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The CIA at War
Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror
By Ronald Kessler
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2003 Ronald Kessler
All rights reserved.
After John M. Deutch resigned at the end of 1996, President Clinton nominated national security advisor Anthony Lake to succeed him. Lake withdrew his name after Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence questioned his handling of personal stock transactions, his tough mindedness, and his politics.
Clinton then turned to George Tenet, forty-four. Also a Democrat, Tenet had been staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, then became staff director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council (NSC). In July 1995 he was named deputy director of Central Intelligence, and in December 1996, acting CIA director. Finally, on July 11, 1997, Tenet became director of Central Intelligence, which placed him over both the CIA and the fractious American intelligence community. He was, as one CIA wag put it, the accidental DCI.
Traditionally, DCIs were WASPs with Ivy League backgrounds. Tenet's father John emigrated from Greece through France and Ellis Island just before the Depression. His name was Tenetis. When he entered France, immigration authorities listed his name as Tenet.
"When he got to Ellis Island, he didn't speak English, so Tenet is what stuck," Tenet said.
Starting with nothing, John Tenet managed to save enough to open the 20th Century Diner in Queens, New York. George's mother Evangelia fled southern Albania, an area once part of Greece, to escape Communism. Somehow she persuaded the commander of a British submarine to take her out. She still spoke little English.
Tenet's first language was Greek, and the dinner table talk at home created an interest in foreign affairs. "I don't think I woke up every day wondering if I was going to be James Bond," Tenet said.
Tenet attended the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and obtained a master's degree from Columbia University's School of International Affairs. At age twenty-nine he joined the staff of Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania, where he worked on national security and energy issues. In 1985, he became a staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Almost four years later, he became staff director, managing forty employees.
"He could be forceful," said L. Britt Snider, who worked for Tenet on the committee and later became his special counsel at the CIA. "He could come down on you. But he was always upfront, always played things straight."
"Probably a hundred conversations he had with me started ... with his saying, 'You're not going to want to hear this, but ...,' "said Senator David L. Boren, who had been Tenet's rabbi, naming him staff director of the committee and recommending him to Clinton to head that president-elect's transition team on intelligence. Boren said, "Sometimes he would start with, 'I can tell this isn't a good day to tell you this,' and then he'd go ahead." His candor made him ideal for his future job of CIA director, Boren added.
As staff director, Tenet was in charge of the investigations into CIA abuses in the late 1980s.
"From the vantage point of the committee's investigations, Tenet experienced firsthand the corrosive effect of the Iran-Contra affair on the agency and on the credibility of the DCI," said Paul Joyal, who was one of his staffers. "People were needlessly lying and obfuscating, and it was all going to come out anyway. George would never allow such deception and short-term risky operations to occur on his watch."
Later, as staff director for intelligence programs at the NSC, Tenet became known for his political savvy. Intuitively he sensed what each Washington bureaucrat wanted and how to bob and weave through the thicket of egos to accomplish his aims, all the while keeping a low public profile. Tenet understood the press, and he understood Congress.
"Tenet had all the experience on the Hill, in the White House," said John C. Gannon, a former head of the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, the analytical side of the agency. "He developed relationships, and he worked them."
As a staffer, Tenet had never managed an agency. Yet as deputy DCI under Deutch, a member of the NSC when R. James Woolsey Jr. was DCI, and someone who had had access to the CIA's secrets going back years, Tenet had a unique perspective. Tenet witnessed firsthand the gaffes of some of his predecessors. Because of those gaffes, the CIA was in turmoil. Since 1991, no one had held the job of DCI more than two years. The agency's morale was shattered and its future was in doubt. Tenet vowed not to repeat those gaffes and to transform the agency into an effective force against terrorism.
A graduate of Stanford and a Rhodes Scholar with a law degree from Yale, James Woolsey had been undersecretary of the Navy before President Clinton asked him to be DCI. He had no experience in intelligence. Nor did Clinton know much about him. Clinton had met Woolsey only twice, briefly, before deciding to nominate him. When Warren Christopher, Clinton's transition chief, summoned Woolsey to Little Rock in 1992, Woolsey thought the trip was to advise Clinton on possible nominees.
"Clinton wants to talk to you about the CIA," Christopher told him.
When he met with Clinton, they swapped stories about the University of Arkansas football team. Woolsey was from Oklahoma; he had relatives who lived in Arkansas. Woolsey did not know he was Clinton's choice as DCI until a Clinton aide asked him to attend a 12:30 P.M. news conference introducing Clinton's national security team. Woolsey called Christopher and asked him about the press conference.
