Top dog or top dogs?
August 5, 2014 5:14 PM   Subscribe

I have long heard/read that the US has not one but two leaders -- of equal rank --- in any foreign capital, namely the ambassador and the CIA station chief. The NY Times seems to confirm this. Can you point me to other confirmation?
posted by LonnieK to Law & Government (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If an ambassador is the highest ranking diplomatic official in an American embassy, then the station chief is the highest ranking intelligence official in a foreign country. I don't believe the station chief and ambassador are of equal rank in the eyes of a foreign government, but they are both at the top rank of their respective posts.

From another New York Times article: "Never before has a onetime station chief -- the agency's equivalent of an ambassador overseas --"
posted by elisse at 5:27 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Saying "station chief, a rank equivalent to that of ambassador" is like saying "ambassador, a rank equivalent to four-star general," which is to say, no, not really. Ambassadors have high "ranks" within the State Department, and station chiefs have high "ranks" within the CIA. Each of them is the top person in their field in a foreign country.

However, the ambassador is the American representative to a foreign country. If he calls the Secretary of State or the President and says, "This station chief needs to go," the station chief will be gone regardless of what reason the ambassador has. If the station chief calls the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency or the Director of National Intelligence and says, "This ambassador needs to go," that station chief had better have a good reason. In that sense, the ambassador firmly outranks the station chief.
posted by Etrigan at 5:28 PM on August 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

You cannot consider people to be equal in rank if they are doing different things, unless you are simply thinking top dog = top dog.
posted by yclipse at 5:39 PM on August 5, 2014

The article you linked to says "He then went on to be its station chief, a rank equivalent to that of ambassador, in Romania." This analogy is being made to clarify what a station chief is ("the chief person responsible for X in a foreign country", where X=diplomacy/spying), not to explicitly identify them as "equal."
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:01 PM on August 5, 2014

The station chief is subordinate to the ambassador. If there is a lack of trust between the ambassador and station chief, the station chief will likely be replaced. Source: my dad, who was a CIA operative for 40+ years and was station chief in 3 different embassies.
posted by procrastination at 6:03 PM on August 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

American ambassadors are politically appointed and these days are usually donor bundlers. That means they are economic movers and shakers who would in practice be more powerful than politicians because of their economic clout and connections. They are often portrayed as naive but I think it is a pretty big mistake. Inexeperienced at ambassordoring (as most ambassadors are) sure but not incompetent newbs at power politics. These are all people who managed to get a president to owe them a solid. I'd say that is a rank not to be messed with by anyone.
posted by srboisvert at 6:30 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The USA Order of Precedence places Amabassadors in 9th position, and the Director of National Intelligence in 23rd position. Even though orders of precendece primarily denote ceremonial rank, they are usually a reflection of the relative pecking order amongst the positions listed.

The Director of the CIA reports to the Director of National Intelligence, and any CIA officer would be ultimately responsible to the CIA. Therefore, I would guess the ambassador outranks the CIA station chief.
posted by girlgenius at 6:52 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

American ambassadors are politically appointed and these days are usually donor bundlers.

That's really only true of a certain tier of comfortable ambassadorships to wealthy and friendly countries. The US Ambassador to China or Russia or Pakistan is going to be career Foreign Service or occasionally a career politician with foreign policy chops, because nobody would be willing to risk a campaign bundler fucking up and starting a war or something. The US Ambassador to Cameroon or Papua New Guinea is going to be career Foreign Service because the glam factor is low enough that no campaign donor probably wants the job anyway.

Which is why, strict diplomatic precedence aside, the answer to this question is sort of fuzzy, because ambassadors come in very widely varying degrees of clout and practical authority.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 7:29 PM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't think this framing (e.g. two pilots, two yokes) is a really useful way to think about things. It simply indicates that the station chief is the top intelligence officer and not directly part of the ambassador's personnel chart (dotted line, perhaps). Protocol rank is one thing, I could dig more and find out the GS/SES/FS salaries, but it's not really the crux of the matter.

In an era of instant communications, the really important decisions are still made back in Washington one way or another. I mean, the last (alleged) gaffe in diplomacy that I can really remember was April Glaspie meeting with Saddam Hussein and "causing" (this is why it's "alleged") the Gulf War. But what we're dealing with here are two separate domains -- diplomacy and intelligence. I would imagine there are things the ambassador is not cleared to know, for example (or maybe doesn't want to know). There are intelligence communications which are not within the ambassador's ability to control, censor, edit, or otherwise massage. It's a whole separate silo in that respect. Ultimately the station chief has to report to the DNI, the ambassador to the Secretary of State.

This only comes up in a few newspaper articles because it's not that important in practice. They're just pointing out this isn't some low-level functionary.
posted by dhartung at 12:02 AM on August 7, 2014

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