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'It ranges from being fired to being executed': Former CIA chief on what happens if a spy gets caught

The Director of Counterintelligence talks 9/11, what makes a great spy and the mistakes made in Iraq.

Scott Foley who plays a
Scott Foley who plays a "super spy" in the television drama Scandal.
Image: Associated Press

BARRY ROYDEN WAS the Director of Counterintelligence for the CIA from 1997 through 2001.

Business Insider interviewed Royden before his scheduled talk at the Commonwealth Club last month, and covered a number of topics, including the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and what makes a great spy.

While CIA operatives must be sociable, professional and discreet, spies — foreign nationals recruited by the CIA — tend to exhibit different qualities, Royden told us.

The best spies always have access to guarded secrets and a reason to cooperate with their handlers. Royden described possible reasons spies might cooperate with the US.

“They may be angry at something, they may have huge money problems and they decide that the only way to solve them is to get money from us, [or] they may be after revenge,” he said.

After he left the CIA, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 took place, leaving the CIA to deal with the threat of terrorism both at home and abroad.

He admits that although the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community “knew that Osama Bin Laden was a threat…knew Al Qaeda was a threat,” and had even warned the White House of an attack on the homeland in August 2001, they were unable to act on their intelligence because they didn’t know how the attack would be carried out.

Bin Laden Documents Source: Associated Press

Royden spent about 40 years with the operations and counterintelligence arms of the organisation before retiring in 2001. From there, he moved on as a contractor, spending his remaining 10 years in the CIA training young officers.

Here’s a transcript of the entire conversation, edited lightly for clarity and length.

BUSINESS INSIDER: You spent years training agent. What comprises training?

BARRY ROYDEN: We’re training our officers skills of recruiting and handling agents. That’s the basic training that we do. So, how do you recruit — the hardest part of our business is getting new agents, getting people to work for us, to steal secrets, and provide intelligence to the United States government. And to handle them successfully — that is — don’t get caught. How do you meet with them directly? Or perhaps you communicate indirectly through various techniques.

In the old days, it used to be putting down a package under a bridge, in a stream, in a park, and the other guy picks it up and he puts down his package and you pick it up.

These days, we do a lot of things with computers. But doing that without getting caught — that’s the most important thing that we do. Recruiting new agents and handling them without getting caught.

So it’s working with people, understanding people, making decisions about what to do in given situations — we use the case method a lot — that is, we look at agent cases and try to dissect them and learn from them.

Each one is different, each one is unique with lots of twists and turns. And we try to use those as teaching vehicles. I explain to the students how a given operation got started, then I progress to the point where the operation hits a crossroads.

I then say, “Ok, here’s where you are. In this case, what would you do? What do you have to worry about? What are the things you have to think about? What are your options and what option would you take?”

And then you tell them, ‘In this case, this is what happened. This is what we did.” Sometimes it probably wasn’t the right thing. But this is what really happened. And then they got to this point, and then there was another crossroads. And then they had to decide, “What do you do now?”

PastedImage-84412

BI: What type of person makes a good spy or agent?

BR: The first thing is access. What you’re looking for is someone that has access to really difficult information to get. Information that you can’t get otherwise. It’s either leadership intentions, military capabilities, the spy service itself — what they’re doing against us — we’re looking for access first.

Then we’re looking for someone who would have a reason to be willing to cooperate with you. It can be that they’re not very happy with their career, it may be that they very much admire the United States — for better or for worse, as messed up as we can be in this country sometimes —most people in the world, if you ask them where they would want to live, it would be in the United States. And we’re the great, golden place that a lot of people want to live. So a lot of people out there say, “Hey, I’d be willing to work and help out the CIA if I can someday end up living in the United States.”

So there’s sensible people who work for us, but there’s also a lot of people who aren’t so sensible that decided they wanted to be spies. They may be angry at something, they may have huge money problems and they decide that the only way to solve them is to get money from us, they may be after revenge.

