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The Cognitive Dissonance of Spying
It's Always Illegal and Often Immoral
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It is being reported that the attempt by Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan to steer the CIA away from paramilitary action and back towards conventional spying and analysis is not going well. Media coverage of the problem is depicting it as being partly driven by bureaucratic obstacles associated with budgeting and allocation of personnel, but the truth is that cultural change that has taken place over the past thirteen years is the real culprit and one must conclude that it will be even harder to shift than if it were simply a question of who gets the money and the promotions.

The intelligence world turned upside down after 9/11. Prior to that time, most case officers working overseas rarely thought about right or wrong because they really didn’t have to. The Soviet Union and international communism were the main enemies, capable of destroying the United States militarily and challenging the principles of republican government that most Americans consider to be their birthright. Many, possibly most, overseas officers were Roman Catholics and some were quite observant, though it is doubtful if they gave any serious thought to either the morality of what they were doing or just war concepts and basically accepted that there was a war de facto against a powerful and ruthless enemy and it had to be won.

Everyone was acutely aware that spying is illegal, which would perhaps come as a surprise to the current generation of intelligence officers who have been led to believe that “you are either with us or against us” and might makes right. The public perception that CIA is just another alphabet soup national security entity is right as far as it goes but both Agency and military case officers are distinguished by the fact that what they do is illegal nearly everywhere and they have no legitimate law enforcement function whatsoever. Even in foreign countries where CIA and military attaches work closely with the local intelligence and security services the activity is still illegal, often constrained by either spoken or written agreements on what is and is not acceptable to the host government. No one likes seeing their own citizens recruited as spies. Stepping out of line and engaging in contacts regarded as incompatible would often induce the locals to stomp down hard, sometimes demanding that the offending party leave the country, referred to as “persona non grata” or PNG.

In the pre-9/11 days, operations conducted by the CIA and military counterparts had been something like structured, leisurely affairs, with officers going through what was referred to as the recruitment cycle to obtain new agents as sources of information. The cycle started with spotting a potential agent, which was usually accomplished by trolling on the diplomatic circuit to identify individuals who might have information of interest to the United States government. This was followed by assessment, where additional contacts with the target were contrived to determine if he or she did indeed have anything of value and also whether he or she might be amenable to some kind of collaborative relationship with the US. The development phase came next to determine and exploit the target’s needs and vulnerabilities in order to shape a mutually beneficial recruitment pitch to secure his or her cooperation. The actual pitch, which most often came down to money but might well include other elements, would establish the relationship whereby the agent would accept direction to obtain information in return for a quid pro quo from his case officer acting on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency or Pentagon which was in turn acting on behalf of the US government. The agent’s career would then last as long as he or she continued to have information of value, concluding with a termination which, ideally, would be amicable when the raison d’etre for continued contact had run out.

What was notable about the old fashioned recruitment cycle was its overall friendliness, though that is not to say that there were not plenty of intelligence officers who viewed their foreign agents as disposable items. It was even possible to believe that one was serving one’s country’s interests while also behaving ethically, permitting that Sunday morning trip to church. It also took a lot of time and effort. The CIA or military case officer would basically work to make friends with the agent-prospect and eventually ask for help. The target would often say “yes” based on the relationship more than on the other offerings on display. In my own experience, one of the highest accolades that one might receive while working as a case officer in the field was to have an experienced agent tell you that you were the best contact he or she had ever worked with, bar only one other, the person who originally recruited him. So strong was the personal bond that many retired officers can to this day recount how former agents remain friends who take pains to keep in touch.

After 9/11 the White House demanded more. It wanted information on terrorists, it wanted it fast, and it didn’t particularly care how it was obtained. As the Agency and Pentagon work for the President they did their best to oblige. If agents had been collaborators under the old rules they were now expendable, to be squeezed for whatever they could provide before moving on to the next source. Where agents in the old school might be met over dinner or drinks and cigars, the new regime had them picked up on the street by a security team which would search them, blindfold them and stick them under a blanket behind the car seats, and drop them off somewhere else for a hurried interrogation by a case officer. They would then be bundled back into the security vehicle and dumped out on the street again. The case officers themselves would rotate from source to source, nobody getting to know anyone, and no one caring very much.

