Is CIA illegally ‘eyewashing’ employees? What is it, why is it a problem?

DC-NEWS 300X71By Jonah Bennett

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is deceiving employees by sending memos full of false information to keep operations secret.

One internal defense official told The Washington Post the practice is known as “eyewashing,” though it apparently only happens rarely. How it works is that high-level officials place inaccurate information about sensitive operations into regular communications. These same officials then resend the original, unaltered communications only to those cleared to see the information.

The key problem with this practice is that it makes outside oversight basically impossible, as eyewashed memos are in no way labeled, meaning neither Congress nor the inspector general have any way of distinguishing between eyewashed information and accurate information. Yet somehow the practice was discovered by a Senate investigative team, who inferred the protocol from inconsistencies in memos.

In one case, investigators found two memos hinting at the practice. The first was sent to a CIA outpost in Pakistan, and it instructed local operators not to target an al-Qaida agent. A second memo, however, told recipients to completely disregard the previous message and to move ahead with the plans.

Misinformation is a normal tactic used against outsiders, but not many know that agency officials also deploy the tactic against insiders.

The process is so well-guarded that not many people, even within the agency, are aware of its existence. At least some confirmed to The Washington Post the practice has occurred for decades.

“The classic use of an eyewash is if you have a garden-variety source and all of a sudden he gains access to truly sensitive information,” a former U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post. “What you might do is have a false communication saying the guy got hit by a bus and died. The large number of people aware of this source suddenly think he is dead. But the continuing reporting on that source and from that source gets put into a very closed compartment that few would know about.”

Yet according to this official, the practice is rare enough that in 20 years he had seen just 5-6 eyewashed cables.

Eyewashing, however, appears to be technically illegal as government employees are not permitted to make false entries in official documents. The CIA does not seem exempt from this mandate. But part of the danger lies in the amount of trust that has to be placed in high-level intelligence officials, which is not always warranted. For example, ex-CIA agent Kyle Foggo managed to rise the ranks, despite repeatedly engaging in misconduct over 20 years. From 2004 to 2006, Foggo even served as the CIA’s executive director.

Additionally, now retired Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned as CIA director in late 2012, pled guilty in 2015 for sharing classified information with his biographer and mistress. He received two years of probation and a $100,000 fine.

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