That was a judgment call.
Petraeus’s downfall should prompt the intelligence community to make its own judgment call — to end the arbitrary and outdated rules that govern U.S. intelligence employees. These rules have damaged U.S. interests in the guise of protecting our security. On many occasions, they have resulted in the loss of the services, and even the loyalty, of experienced, highly trained people.
Two of the most egregious rules have been the CIA’s insistence on investigating foreigners engaged to agency employees and its own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” under which intelligence officers found to be gay lost their clearances or even their jobs. The latter policy was, fortunately, revoked in 1998 by executive order — not by the agency.
The security mavens will say that such rules have protected intelligence officers from blackmail. Since the passage of the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, the agencies’ security units have had the legal authority to enforce such proscriptions. But the thought that a prospective spouse would have to pass a security check must have led many valuable intelligence officers to quit. And the thought that sexual preferences could cost someone her or his job must have led to other departures — or to officers not working to the fullest extent of their capacities, keeping their heads down to avoid attracting attention.
It is impossible to determine how much talent has been lost because of such regulations. There is only anecdotal evidence.
Eric H. Biddle, a skilled operations officer who worked for eight years against the Soviets, resigned from the CIA in 1960 because he wanted to marry his Greek girlfriend. The Soviet Union was our main intelligence target at the time. In another damaging incident that year, National Security Agency officers William H. Martin and Bernon Mitchell defected to Moscow. Officials blamed it on their alleged homosexuality, although evidence was scant, and both went on to marry Soviet women. Nevertheless, the case resulted in dramatic changes in hiring practices, and other agents suspected of being gay were purged from the agency.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and one has to wonder about the impact on Aldrich Ames, the notorious Soviet spy within the CIA, of the agency’s vetting of his Colombian wife.
Intelligence officers often characterize the late Philip Agee, a spook who resigned to rail against his former colleagues, as the man most destructive to agency operations in the 1970s and ’80s. Agee’s revelations of the names of CIA officers and operatives forced the termination of a host of agency projects, even ones not related to his direct targets. U.S. policies disillusioned Agee, but the catalyst for his crusade was the CIA’s demand to investigate his Mexican girlfriend.
Compounding the effect of such regulations is the double standard often applied to senior officials vs. junior officers. The rules forced Agee out of the agency, but Petraeus stayed on, even as an investigation of his affair was underway. Later he was able to submit a “voluntary” resignation.
In the 1960s, CIA officer Hans Tofte was fired after he was found to have taken classified documents home to work on them. In the 1990s, CIA Director John Deutch, caught with classified material on his home computer, emerged unscathed.
Mary Margaret Graham, the agency’s counterintelligence chief, was driven out of the CIA in 2005 by Director Porter Goss after she put evidence of the bad behavior of Kyle D. Foggo, Goss’s preferred candidate for executive director, before his aides. Several years later, Foggo would be convicted of fraud in a tremendous embarrassment to the agency. This was a case of failure to enforce regulations because they involved a senior officer. Foggo was protected from allegations that would have ended the career of a lower-level employee.
The factors that contribute to a strong national security are not just the power and sophistication of military forces, or the reach of U.S. intelligence operations, but the morale and skill of the people who work for the system.
The core value is the U.S. national interest. And that interest is not served by security regulations that drive away talent. Redundant protections for secret information are important, but the system also relies on rules that are artifacts of the Cold War era and the social and political mores of that time.
The ostensible concern about the Petraeus affair was the potential for blackmail. Yet it is far-fetched today to think that a foreign government would contrive an operation to ensnare a CIA employee through an affair, a foreign-spy spouse or an allegation of homosexuality. Our enemies are unlikely to bother with such complicated schemes. Instead, they buy information — the method that has remained tried and true — or attempt to hack it from the data-rich computer networks that the government is spending billions to defend.
The agencies actually invite entrapment by maintaining archaic strictures that punish behaviors that may be considered objectionable but are in no way criminal. Doing away with double standards in enforcement is also vitally necessary.
Whatever the fallout from the Petraeus affair may be, it offers us the opportunity to revisit and revise the codes of conduct that pose dilemmas for our talented and irreplaceable intelligence officers.
John Prados, a senior research fellow at the National Security Archive, is the author of the e-book “Rethinking National Security” and the book “Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun.”He is working on a book about the CIA “Family Jewels.”
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