"He wants you to be CIA director," Christopher said.
"Okay, I guess," Woolsey responded."
Woolsey was the only child of Tulsa lawyer and Civil War buff Robert Woolsey. In a eulogy of his father, Woolsey described him as having a "command presence as well as lightheartedness." He was "famous for his perseverance" and had a "litigator's stubbornness." The same could have been said of Woolsey. Brilliant and well respected, he tended to view his job as representing a client — in this case, the CIA. In his relations with Congress, he came off as a litigator.
As general counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Britt Snider felt that, from the beginning, Woolsey had difficulty relating to his congressional overseers.
"Woolsey had been told by the chairmen of both the intelligence and appropriations committees that they could not support an increase in the intelligence budget that year," Snider recalled. "But at his very first appearance before the intelligence committee, Woolsey said that if he didn't get the increase the president had asked for, it would basically amount to the end of western civilization as we know it. He showed no willingness to compromise whatsoever."
Woolsey's dogmatic approach infuriated Senator Dennis DeConcini, the Arizona Democrat who was chairman of the committee. When Senator Ted Stevens, who was ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, attempted to suggest there might be room for compromise, Woolsey put him down as well.
"After that hearing," Snider said, "DeConcini asked me what Woolsey thought he was doing. 'That is not the way you treat members of Congress,' he said."
Clinton, meanwhile, treated Woolsey like a pariah. Clinton had no interest in intelligence or the CIA, as evidenced by the fact that, six months after he became president, he dispensed with CIA briefings. Moreover, some at the CIA thought that, while Woolsey mastered each issue as if he were preparing a legal brief, Clinton sensed that he had no depth of knowledge about intelligence or world affairs. Clinton did not invite Woolsey to daily CIA briefings and eventually stopped the briefings as well.
Woolsey loved to tell the story of the plane that crashed into the White House. "They said it was just Woolsey trying to get an appointment with Clinton," he said.
"I didn't have bad relations with Clinton," Woolsey told me. "I just didn't have any relations with him. Clinton was interested in balancing the budget, health care, NAFTA. He did not want to accomplish much in the foreign policy arena."
If Clinton kept Woolsey at arm's length, Woolsey's congressional critics demanded his presence.
"I had 205 appointments on the Hill in 1993," Woolsey said. "Congress was in session 195 days."
When Woolsey became DCI on February 3, 1993, he received a briefing on the status of the Aldrich H. Ames case. It would turn out to be the biggest spy case in CIA history. What made the case so appalling was that Ames should have been fired years earlier for his drinking and poor performance. The case highlighted how self-protective and unaccountable the Directorate of Operations (DO), which runs spies, had become.
Ames had begun working for the CIA as a case officer in 1962. During his assignment to Mexico City twenty years later, Ames met Maria del Rosario Casas, a Colombian cultural attaché, and recruited her to work as an agent. They began an affair which led to Ames' divorce from his wife and his marriage to Rosario.
By 1983 Ames had been named chief of the counterintelligence branch in the Soviet/East European Division within the Directorate of Operations. In 1985 Ames began working with a joint FBI-CIA squad within the FBI. Called COURTSHIP, this squad recruited KGB officers to work for the United States. Later, Ames was assigned to the CIA's Counternarcotics Center, with responsibility for the Balkans.
Because Ames' job in counterintelligence required him to review files and ask questions not only at the CIA but at the FBI and other sensitive agencies, he was in a better position to help the Russians than even the director of Central Intelligence.
Over the years, the FBI had observed Ames meeting with Soviets. He had not reported the contacts as required by CIA regulations. Whenever the FBI asked the CIA about this, the agency would ask Ames to explain why he had met with Soviets. Ames would ignore the requests. No one pursued the matter.
When assigned to Italy, Ames was drunk at work at least three times a week. At headquarters, he would pass out at his desk. At a joint picnic of FBI and CIA employees at Langley, Ames became inebriated and misplaced his wallet. An FBI agent found the wallet, which contained notes on a classified operation. Classified material is not to be removed without elaborate controls and security procedures. Again, no action was taken against Ames.
In 1976, when Ames was visiting New York, he left his briefcase with classified documents in a New York subway. The documents identified a Soviet agent he was going to meet as part of his work. The FBI recovered the briefcase from a Polish émigré who found it several hours after Ames had lost it. Embarrassingly, an FBI agent returned it to the Soviet branch of the CIA's New York station, where the agency recruits diplomats and scientists to spy overseas. When Ames later requested a transfer to New York, Ken Millian, the New York station chief, blocked it.
