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Ethics, discipline and integrity in the recruitment of intelligence agents


This article is directed principally at the recruitment by intelligence agencies (hereinafter known as 'the Services') in foreign territories. However its principles should be observed as a matter of good practice also when recruiting domestically.


Recruitment issues are one of the most fundamental obstacles facing the Services in any country, However the specific issue of field recruitment is more challenging, because it is harder for bureaucratic monitoring and enforcement of quality control in the procedures. Plus the field of recruits is potentially much smaller in each jurisdiction.


Recruitment in field jurisdictions is typically of specialists, mostly domestic, in those jurisdictions. And the problem with such people is that they may retire early; flip to loyalty of another jurisdiction; or they may die. So they need to be constantly replaced. And it is very hard to find a high quality reliable domestic agent in Yerevan, Yangon or Dili. So you need to be constantly training up new ones, with the massive background knowledge necessary to operate in the foreign jurisdiction, just out of the blue. Indeed it is virtually an impossible task. Some home-country missionaries spend up to 20 years in a foreign country without ever really understanding it.


So you have a perennial problem of turnover.


Now let us create a working set of five qualities the vast majority of Services would consider essential core qualities for an agent. This list is not exhaustive - there are probably a hundred such qualities - but we have chosen an illustrative set to study certain types of problem that might arise in foreign domestic recruitment.


  1. The recruit should not be so addicted to one or more recreational narcotics that their regular standards of financial independence are compromised by a compulsion to spend money on drugs that ought properly to be spent on other things. (Alcohol is every bit as a potential impendiment in this regard as illegal narcotics.)

  2. The person ought not to have attractions or desires in his sexual life that are illegal (and enforced) in the country in which he is to be active, and/or are so acutely embarrassing to him personally that he can be intimidated by the threat of exposure.

  3. The agent ought not to have close family members easily subject to malign influences in a jurisdiction habituated by adversarial Services members.

  4. The recruit must have chameleon-like skills, able to operate in any environment with people of the highest levels of society and those at the lowest, with equal comfort and confidence.

  5. The recruit must have highly adept capacities of memory retention for substantial arrays of complex facts, as well as acutely high levels of attention to detail.


Now consider the inherent problems in recruitment of foreign domestic agents in field, when the recruiter knows insufficient about the society to make adequate assessments of these qualities. For example consider drug usage in England: the stigma relating to talking about drugs has mostly subsided and people will openly discuss their drug use in many cases. If they will not, then that may be a cause for concern. By contrast Serbia, a country with surely the highest rate of drug use in Europe (at least as far as its capital Belgrade goes), has virtually no stigma about taking drugs (this in itself is problematic) but a near-total stigma about talking about drug use (a stigma itself also very harmful). The lesson to be drawn from this contrast is that to recruit agents while discreetly enquiring into such matters requires huge sensitivity to the local conditions and customs.


Typically the way this is resolved is either (a) to introduce home country citizens that identify with the ethno-cultural habits of the target country (e.g. children of mixed parent marriages or of permanent emigrees); or (b) to engage the very rare long-term resident of a friendly country who has been so immersed in the culture that he or she has a heightened sensitivity of social awareness of the environment in which he or she operates.


A third approach (c) is to use persons in the category (a) to recruit while being placed under supervision by home agency staff; but this seldom works in practice as you cannot supervise adequately or reliably an employee working in an environment with which they are intimately familiar and you are not. This is particularly so if the supervisor is really a rookie because more experienced and capable agents will be deployed to more substantial tasks in other fields. There simply aren't enough senior intelligence staff (getting and keeping good ones is notoriously hard) to go around supervising graduate recruitment processes.


The problem with using persons in category (a) (cross-cultural dual nationals) is that they may prove extremely effective in all environments except their second native one. This is because when immersed in their second culture, their propensity to forget the sending state's cultural habits and legal norms, and to embrace the secondary culture's vices, may be overwhelming and they may start leaking; acting ineffectively; breaching home country standards and rules, and even becoming double agents (the barrel-filth of intelligence work, those who occupy simultaneous inconsistent loyalties and lie comprehensively to each side to maintain their precarious position).


When a dual-native is tasked with domestic recruitment (a superficially very tempting proposition because he knows what to look for in the target culture), he or she may become a de facto double agent without even understanding hlmself or herself as one. He or she may for example take sexual advantage of those they recruit, because that is a cultural norm in the target society that they identify with and understand so well; while the adversary's Services may thereupon supply a series of beautiful female recruits to feed the recruiter's avarice so that the recruiting Service finds itself full of double agents.


The dissident recruiter may even collaborate with the sexually attractive recruits with whom they are in sexual relations, to ensure the recruit passes vetting techniques that ordinarily there would be no prospect of their passing. In other words, the recruiter helps the recruit to fool the testers and evaluators, and to play the system.


Another approach is to encourage the trusted agent to engage in conjugal relations with a local recruit it is believed to be loyal. There are several problems with this:


  1. Either or both sides may have other conjugal commitments they are hiding from Control. This may create what is colloquially called a mess.

  2. The local recruit may feel obliged to pursue such a relationship in the interests of advancement. This is what is known as exploitation.

  3. Control may not know anything about the respective partners' sexual or personal preferences.

  4. Two agents lying to each other as well as lying to the rest of the world may not be a particularly sound basis for an emotionally stable relationship, whereas stability is probably what you want for an effective agent.


People are very good at hiding their sexual and relationship preferences, either inadvertantly or intentionally. The Services should not act as matchmakers. They will cause nothing but chaos and diversions if they do. For this reason, there should either be a ban on such relationships, or a policy of full disclosure that is enforced with disciplinary sanctions including dismissal for both parties.


Indeed relationships in which both parties are agents are a thoroughly bad thing. The best partner for an agent is someone who has no knowledge and no interest in the Services' affairs, and can be relied upon to stay that way. Anything else is just tempting mess.


Above all, it must be made explicit which home country norms are compulsory in a specific field operation; and which are not by reason of the unique nature of the field environment in question. And that distinction must be enforced rigourously, and with harsh penalties such as dismissal, for breaching the distinction. This is necessary both pour encourager les autres and to maintain a sense of discipline and order in an intrinsically obscure area, in which a lot of agents are just getting on with things as they see fit, ever more losing their connections of morality and propriety - and ultimately even loyalty - to the home base. When you get this far, you had might as well not have a field operation at all because it is not working for you.

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