By John Irvin

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” —Albert Einstein

While this is a genuine Einstein quote, he is often misquoted as having said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

A recent article by Jeff Stein in Newsweek Magazine (CIA, FBI Traitors Should Be Lured Back with Promise of No Jail Time, Expert Says),[1] features the novel approach psychiatrist Dr. David L. Charney, MD, takes toward preventing or mitigating the damage done to national security by insider spies.

In brief, he proposes using psychology to break the “insanity” of our current approach.

A key element is Dr. Charney’s advocacy for establishing a National Office of Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR).  This organization would serve all elements of the Intelligence Community (IC), but have a large degree of independence such that IC employees would view it as an “honest broker.”  That perception would be crucial in convincing insider spies seeking a way out of their criminal activity to voluntarily turn themselves in.  Why would they do that?  To avoid an outcome that they fear — the threat of years in prison should they be caught.

That our current approach toward insider espionage is ineffective — a “needle-in-the-haystack” effort focused on detection and harsh punishment — is proven by the fact that in spite of ever-more sophisticated (and expensive) technologies and long prison terms for those spies who do get caught, insider espionage remains as reliably a threat as it ever was.

It seems doing the same thing over and over again still hasn’t produced different results.

On the other hand, NOIR is a novel approach based on the unique insight Dr. Charney has achieved through years of counseling IC members, to include unparalleled access to three convicted US traitors.

It is also in consonance with ground-breaking efforts to understand the psychology of captured spies that were undertaken by the US government in the 1980’s and 1990’s through organizations such as the Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC) in Monterey, California, and the Community Research Center in Newington, Virginia, the latter of which fell under the name “Project Slammer.”[2]

Nevertheless, the Newsweek article also includes serious criticism by notable former members of the IC, focusing on the perception that NOIR offers no form of punishment for insider spies.  Rather, they suggest, insider spies would be incentivized to continue their nefarious work knowing that NOIR would serve as a sort of “get-out-of-jail-free card.”

These criticisms are easily undermined by actually reading Dr. Charney’s work, which is available to the public through this website.

While a NOIR promises to be effective based on an understanding of human psychology, the most vocal criticism of the idea likely springs from that same psychology.

Setting aside the specious claim that NOIR is essentially pardon for wrongdoing, the fundamental if unspoken basis for the criticism appears to be either a Manichean, black and white worldview, or a mistaken belief in the effectiveness of harsh punishment as a deterrent to crime.  Saving the former for another discussion, it is worth looking at the premise that a NOIR would somehow be ineffective because it offers a conditional reprieve from the harshest punishment as incentive for expeditiously stopping insider espionage.

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

The basic premise behind this criticism is that a potential insider spy will reliably choose not to engage in espionage because of the threat of punishment.

However, as Hannah Arendt observed while analyzing some of the worst atrocities of a very bloody mid-20th Century, “No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes.”

Criticism that suggests any moderation of punishment (to include eliminating prison time in exchange for timely and thorough cooperation) invites more criminal activity ignores both history and human psychology.

Obviously, offering no threat of punishment for bad behavior may invite that behavior, but research demonstrates that the seemingly common-sense belief that increased punishment has an increased deterrent effect is a comforting fallacy rather than an established fact.

In some cases, harsh punishment may have the opposite effect.  In preventing undesirable behavior, appropriate punishment is the most effective deterrent.  Appropriate punishment would be that which not only fits the crime, but also the person and the circumstances.

The notion that harsh punishment invariably deters crime is disproven by our own history.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature,[3]  Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker provides ample evidence that since the Middle Ages, as criminal punishment has become more humane, crime has dramatically decreased rather than increased.  Common-sense would suggest that extremely harsh mediaeval punishments such as drawing-and-quartering or breaking-on-the-wheel would have a dramatic impact in reducing crime.  Instead, the period was actually marked by incredibly high rates of crime.

