Readings 2020: James M. Olson (2019). To Catch a Spy
In 2020 I commited to writing short thoughts on my readings (see e.g. on the Austrians).
Today it’s to Catch a Spy (2019) by James M. Olson, a former CIA case officer and chief of counterintelligence (CI) at the CIA.
The book offers an introduction into American counterintelligence. It’s structured in three parts: 1. the main threats (China, Russia, Cuba), 2. principles and methods of CI (10 commandments of CI, Workplace CI, Double-Agent Operations), and 3. CI Case Studies.
The book seems to be addressed to potential U.S. CI recruits. The most interesting aspects are Olson’s priorities when it comes to CI principles and methods. In other words: there are better and more up-to-date resources on the threat environment and on CI case studies. Having said that the case studies are useful summaries for entering U.S. CI history - for each there are recommended references, often of book-length format.
A selection from the 10 Commandments
- Be offensive, through direct foreign-intel penetration and double agents. Many historical CI investigations are triggered through offensive CI, i.e. intel directly derived from the adversary. Interstingly, this may be a useful indicator of how much your other controls you institute for detection are working/not working.
- Own the street, i.e. outperform adversary tradecraft. This is key, as the adversary you are dealing with is trained in targeting you. Make their life miserable.
- Know your history: CI is a learned discipline. In order to learn it, you need to have some grasp of the historical successes and mistakes, and be able to explain them.
- Do not ignore analysis: this is an interesting one: That it needs to be a principle, already tells us a lot about the perspective the book is written from: from the view of a case officer. Analysis is growing in importance, especially as technology is transforming the environment.
Workplace CI: Selection, Supervision, and Individual Responsibility of Personnel
Olson puts much weight on vetting and the polygraph in selection of personnel and advocates for more resources to be spent on it. Secondly, he thinks much harm could be prevented by effective supervision and responsibility taken by all employees to speak up if they notice suspicious behaviour.
The book is slightly ideologically tainted, with some strong opinions shining through. Perhaps, the cold warrior mentality is still present, for example, when the author recommends the addition of a “psychologist knowledgeable of the Chinese psyche” (p.190) or voices strong criticisms of affirmative action recruitment initiatives.
Overall, the book provides a primer on CI that can be of particular use in a classroom context.