The Case Officer - Agent Relationship
The CIA does two principal things, collect and analyze intelligence. Within the CIA, the Directorate of Operations (DO) collects human intelligence (HUMINT). At the heart of all HUMINT operations is the relationship between the case officer and the agent. (Note: As a reminder to my non-intelligence professional readers, case officers, also known as operations officers, are professional intelligence officers whose job is to recruit and handle human sources for the purpose of collecting intelligence. Agents are those sources recruited by the case officer. Unlike law enforcement, whose professionals are called agents, we call our sources agents.) HUMINT is, after all, a people business. It is that relationship between case officer and agent that makes or breaks an intelligence service's ability to collect and produce intelligence for policymakers. That is what I want to discuss in this post.
This relationship starts when a case officer identifies the individual who has access to the information of interest to policymakers, what we call spotting. At that point, the intelligence organization begins to collect whatever information is available on that individual. In the modern age of social media, that has become relatively easy. By looking at a person's Facebook page you can identify family and friends, hobbies, interests, food preferences, lifestyle, and economic situation. Social media can let us understand to a degree a person's political beliefs. There is a wealth of information that allows the case officer to know their target even before actually meeting them. This helps prepare the case officer to have similar interests and opinions that can provide the excuse for further contact between the two.
Before the advent of social media, case officers had to make contact with a target and try to subtly get the target talking about themselves to reveal things like hobbies and personal interests that you could use to develop common interests. It required considerable quick thinking on the part of the case officer, especially when the target commented on his love of 18th-century Georgian furniture. Many a case officer lost plenty of weight sweating their way through these difficult conversations. It helped that there was an entire organization standing behind you, ready to make you an expert in any given topic.
The goal in all this is for the case officer to create the basis for a friendship, a reason to continue meeting with the potential agent. As the relationship blossoms over common interests such as tennis, horse riding, chess, what have you, the case officer begins the assessment phase of the relationship. The case officer determines if this person has access to information of interest? Do they have vulnerabilities that can be exploited? By vulnerabilities, I mean issues that can be exploited and used to recruit the individual. Do they need to find money to pay for children's schooling? Are they unhappy with how they are being treated at work, underappreciated, or not being recognized? There are numerous reasons why a person will agree to commit espionage. The simple view is that an intelligence organization simply throws money at some venal individual and recruits them. That is closer to what law enforcement does for its informants, that or helps them avoid jail. Money is usually a means to an end in the intelligence profession. The potential agent needs money to fulfill some more important need, such as buying a new car, children's college, etc. Always be suspicious of an agent who works solely for money. If money is their sole motivation then they will likely sell themselves to numerous other organizations and can't be trusted.
The case officer also assesses the individual for suitability to work as a spy. They need to be able to handle the stress. Remember, they are committing treason against their country. t At the minimum, they will lose their job and be an outcast. At worst, they will face prison time and even execution. This stress can lead to all sorts of problems, including health issues. The case officer must also establish whether or not the person can be trusted to maintain the secret nature of their work for a foreign intelligence organization and take all the precautions to avoid being caught. It requires discipline. Does this individual have this discipline? Some agents are bold and aggressive, willing to take risks that can lead to their demise.
Once all these questions, and many others, have been positively answered, the case officer will proceed to develop the potential source. In this phase, the relationship is deepened, with the slow and cautious introduction of a degree of clandestinity: out-of-the-way meeting locations, avoiding the use of telephones, and keeping the meetings between the case officer and potential agent discreet. The case officer is accustoming the potential agent to the future aspects of their relationship once the prospective agent is recruited. Espionage is generally not committed in broad daylight in front of everyone, though there are always exceptions. Like prostitutes, we ply our trade in the shadows, away from prying eyes, in secret. I love the prostitute analogy because the image of a middle-aged, overweight case officer pulling up his pants leg and flashing his hairy leg at passing cars filled with potential agents makes me laugh uncontrollably.
