The Problem With Fake Intelligence (Officers)

on July 10 | in CIA, Intelligence Analysis, Secrecy

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Looks like there’s yet another intelligence scandal brewing—sort of. No, It’s not the Russians purloining secrets or the Iranians trying to murder diplomats this time, but rather a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed against Mark Levin, the “former special adviser” to the president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security. The lawsuit alleges Levin concocted “a clandestine career to manipulate three young men” at the school “into sexually abusive encounters.” These career highlights reportedly included hunting terrorists in the District of Columbia, “black operations” across Africa and Europe, and killing 38 people.

If his resume sounds too good to be true, well, that’s because it is. Like some Louis Vuitton handbags and Rolex watches, it appears he too was a knock-off; a fake intelligence official. Levin is now countersuing his alleged victims.

Yet stories like this and individuals like Levin—blustery men of a certain age who claim a shadowy-but-macho past in national security skullduggery, and who convince others of their credentials for pride and profit—keep popping up every so often. The CIA impostor Wayne Simmons was a Fox News commentator for years. The self-proclaimed spook and Houston chapter head of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers Roland Carnaby reportedly flashed a “CIA badge” (whatever that is) right before he was shot after a high-speed car chase with Houston police. The zany Chuck Barris of The Gong Show fame claimed in his autobiography to have been an assassin for CIA as well. One would think with so many government killers supposedly in Uncle Sam’s employment, the federal government would’ve been able to liquidate Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and any number of America’s nemeses fifteen times over.

What this is is a peculiar intelligence variant of the military’s “Stolen Valor.” But in a way, it’s worse. The intelligence community, and CIA in particular provide a certain veneer of secret sexiness, a touch of the dark magic. More importantly, much of it is unverifiable.  (That said, a CIA Employee Verification Office exists for mortgage lenders.) So much of America’s conception of intelligence comes from mass media that former CIA Directorate of Operations officer Alex Finley mused, “We live in a reality TV world, where sheen is much more important than substance.”

Compounding the mystery is these folks often claim their exploits are “off the books”—a popular Hollywood conceit and one that suggests a fundamental misunderstanding about how bureaucracy works; namely, it  absolutely loves record-keeping. Consider some of the controversial counterterrorism tools of the last decade-and-a-half: renditions, harsh interrogations, targeted killings. All had significant documentation backing them up for future investigations.

Still, individuals like Levin can pull off their fables, conning even those with legitimate intelligence credentials. Many secret programs are compartmentalized, and there are almost a million people with top secret clearances. This means many people even within the system don’t know each other well enough. As former CIA targeter Connie Min remarked “it would be difficult to disprove such a claim” unless you personally knew the person or could disprove an outlandish claim.

Furthermore, since few people, especially outside of the DC region, actually have experience in the intelligence community, it’s easier to convince others of supposed credentials. And why pretend to be an intelligence officer who writes reports in a windowless cube all day? Virile acts of derring-do are far more exciting to a rapt audience. So a blunderbuss can talk his way into organizations or television based on the flimsiest of resumes.

In a larger sense, people like them will always be around. As forensic psychologist Dr. Max Wachtel told me, there are three general reasons why people behave in this manner: “to get special privileges, take advantage of other people, or to get special attention and recognition.” To claim great but secret heroics in the service of the Nation is a quick short cut to attention, recognition, and respect. Wachtel also noted that Levin in particular “seems similar to people who impersonate police officers, firefighters, and other first responders”—in other words, authority figures who often demand deference in emergency situations.

So, how can a regular person try to sniff out the frauds? Generally, a good rule of thumb to determine someone’s general veracity is to see who is circumspect about his or her accomplishments—and who is not. Even the most exciting career in the US government has long periods of calm and boredom; most intelligence successes are quietly achieved through careful, painstaking work. To this end, a person who frequently claimed he killed lots of people for a civilian agency or chased down terrorists in DC like Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies in casual conversation—like Levin—simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

To be sure, one might ask, what’s the harm in claiming you’re an old intelligence hand when you’re not? Lying is not illegal, unless you do so on a federal form. After all, why should you, dear reader, believe what’s written in my byline? And that would certainly be a reasonable question.

Well, it’s harmful because we currently live in a time when the intelligence community is increasingly attempting to hold the brittle line against the untruths percolating throughout the highest levels of our government. The IC and its employees try, in their imperfect way, to provide the people the truth who make critical decisions in our society, It’s not always correct, of course. Nonetheless, there is an implicit bond of trust between those who perform this service, and those who rely upon it to make critical, often life-or-death decisions.

Imposters and lies degrade this trust, imposing an unseen but pernicious cost to how we operate as a government and as a society. When these people inject known fake credentials and intelligence falsehoods into news, viewers—including our cable-news addicted President—it damages the bonds of trust even more. Weaken those bonds of trust, and you weaken all of us, even those of us who have never seen the inside of a government building.

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photo: the men discussed in this article did not do this. 

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