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Is the Clandestine Service a den of promiscuity or not?

Ever since the scandal involving ex-CIA Director David Petraeus and his biographer Paula Broadwell erupted, the topic of sexual infidelity in the CIA has filled the pages of newspapers and magazines. And without a doubt, the purported promiscuity of CIA agents makes for intoxicating reading. But is the portrait accurate?

It turns out, there are two excellent resources for answering that very question. On Thursday, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi published a lengthy essay on the subject in the American Conservative. It follows another lengthy essay on the same subject by former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht in the New Republic. Both former spies regale the reader with epic tales of sexual deviance within the agency. But they differ on one important subject: the Clandestine Service (i.e., the CIA arm most directly involved in clandestine operations). Gerecht thinks it a hotbed of promiscuity while Giraldi thinks it a standout wing of fidelity in a randy organization.

If you ask Gerecht, members of the Clandestine Service embody that James Bond-meets-used car salesmen mythology:

Case officers, the CIA personnel who handle intelligence-collection and covert-action operations, are bottom-feeders. They search the strengths and weaknesses of character in the foreigners they want to recruit and run as agents; few things are off limits. Unlike soldiers, who have each other's backs in battle, case officers build on both trust and deceit. And they work in a promotion system that often rewards intellectually dishonest operatives for making a mediocre new recruit seem like solid gold. This sort of thing tends to make officers jaded pretty quickly. Historically, prudes have rarely done well in the institution. Admiral Stansfield Turner, President Jimmy Carter's CIA director, didn't have many fans for a variety of reasons-not least because he wanted operatives, and the ops they ran, to be more wholesome. He was too prissy for the job.... There was a general understanding, when I was in the service, that the CIA was a fairly randy place, at least for heterosexuals. Affairs and divorce were almost a rite of passage within the operations directorate.

But ask Giraldi, and he says Gerecht has it exactly wrong: The Clandestine Service is where the straight arrows are:

Gerecht greatly exaggerates the prevalence of infidelity in the Clandestine Service. I contacted some alte kameraden from places I served in, and we all agreed that most stations and larger bases generally had one spectacular philanderer and a few wannabes, but that there was little actual playing around. And for those who would argue that the transgressions were secret, enabled by CIA tradecraft, I would note that the lack of any opprobrium meant that those who philandered were fairly open about it....

Real spies, the agents who collect information and pass it on, are not notably promiscuous. CIA officer Aldrich Ames, FBI agent Robert Hanssen, and U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, all of whom spied against the U.S., were, if anything, sexually repressed. Among the case officers who run the agents there has always been a lot of salacious talk, not unlike in a college fraternity, but relatively little hanky panky, possibly due in part to the fact that so many officers were Catholic and already carrying a full boatload of guilt from catechism class and the confessional.

Who to believe? Since both men served in the same agency, and there's no reason to impugn their honesty, the true nexus of CIA infidelity will likely remain open for debate for years to come. The Clandestine Service? The Directorate of Intelligence? Maybe the Directorate of Science and Technology? In any case, both authors offer recommendations for how the agency should deal with sexual infidelity in a post-Petraues CIA, which makes them each worth reading in full. 

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Self-immolation in Bulgaria isn't as new as you might think

For the fourth time in one month, a Bulgarian citizen has self-immolated in an apparent protest against economic hardship and political corruption. The BBC reports:

The man, 52, threw petrol over himself outside the presidential palace in Sofia, police said. Security guards extinguished the flames and he was taken to hospital with severe burns where an official said his life was in danger.

As austerity measures make life increasingly difficult in the beleaguered country, the extreme response from Bulgarians has left the country's leaders reeling, prompting the resignation of a mayor in the city of Varna and, before that, the fall of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov's center-right government.

As an act of political resistance, suicide protest is largely associated with Tibetan monks and Dalit women in India. But while the current outbreak of self-immolations in Bulgaria is shocking, it's not exactly surprising. The country has a history of grievance driven self-immolation -- more than many European countries.

According to a literature review of deliberate self-burning (DSB) over a 20-year period, conducted by Medecins Sans Frontiers in 2003, Bulgaria had an average of 7.4 cases per year (between 1983-2002) and a total number of cases that was only surpassed among European countries studied by the Netherlands. The report, which draws a distinction between psychiatric illness and political motivation as a causal factor, notes that Bulgaria had the lowest correlation to mental illness among European countries studied, with only a third of immolations stemming from clinical psychiatric disorders.

Eastern Europe more generally has a history of self-immolation as a form of political resistance, largely in opposition to Soviet rule. In 2011, Foreign Policy's Christian Caryl discussed the most famous case, when the Czech student Jan Palach set himself on fire in 1969 and caused "a profound 'moral shock' to the nation that haunted it for decades to come." The recent Bulgarian cases are similarly haunting, proving once again that self-immolation -- while harrowing -- is often an effective way of getting the government's attention.