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US Counterintelligence: The Big Picture of Subversion in the United States

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US Counterintelligence: The Big Picture of Subversion in the United States  

Kane S. VanVuren     

The unfailing application of proactive, effective security capabilities is crucial to protect sensitive US information and assets from foreign adversaries.”

~ National Counterintelligence Strategy 2016

Strategy Concerning Insider Threats

The evolution of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) from the former Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (ONCIX) highlights the importance of both Counterintelligence and security as a single imperative under the national policy.  The NCSC Strategic Plan points out that their “overarching theme” is the “integration of CI and security activities because the solutions to countering adversarial threats often lie at the intersection of the CI and security disciplines” (2018).  Indeed, while counterintelligence threats can come in many forms, likewise, insider threats now have many vectors in which to access sensitive information.  The 2016 National Counterintelligence Strategy notes that efforts by the US to modernize and adapt to changing economic, technological, and cultural environments have also led to openings in which foreign entities can "expand their scope of the collection” against the US Government.  In this case, while the US government still classifies FIE’s (Foreign Intelligence Entities) and insider threats as different, they could easily be merged.  History has shown that a large portion of insider threats are from, or influenced by, state and non-state entities, as well as the usual suspects like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

While neither the 2018 NCSC Strategic Plan nor the 2016 National Counterintelligence Strategy notes the current impact of insider threats, they both address these threats with emphasis.  As part of the 2016 Strategy, it specifically cites that complete integration of Counterintelligence and security includes the processes ranging from “information technology and acquisition to personnel decisions” and its essence “to preserving our national security” (emphasis added).  The 2018 Strategic Plan advances this concept, and includes that insider threats and unauthorized disclosures through technical advantage of “[a]nonymity and encryption tools, more users and devices, cloud computing, and advanced malware” enable insiders “to hide unauthorized actions among normal activities, and operate undetected to harvest valuable information.”

The Strategy of NCSC is a comprehensive interagency initiative through collaboration and partnerships that includes assets of the CI, security, and cyber communities (2018).  As impressive as the US Intelligence Community has become, a large portion of US protected interests come from the private sector.  Included in the 2018 Strategic Plan are instruments in which NCSC has devised for measuring progress and implementing a new policy in weak areas.  Of the14 initiatives from NCSC, some are new, and some are "continuing to kick-start the integration of CI and security” (2018). 

Prevention and detection have been taken up by a new task force created in response to the WikiLeaks release of thousands of classified documents.  The National Insider Threat Task Force (NITTF) is an extension of NCSC and co-chaired by the US Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence that affects more than 99 federal departments and agencies that handle classified material (NITTF n.d.).  In short, the NITTF has personnel who are authorized to investigate clues and behavior of concern of someone who could pose a threat, as well as the capability to “help someone who may feel he or she has no other option than to commit an egregious act” (NITTF n.d.).  It is clear that the NCSC and Intelligence Community at large have renewed their efforts to counter insider threats.  In consolidating their combined assets, the NCSC is disrupting the earlier trend of unauthorized public disclosure and taking steps to ensure risks will be mitigated in the future.            

Enhancing Counterintelligence Procedures

It is not that persons who require security clearances are not adequately vetted when they enter these fields, but instead, there is poor oversight and follow-up once they occupy these positions.  An initial investigation could be more thorough, but at this point, the person being investigated does not have a work history, nor the input of others that may provide insight of someone’s personal and work habits.  Petra Bradley et al. (2017, 2) write that “[m]any insiders developed their intention to act after they were in the job, so while it is important to detect who is vulnerable to becoming a threat at the point of hiring, it will likely need to be complemented by periodic monitoring." In other words, vetting should be a continuous process that includes regular peer-reviews and supervisor evaluations in addition to scheduled re-investigations. Undoubtedly, the loose and seemingly unsupervised office culture that Hanssen and Ames enjoyed has since past.  They were vetted as per the requirements of that era but also served as a great example of how destructive and toxic behavior had crept into their daily activities and went unreported.         

Considering the vetting process as a whole, a plan consisting of new technology and randomized no-notice personnel interviews could be a valid and straightforward measure of deterrence.  In fields like military aviation, commanders use a “no-notice check ride” consisting of an oral evaluation or flight evaluation, or both, to ensure flight crews are proficient and prepared to operate when called to action.  Likewise, social media has provided an outlet for individuals to share thoughts, ideas, and to connect with persons outside of immediate social circles and may include clues to traits of psychopathy. 

