THE CIA : Of Knowing and Not Knowing: Finding Truth in a Hall of Mirrors

<i> Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA" (Knopf)</i>

Yet another shoe, the heaviest so far, has been dropped by the many-footed super-spy Aldrich H. Ames--this one in the form of a damaging admission by the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John M. Deutch, that, beginning in 1985, the agency, without warning of any kind, passed on information to the White House from Soviet “spies” known or suspected to be working for the other side. Ames himself is in federal prison serving a life term for his treachery, which included the betrayal of at least 10 genuine spies later executed by the Soviets. But the new confession by the agency suggests Deutch has declared war on the old guard at the CIA, an omen that Ames may have dealt the agency a fatal blow.

The first response of the House and Senate intelligence committees was predictably one of horror--"mind-boggling” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), a candidate for President; “Something has gone terribly wrong,” agreed Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). But infuriated reports by committee members that U.S. Presidents had been misled with phony information during the crucial final years of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was coming apart at the seams, missed the deeper implications of the extraordinary five-hour briefing on the Ames case conducted by the recently confirmed Deutch. Letting tainted information go to the White House with solemn face was bad enough, but the reason for doing it was worse: The CIA evidently hoped to keep secret from the only clients who count--the President and his advisers--the awful facts that its most important spies in Russia had disappeared in 1985 and early 1986, and that the agency had no idea what had gone wrong.

All intelligence services get burned from time to time; spies get caught, or turn out to be double-agents, or make up information when they can’t please case-officers with the real thing. The men who run intelligence agencies know this; and the men who employ them--presidents and policy-makers--are supposed to know it, and the whole endeavor is threatened unless the spy-runners are quick to confess screw-ups, and their bosses take set-backs in stride.

It is this fundamental trust between the gatherers and the consumers of intelligence that has been poisoned by the Ames case. In fact, Deutch’s briefing is strong evidence that both he and the White House have concluded the CIA must be fundamentally reformed--that is, broken up and renamed--if it is ever again to enjoy official trust.

This may sound like a drastic conclusion to draw from one more revelation in a case that has generated embarrassing headlines for nearly two years. But the new report marks a serious turn, because it was Deutch who brought it to the intelligence committees, not his predecessor, R. James Woolsey, who was forced to resign as CIA director over his handling of the case; and because it was Deutch’s inspector-general, Frederick P. Hitz, who concluded in his damage assessment of the case that three previous CIA directors--Woolsey, Robert M. Gates and William H. Webster--should be held personally responsible for passing doubtful information to the White House.


Deutch’s declaration of war, a sure sign that major battles over intelligence lie ahead, brought a prompt fax of protest from Webster, Gates and Woolsey, who jointly insisted they had no way of knowing that Soviet agents recruited by the CIA were all “controlled"--that is, run by the Soviets with intent to deceive--until they understood what had gone wrong in 1985 and 1986. On its face, this seems a fair demurrer, but Deutch and Hitz have apparently reached a harsher conclusion: Knowledgeable intelligence officers always know what it means when spies are suddenly rolled up--their absence is as dramatic as the disappearance of a airliner from a radar screen. Their bosses know, too, for the same reason: The flow of secret information suddenly halts.

If the flow of secret information to the White House had been halted, the President and his advisers would have asked: What happened? Webster, Gates and Woolsey all knew that. The inspector general’s report strongly implies that they sat on the bad news, and went on passing information from suspect spies, to keep the secret of the primary disaster. Of course, none of this would have been confided to paper by the accused directors. Deutch and Hitz have no proof that would stand up in a court of law. But in the world of secret intelligence, it is elementary: When spies are rolled up, the other side is in control.

Reports of the CIA’s damage assessment have already generated excited discussion of the ways the Soviets may have deceived U.S. intelligence organizations with their double-agents. One theory is that KGB spy-runners deliberately exaggerated Soviet military strength and thus pressed the United States into expensive but unnecessary countermeasures, such as development of the F-22 fighter plane. Maybe so, but it was the military buildup of the Reagan years that helped force the old Soviet Union into bankruptcy. Spreading groundless fears would have hurt the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, not helped it.

But there is also a serious possibility that the KGB used its controlled agents to undermine Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s efforts to slow down the arms race and back away from Russia’s global confrontation with the United States. Throughout the Ames years--from 1985, when he began shipping information to the Soviets on an industrial scale, until mid-1993, when information from Soviet intelligence sources at last pointed a finger in Ames’ direction--the CIA was slow to see that Gorbachev was not just another closet Stalinist. Why did the CIA, and especially Gates, a Soviet scholar in his own right, fail to recognize the eclipse of the old Soviet system? Deutch’s new admission suggests that the KGB was deceiving its own boss for its own reasons--just as the CIA was doing by keeping mum when it should have spoken up.

Spy cases are notoriously complex, and new twists in the Ames case appear to be inexhaustible. Ames and the specter of his treachery are like the monster in one of those low-budget horror films of the 1950s, where a shapeless green blob crushes Manhattan while horrified Army generals shout over the phone to the President, “Bullets don’t kill it!”

Ames did all that a spy can do to wreck the espionage efforts of the CIA, but the real damage to the agency commenced the day of his arrest in February, 1994. From bad to worse hardly describes the gradual unfolding of the story: Ames gave away the store, the CIA and the FBI took nearly nine years to catch him, and the director of the CIA reprimanded the worst bunglers with slaps to the wrist. By the time Ames pled guilty to save his wife from a long jail term, the director’s office at the CIA had been turned into something like the La Brea Tar Pits--a morass that sucks in men with great Washington reputations and leaves barely a memory.

Deutch appears determined to avoid the fate of Woolsey by openly confessing the horrors--not just further disasters tied to the Ames case, but painful lapses, like the CIA’s continued employment of a Guatemalan army officer even after it knew he had been involved in the murder of an American, among others. CIA officers in Guatemala knew this long before they told headquarters. High officials of the CIA knew long before they told the State Department or Congress. The White House knew it but continued to deny all knowledge of the matter to the wives of two murdered men. Finally, all official Washington knew before the public was allowed to know.

Knowing and not knowing are the alpha and the omega of the intelligence business. They are the bedrock of the metaphysics of secrecy. The goal of intelligence services is to know what is really going on; the cancerous seed that may grow in the dark for years before reaching a vital organ is not knowing where the secrets are leaking away.

Because all is shrouded in secrecy, it is easy to hide mistakes, serious problems, even--for a time--disasters. A straight face is no guarantee of truth; lying to enemies is taken for granted, but so is lying to friends if they lack the proper clearance. But once spies and their masters start lying to each other, even the truth becomes impossible to recognize.

Deutch and his inspector-general say three directors of the CIA were, in effect, lying to the President. The directors deny it. Who is telling the truth? When Presidents can no longer answer that question, it is time to start over.