CIA Legend Goes Back Into the Cold
In a dramatic move to reinvigorate the nation’s troubled spy agency, new CIA Director George J. Tenet called one of its legends out of retirement Monday to take the helm of clandestine espionage operations.
Jack Downing, 56, the only person ever to serve as CIA station chief in both Moscow and Beijing, has been named deputy CIA director for operations two years after he ended his 28-year undercover career. Downing’s appointment to oversee the agency’s spies was widely hailed by CIA veterans, who see it as a back-to-basics move. It came as part of a management housecleaning announced by Tenet.
The wide-ranging personnel actions, which came just days after Tenet was finally confirmed by the Senate, made it clear that the new CIA director plans to move quickly to put his stamp on the agency.
In addition to Downing’s appointment, Tenet announced that Air Force Lt. Gen. John Gordon, 50, has been nominated to be deputy director of the CIA. That is the No. 2 post in the U.S. intelligence community, as well as Tenet’s former job.
Gordon, who has a background in the Air Force’s strategic nuclear missile command and in arms-control issues, now serves as the CIA’s associate director for military support, making him the spy agency’s primary liaison with the Pentagon. His knowledge of the military and technical sides of the intelligence business is expected to help fill holes left by Tenet’s own lack of experience in those areas.
In other major appointments, Tenet named Dave Carey, who has run the CIA’s counter-narcotics center, to be the CIA’s executive director, which is largely an administrative job. He replaces Nora Slatkin, who had become a controversial figure within the agency because of a management style some considered abrasive. John McLaughlin, meanwhile, was named deputy director for intelligence, in charge of providing CIA analyses to the president. McLaughlin replaces John Gannon, whose efforts to reorganize the intelligence directorate had also become controversial.
Downing’s return was the biggest surprise among Monday’s moves and caused by far the biggest stir inside the CIA. Rumors that Tenet had been trying to woo him back for the critical espionage post had been rampant for weeks, but many insiders believed that Downing would decline.
The decision to turn to Downing was widely seen as a recognition by Tenet that to restore credibility to the clandestine espionage service--badly damaged by a seemingly unending series of spy scandals--he had to reach back to the generation of spies that fought the Cold War.
Indeed, since career espionage officer Aldrich H. Ames was arrested in 1994 for spying for Moscow, the CIA has been embarrassed by such controversies as its ties to human-rights abusers in Guatemala and the exposure of espionage operations in France, Germany, India and Italy. And late last year, a second espionage officer, Harold Nicholson, was arrested for spying for Russia.
Downing will succeed David Cohen, a former CIA intelligence analyst who experienced a troubled two-year tenure as operations director.
Cohen was hampered by being an outsider in a tightly knit spy subculture, and he was never able to become a popular figure within the service. Many of the CIA’s spies believed he lacked the field experience needed to understand how to effectively manage their operations, and his credibility among his troops suffered as a result. Cohen will become chief of a large field station, which the CIA has asked The Times not to identify.
Downing, by contrast, is widely respected for having proved himself around the world as one of the CIA’s best field operatives during the Cold War. The Texas native and Harvard graduate served as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam before joining the CIA in 1967.
Fluent in both Chinese and Russian, he served two tours apiece for the CIA in Beijing and Moscow, and was named chief of the CIA’s East Asian Division before his retirement in 1995. He served as the CIA’s Moscow station chief during one of the most difficult periods in the agency’s history--after Ames had begun to spy for the Soviet Union and was betraying the CIA’s spies inside Russia. Downing “was a stabilizing presence” in Moscow as the agency sought to rebuild its espionage networks there, said one CIA veteran.
“He is the embodiment of the [operations] officer,” added Frank Anderson, former chief of the CIA’s Near East Division. “He is an outstanding case officer who always worked in the hard places.”
Tenet dismissed suggestions Monday that turning to Downing was an acknowledgment that the CIA’s spy ranks--diminished by buyouts, retirements and mid-career officers leaving in disgust over the troubled state of the agency--were too thin to provide a new leader. Instead, he stressed Downing’s attributes. “I got a superstar,” Tenet said, a man who “is experienced in denied areas and hard targets,” which is agency jargon for countries that are difficult for the CIA to penetrate.
Tenet added: “He is a Renaissance man . . . he reads Chinese poetry for kicks.”
Tenet also stressed that his selection does not signal a return to a Cold War sensibility.
Other observers agreed; Anderson said that despite Downing’s Cold War credentials, “he is not mired in the past.”
Since his retirement, Downing has served as vice president of an information systems and consulting firm.