SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Spies and Sicko

Published December 3, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Behind closed doors at the CIA "campus" in Langley, VA, there has been much muted relief over the arrest of Harold J. Nicholson.

The shock that one of their own had been arrested for spying for the Russians  Nicholson pleaded not guilty in federal court last week  was eclipsed by gratification that the agency had finally done something right: dug up an alleged mole before he caused as much damage as Aldrich Ames, the alcoholic spendthrift who sent a number of CIA spies to their deaths during a nine-year hitch with the Kremlin.

But the applause is premature, say espionage experts who have spent years studying why people betray their country.

Until the spy agencies start screening for psychological problems among its employees, they warn, they'll always be one step behind the moles.

"It's not just greed," says Harry Brandon, a former Assistant Director of the FBI for Intelligence, referring to stories that Nicholson spied for money, and money alone. "They have psychological problems. Yeah, sure, they sell secrets for money, but something has to get them there, something that gets them to that point."

Brandon and Richard Ault, a former FBI official who studied convicted spies under a decade-long program called "Project Shadow," argue that the CIA and other spy agencies have to be more alert to their employees' potential mental health problems. "We worry more about their hamstrings than their minds," Brandon says.

Both recommend that spies be required to undergo periodic psychological as well as physical exams. Opening spooks' minds  as well as their bank records  to regular examinations, they argue, could help cauterize a festering problem (heavy drinking or indebtedness, for example) before it leads to a disastrous security leak.

The two counterspies have learned some important lessons from the Ames fiasco. Despite driving new Jaguars and plunking down $450,000 cash for a house while pulling down a $79,000 annual salary, Ames never provoked the curiosity of the agency's security office. The FBI and CIA now cooperate closely through a joint counterintelligence office. Polygraph examinations are now more thorough, especially those targeting "case officers" like Nicholson, whose duties required him to be in frequent contact with Russian intelligence officers.

But a more aggressive effort to deal with the stresses, financial crises and career disappointments that some employees face would be an even more effective security barrier, many argue. "Our hope [is] to identify 'at risk' individuals before or during employment, thus preventing espionage," wrote Dr. Neil Hibler, director of the Project Shadow study.

One solution Hibler and his colleagues advocated was "concerned co-worker intervention," aimed at persuading a troubled spy or other intelligence employee to seek help.

In the macho world of spies, however, this may not work. "You're poison if you do that," Brandon says. "If you say your shoulder hurts, you go see the doctor. But if a spy says he's pissed off because he's been passed over, you don't hear him say he's going to see a shrink. People know that's held against them."

Brandon suspects that Nicholson's alleged treachery may have taken root when he was slated for a training job in Virginia after having been the CIA's Romania station chief. That was the equivalent of being busted down from general to corporal. But if Nicholson felt resentment over the assignment  or over the financial and emotional burdens of his divorce  he never sought help. "That's why you have to require it," argues Brandon. "We need periodic mental health checkups, just like physical checkups."

"You'd have to require it, make it part of the normal process, like a polygraph," says Richard Kerr, who spent 30 years with the CIA before retiring as the Deputy Director for Intelligence. "I don't think a voluntary program would work  just like a voluntary polygraph program wouldn't work."

Other intelligence veterans, though, see compulsory mental testing as overly coercive. "Yes, a psychological evaluation would be useful, but practically speaking, I think it would not be palatable in the American workplace," says former Naval Intelligence officer David Lattin. "In fact, it would be unacceptable. You think mandatory urinalysis was controversial? Watch this space."

Kerr retorts that "working for the CIA is not a right, it's a privilege,
and if you don't like something, you can work someplace else."

The Project Shadow report suggests that some sort of mental health screening could help. According to the report, "Espionage offenders were asked, 'What might have prevented all this from happening?' The general theme was, I had a problem I could not deal with; I didn't get any help; if I had received some real assistance, the whole thing wouldn't have happened."

Still, counselling is unlikely to be coming soon to the CIA, where changing anything "is like docking the Queen Mary with a wooden sailboat," says Richard Ault.

The Agency does have a more aggressive program to help its alcoholics, said CIA spokeswoman Suzanne Klein, "but that's about it."

Jeff Stein writes regularly for Salon about intelligence affairs.

Quote of the day

Nervous nellies

"The notion that stressed people required a rest cure did more to popularize the nervous breakdown than anything else. It wasn't specific, it was just, 'It's all too much for me, I have to lie down for a while.'"

 Donald F. Klein, director of research at the New York State Psychiatric Institute." (From "Nervous Breakdowns, By Any Name, Aren't What They Used to Be," in Tuesday's
Wall Street Journal)

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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