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A View to a Kill

Forget spy vs. spy; now it’s spy vs. Congress


The CIA exit sign.

Santi Visalli/Getty Images

The CIA may be the only secret intelligence agency in the world to have an exit sign clearly marked on the highway. Still, security is extremely tight owing to a drive-by shooting a couple of years ago, and I even think I see a military helicopter following my car, GoodFellas-style, on the day of my visit to the 219-acre Langley, Va., campus, eight miles outside Washington.

Driving in, I notice three large graffiti-covered sections of the Berlin Wall, simultaneously a victory trophy and a nostalgic reminder of better days. Outside the building’s entrance stands the figure of Nathan Hale, the nation’s first spy, whose only regret was that he had but one life to lose for his country. My entrance through the electronically controlled turnstile inside is delayed while somebody with proper authority decides whether my laptop computer and my microcassette recorder constitute a national-security risk. It is late Friday, and people are going home. Although spy-turned-traitor Aldrich Ames was able to carry out massive amounts of secret documents because no one checked his briefcase, the spot checks have not yet been reintroduced, though I am later assured that they are about to be.

Perhaps the lion’s share of what goes on inside the CIA today is the attempt to sift through and make some sense of the mountains of data for which spies once risked their lives — data now available for the price of a bus ticket in Turkmenistan or a CNN satellite broadcast. Nevertheless, both in the agency’s own mythology as well as in the public’s mind, what makes the CIA the CIA are its spies. This becomes ever clearer as one enters the building. To the left of the entrance is a larger-than-life bronze rendering of William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, the swashbuckling World War I hero who founded the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services. Beside the imposing uniformed statue are the names of those officers who died serving the OSS. On the opposite wall is the CIA Book of Honor memorializing the agency’s fallen. More than half of the 56 honorees are represented simply by stars and blank wall space, as their identities still remain secret.

After about 20 minutes, Allan V. “Vin” Swasey Jr., the agency’s deputy director for public affairs, and Dave Christian, from the Office of Media Relations, come down and escort my electronic equipment and me through the turnstile. Upstairs on the seventh floor, where all the head honchos work, we sit down at a table in Swasey’s office to discuss the agency’s future over a carafe of lukewarm tea. During the course of our 90-minute conversation, as the sky outside the window darkens and the winds start spilling sleet, the two men do their best to put a brave face on the CIA’s current predicament.

During the Cold War, when the secrets were deadly and the spies glamorous, the CIA learned how to exploit cutting-edge technology and a James Bond mystique to convince Congress and most Americans that it was omniscient and omnipotent. Today, however, the agency has seen its internal morale all but destroyed by a series of events that began with its spectacular misreading of the power of the Soviet Union and its allies; continued with the agency’s inability to define a coherent mission following the loss of its raison d’être, the Cold War; and was finally exploded by the worst internal spy scandal in the agency’s history, and expensive and embarrassing sexual-discrimination case brought by a highly praised agent, and a false congressional briefing about Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s psychiatric history that threatened to sabotage President Clinton’s Haiti policy.

The old “pride and smugness” have been “blown away,” according to former CIA director Robert Gates. As a result, President Clinton has been forced to appoint a commission to determine the CIA’s future. The Commission’s chairman, former Clinton defense secretary Les Aspin, told Rolling Stone that he will start with a “blank piece of paper,” even if that means “abolishing the agency.” For the first time since the CIA’s creation in 1947, its very existence is on the line.

We will take seriously their concerns and their suggestions,” retired Air Force Gen. Michael P.C. Carns told a bevy of reporters and assembled national-security officials when President Clinton recently introduced Carns as his nominee to head the CIA. The statement represents a significant reversal of the CIA’s attitude toward the formation of the commission. When Republican Sen. John Warner wrote to the president to urge him to appoint such a panel last year, then CIA director R. James Woolsey reportedly tried to intercept the letter from the White House mail room in order to persuade Warner to rewrite it. A former secretary of the Navy and recognized “wise man” of defense, Warner got his way, however, and the president agreed to the appointment of a 17-member commission, with eight of its members to be named by Congress. Ever since, the CIA has been living in bureaucratic limbo, made worse by Woolsey’s resignation just after Christmas.

