Dr. David Charney was interviewed by Jeff Stein in Newsweek about the NOIR concept. In the article, the former head of FBI counterintelligence, Frank Figliuzzi, said of the concept:
“I tried hard to find holes in Charney’s concept because I initially had a strong visceral reaction against the notion of leniency for a traitor. Yet Charney carefully overcomes virtually all of my objections.”
Not much time seems to pass without learning of yet another turncoat in the CIA or other intelligence agencies.In February, feds charged Monica Witt, a former Air Force counterintelligence sergeant and later defense contractor, with passing extremely sensitive secrets to Iran. Over the past two years, two former CIA operatives were arrested independently on charges of spying for China.
Just more spy vs. spy stuff, fodder for books and movies? No. Those last two reportedly contributed to what was described as a “catastrophic” wave of arrests and executions of 18 to 20 CIA assets in China. Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013, allegedly provided her handlers with the names and sources of U.S. agents involved in clandestine activities.
As long as there are spy services, of course, there will be defectors. The CIA, FBI and Defense Department have spent years studying why good intelligence officers go bad, without, evidently, finding an effective way to stop them from selling out, much less persuade them to surface themselves. Now, David Charney, an Alexandria, Virginia, psychiatrist who has spent hours interviewing traitors who got caught, has come up with a radical tactic: forgiveness—of a sort—if they turn themselves in.
“You have to offer them something that really would make a difference in their lives,” he says of turncoats who come to regret selling secrets to the Russians, Chinese or other adversaries. “And I came up with the one thing that I thought would make a difference: no jail.” The moles would, of course, face confiscation of their ill-gotten gains, heavy fines, a lifetime monitoring of their finances and perhaps relocation with a new identity, under a very strict watch. “All kinds of bad things,” Charney said during a recent lecture to insiders in Washington, D.C., “but no jail.”
A soft-spoken, mustachioed psychiatrist born in Brooklyn, New York, with a sizable clientele of spooks, Charney, 76, looks like he just walked off the set of an early Woody Allen flick. But his prison interviews with convicted moles Robert Hanssen and Earl Edwin Pitts, FBI agents caught spying for the Russians, and Brian Regan, an Air Force sergeant who tried to sell classified documents to China, Iraq and Libya, convinced him that U.S. intelligence should set up an “off-ramp” for guilt-ridden quislings to come in from the cold. He would call it the National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation, or NOIR (French, of course, for black).
“Oh yeah, I had to be cute,” Charney told an appreciative audience at the Institute of World Politics, a boutique graduate school for wannabe spies and national security nerds in Washington, D.C., in early February. But he’s not glib about the human and financial costs of betrayal—CIA assets rounded up and executed, families and friendships destroyed, and, often, the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of top-secret weapons technology to, say, Chinese agents.
Why do they do it? And why are almost all of them men? Former Newsweek writer Evan Thomas once called CIA turncoats “self-hating malcontents who worked out their anger by betraying their own spymasters.” But underlying that, Charney says, is “male pride and ego.” Dramatic setbacks—in their marriages, finances or careers—make them feel like failures. They’re stuck in an emotional limbo, “the worst mental state that people know about.”
“Now, with some guys,” Charney told his audience, “they’ll go to the bottle and drink. Other guys will get just plain depressed. Other guys will have affairs.” But some will “convince themselves that ‘it’s not me—it’s those bastards at work, those people that screwed me.’ And they may well decide ‘I’m gonna get back at them.’”
A practiced CIA or FBI agent has little trouble making secret contact with enemy spy services and enlisting as a mole. But once his initial “euphoria”—the instant cash, the warm embrace of the erstwhile enemy spy service, the satisfaction of revenge—evaporates, Charney says, he suddenly realizes he’s “a loser” yet again. The mole’s new bosses certainly won’t loosen their grip. They can blackmail him if he resists. He’s stuck.
