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Eavesdroppings: from the Bay of Pigs to Iran-contra, the CIA has a sorry legacy. But we need it all the same.

Imagine having at your disposal, to spend as you please, the rough equivalent of the book value of the General Motors Corporation. Imagine having sufficient pocket change to pay most of the nation's uninsured hospital bills. Or an annual income equal to the state budgets of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming-combined.

Give or take a few dollars, that's what the United States spends each year to spy on the affairs of the rest of the world and to convert this information into data the White House and the rest of the government can use. Thirty billion dollars is an astonishing amount of money, but surely, in an era when we and the Soviets pushed and shoved at the edge of history's abyss, it was worth it.

Wasn't it?

Most experts would say yes, but with the end of the Cold War, the hindsight view is coming into vogue. James Rusbridger epitomizes it. His lengthy essay* on the uses and abuses of espionage asserts that for four decades, the spy business has been little more than a huge pigeon drop perpetrated year after year by the military and internal security types on gullible politicians. Give us some earnest money, the spymasters say, and we'll return your investment fourfold in hot tips, international gossip, and enemy secrets. The rubes fork over the money every time, Rusbridger says, and every time, the spies and counter-spies hand back colossal bagsful of sawdust: Kim Philby, the Bay of Pigs, Geoffrey Prime, Irancontra, John A. Walker--the list is sordid and almost endless.

In Rusbridger's world, most spies are bumblers who rarely discover much of importance to the naMichael Wines is a reporter for The New York Times. tional security and more often undermine it by supporting illegal and anti-democratic schemes, such as Oilie North's adventures in Nicaragua or domestic surveillance of political activists. Clear as this is, he says, we continue to be seduced by the lure of espionage as a romantic, mysterious quick fix for global problems.

Consider the case of Klaus Fuchs, a member of the British mission to the Manhattan Project, whose conviction as a Soviet spy later led to the indictment of Julius Rosenberg: "Fuchs and other atom spies are credited with allowing the Russians to build the atom bomb and later their nuclear bomb earlier than would have been the case," Rusbridger writes. "Even if this were true, and there is no good reason to believe that it is not, what difference did it really make? No nuclear weapon has been used since 1945, and no one seems particularly anxious to do so now--least of all the Russians." Likewise, he argues that the West has benefited little from the stream of Soviet spies who defected to its side in the past 40 years. "All that happens is that we grandly expel a few alleged spies" that the defectors identify, he writes. "Then we have the task of finding out which of their replacements are also spies, so the whole rigmarole begins again."

Rusbridger, described on the dust jacket as a commodities broker who "was involved in British intelligence operations as a result of his frequent visits to Eastern Europe," doesn't know much about American espionage, but that doesn't stop him from attacking it at length. He gets facts and figures wrong and makes statements about celebrated American spy cases that are plain silly. To cite just two of many examples, he says flatly that Vitaly Yurchenko, the Soviet spy who caused an international sensation when he re-defected to the Soviet Union in 1985, was a double agent sent to confound American intelligence.

No expert I know believes that, and American spymasters have consistently and publicly rebutted it. He also casually charges the CIA at several points with conspiring to murder people--Lebanese Sheik Mohammed Fadlallah, for instance--when inquiries have clearly proven otherwise. Like a lot of knee-jerk critics of the CIA and other espionage agencies, Rusbridger is far too trusting of unverified stories and distressingly eager to believe the worst, even when the facts are plenty bad enough.

And yet, sift out the bias, discount the lousy factchecking, and an undercurrent of truth still runs through this diatribe. I had difficulty fingering it until I scanned a mound of notes from old talks with American spies, ex-spies, and espionage bureaucrats. Unlike Rusbridger, none of them viewed the CIA and its brethren as inherently immoral or anti-democratic; nor did they share his conclusion that spies find out little that would interest anyone except other spies. To the contrary, most were utterly convinced that the Agency, by and large, is on the side of the angels and that good, aggressive espionage is as valuable now as during the height of the Cold War, maybe even more so.