The old expression “building rapport with an agent” in order to obtain more and better information went out of use and the officers who possessed the old skills gradually retired, taking the institutional knowledge out the door with them. And not knowing who your agent really was would prove to have real life consequences, including the suicide bomb killing of seven CIA officers at Khost Base in Afghanistan in 2009, largely due to a failure to realize that an apparently valuable source was in reality a triple agent.

Then there arrived the drones. Killing machines pure and simple with everyone inside the process knowing that lots of civilians were paying the price for poor intelligence. And the world learned about renditions, targeted assassinations and torture, all endorsed at the highest levels of CIA, which is still attempting to justify what it did. To continue to work in such an environment required a complete suspension of conventional morality. The whole world became a gaggle of enemies clustered in a free fire zone. Spot, assess, develop, recruit? Become a friend. No time. No way.

So Brennan is confronted by a problem more pervasive than resource allocation in his effort to revive the old intelligence skills. No one any longer thinks the way they did pre-9/11. Apart from regular nervous assertions of “we are the good guys,” there is not a whole lot of soul searching about what is happening and why and you either have to accept the reality or move on. Which makes it hard to go back to what was, as John Brennan is discovering.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: CIA, Espionage 
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  1. No more practical example of the eventual consequences of trying to make the end justify the means can be found than this sad immorality tale we are all now living out.

    When you use bad means in support of a purported just end, you do not get that just end at all – you are left with a very different end which is identical with the bad means.

    I suppose the new breed of government servants do not suffer much pangs of conscience in our post-Christian America, in which one gets to choose one’s own ethics or lack thereof.

    The cognitive dissonance about lying goes back a very long way, and it is linked with spying and political intrigue, even in a religious context. The first justifications for it there that we find that are equivocal, are in the Biblical history in the book of Joshua where the prostitute Rahab becomes an Israeli spy against her city of Jericho. The best that can be said about it is that it may be analogous to, “If the Nazis came to the door and asked if you had Jews in your basement, should you lie to them or not?” Given that Rahab’s assessment was that the Israelites were going to be successful in their conquest of her people and that their religious policy was the genocide of all Caananites, she thereby saved her family. Despite the admonitions of Deuternonomy to liquidate all Caananites, man, woman and child, she thereby became an ancestor to Jesus Himself as recorded in scripture.

    Interestingly, the Decalogue prohibition is not simply about lying, but is a strong condemnation about “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” a deadly practice where an innocent person is brought into jeopardy and danger because someone tells a self-serving lie designed to destroy them. That does seem to offer some safe haven for the Cold War era American Catholic CIA employees to still be able to attend mass (although confession and penance could still be necessary) because information gathering is not the same as rendition, torture, assassination, covert military action preemptive warf and drone killings.

    Without backpedaling too much from a genuine Christian conscience, which I believe the law of unintended bad consequences deriving from bad means proves deception an ultimately counterproductive practice, there is clearly plenty going on now in our government that is routine that severely breaks any number of moral rules. Abandoned are all the constraints that supposedly gave us the high moral ground in the struggle against “godless” communism. Our country seems to have no advantage whatsoever any longer in moral stature; simply the might makes right so aptly and ironically expressed by Mao-Tse Tung, “Power proceedeth out of the barrel of a gun.”

  2. Phil, I have a theory about this change in culture. Our government post 9-11 set out to get the terrorists at all costs. But who was to lead this effort? Government Lawyers. My experience is that the courtier lawyer elite have no idea how the intelligence function works. But they do know how law enforcement works. That is after all, their training. So they treated the fight against Al Qaeda and other Islamic enemies the same as if they were sending detectives to go out there and round them up. Quick results matter and all the dirty work is done by people they see as underlings. DAs have seen cops that way for a long time.