What we would like to see is a calm, rational, sensible person but very often you get a very emotional, irrational person because normal people don’t usually become spies. So the personality of the people you have to work with can be a tremendous challenge. Very often you’re working with someone where you say, “It’s not a question of if he’s gonna caught, it’s a question of when.”

Because of the way they’re doing this, it’s inevitable that they’re going to get caught. But then you just do your best to keep going. You do your best to prevent them from being caught but you may know the way they are, they’re probably gonna get caught.

BI: What are the consequences if someone happens to get caught?

BR: ”Well, it can range from being fired to being executed.

If you’re a Russian intelligence officer who works for us, in the extreme case they may be executed. More often, people go to jail for awhile. And sometimes, they just lose their job.

We, for the most part, just get kicked out of the country. If we get caught handling a spy, normally we’re under diplomatic cover, we’re out there as US government officials pretending to be someone other than who we are, but we have diplomatic immunity so they can’t throw us in jail. We’re safe, but the agents are the ones who take the great risk.

Now, there are cases where we put operations officers out as business people or somewhere in the private sector, and we’ve had people do quite dangerous things in what we call “nonofficial cover” — pretending to be something other than CIA — but they’re not US government. And if they get caught, we’ve had people go to jail. I don’t know if any of them have been executed, but we’ve had people spend a long time in jail.

RUSSIA GULAG TOURISM A Gulag camp east of Moscow in 1954 Source: Associated Press

BI: What makes someone a good handler?

BR: First, I’d say what makes someone a good recruiter. That’s the hardest part of the business. And it’s not the skills that you might think. It’s not that they have a forceful personality and dominating personality like they’re able to convince you to do something. It’s much more that you’re a people person first of all — you like to be out socially, you like to meet people, because really you want to meet as many people as possible, and you want to meet people who have the access and the personality traits that would make them good agents.

So, terrorist organisations aside, we’re looking for other government officials — let’s say we’re looking at the Russian government, Chinese government and Iranian government. We’re looking for intelligence officers, government people close to the leaders of that country, military people, scientists — particularly those that have access to weapons programs or nuclear programs.

Mideast Iran Iraq An Iraqi boy living in Iran holds a toy gun and flashes a victory sign in front of a poster of the Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Source: Associated Press

And you can meet those people at diplomatic receptions, you can meet them at conferences, in schools, they come to universities — you want to have that kind of personality where you can meet people well, and then get along with people. And then you want to project a sense of discretion — that you’re a discrete, professional, competent individual. Because if somebody is gonna commit espionage, their first thought is “Is this someone I can trust? Because if pick the wrong person to work with, I get arrested and thrown in jail. So I wanna make sure that this guy — or gal — that I can trust them.”

So you need to project professionalism when you’re out there meeting people. So those are the important skills in terms of being able to recruit people. In terms of handling, really I think that women are better than men in a lot of ways because it’s important to be a good listener, it’s important not to spend a lot of time talking but rather listening and really try to understand what makes this person tick. What’s his value set? What does he respond to? What’s important to him? And then try to manage that relationship accordingly.

PastedImage-21368 A scene from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

BI: Do handlers and operations officers have to be able to speak the language of their agents?

BR: We try to get a broad range of interests, ethnicities, language skills, both men and women, because obviously some people are gonna blend in better around the world than a white, Anglo-Protestant person like myself. Sometimes, we use intermediaries.

When you get to the question of how do we recruit people in terrorist organisations, there is no way that the American case officer who is a US government official will meet someone from Al Qaeda or have any way in.

So then we have to find someone who is in between. Someone who is halfway between us and them who we might be able to recruit to find a way to get access to information in that organisation.

We also work with foreign intelligence services very closely, particularly in the Middle East and in places where we do stand out and it’s hard to find an American who’ll go there and blend in and move about and look like a native in Middle East. So we rely a lot on friendly intelligence services to help us.

