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CIA warns retired agents against working for foreign governments

Central Intelligence Agency (Central Intelligence Agency/Flickr)
January 27, 2021

The CIA’s counterintelligence chief warned retired officers against working for foreign governments either directly or indirectly, according to an email sent out on Monday.

The New York Times reported that the chief also urged retirees to be cautious when speaking in public, particularly on television, podcasts, panels, or social media.

According to the letter, the intelligence agency was noticing a “detrimental trend” of “foreign governments, either directly or indirectly, hiring former intelligence officials to build up their spying capabilities.”

“I can’t mince words — former CIA officers who pursue this type of employment are engaging in activity that may undermine the agency’s mission to the benefit of U.S. competitors and foreign adversaries,” wrote Sheetal T. Patel, the CIA’s assistant director for counterintelligence.

CIA historians and former officials could not recall a similar warning ever being communicated to retired officers via email, a change that can be attributed in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agency spokeswoman Nicole de Haay said the email was not unusual, noting, “We routinely reiterate counterintelligence guidance to current and former CIA officers alike, and reading more into it than that is a mistake.”

Similar messages raising awareness of foreign governments using retirees to gain information have recently been disseminated across government agencies. Last year, a short film depicting a former CIA officer used by China through a networking site was released by the F.B.I. and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

According to the New York Times, the warnings were not prompted by a specific incident or disclosure.

A number of the former officials who received the email found it alarming and viewed it as a possible attempt to violate their First Amendment rights.

Throughout the intelligence agency’s history, officials have become frustrated with retirees speaking with the press or publishing books. Most notably, in the 1970s, several agency memoirs were published without a thorough review, despite CIA demands.

“What’s changed now is not the phenomenon of formers talking,” said Nicholas Dujmovic, a former CIA historian and current professor at the Catholic University of America. “What’s changed is with the digital revolution, the internet and social media, everybody’s got a platform. It is impossible for the agency to even be aware of, much less actively monitor, every time a former says something.”

While the agency requires op-eds and other articles to be submitted for a review prior to publication, social media posts, television appearances, panel discussions and podcasts go on without examination.

“I think that is a risk that the agency needs to take in order for the American people to be better informed about things that they ought to know about,” Dr. Dujmovic said. “There’s a lot that can be said about intelligence that is not classified.”