With Clinton’s choice of Carns, the final battle over the future of the CIA has begun in earnest. The early skirmishes will undoubtedly take the form of Senate hearings on Carns’ appointment and an in-the-works House report on the future of U.S. intelligence. Yet if Carns, a former fighter pilot, hopes to protect the agency’s traditional prerogatives, he will also have to navigate a chaotic array of hostile fire from the Aspin Commission, from Republicans on Capitol Hill intent on embarrassing Clinton and from congressional Democrats harboring their own political ambitions — to say nothing of the bureaucratic saboteurs lying in wait inside the vast and uncontrolled U.S. intelligence community.

At this point the key players fall roughly into one of three camps. The Get Rid of the Agency Entirely camp is led by a New York Democrat, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who has conducted a one-man jihad against the agency ever since he discovered how badly it misread the Cold War and exaggerated the strength of the U.S.S.R. The Let’s Tinker, or Moderate Reform, camp is led by a powerful duo, Republican Intelligence Committee chairs Arlen Specter in the Senate and Larry Combest in the House. Specter’s presidential ambitions are certain to affect his willingness to compromise with a Democratic president and to court more hard-line candidates within his own party. Finally, there is the Lean and Mean camp, led by former CIA Director and bonafide Cold Warrior Robert M. Gates, who shocked Washington with his own far-reaching plan to dramatically reduce and remake the agency. For those who are sympathetic to Moynihan’s critique but aren’t ready to pull the plug on the agency, the radical revision proposed by this spymaster has emerged as the front-runner.

But before the Gates plan — or any other — becomes law, it will have to run the gantlet of Les Aspin, John Warner and former Republican senator Warren Rudman (Aspin’s vice chair) on the commission; Specter and his committee vice chair, Democrat Bob Kerrey (a once-and-future presidential hopeful), in the Senate; Combest and company in the House; and, last and perhaps least, Bill Clinton.

Pat Moynihan is a man of singular concentration. Sitting amid the leather-bound copies of Woodrow Wilson’s papers in his Masterpiece Theater-like Senate office, the bow-tied Irishman need only hear the acronym CIA before he launches into a lengthy professorial disquisition on how and why the agency must be undone. As the former vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Moynihan accused the CIA of launching what “can only be called a domestic disinformation campaign against the U.S. Congress.” His campaign to abolish the agency began during the last days of the Soviet Union, in early 1991. “Why should I listen to, much less trust, an organization that wrote in 1986 that the GNP per capita in East Germany was $220 higher than the GNP per capita in West Germany?” Moynihan asked. “We now learn that just as the Soviet economy was collapsing, we were launching the most massive peacetime military buildup in our history.”

Moynihan’s bill, originally entitled the End of the Cold War Act of 1991, would, if passed, instruct the secretary of state to spend one year consulting with the CIA and the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in order to come up with a plan in which “all of the functions, powers and duties of the director of central intelligence… shall be transferred to and vested in the secretary of state.” The agency would then have a second year to carry out the plan, which, by definition, would end with its own abolition. That blueprint, according to Moynihan, would put all U.S. foreign-policy business where it belongs, in the State Department, whose operating budget is currently only two-thirds the size of the CIA’s estimated $3 billion. The State Department, traditionally a weak stepsister to the combined force of the Pentagon and the CIA since the Cold War’s start, would henceforth be empowered, in Moynihan’s words, to “speak up and insist on carrying out its own responsibilities with its own resources.” The bill would also require the president to publish a single figure for all intelligence outlays in order to “allow the public to have a better understanding of the costs of collecting intelligence information and help produce a better-informed debate on restructuring our intelligence institutions in the post-Cold War world.” The latter idea, says Moynihan, would also have the salutary effect of ending the demonstrably unconstitutional practice of hiding the CIA’s budget somewhere inside that of the Pentagon.

