The Spyhunter’s Burden

| Mark Kelton
Mark Kelton
Former Deputy Director for Counterintelligence, CIA National Clandestine Service

OPINION — A recent email from the current Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Chief of Counterintelligence (C/CI), wherein Agency retirees were reminded of their life-long obligation to protect the sensitive information with which they were entrusted while serving and to comport themselves accordingly after leaving the CIA, has reportedly touched a nerve among some former Agency officers.

The message, according to fellow ‘former’ (and fellow Cipher Brief Expert) Marc Polymeropoulos, “seemed (to some) to have an accusatory tone, impugn first amendment rights, and hamper employment prospects in a global market.”  I find such reactions to the message puzzling.

Having had to deal with the same issues when I was the Agency’s C/CI, I can attest to the challenges formers who do not abide by their obligations – explicit and implicit – can engender.  “There are”, James J. Angleton once said, “certain matters that you take to the tomb.” While that determination by the most famous Agency C/CI – Angleton – was typically melodramatic, it surely speaks to the most important and enduring responsibility inherent in service with CIA: keeping secrets secret even after leaving the Agency.

One consequence of that duty is the requirement for formers to pre-clear all written or broadcast material with the Agency’s Pre-Publication Classification Review Board (PCRB).  I know from personal experience that the PRB makes every effort to be timely and reasonable in their responses, even when faced with unreasonable timing dictated by the immediacy of today’s media environment.  Yes, running articles such as this past the PCRB can be an inconvenience.  But it is not a limitation on first amendment rights, not least because it is a requirement resulting from an agreement freely entered into by those who chose to join the secret world.

Seen in that light, mention in C/CI’s email of the risk of possible unintended disclosure or confirmation of classified information – particularly when engaged in such mediums as “television, podcasts, panels, social media or other events and publications” – is unsurprising and wholly appropriate given that so many formers (myself included) are engaged in such public forums.

Beyond such explicit limits on the conduct of officers once they have left CIA, there are also implicit bounds they ought to consider.  These relate to the appropriateness and prudence of any endeavor in which they engage after leaving the Agency.

One issue raised by C/CI in the email relates to formers who seek to monetize the intelligence skills they acquired while at CIA.  Of particular concern, are formers who put those skills to work on programs that do not have the explicit approval of the US Government through the State Department- administered ITAR process or similar. Even when such actions do not explicitly contravene US law, the CI dangers inherent in unapproved provision of training and assistance to foreign intelligence services in particular should be manifestly obvious to any intelligence professional.  And C/CI is quite right to highlight them.

At the same time, Mr. Polymeropoulos is also correct in pointing out that CIA could do better in engaging formers.

Not long ago, a business contact who is a US military retiree asked me what he thought would be an awkward question.  The Department of Defense (DOD), he said, approaches military retirees who pursue second careers with the understanding that one can do good in continuing to serve the national interest as a private citizen while doing well personally. He explained that DOD draws on the deep knowledge and expertise of retirees to help bring commercial capabilities and technologies to bear to support mission execution.  Why, he asked, doesn’t CIA take the same attitude towards their retirees?  After all, he went on, if they have been trusted with protecting the nation’s most precious secrets, why not assume they are still trustworthy after they leave government service?  Citing clearance issues and the like, I went on to respond that the unique nature and culture of intelligence work makes this difficult unless one continues to work within the Intelligence Community (IC) as a contractor after leaving government employ.

My contact’s query did, however, evoke questions I had been considering as to how the Agency might better utilize the knowledge and expertise of formers as force multipliers by making it easier for those working in the private sector to continue to serve their country after leaving CIA.

Better leveraging the skills and reach of formers would seem to be of particular advantage at a time when the number of those officers entering on duty with the intent of making intelligence a life-long pursuit is decreasing.  With the costs for personnel and running operations rising, does it not make sense for IC agencies to off-load more of their less sensitive (that is non-collection) intelligence functions, to US private sector companies that can fill that space and allow government agencies to focus their full attention and resources on their core missions?  The intelligence services of other nations, friend and adversary alike (e.g. Israel and Russia), have done this to good effect.  There is no reason why US intelligence could not do it as well.

While acknowledging that this is not the responsibility of the Agency’s C/CI, Mr. Polymeropolous’ suggests that an Agency official be designated as responsible for outreach to CIA “alumni”.  This is good, as far as it goes. More impactful, however, would be a change in culture and approach that makes clear to all that there is nothing wrong with formers doing well personally in their new private sector roles while at the same time lawfully assisting US national security by acting as de facto force multipliers for US intelligence.

Finally, I would ask those who may have taken issue with C/CI’s message to think back to the role of the person in that job during their time in the service.  “Counterintelligence”, another legendary Agency C/CI once observed, “is not nice; Americans do not like to do it and we do it badly”.  One might hope the latter judgment has changed since it was voiced following the successful hunts for the spies in our own ranks known to our adversary as “KOLOKOL” and “KARAT”.  But, Paul Redmond was surely correct in so characterizing the frequently unpleasant nature of CI work.

“Nobody”, Sophocles said, “likes the man who brings bad news.”  Protecting CIA’s personnel, information and operations in a dangerous world has never been a pleasant task.  It is, and always has been, the peculiar burden of the Agency’s C/CI to deliver almost invariably bad news to what is not always an overly receptive audience.

Protecting the Agency’s information and operations from compromise and its personnel from harm demands dispassionate examination of potential risks emanating from those with both current and former access to classified information.  This is not, as former CIA Director Richard Helms noted, a “game for the soft-hearted”.  It is a tough job that invariably involves dealing with unpleasant issues and delivering unwelcome messages.  It requires the posing of questions and the issuing of rejoinders that are almost invariably taken by some as accusatory.

My fellow retirees ought to remember that unique burden when they are reminded of their continuing obligations to the country and agency they served so well.

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The Author is Mark Kelton

Mark Kelton is a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency executive who retired in 2015 with 34 years of experience in intelligence operations. Before retiring, he served as CIA's Deputy Director for Counterintelligence.  He is the Senior Vice President for National Security Solution at DynCorp International; and is Board Chair of Spookstock, a charity that benefits the CIA Memorial Foundation and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

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