At this point, one of the most important aspects of the relationship, trust, is built and strengthened. Trust is key to the future of the case officer-agent relationship. This might seem ironic at first given that the case officer is manipulating and dissembling, but remember, the individual is going to be asked to commit espionage, treason against his or her own country. Their life will be in jeopardy, as will the well-being of their family. It is a lot to lose. This person must be able to trust the case officer. He must trust that the officer is a professional, competent, and able to protect the individual's security. He must trust that this officer will place the future agent's well-being and security foremost. Furthermore, he or she must trust that the organization standing behind the case officer is equally committed to and capable of protecting the future agent.
Over time this builds a close and important relationship between case officer and agent. It starts with the fact that the agent cannot divulge his relationship with the intelligence organization, not even to a wife or husband (though sometimes the agent will divulge their secret work to a spouse, it's human nature). The case officer becomes confidant and confessor. I once had an agent confess that he had marital problems, centered on issues he had performing in bed. He asked me for help. Now I confess, this took me aback. I'm an old-fashioned guy and prefer that feelings and emotions, especially of this type, be repressed and kept to oneself. In the interests of national security, I put aside my medieval outlook and said I would look into it. Fortunately, our Office of Medical Services was able to procure medication that resolved his problem. This incident taught me how deep the relationship had become. He was willing to discuss something that men will never discuss with other men. It showed me how important the relationship was to this man.
Another time I was working overseas. It was turnover season when personnel left the embassy for new assignments and new personnel arrived at post. This time there was considerable underlap, new officers not yet having arrived to replace the departed officers. We were down to less than half our normal complement of case officers so we were all carrying a larger than normal load. We usually went to the office on a Monday, prepared for upcoming meetings, and then went to work conducting agent meetings, not returning to the office until Thursday afternoon or Friday morning when we would write up intelligence and meeting reports. Needless to say, our agent meetings became very businesslike—get in, get the intel and move on to the next meeting. During one safehouse meeting, the agent in question asked me to stop as I was getting ready to leave. He pointed out that lately, unlike in the past, I seemed to have little time for him, it was all businesslike. He poignantly explained how I was the only one he could confide in. He needed his time with me to unburden. I gave him the time. It was a valuable lesson and a reminder of the psychological needs of agents.
Just as the case officer is assessing the potential agent during the developmental stage, the latter is assessing the case officer. Initially, the assessment centers around whether the case officer is friend material. We all do it, consciously or unconsciously when we meet people. On the basic level, it is whether we like the person or not. Later, it is whether we want to be friends with this person, whether we can trust this person, whether they are acquaintance, friend, or best friend material. The agent does this as well, but it also goes beyond this. Targets from denied areas—what were formerly Iron Curtain countries for example, generally repressive nations with strong security controls—have this assessment ability ingrained in them as a survival skill. Can the person be trusted with my life? For these individuals, this kicks in immediately. In their nations a wrong word can land them in prison or on a list of untrustworthy individuals, negatively affecting them for life.
I knew of a foreign intelligence officer from behind the Iron Curtain who had made social contact with all the CIA officers in a particular station but had never gone beyond casual cocktail party contact until he met one station officer. Then he would go to lunches and dinners in ever more discreet places until he was recruited. When later asked about his multiple contacts with station officers he admitted that he had been thinking of cooperating with the CIA, but had been looking for someone he believed he could trust.
After all this effort to develop a relationship, after a successful recruitment, and over a period of time when you meet with your newly recruited source clandestinely, a bond develops. It is not always positive. The nature of the business dictates that you will deal with people who you would never invite to your house or trust with your shoelaces. You will have to fake the friendship for the good of the nation because they have the needed information, at least that is what you tell yourself. Sometimes you end up genuinely liking the agent. I have dealt with many agents who were intelligent, charming, decent people who were cooperating with the CIA because they saw it as necessary, either to achieve a common goal or to save their country from what they viewed as an evil system. I have liked many of the agents I have worked with. That said, a case officer should always be prepared to be lied to and betrayed. We deal with all sorts of people and human beings are messy. It's one of the things that has fascinated me about intelligence work, the wide variety of people you come across and work with. You see the best in humanity and the worst. You see people in all their complexity.
