Nicholas Dujmovic, who directs the Catholic University of America’s program in intelligence and served at the Central Intelligence Agency for 26 years, spoke about espionage, intelligence, and Christian ethics at Providence’s Christianity and National Security Conference in November 2019. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

So I spent, say, 26 years at the CIA, and ultimately had to go to confession a couple of times that had nothing really to do with intelligence. It was my failings, nothing intelligence related. So our topic is intelligence and Christian ethics. Well how about them gnats? I’m not trying to evade the question. It’s just that I don’t think I have any particularly brilliant insights for you. 

In intelligence, we’re all about bottom lines. You know, the Bottom Line Up Front. We don’t believe in the history novel style of writing where you know, you come to the conclusion at the end. It’s very difficult to teach my students this. Generally, you start with your conclusion and, uh, and then justify it. So I have a few bottom line conclusions that you can judge and then if they’re not adequate you can take a break early.  

The first is that intelligence officers whether they are Christians or people of any faith or not, all know in their gut that this is a fallen world. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Another bottom line is that, to the question whether a believing, practicing, professing Christian can be in U.S. intelligence to serve a career I… I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. I’m a deacon of the Orthodox Church and in fact I thought about wearing my cassock just to make a point. But I thought that would make people uncomfortable.  

The other bottom line is that we have to remember what intelligence is. Intelligence is the secret state activity to understand or influence foreign entities. And in our intelligence studies program at Catholic University of America, we parse that pretty closely. Secret state activity to understand or influence foreign entities. And there are… there are potential ethical concerns in every part of that. Let me break it down further. 

Another bottom line. The way we teach about intelligence there is that it comprises five basic elements: Four classic ones, and one element that’s necessary because we serve a great democracy. And that’s collection, the most basic intelligence activity, in all its manifestations: Technical and HUMINT, collection. Analysis: Making sense of what is collected. Counter-Intelligence: Trying to prevent the bad guys, our adversaries, from worrying about us and U.S. national secrets. Covert Action: We’re getting more problematic as we go down the line here. Covert action, which is the implementation of foreign policy in such a way that the United States is not apparent or can be denied. And then finally the fifth one that is absolutely necessary because of our democracy, and I know your previous speaker spoke about it, of Christianity and democracy…  

It’s that we need accountability. Because to do these things; to do the collection; to do the analysis; to do counter-intelligence and covert action, there are resources and there’s power at work that needs to be held accountable. Accountable to our democracy, to the Constitution, to our elected leaders through various deeds of oversight, and ultimately to the American people who are sovereign. 

Now, I… I spent my career… well, I started as an analyst and rose to be a manager of analysts. I edited the President’s Daily Brief for three stress-filled years. And so I’m going to start with analysis. 

Analysis is fairly easy to, I won’t say dispense with, but to cover in terms of what ethical challenges are there. Well there’s a normal one that you would find in any kind of work to be good at what you do and try hard. You have a moral obligation to give your employer what you’re supposed to do, right? And the worker deserves his wages. But beyond that, intelligence analysis does raise some questions because very often the analysis runs counter to what the ultimate customer policy maker wants. And so there are temptations to color the analysis to not be as objective as one ought to be to match the policy maker’s expectations. And that is it in the analytical world, I think it’s a sin. Arguably it’s a sin in the theological world as well.  

What else can I say about analysis? Um, it’s important for analysts to know that we live in this fallen world and we are affected by it, so we have certain human shortcomings. We are fallible. I’m orthodox, I don’t believe in the infallibility of anyone. So analysts can be prey to certain cognitive mindsets that lead to a less objective product.  

We’ve… we’ve studied the special issue of mirror-imaging. When we are observing a foreign entity, a potential adversary, and trying to figure out what they’re up to, mirror imaging is, as it suggests you’re looking in a mirror, there’s a great mirror back there. And you see yourself. You assume that these foreigners who come from different cultural contexts which you ought to know about, you have a moral obligation to learn about that, more or less think like we do. More or less have the same assumptions that we do. And that is deadly. That leads to famous mistakes like the CIA telling President Kennedy in September of 1962, you know the Soviets could put missiles in Cuba, but we don’t think they will because they must realize it’s not in their interest. Well that’s not how Kruschev was thinking, and a positive case of mirror image.  

