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What Happens When A Spy Loses Control of His Mind?

20080723 112I was once dating a young woman—let’s call her Jennifer—and had the misfortune of learning about her prior boyfriends: a Big Ten All-Conference quarterback, one of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs in history, and a comparably successful venture capitalist whose long list of abilities included fluency in six languages. As it happens, the venture capitalist and I had attended the same college, beginning and graduating the same years, but we never met, probably because I only hung out with mortals.

I went on to suffer from comparisons to this pantheon of great boyfriends until Jennifer told me about the time the venture capitalist took her home to Virginia for Thanksgiving.

Tragically, Alzheimer’s disease had forced the venture capitalist’s father into retirement in his early sixties. The man had been an office equipment plant manager for—let’s say—IBM, in a slew of European countries. While he and his family lived abroad and his son was soaking up cultures and languages en route to becoming a worldly sophisticate, the father ranked as a xenophobe of the Archie Bunker school, going to great lengths to watch American football broadcasts and procure Budweiser. At all times, he adamantly stuck to speaking English.

Accordingly, on that Thanksgiving day in Virginia, the dozen friends and family members at the dining room table were surprised when he began speaking French.


Taking in all the mouths hanging open, he switched to German.

Evidently, xenophobic IBM plant manager and Bud Man had been cover.

Hearing Jennifer’s account, I wondered: What do our intelligence services do when their operatives lose the ability to retain important secrets?

WindowsAs it stands, enemy intelligence services—even friendly intelligence services—make it their business to constantly assess American intelligence personnel, probing for weakness that can be used to compromise officers, be it drug use or alcoholism, theft, homosexuality, fetishism—any of the above on the part an officer’s family member, anything at all that can serve as a hook. All is fair in war, and espionage is a 24/7/365 war. Or as Jefferson more eloquently put it, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

Enemy services have mounted incredibly elaborate operations just to have a conversation with such an American officer. But once that officer has successfully leaped from the passenger seat of speeding car, has been replaced by a jack-in-the-box-style, pop-up replica of himself to dupe the FBI agents surveilling him (the CIA’s Edward Lee Howard actually did this), has been spirited to a safe house and is talking a classified blue streak, the other team can’t be altogether sure what’s actionable intel and what’s misinformation. Possibly the meth binges were staged, and the underage strippers who stayed the night were part of the act.

It’s a lot easier, and perhaps more efficient, to go after spies whose mental governors aren’t functioning properly. Accordingly our intelligence services keep close tabs on them. Fred Rustmann, a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer for twenty-five years, told me: “Whenever someone is going to be in situation where he might inadvertently babble, as little even as being under anesthesia at a dentist’s office, there’s a ‘babysitter’”—agency-dispatched minder—“present to make sure he doesn’t divulge classified information.” Moreover, family members monitor disabled officers, with specially screened doctors and hospitals on the case.

But what happens when the officers retire or otherwise leave the fold? It turns out that there are so few long-term cases of inadvertent babbling that no official countermeasure exists—no babysitters, no tracking system, no satellite-based surveillance with recognition software that sounds an alarm at Langley when a retired operative is approached at a lunch counter or the shuffleboard court by a Russian SVR agent.

“Usually with older operatives, keeping secrets is practically ingrained,” says Peter Earnest, the executive director of the International Spy Museum who spent thirty-six years at the CIA, including more than twenty in the Clandestine Service. “You also have to take into account the relative sensitivity of their secrets: Generally, when these men and women leave the field, they spend years consulting for us or for outside firms. During that time, the sources and methods that they are obliged to keep forever secret change at an incredibly fast rate.” When the former spies’ minds begin to fail, decades have passed, at which point they could dictate their memoirs to Russian agents and cause little damage, if any.

empty canoeBut there are some retired spies, ripe for the plucking, with minds still chock-full of valuable intel. Take the case of William Colby. Colby served as director of the CIA from 1973 until 1976, then founded a law firm and remained actively involved in national security matters. On the afternoon of April 27, 1996, Colby went canoeing by himself near his home in Rock Point, Maryland. That evening, the canoe was found, but he wasn’t. After just an hour without a trace of him, the intelligence community feared the worst: Enemy operatives had spirited him to a covert interrogation facility.

A week passed, with investigators failing to turn up so much as his paddle. Were inquisitors from one of the other teams taking their time extracting secrets from the relatively fragile seventy-six-year-old?

Colby’s body turned up in the water two days later. Although suspicion of foul play ran rampant, an inquest established that he had suffered a heart attack or stroke and fell out of the canoe, dying from drowning or hypothermia.

What if the suspicions have merit, though?

Along the same lines, what if someone like the venture capitalist’s father went for a stroll in the park one afternoon and didn’t return? Alzheimer’s sufferers sometimes depart for the corner store and are found halfway across the country. The venture capitalist’s dad might still be close enough to his clandestine service days that he could rattle off entire rosters of American operatives abroad to captors, compromising operations and costing lives. Alternatively, as a result of his condition, the old spy might spew erroneous information and even outright fantasies, and his captors might take it for gospel-level intel. His stroll through the woods could prove to be the counterintelligence coup of all time for the United States.

Then again, what if the worst-case scenario transpired?

The question intrigued me enough to write two novels about a spy in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. An ex-CIA operations officer, Drummond Clark is seen as a risk to leak an especially ultra-classified secret, to anyone, be it the hotdog vendor on his Brooklyn street or an enemy spy disguised as a hotdog vendor. So his former colleagues decide it best to neutralize him (spook parlance for kill him). This is fiction, of course, but I hope it contains a significant portion of reality—the research brought me into contact with a wide array of international intelligence community personnel ranging from a temp at the National Security Agency to a director of the CIA, plus several spies so bright and dashing and heroic that I would bet at least one of them dated Jennifer.

Originally posted in Crimespree Magazine. Posted with permission. (And thanks!)

Keith Thomson has been a semi-pro baseball player in France, editorial cartoonist for New York Newsday, and a reporter. A resident of Alabama, he writes about intelligence and other matters for The Huffington Post. His novels include Once a Spy (Doubleday 2010) and Twice a Spy (Doubleday, March 2011).