Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Secrecy and Free Speech
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.
I suspect that Shirley’s story is not a literally truthful account of what he saw and heard, but it is spectacularly well told, providing a lesson in how to spin out a yarn from limited material. The characters he met and the drab third world winterscape through which he traveled are vividly described.
According to Shirley’s informants, Iran’s revolutionary fervor has soured, chiefly a victim to cynicism about the corruption of the revolutionary mullahs and to the enormous casualties suffered in the 1980s war against Iraq, when thousands of young believers were marched across Iraqi minefields. “Until the later years of the war with Iraq, Iran’s clergy could count on the loyalty of most lower-class men. That loyalty subsided as Iranian casualties mounted and the clergy’s constant declarations of ‘War! War until Final Victory!’ seemed ever more perverse. It ebbed every time newly wealthy Mullah-bureaucrats preached virtue to the poor.”
Most of the Iranians Shirley talked with said they despised the mullahs who deposed the Shah, although they also said they had no love for the Shah, either. Virtually all of them professed affection for America. But Shirley makes it clear that a Persian could, within the same hour, smile at him, try to obtain a US visa, and join a demonstration chanting “Death to America.” His book is particularly worth reading for its evidence that twenty years after Khomeini’s revolution, the political ground in Iran seems to be shifting as young Iranians, who make up a large proportion of the population, want a more open and less puritanical culture.
Unlike Shirley, who was a CIA case officer charged with recruiting spies, Frank Snepp was an intelligence analyst, although in wartime Saigon the distinction between the agency’s two divisions, Operations and Analysis, may have been meaningless. Certainly Snepp relished playing the part of the classic spook, carrying a hidden .45 and wearing sunglasses, and he enjoyed the further thrill of having an audience for his theatrics; all the American journalists knew him as the resident CIA briefing officer.
Snepp was a fair-haired boy at the embassy, encouraged, at the age of about thirty, to write essays analyzing the conduct of the war. He chides his superiors—up to and including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—for suppressing or ignoring his predic-tion, obtained from a spy deep within the Communist command structure, that the Communists would never settle for a negotiated peace. The embassy and the US government were committed to the notion that the South Vietnamese government, with its corrupt leadership and demoralized army, could somehow survive. The sudden collapse of Saigon therefore took the embassy by surprise, and in its hasty evacuation, Snepp charges, the US took out only “white faces,” with Marine guards beating desperate Vietnamese away from the departing helicopters.
Snepp’s outrage over the abandonment by the US of thousands of its Vietnamese collaborators drove him to write a book—Decent Interval3—without submitting the manuscript for security clearance. He was convinced, he says, that the CIA would never allow a critical look at its performance while Saigon fell. Snepp’s struggles with the CIA over Decent Interval made him an unlikely hero to many liberals twenty years ago. That his feelings of loyalty to the Vietnamese he had come to know led him to resign from the CIA and publish his book was no doubt admirable; but the people to whom he shows such devotion include the CIA’s Vietnamese interrogators, jailers, and “special policemen,” as well as 1,200 intelligence agents and 30,000 members of the CIA’s Phoenix counterterror program, which fought suspected Communists by murdering them. Snepp glosses over their behavior and tries to justify the Phoenix program as an act of war.
Nevertheless, when he sought the protection of the First Amendment, liberals rallied to his side. Unlike other CIA apostates, Snepp revealed no secrets in his book. Yet the CIA sued him to enforce the agreement he had signed upon joining the agency in 1968, in which he promised to seek clearance before publishing anything related to intelligence, whether classified or not. Snepp justified himself by arguing that the CIA had covered up its disastrous evacuation of Saigon. It had, he said, ignored its own rules when it leaked secrets to journalists that put the agency in a good light; and it had superseded his original secrecy agreement by asking him to sign others that barred only his publishing of classified information.
