Rationales for the NOIR Concept

Historically, spy-hunters in counterintelligence components are not all that successful at detecting spies on their own in a timely manner. In almost all cases, spies are revealed because of defections from the other side. Where spy-hunters do shine is after spies get caught, by executing thorough Damage Assessments and by ferreting out links to other spies or spy networks. Because of this, spy-hunters are often frustrated, reduced to waiting and hoping for the next break in a case. But as they say, “Hope is not a strategy.”

NOIR emphasizes the individual psychology of the insider spy, his internal world, how he sees things. This contrasts with current practice with its greater emphasis on external perspectives that spring out of the Law Enforcement Mindset, including policing, detection methods based on high technology, polygraphing, stern threatening messages, controls and punishments.

This external perspective is time-honored, proven and effective—but only up to a point. If used as the only approach, it leaves cards on the table that could be played more effectively. Instead of relying exclusively on external pressure tactics, we can add the additional NOIR mechanism that works mainly on the internal track, the mind of the spy. We can readjust the thinking of the insider spy to want to come back to us, of his own accord, and with less effort and expense.

Current policies are necessary but not sufficient. Law enforcement professionals may conclude that this line of argumentation disparages tough stances towards managing the problem of insider spies, or proposes weakening such policies. This could not be further from the truth. If anything, NOIR prefers even harsher measures—for insider spies caught the conventional way.

Consider shepherding dogs that drive sheep into the pen. They harass the sheep with frightening charges and vicious barking from all directions—except where the pen is located—so there’s no place else to go that’s safe. Similarly, NOIR fully favors retaining today’s stringent policies because they exert herding pressure on insider spies that will make reconciliation through NOIR all the more attractive.

With a National Security Mindset the highest priority is to neutralize existential threats that genuinely endanger national survival. A competing mindset is the Law Enforcement Mindset, employing classic detection to expose insider spies, no matter how long it may take, with the end result of maximum punishment. This competition of values is vexing since both mindsets have their merits, though they aren’t mutually contradictory. Still, a clear-eyed choice must be made. NOIR takes the position that the National Security Mindset must prevail. With this priority kept firmly in mind, shutting down insider spying, getting the critical Damage Assessment, and attaining both goals sooner rather than later, are seen as more important than preserving traditional approaches.

Compare the situation to a hostage-taking scenario. A trained negotiation team will rush to the scene, knowing that at the end of the day, their number one goal must be that the hostage comes out alive. They would be professionally pleased if the hostage-taker gets captured or killed. However, if the hostage-taker somehow gets away—but the hostage ends up alive and well—that’s still a good day. Insider spies are like hostage-takers. They hold our national security hostage. If we can neutralize them, even at the cost of less than maximum but still significant and appropriate punishment, that’s still a good day.

In Game Theory, conflicted situations are studied. Maximizing outcomes for the players is the goal. Studies show that players come out ahead when they give up complete triumph over their adversaries in favor of somewhat more balanced outcomes. While not optimal for any player, over many iterations of a game, players do come out best when they forego big wins and settle for lesser ones. There are many practical applications of this thinking, including the situation of insider spies.

There are costs to everything, a cardinal principle of economics. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Costs may be hidden, but they are always there. When comparing policies, it’s important to identify all the costs so that decision makers are fully informed. With current insider spy policy it’s taken for granted that only detection and severe punishments have any place.

There are costs to this position. For starters, detection is generally unsuccessful in uncovering spies. Success in ferreting out spies usually boils down to waiting and to luck. Usually, insider spies get disclosed by someone from the controlling intelligence service who decides to come over to our side. Every spy who is not caught and who enjoys a long tenure risks damaging us on the scale of a Rick Ames, or of a Robert Hanssen, or of the Walker family gang, costing US taxpayers billions of dollars and lives lost.

Worse, in wartime, secrets disclosed to our adversaries may result in losses of thousands of military personnel and billions of dollars worth of hardware assets. If only one spy of the scale mentioned above were stopped, that would spare us immense damage. To exaggerate, current policy says: “It’s OK for us to lose $100 billion, and thousands of lives, so long as if we ever catch that traitor-bastard spy—we put him behind bars for life!”

Obviously, the longer a spy’s tenure, the worse the losses suffered. With reconciliation, the insider spy exits much earlier from his treasonous career with fewer valuable intelligence losses. From an economic cost/benefit perspective, we must account for all the losses due to spying, a mix of hard costs with dollar signs attached, and soft costs that are expensive, but lack easily attached dollar signs.