Moynihan reintroduced the bill in 1993, but in his office one Saturday morning a few months back, he conceded that the CIA is not going to be abolished under this president nor, probably, in Moynihan’s lifetime. Ironically, the only real vocal support one hears for Moynihan’s proposal comes not from his liberal allies in the Democratic Party but from far-right conservatives such as Angelo Codevilla, of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who sees the CIA as squishy soft and liberal. Not surprisingly, a senior White House official concurs with Moynihan’s pessimistic political diagnosis, no matter what brave talk one may hear on the subject from Aspin or anyone else: “I don’t think there is anyone in this administration who would say, ‘Abolish the CIA.'”

Still, Moynihan is an influential player, and his plan, by establishing the boundaries of the debate, serves to define where the middle compromise position on the CIA ultimately will be. After all, it was the mere existence of his bill, in light of the revelations about Ames’ spying and Congress’ fury at the CIA’s inability to clean house, that first inspired the creation of the Aspin Commission. Expecting what he called a “battle royal” and a “firestorm” to erupt during last year’s debate over the intelligence budget, Warner feared that Moynihan’s bill would gain momentum. Warner later admitted: “I was concerned that once the annual CIA authorization bill… got to the floor, we might have serious attacks, and therefore I instituted legislation to set up a top-level — the highest level attainable — presidential commission…. And I think that commission will hold the tide.”

Now that Woolsey is gone and Clinton has made a popular choice to replace him, the tide appears to be turning. Both of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top guns, Specter and Kerrey, insist that Moynihan’s critique is “sound,” in Specter’s phrasing. But they agree with former House Intelligence Committee chairman and current Secretary of Agriculture designate Dan Glickman that you can’t “throw out the baby with the bath water.”

Instead, Specter, along with his counterpart in the House, Republican Larry Combest, have thrown their weight behind a plan to create a new intelligence “czar” who would oversee and coordinate all the far-reaching tentacles of America’s intelligence-gathering apparatus, including the CIA. In the past, explains Specter, seated on the couch of his capital hideaway, next to a buxom African fertility goddess holding what appears to be a hand grenade, “the agency has run the directors, as opposed to directors running the agency.” So, he says, we need someone who “looks everybody in the eye and says, ‘I’m going to be here longer than you are.'” Both chairmen have suggested a 10-years term for the new position, thereby creating an independent source of power similar to that of the head of the FBI.

According to Specter, the new director of national intelligence would operate on the model of the secretary of defense, “with control of the budget and with the kind of stature of the secretary of defense, empowered to with-stand the kinds of internal fighting and bureaucratic crosspressures which are brought to bear.” It would end what Specter considers to be the conflict of interest between the gathering of intelligence and policy development. The new director would check information provided by the CIA with data coming in from other sources before making a final recommendation to the president or briefing Congress. Such conflicts, according to Specter, had led to former director William Casey’s “cooking intelligence information” to support his right-wing view of the world and played a role in the CIA’s involvement in the Iran-Contra fiasco. Combest says he supports the idea because it would “take the politics out of it” and discourage an administration from pressuring a director to doctor its intelligence to fit policy.

Another aspect of Specter’s plan to which everyone in Congress and the White House pays lip service is the need, in Specter’s words, to “eliminate duplication” in the intelligence community by creating a more rational and efficient structure. Although most Americans share a common misperception that almost all U.S. intelligence is collected by the CIA, the agency is, in fact, one of 12 active U.S. intelligence organizations and accounts for a little more than 10 percent of the approximately $28 billion annual intelligence budget. The State, Defense and Treasury departments each have their own intelligence arms, as do each of the armed services and even some of their individual commands. The so-called Puzzle Palace — the National Security Agency, with more than 50,000 employees and perhaps twice the budget of the CIA — is in charge of electronic surveillance. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) — by far the most expensive of these agencies, costing more than the CIA and the NSA combined, according to one informed estimate — is responsible for getting the big birds (satellites) built and launched. Now the director of the CIA, whose real title is director of central intelligence, is the chief of all of these agencies simultaneously. In truth, no one is. Specter’s plan would not only create a new intelligence overseer but also over-haul the creaky, duplicative agencies that would report to him.

Yet such “rationalization” would open the gateway to bureaucratic bloodletting as each agency fights for budget, manpower and prerogatives. To the president and to most policy makers, it makes little difference whether a satellite photo or a crop report comes from the NSA, the CIA, the NSC or the NAACP, for that matter. But to those officers, generals, civil servants and rear admirals, control means billions of dollars and thousands of jobs and potential promotions. Twenty-five times, according to Specter, the president or Congress has attempted to reform and eliminate redundancy in the intelligence community. But the bureaucracy is like one of those creatures in a Japanese monster movie: What didn’t kill it made it bigger and nastier. In 1961, then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara created the Defense Intelligence Agency to replace each of the four armed services’ own smaller outfits. Today, not only the DIA is going strong, but so are the other four operations it was meant to replace.

To almost universal surprise, the most radical proposal for reformulating the U.S. intelligence agency came from former CIA Director Robert Gates. Gates had been William Casey’s deputy and was accused by many in the agency of skewing its reports in order to play up the hard-line Reaganite politics that he and Casey shared during the 1980s. But while the dust was settling on the Aspin Commission this winter, Gates fired a shot from his home in Mt. Vernon, Wash., that set the intelligence community ablaze.

While not going as far as his old nemesis Pat Moynihan, Gates envisions changes in the intelligence community that he terms “revolutionary.” The CIA would handle only those functions related to “the former Soviet Union, China, regional powers and conflicts, terrorism and proliferation.” All satellite collection and analysis now done by the NSA, DIA, CIA (and any other initials) would be turned over to a new National Imagery Agency. Gates would then create a director of military intelligence. This four-star military officer, serving in the Pentagon and presumably on par with the heads of the four services, would be responsible for all of the CIA’s current analysis of foreign weapons and military-force levels in order to end the competition between services. The military would also be given responsibility for paramilitary operations around the world, thereby ending the CIA’s role in all covert action, an absolute prerequisite to the reassertion of democratic control over U.S. foreign policy. Thus the Pentagon could intervene to, say, sabotage a North Korean or Iraqi nuclear reactor if the president deemed it necessary. The CIA. would still have its spies, but their numbers would be reduced (although Gates doesn’t specify by how many). And they would be forbidden from participating in the kind’s of operations that have traditionally gotten the agency — and sometimes the president — into so much trouble. No more “how-to” assassination manuals for Central American counterrevolutionaries, for instance, or exploding cigars for Señor Castro.

The net effect of Gates’ blueprint would be to significantly cut the CIA’s 19,000-person staff and $3 billion budget and strip the agency of its action-orient roles, from overthrowing heads of state to stealing elections. As Gates explained in a phone interview from Mt. Vernon, “Five-sixths of the [intelligence] budget is in the Pentagon anyway…. [The downscaled agency] is not, therefore, a place for significant players.”

John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists expressed something approaching open-mouthed disbelief at the scope of Gates’ reform. “It’s one thing for me to run around talking like that,” says the liberal Pike, an expert on technical collection systems. “But I do not take Robert Gates to be one to test the envelope of conventional wisdom.” Indeed, the fact that such a revolutionary plan would come from such a hard-liner is why Gates’ plan is so hot. Former CIA Director William Colby has also said he thinks the plan “makes a little sense,” while the ever-noncommittal Aspin has expressed interest.

