Why the CIA Must Depend on the Corrupt in War


A recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal was right to argue that corruption in Afghanistan is undermining Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency. It was mistaken, however, to suggest the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) may at the same time somehow be injuring the effort.

I respect the CIA but not always its political judgment. I also recognize the need for unsavory agents in intelligence operations and for irregular counterterror forces. But such activities, entirely appropriate when targeted against hostile regimes (North Korea or Iran) or the Taliban, can be injurious if they undermine a government we are supporting, especially one whose legitimacy is shaky.

More than two thousand years ago, Chinese military experts categorized spies, with each category recruited from a different population, depending on the intelligence required.

As opposed to internal spies from the ranks of government or local spies from the provinces, typically recruited and developed in Afghanistan by the CIA or military, respectively, double agents have long had a reputation for being not only the most corrupt and unsavory but also the most valuable type of spy. Double agents make it easier to recruit other spies.

But as known to the military experts of ancient China, along with high value comes high risk. It’s a fact that’s also well-known to the CIA: the agency lost seven officers in January alone, when an unsavory double agent turned out to be a suicide bomber.

Expert strategists have long known that no relationships in war are as critical as those between a commander and spies, especially true in matters concerning the corrupt and unsavory. Or as modern-day military expert John Keegan said about the motto proposed for his best-selling and critically-acclaimed Intelligence in War, “You can never know enough.”


Rufus Phillips, “Curb Corruption or Lose the War,” The Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2010, Opinion.

“Sun-tzu’s Art of War,” in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993).

John Keegan, Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda (New York: Knopf, 2003).

W. Craig Bledsoe and Leslie Rigby, “Government Agencies and Corporations,” in Guide to the Presidency, Second Edition, ed. Michael Nelson (Washington: CQ Press, 1996).