BI: Is it true that if you’re in the field for the CIA, the job requires that you lie, manipulate, and deceive on a daily basis?

BR: We don’t manipulate, we don’t deceive, we don’t coerce, we don’t try to entrap someone to get them to be a spy. We try to meet a lot of people, and look at people who have it in themselves to want to do this, and there’s lots of reasons.

Now, other agencies — the Russians, particularly, and the Chinese, as well — use entrapment to get people to spy. It can be an American government official, it can be a businessperson, anybody that they think can be useful to them. There’s a good chance there will be a woman in front of them, try to entrap them, try to get photos of them in delicto and then use them for blackmail. We don’t do that kind of thing, I mean, you can criticise us for a lot of things, but we don’t do that sort of thing to try to recruit people.

BI:What are the most critical language needs of the CIA?

BR: These days I would say Chinese, Arabic, Farsi are the top languages that are important, but that’s always a moving target. A lot of times, we’ll be criticised for not having enough language speakers, but all of a sudden Afghanistan pops up and it’s the centre of the world and all of a sudden we need Urdu and Swahili.

Well, we don’t have a lot of them. We have a lot of French speakers and German speakers and Spanish speakers, so it’s hard to keep up. At another point in time, in the Balkans — Kosovo — we needed Serbian, and we didn’t have a lot of those languages. So Chinese, Farsi, Arabic, and certainly Russian as well are languages of great value to us. Because those countries are not going to go away anytime soon in terms of national importance … and Korean, as well.

BI: Why did the US intelligence community not foresee 9/11?

BR:  If you read the literature correctly, you will see that the US intelligence community did foresee that we were gonna be attacked.

We were very much focused on Osama Bin Laden, we knew he posed a danger, they had already bombed the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, they’d attacked the USS Cole, so we knew that Osama Bin Laden was a threat, we knew Al Qaeda was a threat, and we were preaching around town — to the White House — that in fact in August of 2001 there was a big report that an attack on the homeland was expected.

What we didn’t know and what was extremely hard to know was exactly how we were going to be attacked. They had 20 trained individuals to hijack four airplanes and fly them into buildings and there were very few people in Al Qaeda who knew about that plot.

 

Those 20, and probably a few others who helped manage the plot.

Sept 11- Health Source: AP Photo/Chao Soi Cheong

 

In the best of worlds, we would have found out ahead of time and stopped it, but that’s very hard to do. It’s a very hard thing to figure out and find out about any given individual terrorist plot, because every plot is gonna be very compartmented. A small group of people who say, ‘We’re gonna go do this.’

The shoe bomber is going to get on a plane and fly in to Detroit and blow up a plane. Somebody else is gonna put that bomb in a car. It’s very difficult to prevent a few people from carrying out an act of terrorism. That’s our job to try to prevent it, and there haven’t been any attacks on the homeland since 9/11, so you can sort of give us some credit for that. But 11 September, that was a terrible thing, and a lot of people in CIA felt terrible that it happened and we didn’t get the intelligence ahead of time to stop it.

BI: What has the intelligence community learned since then?

BR: Well, a number of things have changed. Congress, I like to say in its “infinite wisdom” created a new superstructure that created the Director of National Intelligence.

They created another layer of the intelligence community which I think frankly did no good at all, but nonetheless that’s what elected officials often do when something bad happens — they say “we fixed that problem because we created something”.

The main thing we learned is that closer, better cooperation is key among the different agencies — CIA, FBI, NSA, police services — we always worked with them but there were occasional turf struggles and cultural differences which still exist — it’s just natural — but we work much more closely now.

We have what we call “centres” now. We have something called the Counterterrorism Center in CIA and in that centre we have FBI officers, NSA officers, we have technical people, we have targeting people, we have analysts, all of them work close together to share information better.

BI: Are the roles for each agency clearly distinct nowadays?

