A review of Secrecy and Democracy: The CIA in Transition, by Stansfield Turner
Stansfield Turner's memoirs highlight the need for a good book on American intelligence for the general reader, one that Turner himself should be forced to read. In 1977 he came to the top job in American intelligence knowing next to nothing about it. These memoirs prove that he left it four years later having picked up more nonsense than fact.
Turner claims to be describing the craft of intelligence in general and, particularly, how America's peculiar genius and democracy have shaped intelligence to meet our unique needs. However, no sooner does he say "[The book] is not a memoir of my stewardship as the Director of Central Intelligence. Above all, it is not an apology for errors I may have made" (p. 1), than he contradicts himself. "This book, then, is about my experiences from 1977 to 1981." Indeed, the pronoun "I" and the bureaucrat's obsession for his rear prove to be trivializing filters so thick that the subject matter of intelligence is barely visible.
This book shows that if a high official allows his mind to be bent by petty concerns, and narrowed by ideology, he is likely to form for himself and others a caricature of the field in which he worked-full of glaring factual errors, gratuitous slurs on real or imagined "enemies," and distortions.
Turner maligns those he fancied his enemies. He begins with Admiral Dan Murphy by saying that while he, Turner, is from the "surface ship, analytic side of the Navy," Murphy "was from the traditional, aviation, political side" (p. 22). He tells us that Hank Knocke, deputy director of Central Intelligence at the time he took over, did not take Turner's hints to accompany him on courtesy calls to Capitol Hill because he was hoping that Turner would fail confirmation and leave Knocke as acting director (p. 23). Of course, he gives no more evidence for Knocke's disloyalty than he gives for the surface navy's greater analytical and apolitical penchant. He tells us that, "It was difficult at the time for me to do anything so drastic as to force out such a senior person as [Theodore] Shackley on the basis of only tentative information." But elsewhere he says, "I had no evidence of any wrongdoing on Shackley's part" (p. 58). He tells us he disliked Shackley's wife's friends (ibid.), but fails to tell us he differed with Shackley politically. He just leaves the impression Shackley was guilty of something. He had to be. Later, Turner rails against "guilt by association" (p. 73). Turner's enemies include people he never met. He tells us that the B-team, instituted by President Ford in 1976 to explain the CIA's persistent underestimates of the Soviet strategic buildup "was composed of outsiders with a right-wing ideological bent. . . . When B felt frustrated over its inability to prevail, one of its members leaked much of the secret material of the proceedings to the press" (p. 251). He does not argue that the B team's positions were wrong. He could hardly do that, given that the CIA felt obliged to espouse every last one of them in its National Intelligence Estimate 11-3-8 for 1979! Nor does he give any evidence for who leaked. He just slanders.
Slander implies either a lie or a willful disregard for the truth. Here is another example. On p. 161 he tells us:
The Reagan transition team that descended on the CIA in late 1980 was as unbalanced and uninformed a group on this subject as I can imagine. . . . Their original leader Lawrence [sic] Silberman, a former Ambassador to Yugoslavia, whose views were balanced, quit when he saw the kind of team he would have to head.
He also tells us that this team was too eager to "unleash" the CIA. He does not tell us, of course, that Laurence Silberman personally picked that team, that all but one member of it had long held the nation's top security clearances, indeed that every one had a Ph.D. and a record of scholarship on intelligence unequaled within the agencies. The business about "unleashing CIA" is pure invention, since the transition team was publicly committed to the proposition that CIA needed reform. No member of the team ever spoke about "unleashing" or anything like it. But then Turner did not speak to any member of the team when writing his book. Moreover, had Turner spoken with Silberman, or known enough about him to spell his name right, he would have found out that he resigned because the people around President-elect Reagan would not allow him to treat the CIA the way he believed that a politicized,, incompetent agency should have been treated. Turner did not ask. The transition team were enemies.
