Enduring Intelligence Challenge: Clearing Fog From The Wilderness of Mirrors

A February 17, 2023, Washington Post op-ed by seasoned national security observer David Ignatius, entitled, “Sometimes, the story is about the spies who aren’t there,” on lessons from the search for a hostile penetration (mole) in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), perpetuates misunderstandings about American counterintelligence (CI).


Continuing intelligence losses in the 1980s triggered the hunt for another “mole” within the CIA whose identification would explain what the discovery of traitors Aldrich (Rick) Ames (CIA), Robert Hanssen (FBI), and Edward Lee Howard (CIA) could not.


Ignatius begins by highlighting the allegations about an additional alleged CIA mole that Robert Baer tries to identify in his most recent book, The Fourth Man.  Ignatius notes the refutation of Baer’s allegations by three senior CIA counterintelligence retirees contained in the CipherBrief newsletter.  He then summarizes a separate self-defense by the individual Baer named, published in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence entitled, “The Ghost of Angleton.”


The bulk of the Ignatius op-ed is devoted to narrow “epistemological” lessons he derived from late 1970s conversations with former CI Staff chief James Angleton, the controversial “mole hunt” and “monster plot” (communism as a worldwide, monolithic, Moscow-controlled threat) proponent, and other responses to Angleton’s excesses, which continue to influence the conduct of American counterintelligence.


The excesses and damage caused by Angleton are well behind us.  Searches for penetrations of organizations are an extremely complex and delicate subset that a single individual should not dominate.  But such investigations are a part of a far larger, more diverse array of CI activity.  Done right, CI makes a positive contribution across all intelligence disciplines and missions.


The insights about “the spy business and life” that Ignatius offers, as they relate to CI, are either wrong or misleading.  Among his misapprehensions, Ignatius asserts: 1) the so-called CI “mind-set” is a “kind of organized paranoia toxic to an organization and, for that reason, needs to be kept under tight control.” 2) One cannot “know” a mole is within the ranks unless that person confesses or “hard intelligence” is obtained that “confirms his recruitment.” and 3) “In intelligence operations, as in life, we have to make decisions in the face of radical uncertainty…[and need to, as former DCI Helms said]…get on with it.”


In this author’s view:

1) How Ignatius uses the word “mind-set” is pejorative and dismissive. 

The CI mission requires dedicated and experienced personnel with critical thinking skills, the ability to recognize and manage conscious and unconscious bias, discipline and patience, and a skeptical nature while working with appropriate access to information across the system. These strengths have improved somewhat over time, but consolidating gains and closing gaps demands the attention of thoughtful leadership.


In contrast, CI is neutralized and diminished in an organization with leaders drawn primarily from a dominant operational culture that sees CI as a “threat” to operations and aims to subordinate and administratively starve it–until the next crisis arises that demands momentary attention and rationalization.


2) “Knowing” is most likely to stem from broad-gauged, multi-dimensional approaches.

Those knowledgeable of human operations recognize the rarity of obtaining suspect confessions or perfect source recruitments, given that our adversaries constantly practice deception.  To maximize our prospects for “knowing” we need a “total systems” approach that leverages all of our intelligence capabilities, working through purpose-built structures, proven investigative and analytic approaches, and expertly trained and educated personnel.


Aiming for “touchdowns,” on the other hand, discounts the value inherent in proven CI techniques – the sifting of all-source human and technical information, the careful questioning, testing, and validating of agents, the crafting and testing of hypotheses, and the objective drawing of conclusions based on rigorously weighing evidence.


3) A just “get on with it” approach, in the face of ambiguity, is self-defeating.

As we learned years ago, the dominant culture’s preference to “forge ahead” in the face of a hobbled CI backfired.  It resulted in the “recruitment” of dozens of Russian, East German, and Cuban double (i.e., false) agents, and damaged US intelligence against these countries for many years.  A more integrated CI capability, had one existed, could have helped guide us around obstacles, reduce ambiguity, attain greater clarity, and thwart foreign adversary-directed deception.


Just “getting on with it” is a false standard for a national CI program, and for operations generally.  Setting the bar so low leads to hard-to-detect failures at what are a tragic cost.  Active and integrated risk management, including CI, is a much sounder approach.


In thinking about what makes CI impactful, it is useful to recall a motto hung in the offices of British Security Services (MI-5) in London during World War II that read, “No wishful thinking allowed.”  Strong CI will help ensure Ukraine survives and repels the Russian invasion.  And last week’s news that German authorities arrested a Russian penetration of their Federal Intelligence Service (BND) is a stark reminder of the broader hostile threat and the need for robust and balanced CI counterweight.


Ignatius properly faults Angleton’s zealotry from a half-century ago.  But the lessons Ignatius asserts indicate the organization has overdosed on the antidotes taken in the years following Angleton’s forced resignation. While the excesses under Angleton have not recurred, other blind spots and limitations have risen to take their place.


Going forward, the nation should reconsider whether our security can be entrusted to an essentially improvisational approach – where CI is regarded as a “toxic” threat to operations, efforts aimed at “knowing” are self-limiting, and risk management is marginalized – or whether a professionalized counterintelligence discipline can more effectively contribute to all of the intelligence activities that keep our nation safe.


Norman Blake

Norman Blake is the pen name of a former professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Johns Hopkins University and former professor of national security studies at the National War College/National Defense University. He has almost fifty years in the intelligence profession, most of that in the operational, counterintelligence, and counterespionage arena. The views expressed herein are his own.

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