The ultimate shape of the reforms, however, has as much to do with the political crosscurrents as it does with the merits of any particular plan. The commission is set to report in March 1996, just as the presidential-election season is heating up. Within the GOP majority, Warren Rudman, the former New Hampshire senator and Aspin’s vice chair, is extremely cautious (he helped weaken the final congressional report on the Iran-Contra arms scandal). The only — albeit unlikely — scenario that might push Rudman to try to make a name for himself is if he starts reading all those stories urging him to run as Colin Powell’s running mate on an as-yet-unformed third political party ticket in ’96. Even less eager to shake the foundations of the intelligence community is John Warner, who, remember, came up with the very idea of a commission in order to defuse more radical plans to abolish the agency. What could nudge the old Navy hand are his ties to the military, which would gain significantly in power and budget at the expense of a shrunken CIA.

While the commission will make recommendations, however, it is the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that will actually write the new legislation. In the Senate, Arlen Specter and his presidential ambitions will play a key role. The moderate Republican is not well known, even within his own party (he is probably best remembered by the public for his mean-spirited grilling of Anita Hill back in 1991). The opportunity to play the foreign-policy statesman by forcing through a “total overhaul” may prove irresistible, particularly since it would appeal to those far-right conservatives like Codevilla who find the CIA too soft. Nor does Specter miss an opportunity to use the current debate about the CIA to take broader shots at the president. “The president’s resistance to the CIA is only part of the problem,” he explains during an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “They sense his lack of participation, his lack of experience and his indifference. He does not know how to respond.”

For the White House the primary concern appears to be political damage control — Clinton is likely to support any consensus so long as the CIA is not eliminated. Les Aspin, for his part, clearly understands that the president appointed him to head the commission in order to keep his former boss out of political trouble, particularly with the military, where Clinton is vulnerable because of the “draft dodger” charge. Aspin will therefore do his best to hammer out a lowest-common-denominator recommendation among his committee members, thereby increasing the likelihood of yet another intelligence report that leaves the essential structure of the community untouched.

Despite his promise to listen carefully to the commission, Carns can be expected to fight like hell against any but cosmetic changes. CIA directors, like most bosses, are judged by their employees first and foremost on whether those employees still have jobs. (Woolsey would not countenance even microscopic budget cuts.) The trick for Carns will be to speak the language of compromise and sweet reason while refusing to allow any meaningful reform. A friendly but hard-line Carns could, therefore, shore up not only the agency but Aspin and the administration as well, by allowing them to portray even the most superficial reforms as brave and tough-minded.

But Aspin’s strategy to offer maximum political cover for the president and minimum alterations to the CIA could also be foiled by congressional Democrats. Senate Intelligence Committee vice chair Bob Kerrey remembers quite well that the president responded, “Fuck you,” when told of Kerrey’s plans to vote against his first-year budget. Kerrey, who lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Clinton last time around, has every reason to use the Intelligence Committee to further establish his independence from the increasingly titular head of the Democratic Party.

While sympathetic to both Moynihan’s complaints and Gates’ proposals, Kerrey thinks that much of the argument about intelligence reform misses the point. “The problem with arguing whether [the CIA] should be a lot smaller is that we are arguing without an idea of what it should do,” he says. To Kerrey, the primary imperative facing the intelligence community is the need to open up the information to Americans. “Our debate on the very nature of the threat needs to be made public,” he says. And the proliferation of think tanks, university research centers and specialized information services, coupled with the ongoing revolution in communications technology, now makes available to policy makers — at the touch of a fingertip to a computer terminal — information that once required teams of spies, translators and analysts to provide.

When Kerrey talks about getting such information into the hands of the average citizen in a kind of nationwide town meeting, his plan becomes increasingly murky, however. Kerrey says he intends to be a “champion of new technologies and to use them to inform citizens,” but in explaining how, he seems to veer in the worrisome direction of Gingrich-oid third-wave territory. Kerrey says he envisions the development of a new computer network on the Internet that will provide high-quality images of photo reconnaissance. “Had the American people seen with 1-meter imagery what … Moscow looked like,” he argues, “they would have said, intuitively, without having to read 5,000 pages of text, ‘What the hell are you guys telling us? My God, this place is a mess.'”