Persons holding security clearances should be well aware that their personal lives will be under scrutiny.  This holds for both online presence and communications.  As more rigorous security levels are required for vetting, so should a corresponding counterintelligence assessment of an applicant’s online language.  One tool designed explicitly for this task is the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) text analysis program.  It has been tested and used, in part, to assess insider threat behaviors, for example, a correlating change in word usage that is more self-focused (e.g., I versus we) (Bradley et al. 2017, 3). 

Petra Bradley et al. (2017) note that research on insider threats tends to be more focused on motivations and less on “behavioral and cognitive attributes of individuals who have posed threats in the past." This is not necessarily bad, but it indicates voids in research that could assist security and Counterintelligence in identifying patterns of individuals who are becoming disassociated from their responsibilities.  Some of the motivations cited by Bradley et al. are personal or social frustrations, reduced loyalty to the organization, and lack of empathy (2017, 2).  Former NSA contractor Reality Winner, for example, told Jeremy Redmon of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that “I think that I was isolated at that time” and “[while experiencing these emotions] psychologically, you are not going to make the best decisions” (2018). 

Bradley et al. also support a policy of “periodic monitoring” as a low-tech and low-overhead means of employee monitoring (2017).  Reports via supervisors and anonymous peer-reporting will need to balance privacy needs but compliment periodic monitoring for "triggering events such as loss of social support" (i.e., Reality Winner's feeling of isolation) (Bradley et al. 2017, 2).  NITTF recognizes that emotional and social support may make the difference between someone crossing the line or finding the help they need before something terrible happens. "[A]n individual may have no malicious intent, but is in need of help… Intervention prior to the act can save an employee’s career, save lives, and protect national security information” (NITTF n.d.).                                     

Embedding Counterintelligence Countermeasures

The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy has integrated several policies for the promotion of ethical behavior in the workplace.  In the past, when Ames and Hanssen served in supervisory positions, and earlier stations throughout their career, they misbehaved with almost immunity from their actions.  The Intelligence Community has recognized this harmful behavior as a burden to the values of its organization.  The Strategy (2019, 22) states, “personnel, including all civilians, military, and contractors, must adhere to the Principles of Professional Ethics for the IC” a supporting policy where through “Stewardship” personnel are responsible “to report wrongdoing through appropriate channels; and remain accountable to ourselves” (PPE n.d.).  This text recognizes that the behavior of Ames and Hanssen was damaging to the working analysis of others during their careers, and likely limited valuable insight by others who felt that their input was unimportant. 

Unlike the abusive and toxic environment that was fostered by Ames and Hanssen, the Strategy notes that inclusion has many benefits.  Intelligence Community cultures that “[connect] each employee to the organization,” indeed “encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness” (Strategy 2019, 22).  By their presence alone, Ames and Hanssen could be viewed as infiltration agents bent on the disruption of a conducive work atmosphere in the CIA.  Apart from their espionage, Ames and Hanssen scoffed at the values the Intelligence Community now holds as necessary and absolute for encouraging analysis and problem solving for critical issues of national security. 

Counterintelligence now has the responsibility to ferret out these ethical matters as contributing actions “by employees who may represent a threat to national security” (NITTF n.d., 1).  The literature on Ames and Hanssen typically concentrates on their activities of espionage, but even the casual reader can see that personnel under their supervision suffered in production and contribution to the overall mission of the CIA.  It is not difficult to correlate an example of someone's example of working under a leader or manager who was abusive and the resulting distractions away from accomplishing quality work.  According to the Intelligence Community’s current doctrine, the IC will meet the objective of inclusion and diversity by “[taking] measures to proactively prevent discrimination, harassment, and fear of reprisal, enabling the workforce to perform at its highest potential” (Strategy 2019, 22).  This represents a significant change for the better than during the era where Hanssen and Ames were allowed to continue their reign for several decades.            

Counterintelligence: Facing Threats from Within

“The mechanics of legal subversion extend far beyond any legitimate process of legal representation.  They embrace the efforts of a conspiratorial minority, trained in the use of the legal instruments of our society, to turn those instruments into weapons for the destruction of our free society.”

~ Committee on Un-American Activities (CUA). 1959

The authors of Communist Legal Subversion: The Role of the Communist Lawyer write that, “[f]rom the scope and nature of their activities, it is evident that Communist lawyers rank as part of an elite corps within the Communist fifth column on American soil” (1959, 8).  Further, the writers cannot emphasize more the imperative of protecting the US political system, the courts, Congress, and executive agencies from communist lawyers (CUA 1959, 8).  These four tools in which the United States uses to protect the Constitution also need to be protected from influence and manipulation.  The Communist Legal Subversion report was only just declassified in 2003 and highlighted the extent to which a Congressional committee was concerned about the subversion of the highest order by communists within the structure and foundation of US government. 

