Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: William Johnson’s Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How to Be a Counter-Intelligence Officer

By Wesley Britton

Johnson, William R., d. Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How to Be a Counter-Intelligence Officer.
Foreword by William Hood, p. cm.
Originally published: Bethesda, Md.: Stone Trail Press, 1987.
Re-published by Georgetown University Press, Feb. 2009.
ISBN 978-1-58901-255-4

Determining the purpose of and audience for the republication of William Johnson’s 1987 Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How to Be a Counter-Intelligence Officer is tricky. Never intended for the general reader, Thwarting Enemies was clearly written as a “Counter-Intelligence 101” textbook for trainees, with researchers and scholars likely finding it a useful resource. Then and now, it’s also a good volume for fiction writers to have on hand if they want to get their particulars correct. But what would make this Cold War overview of interest for audiences, or future counter-intelligence officers, in the post-9/11 world?

I admit, the opening pages didn’t convince me Georgetown University Press was all that certain itself. For one matter, the very brief introductory paragraphs aren’t especially revealing. They claim Johnson’s “seasoned wisdom about the principles and tactics of counterintelligence” teaches “readers how to think about counterintelligence, and these basic principles carry through from era to era. Updates to account for current events and the latest gadgetry would have short-term benefit but would be dated once again within a few years.” Likely so, but then they say “the author passed away before republication was planned, so we elected not to attempt revisions that could not be approved by the author.” If no revisions then, a modern reader might expect some background details in the “Foreword” preparing them for what they might expect in the following pages.

However, in but two pages, William Hood provides a brief biography of Johnson, which does establish the author’s considerable bona fides. According to Hood, Johnson was an active participant in the D-Day invasion, and then joined the CIA in 1948 where he first worked “in the vital European counterintelligence field” before returning to Washington for “a senior assignment managing CIA's Far Eastern counterintelligence operations from 1960 until his transfer to Saigon in 1973.” Hood credits Johnson with helping create the network and structure in a new areana for the CIA as its predecessor, the O.S.S., had not been widely used in the Pacific theatre of WWII. More details are offered in the About the Author” description at the end of the book, such as: “As a young case officer he had several of the best coaches in the business of counterespionage, among them the Americans Jim Angleton, Bill Harvey, and Bill Hood. He was also coached by some British officers who cannot be named . . . He spent the last year of his service with CIA writing a classified counterintelligence training manual for young case officer recruits.” After his retirement in 1977, Johnson “organized and managed a series of seminars and lectures on intelligence as a function of government that was part of the University of Colorado's annual Conference on World Affairs.”

Without question, Johnson was more than qualified to craft this handbook for future counter-espionage agents. But the question remains: while useful before the fall of the Berlin Wall, what gives this book continuing value beyond being supplementary reading for new recruits? More than technology has changed—for example, Johnson’s discussion on wiretaps includes legal advice that was outmoded the day the Patriot Act was signed into law. The publisher apparently thinks, if you pick up this book, you already know what it is. Or they didn’t think it worthy enough for a more detailed introduction where the issues of the changes of the past 20 years could be addressed--while selling the point that basic principles, thought-patterns, strategies, etc. are the same now as they have ever been. In particular, all of Johnson’s accounts deal with the old duels with the KGB and GRU—battling modern terrorists is a different fish completely. Or is it? Some one could and should have addressed this in introductory pages.

None of this, of course, is criticism of Johnson’s own work as he passed in 2005. Undoubtedly, had anyone asked, he’d have opted to at least delete the sections on technological uses of surveillance equipment based on land-lines, concerns no longer relevant in the cell-phone age. Such deletions would have been simple enough as the book is organized in a series of segments on a variety of topics. Many of these segments are indeed still useful and, gratefully, told with wit and assurance. For example, the section on “double agents” reads, in part:

“No term is more misused by amateurs and greenhorns than `"double agent.’ Once in the discussion preceding a routine polygraph test, I told a greenhorn operator that one of my specialties was running double agents and managing double agent cases. So young smartypants stuck a surprise question at the end of the first series, "Are you a double agent?’ The breathing stylus on his machine jumped off the chart, and he had to write `Laugh at the point of my answer. I then explained that the proper question would have been, `"Are you a penetration?’

If you check the dictionary, you will probably find that a double agent is an agent working for two services at the same time. This will produce an image in your mind of somebody like Peter Lorre in the old movies, who spies on everybody and sells his information to the highest bidder. Today we'd call a double agent like that a `freelance,’ if we could find one. The fact is that since about 1945 the spy business has become a major international industry. Freelancers freelance just once. Then they either get gobbled up by professional services or (most often) they instantly go out of business. In other words, double agents, like all agents, are controlled by one service at a time. If control shifts from X to Y, a successful counterintelligence operation has been mounted by Y. To a professional CI officer . . . double agent’ means one of two things: a playback or a provocation. And it means an agent, not a staff officer.” (91-92)

This excerpt is typical of Johnson’s both personal and world-wise tone—he is out to share his experience, and with that experience comes a wealth of opinions. He discusses the problems of field offices having to work with the constraints of bureaucracy, budgets, and especially analysts who don’t properly collate the information in the files. There’s no shortage of advice: “Never neglect overt sources. Read the newspapers. Remember that information in the press is at best only 40 percent accurate, but though it may not give you useful facts, it conveys attitudes. The context in which a person is mentioned often tells you more about her than what is alleged or stated.”(181)

Such observations are the core of the book’s value—the passing along of one lifetime of experience, emphasizing the very human elements of CI operators. What Johnson handles most deftly is explaining and clarifying the many aspects of counter-intelligence, a far more complex profession than merely trying to stop our enemies from stealing our secrets. Johnson opens by asking readers if they have the 5 essential traits of a CI officer, and then discusses the distinctions between this work and other law enforcement agencies (and how to work with them), how to manage physical and technical surveillance, how to get and use doubles, moles, and defectors, the ins and outs of deceiving targets, and all of this recounted in a very compact, succinct style.

In the end, Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How to Be a Counter-Intelligence Officer clearly remains indispensible reading for potential CI agents, and we should all be grateful such a volume is available for them. It’s been noted many times that, due to political maneuverings during the Bush administration, the CIA lost many of its experienced hands and a new generation of agents and operatives don’t share the same continuity of mentoring as in the past. Other readers can pick up information that remains topical, as in Johnson’s “Interrogation: How It Really Works” which includes a discussion on “The Myth of Torture.”(page 34). Still, this re-publication is likely to have a limited market beyond those in the “need to know” realm. That is, those curious about a career in CI, those taking their first steps into it, or those studying and keeping an eye on this important aspect of spycraft. One of these readers may, someday, help put out an updated edition retaining the wisdom of Johnson while taking the time to demonstrate why we still need it.

For other book reviews, see the “Spies in History and Literature” files at