Psychiatrist Treats Cloak and Dagger Set’s Woes

By Jeff Stein
SpyTalk columnist, Congressional Quarterly

March 2009

What makes a good spook tick?

For almost 20 years, Dr. David L. Charney, 66, has seen a parade of CIA personnel come to his Alexandria, Va., office, looking for help with their emotional problems.

Many of them come from the Directorate of Operations, recently renamed the National Clandestine Service (although most CIA people still call it the “D.O.”).

These are the people who are commonly — and mistakenly — called spies. But in reality they’re the people who recruit foreigners to commit treason or turn on their terrorist buddies.

Despite such an exotic trade, their problems tend to be the same ones that bedevil ordinary people; according to Charney: conflicts at work or at home.

Probably because his clientele is stationed stateside, he says he hasn’t heard a CIA case officer, as the spy handlers are called, pour out his (or her) grief over a current operation — or terrorist interrogation.

Charney has treated CIA officers for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from death-defying escapes after their covers were blown.

But CIA personnel do tend to have psychological tics peculiar to their particular trade, he says.

For analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence, the academic types who try to make sense of what the spies collect, the problem is obsessional, like fretting endlessly over whether a safe has been locked.

“I’ve had more than one D.I. type who have found it hard to leave at the end of the day,” Charney told SpyTalk over a St. Patrick’s Day lunch around the corner from his office in Old Town.

“They start leaving and they think, Did I actually close all the safes? Then they go back and check the safes and spin the dials and leave. And then they say, ‘Well, wait a minute — the safe was closed in the first place, so maybe when I spun the dials I actually opened it.'”

“In other words, they have obsessional worries. They might think, I have static electricity on my dress, and maybe a classified paper clung to my dress and I wasn’t aware of it when I walked out, and it dropped off. And then they’ll go back and check their pathway.”

But for case officers at the tip of the CIA’s spear, he says that the problem tends to be Adult Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D).

“They seem to be highly functional A.D.D.’s,” Charney says. “You might think a person with ADD can’t tie their shoelaces, but quite the opposite is true.”

To them, “boredom equals death,” he adds, not really joking.

“They’re energetic, restless, people who have to physically keep moving. Lock them to a desk, and they can’t deal with it. They can’t stand to be bored.”

“They like things that have relatively short time horizons, where you get a project you know nothing about, you dive in, you absorb at a rapid pace some new thing, you try to find a solution, you do the thing or fix it, and you move on.” He says.

“Sometimes,” Charney continued, “this can stretch out for a year, but much longer and they get glazed eyes and stop performing well.”

Why? Because they’re “excitement junkies,” who quickly tire of one task and take on more. He likens them to jugglers and plate spinners who keep asking for more balls or plates until they have one too many and drop them all.

The trick for their managers, Charney says, is to find the case officer’s “sweet spot.”

But A.D.D. can be an asset, too.

“They have the ability to absorb things from 360 degrees,” He marvels.

“Contrast that with people who are linear, like your book-keeper or accountant, who chug along in a channel and get things done by going from one thing to another. But A.D.D. minds tend to be very synthetic. They reach out and pull things out of the air, or through other persons who are not linked in any way. They see patterns that other people don’t see. They can gather together unusual elements and bring them together into a whole that is a brilliant synthesis of things that would be lost on other people.

“They have a sensitivity to ambient thoughts going on that a good case officer needs to pick up, little nuances, little hues, little things said that let you know if the agent you’ve recruited is telling the truth, or which part is the truth … which buttons to push to manage the person, how to absorb material and put it into a whole. The good ones have that ability.”

It’s been said that case officers can become infected with a “clandestine mentality,” a permanent state of operational mistrust and deception, manipulating people that they bring back to headquarters.

Charney doesn’t buy it.

“They really are at a very high level of honor, integrity and patriotism,” says the mustachioed, droopy-eyed, psychiatrist, who can sound and look like a Woody Allen character. He’s in fact from Brooklyn.

