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The spies who came in from the cold war. The world changed. Can the CIA?

Nearing the end of his life, the founder of the Central Intelligence Agency lay in bed in his New York City apartment and looked out the window at the line of traffic entering Manhattan from the Queensborough Bridge.

General William J. Donovan's mind had been clouded by a series of strokes. "You see that, my boy," he said to his visitor as he waved his arm at the taxicabs, trucks, and passenger cars streaming over the bridge. "I warned them about this. You know I did. Those are Russian tanks."

For the last 19 years of his life, Bill Donovan was obsessed with the communist menace. He preached it, fought it, worried it. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that he, and the subalterns whom he trained in his wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and who inherited his CIA, lived it. As these men retired or died, their successors, a somewhat less dashing breed, have been also obsessed by the menace. By the thousands each weekday morning, they've passed the old man's statue in the entrance of the headquarters building in Langley, Virginia, and gone to work: analyzing the menace, tracking the agents of the menace, measuring the menace's assets, trying to ferret out the intentions of the menace--"confounding," as the British say in their national anthem, the menace's "knavish tricks."

For 45 years, nothing has mattered as much--an obsession with consquences great and small. Consider the CIA employee who has risen to the rank of station chief in Ecuador. Over time he has learned that CIA headquarters will file without comment his report on Ecuador's ancient territorial quarrel with Peru. But he'll get immediate attention when he reports what the menace is doing in Ecuador. So does he employ someone to count the visitors to the Soviet Embassy, noting the times of entry and the length of stay? Of course he does, knowing that headquarters is more interested in this subject than in any other.

I wish Donovan had been around to see the disappearance of the menace. Like his successors at Langley and in Angola, India, and France, he would have been gleeful, but he also would have been dumbfounded, for the disappearance of the menace leaves the CIA without a cause.

Bill Donovan and Harry Truman, who didn't much like each other, were in total agreement on the CIA's purpose. Truman defined it one morning in 1947 during an Oval Office chat with his aide, Clark Clifford. The president had been reading the cables of the last pre-war ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, and he recommended that Clifford read them too. "After that," said Harry Truman, "you come in here and tell me how anybody could have read those cables and not known there was an attack coming." The reason the U.S. was caught by surprise at Pearl Harbor, according to Truman, was that nobody had drawn President Franklin Roosevelt's attention to the cables or to the enourmous quantities of scrap iron that the Japanese were buying. "If we had had some central repository for information," he concluded, "somebody to look at it, fit all the pieces together, and report it, there never would have been a Pearl Harbor."

So the purpose of a Central Intelligence Agency was clear. But a purpose flies no banners and inspires no slogans. The early history of the CIA makes it clear that without The Cause--fighting the communist menace--the formation of the CIA would never have been approved by Congress. The Army's G-2 was against it. The Office of Naval Intelligence was against it. Hoover's FBI was against it. The first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, was against it. But Joseph Stalin outweighed them all. By erecting the Iron Curtain, threatening Turkey and the Balkans, and fighting the Marshall Plan, Stalin in effect founded the CIA. He gave it a cause. And now that cause is gone. As Lt. General Samuel Wilson, retired chief of one of the CIA's partners, the Defense Intelligence Agency, put it recently, "All my pillars of intellectual support are pretty well gone, because the Soviet Union forces as I knew them have ceased to exist."

Then why not abolish the CIA? Without the cause, do we need an intelligence community that costs nearly $30 billion a year and a CIA that employs tens of thousands of people and risks us deep embarrassment every four or five years? Here I must confess to an old boy's sentimental attachment to the place where I once worked. If the CIA were abolished, I would feel as though the house into which I was born had been demolished--not sad, but wistful. Yet at times even I have considered parricide, especially on those occasions when the CIA has shamed its country, its allies, even its own employees. There were incidents like the Bay of Pigs--illogical in attempt, atrocious in execution, and tragic in result. There was the opening of letters addressed to American citizens violation of the CIA's charter and therefore illegal. Or Operation Chaos, an attempt to spy on and embarrass American citizens opposed to the war in Vietnam, again a violation of the CIA charter and the law. Or the CIA attempt to assit Gerald Ford, then a congressman, in his campaign to impeach Justice William O. Douglas--yet another violation of both charter and law.