Another one is confirmation bias, which is all to prevalent mostly in intelligence and journalism and in education, where you seek and cherry-pick the evidence that helps justify the conclusion you’ve already come to. That’s a grave sin. There are other mindsets like continuity bias: it’s always been this way, the Shah has always been able to handle the opposition in Iran and we think he’s going to be able to do it again. Which works until it doesn’t. 

None of these are sins, really, but we have to be aware that they exist. Again, we have a moral obligation to even within ourselves understand our own limitations. And above all, and I’ll get out of analysis, above all, there is a definite need for humility. Good old-fashioned Christian humility. It is the be-all end-all, I think, of so many things, including intelligence analysis. That ability to, you know, look at your wonderful analysis that you worked so hard at and consider the possibility that you may be wrong. You know, maybe Saddam Hussein doesn’t have Weapons of Mass Destruction. It was a lack of humility that has led the CIA, I know, to analytical failures.  

So moving along, along the, uh, the elements, uh… I tell my students that, you know, this is the periodic table of elements and my role is really fun. So we move on. I started with analysis, now we have to step back to what happens before the analysis is the collection. And this is a whole world of potential ethical challenges, technical and HUMINT. On the HUMINT side, we are… we… I keep saying “we” even though it’s been three years since I was part of CIA, okay I’m not… not employed now. Okay? Students sometimes ask. No I’m not here to recruit or to spy on people. However, if you are interested in a career, I can help.  

A CIA officer who is in charge of… his or her basic function is to recruit human sources, assets, spies if you will, or agents… Um, that officer is a case officer. He or she is handling this specific case. And what they do is they, in the course of their work, which is undercover, and cover is a lie… we can talk about whether lying is ever justified. Uh, there are a couple of schools of thought on that. Um, that case officer in the course of his or her work, let’s say undercover working in an embassy somewhere, is to spot interesting foreigners. Those foreigners that might have privileged access to information of national security interest to the United States.  

If they spot such an individual then, working with headquarters, we assess that individual. We try to find out as much as we can about that individual because eventually we want to create a relationship with that individual. And then that case officer may find out that this, um, interesting Iranian in the diplomatic circuit in a particular capital – I’m not going to mention any names in case I’m correct – maybe this particular Iranian seems to know something about their missile program, uh, he plays tennis at the, you know, where all the diplomats play tennis. Well, you’re not a bad tennis player. You’re going to go and sort of accidentally on-purpose bump into this person, exchange cards, develop a relationship.  

If this sounds exploitative, it is. If you have a problem with it, please don’t go into intelligence because this… this is something where I tell my students that when, um, when we talk about understanding and influencing foreign entities and the things we do to do that on behalf of U.S. national security, the only way to justify much of this is that our cause is better than the other guys. It comes down to that. And again if you don’t believe that, go do something else. Please.  

Um, there’s a lot we can talk about more about human intelligence in that what they call the recruitment-acquisition cycle of spotting, assessing, and then there’s recruitment, the actual scales come off the eyes and everybody understands what’s going on. You’ve developed a relationship. You’ve manipulated that relationship to the point where you are confident that you’re going to pitch this person and that person will say yes. It’s sort of like asking someone to marry you, okay? You can take notes on this. You spot somebody who looks interesting, you learn all about that person, right, through Google searches, and you kind of accidentally bump into that person and you develop a relationship, and it all works out and you’re popping the question, right? As in love, you want to know the answer to the question before you pop it. You want to be pretty sure that that ends up going on the right track.  

Of course being fallible, we make mistakes. Both in love and in intelligence. HUMINT – Human intelligence. But that’s when the relationship, and sometimes in both cases… and sometimes the answer is “I thought you’d never ask.” And some very productive, getting away from the whole love… very productive, long-lasting intelligence relationships have been developed, some of them lasting decades at very high levels.  

And we are… we in U.S. intelligence are great at getting great information that we can use now to inform the policy makers to make better decisions. That’s the understanding part of it. I don’t want to go into the maze of issues regarding technical intelligence. We can do that in Q&A.  

