How to Take Care of an Ex-Spy
Former intelligence officers need compassion —or they can turn sour.
There’s been a surge of Americans caught spying for foreign countries of late. On March 15, former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) case officer Ron Hansen pleaded guilty to attempted transmission of national defense information to China. On February 13, Monica Witt was indicted in absentia for spying on behalf of Iran. On June 8, 2018, former CIA officer and DIA intelligence officer Kevin Mallory was convicted of selling classified documents to China. And on May 8, 2018, former CIA case officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee was indicted for conspiring to provide national defense information to China after he left the CIA.
You may be wondering what the U.S. government is doing about this. Over the past decade, unauthorized disclosures have incited questions about the U.S. government’s ability to protect classified information, sensitive equipment, and specialized tradecraft—to the extent that even The Onion has weighed in.
Many unauthorized disclosures, including severely damaging ones such as from Edward Snowden, have come from current employees with ready access to sensitive information. However, as the cases this year show, an equally susceptible population—former U.S. government employees—has faced increased scrutiny for unauthorized disclosures in the course of employment by foreign countries and outright espionage. What’s more, cases that are actually brought to indictment and trial may only represent a fraction of the whole. No government can entirely protect against treason, but the United States could be doing far more to both serve former employees and protect against their defection to its foes.
Espionage by former employees appears to have increased in frequency throughout recent years. In all these cases, former employees’ lasting knowledge, skills, and relationships were just as damaging and valuable to a foreign government as those of their currently serving counterparts, even though they no longer possessed regular access to classified information. Although Hansen had left the DIA before initiating his relationship with Chinese intelligence services, he maintained relationships with his former co-workers to collect national defense information.
Witt was no longer employed by the U.S. government when she defected to Iran, but her knowledge of the identities of U.S. double agents and tradecraft were assessed to cause severe damage to national security. Mallory had kept documents about a DIA operational proposal that exposed an ongoing operation, tactics, and tradecraft. And Lee had apparently taken notes on the true names and phone numbers of assets and covert CIA employees, notes from asset meetings, meeting locations, and more in his notebook before he left the CIA.
To identify potential solutions, the U.S. government should look to the motives behind espionage. These run the gamut from ideology to ego, but one of the most critical is money, which is involved in almost every case, sometimes exacerbated by mental distress. Hansen, Witt, Mallory, and Lee were all in dire financial straits when they decided to spy. Witt’s trajectory was more tragic. She was reportedly homeless, isolated from friends and family, in severe emotional distress, frustrated about her former bosses’ perceived incompetence and traumatized by the scenes she had witnessed, and adrift in her life after service at the same time her ideological loyalty shifted away from the United States toward Iran. As troubling as these challenges may seem, the U.S. government can act to reduce their frequency and likelihood in the future by concentrating not just on security restrictions, but on better support for its former employees.
The existing system of statutory deterrents against unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information and aggressive enforcement of those laws is probably enough to deter potential spies who can be deterred. Stricter laws and more aggressive prosecutions are not the answer.
Moreover, monitoring former government employees is also impractical. Physical surveillance of former employees and contractors is authorized by Executive Order 12333, but the costs are prohibitive. More restrictive electronic and physical monitoring systems or de facto “gag orders” that go beyond the current system of lifetime nondisclosure agreements and classified-information indoctrination agreements are also cost-prohibitive, and possibly illegal. Beyond the obvious issues of implementation, free speech, and constitutionality, such restrictions would deter talent from working for the government in the first place.
The same is true of de facto bans on national-security employees working in fields such as security or private intelligence work, which might tempt them to use or disclose classified knowledge and tradecraft. In a free society, potential recruits expect to have the freedom to leave government service. This is particularly important in highly technical fields such as cybersecurity, which offer attractive opportunities at private-sector technology companies (and in which former U.S. intelligence employees reportedly hired by the United Arab Emirates had worked).
However, restrictions on working for foreign governments, though limiting in a globalized 21st-century world, could be considered for former U.S. government employees—especially civilians and contractors—with access to and/or experience with the most sensitive and destructive weapons, such as offensive cyberattack tools. There is precedent law for expanding such restrictions, which are currently applied only to retired military members (who must obtain approval by the Department of State), “high-level” U.S. government employees, political appointees, and, most recently, Department of Energy scientists.
Yet a more promising alternative would be to create a support system for former national-security employees who fall on hard times or have difficulties that could one day lead to inappropriate disclosures, or worse, espionage. Such a support scheme could also double as a formal or informal monitoring system that in turn could allow the government to be proactive about offering further resources, though this would raise privacy issues that would require employees to accept such limitations on future civil liberties.
Some national-security employees, such as military veterans, already have access to psychological support services through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Military veterans also benefit from informal social networks focused on helping them transition into civilian life. However, intelligence officers, and particularly contractors, do not have such institutionalized support systems in place. Potential financial assistance would alleviate some of the most significant challenges motivating former intelligence officers to sell secrets to foreign governments.
To get a better sense of what such a support program might look like, the U.S. government can look to the CIA’s resettlement program. The CIA is authorized by law to resettle up to 100 foreign nationals in the U.S. each year. These are typically defectors and spies who must be exfiltrated due to immense personal danger related to their intelligence value. They are forced to leave their homes, their culture, their savings, their careers, their identities, and sometimes their families behind—experiences that are extreme relative to the average U.S. government national-security employee.
However, some U.S. government employees face similar lifestyle challenges of secrecy and duality without the same risk of being hunted as traitors by foreign governments or non-state terrorist groups. Like the defectors and spies they recruit, many former intelligence case officers and special operations have a strong sense of self-importance and ego. And they also face jarring changes in lifestyle when they transition from fulfilling, prestigious, and respected spy and hero roles to retirement or seemingly lesser jobs in obscurity.
Resettled defectors benefit from limited but generally sufficient financial support, psychiatrists, and contacts with intelligence officials who offer counsel with defectors’ best interests in mind. Such support also allows intelligence officials to evaluate their state of mind and mental health. Of course, the number of former national-security employees is staggering relative to the number of resettled agents and defectors, thus carrying an immense price tag if such a program were even partially implemented. But is that price tag greater than the costs, such as the loss of dozens of CIA assets in China, inflicted by betrayal?
Philip Caruso is a fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He previously served in the U.S. intelligence community, as a U.S. Air Force officer, and as a legislative fellow with the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Phil received a B.S. in Materials Science & Engineering from Cornell University and J.D. and M.B.A. degrees with honors from Harvard, where he was a Tillman Scholar.