The costs:

  • Loss of sources and methods
  • Loss of compromised CIA case officers—their careers are blown
  • Loss of timely options to mitigate problems due to delayed Damage Assessments
  • Loss of good reputation for recruiting new agents, given perceived loss of safety
  • Rebuilding betrayed networks, both human and technical
  • Options for double agent and disinformation operations
  • Foreign recruited agents who are jailed or killed
  • Detecting, investigating, arresting, and prosecuting at trial
  • Incarceration for many years
  • Loss of Agency morale and reputation when the story gets out. In the aftermath of the revelation of an insider spy, there’s long-term agency turmoil, with loss of cohesion and focus. Energy gets wasted on recriminations; focus gets inwardly directed vs. mission-oriented.
  • Loss of general public’s confidence in the competence of the affected agency

Many, though not all of these costs would be reduced or disappear with reconciliation. To be fair, new costs would be added, such as the costs of standing up NOIR to implement reconciliation. NOIR’s costs will be comparatively cheap.


Protecting valuable assets by purchasing insurance coverage is well understood and routine. Annual premiums are usually a very small percentage of the full value of the covered asset. Is the cost of “laying off risk,” as they say in the insurance industry, a good tradeoff to make? You can “go bare,” but don’t cry if the worst happens. Often, it’s not a matter of choice. Try to obtain a mortgage on your house without complying with your lender’s demand for an acceptable level of insurance.

Setting up the proposed NOIR mechanism will be hard and also costly (but there are ways to limit costs, described later). Costs to fund NOIR should be viewed as an insurance premium that offsets the risk of paying for the immense costs of rebuilding potentially scores of billions of dollars of lost intelligence assets.

To sharpen the point about the issue of trading off insurance costs (NOIR), against the catastrophic costs of espionage, imagine a genie appears with this offer: “I’m willing to turn the clock back to just before Snowden (or Walker, Pelton, Ames or Hanssen), gave away all your precious secrets. You won’t have lost any of them! How much would you be willing to pay?”

Taking into account the scale of things, in some matters, scaling up the size of things changes how we think about them. It becomes not just a difference in degree; it becomes a difference in kind. Remember the Banker’s Story: If you owe the bank $50,000, you can’t sleep at night. If you owe the bank $5,000,000, the banker can’t sleep at night.

Consider reprehensible crimes, such as murder, rape, etc. Though terrible, even when they scale up to numerous victims, such as with serial murderers, to be cold-blooded about it, they can be thought of as “retail” crimes. The scale of these crimes falls short of crimes that reach “wholesale” proportions, such as with a 9/11 event. When hundreds or thousands of lives are lost, it becomes a difference in kind. We are forced to rethink things when the scale of a problem ramps up exponentially. With espionage, the potential for harm to the entire nation is so great, such as mass loss of life and treasure, as with a 9/11 catastrophe or with a war situation, that taking new, otherwise unthinkable measures can gain credence.

Insider spying, which potentially exposes our nation to scaled-up existential risk, requires us to consider remedies that may be a stretch. To waive prison as a punishment for insider spying, as proposed by NOIR’s reconciliation, may be objectionable. If as a result we’re spared horrific national scale consequences, it’s a remedy that can be justified.

Good Cop/Bad Cop is age-old practical wisdom, used because it works. By contrast, with insider spies today, there’s only the Bad Cop. We also need the Good Cop component. NOIR provides the missing Good Cop.

This concept is not new and we’re using it now. It’s how we destroyed the Mafia. We used WITSEC the same way: making it safe for mobsters to bail out so we could get what we wanted more: taking down the mob. In its day, WITSEC faced a difficult uphill battle before getting stood up. To achieve our desired larger goal, it finally made sense to make the tradeoff. Espionage ranks worse than the Mafia as a threat to the safety of our nation. While we strongly value bringing criminals to justice, our collective national security is too important for us to limit options. We need to do what will work.

It’s the same as using both the carrot and the stick. Right now, with insider spies, it’s all stick but no carrot. NOIR supplies the missing carrot.

In any buying decision, a businessman gets to pick only two of the following three key factors: Quality, Speed and Price. For example, buying a new car with exactly the options we want. The dealer says: “We can get the car you want (Quality) at a good low Price, but you’ll have to wait two months for the factory to build it.” We give up Speed in favor of Quality and Price. The dealer continues: “But we have a car on our lot with nearly all the options you want. We’ll give you a great low price and you can drive it off the lot right now—so long as you’re OK with cloth upholstery instead of the premium leather.” Now, we’re giving up Quality in favor of Speed and better Price.

