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In Praise of Spying

Secrecy and Democracy: The CIA in Transition by Stansfield Turner (Houghton Mifein, 304 pp., $16.95) 

"Arrogant, insensitive, absurd ideas … [he] has ruined the place. …" That was the common run of rightward Washington comment on Stansfield Turner as director of Central Intelligence by the end of 1977, his first year in office. By then Jimmy Carter no longer maintained his deceptive pretension to bi-Pauline balance. Of his two supposedly coequal chief advisers, Paul Nitze was moving toward conspicuous opposition, while Paul Warnke was running arms control policy, the only strategy that aroused the president's enthusiasm. For the rightward thinking, the stories coming out of the CIA—about the 2,000 covert-branch officers abruptly fired on Halloween day to "emasculate" the country's espionage abihties, about the placement of narrow-minded Navy officers in key positions, about the new director's disruptive managerial changes—seemed quite consistent with the revealed character of the Carter administration. The Annapolis graduate who seemed set on ruining the nation's defenses had found a classmate to ruin the CIA for him.

But this reviewer, as rightward-thinking as any, was nevertheless denied the clarity of that analysis, for he had heard it all several years before. At that time it came in regard to Stansfield Turner's term as president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, the place where the Navy's future admirals are supposed to be educated. It was on a working visit, some months after Turner's appointment in 1972, that I heard the complaints from officer students, and from some of the faculty too. In fact, the place was then being greatly transformed by Turner, in ways most uncomfortable.

With its Mahanian vitality long since spent, the college had been in the business of offering an extended vacation in Newport's pleasant surroundings to Navy mid-level officers between command tours and career-enhancing headquarters assignments. Its staff was just as comfortable, teaching an antiquated curriculum replete with self-congratulatory Navy banalities, punctuated by more of the same from visiting lecturers, who were often retired admirals. By tacit arrangement. Turner's predecessors had indulgently overlooked the somnolence of the teaching staff, while the staff in turn was just as indulgent with the officer-students.

To break this pattern. Turner brought in a cadre of civilians and selected Navy officers of unusual intellectual quality to formulate a drastically revised curriculum; the new studies were to be strong on both the truly modern and the ancient classics, in lieu of the merely outdated. He created a center for advanced studies under James E. King to set scholarly standards for the entire college, showed a remarkable instinct for picking out the talented in his inherited teaching staff while he forced out the rest, and made it clear to the students that they were in Newport to read broadly, think freely, and study hard—and not to indulge in suburban repose with some fishing thrown in.

The "arrogance" that his critics complained of referred to Turner's dismal opinion of the college as it had been. He was "insensitive" because he refused to tolerate private indulgence at public expense. His "absurd ideas" were such things as the compulsory reading of Thucydides, instead of the memoirs of retired admirals or of nothing at all. The ruination Turner was inflicting was the hard work imposed on both officer-students and the staff, as well as his insistence that bright academics and serious men of affairs be invited to give the frequent outside lectures. Thus he displaced the previous cycle of visitors, the retired admirals who so greatly relished the Navy's VIP privileges in the luxurious college "cabin" before and after their "When I was in command of …" lectures of complacency. Trivial in itself, this last outrage was important in its consequences: the retired cohorts spread the word that Turner was trying to educate a new kind of naval officer, who might question the sacred pieties—including the sanctum sanctorum of the aircraft carrier, and the huger-is-better school of thought in ship design in general.

In the Central Intelligence Agency, too. Turner imposed, or tried to impose, painful transformations, and to eliminate staff. In that case, again, it was the retired cohorts above all—surprisingly well-connected in the media—who blackened his reputation outside the institution's walls. Among the other managerial efforts recorded in his book. Turner wanted to place the CIA's traditionally independent three major branches under a joint administration. At the same time, he sought to elevate two of them, the analytic and technical, toward equality with the traditionally dominant "operations" branch, which gathers information by espionage and carries out covert action. Moreover, Turner reduced that latter branch by 820 posts. Most of those operations officers were eliminated by transfers and scheduled retirement. (According to Turner, only 17 people were dismissed and 147 others forced into early retirement—far from the 820, let alone the 2,000, of media gossip.) It seems, in fact, that a 1,350-post reduction had been called for by the branch itself during the previous administration, although over a five-year period instead of Turner's two.