“It’s kind of an old fashioned thing and it was refreshing to run across it,” he said.

But the spy handlers shed their double-dealing mindsets like soiled shirts when they come in from the cold he insists.

“Unique to the agency, perhaps, is their ability to compartmentalize their sense of morality,” says Charney, who did a two-year stint as an Air Force psychiatrist in the early 1970s draft-era. “When they are stationed stateside, they feel extremely bound by a conventional, and strongly held moral sense. You won’t find anyone, generally speaking, who will treat you better, or more correctly.”

“Of course,” he adds, “when they go overseas their job is to lie, and steal, and they are okay with that because they see it as being part of their patriotism toward their country. But it does create a funny kind of duality of moral positioning.”

And speaking of dualities, it’s the newer, post-9/11 recruits, who tend to be afflicted with A.D.D., he said, because, in general, they are much more focused on personal advancement than prior generations.

During the Cold War, he maintains, case officers were motivated more by a high degree of patriotism and the challenge posed by the Soviet Union. And, they were usually military veterans.

“I think there’s been a generational change. Some of them fit the original mold… but others are your typical Gen-X types, with more of a narcissistic attachment to their own careers, and a little less selflessness.” Charney says.

But according to Charney, the CIA as a whole is kind of going bonkers. Frequent management changes and congressional probes have put the spy agency’s managers, few of whom had anything to do with so-called “extraordinary renditions” or “rough interrogations,” into a permanent defensive crouch. The appetite for taking risks has been curbed.

The spy agency just got its fourth chief in five years. Leon E. Panetta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff and budget manager is bringing yet another team of executive office aides to Langley, even though a condition of employment was retaining the agency’s top operations official, Steve Kappes, as deputy director.

CIA managers are virtually shell-shocked by the turnover and investigations, Charney says. Operations officials are scared to take an initiative the new boss won’t like, or might take a while to show results, or to make a mistake that could “get their heads chopped off.”

“I’m serious. I worry about the functionality and effectiveness of the entire intelligence community, given the way it’s been battered from without and from within,” Charney adds. “It’s subject to all kinds of second-guessing processes and oversight that consumes a lot of the energy of its top managers, and also enforces an unspoken prohibition against innovation and risk-taking.”

But, “The revolving door of management at the CIA and the intelligence community in general” is the main problem, he says.

“How could any corporation operate at an optimum level when its top management is always looking over its shoulder waiting for the ax to fall? There’s no chance to settle down and pay attention to doing its true job, when it’s always cowering in fear of getting its head chopped off.”

But a growing number of former CIA officers say the agency’s problems can’t be blamed on congressional oversight and leadership changes. The problems are institutional. The only way to revive American intelligence, some say, is to “blow up” the CIA and start over with a lighter, faster organization.

Charney, who has a sub-specialty of figuring out why CIA and FBI agents become Russian moles, agrees, to a point.

“The CIA is like any other vast bureaucracy, which means it’s rigid, non-adaptive, stuck,” he says. “The people who move into headquarters are classic — as they are in all agencies — for internal politicking and careerism and scoring points and thinking about promotions. And then they attain the bureaucratic mindset, which reacts to any initiative with ‘no.’ It’s the power to protect themselves from being wrong.”

The problem, of course, is that the CIA is not just any bureaucracy. National security is at stake.

“Espiocrats”, as spy agency bureaucrats are sometimes called, are poison. They can drive some people over the edge — and into the arms of the enemy, reminds Charney, who was a court appointed psychiatrist to three intelligence agency turncoats, including Russia’s infamous mole in the FBI, Robert Hanssen.

So the CIA has to heal itself, somehow, and soon, or risk more moles of its own, like Aldrich Ames.

That’s not going to happen overnight — or more likely, ever.

So for the meantime, Charney has come up with a new technique for dealing with future CIA and FBI turncoats. He’s even given it an acronym: NOIR.

As in crime noir, film noir?

What does his NOIR stand for? I ask.

“I’m not saying right now.” He ends.

It’s his secret

What do you think?