While Kerrey’s own theories for democratization of intelligence data are not fully formed, his critique strikes at the heart of the CIA by identitying its most serious problem: an addiction to secrecy. Like Moynihan, Kerrey believes that secrecy is the bureaucratic gold dust that gives the CIA its power and influence within the government while shielding it from scrutiny. As Moynihan continually points out, we have created a “national security state [that has] developed a vast secrecy system that basically hid from us our own miscalculations. The mistakes, you see, were secret, so they were not open to correction.” Retired Rear Adm. Eugene LaRocque of the liberal Center for Defense Information agrees: “They have a wonderful setup. They get all these billions of dollars every year and are answerable to no one.” The result is that no bureaucratic entity in the entire public sector enjoys less fiscal and political oversight than the CIA.

Such secrecy has corrupted the CIA’s ability to police itself and prevent its legitimate activities from spilling over into criminal ones. Consider a small sampling of the CIA’s darker moments: the hiring of Nazi war criminals; the overthrow of legally elected governments; the training and financing of foreign police and paramilitary forces engaged in systematic murder and torture; participation in clandestine invasions and actual wars against nations with which the United States was at peace; attempted assassinations of foreign leaders. To say nothing of the criminal activities directed against American citizens on American soil: opening mail; administering drug tests to unsuspecting victims; subverting student political organizations.

CIA spokesman Vin Swasey insists that because of the highly publicized investigations of the 1970s, coupled with the creation of congressional oversight committees, Americans can rest assured that the CIA is now “a law-abiding organization.” Hearing the CIA promise to abide by the law, however, is like hearing a philandering husband ask a long-suffering wife to “stand by her man” just one more time. The CIA, Moynihan points out, mincing no words, is an agency that has “lied repeatedly and egregiously” to Congress. During the 1980s the CIA, under the leadership of Casey and Gates, undertook a wide array of illegal activities, including the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors; the training of the Contras in assassination techniques; the illegal shipment of missiles to the ayatollah’s Iran to use against Iraq; even the apparent illegal shipment of cluster bombs to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to use against Iran. (The latter may also have been used against U.S. forces during Operation Desert Storm.) The agency’s refusal to abide by oversight laws continues today. Just as President Clinton was in the process of announcing Carns’ nomination, the House Intelligence Committee was threatening to subpoena a former top CIA official after he refused to discuss the agency’s efforts to hide the loss of its Soviet-bloc agents during the period of Ames’ treason. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, the panel members discovered “a plan to restrict telling Congress about what was going on,” so that the agency could “keep it under wraps.” The congressional oversight committees may intend to ride herd on the CIA to keep it operating within the law, but as Larry Combest concedes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Moynihan and Kerrey, of course, allow that some secrecy is necessary, but they argue that the intelligence community has clearly abused this privilege, breeding a costly contempt for the inconvenience of democratic scrutiny and debate. Woolsey, for instance, refused to apologize when Congress discovered that the intelligence community was trying to sneak $347 million into the budget for the construction of what John Warner called a Taj Mahal-like headquarters for the NRO. Kerrey observes: “I believe that some things need to be kept secret, but my guess is that the American people don’t believe that, and hence it will be tough to convince them that we are dealing with them straight.”

It is a universal truth,” James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1793, “that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.” Clearly the president, the Aspin Commission and Congress don’t have the stomach to end the scourge of official secrecy by abolishing the agency. Yet will they move at all in the direction of democratizing the CIA as mapped out by Kerrey and Moynihan? The litmus test will be the opening of the intelligence budget. Aspin has promised that the commission will seriously examine the arguments, while the Clinton administration appeared favorably disposed toward the idea before caving in to Woolsey’s demand that the budget remain secret. By insisting on an honest and detailed budgetary account of all U.S. intelligence activity worldwide, the White House, the Aspin Commission and would-be congressional reformers will signal their intent to subject the CIA to public debate about its mission and tactics. Without it, they better have a secret line item in the budget for whitewash: They’ll need it.


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