In his other role—as director of Central Intelligence, as opposed to head of the CIA as such—Turner had less success in coordinating the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (the military's own analysis shop), the amply funded National Security Agency (which gathers electronic intelligence in order to do its own analysis), and the State Department's intelligence and research bureau. He was even less successful in obtaining cooperation from the intelligence organizations of each military service; his own Navy's organization was the most defiant of all. The president, it turns out, wanted his own "raw data" to play with, and without his backing Turner's attempts could only fail. By sheer obstructionism, the NSA and the rest even defeated Turner's utterly modest ambition of imposing a unified system on the chaos of 50-odd overlapping and obscure "codeword" classifications, which are supposed to regulate secrecy above the common run of "top secret."

I have no notion of the wisdom or weaknesses of Turner's managerial changes, nor can 1 judge whether reforms, however wise in theory, were healthy for the much-battered CIA just then. Those who know more about the inner truths of the place and the time will have to judge for themselves. Still, about the men Turner recruited no doubt is warranted. His chosen deputy, Frank Carlucci, holds qualities so large in a small frame that his midterm resignation from his next job, as deputy secretary of defense, left a huge void that remains quite unfilled. Not one of the Navy officers whom Turner brought in, and whose presence at the Agency's headquarters in Langley was so greatly resented, fit the stereotype of narrow-minded martinet imposed upon them all. (His front-office aide, George Thibault, is a quintessential man of culture hugely miscast in that role.) The talent shown by Turner in choosing men in the remaking of the Naval War College obviously did not fail him in his new job. Even in selecting a retired four-star general to chair the abortive "code-word" committee, he chose John Vogt—a notoriously bright light in the dim crowd of Washington's ex-military figures.

Unfortunately, Turner’s book also provides much evidence ofdubious judgment in highly importantmatters, and none more important thanthe matter of espionage. Although hecriticizes Congress for refusing to fundreplacement observation satellites tokeep in reserve. Turner shows scantawareness of the very great danger ofrelying so heavily on a small number ofessentially fragile machines. The purpose of our entire military establishment is to avoid a nuclear war, both bydeterring nuclear attacks and by beingready to fight a protracted non-nuclearwar. The purpose of the great Sovietmilitary growth of the last two decadesis precisely to acquire war-winningstrength, without nuclear use. Prosaicmilitary intelligence—on the dispositions and movements of enemy forces,on the concentrations of strength thatmust precede any large offensive, andon its directions—would be crucial toholding the line of defense without having to resort to nuclear weapons; andsuch things can all be observed visually,either by machines or by eyeball MarkOne.

With their fully sufficient precision and freedom from earthly boundaries, photographic and "real-time" TV satellites in space seem greatly superior to long-range manned aircraft. They are altogether more reliable and comprehensive, of course, than any ordinary spy network could possibly be. But all that is true only in peacetime. As soon as combat begins, the satellites are likely to be the first to go. The Soviet Union tested anti-satellite weapons long ago, and no treaty can protect them because any long-range ballistic missile, invisibly modified, can do the job. Nor can deterrence shield them; if the Soviet Union chooses to unleash a destructive, albeit non-nuclear, offensive in Europe, it will certainly not hesitate to destroy some inert machinery in space; and it would have little to fear from our retaliation.

Because we have enjoyed our satellites in peacetime, however, no effort has been made to ensure the upkeep of long-range manned reconnaissance aircraft: the still ultra-modern looking SR-71s are well into their second decade, and no timely replacements are in sight. Manned aircraft are less vulnerable than satellites, but they, too, are vulnerable—dangerously so when their total number is under 24. That is where good old espionage nets have the true advantage. There is no need for a Mata Hari's broadcasting war plans from the Warsaw Pact commander's bedroom to do the job: the classic trio of train-spotters, roadside vehicle counters, and barracks-watchers with radios will do very nicely. Of course, as with any serious enterprise except commodity trading, the eventual payoff will come only by dribs and drabs, from years of hard and patient work. Still, if low-level espionage by willing helpers in the paths of the Soviet army across Poland and East Germany and elsewhere helps us to hold the front of an eventual war by non-nuclear defense, that result alone will have justified all possible effort.

But of course there is much more to espionage. There must be peacetime political reporting from countries about obscure and secretive politics; or from inside specific parties that may have such a style of politics even in open societies (as in the case of the European Communist parties); or even economic espionage from the countries wise enough to make that their chief strategy. And then, too, there is always the chance of enlisting a Mata Hari— the master-spy of legend, not the hapless entraineuse who excited Frenchmen far more than she ever helped the Germans.

