In Defense of the CIA’s Moral Compass | The Cipher Brief

Ooh … the compass, secrecy, outsider distrust and conspiracy theories rings a few bells. All you Freemasonry nuts, chill, one is about operating in darkness, the other one in light.

(Some of the following is repeated in Shallow State Brief to be posted whenever.)

Seriously though, do individuals apply their moral compass and exercise judgments in a quasi-military, highly disciplined hierarchical structure with little public oversight and transparency? The article’s point is that, as an institutional culture and operating matter, they rarely need to. The problem is, obviously many people think of it as the exact 180 opposite. The author is also an insider preaching to the Cipher Brief insider or friendly choir. What is lacking is a good and simple explanation to set the outsiders free.

The article is straight forward and is written to counter the current context of heightened levels of a morally corrupt deep state allegations. The Sowden NSA material, Russian election interference related revelations and leaks, FISA secrecy, high level FBI politicization and conduct, and the Trump/GOP attacks, although targeting FBI and DOJ and not the CIA,  have added to the already long standing public and media suspicions of all intelligence work. They also resulted in unprecedented transparency and scrutiny which added constraints on the scope of conspiracy theories.

Perceptions do Matter

The “deep state” explanation is appealing because it is simple and, even if incorrect and fact-loose, internally consistent. The general public has not had a more favorable perspective due to past revelations, incomplete information and the presumption of misconduct that goes along with secrecy. A framing bias also has roots in self-perpetuated organizational identity narratives, and at times hard to know or articulated real life operational requirement of conflicting moral absolutes, means and ends.

Operational foreign intelligence agencies engage in unsavory conduct that do not fit within the day to day expectations of social legal and legal frameworks. They are not meant to address internal social issues. In rule of law societies, they are supposed to follow laws and rules specifically legislated for that purpose which tip towards national security at the expense of social equity. 

On the external and dirty side, paramilitary operations, renditions, assassinations and torture until they were banned, or killing Bin Laden when it was mandated, letting Noriega run drugs and then bust him, and so on, are exactly the types of business they were supposed to engage in. As rule and task driven organizations, they are designed to implement policy, not to question it, and compartmentalization allows for obfuscation of the intended ends, even internally.

Public relation (or lack thereof) tactics of the organizations themselves are somewhat responsible for an image of a formidable, fearsome and schizophrenia-inducing monster and not a bunch of gun toting priests fighting Nazis and saving children.

Having almost unlimited capabilities to breach information and physical security barriers and effect lethal outcomes are assumed to be unlimited abilities to do so with impunity. In reality, operations are always based on legal statutory or presidential authorities, even if gamed. At times they were rogue like the Iran-Contra affair. The intrusive capabilities are not to be directed inward towards the society and citizens and they have in the past. When things go wrong, and if exposed, heads go no spikes.

Misunderstood Decision-making and Execution Structures

One of the causes of misconception is most people do not know how organizations and bureaucracies function. Consequently they oversimplify through familiar mental frames of reference.

Government agencies can have tens of thousands to over 100,000 employees, with mundane rules, regulations, processes and documentation requirements. Statements like “FDA is told by Monsanto to do X” shows not just a naivete, but a lack of clarity about how things work, number of individuals, organizations and complexity of interactions, processes and varied interests involved. 2 people are too many for a conspiracy, 100s or 1000s keeping major facts and events secret is not sustainable. Even in oppressive systems somebody leaks, talks or sells out. There are also traitors and moles.

Unnecessary Premises of Desired Conclusions

Another cause is ignoring the minimum requirements  for a spectrum of intent, collaboration, cooperation, collusion or conspiracy. People lie, cheat, steal and kill for ego, jealousy, status, candies, cigarettes or insurance money. Private companies and government agencies have their share of  good and bad managers, manipulators and assholes. 

Ongoing large scale conspiracies are not necessary to explain human behavior or a smaller collusion.  Data shows, it is always a few that initiate and maintain illicit conduct and manipulate others through false narratives. People that can effect such outcomes in bureaucracies are in high to mid level entrenched management who know the organizational ropes and the optics necessary to conduct operations, or even better rogue sub-operations, and maintain the appearance of legitimacy. Occam’s razor.

Distortion of Truth and Setting Organizational and Credibility Minefields

Given such existing situation, an allegation of the closely held impropriety is perceived by the rest of the organization as an unfounded conspiracy-theory attack and, by default, the organization protects itself and its own. The whole organization is then perceived to be acting in a conspiratorial manner to the people who have voiced legitimate concerns. The perpetrators can then, and have to, feed the flames by misdirection to other parts of the organization or an imaginary higher level “they” which is actually a shadowy non-existent “deep state” decision maker group. If the bait is taken, the accusers will appear incoherent, be discredited and portrayed to as nuts and organizational and outside resources are further mobilized against them.

False narratives can also result in internal organizational discord if others also start looking for the imaginary culprits, and it usually happens if a sufficient amount of illicit conduct is exposed but not explained away or suppressed. If picked up and distorted by other actors, sorting the truth from lies becomes a spaghetti mess that is actually desirable to the perpetrators since attention is diverted and unfocused.

That is the typical information distortion path/flow that results in a deep state appearance because state institutions are manipulated and illegitimately weaponized by a few, but neither the organizations nor the victims are aware of what happened.

As a side note, and an actual fresh example, McCabe engaged in this kind of internal deception and misdirection with his own agents about his own leak when he admonished them in what was characterized by one as “getting yelled at about this stuff” and told another to “get his house in order.” This not just lack of candor, he was playing the agency to maintain a false narrative he was responsible for. 

Other Relevance

Notwithstanding the politics, the information dynamics model can at least partially describe what is happening with Trump, the GOP and its constituents. They assume institutional problems because they see that first, before going after their targets, who they are trying to identify, and who are hiding inside a bureaucratic maze of secrecy. But they have to since they are getting blocked at the highest level of those institutions because they do not have specific targets and facts. It is a logical absurdity for both sides. So it became a war. Some of it has been defused but not over by any means. 

Another whole set of problems are created by the idea that the core of the organizations are not only functionally corrupt, but corrupt in purpose. To name a few, credibility, talent acquisition, public perception crisis management and generally attracting more people with misguided intentions rather than desired qualifications.

There is no shortage of scumbags who think that possessing and demonstrating a higher level of moral turpitude is an actual qualification, the sky is no limit and the higher the better. This is a basilica-worthy painting theme of saints and scum looking at each other thinking: that is me but what are they doing here?

CIA officers, by virtue of the Agency’s history and culture, rigorous training, continued oversight from both within and outside the Agency, are intensely aware of the criticality of morality. They recognize that intelligence and espionage function at the border of legality, in a secret and compartmented world.

Source: In Defense of the CIA’s Moral Compass

Author: Sam Sarmad