Irreparable Harm is his account of his legal battles with the CIA and also appears to fulfill a contractual obligation to Random House, which extended him money in his struggles twenty years ago. If ever there was a battle in which you hope both sides could lose, it is Frank Snepp’s conflict with the CIA. The agency, as a secret intelligence organization, surely has a right to ask its employees to sign confidentiality agreements. On the other hand, when such agreements are used merely to cover up ineptitude rather than to protect national security, an agent such as Frank Snepp should be allowed to defy them. Snepp was motivated, in his own mind, by the highest and noblest patriotic sentiments, yet he sounds arrogant, obsessive, and melodramatic. The central part of his book, the convoluted legal contest, gave me the nightmarish sense of being cornered at a party and being forced to listen to every excruciating detail in somebody else’s ancient lawsuit, with the narrator constantly looking over his shoulder and hinting that evil forces may be watching. One’s temptation is not merely to put the book down, but to rush outdoors to get away from it.
To Snepp, even the most mundane event is sinister. The Virginia sheriff’s deputy who served the papers for the federal government’s civil suit against him “couldn’t have been more terrifying if he’d had swastikas on his epaulettes.” At a deposition, he felt threatened by the CIA’s lawyer, Ernest Mayerfeld, who “seemed by far the most likely to whip out a nine millimeter [automatic pistol] and put a bullet through my head.” What an exciting and dangerous life these spies lead.
Throughout the book, Snepp spots and interprets passing glances and speculates upon the thoughts and motives of his suspected foes and even people he considers his friends. And yet he also partially offsets this paranoid self-absorption with disarming insights. Here’s Snepp’s description of Daniel Ellsberg, who first challenged official censorship by supplying the Pentagon Papers history of Vietnam to the press: “Listening to him, I was reminded of those figures out of Sartre who seek to define themselves by the glint in someone else’s eye, and couldn’t help wondering, fearfully, if I was succumbing to the same temptation.”
In the end, Snepp lost his case. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, agreed that his original secrecy agreement was a legal contract. On the basis of the Snepp case, CIA employees are still obliged to clear all their writings about intelligence matters, even nonsecret matters, with the agency before publication. In addition, the US government has tried, at times, to extend the same confidentiality agreement to all government employees, requiring them to seek approval before publishing anything on any subject. There is no statutory basis for this, merely executive order.
The loss to the nation is impossible to calculate. Certainly, the CIA pre-approval requirement did not bar the publication of Shirley’s valuable book, which is far more damaging to the CIA’s image than Snepp’s Decent Interval. Shirley does not even mention the clearance requirement. Stansfield Turner also got permission to publish his book, Secrecy and Democracy, which in part criticizes some of the agency’s ingrained habits. On the other hand, secrecy clearly deprives the nation of some of its best thinking. In the Spring 1999 issue of The National Interest, for example, a longtime CIA analyst, Fritz Ermarth, now retired, published a brilliantly clear-eyed article, “Seeing Russia Plain: The Russian Crisis and American Intelligence,” about the current political situation in Moscow. One wonders how much Ermarth could have been added to the national debate on Russia over the years if, instead of laboring secretly inside the government, he had been free to publish in scholarly journals, magazines, and Op-Ed pages.
This is not mere wistful speculation; it is vital to the way a government actually operates. One of the drawbacks of secret intelligence—especially secret analysis—is that policymakers do not have to pay as much attention to it as they would, say, to an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post. The Clinton administration, for example, is extraordinarily sensitive to public criticism. An analysis that runs counter to official policy is much more likely to be heeded if it is made publicly than in secret. In Washington recently there has been much talk about a senior diplomat in Moscow whose bleak analyses of Russian politics were ignored—until he left the government. Just weeks after his resignation, he suddenly found himself invited to brief Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. While in the government, he had never met her.
Ironically, government insiders tell me that censorship of US officials working on Russian affairs has grown worse since the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Moscow was an enemy, US diplomats were more or less free to publish critical articles about it. But now, when the Clinton administration is determined to prop up Boris Yeltsin and his cronies, it has barred any writings by officials who might cast doubt on, say, Yeltsin’s competency or political future.
