could the CIA fall so low?
December 8th, 1996
of yet another former colleague’s arrest on charges of spying
caused a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
When will it all end?
boxer long past his prime, the CIA is reeling from the continuous
barrage of jabs from the press, Congress and elsewhere over alleged
drug dealing and misdeeds in Central America.
Powerful hooks and uppercuts have been delivered by the
betrayal of the likes of Aldrich H. Ames and the recent allegations
against Harold J. Nicholson. How
could this happen to the once proud agency?
A review of the years since the CIA’s birth offers clues.
When I was recruited by the CIA 30 years ago, the Vietnam
conflict was in full swing and the agency’s leadership consisted of
seasoned veterans of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and World
War II. Members of this
proud, aloof group of colorful heroes held virtually every senior CIA
post, and they instilled their values of “duty, honor, country” in
the junior officers who followed them.
The Central Intelligence Agency was a closed society,
well-insulated from outside attacks.
“No comment” was the most that ever escaped the agency’s
lips. The much-maligned
“old boy” network was in full force.
But the mere thought that a member of this select fraternity
would betray its code was unheard of.
But as the CIA aged, things changed.
The first serious blow to the organization occurred in 1973
when James R. Schlesinger, an outsider, took over.
He was ambitious, unschooled in the arcane business of
intelligence and only wanted the job as a stepping-stone to secretary
In the short year of his tenure as director of central
intelligence (DCI), he decimated the ranks of senior management
through a contentious reduction in force and threw open agency doors
to censure from the outside. For
the first time, the agency was on the defensive.
Schlesinger’s successor, William E. Colby, was left to deal
with the mess he inherited. The
CIA withdrew to lick its wounds, and morale plummeted.
This was the beginning of the decline.
The next disaster occurred in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter
appointed his Naval Academy buddy, Adm. Stansfield Turner, the post of
DCI. Turner came to the
agency with the belief that the CIA’s emphasis on human intelligence
was obsolete and that intelligence gathering through technical means,
such as spy satellites, was the only way to go for the future.
Turner believed that the job CIA operations officers were doing
was immoral (recruiting and handling unsavory spies) and, therefore,
that they must be personally immoral.
As a prelude to another massive purge of CIA ranks, he launched
an absurd and insulting witch hunt to investigate the moral behavior
of agency case officers. He
sent his friend Rusty Williams, another Naval Academy buddy, to CIA
stations around the globe with orders to delve into the personal and
professional lives of case officers.
One of the things he found was a particularly high divorce rate
among CIA officers. Predictably,
he attributed this more to loose morals rather than stress, long hours
and the dangers of their work. The
purges began when Williams returned to Washington, and Turner
announced that, henceforth, only “patriots” would be recruited;
case officers should no longer recruit venal turncoats motivated
solely by money.
It took about a year for Turner to realize that he was wrong,
and to his credit, he tried to rebuild the operations directorate.
But the damage to agency morale and public image was done, and
the stage was set for the first foreign penetration of the CIA.
In 1980, a case officer named David Barnett pleaded guilty to
spying for the Soviet Union while serving in Indonesia.
The impossible had happened.
The CIA’s inner sanctum had been penetrated for the first
time, and agency morale plummeted even further.
Things improved for a short time in the early 1980s under
William J. Casey, but new scandals related to events such as
Iran-contra started things spiraling downward from the mid-1980’s
on, and other defections followed as attacks mounted.
The year 1985 was particularly bad for the agency.
Former journeyman case officer Edward Lee Howard fled the
country as he was about to be arrested by the FBI for passing secrets
to the KGB, and Sharon Scrange, a CIA operational support assistant in
Accra, was convicted of passing secrets to the Ghanaian intelligence
service. That same year,
Ames began his traitorous association with the Soviet Union.
The agency now is at an all-time low in terms of morale,
mission and leadership. Talented officers are bailing out in
unprecedented numbers. Soon
after the dust settled from the Ames case, another popped up.
Nicholson has been charged with betraying his country to Russia
for a paltry $180,000.
Only part of the blame for these CIA defections can be
attributed to the erosion of loyalty among its officers and the loss
of public trust and confidence in the organization. Convincing a
member of one intelligence service to spy for another is the ultimate
in salesmanship, and it is a highly personal process.
It involves an in-depth assessment of the potential recruit’s
vulnerabilities and motivations, and then the offer of rewards based
upon that assessment.
Money alone is almost never the sole motivation for treason.
Sure, a spy will almost always accept money in return for
providing state secrets, but there is always a stronger, deeper, more
personal motivation that leads them over the edge.
Revenge is the prime motivator, and there are others: the
desire for recognition not provided by the agency, wanting to stick it
to the organization and/or supervisors who wronged you or didn’t
promote you enough, wanting to show that you can get away with it -
that you are smarter than “they” are, or just for the thrill of
seeing if you can get away with it.
One thing is certain: None
of these people thought they would get caught.
But they did, and at least in the cases of Ames and allegedly
Nicholson, they got caught because they were incredibly stupid.
They forgot the first lesson of Clandestine Tradecraft 101:
They lived beyond their means; they spent the ill-gotten rewards of