BR: The NSA remains the lead agency for offensive signals intelligence — nowadays it’s going after computer systems, but they still call it SIGINT [Signals Intelligence]. NSA has the primary responsibility for the defensive side — for protecting American computer systems, both in the public and private sector. The trouble is, it’s extremely difficult, in fact, it’s impossible — everyone is connected to everyone, and as long as you’re connected you’re vulnerable.

PastedImage-82973 Source: AP

 

And there are firewalls, but every firewall is potentially defeatable, so it’s a nightmare in my mind. You have to think that other governments have the capability to bring down the main computer systems in this country, power grids, hospitals, or banking systems — things that could cause great economic upheaval and paralyse the country.

Now, if they were to do it to us and we were to do it to them, it would almost be like a nuclear standoff. They could do it but if they did it what would the cost be? Because they know we have the same capabilities and that we presumably attack their computer systems the same way and we could destroy their economy. So you hope that no one is going to do that but you’re vulnerable.

These days, I think the cyberworld is the big threat.

BI: What do you think is the biggest threat to America right now?

BR: You always have to worry about weapons of mass destruction, and beside nuclear bombs you could also have small, nuclear devices that can be smuggled into a country and be blown up and you also have chemical and biological weapons that conceivably could be used by terrorists.

The good news is that it’s very hard to build a chemical weapon that is large enough and powerful enough. And it is extremely hard to build a nuclear device if you’re an amateur, get all the materials put together, and smuggle it into this country. It’s not easy.

Certainly, Al Qaeda would do it if they could. We knew for years that Al Qaeda was attempting to get their hands on nuclear technology or on uranium to try to build a device that they could smuggle into this country. So far, they’ve never been able to do it.

BI: What do you think is the biggest threat to America in the next decade or so?

BR: I don’t think the nuclear threat is going away anytime soon. You’ve got the Pakistanis with nuclear capability, you’ve got the Iranians with close to nuclear capability, the North Koreans have it, India has the bomb, China has it, Russia has it, and there’s so much of this stuff out there that you have to worry about it entering the wrong hands.

Or, Pakistan could become a failed state, heaven forbid, and those things aren’t gonna change, frankly. There may be new, different things to worry about, but as far as I know those will continue to be the big things.

BI: On that note, considering the potentially volatile consequences of Iran gaining nuclear capabilities, how would that affect the region?

BR: Iran is a major player that we have to worry about. Ever since they threw out the Shah —and we had supported the Shah — we have been enemies of the Iranian government. And we had some vicious stuff go on between the two countries.

They’ve supported Hamas and Hezbollah and both of those organisations have carried out terrorist attacks against the United States. They were involved in killing Americans in Iraq while we were there. So, they have a history of violence against American interest.

Nonetheless, they’re a country like any other country. I think the government is attempting to neutralise the problem by talking to Iran and now they seem to be willing to talk, which I think is a good thing. They will always be an intelligence interest to us — that is, we’re always gonna want to know behind the scenes — is what we’re seeing really what’s going on. That is, are they really willing to cooperate?

Are they really willing to not move towards developing a nuclear bomb? Our job as the intelligence community is to find out. To try to make sure that what they say they’re doing is really what they’re doing. Of course, part of the deal is that they’ve agreed to inspections by the IAEA and such.

But they will always be an important country for US intelligence interests because they will always be an intelligence threat. They’ve been a real threat over the years, and in the future they could be a potentially dangerous country that we could end up having problems with.

BI: Is there a need for more human intelligence around the world?

BR: I would always say that we need a strong worldwide presence. I don’t agree with those who believe that as we get more technically competent we don’t need human intelligence as much, because we can collect with signals intelligence and satellites and what have you. And more and more information is available publicly and therefore we don’t need to steal as many secrets.

I would strongly disagree but there’s only one way to try and find out what a leader is going to do, and that’s talking to people who are talking to that person who’d know him or her. Plans and intentions — you can’t steal that through satellites. You can steal capabilities through satellites.

You’re always going to need spies, I think.