Both Snepp and Shirley point to another problem that has plagued the CIA: the damage done to it by apostates. This may be the inevitable side effect of recruiting true believers, men and women of seemingly unquestionable loyalty and zeal. Snepp describes himself as having virtues the CIA admired: “Aryan blood, a country-club mentality, and an immense capacity for dissembling.” The problem with true believers is that when they lose the faith, they undergo Pauline conversions in reverse, falling down by the side of the road in a blinding flash of light and arising as infidels ready to do battle against their former employer with all the fury of faith betrayed. Years ago, when the agency drew up a profile of its ideal agent, the person who fit it best was Philip Agee, who turned so bitterly against the CIA that he published the names of its clandestine agents.4
In their resentment, Snepp and Shirley portray many of their former colleagues as self-pitying near alcoholics who complain, rightly, that the world can never know the dangers they endure and the successes they achieve—and who then readily admit to each other that much of what they do is pure fraud. In an article in The Atlantic Monthly last year, Shirley accused his CIA colleagues of inventing intelligence and of hyping information they had picked up from newspapers and pretending that it was obtained covertly.5
The Central Intelligence Agency today is housed on a sprawling campus in northern Virginia, clearly marked by a new sign advertising the George Bush Center for Intelligence. It is far larger in imagination than in life, blamed in some parts of the world for every crop that fails and every bus that runs late, not to mention drug smuggling, the spread of the AIDS virus, and “silent radio” messages inside people’s heads. For a secret intelligence service, it is extraordinarily visible. And it is tainted. Just before the Communist regime collapsed in Prague in 1989, a leading dissident implored me to help him and his friends obtain publishing software so they could put out an underground newspaper. As I jotted down his needs, he said, emphatically, “Lars, it can’t come from the CIA.”
The CIA has endured the treachery of Aldrich Ames and other turncoats, the revelations of Snepp, Shirley, Agee, and a dozen other apostates, and the disclosure during the nomination hearings of former CIA Director Robert Gates that intelligence was routinely skewed both to please the political establishment and to feed the defense budget. One barely remarked scandal emerged during a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence when it became clear that the CIA had knowingly passed on information from a Soviet-controlled double agent who was exaggerating the prowess of a new-generation radar. The agency knew its source was controlled by the KGB, but passed on his false, “puffer-fish” exaggerations of Soviet military strength anyway because they justified creation of a new weapon—the F-22 stealth fighter—that the Pentagon was determined to build regardless of need.
Now we learn from Shirley’s book that this vast intelligence establishment, this bureaucratic Fu Manchu that supposedly knows all and, in the minds of many, controls all, is barely literate about one of the nation’s major declared adversaries, Iran. From Snepp’s book, we learn that whatever its faults, the agency is extremely aggressive about defending itself.
Do we need secretly obtained intelligence? In view of the continuing dangers of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction we certainly do, but the need may not be as great as the CIA would have you believe. In a presentation arranged by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Robert Steele, a former CIA analyst who now runs a private intelligence firm called Open Source Solutions, has successfully challenged the agency by proving that he could produce more usable information, including satellite photographs and military orders of battle, more rapidly by using open sources, including the Internet, than the CIA can produce from its secret sources.
From time to time, appeals are heard to abolish the CIA. There is some attractiveness to this. It is ludicrous on its face to have a secret intelligence agency with such a highly visible profile. Its need for security imposes constraints on its chief task, gathering information. Who knows more about Iran today—a CIA desk officer in Langley, Virginia, or The New York Times‘s Elaine Sciolino, who roams the streets of Iranian cities, looking into the shops and asking questions? What will a top Clinton administration official pay most heed to—a speculative secret CIA estimate produced by a thirty-four-year-old analyst who has never been to Iran and who speaks no Persian, or Sciolino’s reports which might produce questions at the daily White House press briefing? And where will a bright young Farsi-speaking international-relations graduate prefer to work—Citibank, the Associated Press, or inside a cubicle in suburban Virginia, forbidden to tell the American people what he knows and facing polygraph examinations every so often?
But the CIA will survive. It has an unanswerable counterargument: If you only knew what we know, you would not make suggestions like abolishing the CIA. And of course, we can never know what the CIA knows because it is secret. But Shirley’s and Snepp’s books tell us that the CIA, at least in their experience, has used secrecy not only to protect sources of information but also to conceal ineptness and ignorance. Perhaps it’s time to start afresh.