Moving on to… um, I’ll lead us on over counterintelligence for now, and go straight to covert action. Covert action is, again, the implementation of a foreign policy initiative authorized by the President. There’s a legal requirement that the President has to sign a document, find that this is necessary for the national security of the United States, and that’s transmitted to Congress. So in just war, we call that proper authority, right?  

Covert action can actually be divided into one of two general categories. Um, you can call it the soft covert action and the hard covert action; or the soft hearts and minds, trying to capture the hearts and minds, influence opinions; or the bombs and bullets, you know, the implementation of violence either directly or through proxies. Um, we can go into a whole range of different examples of that. There was a CIA historian, I could talk forever about this stuff. But it seems to me that those very thoughtful writers who have applied just war doctrine to the proposal and implementation of covert action are right on the money.  

And I think, from my understanding of covert action deliberations and proposals, that those questions are asked. Is this being done under proper authority? Is this the last resort? If it’s risky, we want to make sure that other means are… are unsuitable for… Let’s say a government that we don’t like is oppressing its people and supporting an insurgency in a neighboring country that we… whose government we do like. Well, we’re going to be helping the government that we do like dealing with this insurgency – this is a par… paramilitary side of covert actions. And then we might support an insurgency against the government we don’t like. And that is exactly what happened in Central America in the 1980s with the CIA support for the contras.  

In this and in all such activities that have potential ethical challenges, usually the question is how far do you go? How far do you go to collect information? How far do you go in implementing a covert action? I mentioned just war, you know, are proper authority, last resort, right, are means proportional to the goal, that has to be a clearly articulated goal that does not… that will bring peace back to this area and further social justice. All these things really should be, and I think are for the most part, asked before covert action is launched. And of course, Congress is informed in almost all cases. There are exceptions.  

So um, I don’t know how… Mark, how much longer do you want me to talk? We can go to questions, um… Oh sure.  

When it comes to counterintelligence, and in this, you know, again the question is how far do we go in, uh, trying to find the spies among us. Um, there is a recognized, um you know, right of privacy. Certainly a desire for privacy by people. And that seems to be violated when there’s suspicion that there’s a spy among us, one of us who has sworn an oath to the Constitution as we all do and is now violating that by both working for a foreign entity and a government. Maybe a foreign terrorist group. And, um, so that their… that becomes an issue.  

Um, in the recent war on terror… Recent – it’s going on still as of this week… um, there was an unfortunate, um, episode or serious of episodes, um, involving the elicitation of information from terrorist suspects in custody who weren’t talking. They were… it was judged that they had information and how do we go about getting that… getting that information? Well, it was authorized by the administration rightly or wrongly, and however you think about it… the enhanced interrogation techniques, the EITs, were authorized by the Administration. Whatever Congress tells you, they were briefed in the main to Congress. Yes, there were abuses and that was very unfortunate.  

But to the two questions you have to ask, were they effective and were they ethical? Intelligence professionals will tell you that they worked. You know, that despite what the Senate report said, they… they will tell you that they worked. We learned unique information that led us to other terrorists and plots. As far as whether they were ethical or not, they were certainly legal at the time. Three times, CIA made sure they got it in writing from the Justice Department. Um, it was still troubling to some, in fact there was an internal complaint against it that went to the inspector general, and the whole thing unraveled as a result. But in a sense, the system worked.  

The next question that whether they were ethical or not, I mean everybody’s got an opinion, but that doesn’t really belong to intelligence. Um, if people have ethical concerns, they… they don’t have to be involved. They could raise it, as somebody did. Um, we don’t… we don’t check our ethical concerns at the door when we go to work.  

Um, getting back to human intelligence, it occurs to me that we run a… a seminar called Issues in Contemporary U.S. Intelligence, in which I pose scenarios to the students. So you’re a case officer and you are working an asset who’s giving us great information. This asset is a North Korean scientist who is giving us the keys to the kingdom about the North Korean missile program, and he knows a lot about the nuclear program as well. This is great. But he wants certain things. How far are we gonna go? Give him what he wants so that we can get from him… what we want from him. Will we provide him with pornography? Will we provide him with a prostitute? And… and you know, will we provide him with drugs? 

 I’m not going to give you the answer. I’m not sure there is an answer. It depends. I think the practical answer is it depends. So um, we run these scenarios that are… they’re um… they’re usually by design fraught with ethical concerns, and the most important thing, is to… is to ask the right questions. Ask the right questions.  