Yuri Nosenko, however, was in another category for Turner. A defector from the KGB's Second Chief Directorate who "came out" in 1964 to tell us that he had been in charge of Lee Harvey Oswald's file and to assure us that the KGB never had anything to do with Oswald, Nosenko became the focus of an intramural battle that split the CIA in two. The liberals in the Agency had stood for the proposition that Nosenko was a bona fide defector and that those who thought otherwise were blackguards. When Turner came into office, he took that side. Thus he proudly tells us on p. 162 that "Nosenko had led us to uncover fifty-two Soviet microphones" in the U.S. embassy in the 1960s. Those were in the old wing of the building. But Turner does not mention that Nosenko had also assured us (for he had been in charge of that part of the second Chief Directorate which is in charge of such matters) that the KGB had been unable to place microphones in thenew wing. Turner does mention a fire that took place in the embassy in 1978, which led U.S. workmen to discover a chimney, and then a room, and then a tunnel, full of eavesdropping equipment (pp. 162-63). But he does not mention that all of this was in the new wing, and that we found 130 microphones precisely where Nosenko had assured us we would be out of Soviet surveillance, and that, therefore, thanks to Nosenko, the Soviets got fourteen years' worth of American suckers. Never mind. Turner knows how to treat true friends and true enemies.
Sometimes Turner simply lies. He tells us on pp. 198 and 199 that the only people he fired in the so-called Halloween massacre were in the bottom five to ten percent of the work force in terms of performance evaluations. But this reviewer, when inspecting our overseas CIA operations on behalf of the U.S. Senate in 1978, once asked the CIA "station chief" in a major country what his main problems were. The station chief replied by citing the several names of CIA case officers whom Turner had just fired. These were the very best people he had. Their loss was the biggest problem that entire regional division faced. This reviewer checked, and found that the people mentioned were in the top ten percent. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of those fired or forcibly retired or pushed out were known as "cold warriors." Turner, faced with this, admitted the facts but stuck to his explanation: This was not a purge; he was cutting out the dead wood. Subsequently, Turner, under pressure, asked one of these case officers, widely reputed to be perhaps the best in the Agency, to his office, and told him there would be a special retirement ceremony and a medal for him. The officer refused.
Turner is not a master of standard (accurate?) English. When he wants to say that something is bad, he says it is "controversial" or under "intense scrutiny" (p. 81). When he wants to say that the CIA sought to place its propaganda throughout the Chilean media, he says,". . . employing virtually all the Chilean media" (p. 80). Sometimes this semi-literacy results in expressions like "toxic poisons" (p. 178), recalling Inspector Clouseau's reference to bombs "of the exploding kind."
When someone so intellectually sloppy treats serious matters, the howlers can have consequences. On p. 92 he says, "one way or another, we should soon be able to keep track of most activities on the surface of the earth, day or night, good weather and bad." Given Turner's command of the language, and eagerness to serve his favorite political causes, it is impossible to know whether he means this literally. In fact, it is now possible to focus a camera and an antenna at least once a day on any given spot on the earth. The bit about "day or night, good weather and bad" is, to say the very least, premature. But -and this is the point -the supposition of devotees of arms control that periodic snapshots and intercepts (all substantially known to the party being observed) of a few square kilometers means being able "to keep track of most activities" in the world is a dangerous delusion. The most extreme form of this delusion is the proposition that Turner states on p. 94: "Technology today lets us record information and report it without passing it through a human filter." Reality is the opposite. Pictures and intercepts are almost always fragments meaningful only insofar as they fit into keys preestablished by sometimes very prejudiced analysts. Thus they lend themselves to deception at least as much as human information.
By indulging such delusions, Turner and his friends at CIA were able to assure the Congress that we knew, about a decade in advance, what strategic weapons the Soviets would have. The proof of the pudding, alas, is in Soviet hands. Today the Soviets display for us to "see" the SS-24 and SS-25 mobile ICBMs, weapons unlike any that Turner's CIA ever foresaw. They display for us to "see" the SA-12 mobile anti-air and anti-warhead interceptor system, which was not only unforeseen but which the CIA's analytical categories, which are the categories of arms control, still cannot comprehend. One could go on with such examples. They point to the fact that our ability to peek through space-borne keyholes at the Soviet Union fostered a kind of hubris, a lack of sobriety, among some intelligence officers that is just now starting to wear off under reality's abrasion. To "keep track of most activities" requires both far more information and far fewer intellectual shackles than U.S. intelligence has. But one would never guess that from Turner's book.
Counterintelligence is the subject Turner discusses most and understands least. Perhaps the principal theme of the book is as follows: The world of counterintelligence necessarily gives license to secret suspicions, and to those who entertain them. Thus licensed, men like James Angleton, formerly chief of the CIA's counter-intelligence staff, can violate others' rights and cause great harm. I, Stansfield Turner, have made it impossible for such as Angleton to rise again, by putting counterintelligence on a sound basis.
