A former colleague from Istanbul has written an intriguing piece for the New Republic called “Spy Sex: Inside the Randy Culture of the CIA.” Reuel Marc Gerecht, who served with the Agency in Turkey and France before finding a more satisfying perch targeting Iran at the American Enterprise Institute, makes the claim that as CIA officers are “bottom feeders” and basically accomplished liars, the most successful officers will inevitably have both the inclination and the ability to exploit those skills in the form of extramarital relationships. And he is not alone in his belief that CIA officers are particularly prone to deviousness. A former CIA Chief in Rome used to say that his best officers possessed the lack of moral restraint and deceitfulness of a used-car salesmen.
To support his case, Gerecht cites the example of a married former instructor at The Farm, the CIA training center in Virginia, who used to flaunt his conquests of female students on his officer door in notes written in Gothic calligraphy, including one that claimed that “a cock has no shame.” He might have also mentioned that there is a venerable tradition of promiscuity at CIA. Its first civilian director, Allen Dulles, had “at least a hundred affairs” including while serving as Director of Central Intelligence.
I even know the instructor Gerecht refers to—a colleague when I was teaching at The Farm, and later we served together in Spain. He was not regarded as particularly effective by his peers either at the training center or in the station. Everyone used to joke about his non-stop libido and pity his long-suffering wife, though one suspects he would have been little different if he had been in any other profession where there are a number of younger women available who are ambitious enough to dally with an aging mentor. In other words, his philandering was the constant that defined him, not how he made a living.
But Gerecht’s account got me thinking about the CIA clandestine services culture, which has certainly changed dramatically since 9/11 but which used to be as difficult for an outsider to penetrate and comprehend as a group like Opus Dei. Indeed, Opus Dei is a good measuring stick, as some CIA officers, in their more lucid moments, saw themselves as holy warriors defending the United States against evildoers. A former Chief of the Counter-Terrorism Center used to describe it as “doing God’s work.”
Gerecht is correct that infidelity at CIA was regarded fairly lightly except by the spouses who were on the receiving end. He is also right to note that the argument generally made against having affairs, that it would make someone vulnerable to blackmail, in practice was never an issue. That is because having affairs in the overseas diplomatic community was so common that it was barely worth a mention. The Soviet overseas missions were particularly prone to musical beds, and to approach a KGB officer and seek his cooperation based on his peccadilloes would undoubtedly have produced gales of laughter. CIA stations in places like Vienna would sometimes dangle prostitutes in front of Eastern European diplomats in so-called “honeypot” operations. A good time was had by all, but no one of any significance was ever recruited.
But Gerecht greatly exaggerates the prevalence of infidelity in the Clandestine Service. I contacted some alte kameraden from places I served in, and we all agreed that most stations and larger bases generally had one spectacular philanderer and a few wannabes, but that there was little actual playing around. And for those who would argue that the transgressions were secret, enabled by CIA tradecraft, I would note that the lack of any opprobrium meant that those who philandered were fairly open about it. In Rome, the most active womanizer was the admin officer, who had nothing to do with the operations side. He used to boast that when he met a new woman who was too unattractive to contemplate as a conquest he would immediately lower his standards.
During my time in Hamburg, the philanderer was the chief of base, a woman, admittedly single at the time, who reportedly had worked her way through the married senior officers of European Division at headquarters to obtain her assignment. In Turkey it was a secretary who was assiduously trying out every Turk in the consulate motor pool, and a first-tour female officer who once invited the Chinese Consul General to a party at her house and met him at the door in a bikini. Both were single. As Gerecht would no doubt attest, the two most senior officers in Istanbul during our tenure in that city were respectively a dim bulb who would have had trouble unzipping his trousers, let alone having an affair, and a burned-out WASP who was so laid back that he had trouble finding his coffee cup in the morning.
Real spies, the agents who collect information and pass it on, are not notably promiscuous. CIA officer Aldrich Ames, FBI agent Robert Hanssen, and U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, all of whom spied against the U.S., were, if anything, sexually repressed. Among the case officers who run the agents there has always been a lot of salacious talk, not unlike in a college fraternity, but relatively little hanky panky, possibly due in part to the fact that so many officers were Catholic and already carrying a full boatload of guilt from catechism class and the confessional. An obvious source of potential philandering, sleeping with one’s foreign agent in a safehouse, only rarely provided an easily exploitable opportunity to cavort in secret because nearly all agents overseas are men, as are most case officers. Women case officers in most instances are sensible enough to realize that turning the relationship with a male agent into a sexual romp would be very dangerous indeed, both in terms of personal security and one’s career.
Gerecht fears that the Petraeus affair will change the moral climate at CIA, making it even more straitlaced and risk averse, taking the fire out of the loins, metaphorically speaking, of its case officer corps. He writes, “we should all want the typical philanderer to serve in the Clandestine Service, free from the fear of reprisal.” But fear of reprisal in a system that traditionally has had zero accountability just might instill a bit of caution and result in fewer blunders like the January 2010 double-agent bombing at Khost Base in Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA officers.
Apart from the sexual aspect, Gerecht also correctly notes that the Agency has changed in the past ten years for the worse, with fewer characters and eccentrics who are capable of thinking and acting outside the box and many more officers who have become timid because of the increasing burden of rules and regulations regarding conduct. I too had noted in my last years in Langley, around about the time of 9/11, that an increasing number of MBAs and folks with law degrees were joining the ranks and there were fewer case officers who could translate The Dream of the Rood or read Sanskrit.
Gerecht concludes somewhat lamely that CIA’s leaders should not “equate fidelity to a spouse with fidelity to a nation.” That is the point precisely. The two issues are not related, just as infidelity to a spouse does not make one a more effective CIA case officer. Gerecht might well have also considered looking at alcohol consumption, which has traditionally been even more prevalent as a defining characteristic of CIA officers than libidinous behavior has been. When the CIA set up its Station in Kabul at the Ariana Hotel shortly after the fall of the Taliban, one of its first moves was to reestablish the hotel bar. Surely drinking a lot makes one more inclined to behave audaciously and take risks, as it deadens one’s normal sense of restraint. But it does not make one a better spy—quite the contrary.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.