Now, do you need a bigger CIA or smaller CIA? I would say you need a bigger CIA to have what we call “global coverage”, to have capabilities so we can be pretty much everywhere in the world, because you never know where the next crisis is going to emerge. Just when you say “well, we don’t need anybody in the middle of Africa anymore,” all of sudden there’s violence out there and Boko Haram is out there killing people.

Nigeria Boko Haram Source: Associated Press

BI: So, for instance, the sudden emergence of ISIS. How do you defeat something like that?

BR: Again, speaking from personal opinion — I think that you have to try and attack the roots, which are unemployment and poverty and bad governance in a lot of these countries where you have dictatorships. It’s kind of like kids that come from a bad family — if you have a broken family and you have an abusive parent you’re gonna end up a lot of times with kids who grow up and do a lot of bad things.

And you’re going to have terrorists out there and we have to do a better job of trying to find ways that the poor, young people around the world have a sense of a life.

Now, saying it and doing it are two different things.

But, that’s the basic underlying thing that has to change, otherwise it’ll be young people who are desperate and have nowhere to turn so they end up turning to violence. Or, they’re easily recruited to volatile things because they kind of have a hopeless situation and someone says, “I’ll give you a salary and treat you and give a gun and give you a chance to be somebody.”

And let’s face it, Al Qaeda and ISIS — they pay people and give them a salary. And they train them and they use them and — it’s a job, it’s a life better than what they had before.

BI: Could we have prevented the emergence of ISIS and similar groups by abstaining from entering the region in the first place?

BR: Again, speaking from personal opinion, I think it was a mistake to attack Iraq.

The CIA doesn’t have an opinion on what US presidents do, that’s not their job.

And who knows, maybe 50 years from now we’ll look back and say that was actually the right thing to do.

Syria Going Alone Source: Associated Press

 

Certainly, Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant and evil person who gassed his enemies domestically. So, the world was done a favour when he was eliminated. But, the problem is what happens after you’re done. In the Middle East and Africa, country after country is filled with poverty, violence, corruption — we didn’t invade all those countries but they all seem to have the same problems. I don’t know what you’ll do about it. It’s pretty frustrating.

The invasion of Iraq wasn’t well done. You could argue, if we had gone in and thrown out Saddam Hussein and had not dismantled the military, putting all those soldiers out of work and income — they had weapons and were militarily trained so a lot of them went into fighting against us.

If we had given them a job and kept them as an organised institution, if we’d have done things differently in Iraq, it might have turned out much better. We tried to go in and out on the cheap, which was a big mistake. Go in, overthrow him, and pull out, and democracy would flourish. Well, that was never going to happen because of the Shite, Sunni, and Kurds hatred that existed over the centuries, and they were gonna be at each other’s throats as soon as you removed the tyrant who kept them in line.

BUSINESS INSIDER: So how did you end up as the Director of Counterintelligence for the CIA?

 Ok, so I was an Operations officer in the CIA, and CIA counterintelligence is in the Operations Directorate — it is an operational discipline. Our main operational thrust is to recruit agents, to recruit people who can provide intelligence to the US government. In the counterintelligence field, the goal is to recruit what we call penetrations of hostile intelligence services.

So, we know the Russians are trying to steal American secrets, the best way to defend ourselves is to recruit Russian officers of their intelligence services. The ones who might know about Americans who are working for the Russians. So, I was in the Operations Directorate and before I moved into counterintelligence — I was in Germany. And I was working for a man named Gardner Hathaway.

He came back to Washington to be Director of Counterintelligence and he asked me to be his deputy. That was 1985, so for three years I was the deputy for counterintelligence and then some 10 years later in 1997, I was named the chief of counterintelligence. So I spent five years doing counterintelligence, the other 35 years I was doing regular operational activities.

BI: So you retired in 2001 and, from there, where did you go?

BR: I spent 10 years as a contractor basically training — training young officers. I did other operational things — I was on a couple of accountability boards and things like that. But for the most part I was doing training.

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