So I guess with that I will stop. And I’m happy to take questions, I think we have a little more time than I anticipated here. And I’m going to take my coat off because this is a warm room. Thank you. 


Question: Yes, um, David Johnson from Regent University. You mentioned covers, and I just wanted to get your thoughts on the ethics of lying to protect other information.  

Answer: Well despite my introduction I am not an expert on Christian ethics. Um, I know something about intelligence, and um, I do know something about Christianity. It’s kind of required. Um, but in terms of my understanding of the Western intellectual tradition it’s that there are two tools of thought in terms of whether lying is… Because cover means… Everybody knows “under cover,” right? You are presenting yourself as something that you are not and that can have a lot of layers. It can be very complex, it can be very simple.  

When I was an analyst and I traveled abroad, I was under a nominal cover. It wasn’t backstopped very much and in this digital age it probably wouldn’t work, but usually it was under official cover. I was working for another U.S. government agency. Once it was commercial cover, which was very strange. I was a senior researcher at a think tank that did not exist. And you know, when you’re… when you’re undercover, as I was temporarily or for some operations officers, basically their entire careers, they are presenting themselves as something that they are not. 

And uh, so the issue is… is that kind of lying permissible? And, you know, if you consult, you know, Emmanuel Kant, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, the answer seems to be no. It’s never, you know… it… lying offends the Word of God, the logos. We must not lie because we’re all children of God and we have this dignity, and all that.  

Now thinking of another tradition which is, you know, the Reinhold Neibuhr and St. John Chrysostom, would say yeah. Neibuhr would say you know, when the Nazi comes to your door, you lie to the Nazi about Jews hiding in your basement. You lie to him. That’s where justice is done. He doesn’t deserve the truth. He has removed himself from deserving the truth.  

St. John Chrysostom in one of his sermons praises the divine deception of Rahab the prostitute. Um, you know that story. You know they… she’s called before the king of Jericho and he says where are the Hebrew spies, we know you’ve been in contact with them? Which indicates that they’ve got a counterintelligence service. She says oh they came and they went that away. She’s hiding them. She lied. And again, St. John Chrysostom said this is a divine deception if it furthers the will of God.  

Now I’m not going to tell you that my lie to the United, uh, desk clerk about what I was doing in a particular country using my cover that I was doing the will of God. But I think there’s… there is a wholistic view of cover, that in order for us to do our jobs in U.S. intelligence, we have to accept some of these things. Otherwise… otherwise, in general, we will not be able to do what it takes, which is to protect… help protect the country.  

So very good question about cover. Um, it’s not for everyone and it’s stressful. Um, believe me if CI officers undercover could not be undercover, they’d prefer not to. It complicates everything from doctor’s appointments to getting a mortgage, you know? Everything. Okay. 

Question: Um, Rhea Logan with Liberty University. I’ll stand up so you’re not looking at my back. But as a government student studying intelligence, and then also a student studying psychology, I’m really interested in how intelligence agencies overall kind of focus on keeping those ethics and those morals to their individuals important and relevant in conversation, um as well as the idea of, like, like you were saying with CIs being undercover for so long, like that impacts a person’s psyche kind of more than the initial of the moral or the ethical aspects of a person.  

So as someone who’s obviously never been invited to look into the CIA or any intelligence agency, are there organizations inside those departments that are furthering, you know, the psychology of their people and then the ethics to keep that relevant to conversation? Or is that kind of more of a new age kind of thing where everyone wants to be more interested in what’s going on?  

Answer: At CIA there are a lot of counselors. I mean, the general psychological health of the workforce is very important to CIA because if we have unhappy people, then they might decide to work for another foreign government. And that would be bad. I mentioned a few very unfortunate cases. And this gets into the psychology. Giving up all your data, your financial data, so they can monitor you. Your every key stroke is monitored. Your print camera is monitored. What’s on your screen is subject… it’s all subject to monitoring.  

