develop policy to protect that information from disclosure and to protect the sources and methods we used to get it.

WM: Working at the NSC sounds demanding. How did you keep things in perspective?

JD: On most days I arrived between 7 and 7:30 a.m. and did not leave until after 8 p.m. During my tenure, a tradition developed amongst the career professionals. Each Friday in the early evening, whoever was still around in the intelligence programs directorate would gather in the bullpen to officially end the week with a libation. 

The first topic of discussion was always whether we should drink bourbon or scotch. One of the senior staffers who had started the weekly tradition had proposed “scotch for good news” and “bourbon for bad.” Although no one ever officially defined what “good news” and “bad news” meant, we would drink scotch if we felt the democracy had held that particular week. Sometimes our own policy initiatives had helped to hold things together, so we would toast the newly signed presidential directives with scotch. 

I had five counterintelligence-related policies signed by President Trump, including the National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States 2020–2022, two classified National Security Presidential Memorandums (NSPMs) 23 and 28, an update to executive order (EO) 12333, which governs the intelligence community, and a presidential memorandum protecting the U.S. research enterprise, NSPM-33. We toasted with scotch on those occasions. 

Bourbon was reserved for the weeks when the consensus was that things had not gone in a good direction like when the president was impeached and the pandemic got worse. Although I had been a scotch drinker for many years, I learned to drink bourbon. 

WM: What was it like to witness the January 6th insurrection? What do you remember thinking as it was happening?

JD: I was not at the White House that day because professional staff was told to stay home due to street closures and in anticipation of the large crowd that would gather for the President’s rally on the Ellipse. But, when I returned the next day and in the days after, it was all just surreal. The White House was surrounded by unscalable fences and we had to walk through a labyrinth to get into the compound. It felt like being in a war zone. I remember asking myself—like so many others did—is this America? Are we in the United States of America? 

WM: What are your thoughts about the future of our country’s democracy?

JD: As I have watched people I worked with at the White House testify before the January 6th Committee; as I learned of the FBI search of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and the attack on the FBI and Department of Justice that followed; and as we slid toward inflation, teetering on the edge of recession, I reminded myself that our democracy is and has always been in danger and on the edge of breakdown.  

As he was leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin famously responded to a woman who asked him if the convention had chosen a republic or a monarchy: “A republic, if you can keep it.” That has been and always will be our challenge. Humans are tribal by nature, but we Americans invented a form of government unique in all the world to overcome our tribalism. The founders chose to focus on abiding principles on which we all agree.

According to political scientist George Friedman, we reinvent that democracy every 80 years or so. Each time we reinvent it, we give birth to a newly updated form of our uniquely American creation, which is then strengthened to meet the particular moment. Each time we do this, our nation thrives in the decades that follow. There is no reason we cannot, and will not, do this again. 

WM: What keeps you optimistic? 

JD: It has now been almost two years since I completed my assignment at the NSC, and I remain optimistic about America’s future. But I see dark clouds on the horizon if we cannot come together to forge alliances based on the many things on which we all agree: freedom, democracy, and the importance of community. It was encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats come together recently to pass legislation to lift the debt ceiling. As President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy observed in their own ways, neither side got what it wanted, but the country got what it needed. That is how democracy is supposed to work and is hopefully a bellwether of more to come. 

As I explained to a group during a Wally’s Bookshelf discussion hosted by Emeritus Professor of Political Science Melissa Butler H’85, most of the career men and women who staff the NSC made a commitment to protect and defend the Constitution many years before, when they were beginning their public service careers. Where I worked, we did not wear party affiliation on our sleeves and did not even know each other’s political leanings. Our commitment was to serve our great nation. 

Butler reminded me that there are many nonpartisan initiatives which focus on protecting our democracy. At 星空无限传媒, the Democracy and Public Discourse initiative is a good example. The goal of this initiative is to remind us that we are all Americans and to focus on what unites us and not what divides us. If we do, our republic will survive and thrive.