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The Nation : A Lesson for All Future CIA Directors: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

January 01, 1995|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA." His most recent book is "Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb" (Knopf)

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — The resignation of the unhappy R. James Woolsey as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, culminating nine brutal months of criticism for his handling of the case of Soviet spy Aldrich H. Ames, helps to explain two ancient but unacknowledged rules for the management of intelligence agencies: (1) If no one knows, it didn't happen, and (2) when they find out, there's hell to pay.

Since his appointment to run the agency in 1993, Woolsey has been a deeply unlucky man--beginning with the arrest of Ames last spring after 10 years of betraying secrets to the Russians while the CIA's spy catchers tripped over their own feet. It was a big story. It produced ugly headlines for months and it angered members of Congress who were already looking for ways to cut the CIA down to size following the end of the Cold War.

Woolsey's defense of the huge CIA he inherited--the lion's share of a $28 billion intelligence budget, 20,000 employees at its peak--probably doomed his career to be unhappy. But his slap on the wrist for a dozen old CIA hands who had helped botch the Ames case was the fatal error that made his career short as well.

Woolsey knew that critics in Congress wanted heads to roll. "Sorry," he said at the time, after issuing letters of reprimand, "that's not my way. And in my opinion, it's not the American way, and it's not the CIA way."

What happened next is a lesson to all future CIA directors: The infuriated Congress not only issued detailed reports attacking the CIA's handling of the Ames case and Woolsey's handling of the CIA, but legislated a commission to rethink and restructure the U.S. intelligence community. The new commission's mandate virtually amounted to a bureaucratic license to kill and it is unlikely the CIA two years hence will look the same, act the same or even answer to the same name. In short, the consequences of the Ames case were as bad as anything that can happen to an intelligence agency--short of defeat in a major war.

What future directors of U.S. intelligence will learn from this episode will be far from energy in rooting out American spies, candor about their discovery, frank assessment of the damage they have caused. Once the Ames case broke it was handled largely in public, and the unruly passions it aroused resulted in the bureaucratic equivalent of a barroom brawl--hardly an inducement to go public next time.

The arrest of spies, after all, is not the only option--not even the most frequent one. For years, until the practice was altered under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, one standard procedure for handling uncovered U.S. spies was an exchange of immunity in return for a detailed confession. This avoided Ames-style internal earthquakes, and made it more difficult for the Russians to know exactly what had gone wrong.

But there was a price to pay: Word seeped out in the intelligence community that you could get caught in the act without spending the rest of your life in jail. It is possible Ames began his career as a spy on the assumption it would all be handled quietly, if things went wrong.

For the last few months, Woolsey has resembled one of those battle casualties put on painkillers while the surgeons work on the wounded with a chance of survival. Woolsey's critics insist he has done it all wrong--but the truth is, there was probably no way to do it right. Once the charges against Ames were made public--millions of dollars in payments by the Russians, at least 10 agents for the United States executed--Woolsey had as much chance of soothing Congress as a lamb begging mercy from the lion.

His demise did not come as a surprise. The moment picked for the announcement--the week between Christmas and New Year's--suggests forethought, and we may soon expect the naming of a successor from President Bill Clinton. In the current political climate, with a GOP majority in both houses of Congress eager to flex its muscles, there are many ways Clinton might go wrong with his choice, very few that might go right.

Probably the surest course toward disaster would be to pick an intelligence professional with a long history of fighting the Russians in the Cold War. The first generation of Cold Warriors, many of whom started out in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, is now well into retirement age. But there are battalions of CIA operatives from the 1960s and 1970s, who know the Pentagon, know Washington and know the world.

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