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September 1994 Issue [Readings]

Turning a Blind Eye to Spies


From “Monitoring the Continuing Reliability of the Cleared Personnel,” a report prepared by Project Slammer, an initiative by the various U.S. intelligence agencies, in which Americans convicted of espionage are interviewed about their crime. The report is based on classified interviews in which spies “discuss clues that co-workers and supervisors could have noticed to halt or prevent the espionage.” A copy of the report was leaked earlier this year by a former counter-intelligence official who felt its lessons were being ignored by the CIA and other agencies; it was given to Jeff Stein, author of A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War.

What co-workers might have seen:

Subjects’ comments varied widely on this topic. Several claimed that while they were experiencing extremes of stress, depression, and dissatisfaction, which may have impacted adversely on their judgment, these were not observed by co-workers. Others said that the signs of emotional turmoil were clear but were dismissed by supervisors or other employees. In each instance where indicators of emotional stress or vulnerability were visible to management, there was a failure to deal with the troubled employee. Indicators included signs of extreme anxiety, intoxication, arguing on the job, hostile comments toward U.S. foreign policy, frequent or undisguised extramarital affairs, a pattern of conflict with superiors, sexual harassment, and sexually explicit comments.

In an extreme example of an espionage subject crying out for help, former Air Force Sergeant Jeffrey Carney [who was convicted of selling secrets to the East Germans] relates how he (in a state of intoxication) told another staff member, “I have problems, I hurt. I don’t want to be here, and I don’t know if I’m going to hurt myself or not.” To his supervisor, he claims to have said, “I don’t want to be in this job anymore. You need to take my clearance.” This is, admittedly, an extreme example, but it provides examples of what some of the indicators can be.

How did subjects’ estimates of the risk of being reported by co-workers affect their decision to commit espionage?

Reactions to this type of question were fairly uniform. Most offenders discounted co-worker intervention as a realistic deterrent; anxiety about being observed and reported had little to do with their decision to go ahead with the crime.

Carney states that his working associates “just couldn’t believe that the possibility existed that maybe I was doing something that I was not authorized to do. [It] never came into question. And after a while you get used to that and you know that it’s not a threat anymore.”

The experience related by Carney demonstrates that when many people observe anything out of the ordinary, espionage is often the last thing they suspect. “One evening when I came very close to getting caught was probably one of the most labor-intensive nights that I had as a spy. It was an evening where I was set to photograph a few hundred pages with a camera. It was the first time I’d used the camera. I took a huge document and another huge document with me, went across the hall into an unsecured room, laid the documents out on the table, secured everything, had my camera ready, and started photographing just behind a small divider. I was walked in on two times while I was photographing. And I was able to just stand there. I was standing behind a table, my face went red as a beet because my blood pressure was unbelievable, and the people went, ‘Oh, excuse me. I didn’t know you were busy.’ And they turned around and walked out. I thought, ‘It’s ridiculous. They should have caught me.’ They didn’t question what I was doing.”

Carney offers another insightful comment on this subject: “After I began gathering information for the East Germans, I became very interested in everything. And that means everything except my real job, although I was still doing my job. I suddenly had an interest in all the other systems. I was ostensibly trying to further my education and get the big picture. I was putting my nose in the books where I didn’t belong. I was looking in areas where I shouldn’t have been. I was talking to people, gathering information from conversations. It was actually very obvious, I felt. Somebody should have noticed.

“If people had sat down with me, even a year before all of this happened, and said, ‘I’ve been watching you and I think we need to talk about this or that,’ and done it in a way that was non-threatening—it wasn’t automatically linked together with losing your job, a stigma attached—I probably would have said, ‘Gee, thanks, I’m glad you’re going to listen to me, because I’ve got a lot on my mind.’ But nobody cared. If somebody had just sat down once and said, ‘Really, I care about you as a human being,’ that would have made all the difference in the world.”

Arthur Walker [a retired Navy lieutenant commander convicted in 1985 of passing classified documents to a Soviet spy ring], when asked whether this lack of co-worker concern in reporting suspicious activity had any effect on his behavior, concluded, “Al; far as feeling threatened or somebody detecting what I was attempting to do, I don’t think I even thought of that really. You know, as far as my outward appearance, attitude, and behavior, I don’t [think] it ever entered my mind.” In comparison to Carney, Walker was very careful about his methods. He minimized the chance of being observed. He removed selected pages from large loose-leaf binders, photocopied them in his van, and then returned these pages to the original document before the end of the day. Walker also opines, “I think a lot of people just tend to mind their own business. They don’t really want to ask somebody if they have a problem . . . . And I think that’s what most people would think: ‘Let the manager take care of it, let the boss take care of this.’ ”

In summary, these espionage offenders did not attribute much credibility to the threat to their nefarious activities posed by co-workers or supervisors. They suggested a number of reasons why other employees would neither recognize that there was something amiss nor, even when they did suspect some impropriety or vulnerability, take corrective action. Two sentiments mentioned prominently are 1) an overriding trust in co-workers presumably because of their cleared status and 2) an inherent resistance to telling on someone else. Added to this is perhaps a third inhibiting attitude, which can be described as a lack of trust in the organization and how it will handle security-relevant information. These anxieties concern a range of possible organizational responses, from indifference or suppression to overreaction and a violation of confidentiality.

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September 1994

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