    The way an intelligence officer works and the way a detective works are only superficially similar. While both detectives and intel officers gathering facts, the detective goes on to pressuring or cajole suspects and witnesses within a closed legal system. The detective represents the law and generally faces people from a power position. Even a wealthy suspect dreads “Going downtown” for questioning. As you point out, the intel officer must use other means. The intel officer plays the long game. The detective plays the short game and can actually burn sources since they are all criminals anyway and it helps put fear into the rest.

    Too sum up, lawyers have a bias toward coercion.

    So gone are the days of the scholar/diplomat spy. Instead we have aggressive DAs who don’t value a true understanding of the enemy, or friends for that matter. The takeover of all functions of government by amoral, superficially educated courtier lawyers heralds our decline as a nation.

    • Replies: @Philip Giraldi
  3. @Thomas O. Meehan

    Interesting point Tom…there has been a huge increase in the lawyerfication of government, particularly in the past thirteen years. When I was in CIA it was ops guys who made the decisions on operations. Now everything goes through a lawyer, who, of course, knows almost nothing about the matter that he is rendering judgement on. If he is in any way uncertain he will refer you to another lawyer. It helps to recall Shakespeare’s advice about what do to with all of them…

  4. “If he is in any way uncertain he will refer you to another lawyer.”

    Until you go up the chain and end at a Yoo who will give an opinion that the President has the perfect legal right to crush a child’s testicles when he feels like it. Literally.

    Legality is not the same as morality. As Chesterton put it, when you abolish the big laws, those based on human rights and a sense of natural justice that the average person can comprehend, you don’t get freedom: you get a deluge of legalisms that entrap and stifle freedom, creating a legalistic tyranny.

    Not really an accident that our elected representatives, now held in such low public esteem, are mostly lawyers. Isn’t the definition of a lawyer is that he is the advocate of whatever he is paid to be for – no matter how reprehensible? And what is the largest source of the largesse lavished upon them in their lifetimes, which is not from their public salaries?

  5. I’ve been thinking for a while that the US has been hijacked by people who are sophist in the mold of Thrasymachus and Callicles who rejected conventional morality. ‘The Sophists held no values other than winning and succeeding. They were not true believers. They were secular atheists, relativists and cynical about religious beliefs and all traditions. They believed and taught that “might makes right”. They were pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost. They made a business of education and profited from it.’

    The Athenian Empire had their own NATO, fraudulent banking system, and was antagonistic towards its rivals. I wonder what exactly the Neocons and similar minded people took away from their study of Ancient Greece: ‘Donald Kagan called the Periclean strategy “a form of wishful thinking that failed”, Barry S. Strauss and Josiah Ober have stated that “as strategist he was a failure and deserves a share of the blame for Athens’ great defeat”, and Victor Davis Hanson believes that Pericles had not worked out a clear strategy for an effective offensive action that could possibly force Thebes or Sparta to stop the war.’

    I remember Socrates in the dialogues arguing that immoral people will always have to look over their shoulder, and the injustices they perform will eat away at them even if they get away with it. I wonder how many souls are haunted by what they have done since 9/11.

  6. “The Soviet Union and international communism were the main enemies, capable of destroying the United States militarily and challenging the principles of republican government that most Americans consider to be their birthright…”

    The usual disingenuous apologia, which one day Signor Giraldi will perhaps have to confront. In fact, the United States began the “Cold War”, with considerable encouragement from Churchill, first with the dropping of atomic weapons on Japan, which was aimed at the USSR and only incidentally at the surrendering Japanese, second with the propaganda of the “Iron Curtain”, and third with the attempted criminalization and persecution of Communists and other Leftists in the US. Truman was key in all this, as were any number of Republicans, misguided religious fanatics, and the rest.