Upon examination, this makes sense.  If the punishment for robbery is the same as the punishment for murder – a slow, painful death – a robber has little incentive not to kill any witnesses.  To use a modern (but admittedly ridiculous) analogy, if speeding were punishable by death, while one result might be less speeding, another likely result would be a drastic rise in cops being shot during traffic stops.

In terms of insider espionage, if the punishment for a poor decision made during a moment of high stress and emotion that leads an individual into espionage (that they soon come to regret) is the same as that for an individual who makes a well-planned decision to engage in espionage based on personal greed or grievance, then what is the incentive for the former to seek a way out?

The consequences of a much-regretted mistake are the same as a cynically treasonous plan.

The critic might follow this up with the proposition that the consequences should be the same because both individuals knew the law and nevertheless made a conscious decision to break it.  This suggests an overly-simplistic view of cause and effect.  To claim that it’s only reasonable that harsh punishment will have a reliable impact on individual behavior is to assume that people can be relied upon to act reasonably.

As Dr. Charney clearly demonstrates in his work on the Psychology of the Insider Spy, the decision to spy is rarely, if ever, made objectively and dispassionately.  Rather, it’s driven by “an intolerable sense of personal failure, as privately defined by that person.”  For those who cross the line, the decision is subjective and personal, not objective and rational.  That state of mind takes the decision to spy out of the realm of reason and logic.  Instead, it falls victim to our unfortunate human capacity to rationalize even our most egregious behaviors.

The self-righteousness displayed by those who support harsh punishment (or, more recently, high-tech software) as the solution to insider spying masks the reality that espionage isn’t fundamentally a problem of law enforcement or information security.

It is and always has been a problem of individual psychology.  If a person has the motivation and the ability to rationalize their behavior, there are no laws harsh enough or systems secure enough to stop them from spying.

Need proof?  Look no further than the fact that despite the years of prison we impose on insider spies when we do finally catch them, or the increased complexity of the technology we use to ferret them out, the problem never goes away.

That’s because we treat espionage the way medieval doctors treated disease; we do what we can when the symptoms crop up, which is usually too late, while appearing oblivious to the real origin of the malady.  Insider espionage starts in the stressed out, emotionally overwhelmed minds of trusted individuals.  That’s where it needs to be treated.

Vengeance is Not Yours

The most common criticism of Dr. Charney’s work is that such an approach would allow insider spies to get away scot-free.  Read his work; they wouldn’t.

Other critics use false and misleading analogies, like suggesting that giving a repentant insider spy a way out of the bondage of working for a hostile intelligence service is the equivalent of giving serial killers “amnesty for their previous murders if they just agree to stop killing.”

Some insider spies have most certainly brought about the deaths of others, but even the worst sociopaths – a Walker, Ames or Hanssen – are much more likely to have started spying for the material or ego benefits rather than the enjoyment of bringing about someone’s death.

False analogies such as these seek to make a weak argument appear strong by eliciting powerful emotions, in this case, fear and disgust.  They’re exercises in hyperbole rather than sound arguments.  They seek to make the case that, if all insider spies are no better than serial killers, then we are morally justified in demanding the harshest punishment, even when a less harsh solution might better serve our national security needs.

We should never lose sight, however, of the fact that we are a country founded on the rule of law, not the rule of vengeance.

Justice is meant to serve the public interest, not a particular individual’s or group’s sense of morality.

If Dr. Charney’s approach can prevent future cases of insider espionage and bring about an end to current cases in the most expedient way – that is, by having the individual voluntarily turn himself in – why wouldn’t that outweigh the ego satisfaction of seeing a caught spy get the book thrown at him?

Dr. Charney’s approach is a controversial one, which is why it seems appropriate to end with another quote, this one from H.L. Mencken: “The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.”

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[1] https://www.newsweek.com/2019/03/15/cia-fbi-spy-traitor-espionage-iran-china-1351156.html

[2] Charney, D. and Irvin, J. (2016). The Psychology of Espionage. The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies, Volume 22, Issue 1, 71-77.

[3] Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of our Nature. New York, NY: Viking.

What do you think?