Friday, March 4, 2005

Spying is a Risky Business

It used to be that the biggest danger in the sell-out-your-country business was that the contact might be a double agent or you could get caught with your hand in the drop, all John LeCarre possibilities.


Who’d have thought you couldn’t trust the payoff?


The real difficulty with getting caught (or getting out, which is a variation on the same thing) is not going to prison or being hanged or even all those messy tortures, although messy tortures can ruin an otherwise fine time of life.  The real difficulty is that they go after your family. That’s par for the course in non-western countries. You do something that’s a no-no or that they even think might be a no-no and suddenly everyone remotely related to you is kicked out of their flat and loses their job. So the risk is not your neck, the risk is the future of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandma and grandpa and their kids.


Makes it hard to recruit. It’s supposed to make it hard to recruit. And because there’s not much else to offer, our CIA has traditionally offered money and a safe haven if push comes to shove and the spy in question has to be pulled. We got some spies that way. They may not have been great spies, but they were at risk and a deal is a deal . . . unless it’s not a deal.


It seems we stiffed some Soviet era spies after the communist countries became less interesting and CIA attention turned elsewhere. What’s a spy to do? One set himself on fire in front of the White House and a less pyrotechnically oriented couple sued the government for breach of contract. Essentially, the former Soviet bloc diplomats claim the CIA induced them to betray their country during the Cold War in return for resettlement in the United States and a lifetime income.


Well, the Supreme Court is having none of that and here’s the clinker. A hundred thirty years ago the Court ruled that a Union spy couldn’t sue (for the same money reason) because a lawsuit is inconsistent with the mutual pledge of secrecy that is central to such an arrangement.


So, because what we’re doing is a secret, I don’t have to pay you and you can’t tell anyone. Is America a great country or what?  That ruling ought to make it a piece of cake to recruit the Arab spies the CIA now says are essential to their future success in the middle East.


Quoting Charles Lane’s Washington Post article, “The decision was a victory for the Bush administration, which had argued that anti-terrorism efforts could be hampered if case officers attempting to recruit intelligence sources had to worry about being sued every time they tried to cut a deal with a would-be spy or defector.” Unless I missed something, they’re not being sued for cutting a deal, they’re being sued for welching on a deal.


Maybe this diplomatic couple ought to hold a press conference, name some names and point some fingers.  What’s the CIA gonna do, shoot them?