"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.

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You underestimate the power a boss has over his subordinates when he is part of the in-group. You're coming at it from a perspective of Barr being the out-group and him having to use his explicit power to get things done, when in reality a lot of what goes on in government (and corrupt corporate orgs) is done with tacit power. Few DOJ, CIA, and FBI officers have a full picture of just how their work is misaligned with the interests of America. But most all of them have a general understanding that they are to be more loyal to the organization than they are to America.[1] Through his familial and otherwise corrupt connections, Barr is part of the in-group at the US corrupt apparatus. It can be as simple as most inferior officers knowing he's with them.

So Barr doesn't have to explicitly tell the guards to look the other way, he doesn't have to tell the FBI to run a poor investigation, he doesn't have to tell the DOJ to continue being corrupt. As long as it becomes known internally that the big boss wants the Epstein situation cleared up it'll be done. Lower-level bosses who have the full faith and confidence of their inferiors put small plans into place to get it done. It's what the boss wants and the boss looks out for them.

Picture Musk's possible purchase of Twitter. Do you think that if Musk bought Twitter, even as a private owner, he would suddenly have full control of the whole apparatus? Of course not. The people with real power would be his inferiors who have been there for a while and are part of the in-group. The only way for Musk to get a hold of Twitter would be to fire quite a lot of people, many who are integral to the organization. If Musk gave a directive to unban all the conservatives Twitter banned in the past, it would take months to years to get that done. The employees with their hands on the buttons capable of doing it in a day will drag their feet. Their superiors will pretend their department doesn't handle that problem. Reports will be written saying they're, 'Getting it done.' And some employees will resign in protest.

An executive that is part of the in-group of his organization can get a lot done more quickly and secretively than an executive who is considered an outsider.


  1. This is most clearly evinced by CIA hiring practices. They are incredibly insular and make much of the hiring process about having strong loyalty to the organization. They intentionally search for blackmail and anything in an agent's history they can use against them. The interviews are highly subjective and applicants are restricted from discussing anything they're questioned about. The CIA even outwardly say that their goal is to create their own community. Anecdotally, I had two friends apply to different US intelligence agencies, both of which were rejected even though they were highly qualified (both now work in highly-skilled private jobs earning six figures). From their description of the interview process it seems as if they were rejected for lacking the required ideology. Both friends are decidedly un-ideological, but that is not enough for the US intelligence agencies, you must be willing to toe the line or they won't accept you. ↩︎

As far as principles go I agree with pretty much everything you said; my analysis entirely depends on how much power and influence a potential leader has over his subordinates in practice. As a trivial case, Stalin basically was the federal government of Russia. And getting your subordinates to break the law by giving a neutral measure, say reducing the number of reported roberries, without explicitly enumerating the ways they're supposed to cheat can be an extremely effective technique for preventing any actual legal troubles, because we're not in Dath Ilan and don't convict people based on probabilistic reasoning.

However what Bill Barr needed to do was make these very indirect subordinates do these very particular things, like turn off cameras and then say nothing to the FBI. I'm not coming from the perspective of Barr as an in- or out-group member, I'm coming at it from the perspective of his limited ability to do things that put his subordinates at risk of prison time. Saying "get this Epstein thing over with" doesn't accomplish that, just like saying "I'd really like to know what they're talking about" didn't do that for Nixon.

Saying "get this Epstein thing over with" doesn't accomplish that, just like saying "I'd really like to know what they're talking about" didn't do that for Nixon.

Nixon also said things like "Can you please give me the files of what happened around the Kennedy assassination?" which made him pretty unpopular with the CIA and FBI. The US government is currently violating laws to not give the citizens access to those files on the ground that releasing those files would have important real-world implications. 

The idea that Mark Felt was mainly driven by moral considerations about Nixon's failings seems strange given how Mark Felt himself was responsible for highly illegal operations like COINTELPRO.

The idea that Mark Felt was mainly driven by moral considerations about Nixon's failings seems strange given how Mark Felt himself was responsible for highly illegal operations like COINTELPRO.

Perhaps there's some critical difference between the kind of criminal activity inherent in things like COINTELPRO, or NSA surveillance, and the kind of criminal activity inherent in what Nixon did, and that that difference would also apply to covering up Epstein's murder. The existence of such a distinction between agency-wide abuses of power that plausibly have some relation to its charter, and explicitly self-serving corruption on behalf of individual political appointees, would also explain why Mark Felt did what he did in lieu of another explanation like "Nixon asked for files from the Kennedy assasination."

Second comment to respond to footnote:

This is most clearly evinced by CIA hiring practices... They intentionally search for blackmail and anything in an agent's history they can use against them... From their description of the interview process it seems as if they were rejected for lacking the required ideology. Both friends are decidedly un-ideological, but that is not enough for the US intelligence agencies, you must be willing to toe the line or they won't accept you.

If you are suggesting that the CIA intentionally accepts people with dark secrets, I think you are badly mistaken about something you heard about the top secret clearance process, namely that they filter out those people. Everybody in the U.S. government, no matter what department, that has to get a top secret security clearance is checked for blackmailability. The CIA needs officers that are invulnerable to blackmail from the foreign intelligence agencies that attempt to do that to officers as a full time job. They don't actively look for people with huge debts or a sexual fetish for children and then somehow ensure their loyalty by promising not to snitch; that would be insane.

Ideological loyalty to the United States is also an unironically important trait to have in your intelligence analysts and service members more generally. I know that's an unpopular thing to say, but at some point in the chain every country has to have a department full of people who are reliably not going to jump the fence because of some galaxy brain argument about how the they're the real global villains.

