By John Irvin

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

In 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] psychiatrist Dr. David L. Charney, MD, draws on his years of counseling members of the US Intelligence Community (IC) – to include unique access to three convicted US traitors – and proposes a way to prevent insider spying and reduce the damage it causes to our national security.  The article also includes criticism of Dr. Charney’s unconventional approach by some noteworthy IC professionals.

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 would 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.

Criticism of the NOIR concept takes many forms, all of which, in one way or another, are grounded more in perception and emotion rather than the practical application of research.  Some are no doubt based on its sheer novelty; nothing like this has really been tried before in regard to espionage, and there is a natural human anxiety regarding the unfamiliar.  Some may be a bit more cynical or self-serving, such as concern that NOIR might intrude upon organizational turf or a particular individual’s avowed expertise.

The most impassioned criticisms, however, tend to focus on the false premise that NOIR presents what Mr. Stein himself described as “forgiveness—of a sort.”[2]  This premise has been discredited elsewhere, not the least of which in Dr. Charney’s work itself,[3] where he explicitly states that NOIR is not a form of forgiveness, but rather a solution that punishes wrongdoing while simultaneously bringing cases of insider espionage to the most expeditious and beneficial conclusion.  It is a means of serving justice while best serving our national security goals.[4]

At the root of the forgiveness argument lies deeper psychological fixations.  One is the false conviction that harsh punishment is always a reliable deterrent, that any punishment short of the most severe encourages malfeasance, and that a nuanced approach is the equivalent of moral compromise.  Both research in psychology and our own history proves this to be wrong, serving our personal moral/emotional need for vengeance rather than the greater societal need for justice.[5]

The second fixation is a deeply ingrained and personal worldview that sees complex issues, such as human motivation, in black and white terms.  It is an absolutist position that ignores the individual circumstances of a given insider spy and demands all transgressors receive the same punishment as the worst among them.  One NOIR critic even went so far as to compare insider spies to serial killers, an analogy that serves more to elicit moral outrage than to contribute to reasoned discussion.

Like the “throw the book at them” mindset of the punishment absolutist, the moral absolutist takes a Manichean position that fundamentally serves to reinforce his view of himself as morally unassailable rather than a position that is objective, reasoned, and dispassionately serves the best interest of national security and the public at large.

Why?  Dr. Charney writes, “Insider threat events originate within the minds of individuals.  That is where it starts.  Always.”

The Manichean Candidate[6]

The term Manichean comes from the word Mani, which was the name of an apostle who lived in Mesopotamia in the 240’s and taught a universal religion based on what we now call dualism.  Those with a Manichean worldview look at things as having only two sides that are irrevocably opposed.  To Manicheans, “life can be divided neatly between good or evil, light or dark, or love and hate.”[7]  There is no place in a Manichean worldview for shades of grey.  Just as the good are intrinsically good, the bad are intrinsically bad and deserving of whatever punishment they receive.

The fact that so many people have a Manichean outlook is understandable given our own evolution as a species.  In primitive people, when survival depended on making quick decisions based on limited information, it was beneficial for our ancestors to make snap judgments of people they had little experience with and immediately categorize them as good or bad, as part of the group or as a threat.  Subtlety, nuance, objectivity, even logic and reason, could be life-threatening.

In the modern world, where threats are usually not as immediate, such vestigial thinking is rarely so appropriate.  It is the psychological equivalent of the vermiform appendix: very useful to our ancestors, not so much today.  Unfortunately, it is also the sort of thinking that places all insider spies in the single category of irredeemable evil-doers who deserve to have the full weight of the law crash down upon them.

In this mindset, motivation is irrelevant.  The degree of damage an individual may commit is irrelevant.  Sincere remorse is irrelevant.  It’s simple: “You break the law, you do the time.” In this view, justice and vengeance are the same thing.  Or, rather, vengeance is justice.

325.7 Million Shades of Grey

The obvious problem with a Manichean view of insider spies is that it flies in the face of our own personal experience.  Two men are arrested for hitting and killing a pedestrian while driving.  One lost control while trying to see how fast his brand-new sports car could go.  The other is a single-parent who lost control while driving home from the hospital, exhausted after spending the entire night at the bedside of a seriously ill child.  Are the crimes equivalent?  Would punishing each person equally be upholding the rule of law?  Is that justice?  Would you feel the same way if you were the driver?

