LinkedIn tracking pixel

Alumnus Spotlight: Dr. David Charney, Expert on the Mind of the Spy

Dr. David Charney

In this interview, we speak with former IWP student Dr. David Charney. Dr. Charney is the Founder and Medical Director of Roundhouse Square Counseling Center and an Associate Clinical Professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University. He has consulted with the United States Intelligence Community and has become an expert on The Mind of the Spy. He founded a nonprofit, NOIR for USA, whose mission is to improve our national security by fixing the problem of insider spies in an innovative way.

Please tell us a little about your background in mental health. How did you start out in this field?

I went through some rough times as a college student, starting sophomore year. I started college young, and it caught up with me. That led me to seek out some help when it was getting tough emotionally. This treatment turned out to be a very deep and formative experience, because it really did help me.

It worked for me, so I thought that maybe I could give back and make this my own profession.

I also had always been attracted to the field of medicine. At the age of 14, I read Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, which is a novel about the life of a doctor. It captured me with that goal and vision. I never lost sight of that vision. That was useful, because when you undertake to go into the field of medicine, you realize how arduous and long and difficult it is. If you don’t have a sustaining vision, you can get lost along the way. That novel kept my spirit directed to keep the effort up.

Please tell us a little about your time in the Air Force.

When I finished medical school and became a fully trained psychiatrist, it was the time of Vietnam. I did not want to try to dodge national service, and I wound up assigned to a Strategic Air Command Air Force Base in upstate New York.

There, I entered a world that I didn’t know existed. It was surreal, because they had nuclear weapons. They created an odd culture that pushed for instant readiness in the event of a World War III.

I was the only psychiatrist at that base, and I had to deal with all kinds of unusual situations in the midst of this strange culture.

Also, I had a problem because my wife Diane had just finished a Ph.D. in international affairs, and there we were in the middle of nowhere. She was frustrated with no place to use her degree. So, I got myself transferred to Andrews Air Force Base in DC. I became the chief of the outpatient mental health clinic there.

How did you first become involved with the Intelligence Community (IC)?

During my assignment at Andrews AFB, I encountered people working in the intelligence field, specifically the NSA. That was my first brush with that world. It was intriguing. So when I separated from the Air Force, I thought it would be fascinating to be involved with intelligence as a consultant.  I applied to be a consultant at the CIA. In response, I got a half inch-thick application asking about every last detail about my life.

I just didn’t have the energy or time to do this detailed application because I was starting my practice.

In the meantime, I built my psychiatry practice. I bought an office building. I had to fill it with activity to pay the mortgage. I staffed it fully, and then got one more call. It was a young social worker, who told me that she was related by marriage to my good friend Joel. So, I had to give her an interview. When I met her, she was lovely and smart. So I decided to make room for her.

Nine months later, I got a letter from the CIA saying that I was approved to get referrals from the Agency.

I wondered what was going on. I didn’t apply. It was too intimidating. I didn’t know I was being investigated. It took a while to figure out the mystery. The new social worker’s mother worked for the CIA and had put me in the pipeline to be vetted.

That led to me being a consultant for a decade for all the different tribes of the CIA, including the Directorate of Operations, Intelligence, Administration, etc.

What was it like to consult for the CIA?

Name any part of the agency, and I got to work with the people there on their various issues. It gave me an immersion in the field of intelligence. I got to know the people who conducted intelligence, their personality types, and their workplace issues.

They were trained not to reveal to me anything classified. I was trained not to ask anything about such things. But I picked up a sense of what life was like and learned a lot about the IC (intelligence community).

How did you get involved with the case of Earl Pitts, who was convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union?

I had a number of psychiatrists working for me as moonlighters. They had government jobs as psychiatrists, but a lot of that work has to do with administration, evaluation, and adjudication. They didn’t treat people, but referred them to me. They wanted to keep their skills up with what they learned in their training. The only way they could do that was to get a part time job in the evening with a small caseload to keep their hands in.

One of these moonlighters, Larry, was working for the State Department. Two months into his work with me, Larry told me he noticed that I was seeing a lot of people from the CIA. He told me that he actually worked for the CIA, not the State Department.

Later, Larry told me that his lawyer friend had acquired a fascinating case at his firm, and he wanted Larry’s help. The case had to do with an FBI special agent who turned out to be a KGB spy. Larry could not do it because of a conflict of interest, but thought I might help. This was the Earl Pitts case, and it was my first involvement with this type of spy.

What ultimately drove your decision to join the defense team for Earl Pitts?

I had mixed feelings about the case, because after a decade of being attached to the CIA, the idea of working with someone who crossed the line didn’t sit well with me.

On the other hand, I was aware of how little was known about the motivation of such people. I thought maybe this would be a way to acquire information that would be of use to the intelligence community that would be unique.

I had an internal battle over whether to proceed, but decided I couldn’t turn away from this unique opportunity. While I was meeting with the attorney on the case, figuring out whether to move forward, I was hearing things that made me nervous, indicating perhaps depression or thoughts of suicide. I wouldn’t have the authority to treat these issues, so I wondered how I would handle it.

That is when I had an idea. Maybe I could give Earl Pitts a reason for living: if he opened up his mind/thoughts/feelings about what led him to make that decision, it would be a contribution that would be good for the IC and would allow him partially to atone for the bad things he had done.

The second time I met with him in prison, I presented this idea to him, not knowing how he would react. He thought it over for a few moments. He said, that ok, he would be my guinea pig. He was very open, and led me to understand a lot of the issues and psychology behind his decision.

I put this together in my first white paper — “The True Psychology of the Insider Spy.”

What brought you to IWP?

To deepen my knowledge, I took my first and only course at IWP with David Major on Counterintelligence. Dave gave a terrific course, and he knew the ideas I was developing about the mind of a spy. This is when I was writing my white paper.

He would always dig at me, saying, correctly, that I had just one case. In medicine, we know that one subject is valuable, but not extremely valuable.

Dave had to change his tune a few years later when my second case turned out to be Robert Hanssen. Dave had missed him as being a spy, even when Hanssen was under his supervision. That case put me on the map as having an expertise on the mind of the spy.

My next case was Brian Regan. That also was fascinating. Basically, I pulled together three cases, and wrote my second white paper: “NOIR: Proposing a New Policy for Improving National Security by Fixing the Problem of Insider Spies.”

Please tell us a little about your proposal to fix the problem of insider spies.

The way things are structured right now, when someone crosses the line and becomes a traitor, there is nothing they can do that is safe. They cannot go to their KGB handler and say it was a mistake — this would be like going to the mafia and asking to be released. It won’t work, and it’s dangerous. On the other hand, if you try to turn yourself in, that won’t work either. It would end your career and you would face jail time and ruin.

They are stuck. There is no way out. They will keep spying, because there is no alternative. My proposal is to build an off-ramp solution for someone who has crossed the line that is government-sanctioned. It has many features, but it is simply unavailable right now.

Right now, if anyone crosses the line, they will keep spying without interruption. I have been pushing that idea into the intelligence community. It is a hard sell, and I understand that, but it is what I have been working on. My solution involves a proposed National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR).

What research is next for you?

In addition to solutions for current insider spies, I realized that we are also missing prevention techniques – solutions for before someone crosses the line. I am working on my third white paper to go into details about how to accomplish this goal.

Was your time at IWP helpful to you as you embarked on this research?

That class at IWP was very helpful and wonderful, because Dave Major forced me to do something I haven’t done in years. In medical school, I had to absorb a lot of information, but it was done in a different way from other graduate programs.

David assigned a lot of reading – 3-4 feet high! It gave me a much wider knowledge base on all the spies we suffered from since the end of World War II.

Even though I had knowledge from working with an actual spy, his course introduced me to the whole realm of academic thinking and experience of the IC with all these different spies. It helped me form my thoughts, incorporated into my second and third white papers. Dave and I remain friends to this day.

What is a piece of advice you would give to members of the IWP community interested in joining the intelligence field?

I think you have to have a very solid background of advanced learning in the field of international affairs, military affairs, and to some degree, psychology. The IC is looking for people who are not ignorant about these matters. They want sophistication and proof that someone is passionate about these fields.

After all, IWP students are working on an MA, and that shows dedication, promise, focus — all the things that are valued within the Intelligence Community. You have to prove you are prepared.

Further reading: