Examining the critical Spy-Handler relationship and why a NOIR can alter it to our advantage and create the opportunity for predomination
By John Irvin
“There are more spies in the United States today from foreign nation states than at any time in our history — including the Cold War,” stated former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) during a March, 2016, address at the Heritage Foundation. Rogers, who is also the former head of the House Intelligence Committee, added that the problem is “…massive, it’s huge. And the numbers are overwhelming.” While citing no specific individual or organization, Rogers appeared to be referencing intelligence community sources.
If accurate, this is certainly cause for alarm. However, it also presents the US with the opportunity to undermine hostile intelligence efforts by taking advantage of the same national characteristic our opponents hope to exploit. As a free society based on legitimate and accountable, if imperfect, government, and a commitment to individual rights and the rule of law, the US holds a decisive advantage in the counterintelligence struggle against her traditional, authoritarian opponents. That is, if we chose to take advantage of that advantage.
Moreover, it is an advantage authoritarian governments, whether those led by a strongman, dictator, political elite, or single, all-powerful party, can never match, since to offer an equally legitimate option to their own citizens would risk undermining their absolute power, an unacceptable existential threat. This advantage is what Dr. David L. Charney has termed predomination. It is the key strategic benefit of creating a National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR) as described in NOIR: A White Paper, his work on the true psychology of the insider spy that also offers a unique proposal for using psychology to effectively address this perennial national security challenge.
Before further discussing predomination, it is useful to return to Rogers’ comments and make some reasonable assumptions. If there are “more spies…from foreign nation states” operating in the US, what sort of spies are they and what are they here to do? Obviously, they are in the US to clandestinely obtain classified information (or, in the case of private industry, proprietary information). There are, however, a number of methods of doing so. They are likely not “hackers” or others attempting to obtain information via technical means, since hacking can be accomplished from foreign locations without the risk of arrest and imprisonment. While a small number may be involved in some form of technical collection, with a few more serving in administrative, analytical or management roles, the majority of these foreign agents are likely to be what the US intelligence community would consider “case officers.”
The role of the Case Officer, or CO, is the very foundation on which Human Intelligence (HUMINT) is built. Unlike other technical methods of collecting intelligence (think communications intercepts or satellite imagery), HUMINT collection is not based on a technology, but on a personal relationship. An insider spy is neither a machine nor an algorithm. Obtaining information from him is a matter of getting into his individual psyche and persuading him to betray the trust placed in him, or taking advantage of a mindset that is already prepared to betray that trust. Even a so-called “volunteer” – the insider spy who is not so much “recruited” but rather reaches out to a hostile nation or organization of his own accord in order to offer his services – relies on the relationship he forms with his CO in order to clandestinely pass information, receive payment, and maintain his security. “Handling” insider spies is the key function of the CO, and the insider spy relies on his “handler” in order to keep his espionage activities productive and secure.
This is the so-called spy/handler relationship. Regardless of the larger geopolitical context or whether advanced technological methods for passing information or instructions are employed, it is fundamentally based on psychology. That is both its strength and its weakness. It is driven by the vagaries of individual thought and belief to a degree more technical collection methods simply are not. The spy/handler relationship is built on and sustained through basic psychological processes such as affirmation, manipulation, exploitation, dependence and, in some cases, coercion. Although universal to all humanity, the role these and other mental processes play in a particular spy/handler relationship is as unique as the individual minds of the insider spy and his or her handler.
As Dr. Charney explains, however, insider espionage cases do tend to follow a common pattern or script. This is what he describes as the Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy. Stages 5 (the Remorse/Morning-After Stage) and 6 (the Active Spy Career Stage) offer the psychological setting to effectively use the spy/handler relationship itself to undermine existing cases of insider espionage and to reduce the incidence of future cases. This sets up the opportunity for predomination and, again, it is an advantage the authoritarian adversaries of the United States cannot match.
The insider spy lives a lonely existence of perpetual anxiety and psychological isolation. To share the burden of his hidden treachery with anyone, including friends and loved ones, is to risk possible exposure and imprisonment. The stress is unremitting and without consolation. He may also know that most insider spies are exposed through a defector coming over from the “other side” with a list of names, perhaps including his own. Even the most discreet and painstaking tradecraft cannot protect him from the unpredictable advent of a defection. There is only one person with whom he can share this burden – his handler. But that relief may come at the heavy price.
Open-source literature offers a familiar story. The future insider spy is seduced into recruitment by a “friend” who displays what appears to be genuine concern for his personal situation and may treat him with deference bordering on obsequiousness. The volunteer insider spy is informed by his handler that the hostile intelligence service for which he now works holds him in high regard and values the information he provides. Both the recruit and the volunteer are continually reassured by the handler that all measures are being taken to ensure their safety and the secrecy of their relationship.
Over time, and particularly in the case of foreign intelligence services that have a history of ruthlessness, the spy/handler relationship may take on a darker tone. (In the case of former Canadian Navy Sub-Lieutenant turned Russian spy Jeffery Delisle, this took the form of veiled threats against his children.) The illegality of his activities, combined with the need to keep them secret, increases both the isolation of the insider spy and his dependence on the handler. The relationship is decidedly one-sided. The hostile intelligence service may greatly appreciate the information the insider spy provides, but is hardly dependent on him in a reciprocal manner. Moreover, they are co-conspirators in his treason, but unlikely to face anything like the same consequences he will face should it be exposed. This offers the handler leverage the insider spy simply cannot match.
The control his handler has over him and the dependence the insider spy experiences begin building the moment he agrees to the (illegal) relationship. The insider spy is unlikely to notice this during Stage 4 (the Post-Recruitment Stage of the Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy), which is marked by relief from the psychological dilemma that led him to consider espionage and perhaps excitement at his new, hidden career. He is very likely to notice it during Stages 5 and 6, however, when he begins experiencing regret over an irrevocable decision made under stress, disillusionment with his new “friends” who turn out to be his masters, the mundane and burdensome nature of his actual espionage work, and the constant psychological strain and isolation of keeping his activities secret while knowing exposure could occur at any time and in spite of his best efforts.
This is what Dr. Charney refers to as the experience of stuckness. He cannot escape the situation he has placed himself in, even if he wants to. He cannot simply quit, since his handler exercises near-complete control over him. The handler also holds the “exposure card”; should he attempt to break away, the handler can always inform the insider spy’s own side of his activities. While seemingly self-defeating, some of the more ruthless intelligence services are certainly not above exposing one spy in order to deflect suspicion from another, more useful one. Given the current law enforcement view of harsh punishment as an effective deterrent to espionage, he is also unlikely to seek the mercy of his own side and turn himself in. He considers himself out of any other option but to continue his espionage and hope for the best.
Obviously, this is a very good outcome for the handler and the hostile intelligence service that sent him. It is also the point in the relationship when predomination can come into play and Rep. Rogers’ statement that there are “…more spies (read handlers) in the United States today…” becomes not only a cause for concern, but also an opportunity for US counterintelligence professionals. More handlers means more spy/handler relationships, which means more opportunity for predomination to take advantage of those relationships in order to end the activities of existing insider spies and undermine the ability of foreign intelligence services to recruit and handle future insider spies. It offers the possibility of penetrating the networks of foreign spy rings operating in the US and wrapping them up. It is an advantage we have yet to take advantage of.
This is because predomination is a benefit solely derived from the reconciliation process offered by a NOIR. In this usage, reconciliation refers to the process by which an insider spy voluntarily turns himself in to authorities in order to escape from the dilemma he has placed himself in. Dr. Charney repurposed an existing word for an event that lacks a word—because as things currently exist, it never happens that insider spies voluntarily turn themselves in. In seeking reconciliation, the insider spy must agree to rigorous terms and punishments. However, he will avoid the most serious consequences of his crime – a lengthy prison term, the ignominy of being exposed publicly as a traitor, the negative impact on family and associates, and the loss of any future employment possibilities.
Much as in the case of criminals who sought the protection of the United States Federal Witness Protection Program (also known as the Witness Security Program or WITSEC) the reconciled insider spy would be subject to a binding agreement that would demand his cooperation and curtail any benefits he may have sought through his espionage. Moreover, while not publicly acknowledged, his treason would be a matter of (classified) record. As part of the reconciliation agreement, he will be required to provide information and assistance to mitigate the damage he has done and/or counter the efforts of hostile intelligence services.