But they and Rusbridger agree on one telling point: The espionage business has become so hidebound by 45 years of Soviet-watching, so cumbersome, and so entrenched in its own bureaucratic folkways that it tends to lose sight of what it's supposed to do, namely enhance the national security. Lately, even the spies sometimes seem hard put to define what "national security" is.

"We set up an intelligence apparatus in the forties for a specific purpose, to monitor a military and political challenge from the Soviet Union, a closed society," one veteran intelligence official told me two years ago. "It was a big demand; it required us to stretch, to innovate, to do things we hadn't been capable of doing, and to think in new ways. And we did it very well. We really succeeded. When we were planning to meet this challenge, our assumption was that it would come in the form of war. But it didn't; it came in the form of peace. And we are basically unprepared to deal with it."

Senior spymasters and their ilk vigorously deny that, noting that the CIA and other agencies are not just slimming down in the post-Cold War era, but redeploying their assets to big-picture problems such as nuclear proliferation and regional worries such as emerging struggles over water rights. To a certain extent, that is no doubt true. It was also true in the early eighties, when Bill Casey turned much of the CIA upside down, began building a corps of highly educated analysts and push-theenvelope undercover agents, and created special task forces for arcane issues like third world conflicts and technology theft. Yet a decade later, Iraq's assemblage of a vast network to illegally procure nuclear weapons appears to have struck the White House like an unexpected thunderbolt, and its invasion of Kuwait was a near total surprise. And Casey's legendary corps of case officers seems to have been largely absent from Baghdad because, as one top intelligence official lamely explained to me at the time, Iraq is one of the world's most restrictive police states. If only Switzerland had chosen to invade Kuwait, our intelligence surely would have been much better.

As for the arcane third-world issues, they do not yet seem to be a path toward glory for ambitious young case officers. "Ask a station chief to penetrate Brazil's finance ministry and he'll look at you like you're crazy," one intelligence official told me. "He'll tell you economics is something for the commercial attache to do. It's slumming."

Sadly for Rusbridger's thesis, however, none of that is an argument for doing away with American or British intelligence. Any hard-thinking critic could come up with an equally long list of arguable successes, from the semi-covert war in Afghanistan to the verification of arms-control treaties to the exfiltration from Russia of an invaluable Soviet defector, Oleg Gordievski, even while he was effectively under house arrest. Indeed, the key flaw in Rusbridger's book is that it treats its long recitation of spies' public failures as incontestable evidence that espionage is a useless enterprise. That's the equivalent of the spymaster's argument that espionage is a resounding success, but that all the successes are classified and can't be told.


The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. So-called secret intelligence can be invaluable--we couldn't know the thickness or composition of Soviet tank armor without it. The bulk of espionage, however, is not the stuff of dark alleys, but plowing through stacks of data, photographs and interviews to glean a larger truth. The real failures in intelligence lie not in the splashy operations Rusbridger dwells on, but in the inability of both spies and policymakers to figure out what the national security interest is, and then how best to serve it. There are failures of espionage culture--like the CIA brass ignoring Far East economies, environmental problems, and technology issues, for example, in order to devote more resources to tracking the local KGB officer in Quito around the clock. Or the White House ignoring a CIA warning of an impending invasion of Iraq because an Arab emir has assured the president that nothing of the sort could occur.

Those are failures of bureaucracy, not spies. Like General Motors, which became obsessed with selling cars at all costs and forgot about quality, and AT&T, which came to view its public service obligation as a mandate to squash even the tiniest innovation such as colored telephones, American intelligence has arguably grown wide-bottomed, narrow-minded, and conservative in recent years. It is an argument Rusbridger should have pushed harder.

"Even the most modern and efficient army, navy, and air force is constantly scrutinized to ensure the country and the taxpayer it provides good value for money," he writes at one point. "But to suggest intelligence agencies should have to undergo the same evaluation is akin to producing a crucifix in Transylvania." On that point, Rusbridger's argument seems disconcertingly on the mark. The Pentagon and CIA could learn a lesson from other major bureaucratic cultures to make sure taxpayers are getting their money's worth.
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Author:Wines, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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