In the past, like now, Counterintelligence has their work cut out for them in what seems like an impossible task of eliminating this threat.  Under the mantle of political correctness or even freedom of speech, countermeasures or other efforts to suppress communist or socialist ideology will be met with harsh criticism from opposing parties.  Ironically, using the US systems against itself seems to be a tactic of communist infiltrators.  Saul Alinsky’s, Rules for Radicles, point out three that directly apply to this scenario: (1) “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules,” (2) “Ridicule is man's most potent weapon,” and (3) “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” (Alinsky 1971).

The courts and Congress, two of America’s highest legislative and lawmaking apparatus, have been under attack since the Red Scare that began in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  One major defeat for the suppression of communist ideals, and thus a counterintelligence defeat as well, was the decision by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren.  Warren struck down the Pennsylvania Sedition Act in 1956, and this judgment was later used as precedence for others to challenge the internal security laws of 42 additional states also eventually rendering them unconstitutional (publius 2009, 10/14, 03:06).  Also, the Warren Supreme Court made over 30 other decisions regarding communism in the US that remain unchallenged to this day.  Several new members of Congress and even presidential candidates openly support converting the United States to a socialist state.  While a few conservative news and commentary personalities are sounding the alarm about the dangers of socialism from historical examples, there seems to be a growing interest in socialism from the public.  

It is difficult to decide who in US Executive offices have been influenced by communism, but startling revelations show that the possibility is genuine.  Former Director of the CIA, John Brennan, has not hidden the fact that he was a communist.  Former Director of the FBI, James Comey, may have been joking, but during a past speech said that he too was a former communist (McQuillan 2019).  Karin McQuillan writes that many of President Obama's executive staff had a communist or Marxist influence.  For example, Valarie Jarratt, a close personal advisor to Obama, who still lives with the president in retirement, father, stepfather, and mother were devout communists (McQuillan 2019).  David Axelrod, Obama's Chief Political Strategist, and Senior Advisor in the White House, parents were writers for a communist newspaper and Axelrod himself “got his start in Chicago politics through working for hardline Stalinist Soviet agents Harry and David Canter” (McQuillan 2019).  Even Obama’s longtime pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright was an avowed Marxist. “His church congregants had to sign a pledge to support redistribution of wealth and reject ‘middle-classness’” (McQuillan 2019).  In other words, with a former US president and a large portion of his senior staff having significant connections to communism, Marxism, and socialism, how does Counterintelligence have a chance?                            

Counterintelligence has to harden its defenses against communist infiltration of US interests, and all others for that matter.  While those who use a free society against counter-subversion efforts; and this may hamstring some efforts, CI can reinforce and redouble investigations and defensive precautions.  Media has some control on the population, but until people once again learn to conduct their research and make decisions absent those made for them by so-called news outlets, Counterintelligence is limited to defending the national security enterprise by the traditional means it has always done.  Another question remains - who polices the police?  Since the Muller Report has been released, US Attorney General William Barr has testified that former intelligence and federal law enforcement may not have been acting within the law or Constitution, thus also implicating many others possibly in the previous presidential administration.  Hopefully, Counterintelligence is allowed to take an active role in investigating these alleged violations.  Godspeed counterintelligence, but things may have gotten to the point that it is nearly impossible to unravel all the layers of subversion and deception within the US government.            


Alinsky, Saul D. 1971. “Rules for Radicles.” online. Accessed May 26, 2019.

Bradley, Petra, Wendy Chambers, Cory Davenport, and Lelyn Saner. 2017. “A National Research Agenda on Insider Threat.” Accessed May 22, 2019.

Committee on Un-American Activities (CUA). 1959. “Communist Legal Subversion The Role of the Communist Lawyer.” Committee On Un-American Activities House Of Representatives Eighty-Sixth Congress First Session. Accessed May 1, 2019.

McQuillan, Karin. 2019. “Obama Appointees in the Communist Orbit.” American Thinker. Accessed May 26, 2019. obama_appointees_in_the_communist_orbit.html

National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC). 2018. “National Counterintelligence and Security Center: Strategic Plan | 2018–2022.” Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Accessed May 20, 2019. NCSC/documents/Regulations/2018-2022-NCSC-Strategic-Plan.pdf

——. 2016. “National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States of America 2016.” Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Accessed May 20, 2019.  

National Insider Threat Task Force (NITTF). n.d. “National Insider Threat Task Force: Mission Fact Sheet.” Accessed May 19, 2019. products/National_Insider_Threat_Task_Force_Fact_Sheet.pdf

Principles of Professional Ethics for the Intelligence Community (PPE). n.d. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Accessed May 26, 2019. CLPO/Principles%20of%20Professional% 20Ethics%20for%20the%20IC.pdf

Prunckun, Hank. 2019. Counterintelligence Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

publius10271787. 2009. “Hidden Agenda - Vol 2.” video. YouTube. Accessed May 1, 2019.