    In any case, what is transpiring now is merely a continuation of what was already laid out in those years, including by Bernays, and which even Eisenhower, naive victim of the Dulles bros., who thought detente with the Soviets both possible and beneficial, could not stem. Neither Korea nor Vietnam were flukes, but just steps on the way to the present.

  7. Fran Macadam wrote, “Until you go up the chain and end at a Yoo….” Who is a lawyer.

  8. geokat62 says:

    “I’ve been thinking for a while that the US has been hijacked by people who are sophist in the mold of Thrasymachus and Callicles who rejected conventional morality.”

    Your one of the few who understands the philosophical roots of the neocon ideology. The father of neoconservatism is Leo Strauss who looked to the ancients, especially Plato and his concept of the Noble Lie, for inspiration. The fundamental tenet of this ideology is that “there is no rational foundation for morality… It’s all about benefiting others and oneself; there is no objective reason for doing so, only rewards and punishments in this life.”

    Here’s an excellent interview about Strauss –

  9. Tom,

    I considered John Yoo the penultimate lawyer. In his case, it morphs into “liar.”

    No surprise, either, that constitutional lawyers should be the very ones with sufficient jesuitical technique to flimflam legalistic excuses for evading it.

    No doubt, some of his legal antecedents confirmed the North Koreans in the legality of these same methods they first developed to torture American prisoners of war.

  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    This switch towards DoD taking over more “operations” work has been going on for more than a year now, no new news here just recycled.

  11. Thanks for the article geokat62, that was very interesting. This line from the article is the most fascinating one to me: Shadia Drury said, “But Strauss’s worries about America’s global aspirations are entirely different. Like Heidegger, Schmitt, and Kojève, Strauss would be more concerned that America would succeed in this enterprise than that it would fail. In that case, the “last man” would extinguish all hope for humanity (Nietzsche); the “night of the world” would be at hand (Heidegger); the animalisation of man would be complete (Kojève); and the trivialisation of life would be accomplished (Schmitt). That is what the success of America’s global aspirations meant to them.”

    It isn’t the end result that matters to them (as long as it is a mess) it is the process. An epicurean and Christian village of happy people who love each other, and live a calm and tranquil life is the antithesis to what they want. They want 1984 and the victory of aristocratic morality over the slave morality. They have supported a full on attack against conventional morality (support torture/illegal wars) and liberalism (spying on Americans/TSA). This is one of the best explanations I’ve seen regarding the policies they advocate and their motivations: Shadia Drury said, ‘On this perverse view of the world, if America fails to achieve her “national destiny”, and is mired in perpetual war, then all is well. Man’s humanity, defined in terms of struggle to the death, is rescued from extinction. But men like Heidegger, Schmitt, Kojève, and Strauss expect the worst. They expect that the universal spread of the spirit of commerce would soften manners and emasculate man. To my mind, this fascistic glorification of death and violence springs from a profound inability to celebrate life, joy, and the sheer thrill of existence.’

  12. geokat62 says:

    This is the quote that is the most haunting for me:

    “Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and ‘creature comforts.’ Life can be politicised once more, and man’s humanity can be restored.”

    If perpetual war is the answer, there needs to be a sequel to WWI, WWII, Cold War , GWOT. Is it WWIII or, for the neocons, WWIV?

  13. “Is it WWIII or, for the neocons, WWIV?”

    Either duopoly could easily bring us to the real “war to end all wars,” after that first trial balloon in 1914 that’s led to the present ramp-up to destruction.

  14. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Conventional Spying was working. The Iron Curtain fell. The Spooks won. Bin laden determined to strike in America. You’ve covered your ass.

    There’s a reason why we aren’t going back, r ever will. We are doing psyops on our own people, with local law enforcement helping. Labor unions are terror organization, so are consumer advocacy groups. Ashcroft was right to focus on hippies before 9/11, just look at Washington and Colorado.

    The Leaves in Aspen are turning.

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