And then there were bungled attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, and the murder of Salvador Allende in Chile (the CIA didn't do it, but certainly prepared the way). There were the experiments with mind-altering drugs conducted on innocent and unwitting Americans--unlawful, of course, and also morally repugnant. There was Iran-contra, too, but why go on? Suffice it to say that every American old enough to feel responsible for his country has been embarrassed at some point by revelations concerning the CIA. Yet, as Truman understood, we still need an intelligence agency--a centralized, vigilant agency--as much as a house needs a roof. If the roof is leaky, it's wise to try to fix it before abandoning the neighborhood altogether.

So what should be done with the CIA? Or, rather, what should the CIA do? I asked some members of the club--men who, because they were involved in many of the agency's most crucial policy and operational decisions, have a strong feel for what the new CIA must become, and overcome.

Clark Clifford

Except for the errie emptiness of the richly decorated suite of offices, a visitor would never know that Clark Clifford has been, since BCCI, a troubled man. But Clifford, who helped draft the legislation establishing the CIA in 1947, is perfectly willing to discuss the agency, and his message, like his diction, is clear: The CIA should go back to being what Harry Truman--and for that matter, Clifford himself--envisioned.

He recalls how the agency's mission, as it was being crafted under Truman, quietly drifted away from the original concept of an intelligence-coordinating agency. When the enabling legislation was being drafted, Donovan inserted a phrase giving the CIA power to "conduct subversive operations abroad." Clifford deleted it, substituting a phrase empowering the agency to perform "such other functions and duties as the National Security Council may from time to time direct."

Clifford now says he intended that phrase to be an innocuous catch-all, but with this empowerment the agency secretly hired the paratroopers, bridge-burners, assassination-planners, dynamiters, and second-story artists who brought it infamy. The worst of these operations, says Clifford, was Iran-contra, because it involved a director of central intelligence (William Casey) conducting an unconstitutional exercise without the advice and built-in safeguards of the agency under his command. This, to Clifford, has been the CIA's great failure. He recalls Truman's words on the subject: "We must never again conduct the business of this country without being informed."

But what, exactly, should we be informed about? Clifford thinks the CIA's new focus should be the fundamental shifts in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Commonwealth of Independent States, all currently in the throes of instability. Says Clifford of the Commonwealth, "Those governments possess thousands of nuclear weapons together with delivery systems. We must learn who controls them and under what conditions they are controlled. We must learn the names and the whereabouts of the Werner von Brauns who built them and who, even now, may be searching for employment by other nations or by terrorist organizations. [Now] is the time to insert agents who can follow all the agreements among the republics, all disputes among the republics, and keep us fully informed."

Richard Helms

The senior surviving CIA director is remembered at the agency as a spymaster who sought to remain aloof from "subversive operations abroad." He is also remembered as the man who said no to Richard Nixon when Nixon tried to involve the CIA in the coverup of the Watergate break-in. (Actually, Helms didn't exactly say no, but he stopped well short of doing what Nixon wanted done.)

Yet Helms is also known, to crib from Thomas Powers' book title, as "the man who kept the secrets." Caught between his responsibility to keep CIA secrets and his oath to tell the truth to a Senate committee, between his disdain for dirty tricks and the table-pounding demands of both Henry Kissinger and Nixon to oust Chilean president Allende, Helms fudged. As a result, he escaped indictment for perjury only by pleading nolo contendre to the charge of failing to answer the Church Committee's questions "fully, completely, and accurately as required by law."

Now 75, Helms is, as he always has been, erect and laconic. Asked about the future of CIA, Helms argues that the CIA's mission is actually expanding in the wake of the Cold War.

