WASHINGTON — The CIA’s counterintelligence chief sent a note to retired officers this week warning against working for foreign governments either directly or indirectly.
The note, which was drafted some months ago but only sent out on Monday, also urges retired officers to take care in speaking publicly on television, podcasts, panels or social media.
The letter said the agency was seeing a “detrimental trend” of “foreign governments, either directly or indirectly, hiring former intelligence officials to build up their spying capabilities.”
“I can’t mince words — former CIA officers who pursue this type of employment are engaging in activity that may undermine the agency’s mission to the benefit of U.S. competitors and foreign adversaries,” wrote Sheetal Patel, the CIA’s assistant director for counterintelligence.
Former officials and CIA historians said they could not remember such a broad warning being sent previously to the agency’s retirees in the form of an email.
The novel means of communication (at least for the spy agency) is at least partially a function of the pandemic. In more normal times, former officials are brought back to the CIA’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters for ceremonies, briefings or social gatherings, all of which offer senior officials a chance to remind them of the adage that “loose lips sink ships.” In her note, Patel suggests that she plans to issue annual updates.
Nicole de Haay, a CIA spokeswoman, said there was nothing unusual about the email’s content. “We routinely reiterate counterintelligence guidance to current and former CIA officers alike, and reading more into it than that is a mistake,” she said.
Across the government, there has been a push to raise awareness of foreign governments trying to get information from former officials. Last September, the FBI and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center released a fictionalized 30-minute film inspired by the case of Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer targeted by the Chinese through a professional networking site.
The warnings against working for foreign governments and disclosing sensitive material to the public were not touched off by any single incident or disclosure. But intelligence officials are worried that people cobbling together information from the public comments of retired CIA officers could create a “risk of unintended disclosure of classified information.”
Some former agency officials took offense at the note, seeing it as an attempt to silence retired officers or abridge their First Amendment rights.
Across the intelligence community, not just at the CIA, there have been issues surrounding the decision of some former officials, both senior and junior, to work with foreign governments that have questionable human rights records or difficult relations with the United States.
Former employees of the National Security Agency went to work for firms in the United Arab Emirates creating high-level hacking and spying tools, prompting an FBI investigation.
Some former CIA officers were involved in an effort by a subsidiary of DynCorp, a defense contractor, to help build up the intelligence capabilities of Saudi Arabia. The project was shelved only after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist.
More broadly, former intelligence officers consulting for foreign governments and companies have drawn scrutiny and criticism in recent years.
While working as an adviser to Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, Michael Flynn, the ousted head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, consulted for companies tied to the Russian and Turkish governments, work that was scrutinized by federal prosecutors.
The rise of high-profile political consultancies in Washington, some of which do work for foreign governments and contract with former intelligence officials as advisers or principals, has raised questions on Capitol Hill.
At a confirmation hearing last week, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas and a member of the Intelligence Committee, repeatedly questioned Avril Haines, a former CIA deputy director who is now the director of national intelligence, about her work for WestExec Advisors, a consultancy co-founded by Antony Blinken, the new secretary of state.
Haines said she did no work at the consultancy for foreign governments.
In her letter admonishing former officers to think about their public comments, Patel did not cite any specifics that put classified material in jeopardy. But the agency is worried that a variety of public comments by former officials could be stitched together to reveal classified information.
“The risk of unintended disclosure of classified information, or confirmation of classified information by our adversaries, increases with each exposure outside of established U.S. government channels,” Patel wrote.
Periodically in CIA history, the agency has been frustrated with former officers talking with the press or writing books. The first such wave of frustration came after reporters published articles critical of the agency after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The next wave came in the 1970s, when a number of agency memoirs were published, some without undergoing a review before publication, which the CIA demands.
“What’s changed now is not the phenomenon of formers talking,” said Nicholas Dujmovic, a former CIA historian who is now a professor at the Catholic University of America. “What’s changed is with the digital revolution, the internet and social media, everybody’s got a platform. It is impossible for the agency to even be aware of, much less actively monitor, every time a former says something.”
The CIA requires op-ed essays and other writing to be submitted to a review office for approval before publication. But the agency cannot review social media posts, television appearances, panel discussions or podcasts.
While any such program about the intelligence agencies has a risk of discussing classified events, Dujmovic said some were precisely the kinds of outlets the agency should be encouraging, not discouraging.
“I think that is a risk that the agency needs to take in order for the American people to be better informed about things that they ought to know about,” Dujmovic said. “There’s a lot that can be said about intelligence that is not classified.”