Some retired American intelligence officers are quietly appalled by the Snowden surveillance leaks. Spy novelist Michael R. Davidson is loudly appalled. Davidson retired from the CIA in 1995 after a 28-year career that included stints as a station chief focusing on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He's been leading a quiet life in rural Virginia, aside from the occasional speaking appearance to promote his books. He's disturbed by the moral comparisons he sees being drawn between the U.S. and countries like China and Russia in the wake of the surveillance revelations. I spoke by phone with Davidson and pushed him hard about his views. Isn't the U.S. drifting toward the practices of the governments he disdains? Wouldn't it be better to invest in spies than in storing billions of phone records in the cloud? Davidson still relishes a frank exchange of views.
Retired CIA officer Michael R. Davidson
Damage from the Snowden case >> “My concern is for what else he’s telling our adversaries, and it also has put us in a bad situation in the world. The Russians, the Chinese and others can use this to beat us over the head with this moral equivalency that they like to use to justify their own misdeeds.”
Possible boon for China >> “From the moment (Snowden) set foot on Chinese soil, he was under the control of Chinese intelligence. That’s just the way things work.”
The "trap of moral equivalency" >> “It’s easy for people to sit on a fence and cast aspersions in both directions, but there comes a point where you have to choose sides. Are we going to be on the side of the United States, which stands for democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion -- all the good things we know about America? Or are we going to stand on the side of the Chinese communist government, which represses its people?”
Surveillance >> “We cannot really defend ourselves with one arm tied behind our backs. The NSA is a very powerful instrument to protect the United States, so I will defend it for a long time.”
Values intact >> “I’ve never seen any indication that our intelligence agencies are involved in the repression of the American people. That would be anathema to my thinking and I think to the thinking of people in the intelligence community.”
Baffling security lapse >> “I don’t know how it could be possible that within the intelligence community in a sensitive position, you would allow someone to have a computer with a thumb drive. I really don’t understand it. When I was in the CIA way back in the dark ages, all of our computers’ floppy disk drives were disabled....”
Private spies >> “Really I worry a lot more about Google than I do about NSA to tell you the truth.”
Telephone metadata >> “If you want to find metadata on your own, just open a phone book. It’s, the phone company that owns your telephone numbers, and owns the information about what other numbers you’ve called…”
Human intelligence >> “I’m a big fan of humint, of course, because that’s the world that I was involved in. But I certainly don’t negate the importance of sigint or masint or any of the other ints that we work with… you can detect patterns, you can detect connections via sigint that will lead you to a great humint recruitment, for instance.”
Dwarfed by NSA >> “The NSA’s budget dwarfs the CIA’s budget and always has simply because of what you’ve just stated -- that’s the cost of the technology.”
Infiltration ain’t easy >> “Today, recruiting assets in terrorists organizations, I think, is well nigh impossible. It’s certainly extremely difficult.”
Historical double standard >> “You have a lament out there among legislators, in the executive branch and the public that, ‘Well, the CIA’s just not recruiting enough sources inside terrorist organizations.’ Both of those activities are activities for which the CIA has been excoriated in the past.”
Davidson elaborated by email: "One of the results of the congressional investigations into CIA activities in the 60′s was to prohibit the Agency from carrying out assassinations. More recently the Agency was severely criticized for recruiting agents with less than pristine pasts. The irony is that today, the Agency is directed to conduct relatively massive assassinations via drone strikes and criticized for not recruiting members of terrorist organizations."
Weakened tradecraft>> “We’ve had since 9/11 an emphasis on paramilitary operations for the CIA...These young folks, their first assignment is to pack on a nine-millimeter pistol and take off for the hinterlands of Afghanistan or Iraq, someplace like that...You have a situation where the CIA is tasked with the drone operation...So, we have an entire generation that basically has to be retrained and might find being a traditional spook a little bit boring compared to the adventure of carrying a weapon every place you go and meeting very dangerous people in very dangerous places."
Rebuilding humint >> “...the tradecraft practices that I learned and used throughout my career have atrophied at CIA…We have several years of rebuilding ahead of us in terms of our humint capabilities.”