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Notes from Underground


Before we start reading Know Thine Enemy, we encounter two falsehoods, one trivial, the other at the heart of a debate over the nation’s intelligence services. First, the trivial: Edward Shirley is a pseudonym for Reuel Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency operations officer and specialist on Iran. He used a nom de plume, understandably, to protect himself and those who had associated with him and who might suffer if it became known that he was a spy.

The second and more interesting falsehood is the subtitle of his book, “A Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran.” In fact, to do what we think it is that spies do—in this case, make a clandestine trip in disguise to a hostile country and speak to its people firsthand about their government—Shirley had to quit the CIA. He made his fascinating—and first—visit to Iran as an ex-spy. While actually in the agency’s employ as one of its handful of Farsi-speaking specialists, he was confined to gathering such intelligence about Iran as he could from working in the visa office at the US consulate in Istanbul, trying to recruit Iranian spies who would then return to Iran and report on conditions there.

Despite all the novels and films about swashbuckling, free-ranging, devil-may- care espionage agents that have proliferated during this century, US spies almost universally work under diplomatic cover, protected from arrest—though not from terrorist attack—by diplomatic immunity. They work, and often live, inside embassy compounds. Since the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by Islamic militants in 1979, the United States has had no diplomatic representation there and therefore (from what we can gather from Shirley’s book) no on-the-ground intelligence presence, and it has contented itself with snooping at long range and by proxy. To spy on Iran, Shirley quit America’s premier espionage agency and entered the country on his own.

This is only one of many revelations in Shirley’s book and it is central to the never-ending conflict between secrecy and intelligence that burdens the CIA. Although the agency’s role is to gather foreign intelligence by covert means, an increasing number of critics argue that the constraints of security and the agency’s fascination with being covert have often overwhelmed its ability to find out what is going on abroad.

In the CIA’s view, spies do not collect information unless it is secret. When rumors spread a couple of years ago that Fidel Castro had died, Clinton administration officials gathered in the White House to assess the situation. Shortly before their meeting, Radio Havana reported that a much-alive Castro had just given an interview to a group of Mexican journalists. “Someone at the meeting looked at the CIA rep and asked if we had called the Mexicans to verify the report,” a participant in the White House meeting told me. “The CIA guy said, ‘We don’t do overt collection.”’ True enough. It doesn’t take a spy to lift the phone and call Mexico, but this seems to take division of labor to extremes.

In his book Secrecy and Democracy,1 former CIA Director Stansfield Turner complained that the

espionage branch…strongly resisted my efforts to employ it to take the pulse of foreign countries. First, because semicovert collection was not in its tradition; that activity was not considered espionage by the professionals. Second, because the CIA had become too accustomed to living and working in comfortable cities abroad; not enough of its people were out in the remote areas.

Inside their secret world, CIA officers labor under security constraints they have created for themselves. If Shirley had gone inside Iran as a CIA officer, he would have run the risk of “contamination.” How would the agency know that instead of recruiting Iranian spies he had not been recruited as a double agent? In the Soviet Union—and even in post-Soviet Moscow—US embassy officials were discouraged from fraternizing with Russian nationals lest they be contaminated by contact with the enemy. For CIA officers, the restrictions are reinforced because, unlike State Department diplomats, their employment contracts make them subject to polygraph examinations. In addition, a “turned” CIA agent like Aldrich Ames, who could and did name spies planted inside Russia, is more dangerous to national security than a turned third secretary for agricultural affairs. The CIA is supposed to recruit spies, yet every clandestine or spontaneous contact abroad carries with it the suspicion that the CIA recruiter has been turned.

In a Foreign Policy article written in 1993,2 Professor Marvin Ott of the National War College, a former CIA senior analyst, complained about a “tyranny” of pervasive secrecy at the agency that isolates it from the outside world on which it is supposed to be so well informed. Those inside the secret world tend naturally enough to fraternize with each other out of a sense of the agency’s separateness, he said. “Similarly, the more professional (or even social) contacts one has outside the agency, the more likely one will have trouble with the polygraph—further reinforcing the insularity at Langley.”

Secrecy thus both protects and blinds the CIA. Its result has too often been intelligence officers who sit inside embassies, unwilling and in many cases unable to wander the streets of their host country and talk with local inhabitants. They rely on English-speaking intermediaries and try to recruit spies—i.e., local traitors—to produce information, much of which they could get for themselves simply by going to the local markets, university faculty lounges, and newspaper offices to sniff what is happening. Frank Snepp, a top CIA analyst in Saigon when the South Vietnamese regime collapsed in 1975, tells us that he had to conduct interrogations of captured members of the Viet Cong in the dungeons of Saigon through an interpreter. In contrast, ordinary diplomats—especially the US Information Agency’s cultural attachés and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s military attachés—mingle freely and entertain aggressively. They are free to snoop because they have nothing to hide, no secret identity to protect, no polygraph asking them why they could not account for half an hour of their day. Journalists are even freer.

