A Rare Look Behind the Scenes of U.S. Counterintelligence Efforts


Barely a decade ago, the topic of counterintelligence was considered completely confidential due to the secrecy of ongoing investigations and, perhaps more importantly, no spy wants other spies to know what they are doing.

Times have changed: In late February, two sitting directors of two major intelligence agencies took the stage at George Mason University’s Van Metre Hall at Mason Square to discuss the modern state of spycraft in a program called Counterintelligence Today. The event was hosted by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

Panelists included Executive Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center Mirriam-Grace MacIntyre and Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division Alan Kohler. The 90-minute conversation was moderated by David Priess, former CIA intelligence officer and now senior fellow at the Hayden Center who offered by way of introduction the rarity—even oddity—of the opportunity afforded by the event, which was attended by more than 100 in person and another 200 watching the livestream from some 29 countries around the world.

The full recording is here.

MacIntyre introduced the functions of her organization and areas of the work performed in the counterintelligence field. Those include leading and supporting government counterintelligence and security activities, integration, and outreach functions.

The idea, she said, was to “try to get ahead of problems and prevent them from happening.

When it comes to keeping tabs on major adversaries, particularly China and Russia, Kohler clearly explained the difference between the countries getting the most attention: “China’s focus is to bring themselves up, while Russia’s objective is to knock [the U.S.] down.

“Moles” reporting their own agency activities to adversarial agencies are the stuff of legend, but what can an agency do to prevent self-spying? “Happy people do not spy,” Kohler said, meaning organizations need to provide workers with good and caring environments. In addition, Macintyre suggested that companies need to explore enterprise-wide risks and come up with workforce wellness and mental health programs.

Responding to Priess’ question regarding advice to those looking to enter the intelligence profession, Kohler presented two of the most essential skills necessary to be a good FBI agent: The ability to communicate and creativity.

“The job requires you to know history but at the same time come up with creative and impactful operations that inflict the most costs and consequences” on an adversary, Kohler said. The agency values when the same task is accomplished but in a different and creative way.

The last question of the night was posed by a Schar School freshman: Is it a vulnerability of the U.S. that authoritarian regimes can take action unilaterally while we go through sometimes daunting due process?

The United States’ government agencies, he said, “are predictable, and that inspires confidence in our partners.” While regarding partnerships as a key to international support, the guests reassured the audience that that confidence is a strength that America has over other countries.