Building a Better Mole Trap

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The lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Jason Reed JIR/Reuters

The continuing leaks of National Security Agency material by Edward Snowden so dominate the news that you don’t hear much these days about Cold War–style moles burrowing through the CIA, FBI and Defense Department on behalf of foreign spy services.

Yet they keep surfacing, without much notice: At least 20 Americans have been arrested on charges of giving classified documents to foreign intelligence agencies over the past decade, albeit not on the scale of the CIA’s Aldrich Ames and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, whose longtime perfidies caused the death of more than a dozen CIA spies in Russia alone.

And maybe the recent, relatively small-fry folks charged with espionage don’t count for much in an era when self-propelled leakers like Snowden and Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning dump gigabytes of classified documents onto the public. But almost certainly, bigtime Russian and Chinese moles (not to mention Israeli and French ones, according to official U.S. security reports) are lurking in the bowels of our national security agencies, Congress and defense contractors. And here’s another uncomfortable fact: Most moles are uncovered only well after they’ve chewed through reams of our most sensitive defense, technological and intelligence secrets—often at a cost of billions of dollars’ worth of military research and development—and usually only because a defector from the other side has fingered them. Add to that the costs of prosecuting and jailing them for many years, often for life.

David L. Charney, an Alexandria, Virginia psychiatrist who’s been counselling CIA and other intelligence agency personnel for decades, thinks he has a better spy trap: He calls it “reconciliation”—not the namby-pamby, let’s-sing-Kumbaya-and-put-it-all-behind-us kind. His proposed program would function as a kind of come-to-Jesus facilitator for active American turncoats. He even has a name for the new unit: the National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR).

“With reconciliation, the insider spy turns himself in and must cooperate in delivering a full, complete, and truthful Damage Assessment—but he does not go to prison,” Charney writes in a 41-page proposal circulated by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. “This deal is an inducement for the spy to voluntarily turn himself in. Otherwise, it is safer for him to stay put. He will be spared the worst punishment—prison. He will spare his family (and his home agency!) shame and humiliation because there will be no public disclosure.”

But the mole has to pay, says Charney, who has conducted lengthy interviews with convicted spies. “[It] will not be cost-free to him. NOIR cannot be a ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card.’ He will have to endure many…punishments,” he says, including the permanent loss of his job and security clearance and a restitution of any monetary damages he or she has caused. “Every punishment should be on the table,” he says, “short of prison.”

Charney’s proposal has gotten the attention of many veteran spies and spy-catchers. Their response has been mostly—but not entirely—enthusiastic. “Dr. Charney has posited some genuinely creative ideas well worthy of serious study and further development,” Michelle Van Cleave, a former chief of the National Counterintelligence Directorate, told Newsweek. “His subject has been the mind of the insider spy, a few of whom have been his patients, and his observations are thought-provoking and enlightening. Now others need to test his ideas against the real world experience and complexities of counterespionage.”

One of those “complexities” is the question of whether the prospect of milder punishment would actually make it easier for a foreign intelligence service recruit a mole in the Pentagon or elsewhere, a former top counterintelligence official said on condition of anonymity. “One could argue that an institutionalized NOIR process would substantially lower the bar to insider espionage: ‘Sell secrets, get rich; if it isn’t working, then pull the plug,’” the former official said. “NOIR may enable more insiders to step away from treason, but if it results in more damaging espionage in the first place, it would be very difficult to score that as a win for U.S. national security.”

But Joseph Wippl, a 30-year CIA veteran who sat on the U.S. intelligence damage assessment board in the Aldrich Ames case, said he liked Charney’s idea, because it gives U.S. counterspies and prosecutors more options than quietly firing suspected or potential moles or sentencing proven ones to life in prison. “NOIR attempts to find something in between forgiveness and a life prison sentence,” he told Newsweek in an email. “So, if someone has second thoughts [about turning coat], there is an option…”

But he and others doubted Charney’s proposal would get far. “NOIR is contrary to the ‘wrath of God’ mentality we have in this country,” Wippl said. “There is no developed country that has harsher prison sentences than we do, not to mention the death penalty. We put away a transgender soldier [Manning] for 30 or so years after committing a crime when he was 19: I had a 19-year-old son. NOIR is showing mercy for a higher good (maintaining secrets, the divulging of which can cause us great harm). Would that go over in our culture? I don’t believe it would.”

CIA veteran Carlos D. Luria echoed Wippl’s skepticism. “I liked the steps toward reconciliation,” he said in an email to Charney provided to Newsweek, “though I fear that the ‘moralists’ in our dysfunctional Congress will tar & feather you for even suggesting them.”

But Luria, who spent 29 years in the agency’s clandestine services, had another issue with Charney’s proposal.

“The motivational matrix” that causes someone to sell their nation’s secrets, he wrote, “as CIA’s case officers know, is a complex one, usually embracing a host of factors, but the one to which I believe your paper gives short shrift is the conscious and deliberate willingness to risk and sacrifice oneself for ideological reasons. It is what drove [the Russian moles] Popov, Penkovsky, Tolkachev, Kuklinski and a host of others to volunteer their services to CIA. It was the insufferable disparities of Britain’s social order that motivated Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five [to spy for the Soviet Union]. It was the U.S. carpet bombing of non-strategic North Korean villages that tipped [British double agent] George Blake to volunteer to serve the KGB.”

Such moles are not easily brought back into the fold, Luria suggested. And a new generation of potential turncoats, rattled by “the shameful atrocities of Abu Ghraib,” may well be “motivated to work secretly to undermine an unconscionable foreign policy,” he says. “The joblessness, the ever-growing income disparity, the seemingly reckless excesses of NSA’s intercept programs, the greed of Wall Street and the total paralysis of Congress,” Luria wrote, “provide plenty of reasons for disaffection.”

Such ideologically driven moles, he implies, would be impervious to the slogan Charney proposes for NOIR: “Come back—your country needs you.”

NOIR would likely run into a bureaucratic wall as well, others suggested. Charney proposes to put it under the director of national intelligence, the coordinator of U.S. spy agencies. But standing up yet another intelligence outfit to carry out some of NOIR’s most sensitive proposed functions, like turning traitors into double agents, carries security risks and would surely be fiercely resisted by the FBI and CIA, some experts said.

Anything has to be better than the current system, argues Charney. “Fixing the problem of insider spies has been frustrating,” he writes. “Conventional policies have proven less than satisfactory. There always seem to be more spies coming out of the woodwork.” Meanwhile, “efforts to improve matters have focused mainly on trying ever harder to develop profiles or other indicators [to uncover] potential or current insider spies. But “investing more and more in profiling and detection” programs has yet to produce much more than “rapidly escalating costs” and “negative impacts on workforce morale due to intrusiveness and false positives” from polygraph exams.

“Time and again,” Charney concludes, “human ingenuity seems able to defeat the most stringent protection regimes.… There is room for something new.”