"Do you know how much power I'd have to give up to be President?" - Lex Luthor
The CIA, like all intelligence agencies, spends much of its time managing and creating spies. A newly recruited field officer to the CIA is under heavy pressure to actively develop a source of information, as opposed to merely handling those who attempt to contact the CIA on their own. Getting someone to defect is a very significant career milestone for officers, perhaps analogous to a detective getting a suspect to confess corroborating details about a crime without prior evidence. If that officer is unable to accomplish this after being trained for it and spending a few years in a foreign country, they'll probably have to pick a different job.
Let's imagine that newly trained officer is you. Who exactly is your ideal informant?
Most of the time you won't be able to just arrange a series of private meetings with people of real importance, like the head of a foreign military, so you can convince them to betray their country. However, it's not unheard of that an officer turns someone of small stature, say an analyst at the ISF, and that person later gets heavily promoted. Perhaps because they got help from a Certain Intelligence Agency.
A counter-terrorism analyst is privy to a lot of secret information throughout the course of their job. But their commanding officer manages a bunch of counter-terrorism analysts. So, getting your source the job of their commanding officer means they're going to be even more helpful. Right?
Well, maybe. It certainly sounds like it'd be impressive on a Wikipedia article or a spy resume. But there are a few problems in practice with this strategy, some specific to intelligence and some more general:
- Spies often still have an odd sense of patriotism. If they become promoted really heavily, they sometimes start to feel embarrassed on behalf of their country or at least like they no longer need to talk to you, and demand to call the whole relationship off.
- An elevated rank tends to carry more scrutiny. Your spy might now be subject to more intense surveillance by their host country, like a permanent security detail, that may complicate your ability to communicate privately or provide them with "gifts" they can actually use.
- Most importantly for this conversation, your agent's boss might nominally command the people privy to the details you want, but that doesn't mean they have access to those details themselves, nor does it mean they can actually tell their underlings to do what you want them to. Especially if what you want them to do is punished by hanging.
There's a very significant difference between the statements "almost everybody in the Lebanese ISF is my agent", and "the person who is nominally in charge of the ISF is my agent". There'd even be a difference between that and "almost everybody in the ISF is my agent and knows who the other agents are and they cooperate with each other".
Having a working relationship with the major general of the ISF is certainly useful! It will be really embarrassing for Lebanese security when that comes out in 25 years! But it wouldn't obviously be more useful than was say, the KGB's working relationship with Robert Hanssen. Robert Hanssen held the job of determining whether or not Russian defectors were legitimate. His position as a background investigator meant that he was able to, on more than one occasion, give Russia a complete list of American spies, most of whom were eventually executed.
In many ways James Comey would have been a worse informant than Robert. James Comey wouldn't actually have been able to get a list of all active spies, at least by default. He'd be in a better position to goad, convince, or trick someone into breaking information silos than you are, but that'd still be very risky for him, and you might not have enough influence over him to get him to risk doing so even if he were your silent partner.
Sometimes when people argue that Elites are compromised or doing something nefarious (which is often true), they make the mistake of assuming that just because someone is in a leadership position over X, they can actually just tell everybody in X to reject its mission charter and pursue some tertiary objective. This practice of heedlessly adopting the simplified model of a bureaucracy, where commanders losslessly bucket brigade arbitrary orders down to foot soldiers, and foot soldiers losslessly share information with command, like some horrible Java object schema, is called "taking the org chart literally". It's an acceptable approximation when appropriately applied, but it's also the central underlying fallacy of most (bad) conspiracy theories.
Even if he would like to have been, the person of Richard Nixon was most certainly not equivalent to the federal government of the United States. He possessed real power, and could and did make very subversive orders of his underlings throughout the course of his job. But it turns out people in his position generally don't have great foreknowledge of which underlings are going to find commands objectionable, or which third parties are going to hear about those orders and try and blow the whistle, or which evil minions will defect when threatened with prison time.
And those same limitations that apply to intelligence agencies when they try to corrupt foreign law enforcement, also apply to attempts by civilians to do the same thing. In a comment disagreeing with my recent post about the Epstein scandal, where I make the argument that Epstein's death was a suicide, /u/Mitchell_Porter writes:
Seriously, look at the chain of command. He was in a US federal prison. US federal prisons are run by a branch of the Department of Justice. The head of the Department of Justice was William Barr, whose father was a retired OSS agent who gave Epstein his first job.
I hope now you can anticipate my response to such an argument, even if I'm wrong. When you explain away evidence gathered from multiple different branches of the DOJ and the actions of dozens of different people by saying that "Bill Barr, the Attorney General, was a member of the conspiracy", what you're really saying is that the Attorney General and all of his relevant subordinates were members of the conspiracy, either because they followed orders that were obviously illegal or because they had some secondary reason to be in on it. Your theory is that Bill Barr or Bill Barr's partner wanted Epstein dead, so he told the New York medical examiner to mess up the autopsy, and the guards from the MCC to ignore his cell and remove his cellmate, and the FBI agents investigating his death to ignore evidence of a struggle, and someone in the Special Activities Center or the prison housing block to strangle him. Or, even worse, Bill had to tell some other chain of persons who then conveyed all of these orders second hand.
And I'm not saying that, in particular, "this is a very complicated plan and so it didn't happen" is some knockdown argument. Conspiracy is just a special case of coordination. People that say that you can't have a conspiracy "with too many people involved" assume certain possibly incorrect things about how conspiracies scale. But when you do assert that basically the entire U.S. government has collaborated on murdering Epstein, make sure you're not making this particular mistake of pretending the conspiracy involves less coordination than it really does, because you've identified a suspicious person at the top of the org chart and have made the simplifying assumption of totalitarian control.