And that’s where NOIR would come in, Charney says, set up in a discreet location away from the CIA or other defense agency headquarters, so none of the mole’s agency colleagues knows what’s going on.
Some veteran spy catchers snort at Charney’s prescription. “Totally absurd and not worth my comments,” says Mike Rochford, a retired veteran FBI spy catcher. “It’s just not practical in a real democracy based on the rule of law. You break the law, you do the time. Totally absurd!”
“One of the worst ideas I have heard in a long time,” echoes Kevin Hulbert, a former career CIA operations officer whose last assignment was senior adviser for counterterrorism at the FBI. “This would be like suggesting there are serial killers out there who we can’t seem to catch, and so to get them to stop killing, we should offer them amnesty for their previous murders if they just agree to stop killing.” Giving any kind of pardon to somebody like Aldrich Ames, who earned $4 million while he “effectively murdered 10 CIA assets” in Russia, Hulbert tells Newsweek, is a “horribly bad idea.”
Likewise, a top former counterintelligence official, a friend of Charney’s who asked for anonymity to speak freely, offered a plethora of negative judgments. Among them: “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.” And walk free. Charney’s ideas also lack any rigorous peer review, this person says.
Charney is not surprised. “Don’t think I didn’t know that people would choke on this,” he says. To many spy agency employees, jail is too good for traitors; they should be shot. “People in the IC [intelligence community] have kind of a law enforcement mindset,” Charney says, with a focus on catching “the bad guy after he crosses the line.”
Similarly opposed are the scores of government contractors around D.C. who have a profit motive to develop “a program, a plan using high-tech assets, that monetizes the problem.”
But privately, he says, some former FBI officials, the people principally responsible for catching spies, have told him, “This is actually a pretty good idea.”
Indeed, no less than Frank Figliuzzi, the former head of FBI counterintelligence, says he is open to NOIR.
“I tried hard to find holes in Charney’s concept because I initially had a strong visceral reaction against the notion of leniency for a traitor,” he tells Newsweek. “Yet Charney carefully overcomes virtually all of my objections.”
NOIR would work best with the “worst of the worst” moles, he says, like Ames or Hanssen, who had misgivings and for a while stopped working for the Russians.
“Charney’s emphasis on the living hell experienced by moles, once it’s too late to escape, is woefully under-addressed in internal awareness and defensive briefing and training of employees,” Figliuzzi says. “If enhanced, they could play an important prophylactic role in preventing espionage and providing an escape to would-be spies.”
Some turncoats would likely be impervious to pitches, most intelligence veterans say: the “ideological spy,” like Monica Witt, the Air Force linguist, trained in Farsi, who reportedly soured on U.S. counterterrorism activities and came to embrace Islam. In that, she is much like the World War II–era “atomic spies” and the legendary Kim Philby and other British spy-diplomats who rallied to Russian Communism. Similarly, the infamous National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning, the Army intelligence specialist who leaked a vast trove of documents to WikiLeaks, seemed driven by a quasi-ideological disaffection with U.S. policies.
“They may put an ideological cast on it,” Charney counters, “but they’re human beings, and even with them, you have to look at their deeper psychology.”
Which brought us to President Donald Trump, a “possible” Russian asset, according to former FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe. He says he launched a counterintelligence investigation into the president after Trump fired his boss, James Comey—to get rid of the bureau’s “Russiagate” investigation, Trump later admitted. Other top former U.S. intelligence officials have been suggesting for the past two years that the Russians have a hold on Trump.
Could there be a NOIR-like solution for that?
“Trump or McCabe?” Charney cracked. By mid-February, expectations that special counsel Robert Mueller would nail Trump on any specific acts of collusion with the Russians had diminished. But if the past is any guide, solid evidence implicating Trump would likely have to come from someone in the Kremlin itself—a mole, in other words.
“The dirty little secret of the intelligence world,” Charney says, is that “almost no spies are caught by detection, but by betrayal”—decades after their incalculable damage.