"With the fall of communism, the intelligence job of the CIA has increased about tenfold," he says. "You have all these countries in the Soviet Union's land space with no clear control over the Soviet Union's weapons. You have all these people with know-how trying to sell themselves to countries that want to beat up on their neighbors. You can't discover their abilities or their plans by technical means so you have to use spies, and with the morality of this country, you can't give the spies cover. And that's the way it will be until somebody blows up New York."

William Colby

Like Helms, who preceded him, Colby is a Donovan disciple who demonstrated an astonishing ability to triumph over adversity. He was a commander of an OSS sabotage team during World War II, a station chief in Vietnam, and, later, chief of the Phoenix program, which sought out, imprisoned, and occasionally executed alleged leaders of the Vietcong. Although that resume does not suggest it, Colby is the only lifelong liberal to have served as director of the CIA, the only one who devoted himself to such causes as the environment and nuclear disarmament. And it was Colby, urged on by junior officers appointed to investigate the crimes and misdemeanors of the CIA in the seventies, who personally went to the Justice department and the acting attorney general with the allegation that his former boss and mentor, Richard Helms, had committed perjury. Today, not surprisingly, his ideas about the new CIA differ greatly from Helm's.

"There are obvious targets for intelligence: terrorists and drug lords who threaten our society as much as nuclear weapons do," Colby says. Yet the believes that both the size and budget of the agency should be reduced. "Even the Division of Science and Technology can be reduced. Those satellites are very expensive to launch and it takes a lot of people to process the information they send back. As for covert operations, they ate up about half of the agency's budget in the fifties; they were reduced to about 3 or 4 percent of the budget in the seventies; under Reagan and with Afghanistan, the constrasts, and Angola, they went up to about 20 percent of the budget. But they're down now and I hope they stay that way."

Ray Cline

If Colby is a favorite of liberals, Cline, deputy director for intelligence from 1962 to 1967, is the agency's own favorite son. A brillian student at Harvard and Oxford, he joined the research and analysis branch of OSS in 1942, when Donovan and his R&A chief, Harvard historian Willian Langer, assembled a team of scholars who would have put the faculty of any one university to shame. No men or women of comparable achievement inhabit the intelligence and analysis communities of today's CIA, which is perhaps why, in the mind of the current generation, Cline's name has a star after it.

It certainly deserves an asterisk. Cline detected the beginnings of the Sino-Soviet split as early as 1957 and said so, despite the decision of many of his colleagues. It was he who analyzed and brought to President Kennedy photographs that proved the Soviets had installed missiles in Cuba. He resigned from the CIA when he determined correctly that Nixon and Kissinger were not using the CIA as a source of information but as a secret weapon to do whatever they wanted without having to take responsibility. Now bearded and cherubic, Cline teaches at Georgetown, where he argues that the agency's new mission is a high-tech one. "We have satellites," he says. "We can eavesdrop on communications and we have openings to societies which have been previously closed. We have computers. The result will be an explosion of data so large that 5,000 or 6,000 people will be hard pressed to keep up with it. But analyzing it and keeping up with it is were our principal effort ought to go."

These men who were either present at the creation of the CIA or directed its work agree, despite their political views and histories, on two things: The CIA should remain in business, and its chief business should be intelligence. Instead of concocting operations--the locus of the agency's failures (and, yes, some remarkable successes)--the CIA should concentrate on giving the president and the government accurate and up-to-date analysis. That consensus raises an obvious question: How good is the CIA's intelligence?

Before answering that, it's worth briefly defining what "intelligence" means. It means information gathered from satellites. It means information gathered from worldwide communications in code, open text, and by word of mouth. It means information gathered from books, magazines, and newspapers. After that, it means analysis--which means somebody reading or listening to the mass of raw information and taking an educated guess as to what it implies. That requires analysts to know a fair amount about the habits and mores of those who inhabit the territory from which the information comes. How adept is the CIA at this sort of data collection and analysis? There are indications that we are not as capable as we should be.

