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Spooky Sex

Inside the randy culture of the CIA

Illustration by Oliver Munday

"A cock has no shame.” That’s what it said on the little plaque on the door of the espionage instructor. He’d been discovered a few nights earlier going at it with a female junior officer on a pool table in the recreation room at “the Farm,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s training facility in the swamps of eastern Virginia. The instructor flaunted his defiance, slightly camouflaged in Gothic calligraphy. Among the students and teachers, even among the more straight-laced Mormons, few thought he’d done anything particularly wrong (except getting caught). We were all adults. Some of the female students aggressively hunted the better-looking paramilitary instructors, who welcomed the attention. In the mostly temporary couplings that occurred during training, it was sometimes unclear who was married and who was not.

What happened at the Farm wasn’t just the by-product of being stuck in the woods for months in boring espionage and paramilitary courses. During my tour of duty with the operations directorate in the 1980s and 1990s, case officers weren’t exactly models of propriety at headquarters or in the field. Unlike the U.S. military post-Vietnam, where senior officers are supposed to be moral role models, the CIA—that is, the Clandestine Service, the engine room of espionage and covert action that has always defined the agency’s ethos—has been much more relaxed about these things.

The drama surrounding David Petraeus’s extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell could change all that. Ever since the agency director’s resignation, a small army of pundits has taken to the airwaves, warning that infidelity could be exploited by foreign intelligence services and used against American officials. The pressure could force new standards for the intelligence world. That would be a mistake. As morally upsetting as it may sound, we should all want the typical philanderer to serve in the Clandestine Service, free from the fear of reprisal.

Let me explain. Case officers, the CIA personnel who handle intelligence-collection and covert-action operations, are bottom-feeders. They search the strengths and weaknesses of character in the foreigners they want to recruit and run as agents; few things are off limits. Unlike soldiers, who have each other’s backs in battle, case officers build on both trust and deceit. And they work in a promotion system that often rewards intellectually dishonest operatives for making a mediocre new recruit seem like solid gold. This sort of thing tends to make officers jaded pretty quickly. Historically, prudes have rarely done well in the institution. Admiral Stansfield Turner, President Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, didn’t have many fans for a variety of reasons—not least because he wanted operatives, and the ops they ran, to be more wholesome. He was too prissy for the job.

When I was in the agency, my colleagues were amused, occasionally disappointed, but never shocked when married officers were discovered cavorting with their secretaries or other co-workers at the office, in parking lots, hotels, and safe-houses—which, of course, are not supposed to be used for trysts. Case officers could get into trouble if their passions led them to keep foreign mistresses no one knew about. The agency maintained an important rule requiring employees to report continuing, meaningful romantic contact. But there was a fair amount of flexibility built in—since operatives, not a sentimental lot, could keep a bed partner for some time and truthfully say that their lovers really didn’t mean all that much to them.

Those weren’t the only rules. Case officers were prohibited from sleeping with their foreign agents, a coupling that could derail a career. This was a much greater risk for female officers since most agents were men. (Yes, foreign officials who have access and power in most countries are still overwhelmingly male.) Agents who spy for the CIA can often be quite compelling, and the relationship between case officers and agents, with its inherent clandestine nature and fear, can be intense. But there was a general understanding, when I was in the service, that the CIA was a fairly randy place, at least for heterosexuals. Affairs and divorce were almost a rite of passage within the operations directorate. (Homosexuals could be fired—until Bill Clinton’s first CIA director, James Woolsey, admirably put a stop to that. Nonetheless, gay officers had quietly prospered, even within the Directorate of Operation’s super-sensitive Soviet-East Europe division.)

The idea that our enemies will use infidelity against us is not borne out by history. To my knowledge, the CIA has always kept its distance from operations that might pit girlfriend against boyfriend, mistress against lover, or wife against husband. Sex is just too unpredictable to manage in the context of an intelligence operation.

We have a pretty good idea why American officials and soldiers have betrayed their country over the years. The primary reasons: greed, ideology, professional disappointment, narcissism, ethnic loyalties, and the sheer thrill of being a mole. Although it is certainly true that the KGB targeted homosexuals, this was done not because Soviet intelligence thought sexual blackmail was particularly effective, but because the KGB believed homosexuals were more narcissistic, more prone to see themselves as disconnected from the group, than heterosexuals. But there is very little evidence to suggest that in America such targeting ever turned an agent of any value, or probably any agent at all. The odds of using “honey traps” to lead men or women to treason are very small indeed.

If infidelity had really been a counterintelligence risk, then the Soviets would have riddled the agency—not to mention the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the White House, and (Lord knows) Congress, too—with moles. Discovering who is sleeping with whom in Washington is a less demanding task than running Soviet agents inside the U.S. nuclear-weapons establishment, the FBI, and the CIA—all of which Moscow managed with finesse.

Any attempt to crack down on romantic adventuring must be met with swift and sure push-back. Unless Congress and the White House make a serious effort to prevent an overreaction to the Petraeus affair, it’s entirely possible that questions about infidelity will start cropping up in background checks. The pool of people who are interested in careers in government service and senior appointments in the executive branch will shrink further. And the service can ill-afford to lose creative personnel with a high tolerance for risk.

It’s a sad fact that the folks who are in government, especially in the “elite” services of the CIA and the State Department, aren’t what they used to be. They are, to be blunt, less interesting. There are vastly fewer “characters”—the unconventional, often infuriating, types who give institutions color and competence. There is any number of reasons for that. But it’s at least partly due to the expansion of the counterintelligence establishment’s purview since the discovery of Russian moles in the 1990s. Excessive counter-intelligence makes institutions dull. Timidity becomes commonplace. Fretting about infidelity threatens to become one more factor depriving the government of men and women of talent.

There’s another factor at work. When I was going through the lengthy examination process to enter the Clandestine Service, I had to role-play opposite a middle-aged female case officer. My mission was to infiltrate a certain enterprise, and I had to enumerate the ways, all interconnected, that might work. Before starting my task, the woman asked me what was the one thing I was not permitted to do to win. Fairly well-read in CIA history and briefed by friends already in the agency, I began to list all the off-limits-without-director-approval approaches an operations officer might attempt. With each answer, she shook her head. After dozens of tries, I gave up. 

She looked at me scornfully and said, “No sex.”

The subject has inevitably become far more sensitive at Langley in recent years, with the arrival of more women in the workplace, an upswing in office romances, and new rules regulating intramural behavior across the country. As the CIA has become ever more like the rest of corporate America, aspects of the old culture have fallen away. The worst danger, in my view, is that these shifts will lead officials to equate fidelity to a spouse with fidelity to a nation. There is no correlation between serially cheating in a marriage and compromising loyalty to country. Patriotism is a very different kind of love.

The CIA has a long history of getting into trouble, then overcorrecting for its perceived sins. After the congressional Church Committee saw the devil in the agency’s cold war work, lawyers descended upon Langley. Contrary to the depiction of aggressive CIA interrogation in Zero Dark Thirty, the institution has become a very cautious one. Before we down more generals, before we unleash the FBI on more clandestine romances, we should remember the long, humdrum history of infidelity and espionage—and leave the punishment of wayward operatives to their husbands or wives. Case officers aren’t saints. For their sakes, and ours, don’t try to make them, or the civilians who oversee them, into moral paragons.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operations officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.