When the CIA violates the US constitution most CIA officials side with the CIA and are not working to protect US from the attacks of the CIA on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom. There's little loyalty towards the constitution. 

The ideological loyalty that CIA analysts have is loyalty to CIA orthodoxy. 

When the CIA violates the US constitution most CIA officials side with the CIA and are not working to protect US from the attacks of the CIA on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom. There's little loyalty towards the constitution.

I agree.

The ideological loyalty that CIA analysts have is loyalty to CIA orthodoxy.

To some degree, yes. To some degree, no. Every government bureaucracy possesses a moral maze-like loyalty to itself. But you're making broad-based statements about the motivations of all CIA officers that I am fairly certain don't happen to be true.

Also, I still don't see any positive reason to give any credence to proclamations of the FBI. They are clearly as corrupt as the CIA if not more so.

But when you do assert that basically the entire U.S. government has collaborated on murdering Epstein

Isn't this a straw man? If someone powerful wanted Epstein dead, how many people does that require, and how many of them even have to know why they're doing what they're doing? It seems to me that only one person -- the murderer -- absolutely has to be in on it. Other people could get orders that sound innocuous, or maybe just a little odd, without knowing the reasons behind them. And, of course, there are always versions of "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" to ensure deniability.

Isn't this a straw man?

I'm exaggerating for comedic effect. Obviously the entire U.S. government does not have to literally be in on the scam.

If someone powerful wanted Epstein dead, how many people does that require, and how many of them even have to know why they're doing what they're doing? It seems to me that only one person -- the murderer -- absolutely has to be in on it. Other people could get orders that sound innocuous, or maybe just a little odd, without knowing the reasons behind them.

I guess some of these orders are more suspicious than others, in the moment. But you'd have to be one really stupid correctional officer to get an order to disable the cameras around Epstein's cell the night he was murdered, and not know who killed him after he dies. Even if you were that dumb, it seems like something you would mention unless you were threatened, in which case you obviously are now a possible defecting member of the plot.

And, of course, there are always versions of "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" to ensure deniability.

For the most part, the movie/TV thing of phrasing an order strangely in order to have "deniability" in case that person is wearing a wire doesn't actually work. If you're giving someone an order and they follow through with it, they obviously have interpreted what you say as an order and will testify to that fact if they defect. It's not as if they don't know the dragon isn't in the garage.

It sometimes hinders third parties from understanding an order you give in the same way an encrypted connection prevents others from reading your password, but in my criticism I'm already assuming that Bill Barr has some safe way to communicate with these people (which might not even be true!).

But you’d have to be one really stupid correctional officer to get an order to disable the cameras around Epstein’s cell the night he was murdered, and not know who killed him after he dies. Even if you were that dumb, it seems like something you would mention unless you were threatened, in which case you obviously are now a possible defecting member of the plot.

If I were a prison guard who had just seen a well-connected group of conspirators murder someone who had become inconvenient to them and easily get away with it, it seems to me that one of the stupidest things I could possibly do would be to tell anyone about it. Why would they need to explicitly threaten me? We both understand there's no one I could "defect" to who could stop them or protect me.

The point I was making in the post is that they would still effectively be members of the conspiracy, and that the conspiracy is thus larger than just one or two people. A more complicated question is "would this particular party defect if they were?", which I don't really think is possible to answer without any more specific details in particular cases.

But you'd have to be one really stupid correctional officer to get an order to disable the cameras around Epstein's cell the night he was murdered, and not know who killed him after he dies.

I assume you mean "who ordered him killed."

Here's what a news report says happened:

A letter filed by Assistant US Attorneys Jason Swergold and Maurene Comey said "the footage contained on the preserved video was for the correct date and time, but captured a different tier than the one where Cell-1 was located", New York City media report.

Prince Andrew spoke to the BBC in November about his links to Epstein

"The requested video no longer exists on the backup system and has not since at least August 2019 as a result of technical errors."

Could be a lot more subtle than that. Just ask for the wrong video. A little mess up in procedures. Maybe some operative clandestinely gets into the system and causes some "technical errors."

I'm not an expert on assassinations, and I suspect you aren't either. It seems to me that you're using the argument from lack of imagination -- "I can't think of a way to do it, therefore it can't be done." If, say, the CIA were behind Epstein and didn't want him to talk, is it unreasonable to suspect that they would know of many techniques to assassinate someone while covering their tracks that neither you nor I would have a clue about?

Note that I'm not claiming that there's a strong case that Epstein was assassinated, just that it's not so easy to rule out.
 

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.

There need not have been a struggle. His food could have been drugged first. Or maybe he did kill himself, while a conspirator watched on video... I'm sure many scenarios can be devised, for each piece of the puzzle. Identifying which ones make the most sense, individually and in combination, would require sifting through a lot of facts and alleged facts, and I'm sure I have more important things to do. 

But regarding the "organization chart", the important connections in a top-down conspiracy wouldn't be in the official chart at all. We'd be talking about informal networks that secretly inhabit the official ones, using organizational resources but unconstrained by official agendas. 

Identifying which ones make the most sense, individually and in combination, would require sifting through a lot of facts and alleged facts, and I'm sure I have more important things to do.

Just to be clear, I know you probably do, and don't mean to pick on you in particular. I had an opportunity to demonstrate a common fallacy and I took it. Your comments so far have been pretty reasonable.

Typo: “A counter-terrorism analyst is prlike it'ivy to a lot of secret information throughout the course of their job.”

Heh, just made the edit that messed that up. Sorry.

This is off-topic, but I tried messaging you but got no response, so I'm just gonna say it here. Have you finished writing that post about contra EY? I'm interested in reading it.

Dmed; apologies for not responding earlier. Crippling adhd etc.

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