The most critical miss of late came during the Gulf war. Although General Colin Powell praised the U.S. intelligence effort, Iraq's Republican Guard got away, primarily because our military wasn't accurately informed of its position. Saddam Hussein had stationed his troops so that his Shite population would bear the brunt of the coalition attack, and we assumed he had placed the Guard behind them. Only after American forces literally buried the Shiites with artillery and air bombardment did we discover that the Republican Guard was not there.

Nor did we have adequate advance information on the Kremlin coup this past August--although some might argue that it's unfair to call that lapse a mistake. When I discussed this failure with William Webster, director of the CIA at that time, he had an immediate rejoinder. "Of course we didn't have advance information. Neither did Gorbachev." Yet even less sudden, more accessible changes in the Soviet Union went unrecognized. The CIA gave no hard advance warning of the breakup of the Soviet Union nor of the dire economic straits that preceded it--despite the fact that the Soviet Union was becoming a more and more open society.

Why didn't we know? Webster says we did: "I sent memorandum after memorandum over to the White House pointing to the deterioration of the Soviet economy." Analysts who were serving under Webster at the time say they'd like to see those memoranda. Either way, the information failed to trickle up to the White House--not an uncommon phenomenon in the intelligence community.

"It's often a matter of how you say it," one analyst says. Any CIA director can put his signature on foggy analyses with sentences that begin: "Another possibility that cannot be overlooked. . . ." It's more difficult for a director to sign an analysis that grabs the president by his coat lapels and says, "Look, this is serious. This probably will happen--and soon."

Selective intelligence

Those recent failings point up a few basic truths about intelligence that endure with or without the Cold War. First, no matter how good intelligence is, it is worthless if the person receiving it does not pay attention to it or understand its purpose. This happens. The president most frequently mentioned by CIA officials as being prone to this failing was Ronald Reagan.

Second analysis is at best reasoned guess. Consider the Cuban Missile Crisis, when CIA chief analyst Sherman Kent came to the firm conclusion that Khrushchev would not station missiles in Cuba. To do so, Kent argued, would be both irresponsible and too much of a risk. Fortunately, CIA director John McCone had a "sixth sense" that Kent was wrong. Photographs taken later from the U-2 proved that McCone's intuition, not Kent's cold logic, was right. But what neither guessed, and what reconnaisance photos had failed to reveal, was that the Soviets had not only smuggled strategic nuclear missiles into Cuba, but that Castro planned to use them in the event of an invasion by the United States--a fact that was revealed only last month by Castro himself.

Third, there is always the possibility that an intelligence analysts will tailor his information to fit the desires of the consumer--that is, the political party in power. Consider the actions of the CIA when the Reagan administration sought to gain the release of the hostages held in Lebanon under Iranian control. Brushing aside CIA intelligence reports, the administration attempted to create the impression that the Soviet Union was menancing Iran. If the United States didn't cozy up to the mullahs, the administration said, the Soviets might conceivably send their forces into Teheran. The CIA, instead of sticking by its original analysis--which estimated that there was no Soviet threat to Iran--altered its reports to fit the convictions of the policymakers.

This, of course, was the key charge against Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates at his confirmation hearings: that he ordered analysts to doctor their views. Despite his confirmation, no senior analyst at the CIA seriously argues that the charge against him was wrong.

And, finally, there is the basic problem of bureaucracy. Junior analysts at the CIA say there are too many in the chain of command intent on placing their imprint on reports; often the end product is mush. There are also too many station chiefs and staffs in unnecessary places. Right now, agents are diligently typing up memos in tiny countries where even an unprovoked assault upon a small neighbor would hardly be worth waking the president from a night's slumber. Why can't the State department with its embassy on the spot take care of such reporting?

Of course, Robert Gates has been asking himself the same sort of questions as I've been putting to company men past and present. Now that the enemy has disappeared from the field, what is the CIA's role? With Congress smacking its lips at the prospect of shrinking the CIA--and saving billions of dollars in the process--Gates (like officials at Defense, Energy, the National Security Agency [NSA], and elsewhere) is scrambling to tailor a new role for his agency. After months of retreats, conferences, and soul-searching, the director is now sending out signals that he not only wants to emphasize spies, but satellites. He recently proposed setting up his own mini-CNN, a supersecret electronic information system that would flash intelligence briefings from agents around the world back to headquarters. Who's the audience for this multimillion-dollar project? A few dozen agents at Langley.

