Disasters can be helpful. Of course this doesn’t mean they are ‘good’ for a cleared organization. However, they offer lessons learned which, if studied, can prevent further disasters later.

Learning from Espionage

For instance, spies at high levels can access any number of programs legitimately. No one questioned why Aldrich Ames sought detailed information about Western spies. After all, he was in ‘counterintelligence’. No supervisor asked why he needed the names he requested. He betrayed those spies for money, and they were killed.

Chinese spies take virtual whole classified libraries where there is no limit on their access. Does your company have the right plans for checks and balances to manage information? A recent article noted that while all the physical, information, and industrial security measures were in place, a highly classified U.S. aerial bombing device was stolen. It was even in an adversary’s hands before it ever was made, and all the security measures were in place. One of those who worked in the factory stole the designs, and all the protection in the world didn’t suffice to protect it.

Hindsight Reveals Holes in the System

Background investigations are designed basically to accomplish two functions. We conduct them repeatedly to determine the origin of any unexplained wealth, and to identify any potential vulnerabilities of the investigated person. I’ve watched these ‘interviews’ flashed through in minutes. Sometimes they aren’t even conducted in private rooms. Whenever staffing issues pop up, shortcuts become inevitable.

Human nature abhors a vacuum. So, when references are checked, most people let imagination fill in why something might be a little off. Self-deception is the worst kind. If you ask around, you’ll eventually meet someone who ‘knew’ a spy. Everyone wants to feel somehow connected to an event in the secret world. You’ll even discover in most cases just how physically near to them your colleague was. One associate would walk by a senior noncommissioned officer named Clyde Conrad every time he was at headquarters. Conrad’s chipper ‘Good Morning Chief!’ conformed to his well-groomed and carefully maintained uniform appearance. He appeared to be a super soldier – except he was a spy. His diligence with staying late (unsupervised) and excessive copying led to correctives after he was arrested. No one considered his actions odd enough to warrant concern. He was a hard worker who couldn’t be matched for his offers to help, to stay late, to do the hard job, not the easy pass. Jonathan Pollard had access everywhere because no one checked to see that his valid pass had no valid reason for access to the information he requested.

Know Your History

Ask your supporting counterintelligence officers to give you examples of current espionage cases, particularly those which happened in your project’s areas of concern. See if your company has a means of protecting against each particular threat. Don’t be satisfied with your threat assessment if it is over three years old. Take the time to properly answer ‘bring up’ investigations. Too often we hear news reports that contend ‘earlier investigations did not reveal any problem with this person.’ Our world has entirely new means of espionage and sabotage. Make sure you understand them, compensate for them, and keep up to date.



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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.