Former Navy chief warrant officer and Soviet spy John Anthony Walker betrayed the US for almost two decades out of sheer greed, beat his wife, convinced both his son and his brother to engage in spying (for which they both later went to prison), and never expressed sincere remorse after his arrest, even though he may have been indirectly responsible for the deaths of US pilots over Vietnam.  By most measures, he would be considered a stone-cold sociopath.

Former Canadian Navy Sub-Lieutenant Jeffery Delisle was near bankruptcy, trying to pay for the medical treatment of one of his young daughters who had been in an accident, and found out his wife was having an affair, when he made the spur of the moment decision to spy for Russia.  He regretted his decision almost immediately, but felt there was no way out, especially after his handler made a thinly-veiled threat against Delisle’s children.[8]  Is it justice that both men be punished in the same way?

Dr. Charney’s approach is based on the psychological reality (some might say, common sense), that the motivation for an action does matter.  While people like Walker are driven by a demonstrably malevolent personality, they are the exception rather than the rule.  A review of the history of US espionage shows that notorious cases like Walker, CIA officer Aldrich Ames, and FBI agent Robert Hanssen are relatively rare.  Rather, according to the Defense Personnel and Security Research Center (PERSEREC), the majority of US spy cases “tell mundane tales of human folly resulting in tragic personal consequences.”[9]

While a spy like Walker might be irredeemable, doesn’t it make sense to at least try to bring a man like Delisle back from the edge, to put a quick end to the clandestine flow of secret information to a hostile power and to wrap up existing foreign espionage activity, by offering him a punishment that is significant, but not as harsh as what you would justifiably expect for Walker?

Is it justice to end a man’s career, to take away any financial or personal benefit he might have received from his illegal actions, to ensure his inescapable cooperation in pursuing other illegal activity, to place him under perpetual monitoring in what would be the equivalent of a lifetime of being on parole, but to allow him to live with his family and make some continued contribution to society?  Or is ensuring he ends up staring at the four walls of a prison cell the one and only means of achieving justice?

Casting the First Stone

The Manichean worldview also stands in opposition to another thing we all have personal experience of, and that is the fact that everyone makes mistakes.  Under extreme stress or emotion, our ability to think logically, to objectively weigh the pros and cons of a particular course of action, virtually disappears.  In what Dr. Charney describes as “a psychological perfect storm,”[10] we cannot accurately and dispassionately assess the consequences of our actions.  Instead, we often make the most irrational, ill-advised, and personally harmful choice simply because it’s the one screaming loudest in our psyche.

At this very moment walking the halls of government or sitting in the offices of private companies that support our national security there may be a Walker or Ames or Hanssen.  Much more likely there are a larger number of inconspicuously normal people who, in the course of doing their jobs or in their personal lives, suffered a stressful or emotional event and, as a result, made a mistake that they know was not intentionally malicious, but that they also understand to be potentially career-ending.  The Manichean worldview lends itself to zero-tolerance.

Would it not be better to give that person a way to explain and remedy that mistake?  Or is it better to let that minor infraction grow into something much worse, simply because there is no other way of dealing with it in a zero-tolerance environment?  If there is no incentive to report it early it will fester, perhaps leading to still worse actions.  Simple statistics would suggest this isn’t merely hypothetical.  There are real people out there right now, working in government and business, continuing activities they likely already regret, or soon will.

The majority of them likely continue in their deception, not because they are intrinsically “evil” people, but because they know they work in a system where there is no tolerance for even a minor mistake.  It is all or nothing.  The zero-tolerance system they work under ensures there is no way back, and for those working with hostile intelligence services, their handlers make sure there is no way out.  Just ask Jeff Delisle.

One critic described Dr. Charney’s views as “totally absurd.”  To be absurd is to be both ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous and to have no rational or orderly relationship to human life.  What is more absurd?  To hold the Manichean view that all insider spies are essentially the same and deserving of the same punishment (i.e., lengthy prison terms); that the unique circumstances and psychology that lead a certain person to contemplate or engage in insider espionage (the “psychological perfect storm”) are irrelevant?

Or is it more absurd to acknowledge the unique circumstances and personality of each insider spy and to tailor punishment in a way that not only serves justice, but also our best national security interest?  The obvious answer is that it is absurd to view the world in black and white terms that ignore the reality of individual human psychology.  To deny human nature is the one position that just about anyone can recognize as being “totally absurd.”





[4] Who Said “Forgiveness”? Dismantling Criticisms of the NOIR Concept, NOIR blog, March 2019

[5] Insider Spies: What is Appropriate Punishment?, NOIR blog, March 2019

[6] With apologies to Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate.