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Patterns of Organizational Corruption

Kent Heiner

Prejudice often prevents the public from seeing the truth in allegations of government conspiracy. It is a common reaction for the average citizen, when confronted with evidence of such conspiracy, to disbelieve such evidence on the grounds that it suggests an implausible degree of corruption. It is difficult for most people to believe that an organization such as the CIA, DEA, or FBI could be corrupt enough to be involved in such activity, and more difficult still to believe that such large-scale corruption could exist without becoming public knowledge. Therefore, the average citizen will conclude that many, if not most, "conspiracy theories" are false. There are many fallacies behind such conclusions, and the following essay will explore some of them, examining the nature of organizations and ways in which they may be vulnerable to corruption.

In discussing "corrupt organizations" in this essay, this should be taken to mean organizations which have a legitimate purpose and origin but which engage in illegal or unethical activity, or which have segments intentionally working contrary to the organization’s legitimate and constituted purpose. The term will not refer to organizations (such as the "mafia") that are founded for the purpose of illegal or unethical activity.

The fundamental fallacy in conventional wisdom as described above is the assumption that the allegedly corrupt organization is a "unitary actor." That is to say, the assumption is that the organization acts as a single individual. In such a paradigm, each individual in the organization would be aware of the other’s activities, or all individuals would be overseen by a single organizer. Furthermore, all individuals would work in unison to achieve a common goal. Motives are attributable to the organization as a whole rather than to individuals in the organization.

Experience shows that this is never the case in government offices. The left hand often does not know what the right hand is doing. In many cases, this is simple negligence, but in some government agencies, this principle is enforced as a matter of policy. This is true of intelligence agencies conducting covert operations:

For those conducting a covert action, there are three layers of protection against disclosure. First, there is the culture of secrecy surrounding such operations. People are sworn to silence, and they take their oaths with the utmost seriousness. . . even those who [become] disillusioned and [decide] to talk [are] extremely guarded and evasive. Many [fear] for their physical safety. Second, there is compartmentalization. Ideally, in a political covert action almost no one should have the whole picture. Especially those at a lower level should have as little information as possible about any activities except those required to fulfill their mission. "Need to know" is the rule, and if it rigorously observed, even a disgruntled operative will only be able to reveal one tiny dimension of the operation (Sick 1991, p. 9).

It can be no coincidence that it is organizations such as these in which corruption seems to flourish. Innocent individuals in the corrupt organization can be kept unaware of any activity connected to the corrupt practices. Even for those involved in some less sinister aspect of the unethical activity, wrongdoing is harder to discern without knowledge of the greater picture.

In law enforcement organizations, the direction and scope of official investigations are often controlled by the few individuals at the top rather than the actual investigating officers. Police officers or federal agents who come across evidence of crime can be directed not to pursue the case if their superiors do not wish the crime to be prosecuted. For example, the Drug Enforcement Agency was told for many years to steer clear of Panamanian General Manuel Noriega, who promoted the smuggling of drugs and the laundering of money in his country while a paid asset of the CIA. Similar stories are abundant.

Neither do individuals in an organization act in harmony. Politically ambitious individuals in public offices often pursue their own agenda, to the detriment of others. There is often no overriding common interest. Even in cases where cooperation takes place, motives for doing so may vary. Motives cannot be properly attributed to an organization; only to individuals. For instance, the question might be posed: Why did the United States support Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega in the late 1970s before eventually making war against him and his Sandinista government? To try and answer as if the American government had had a single motivation would be a mistake. Rather the answer should focus on possible motivations and to what extent each of them is applicable. Possible answers are:

The typical person does not grasp the likelihood that all four of the above motives may have been found among various United States policymakers at the time. Progressives in the State Department may have seen the Sandinistas as a welcome alternative to the Somozas’ ugly dictatorship. Others in the same department may have seen the movement as a dangerous development, but decided that it was better to seek the influence that money can buy than to attempt repressing the movement entirely. Analysts in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Intelligence may have foreseen that Ortega was destined to replace the morally bankrupt regime, and recommended placing all bets on the winner. Veterans of the anti-Castro campaign in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations may have seen an opportunity to create another "Communist dictator" in the western hemisphere, another army of right-wing exiles to do their dirty work for the next several decades, and astronomical amounts of liquid cash for their covert operations by using a regional conflict as cover for yet another "guns-for-drugs" operation. Perhaps most important of all, we must realize that there were of course many policymakers who objected to any support for the Sandinistas whatsoever.

Unfortunately, as varied as opinion and motives may be, history often fails to record this diversity, showing instead only its aggregate effect as played out by the organization as a whole. But the diversity is there nonetheless. And so it is with corruption in an organization. There are varying reasons why people may ignore or comply with corrupt practices. And since corruption is nothing new, we must realize that the corrupt are aware of all these possible reasons and make it their business to make very methodical use of all the possibilities.

How does organizational corruption grow and resist the efforts of the conscientious to eradicate it? What are some of the reasons individuals in the organization may tolerate or participate in corrupt practices? We will discuss possible answers, beginning with those likely to apply to the more immoral individuals and then moving on to explanations applying to people of higher principle.

First, there is the possibility that individuals may enter the organization with hostile intent. That is, they are aware of the corruption before joining and intend to participate in it. What of individuals who first learn of corrupt practices after entering the organization? The basest motivations for cooperation would be greed and malice. Also, the individual may allow themselves to fall victim to the pressure of corrupt peers or to their own ambitions which tell them that to rise in the organization, they must play along. Perhaps the individual has committed a less serious violation in the workplace and now faces the possibility of being exposed if he or she does not cooperate in a more serious crime. Perhaps the individual is being blackmailed for some aspect of his or her personal life. Consider the following exchange between an overzealous sheriff (we’ll call him "Bill") and an individual ("Jack") who was assigned by some local businessmen to make the sheriff less dangerous to their interests:

Jack: "Say, Bill, I understand that you was down in Vegas over the weekend."

Sheriff Bill: "Yeah."

Jack: "Hear you lost a little bit at the tables."(Actually, the sheriff left behind $14,000 in IOU’s)

Sheriff Bill: "Uh-huh."

Jack: "Well, the boys wanted me to tell you not to worry about those pieces of paper you left. We got them back for you." (Now the sheriff owes the businessmen instead of the casino)

Sheriff Bill: "I don’t . . ."

Jack: "Also, Bill, we thought you might like to have a memento of your trip, so we brought you these pictures . . ." (The photos show the sheriff in a hotel room with several young girls)

(Chambliss 1988: 109-110)

There are many passive excuses as well for the individual in a corrupt organization not to oppose the corrupt practices. He or she may simply follow the path of least resistance. In the event of exposure, the individual may feign or legitimately claim ignorance of any wrongdoing, explaining that applicable laws and regulations are obscure, ambiguous, or contradictory. They may also claim the "Nuremberg defense," namely: "I was only following orders." This human tendency was explored in the famous experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram, in which test subjects were directed to operate controls which apparently caused intense pain to other individuals.

Deception and indoctrination can also neutralize the conscience of individuals in a corrupt organization. The patriotism of professional soldiers has been much abused by instructing them to violate national and international law in the name of national security. Do potential witnesses against the government need only be identified as "traitors" to clear the way for their assassination by patriotic men trained for that purpose? US Army Special Forces Captain Dan Marvin says that it was under such a "false flag" that the Central Intelligence Agency attempted in 1965 to recruit Marvin, then stationed at Fort Bragg, to assassinate Lieutenant Commander William Bruce Pitzer, then head of the audiovisual unit at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Marvin, though willing to eliminate a "traitor," says he refused the assignment on technical grounds and forgot about it until years later, when he learned that in 1966 Pitzer had been found dead under suspicious circumstances in his Bethesda office [Author's note, 2015: I no longer find Colonel Marvin's claim credible, but I have retained it here as an illustrative hypothetical]. It was not until the late 1970s that other witnesses of the autopsy were released from the "gag order" issued to them by the U.S. Navy. One such witness claims that Pitzer, at the time of his death, had been in possession of film and still photos taken at the Kennedy autopsy, performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital some three years previously. These images directly contradicted the published findings of the autopsy. Other witnesses gave testimony that their observations were wholly inconsistent with the findings of the autopsy.

The autopsy had been falsified as a result of orders originating with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Of course Robert’s original intent was not to cover up his brother’s murder; he had only wanted to ensure that the White House retained full control over any incident in which American officials were assassinated, possibly in retaliation for American attempts on the life of Fidel Castro. The Attorney General’s plan was simply used against him. Neither was it necessarily the intent of those who carried out the AG’s orders to allow a domestic right-wing conspiracy to go unpunished. They didn’t know who had committed the murder.

It was not the desire of Chief Justice Earl Warren mislead the public as the head of a commission assigned to investigate the President’s death. In fact, he tried very hard to decline the assignment, but President Lyndon Johnson browbeat him into it by implying that the evidence in the case pointed to Cuban leader Fidel Castro and by saying that nuclear war could result if the public were not satisfied that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin.

It was not the intention of the majority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to cover up the evidence in the case. The field agents simply investigated what they were instructed to, and knew that it would not advance their careers to provide evidence contradicting the publicly-stated conclusion of the Director. Whatever contradictory evidence was reported was subsequently sent to FBI headquarters, where Director Hoover ensured that it never again saw the light of day.

In 1971, Yeoman Charles Radford was a key player in a "military spy ring" directed against the White House. Under the direction of Admiral Robert O. Welander, Radford stole or copied documents in the possession of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and his deputy Alexander Haig. The stolen documents were then given to Welander, who forwarded them to Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). This conspiracy unraveled when Radford came under suspicion of leaking classified information to the press. Radford was arrested as a result of information provided by Admiral Welander. While being interrogated, Radford asked to speak with Welander, asking him whether he should come clean. Thinking Radford was referring to the press leaks, Welander said that indeed he should. Radford, innocent of the leaks, then broke down and confessed all he knew about the JCS spying operation.

Radford was a conscientious young man and was relieved to unburden his soul of these acts which he had found morally objectionable. In later years, Radford recounted that Admiral Welander told him that the spying was necessary to combat a conspiracy on the part of Kissinger and his associates in the Rockefeller family and the Council on Foreign Relations. The purpose of this alleged conspiracy was to make a deal with the Soviets that would allow the Rockefellers "continued domination" over the world’s currencies and result in eventual world domination by the Soviets.

For many of the reasons outlined above, many individuals in a corrupt organization who refuse to participate in corrupt practices will nonetheless choose not to expose the corruption or "blow the whistle." They may have taken an oath or signed an agreement which legally binds them not to speak out, as is often the case in military or intelligence organizations. Attorney-client, doctor-patient, and ecclesiastical relationships place similar constraints on those who might otherwise be inclined to speak. The individual in question may not be aware of the scope and significance of the corruption, seeing only one aspect of it and minimizing it in his or her own mind. There is of course the fear of reprisals that may result in speaking out against one’s associates. Even if violence does not result, there may be a professional stigma attached to being a "snitch." In some cases, the conscientious individual may believe that he or she can do more good as an insider reforming the organization than as an outsider accusing it.

The leading figures in a corrupt organization leaders know that a bad conscience is a ticking time bomb and will do everything to defuse it. There are many time-tested methods of doing so; no corrupt organization can survive without institutionalizing these methods. Those persons, guilty or not, who are aware of corruption, present a great risk. Larger organizations find it necessary to employ full-time agents to "police" the conspiracy, using bribery, deception, blackmail, or threat of violence to keep those who know about the corruption from telling what they know. Those who accidentally become aware of corruption can be taken aside and questioned on what they think they saw. Then they can be assured that that is not in fact what they saw; or they can be informed that it is a sensitive matter already under investigation and be assured that the guilty parties will be found and punished. For example, a rookie cop on a beat in the vice district who discovers a well-entrenched system of police payoffs and reports it to his superiors can be commended for his integrity and then as a "reward" can be transferred to the suburbs, where he will find no such activities (Chambliss, On the Take, p. 96).

Though America may be less corrupt than many other countries, its corruption is very highly institutionalized on a national level. There are individuals whose job it is to "dirty up" not just the political opposition but both sides of the congressional aisle so that neither will be willing to oppose corruption that is far bigger than any single political party. Legendary drug smuggler and CIA agent Barry Seal, who ran a mammoth drug smuggling operation in western Arkansas during the 1980s, claimed to have been sent there by Vice President George Bush to "dirty up some Democrats" (Hopsicker, Reed and Cummings passim) In fact, Seal’s assignment was of far greater significance than simple partisan politics. The dirty money that flooded Arkansas as a result of his operations had two major effects. First of all it made Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton look like an economic miracle man and a desirable presidential candidate. Secondly, Seal ensured that George Bush’s Democratic successor in the White House would be in no position to expose or otherwise jeopardize the drug smuggling that had been winked at by the White House for the previous twelve years of Republican administration.


Chambliss, William J. 1988. On The Take. (second edition) Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Colodny Len, and Robert Gettlin. 1991. Silent Coup. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Hopsicker, Dan. 2001. Barry and ‘the Boys.’ Noti, OR: Mad Cow Press

Hougan, Jim. 1984. Secret Agenda. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mills, James. 1986. The Underground Empire. New York: Doubleday

Reed, Terry and John Cummings. 1994. Compromised. New York: S.P.I. Books.

Scott, Peter Dale et al. 1987. The Iran-Contra Connection. Boston: South End Press.

Sick, Gary. 1991. October Surprise. New York: Times Books.

Turner. Nigel (Producer). 1995. The Men Who Killed Kennedy. New York: A & E Home Video