Redmon, Jeremy. 2018. “Reality Winner: Russia investigation a ‘little vindicating.'" TCA Regional News, Aug 31.

Categories: counterintelligence

About the Author(s)

Kane S. VanVuren retired from the US Army as a Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CW3) Blackhawk pilot, Tactical Operations and Personnel Recovery Officer.  Kane has deployed to Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Kane is proud to continue his service by instructing intelligence analysis software to US Army soldiers worldwide.  As a Graduate student at American Military University, Kane’s focus on Counterintelligence subjects and Intelligence Operations comes from a passion for the US Intelligence Community and its impact on national security policy.  


This bizarre article reads like something from the worst years of McCarthyism.  I wouldn't have thought that aiming to "suppress communist or socialist ideology" is particularly relevant when dealing with some of your main current threats, such as Russia or Iran, or Osama bin Laden and his successors.  Surely the focus should be on preventing subversive activity in general, not worrying about whether actors have a particularly left-of-centre viewpoint.

Better to spell "Radical" properly, too.

As yet another possible way to understand "insider threats," consider that:

a.  Much as in the Cold War; wherein, the U.S./the West's employed a containment and roll back strategy; this, against the Soviets/the communists expansionist/transformative agenda back then,

b.  Likewise in the Post-Cold War (turnabout being fair play) such entities as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea and the Islamists have employed a containment and roll back strategy against the U.S./the West's expansionist/transformative efforts of late.

In both of these such scenarios, it makes the greatest sense in the world for:

a.  The containment and rollback entities (the U.S./the West in the Cold War; our 2+2+1 opponents in the the Post-Cold War) to

b.  Work with, influence, "turn," etc., one's "natural allies" in these such circumstances, to wit:  

1.  The significantly conservative/anti-change/status quo ante elements that are to be found in one's own state and society.  And:

2.  The significantly conservative/anti-change/status quo ante elements that are to be found in other important states and societies also. 

From the explanation offered here, one can easily see that, in the Cold War -- when the U.S./the West was doing containment and roll back -- the typical "fellow traveler"/the "insider" that the U.S./the West needed to worry about most (because they could be so easily manipulated and exploited by one's expansionist/transformative opponent) this was the "liberal"/the pro-change elements of various states and societies (to include one's own).  

In the Post-Cold War, however, when it has been the U.S./the West that has been doing expansion and transformation -- the typical "fellow traveler"/"the insider" that the U.S./the West has had to worry most (because, in this case, they can be so easily exploited by OUR containment and roll back opponents) this has been the "conservative"/the "no-change"/the "status quo ante" elements within our own and other states and societies. 

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

With regard to such things as "subversion" during the Cold War, and re: our containment and roll back agenda back then, we felt (and rightfully so?) that the liberals were our "primary insider subversive threat." 

With regard to such things as "subversion" in the Post-Cold War, however, and given our expansionist and transformative agenda during this period, it has been the conservatives that have been our "primary insider subversive threat."  

Proof of his last suggestion?  See (from the perspective of our Post-Cold War expansion and transformation grand strategy) the "surrender" quotes from Prime Minister Theresa May, and President Donald Trump, provided immediately below:

Prime Minister Theresa May:

“It is in our interests – those of Britain and America together – to stand strong together to defend our values, our interests and the very ideas in which we believe,” she said.

"This cannot mean a return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”

President Donald Trump:

"We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

“Strong sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.”

(Thus, by way of containment and roll back -- and by way of the use of "conservative" elements in support of same -- first the Soviets/the communists [cir. 1990] -- and then the U.S./the West [cir. 2017] -- were stopped dead in their "expansionist and transformative" tracks?)

Perhaps another way to consider my thoughts re: "subversion" below; this would be to do so from the perspective of world's "anti-modernization"/"traditionalist"/"return to the status quo ante" movements.

Herein, one's responsible government and professionals -- seeking to "modernize" their states and societies so as to maintain "economic competitiveness" (and, thus, "national security") in the constantly changing world -- these such responsible governments, etc., are now seen by their more-traditionalist populations as "subversives." 

In this regard, the following from Boris Rumer's book "Central Asia at the End of the Transition" (2005) may prove helpful:

"anti-modernization is appearing in all spheres of culture and economics. The retraditionalization of social life, deprofessionalization of entire strata of the population, the anti-intellectualism emanating from above, the exodus of skilled personnel from the country – these are all clear signs of the anti-modernization that characterizes the reality in post-Soviet Uzbekistan."

(As we all know now, many of these exact same aspects of the anti-modernism"/"re-traditionalism"/"return to the status quo ante" movements have become manifest in the U.S./the West now also.) 

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Given that, today,

a.  Such things as "girls schools" -- in the Greater Middle East -- can often be a "flash point" for conflict with the anti-modernists of the Islamic World.  (Anti-modernists who, to rectify these such "modernization" problems once and for all, wish to formally return to the status quo ante world of the "Caliphate?")  And that  such things as:

b.  "Legalized abortion" -- likewise in the U.S. -- can be a "flash point" for conflict with the anti-modernists here at home.  (Anti-modernists who wish to "fix" these "modernization" problems once and for all; this, by formally return to the status quo ante world of "Make America Great Again?")

Given these such "modernization" problems (and the rise, respectively, of the Islamists and the election of President Trump in relation to/in response to same?), should we not understand "subversives" today in much the same way that the world's populations does, to wit:

a.  Not as communists and/or as socialists.  But, rather,

b.  As one's own government, business and economic elite; elites who: 

1.  Against the will of their more-traditionalist populations

2.  Have been and continue to be (of necessity, see my second paragraph above) pressing a (more-Libertarian/more-Lockean?) globalism/globalization/global economy "modernization" agenda.

"The (U.S. Supreme) Court's substantive due process jurisprudence has undergone at least two distinct phases -- an earlier phase in which its understanding of morality is rooted in the experience and values of the community -- and a second phase in which the Court abandoned a communitarian conception of moral reasoning and replaced it with libertarian or individualistic ideals. The first phase did nothing to impair the notion of the States' police powers that we have examined above; indeed, the cases in this group directly or by implication affirm the States' police power to adopt and enforce traditional community moral standards. The second phase, however, marks the steady contraction of the States' police power to uphold moral traditions, and, relatedly, the displacement in the Court's thinking of one conception of "morality" by another."

(Item in parenthesis above is mine.) (See Page 683.)


With regard to "subversion" (seeking to alter and/or to undermine the way of life, the way of governance, the values, etc., of a state and/or society -- and/or seeking to alter and/or undermine the power and authority of established systems and institutions relating to same?),

With regard to this such definition of "subversion" -- given the Brexit, the election of President Trump and the rise of the Islamists -- should we understand that:

a.  It is not communists or socialists that the populations of the world (and especially those in the U.S./the West and the Greater Middle East?) see as their primary "insider" subversive threat but, rather,

b.  It is their own governments -- and their own business, political and economic elite -- that these populations see as their such a primary "insider" subversive threat.  (All of whom they perceive to be working -- not for them/the populations and/or for their established systems and institutions -- but rather against same and for the globalists, globalization and the global economy instead.)

To illustrate the population of the world's such understanding of their "primary insider subversive threat," consider the following two examples:  First, re: the Greater Middle East, from David Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux" and, thereafter, re: the U.S./the West, from the Catholic University of America's "Moral Communities or Market States:"


"Politically, in many cases today, the counterinsurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier — a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counterinsurgency. Pakistan’s campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qa’ida (AQ) linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against 21st century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernization, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counterinsurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalization." (See the top of Page 3.)

The Catholic University of America:

We agree with Bobbitt that a global transition from Nation States to Market States is now well underway. The chief thesis of this Article is that the Supreme Court has embarked on a program of reshaping constitutional doctrine so as to encourage and facilitate the emergence of a fully developed Market State in this polity, with a view to positioning the United States to be successful in meeting the competitive challenges of a new, post-Cold War international order. In taking this course, the Court has increasingly aligned itself with the prescriptive views of American business and political elites, for whom globalization is understood "not merely [as] a diagnostic tool but also [as] an action program." From this perspective, globalization "represents a great virtue: the transcendence of the traditional restrictions on worldwide economic activity.., inherent" in the era of Nation States. Proponents of this vision of a globalized economy characterize the United States as "a giant corporation locked in a fierce competitive struggle with other nations for economic survival," so that "the central task of the federal government" is "to increase the international competitiveness of the American economy." (See Page 643.)

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

In both the examples I provide above, what seems to scares the hell out of the populations -- and what seems to drives them into "active defense" mode -- this is the fear that comes with understanding that it is their own governments -- and their own business, political and economic elite -- who are seeking to (from my initial definition of subversion at the top of this comment)  "alter and/or to undermine the way of life, the way of governance, the values, etc., of their state and/or society -- and/or seeking to alter and/or undermine the power and authority of established systems and institutions relating to same."