In fact, as a CIA historian, which made me interested in everything, I was, uh… I once had to go talk to the counterintelligence people because, um, I was printing off too many things. Why are you doing this? Because I’m a CIA historian and I’m interested in everything. That… that… they bought that, and, you know, I spent no time in jail. Um, but they did want to know. Um, to the more specific case of whether it’s stressful, yes it is stressful. And there’s a lot of training involved in how to live undercover. There are, uh, training modules regarding, uh, the ethics of the workplace, you know, normal things like you don’t misuse the government credit cards, you know, you don’t use the internet for pornography, that sort of thing.  

And then the specific cases where okay, you’re dealing with a foreign asset. Somebody who we’ve recruited. And he or she wants this. Are we going to give it to them? There are… there are guidances about that. So that’s, you know, one is not alone when one works, uh, in the intelligence services. At CIA it’s very much a community. Sometimes a very close community. I met my wife there. Now we’re a CIA family. And that’s worked out. So that’s good. Um, and when you leave it’s a little traumatic. They have counseling when you leave. In fact, I tell you, only three years ago they called it leaving a monastery. It’s like… you know, it’s kind of… you’re out there in the world. 

They spend a lot. They invest a lot into, uh, preparing you for these specific things. Specific, um, there are specific programs for people coming back from war zones. You know, we have people in the… in the war zones which are drawing them, of course, but um, for years we had people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq who had seen some really nasty stuff. And so they needed to go through that. Counter-terrorism analysts who review these terrible videos that ISIS made. I don’t know if you remembered this a few years ago. ISIS was, you know, quite publicly and graphically cutting the heads off of people. And uh, that all needed to be reviewed by somebody. In fact, through analysis of the veins on one of their… one of these guys… Jihadi John, he’s from Britain, uh they were able to identify who this guy was and he died in a drone strike in 2014. So, eye for an eye, I guess.  

So yeah. And, but… these people, they need counseling too. So there’s an infrastructure for this. Thanks for asking. Great question. 

Question: Hi. I’m Aidan Cain from New College. Um, so you’ve talked a lot about, and thanks obviously for talking because that’s your topic, so are there any common threads and ethical concerns that you’ve seen that would transcend that closed community or monastery, and after you answer that question, are there any specific passages or books like the Wisdom literature that really helped you and helped people that you know that are Christians in those types of situations to navigate ethical concerns or to deal with ramifications of actions they’ve taken? 

Answer: Wow. That’s a heavy question. Um, in terms of Scripture, I think I’ve relied on the Sermon on the Mount and also the Psalms. Again reminding us that we are called to be perfect, but we live in a very imperfect world. And that we have to deal with it on its own terms. And um, and I’m trying to remember the first part of your question. Restate that. 

Question: So just common threads of ethical concerns in the broad profession. 

Answer: Right. Um, no I think it’s pretty consistent. What’s interesting now, of course, is what’s in the news is that somebody in the intelligence community… Um, the intelligence community has… is the object of accountability, of oversight, because of the resources, the power that intelligence has. So this is a very unusual situation in which you know, you have somebody acting as an oversight mechanism against the executive branch against the President.  

This memorandum by this IC whistleblower talking about his concerns or her concerns, we still don’t know, that the President abused his authority in… in negotiating with Ukraine and providing aid to Ukraine. Abused his authority by getting a foreign country to investigate a political rival. Um, that’s pretty cross-cutting and what I was struck with by reading the memo which was revealed even though the identity of the whistleblower has not been revealed, is that… what a… what a good piece of analytic work it was.  

I… I was kind of proud. I understood this person was from the directorate of intelligence at CIA, uh, so I would know this person’s training and kind of his mindset. And he really laid it out in an analytical way, Bottom Line Up Front, I’m concerned, and expresses concern, then the evidence and distinguishes between the evidence even personally and the evidence he got from other people, reliable sources that he trusted. And he felt that just the weight of that meant that that came together and really required him, because of his concerns about ethics, um, to go through the legal process of writing up a whistleblower report.  

So that’s the most recent example, and it’s an unusual example. I tell you, intelligence does not want to be in this position. In a sense, I’m kind of proud of the person for standing up and doing what I think is the right thing, whatever you think about the merits of the case. It certainly falls within the boundaries of, um, propriety. Um, John McLoughlin, the… the former acting director of CIA was asked about this just this last week. He was at a forum much like this at George Mason University, and was asked about whether this will… this will make concerns about the so-called deep state… that it will exacerbate those concerns. It’ll prove the case that there’s this cabal of self-interested, um, people in intelligence. There is no deep state, folks. Um, because in 26 years I must have missed it. Maybe I’m not too good on the uptake. My wife will tell you. But, um, you know, it’s not there. 