Translating this in terms of factors relevant to insider spies: Quality means a full, rapid and complete Damage Assessment; Speed means how quickly the insider spy quits; Price means the spy’s punishment, the harsher the better (in this case we seek the highest rather than the lowest price). According to the Businessman’s Choice, we get to pick only two of these three key factors.

Current policy selects for Price (we go for the harshest sentence), gives up on Speed (it could take decades before the insider spy gets identified), and Quality (of the Damage Assessment, which can vary, depending on true cooperation. Once a life sentence is imposed on the insider spy, what more can the government use as leverage to force truly full cooperation?)

Is this tradeoff really in the national security interest? Are we really satisfied that adding 10 or 20 years to a spy’s sentence is worth all the losses that the country might suffer, strategic and perhaps even existential, if spying continues unimpeded for a couple of decades or more? With several infamous insider spies, the financial losses alone amounted to tens of billions of dollars when all the costs of undoing the damages and rebuilding replacement intelligence systems got added up. Also, there were the incalculable costs of agents’ lives lost, as well as the degradation of the intelligence community’s morale, reputation and ability to function effectively.

Applying the Businessman’s Choice concept to insider spying, there’s a clear advantage when Speed (getting the insider spy out of the game more quickly), gets ranked over Price (harshest prison sentence). With reconciliation, Quality (of the Damage assessment) improves too.



NOIR doesn’t offer the option of reconciliation in the spirit of forgiveness. Nor out of compassion, sympathy, empathy, or other sweet sentiments. Reconciliation comes out of a deeper understanding of the mind of the insider spy. However, NOIR also appreciates: To understand is not to condone.

Reconciliation is put forward purely out of national self-interest: to limit and mitigate the unacceptable costs of prolonged insider spying. A tradeoff is accepted. The moral satisfaction of maximally punishing treasonous spies is exchanged for an invaluable Good: the overall improved strategic security of the entire nation.

NOIR represents a real shift in the paradigm. NOIR’s policies run counter to the wish to satisfy citizens’ moral outrage directed against spies by seeking the most severe punishments. Remember that NOIR’s treatment of spies is strictly limited to those who voluntarily turn themselves in. The paradigm shift in this case is extremely conditional.


Moral views look to achieving good ends from the perspective of the big picture and the long view. Moralistic views generally seem to take a short-term view, never mind the bigger picture. NOIR claims a basis in the moral as opposed to the moralistic view.

Military field commanders in wartime must face similar moral calculations. They must send soldiers into battle, in some instances knowing full well that they will be sacrificing the few to achieve larger goals that will save the many. NOIR looks to preserving long-term national security as being more important than exacting the most severe punishments for spies—but only if they voluntarily turn themselves in.


To suppose that NOIR advocates a kinder, gentler attitude towards the treatment of spies in general would be a serious misreading of its thrust. In fact, NOIR advocates no such thing for caught spies. Maintaining the status quo of severe punishments for spies caught the conventional way is actually a critical element of NOIR. NOIR needs the current stringent policies to remain in place for it to work at all. NOIR effectiveness relies on the proven twin pillars of The Good Cop and The Bad Cop, or The Carrot and The Stick.

Current doctrine and practice, reliance on only one pillar, is criticized by NOIR as the key shortcoming—because it doesn’t work very well. Reconciled spies are the only class of spies that NOIR is prepared to safeguard with its protections. NOIR protections are not intended to be nice. The relatively less punitive treatment to be offered exclusively to reconciled spies is the small price that the nation will pay for the advantages gained in national security.


If current policies were working so well, how come there never seems to be a shortage of new spies? Perhaps some spies do get deterred, but at what cost? Granting that NOIR may reduce deterrence to some degree, it would be counterbalanced by the benefits that NOIR would confer.

NOIR is not a “Get Out of Jail Free Card.” While jail gets relinquished as a punishment for reconciling spies, a variety of other serious punishments must be a part of the package that a spy must accept. NOIR does preserve deterrence because any spy caught conventionally is still subject to severe punishments. NOIR is by no means pushing for leniency for all spies. In fact, NOIR advocates unequivocally that severe punishments for caught spies must be preserved for NOIR to work.


Surprisingly, many spies harbor an abiding love of country, still viewing themselves as patriotic Americans. Therefore, consider this motto for NOIR: Come back. Your country still needs you.


Do you love your country more than you hate these spies?

What do you think?