In short, reconciliation provides an opportunity to undermine the dominance of the handler in the spy/handler relationship and gives the insider spy the chance to break free of a situation from which he thought he had no way out. It is predomination because it is based on an existing and defining feature of free societies – the legitimacy and accountability of elected government and the guarantee of individual rights and the rule of law. Only in such a society would an insider spy consider the reconciliation agreement as legitimate and worth seeking. Accountable government is legally obligated to uphold the agreements it makes, even to criminals and even if they are not known to the public. While not perfect, the US government, with its separation of powers, competitive political system, and independent, watchdog media, virtually guarantees this, as do the governments of other genuine democracies.
Authoritarian governments and dictators are only accountable to themselves, and even if reconciliation were offered, it is unlikely that a foreign insider spy would see it as a legitimate and trustworthy offer. Those very same features that make reconciliation a legitimate possibility in free societies are an existential threat to authoritarian governments. In other words, we can do it and they cannot. This gives the US a counterintelligence advantage our adversaries cannot match and would allow the US to engage in counterintelligence practices they are incapable of, to include creating a NOIR.
The former insider spy who has subjected himself to the legally-binding requirements of the reconciliation agreement under the equally-binding guarantee of avoiding public exposure and imprisonment, is likely to cooperate in undermining foreign intelligence operations over a longer period of time and to a greater extent than the caught insider spy whose cooperation is only likely to extend to the point of prison sentencing. This cooperation may include maintaining the illusion of cooperation with his handler while actually working to advance US counterintelligence efforts. The US would then have greater opportunity to broadly penetrate foreign intelligence activities throughout the country and not only discover other insider spies, but to wrap up entire spy networks.
The very fact that the foreign intelligence service and the handler would be aware of the existence of a NOIR and the reconciliation it offers to insider spies would, in and of itself, undermine the spy/handler relationship. The handler would never know whether his spy had already been turned against him. As a result, he would be forced to engage in constant vetting of his spy, not to mention the extra, time-consuming effort he would have to spend ensuring any suspected “double” he was handling had not even a hint of knowledge regarding any other cases he might also be handling. Without painstaking compartmentation, he would risk having his entire network exposed. What would it be like if he could not be completely certain whether his entire network had secretly sought reconciliation? The doubt and extra effort on his part would likely result in further strain on the spy/handler relationship, perhaps causing the handler to be more demanding or even threatening.
Ironically, the handler’s efforts to preserve mastery over the insider spy are exactly the sort of behaviors that would make the prospect of reconciliation that much more appealing to the insider spy. Furthermore, any attempt by the hostile intelligence service to undermine the reconciliation process by deliberately exposing a reconciled former insider spy is likely to result in fewer recruitments, as potential insider spies would view the hostile intelligence service as untrustworthy and self-serving. In fact, effort on their part to counter reconciliation by any means would more likely damage existing spy/handler relationships, decrease the possibility of future recruitments/volunteers, and enhance the image of the United States both domestically and abroad as a nation demonstrably committed to rule of law and government accountability.
As Dr. Charney writes, “Standing up a NOIR is culturally congruent for the United States” and makes “our intelligence community, as compared to other nations, more impenetrable.” He further adds that, “NOIR requires a culture that is humane, trustworthy, innovative, credible, reliable, and open to forgiveness, second chances and comebacks. While not perfect in these respects, the United States is uniquely situated because our national culture makes a NOIR workable.” This is predomination and it is an advantage our main adversaries do not share.
Why are the majority of the foreign agents Rogers mentions likely to be recruiters and handlers? Because, unlike technical collection, it is a job that requires the foreign intelligence officer to be physically present, at least for a significant amount of time, in the same country as the individual he or she seeks to recruit or intends to handle. They are here in the United States in order to form the personal relationships that will allow them to take advantage of what Dr. Charney describes as The True Psychology of the Insider Spy. To counter this, the US has its own advantage – predomination.
No society is perfect and no government is without its faults, but nations that are dedicated to the rule of law and recognition of human rights hold a distinct advantage over less-open nations, where laws and actions are dictated by the often-changing and self-interested whims of a dictator, dominant party, or small ruling elite. The reconciliation process is based on an agreement that the insider spy wishing to seek it must consider trustworthy, safe, and legitimate. He must be able to believe the NOIR will uphold its end of the bargain. A NOIR is an asset to free societies that dictatorial states simply cannot legitimately offer.
Creating a NOIR would allow the US to finally take advantage of our advantage.