The Justice Department’s inspector general this month reprimanded the FBI for the manner in which it recruits and supervises its “confidential human sources.” To the layman, this seems about technicalities. In fact, it shows that one of the CIA’s deadliest dysfunctions now infects the FBI as well.
This disease consists of choosing and rejecting sources for the purpose of indulging the agencies’ and their leaders’ private agendas rather than to further intelligence work on the public’s behalf.
Necessarily, the language of the inspector general’s November 19 report is vague: “Ineffective management and oversight of confidential sources.” This means the FBI has failed to use “adequate controls” in its validation of human sources, which has resulted in “jeopardizing FBI operations, and placing FBI agents, sources, subjects of investigation, and the public in harm’s way.”
The inspector general’s concern with the FBI’s source management stems from the investigation into the FBI’s involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign, including by taking seriously the infamous Steele dossier that it knew was a fabrication as well as, likely, some Russian communication intercepts that also should have been rejected on strictly professional grounds. In short, the FBI departed from its tradition of professionalism and honesty in pursuit of domestic political influence.
Choosing and recruiting sources, validating and managing them, is the very heart of intelligence. Doing it badly, taking sources that come easy—especially dispensing with due skepticism about the ones that contribute to one’s own agendas—is professional corruption. But doing it right is hard. To the extent that intelligence agencies find it difficult to fulfill expectations, they are tempted to substitute such corruption for the competence they lack. The pursuit of agency interests or even personal agendas takes over.
Soon after the Central Intelligence Agency’s founding in 1947, Hanson Baldwin, the New York Times’ legendary military correspondent, had already noticed that the agency was using perfunctorily vetted-sources, or the officers’ own opinions, to fill the gap between the few modest secrets of which it could be sure, and the many big questions on which it was pronouncing itself.
CIA case officers, ivy leaguers whose “cover” was a thin pretense, were never able to recruit Soviet officials and tore at each other over whether those who offered themselves were for real. They solved the problem by subordinating counterintelligence (i.e., quality control) to what they felt was the need to tell the stories they wanted to tell.
During my years on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s staff, CIA officials’ preference for their personal and corporate interests over professional standards continued to get worse. It turned out that every last one of the Cubans they thought were our agents were actually working for Cuban intelligence. In East Germany, the United States had not a single “good” agent. Not only had CIA never recruited even one high-level Soviet agent, but for a decade, Aldrich Ames, CIA’s own chief of counterintelligence for the Soviet Union/Russia, the man who validated the Russians who offered their services and oversaw our operations in that country, worked for the KGB.
So congenial did the agency find the disinformation coming its way that it was reluctant to investigate. Finally, when it did suspect that the dispatches coming from our agents had been crafted by the KGB, it sent them on to the president anyway because, according to the inspector general, “they contained thoughts they believed the President should consider.”
In short, CIA officials—and not just a few people at the top—have so valued their own opinions, have so wanted to influence U.S. policy, that they have mistaken their own opinions and desires for the truth.
The FBI Catches the Disease
The FBI used to be different. Unlike the CIA’s faux aristos, the first generations of FBI agents were cops first. They had graduated from places like Fordham, a blue-collar Catholic university in the Bronx. Like all good cops, they knew the difference between the people on whose behalf they worked, and those who threatened them. Like TV’s Sergeant Joe Friday, they wore white shirts and said, “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am.” Unlike CIA case officers, FBI officers mixed with the kinds of people they investigated, and often went undercover themselves.