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Is the Clandestine Service a den of promiscuity or not?

Ever since the scandal involving ex-CIA Director David Petraeus and his biographer Paula Broadwell erupted, the topic of sexual infidelity in the CIA has filled the pages of newspapers and magazines. And without a doubt, the purported promiscuity of CIA agents makes for intoxicating reading. But is the portrait accurate? It turns out, there are ...

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LANGLEY, VA - JULY 9: The CIA symbol is shown on the floor of CIA Headquarters, July 9, 2004 at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Earlier today the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the numerous failures in the CIA reporting of alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Ever since the scandal involving ex-CIA Director David Petraeus and his biographer Paula Broadwell erupted, the topic of sexual infidelity in the CIA has filled the pages of newspapers and magazines. And without a doubt, the purported promiscuity of CIA agents makes for intoxicating reading. But is the portrait accurate?

It turns out, there are two excellent resources for answering that very question. On Thursday, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi published a lengthy essay on the subject in the American Conservative. It follows another lengthy essay on the same subject by former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht in the New Republic. Both former spies regale the reader with epic tales of sexual deviance within the agency. But they differ on one important subject: the Clandestine Service (i.e., the CIA arm most directly involved in clandestine operations). Gerecht thinks it a hotbed of promiscuity while Giraldi thinks it a standout wing of fidelity in a randy organization.

If you ask Gerecht, members of the Clandestine Service embody that James Bond-meets-used car salesmen mythology:

Case officers, the CIA personnel who handle intelligence-collection and covert-action operations, are bottom-feeders. They search the strengths and weaknesses of character in the foreigners they want to recruit and run as agents; few things are off limits. Unlike soldiers, who have each other’s backs in battle, case officers build on both trust and deceit. And they work in a promotion system that often rewards intellectually dishonest operatives for making a mediocre new recruit seem like solid gold. This sort of thing tends to make officers jaded pretty quickly. Historically, prudes have rarely done well in the institution. Admiral Stansfield Turner, President Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, didn’t have many fans for a variety of reasons-not least because he wanted operatives, and the ops they ran, to be more wholesome. He was too prissy for the job…. There was a general understanding, when I was in the service, that the CIA was a fairly randy place, at least for heterosexuals. Affairs and divorce were almost a rite of passage within the operations directorate.

But ask Giraldi, and he says Gerecht has it exactly wrong: The Clandestine Service is where the straight arrows are:

Gerecht greatly exaggerates the prevalence of infidelity in the Clandestine Service. I contacted some alte kameraden from places I served in, and we all agreed that most stations and larger bases generally had one spectacular philanderer and a few wannabes, but that there was little actual playing around. And for those who would argue that the transgressions were secret, enabled by CIA tradecraft, I would note that the lack of any opprobrium meant that those who philandered were fairly open about it….

Real spies, the agents who collect information and pass it on, are not notably promiscuous. CIA officer Aldrich Ames, FBI agent Robert Hanssen, and U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, all of whom spied against the U.S., were, if anything, sexually repressed. Among the case officers who run the agents there has always been a lot of salacious talk, not unlike in a college fraternity, but relatively little hanky panky, possibly due in part to the fact that so many officers were Catholic and already carrying a full boatload of guilt from catechism class and the confessional.

Who to believe? Since both men served in the same agency, and there’s no reason to impugn their honesty, the true nexus of CIA infidelity will likely remain open for debate for years to come. The Clandestine Service? The Directorate of Intelligence? Maybe the Directorate of Science and Technology? In any case, both authors offer recommendations for how the agency should deal with sexual infidelity in a post-Petraues CIA, which makes them each worth reading in full. 

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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