But McLoughlin kind of… he wanted to play around with it. He said, well if that’s a deep state, thank God for the deep state. You know, somebody acted with… out of an ethical conscious… conscience to do something risky, and he or she knew it would be risky. Following the rules and, uh, and presenting it in a very analytic and objective way. Because for all intelligent… the problems of intelligence, and the problems of intelligence against, again, the intelligence community is institutionally committed to objectivity and analysis based on facts. And, um, and I think that was shown by this person’s, um, incredibly courageous, um, action.  

Okay. I’ll tell you about the one time I went to… had to go to confession, felt, because um, I don’t think I’m breaking any secrets here. Um, it was after the Bin Laden raid. Um, as you know, CIA and other agencies had determined that there was an unusual compound in Abbottabad Pakistan. Um, it was discovered through a variety of means, very cool means, the tax payer was really happy. Um, but there was no direct evidence that Bin Laden was there. And everybody wanted him to be there. Again, analysts are thinking okay. I can’t engage in confirmation bias. What else could this be? 

But we never ruled out that it was anything else and we… we… we never ruled out that it might be a Bin Laden hideout. And so in the next few months we continue to plan for an action, uh, collect more information, which never resulted in any positive evidence that Bin Laden was there but the circumstances seemed, you know, that it was there. And then people were asked to give their confidence levels. How confident are you given all the information that we have, the inferential information that we have, how confident are you that he is actually there? And people would say a range from 40% to 99%. It was an interesting exercise. But eventually, as you know, having looked at all of the available courses of action, the Obama administration decided to send, uh, the U.S. special forces via helicopter, um, to kill Bin Laden.  

That was the mission: to kill Bin Laden. And, uh, as Admiral McRaven put it, if we catch him coming out of the shower stark naked, yeah okay, we’ll arrest him. But otherwise I’ve got to assume he’s got a suicide vest and for force protection, we’re… we will kill him. And, uh, as you know, that happened. But it wasn’t without, uh, without it’s problems. And I was… I was a little distressed that in the course of it there were, you know… the degree of innocence to culpability is debatable.  

Uh, there were two brothers that were harboring Bin Laden knowing very well who he was. They died. And their wives were there, and one of the wives died. She actually threw herself in front of her husband as he was engaged in a firefight with U.S. Special Forces. She regrettably died and they tried to save her. And I was, uh… I was kind of distressed about that. But that’s the only time, um, intelligence-related episode that caused me to go to confession. And I just wanted to talk about it.  

Question: Um, James Nyberg from Liberty University. So I have a question that’s sort of, like, dealing with the Fourth Amendment where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy and the sort of intersection between… you know, although CIA does a lot of work mostly on foreign countries, like, how… how do you balance these privacy interests and expectations of privacy, you know, with intelligence work and Constitutional rights to look at that sort of problem? 

Answer: Excellent question. I think the best answer was given by retired General Michael Hayden, former CIA, and director of the National Security Agency. He said “in our world, you are either covered by the Fourth Amendment, in which case you have to go through processes, or you’re not, in which case game on.” Right? Um, those of you who are foreign students, sorry. But basically, the only concern about collection comes when we’re talking about a U.S. person, a citizen, or a person a green card who is here being a resident. And then there are, uh, there are real concerns. You know, if… if there’s a foreign conversation that we intercept, the intelligence community intercepts, between somebo… a foreigner, who’s living in a foreign country, and an American citizen, and that… the content of that conversation is of some interest.  

I might be alerted, it might be a warning for well you know, we have to handle that a different way then we usually do. And it usually involves getting a warrant, unless the President has an unwarranted program, even though all of those are overhead. So, it complicates things. It’s still doable. Um, the intelligence community would prefer to collect more rather than less, um, but that’s why we have that accountability piece. We have to have the, uh, vehicles of oversight – not just the executive, not just the legislative branch, there’s a judicial piece of that… and… and the public also has a role. 

Okay. I think we’re ready to go? Alright. Thank you.