Turner exculpates himself from the charge of ignoring the virtues of espionage, but his entire approach nevertheless slights its importance. Still less does he accord a proper place to covert action, the full range of unacknowledged political and quasi-military activities that remain important in a world in which the chief antagonists cannot and must not engage in direct and overt conflict for fear of nuclear escalation. In a world such as ours, the capacity for covert operations provides an essential substitute for overt military means that are simply too dangerous to employ.

As the decline of Leninism as an ideology that inspires loyalty relentlessly continues, the Soviet reliance on covert action increases. In place of the self-persuaded intelligentsia of yesterday, Moscow must increasingly rely on terrorists of all persuasions and of none, out to destroy what they can of all powers of this world but one. And as its claims of social and economic success grow increasingly hollow, Moscow relies more and more on forgeries and manipulated agents of influence, with surprising effect in a good many countries around the world. (Greece is but one case among many.) Purely defensive covert action is already of great importance in itself, therefore, if only to give a fair chance to democratic forces—otherwise disarmed against subversion—to combat terrorism and expose anti-American propaganda.

Turner is lukewarm on covert action of the political kind, and he is frankly hostile to quasi-military covert ventures. While he rules out neither absolutely, and indeed records his own efforts to resume both after the Agency's previous period of shell-shocked inactivity. Turner has a minimalist view of how much should be done. He approvingly quotes Representative Norman Mineta's feckless complaint that "the CIA was rebuilding itself as a credible intelligence-gathering group. But what I see Casey doing is turning it into a paramilitary agency to implement policies." Thus Casey and his CIA stand accused by Turner, too, of conducting the business of the American government. Or is the CIA merely to study the world with philosophical detachment? Surely there are certain policies that only the CIA can implement, unless we create yet one more agency for the same purpose. With a long list of countries now under communist forms of colonial rule, today's anti-colonial insurgents are increasingly fighting Soviet soldiers or their proxies, directly or indirectly.

Moreover, if we do not help those who are fighting and bleeding for freedom as they see it, who will? And if we deny aid to leave room for a "political settlement" between those who have the guns (and tanks, too) and those who are quite powerless, what sort of peace can we expect but the sinister tranquillity of totalitarian suppression? And if we deny aid in order to conserve the wealth of the richest country of the world for cosmetics, pet food, spectator sports, $400 pliers, and other such essentials, what kind of country are we? It is all very well for the Swedes and others to practice the morality that refuses arms to anticommunist insurgents and the Soviet army alike, just as they once maintained their neutrality between the Nazis and those who fought them. The United States can certainly not emulate them.

Thus nothing is more proper and fitting than the effort that William Casey's CIA has been making to intervene in such unequal struggles, by providing modest amounts of aid in the form of equipment, specialized forms of training, and operational advice. To be sure, as soon as the perfect safety of total inaction is abandoned, mistakes will be made. Still, such mistakes should be recognized for what they are—signs that fallible humans are at work, where before nothing was being done at all. With congressional oversight as the law provides, and with less disingenuous partisanship than we have had of late, it is more quasi-military action that we need, and not less.

The reader will encounter a sufficiency of interesting tales in Turner's book before he reaches the last part, where cool analysis and honest recitation give way to polemic against today's CIA and its leadership. Turner authoritatively reviews recent espionage cases and interestingly describes (even if names, places, and dates are all missing) some of our own ventures, effective and ineffective, as well as at least one tragicomic episode. The reader will also be uncomfortably reminded of the peculiar failings of our last president and his entourage. It is not that the properly loyal author accuses Carter of anything at all. It is, rather, the sheer honesty of the book that inevitably exposes the incapacity, and some sneaky malevolence.

Intelligence aficionados, moreover, will glean new facts that survived the CIA's prolonged and strict vetting of Turner's text. Those concerned with the betterment of public administration in the realm of intelligence should not allow irritation with the author's polemic to obscure the merits of his organizational suggestions—except for one of his central notions. In Turner's view, the director of Central Intelligence, who should be a different person than the director of the CIA, should also be "depoliticized"—not the president's man, but a political neuter. But that would work only if the intelligence community is to serve as a purely contemplative body. As soon as action is undertaken, however, only an expressly "political" follower of the president can provide leadership, in correct reflection of the expressed political mandate that put his boss in the White House.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.