To begin with, the reader should know that Turner did not fire James Angleton. That was done by Director William Colby in December 1974 after he, Colby, gave to Seymour Hersh, assault journalist of the New York Times, an "exclusive" which blackened Angleton's name and, of course, gave him no chance to respond. Turner mentions the Hersh story. But, from Turner's book, no one would suspect that Colby was its author, or that there was another side to the Angleton-Colby controversy. Comically, Turner's main accusation against Angleton is that he mistreated Nosenko in an effort to make him confess his role as a double agent (p. 45). Turner pictures himself as having studied the case, and directed that every senior officer read the definitive, pro-Nosenko, report by John Hart (p. 71). What a figure, then, he cuts! Everyone who is even slightly familiar with the case knows that Angleton did not run the Nosenko case. The Soviet-East European Division of CIA, under Peter Bagley, did. Bagley, not Angleton, is the villain of the report that Turner claims he knows so well.
Turner's substantive discussion of counter-intelligence is similarly competent. He notes with approval Colby's reorganization of counterintelligence-the devolution of responsibility for the reliability of sources away from a counterintelligence staff specifically charged with the job and onto the very case officers who recruit the sources. Yet, without missing a beat, he fully agrees with the counterargument: that it is foolish to put people in charge of evaluating their own work. Never mind. Turner's solution lies in technology: the polygraph, "the most important specific tool of counterintelligence is the polygraph" (p. 69). The following sums up Turner's retromingent basis for this conclusion:
Perhaps the best evidence that the polygraph does help separate true agents from false is that we know the KGB has made determined efforts to develop techniques for "beating the machine." Although there is a risk that some professionals will fool the polygraph, there is the greater one that our intelligence agencies will rely on it too heavily. If we take for granted that a person is loyal because he or she passed the polygraph test in the past, we may ignore signals that should indicate the contrary, (p. 70)
Now let's see: It is possible (indeed, easy) for trained people to beat the polygraph. The KGB routinely trains its people to do so. If we take the polygraph as a substitute for other means of counterintelligence, we lull ourselves into a false sense of security. Ergo, of course, the polygraph is the most important tool of counter-intelligence.
Who could write such things? Only someone who wrote, ". . . by 1978 I shifted my concern to an area of counterintelligence that was not getting the attention it deserved. That was the stealing of our secrets by technical means" (p. 162). He then cursorily mentions only two technical security problems: bugging and the interception of our telecommunications from Communist embassies in the U.S. He is not even aware that technical counterintelligence consists primarily of trying to find out what hostile services have learned about our technical collection systems, what they are doing with that knowledge to modify their exposure to those systems, what this means, and figuring out how to turn the situation to our own advantage. Alas, Turner expresses the ignorance of the class of people who run the CIA. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is the statement: "The most delicate part of counterintelligence is learning how to handle suspicions when they do arise" (p. 70). That is correct only in bureaucratic terms. Substantively, by far the biggest and most difficult problem in counterintelligence is figuring out what one ought to be suspicious of. Counter-intelligence's job is to discover what hostile intelligence services-people expert at hiding their hand-are doing. That is very hard. But Turner's ilk spend their energies worrying about what to do when they stumble across suspicions!
All of the foregoing, and much more, might suggest that Turner was incompetent. But, as Nixon said, "That would be wrong"-at least in one important sense. By the time he left office, three-fourths of the higher-ranking employees of the CIA had either left or been dismissed. Like Machiavelli's model of competence, Turner broke hundreds of old careers and made hundreds of new ones. Today, in addition to these hundreds, the top posts in U.S. intelligence are held by Turner aides, including Deputy Director Robert Gates, who had no record of scholarship or achievement in intelligence before Turner elevated them.
Meanwhile, President Reagan's designated successor to Turner, William Casey, has brought to intelligence precisely six outsiders, all but one of whom have left. Not surprisingly, despite changes in rhetoric from the White House about intelligence, there have been no B-teams to challenge CIA's orthodoxy. Nosenko is still officially "bona fide." There has been no reform of counterintelligence to take into account even the results of publicly known compromises such as the Prime case-never mind lesser known but terribly important ones. So, as the 1980s head toward their close, and as the Soviet Union poses radically new problems for U.S. intelligence, our system remains stuck with the leadership and agenda bequeathed to it by Stansfield Turner.
That is why when we are tempted to judge Turner's competence, we should always ask "Compared to whom?"