Edward Shirley” scathingly describes the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, for which he worked. “When the American embassy was taken over in Iran in 1979, not a single Agency officer in Tehran spoke Persian,” he writes. “Almost all their sources had spoken English, a few French.” At CIA headquarters during his own time there, Iranian newspapers were stacked up, unread in both the Directorate of Operations and the Directorate of Intelligence, the agency’s analytical side. “Not a single analyst and only two case officers besides me even read Persian, and the two C/Os, an Iranian-American man and woman, generally avoided Persian culture or prose.”

True, it would have been undiplomatic in Iran under the Shah if the United States had maintained close contacts with the Iranian opposition, even if only to assess the public mood. Furthermore, in those cold war days, Shirley writes, the agency was more obsessed with detecting Soviet agents in Iran than with informing itself about opinion in the bazaars. Thus, he says, the CIA’s 1976 and 1977 Special National Intelligence Estimates on Iran, supposedly based on “all-source” reporting—i.e., both unclassified matter and secret information that can-not be gotten from diplomatic chitchat or reading the newspapers—predicted that the Shah’s dynasty would last into the twenty-first century.

It is astonishing that such ignorance could prevail within what is supposed to be our most capable intelligence agency, especially in its scrutiny of Iran, a country that is still regarded as a sponsor of international terrorism and a potential nuclear threat. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran has risen to the top of our intelligence targets. We are warned of the need to increase our intelligence budgets because, as former CIA Director James Woolsey used to argue, even though the Soviet bear no longer roams the forests, there are many snakes underfoot and they are harder to find. Yet the CIA’s attitude toward this new challenge seems, from Shirley’s account, to be haphazard and cavalier.

If you want to find the [CIA] spies in an American embassy, look for the ones who don’t speak the language,” a former State Department officer in Moscow told me recently. Because the Agency people—and to a lesser but still destructive extent, the State Department’s diplomats—do not work the streets, he said, US policymakers rely on their contacts and friendships with a nation’s elites for their view of the country.

The embassy and visiting officials got their view of Russia from talking to English-speakers like Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar who knew macroeconomic jargon and could talk about IMF loans. It is especially true in Russia, which is so Moscow-centered, that elites do not reflect the mainstream politics or culture. When you only talk to the people at the top, you end up with a tunnel vision of Russia that sets the policy to this day.

Likewise, Snepp recounts that even after the United States had devoted more than a dozen years, 55,000 lives, and untold billions of dollars to the defense of South Vietnam, when that country began to collapse under North Vietnamese attack in the summer of 1975, both the CIA station chief, Thomas Polgar, and Ambassador Graham Martin pinned their hopes for a negotiated settlement on insights from the excessively optimistic French ambassador.

In connection with this review, I asked the former diplomats and intelligence officers who subscribe to Johnson’s Russia List, an Internet-delivered survey of the Russian press and commentary on Russian affairs that is available from the private Center for Defense Information in Washington, to judge whether access to secret information was a net plus or net minus in trying to amass intelligence. That is, was the secret information so valuable to our understanding that it offset the handicaps of security clearances and restrictions on freedom to mingle with foreign citizens and to publish work open to public scrutiny? The Americans who responded found secrecy to be more or less a nuisance; several diplomats scoffed at the CIA’s obsession with it. One claimed that most HUMINT—human intelligence—was gathered by ordinary diplomats, not by spies. On the other side, the one Russian who responded claimed that in the Soviet Union his membership in the secret world has been positively liberating. In that censored totalitarian society, only by being cleared for secrets could he read the Western press.


After chafing at his embassy-based job in Istanbul, Shirley, who had an extensive academic knowledge of Iran, quit the CIA and made a clandestine trip across the border. He wanted, at last, to see the country for himself and to write about it. He took no passport and was smuggled in from Turkey by an unflappable truck driver and guide, whom he calls Hosein. The trip lasted only five days, and Shirley seems to have spent much of it in a state of near panic, hiding in a box inside the truck and spending much of his short time in Tabriz in bed rather than risking possible exposure on the street. Still, he has a fascinating story to tell, and he recounts it, along with a good deal of Persian history, through the artifice of half a dozen suspiciously well-remembered conversations, interspersed with comments on Iranian culture and psychology.

  1. 1

    Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

  2. 2

    Shaking Up the CIA,” No. 93 (Winter 1993-1994).

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