By John Irvin

One of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, American journalist H. L. Mencken, once wrote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Decades have passed since Mencken offered that insight, yet we continue to address complex issues with self-assured opinions that are somehow supposed to be more convincing because of their simplicity, their alleged self-evidence, and their ability to comfort us.

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.

With all due respect to these and other critics, upon closer examination, their criticisms are, as Mencken would say, “clear, simple, and wrong.”

Their criticisms focus on Dr. Charney’s proposition that those at risk of becoming insider spies, as well as those who have already crossed the line, can be dissuaded from continuing on that path by taking away the harshest punishment — the certainty of decades of imprisonment — as incentive for turning themselves in.

The insight that insider spies might be persuaded to turn themselves in rather than continue their espionage by conditionally taking away what they fear most — spending decades in a prison cell — is a key component of Dr. Charney’s advocacy for establishing a National Office of Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR).  Such an organization would serve all parts of the US government in a manner designed to prevent or mitigate insider espionage in the most effective manner while based on sound psychology.

In the minds of his critics, however, this amounts to nothing less than a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” a gross miscarriage of justice that undermines the rule of law or still worse, an incentive for insider spies to reap the financial benefits of spying knowing all along that they can simply run to NOIR when things get too hot.  In short, they suggest his proposal amounts to nothing less than forgiveness.

The best counter to this argument is to actually read Dr. Charney’s work.  The three White Papers in which he explains the psychological foundation and rationale for his approach are all available to the public.[2]  In PART TWO Proposing a New Policy for Improving National Security by Fixing the Problem of Insider Spies, he explicitly counters the idea that NOIR is based on some notion of forgiveness:

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 thoughtful, objective read of his work easily dispels each criticism.

Dr. Charney’s approach is based on sound psychology — the way real people actually think and behave — rather than truthiness, that is, “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like.”

If his approach does include a value judgement, it values mitigating the damage of insider spying over throwing the book at an insider spy when he or she is eventually caught (which, experience shows, can take a very, very long time):

“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.” 

If Dr. Charney’s work is based on practical psychology and seeks to prevent or end cases of insider spying as quickly as possible, why would anyone, especially those with experience in the IC, so easily dismiss it as forgiveness?

The answer is that the phenomenon that serves as the foundation of his work is the same one that generates knee-jerk criticism; our basic human nature, the psychological and social qualities that characterize humankind.

There are a number of issues at play in the critics’ mislabeling of NOIR as forgiveness, from a Manichean,[3] morally-absolutist worldview to a misguided faith in the deterrent effect of harsh punishment.[4]

The logical starting point for demonstrating that NOIR does not equal forgiveness is to define Forgiveness.  Why take this seemingly obvious step?  Because, as Thomas L. Friedman observed, “In the world of ideas, to name something is to own it.  If you can name an issue, you can own the issue.”  Or, as author John Kenny put it more succinctly, “Words matter.”

Forgiveness, and Why NOIR Isn’t It

The main criticism of NOIR, as stated in the Newsweek article, is that it provides those insider spies who reach out to such an organization the ability to essentially get away with their crime scot-free.  In this argument, getting away scot-free is avoiding the worst punishment, i.e., a prison sentence.  Is punishing an insider spy in any form short of prison forgiveness?  To paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, that depends on what your definition of the word “forgiveness” is.

According to no less an authority than Miriam-Webster,[5] to forgive is “to give up resentment of or claim to requital for” something. Digging deeper, requital is “something given in return, compensation, or retaliation.”

In the case of insider spying, that would mean that forgiveness is giving up your resentment over the spying or giving up your claim to demand retaliation or compensation (i.e., punishment) for the spying.

Nowhere in Dr. Charney’s work does he express the notion that anyone should give up resentment of the spy for what he or she has done.  Resentment is an emotion, not an action; you can despise the insider spy as much as you wish. 

Nor does he suggest we should collectively give up our claim that the insider spy deserves retaliation in the form of punishment.

NOIR does not take away punishment. The insider spy is punished.  Whether or not you agree with the punishment is likely more a reflection of your resentment than an expression of what is in the best national security interest.

Critics also self-righteously label NOIR as amnesty.  Going back to Miriam-Webster, amnesty is “to pardon (someone) officially, often before a trial or conviction,” while to pardon is “the excusing of an offense without exacting a penalty.”

NOIR is certainly not pardon without penalty.

What NOIR offers is a conditional and binding arrangement that serves the best interest of our national security, that interest being preventing or stopping cases of insider espionage as expeditiously as possible while creating the most favorable conditions for thwarting other cases of current and future espionage.

“With reconciliation, the insider spy turns himself in and must cooperate in delivering a full, complete, and truthful Damage Assessment—but he does not go to prison.  This deal is an inducement for the spy to voluntarily turn himself in.  Otherwise, it is safer for him to stay put.  He will be spared the worst punishment—prison.  He will spare his family (and his home agency!) shame and humiliation because there will be no public disclosure.  However, it will not be cost-free to him.”

The insider spy who voluntarily seeks out NOIR receives a variety of punishments tailored to the seriousness of the crime committed.  The conditional agreement that keeps the repentant spy out of prison imposes penalties that prevent the spy from profiting in any manner from the crime.  It imposes a form of “permanent parole,” in which the former spy is compelled to cooperate fully with authorities in whatever manner in perpetuum.  The punishment for failing to comply with the agreement is to face that which the spy sought most to avoid – imprisonment.

Moreover, a NOIR would not be available for insider spies who are actually caught by law enforcement.  There is no option for the caught spy to call NOIR on the cellphone as armed FBI agents surround his or her car.  By failing to demonstrate genuine remorse by voluntarily reaching out to NOIR in a timely manner (not when “the walls are closing in”), the caught spy forfeits the possibility of working with NOIR.

Serving Justice, not Vengeance

So, if it better serves the public interest by preventing insider espionage or bringing it to an end in the most expeditions manner (bear in mind, most insider spies are only caught after years of inflicting damage), why portray NOIR as forgiveness?  Perhaps the best way to explain why is to look at a few final definitions.  

Vengeance is “punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offense,” while to retaliate is to “return like for like; to get revenge.”

Vengeance stands in contrast to justice, which is “the maintenance or administration of what is just, especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.”

The goal of NOIR is justice, not vengeance.  The justice expressed in NOIR is that the repentant spy is not only punished, but also given the opportunity to seek a form of redemption.

That redemption is not offered for humanitarian reasons, but because it best serves the national security goals of ending insider espionage as expeditiously as possible and preventing future acts of espionage.

The United States stands out among the other nations of the world as being founded on the Rule of Law.  Our founding document — the Constitution — is essentially a legal document.  Therefore, it is fundamental to our concept of ourselves as a nation that we place justice above vengeance.  Vengeance may feel morally satisfying, but it’s rarely ever justice.

The NOIR concept offers justice, not vengeance or forgiveness.

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

[2] https://noir4usa.org/

[3] https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/Manichean

[4] These specific issues will be addressed in separate articles.

[5] https://www.merriam-webster.com/

What do you think?