Hillary Clinton’s emails and Shahram Amiri’s death certificate
© Getty Images

Spying is a business, and like all businesses it has a normative structure, a set of shared expectations that guide the behavior of both the spy and the spy’s handlers. America has never been good at the conduct of human intelligence, and as early as the Carter administration its value was seen as replaceable by various sorts of technical intelligence. Human intelligence, despite our fascination with technology, is irreplaceable.

Technical intelligence can tell you what the adversary possesses but not what they are going to do with it. Technical intelligence can tell you that adversaries had a clandestine meeting, but not what was said at it.


Human intelligence requires the creation of networks, the building of trusted relationships, and the patience wrought of time and continuity to do so. These are elements that are not only rare in our culture, they are also not appreciated.

Called the “Halloween Massacre,” the Carter administration took a buzz saw to the CIA’s National Clandestine Service responsible for the collection of HUMINT (human intelligence) and eliminated some 800 operatives. Ironically, the pink slips arrived on Halloween.

Understanding the serious implications of this policy requires some knowledge of how human intelligence networks are built. Case officers, generally with diplomatic protection, build relationships with foreign assets. These assets are sometimes walk-ins and sometimes people who are cultivated, manipulated, and even blackmailed to provide secret intelligence.

Before your sense of moral outrage reaches the boiling point, we do it; they do it; and everyone else does it. We just have a history of being very clumsy at it.

Case officers create networks over time. The elimination of case officers, as in their firing, means an entire network is lost. Some networks were the creation of twenty years’ worth  of painstaking building and trust. The Carter administration did not care because it decided that human intelligence was replaceable.

This is why the Carter administration was caught off guard by two major events, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of the fundamentalists in Iran.

Some spies assume they will be caught, and the explanation of why they spy is beyond the scope of this piece. Most assume their case workers will do everything possible to protect their identities.

Nothing will destroy a network faster than the assets’ beliefs that they will be exposed. This was a consequence of the infamous Church-Pike hearings into the clandestine workings of the intelligence community and the subsequent destruction of networks in the Carter administration.

Starting with the Reagan administration, it took decades to rebuild human intelligence. How successful that was is a matter of conjecture because we know more about its destruction than its resurrection. Intelligence officers who viewed Carter with the same affection that Vietnam veterans viewed Hanoi Jane were a boon to providing context to the administration’s gutting human intelligence.

Whatever was accomplished in the last three plus decades was undermined by the photo of Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri swinging in the wind.  Amiri had given Iranian nuclear secrets to the CIA and used a cover story upon returning to Iran that he had been kidnapped. That story was blown in Hillary Clinton’s emails, which referred to Amiri as “our friend” and discussed his providing information about Iran’s nuclear program.  On Sunday, August 07, Iran confirmed his execution and his mother confirmed receiving his body. The State Department is still withholding confirmation, as if anyone cares.

The tragedy of Amiri’s death is compounded by the immeasurable harm it will do to America’s ability to recruit, now and in the future, human assets.

A nation’s security is often dependent on people willing to take risks that benefit it. The likelihood of that has been greatly diminished by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Clinton says Zuckerberg has 'authoritarian' views on misinformation Des Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee MORE’s flagrant disregard of the national security consequences of her reckless email use.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. @salomoncenter

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.