Learning the Art of Counterintelligence from CIA’s Best

Learning the Art of Counterintelligence from CIA’s Best

Air Force Global Strike Command’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Directorate recently visited with James M. Olson, former Chief of CIA Counterintelligence and Professor of Practice at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, to discuss the art of counterintelligence and the threats associated with spying.

For Olson, “To Catch a Spy” is not just the title of his latest book, it is the embodiment of more than 30 years spent in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. From breaking KGB surveillance and tapping underground communication cables in the black of night in Moscow to leading spy missions in Austria and Mexico, Olson’s assignments have led him across the globe to some of the most critical positions and operations in intelligence—some of which have inspired literature and filmmaking alike.

“To get the opportunity to speak with someone with such extensive experience and vast knowledge is tremendously important for us,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Strazzere, AFGSC ISR Directorate chief enlisted manager. “His personal experience with some of the situations that I am familiar with as an intelligence professional I thought were impressive. He was involved in some of the most significant things in the intelligence community for a couple of decades.”

The 10 Commandments of Counterintelligence

To codify the experiences and lessons learned from his years of working counterintelligence for the agency, Olson developed the “Ten Commandments of Counterintelligence”—be offensive; honor your professionals; own the street; know your history; do not ignore analysis; do not be parochial; train your people; do not be shoved aside; do not stay too long; and never give up. Using this list as a roadmap, Olson guided the discussion with the AFGSC ISR team through each commandment, sharing examples supported by history and hard-won wisdom.

“One of the commandments he mentioned for us is to understand our history,” Strazzere said. “When we understand our history, we can understand what we have done correctly in the past and we can also evaluate our performance and see where we may have not performed so great and adjust accordingly for the future.”

Olson considers history one of the most important commandments on the list and emphasizes its significance with anyone working in support of intelligence operations.

“Anybody who has chosen intelligence as a designator or as a career path, has a professional obligation to know his or her literature,” Olson said. “There is a wealth of learning possible in the CI books and articles that are out there. You can learn from what has worked in the past and you can avoid what has been unsuccessful in the past. But you can’t do either one unless you know what they are. And that means you should be reading.”

Olson further reinforced the need for professional development and education. He addressed the realities faced by many intelligence organizations with minimal bandwidth.

“Everyone’s busy and that means that in most cases, we’re going to rely on people to do it in their own time,” Olson said. “I am struck when I talk to young counterintelligence professionals now, or intelligence officers in general, how uninformed they are about past operations—that’s a shame.”


Olson also spoke of modern-day challenges and what he believes to be the greatest threats facing the United States today. Given the rise in new and developing technologies, the increasing dependence on such technologies and the various attempts by malicious actors to exploit vulnerabilities, cyberspace has become a theater for espionage and has been dubbed by defense officials as the fifth domain of warfare.

“I believe the number one threat is cyber,” Olson said. “I look at cyber as a counterintelligence threat. We are losing the cyber war. We’re understaffed and under resourced in cyber. We’ve got to correct that. We’ve got to make it a higher priority and when we catch people in the act of hacking into our databases, there have to be consequences—a lot more than just a slap on the wrist. Looking down the road at the counterintelligence threat, I would put cyber first.”

The Intelligence Community

The U.S. Intelligence Community is comprised of 18 organizations, nine of which are defense elements. Today, the community as a whole works together to meet the objectives of the National Intelligence Strategy and the strategic direction of the Director of National Intelligence in providing timely, insightful, objective, and relevant intelligence and support to inform national security decisions and to protect the U.S. and its interests. Of the 18 agencies, Olson particularly praised the military for their contributions to the community and recognized their great successes in counterintelligence operations.

“The military, I think, should be in the lead,” Olson said. “In my experience, the military did more, and better, double agent operations than the CIA and the FBI combined. I believe the military counterintelligence services—OSI, NCIS, INSCOM—all the people that do counterintelligence operations, intelligence for the military, should be putting together double-agent working groups.”

Be Offensive

Capt. Michelle Murphy, AFGSC ISR Requirement Deputy Division Chief, participated in the discussion with Olson and shared her thoughts on the current state of play.

“The United States and allies face a plethora of threats today to include strategic competition with peer adversaries,” Murphy said. “Major adversaries and competitors are enhancing their technologies, have increased their cyber capabilities and have been expanding their partner relations around the world. It is important for these conversations to occur because the threat is real—we at AFGSC always ensure our leaders are informed to make decisions to protect our country.”

According to Olson’s first commandment, “Be Offensive,” counterintelligence that is passive and defensive will fail.

“If we’re going to be a professional counterintelligence community, we’ve got to have more double agent operations,” Olson said. “We should be flooding the Chinese and others with double agent operations. I certainly want to see more offensive cyber. I want to do to them what they're doing to us, but even worse. We should be investing heavily in offensive cyber.”

Counterintelligence and AGFSC

Although AFGSC’s area of focus does not fixate specifically on counterintelligence, command intelligence professionals must maintain vigilance in protecting critical information.

“For our intelligence professionals here, we may not be involved specifically with CI here at Global Strike, we could be in a future assignment,” Strazzere said. “People with the clearance levels we have, we have to understand that adversaries may target us and for us to understand some of the techniques and procedures our adversaries may use are important so we can identify if someone is trying to get information from us.”

Additionally, supporting agencies such as the Air Force Office of Special Investigations conduct counterintelligence operations and promote CI awareness campaigns.

According to the Department of Defense Directive 5240.06, Counterintelligence Awareness and Reporting, defense personnel shall report contacts, activities, indicators, and behaviors attempting to obtain classified or sensitive information.

Final Thoughts

In his closing remarks to AFGSC’s ISR team, as a fellow intelligence officer, Olson praised the professional undertaking of those supporting the intelligence mission.

“We are the first line of defense, and it’s a privilege to be able to serve our country as intel officers,” Olson said. “We’re in need of more personnel, more resources, more people who choose counterintelligence as a career field. It’s still in disfavor. Counterintelligence is not considered an attractive career option for a lot of people. We have to change that whole mindset about intelligence careers. We should be getting the best and the brightest into counterintelligence. The CI cadre in the United States government is young, it’s inexperienced and it does not really have a strong formation in CI. We need to do a much better job of that.”