During the Cold War, we took it for granted that officers of the Central Intelligence Agency worked solely for the good of the USA -- or at least their version of the good. They were loyal first, last, and always only to one institution, the CIA. Americans assumed that they had one boss, and one boss alone: the CIA director. But this week came a revelation that shakes that longstanding belief to the core. Today, CIA officers are allowed to moonlight, and ply their espionage skills elsewhere in their free time.
I wish I could say this was a stunning revelation, but it is not. It is just the sort of dilution of loyalty, authority, and the government's "brain" that enables the top players of power and influence -- the shadow elite -- to serve their own agendas, rather than the public's, as they move seamlessly across government, business, think tank, and media organizations. In my new book Shadow Elite, I argue that this trend threatens our democracy, and often, even our security.
Here is what is detailed by reporter Eamon Javers, in his new book Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage. And it reads like a bit of farce from a John Le Carre novel, recast to 21st century Wall Street. Some active duty CIA officers, Javers reports, have been on the payroll of a company called BIA (deliberately named to resemble the CIA). For BIA, they reportedly practice "deception detection" to aid Wall Street companies and hedge funds in their business transactions. Like the TV series, "Lie To Me", in which a psychologist analyzes facial, body, and vocal expressions to ferret out who's lying and who's not in criminal investigations, these officers use their CIA training to read the cues that CEO's and market analysts unwittingly send off. They help clients, including Goldman Sachs, figure out if other executives are on the up-and-up when they tout the health of their company. It conjures up an absurd image of an elite, precision-trained spy, sitting and watching and scrutinizing.... business news on CNBC.
Not surprisingly, the CIA isn't saying how many of its officers moonlight or how long they've been doing it, but they insist that stringent safeguards are in place. Members of the House Intelligence Committee in a hearing Wednesday demanded a full review, and Sen. Diane Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is looking into it as well.
This case, involving moonlighting, multiple roles, and potentially divided loyalties within an agency whose mission is to protect Americans, points toward a disturbing trend I examine in Shadow Elite: power brokers and supposed public servants, with a multiplicity of ever-fluid involvements that lack traditional checks and balances, moving themselves, their connections, and their expertise through government, business, media, and think-tank organizations.
This trend can endanger democracy and the national interest. As in the CIA/BIA case, the danger often begins with the contracting out of official information and expertise -- "Is government outsourcing its brain?" an article in the Wall Street Journal asked -- and thus whether government is capable of minding the store. The widespread draining of official government is depriving it of crucial in-house expertise and institutional memory. But there is an even more disturbing implication. As players blend and blur their roles across organizations, the boundaries and purposes of those organizations also blend and blur. What are we to make of the BIA? Is it an offshoot of the CIA? As they trundle back and forth between Wall Street and Washington, does the information the CIA officers glean in one venue seep into the other?
Unfortunately, there are plenty of recent examples of dangers to democracy that arise when government and business intertwine, and loyalties are blowing in the wind.
One of these is the "SWIFT" case, in which a private company, given "government" access to sensitive, private data about U.S. citizens and other countries, not only worked alongside government to analyze the data, but then also (supposedly) oversaw the process.
Following 9/11, one government surveillance program tracked money flowing into and out of the U.S., transactions abroad and, in a small portion of cases, financial transactions within the U.S. SWIFT takes its name from the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, a "member-owned cooperative" that processes international financial transactions. Through SWIFT, the U.S. Treasury Department sought and gained access to large numbers of financial and communication records.
Treasury then established the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, run out of the CIA, to analyze the SWIFT data and later shared it with the CIA and FBI. It also hired Booz Allen Hamilton (whose majority owner is the Carlyle Group), now as an "independent" auditor, which, along with SWIFT, reviewed Treasury's logs of information searches. When the surveillance program was exposed amid controversy in 2006, a key question was how Booz Allen could be impartial given its record as a government contractor and the close ties of its executives to high government officials, and considering the fact that some of these executives are themselves one-time intelligence officials. As Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project, put it:
"It is bad enough that the administration is trying to hold out a private company as a substitute for genuine checks and balances on its surveillance activities. But of all companies to perform audits on a secret surveillance program, it would be difficult to find one less objective and more intertwined with the U.S. government security establishment."
Both the SWIFT and the CIA moonlighting episodes remind us that even more than in the novels of John Le Carre, a master of complexity himself, the machinations of today's players and entities are difficult to track and pin down. Le Carre has written that mixed loyalties can sometimes provide clarity, once writing, "the more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal." I don't buy it when it comes to the world of power and influence. In our new world of shadow elite, the more professional roles players have and the more venues in which they operate, the less we typically know about their motives and agendas. It might be serving them quite well, but it's unlikely they are serving the American people or the ideals of democracy and accountability.
Arianna Huffington has asked me to bring you an ongoing column based on my book, Shadow Elite, which exposes the new breed of power brokers who are a bit like the public policy equivalent of sci-fi shape-shifters. I call them flexians, people I've targeted in previous posts like Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Tom Daschle, and Barry McCaffrey, who cycle through identities and venues of power, both government and corporate, advancing their own personal agendas and those of their associates, not you, or the government agencies flexians are paid to serve, with your tax dollars.
Today's players are more dangerous and insidious to democracy than the power brokers who came before them. More peripatetic, they move seamlessly among public, corporate, think tank, and media organizations, and are more difficult to detect and less transparent. They cross borders and boundaries in areas of finance, health care, the economy, and the military, among others. They defy all the old standards of accountability. I plan to ferret out the shadow elite, their enablers, and the developments that encourage them, with, I hope, your help.
It all began in January when Arianna named Shadow Elite the First HuffPost Book Club Pick of 2010. In my ongoing blog, I'll continue to share my observations and also enlist contributions from other experts who see flexians and flex nets (exclusive networks of flexians) -- that is, the shadow elite -- as they perform overlapping, not-fully-revealed, roles to push their own agendas in crucial power arenas, with often disastrous results. The consequences can be seen on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan or the boardrooms of a collapsing Wall Street.
I also invite readers to serve as truth-tellers as well, using this space to share arguments, comments, and ideas about the shadow elite. A special thanks to everyone who already has posted and shared online. As much as possible, my plan is to post weekly, or on another day when news breaks. Linda Keenan, a former CNN producer and HuffPost blogger, has kindly agreed to edit and help with the blog.
Edited by Linda Keenan.