Spy vs. sky

In all the recent flailing about, a crucial point seems lost: It's not which toys the CIA uses that matters, it's what the agency uses them for. Perhaps more dramatic changes are in order--including a change of personality and structure at the top.

The CIA does best, both as an intelligence arm and as a responsible representative of American public interest, when its director is a distinguished figure of national stature: an Allen Dulles, say, or a McCone. Such a leader is more likely to have the private means or the guts to resign when he feels that a president doesn't want to hear what he has to say, instead of being trapped into tailoring analysis to fit presidential preferences. Of course, resignations don't always do any good--McCone's resignation didn't change Lyndon Johnson. But they give a president pause, forcing him to ask the question: "Don't I want to hear the facts?"

Along the same lines, I think the CIA would do better if its director were also the undisputed chief of the intelligence community, not just a board chairman. Although the director of the CIA can say to the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency or the head of the NSA. "I think we ought to put primary emphasis on this," his recommendation is not binding.

Of course, such power only benefits the nation if the director knows what to emphasize, which is why the most important change in the new CIA must be not structural, but psychological: a willingness among CIA officials to liberate their minds from traditional Cold War definitions of agency work. I think CIA employees would give a collective sigh of relief if "subsersive operations abroad" were removed from the agency's charter and if the ambiguous phrase "such other functions and duties" were spelled out to exclude those subversive operations. Certainly, such operations may from time to time be crucial to the nation's security, but such cases are rare, and we have men in the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps who are trained to do these types of jobs. In the meantime, having a civilian unit--a small secret unity ready at the command of a president to assassinate or to disrupt--affords that president a constant temptation.

As for the satellites in which Cline invested so much faith, how critical are they now? When you had only nine minutes between warning and strike, they were essential--but now it's less likely that missiles will be launched at a moment's notice. Without the minute-to-minute standard, having an agent's analysis of the situation is far more important than knowing precisely where the weapons are.

Still, the new change should be beyond simply decreasing emphasis on satellites, operations, and the like. The real possibilities of the post-Cold War CIA become clear when you think about what it could do. Why, for instance, must that vaunted satellite technology be used only to survey military compounds? The CIA already possesses the world's most comprehensive collection of information on the earth's oil supply, exploiding population, ozone layer, and water supply. But it keeps all this a secret. Couldn't we also use CIA satellite technology to, say, help measure the earth's deterioration, its diminishing grasslands, forests, vegetable cover, and food supply? This kind of information, though the CIA considers it less important than reports on unrest in Haiti, would actually be much more useful in our struggle for global welfare.

Yet as the wise men and the rank and file demonstrate, there is a very strong institutional pride in the CIA. After nearly a half century of looking at the world in one particular way, can such a proud institution change?

In some ways, it already has. In my own day, men who had parachuted behind enemy lines were in vogue. They were the agency division chiefs and their assistants, and in the great expansion of the fifties they tended to hire their own kind. The macho mentality was so pervasive that to say of a fellow employee, "The man has never jumped," was a mildly disparaging remark. Today, substitute the words "He [or she] doesn't have a Ph.D." and you come close to the same disparagement.

"I'm choosing the CIA," a recent 22-year-old recruit told The New York Times, "because the benefits are good. The government takes care of you." If the new CIA wants to do better than that -- if it wants to find a middle ground between machismo and mediocrity, if it wants to stave off total obsolescence -- it will have to change again, training those Ph.Ds on problems more complex and variegated than anything the Cold War required.

At the end of World War II, Bill Donovan was very good at rapid change. From Hitler's Germany to Stalin's Russia took him about a minute and a half; it took the rest of the country six months. My hope is that Robert Gates, even without a cause, will be good at changing too.
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Author:Braden, Thomas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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