Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Why Lying is Abhorrent to Intelligence Officers
By Mike Gorbell
July 18, 2009
Exclusive to California Chronicle

The recent public accusations of CIA “lying” by Democrat Congressmen, up to and including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have been received mostly with a yawn by an American public whose principal exposure to the world of intelligence is the entertaining fantasy of James Bond movies and the shenanigans of the popular TV series “24.” Within the tight knit community of current and former American intelligence professionals, however, these cavalierly-wielded charges, and the tepid response to them by those in the Obama administration charged with leading our intelligence effort, represent an incredible body blow to morale. For those intelligence officers still in active service, the accusations have had been a serious detriment to the exceptional motivation and trust required to carry on in protecting America and Americans while operating, sometimes alone and completely defenseless except for your wits, in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet.
I first entered the Headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1980 as a Captain of Marines who had been summoned to brief Agency analysts on my then area of expertise, Soviet amphibious warfare capabilities and tactics. I suppose like every first time visitor, I paused at the impressive Seal on the marble floor at the entrance and considered the challenge of the words of John 8:32, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” To the right of me, 43 stars were engraved on a marble Wall of Honor, representing those CIA officers who had died in the line of duty (to that date). To my left was a single star for those of the Office of Strategic Services who had similarly given their lives (in the days of OSS, they didn’t keep records). I knew at that moment that I would be a CIA intelligence officer some day.
When I arrived overseas on my first assignment for the Agency as a replacement for a Star that had been added since that first visit, my Chief of Station, himself to become a Star two years later, schooled me on the ethics of my chosen profession. “When you are overseas, you spend your life telling lies,” he said. “You lie about who you are, where you come from, what you are doing. But as an intelligence officer, there are four times when you may never lie. To the President, to Congress, to those for whom you are providing intelligence, and once you cross over that Seal and pass those Stars at Headquarters. Then it is all truth.” Every time I crossed that Seal and passed those Stars when I returned from various assignments overseas, I thought about what he had said. When I was loading a Star’s remains onto an aircraft overseas, a man with whom I had just shared a meal a few hours before he was killed, those Stars took on a particular meaning.   I realized how many Stars that I knew and had worked with, even though their names didn’t appear in the Book of Honor because they were under cover on a sensitive assignment. Those thoughts were always with me years later when I briefed Congress on what I had done, and what I intended to do, as a senior officer.
Although it may seem strange to others, as an intelligence officer your life is very much about discovering the truth and making sure that the President, Congress, the military and every other government “intelligence consumer” receives your very best assessment so as to keep the people of the United States safe and successful. You realize that your consumers may act on your intelligence differently than you might have, but what matters is that they get your very best effort at the truth. That is your job, and it is what your honor and the memory of those Stars on the wall demand.
In days past, this professional ethic was respected by our consumers in general, and in particular by those whose job it was to oversee our activities on behalf of the citizenry: the select intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. One Senator on a select committee, himself a Medal of Honor winner and former Navy SEAL officer, told my colleagues that he was inspired by their bravery and dedication. High praise indeed, particularly so as it came in a private, face-to-face meeting that involved the Senator undertaking a very inconvenient surveillance detection routine so as to protect our identities.
Our current crop of “betters,” particularly Representative Pelosi, seem much more interested in pursuing their political fortunes at the expense of intelligence officers’ honor. Since we are used to being in the shadows, this might be tolerable except for the fact that man chosen by President Obama to be the current Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the retired career partisan politician Congressman Leon Panetta, has publicly sided with his former congressional colleague Pelosi and in effect told his troops to suck eggs.
How do POTUS (President of the United States), Pelosi and Panetta think that it makes their intelligence troops feel when the values that define the profession and very life of an intelligence officer—integrity and honor—are so callously sacrificed on the altar of political expediency? Actually, since their own chosen profession of politics apparently values integrity so little, I really don’t think that they care. Worse, they don’t understand the people who serve America that do care.
There is one glimmer of hope, though. Intelligence officers are generally, well, intelligent. They have faith that the majority of the American people still have special trust and confidence in their patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities. And there are now 87 stars on that marble wall to remind you when you come back from a mission of a challenge that will ultimately outlast POTUS, Pelosi, Panetta and the other prevaricators of political expediency: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Mike Gorbell is a retired intelligence officer from California’s Central Coast.
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