- - Monday, February 11, 2019

Spooks sometimes like to make up their own rules. They’re often up against a ruthless enemy of the nation, and it’s tempting to think anything goes. It’s becoming clear now that certain officers within the U.S. intelligence community took considerable liberties with the tools of their trade to watch certain civilians inside the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.

When the president first raised this as a possibility, those who are supposed to be responsible for intelligence oversight were not interested in doing the right thing. They preferred to focus on what they thought Donald Trump was doing rather than tend to their responsibilities as set out under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

That this was wrong should not have to be said. Having someone in authority “watching the watchers” should have been a first order of business. The story that intelligence operatives had run amok was told last month with considerable emphasis in a series of articles by Reuters, the British news agency. Reuters described an intelligence operation, called Project Raven, conducted for the United Arab Emirates, to spy on the private communications of UAE adversaries and enemies by exploiting software vulnerabilities to hack into the latest generation of the iPhone.

Much of that work, Reuters said, was conducted by former U.S. intelligence operatives hired by the UAE. One of them, a former employee of the super-secret U.S. National Security Agency named Lori Stroud, joined Project Raven just two weeks after leaving her U.S. government intelligence post. She said she was quickly asked to spy not just on enemies of the UAE but on citizens of the United States. “I am working for a foreign intelligence agency [that] is targeting U.S. persons,” she told Reuters. “I am officially the bad kind of spy.”

Such a revelation should have set off alarm bells, secret clearances should have been suspended and closed hearings on Capitol Hill should have been called to determine the scope of the problem and what to do about it. When one government, in this case, the UAE, hires former U.S intelligence experts to spy and then asks them to spy on Americans, close attention must be paid. At a minimum the rules must be clarified.

It’s already against the law to share a state secret, or as the government puts, to share “classified” information, once you’re out of the government. What’s not illegal is to put the skills you learned in collecting information, to teach others how to do what you do. Perhaps it should be, at least for the nation’s adversaries, like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

It’s always possible, of course, that one of those enemies is running what the spooks call a “false flag” operation, when “friends” are only pretending to be friends while they’re really enemies. Sometimes retired spooks are still working for “friends” who might not be who they want others to think they are. It’s a deceptive world out there in the cold.

Making rules for the murky world of intelligence is difficult. But that’s no excuse for getting it wrong, particularly now that powerful cyber-weapons and the people who know how to use them are available on the open market, for sale to the highest bidder and dependent only on personal conscience to keep them from doing things they know they shouldn’t.

One suggestion about how to deal with the problem is to require every ex-intel operative and employee leaving the service to agree to report from time to time what they’re doing and for whom they’re doing it. If the intelligence agencies know who they are and what they’re doing, educated guesses can reveal who to ask questions of when suspicions arise. It ought to be against the clarified rules for Americans to spy on other Americans on behalf of a foreign power, even a “friend” like the UAE. That’s not even rocket science.

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