A big question we always ask ourselves is what makes someone commit espionage? Someone came up with the acronym MICE: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego, and I would add Revenge. That is as good as any explanation of people's motivations. Each case we work on is different and unique. There will be similarities, but overall people are unique and therefore HUMINT operations are unique. I have always found that some motivations are better than others, mostly Ideology and Revenge being best since they are self-motivating, having the agent motivate themselves and allowing the recruitment to address an internal need the agent has. Ego works, but it requires the case officer to devote considerable effort to keep the ego stroked and meet the agent's demands, which can become ludicrous. As I noted before, if money is the only motivation, then your agent is just as likely to go work for another intelligence service in order to double their salary, and maybe sell you out. I have heard of agents working for three to five different intelligence services at once. Coercion is the worst of the lot. You are left with an individual who does not want to work with you, will provide the bare minimum they need to give you to keep the pressure off, and will betray you at the first opportunity they get.
After a successful recruitment comes what we call agent handling, the meat of intelligence work and the complicated part. Each meeting requires meticulous planning. Prior to the meeting, time must be spent determining whether you are under surveillance or not. At each meeting, you must establish the details of the next meeting so that you avoid using the telephone and other communications methods that can be intercepted. You have to debrief the agent for any intelligence and determine whether he or she has any information of operational interest, such as whether they have had a falling out with their boss at work. This can affect an agent's access to information. All the time you continue to assess your agent. Assessment never stops. You are looking for any signs that his situation has changed, anything that affects his access to intelligence or affects his ability to continue the clandestine relationship. We have all likely worked with a coworker who has had some problems at home that negatively impacted his work performance. HUMINT operations are similar in that an agent's personal life can affect his work for the CIA.
That is one of the dilemmas of being a case officer. You develop a relationship of trust with your agent, but you can never trust your agent. You are always looking for signs that your agent is exaggerating their information or their access to the information. They might tell you they received the intelligence directly from the minister, trying to inflate their access when they actually obtained it from a third party. You are looking for lies. You are always trying to determine whether the agent is under the control of another intelligence organization and is being run against you. Is there something the agent is keeping from you? I used to tell my agents that I was like the Catholic church. All can be forgiven if you confess, meaning no matter how bad you think it is, we can overcome it if you tell me the truth. The worst sin is lying. We are always assessing, and be ready because you will be lied to and betrayed.
One of the most important things DO trainees have hammered into them is "never fall in love with your agent." We don't mean this in the romantic sense, though that is equally bad. What we mean by this is never get in a situation where you are so trusting of your source, where your ego is tied to your source's success, that you stop looking at your agent critically and miss or ignore signs that your source has gone bad. I have seen this time and time again where a case officer will not consider that his or her source could be fabricating information or under hostile control. Sometimes the case officer views any criticism of the source as a criticism of their abilities. I have seen stations defend a source even when it is evident that the source has counterintelligence issues because up until then the agent's reporting has made the station look good. A case officer must maintain a degree of detachment throughout the relationship so they can provide an honest assessment of the agent and the operation.
All this having been said, all good things must come to an end. There will come a time when you are scheduled to depart the country for a new assignment and must turn the agent over to your replacement. This is one of the many tricky parts of the C/O-Agent relationship. You have developed a close, personal bond, a friendship even, with the agent. How do you transfer this relationship to the new C/O? Many times part of the agent's willingness to cooperate is based on the friendship he or she has with the C/O. That friendship will not be present when the new C/O steps in. We definitely want to avoid a crying agent at the airport begging you to stay because you are the only one he will work with. One of the things a C/O can do after the recruitment is to begin inserting into the relationship the image and idea of the US Government and CIA Headquarters. This is done to accustom the agent to the idea that he or she has a relationship above and beyond the one with the C/O, an official relationship with the US Government. If done right, the new C/O will be stepping in as an official representative of the US Government.
Thus ends the C/O's relationship with the agent. If done right both you and the agent have made a valuable contribution to US national security. After a 20 or 30-year career with the DO, you will have seen it all, humanity at all its best and worse. You will leave more cynical than when you joined, more understanding of and knowledgeable about people, and never look at humans in the same way again.