"I told headquarters he was a jerk, and I didn't want him," Millian said. But after Millian left, Ames continued to be sent on temporary assignment to New York, where Ames allowed Rosario to stay at a CIA safe house, even though she was a foreign national.
"Ames said it had been approved by headquarters," Janine Brookner, who was his supervisor, said. "I knew they had not approved it. I told him, 'I want her out of here and you out of here.'"
Brookner reported Ames to headquarters, but no action was taken against him. The response of the Directorate of Operations (DO) to Ames' sloppiness and violation of rules was to shuffle him into even more sensitive positions. He was a trusted member of the club.
As intelligence operations went awry and assets — agents working for the CIA — were "rolled up" and executed, the FBI and CIA began looking for a mole in their midst in the late 1980s. In 1993, from a Soviet agent who was code-named AVENGER, the CIA learned enough details about a mole in the CIA to narrow the focus to Ames.
AVENGER — a KGB officer — instructed his girlfriend to enter the American embassy in Moscow, ostensibly to obtain a visa. Through her, the CIA arranged to meet with him. Before AVENGER narrowed the field, the CIA listed Ames as a possible spy, in part because he had access to most of the compromised information. But efforts to investigate Ames were amateurish. The agency checked Ames' credit card bills for a month and found they amounted to $3,000. That happened to have been a slow month for Ames and his wife. Normally, they charged $18,000 to $30,000 a month. Rosario owned five hundred pairs of shoes and 150 packages of pantyhose that she had never opened. In one single year, they paid $18,000 in credit card finance charges.
The CIA examined real estate records to see how Ames paid for his home. When no mortgage was found, the CIA twice returned to the recorder of deeds' office to try to find a record of one. Anyone familiar with land records knows that a mortgage cannot be overlooked: It is either recorded or it is not.
In trying to determine if Ames' wealth might have come from Rosario's family in Colombia, the CIA station there asked a local source, who said her family was wealthy. A few weeks later, the agency fired the contact for giving incorrect information on another matter. No one thought this worth passing on to those who were then investigating Ames.
In August 1992, the CIA found a correlation between the timing of three of Ames' meetings with Soviets and cash deposits he made to his bank account in 1985. Yet no one yanked Ames' security clearance, and the investigation of his finances dragged on for three and a half years.
As it turned out, Ames had received $2.5 million from the Russians since 1985. It was a measure of the value of his information. Never before in U.S. history had any known spy received anywhere near that sum. The closest figure was the $1 million received by Navy warrant officer John A. Walker Jr., who collected the money over an eighteen-year period. Ames collected more than twice as much in just over eight years.
In all, Ames betrayed more than a hundred CIA operations and wiped out the CIA's assets in Moscow. The Soviets executed ten of their own and sent others to prison. Ames not only compromised current assets, he impaired the ability of the agency to recruit new assets for years to come. Aware of how negligent the CIA had been in protecting its own agents, any potential recruit would have to think twice about cooperating with it. Despite the damage, because Ames did not have access to all records, the CIA's Soviet assets based in other countries remained intact.
On the morning of February 21, 1994, FBI agents arranged to have a CIA counternarcotics official ask Ames to come to CIA headquarters. As Ames drove his Jaguar to Langley, Agent Michael Donner followed him and turned on a flashing red light that sat on his dashboard. He turned on his siren. Ames stopped a few feet short of a SWAT truck that was driving in front of him. Gun in hand, Donner raced to the driver's side. Ames rolled down his window, and Donner held up his badge and pulled a Benson & Hedges cigarette from Ames' lips.
"FBI," he said. "You're under arrest."
Donner opened the door and yanked Ames into the street.
"For what?" Ames yelled. "For what?"
"For espionage," Donner said. "Put your hands on the roof of your car."
"What!" Ames cried. "This is unbelievable. Unbelievable!"
In return for Ames' plea, John L. Martin, the Justice Department's chief spy prosecutor, agreed to recommend a much lower sentence for Ames' wife. Both defendants agreed to be debriefed by the government and undergo polygraph tests on the truthfulness of their statements. On April 28, 1994, Ames and his wife pled guilty. After Ames cooperated, he got life without parole. Rosario was sentenced to five years and three months in jail.
It was a victory not only for the FBI but for Martin, who presided over espionage prosecutions for twenty-five years and had always fought the CIA's penchant for covering up its embarrassments by fighting prosecutions of spies. Instead, the CIA would offer to make them double agents or even to pay them off if they would keep quiet, thereby granting them immunity from prosecution and avoiding a public trial.
Excerpted from The CIA at War by Ronald Kessler. Copyright © 2003 Ronald Kessler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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