Did the CIA follow its own rules on double agents?

Ali Jarekji/Reuters/File
A man in Amman Saturday reads a copy of the day's newspaper whose front page shows a photo of suspected suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi. The CIA believes that al-Balawi was a double agent who shared US and Jordanian state secrets with Taliban militants.

How do you run a double agent?

This question probably does not arise in your work, day to day. Most people aren’t intelligence operatives. Maybe you’ve recruited an underling from accounting to tell you next quarter’s numbers in advance, but that’s not international espionage. John le Carré never wrote “The Human Resources Director Who Came In from the Cold.”

A real double agent is someone who spies for two intelligence services but whose ultimate loyalty lies with one – unbeknownst to the other. By definition, they are devious, and handling one is among an agent’s most demanding and complex tasks.

“Directing even one double agent is a time-consuming and tricky undertaking that should be attempted only by a service having both competence and sophistication,” says a declassified CIA essay titled “Observations on the Double Agent.”

This subject has been in the news after the tragic incident at a CIA base in Afghanistan Dec. 30, in which seven US personnel were among those killed by a suicide bomber whom the CIA allegedly was recruiting to be a double agent. When looking into this story, Decoder dredged up the aforementioned CIA document, written in 1962. It contains practical advice while providing a look back at an era when deception followed deception and the stakes seemed to be survival of the Western world.

So, where do double agents come from? One category is “The Walk-In or Talk-In,” says the CIA essay. This is someone who just shows up on your doorstep. Though such recruits can be provocateurs sent by a foe, “some walk-ins and talk-ins have proved not only reliable but also very valuable,” says the CIA paper.

A second type is “The Agent Detected and Doubled.” This is a captured spy released on condition that he betray his original employer. The double-agent handbook warns that, even if the spy agrees to the switch, “his agreement, obtained under open or implied duress, is unlikely ... to be accompanied by a genuine switch of loyalties.”

How do you run them? Test their loyalty often, via polygraph if possible. If you give them intelligence to leak to the other side, to dull any suspicions, make sure you’re not giving away anything too good. If they get arrested or caught in some other trouble, walk away. Keep analyzing the agent, as well as the case. Finally, mirror-read.

“Look at the operation from the viewpoint of the hostile service,” says the CIA author. “But be careful not to impute to it the motives, ideas, methods, or other characteristics of your own service.”

In other words, always remember that your double agent is, say, first and foremost an accountant. And accountants may have different values from you folks in HR.


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