Would you believe ... Iranian moderates?

Author:McDonald, Marci
Position:When will the CIA get smart?


AT first, John Hortonhad passed it off as just another cocktail party anecdote. In the summer of 1983, ove r drinks at a fellow spook's dinner party in Washington, a visiting Republican fundraiser from California buttonholed him with horror stories about doing business in Mexico. The bagman knew Horton was a respected CIA veteran, a former Mexican station chief who had been called back from an eight-year retirement to take over the controversial post of National Intelligence Officer (NIO) for Latin America on the elite inter-agency panel that turned out the intelligence community's top-secret surveys known as Estimates. He also knew that Horton was working onan analysis of Mexico and the bagman wanted to make one thing clear: Mexico was on the brink of collapse. To illustrate his point, he somberly recounted the example of his Mexico City business partner who was so worried about the situation that he kept his private plane constantly warmed up at the airport in case he had to get out in a hurry.

The notion of a Lear jet purring on the tarmac,racking up boggling fuel bills, tickled Horton's instinct for the absurd, but he didn't give the story a second thought. Less than a year later, however, he recalled it as neither humorous nor harmless. For him, it had become ominously symptomatic of what he say happening at the CIA. Furious and disillusioned, he had quit after CIA Director William Casey ordered a report on Mexico rewritten to depict that country as on the verge of topping, a conclusion Horton believed there was no intelligence evidence to support. There were only allegations as flimsy as the Republican bagman's. Once, when Horton protested there was no data to back up the dooms-day scenario, a senior intelligence official cited a story he had heard from his Mexican maid. As Horton recently wrote in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence: "In the case of Mexico, a half-baked theory had taken on the authority of gospel."

Within the CIA it was no secret that a hiddenagenda lay at the heart of the bitter debate over the Mexican Estimate. According to other intelligence officials, Casey was trying to win the official imprimatur of the intelligence community on plans to put the screws to a country that had become a meddlesome foreign policy opponent. At the time, the government of President Miguel de la Madrid was the most vociferous critic among the United States' Latin allies of the administration's Centarl American policy. It vehemently disapproved of aid to the contras and was a prime mover behind the Contadora process, the proposal for a negotiated peace with Nicaragua that was once again showing signs of life. With official proof that Mexico was a menace--another Iran on Americahs doorstep threatening even U.S. security with its instability--Casey reportedly hoped to win approval for economic and covert actions to destabilize its recalcitrant government. "There was a great deal of resentment of Mexico for standing in our way on Central American policy," says Horton. "There was almost a desire to see Mexico punished."

Horton has been one of the few CIA officialsto quit in protest over the corruption of the intelligence process by what he terms the administration's "zealotry." Having alreay earned retirement, it was a luxury he could afford. In the two years since his exit, other top officials have left the agency in discreet disgruntlement over the direction Casey has moved the CIA. Still more continue to chafe angrily inside, bound by the prospect of pensions, or clinging to the belief that they can have more effect trying to change the system from within. But the disaffection among analysts is widespread.

"Central America is just one example," saysScott Armstrong of the National Security Archive. "The problem is pervasive--systematic and across the board."

Horton's experience was not simply a case ofsloppy professionalism or facts running afoul of the preconceived notions of the Reagan administration and its businessmen friends. It is the most public example of what agency critics charge is an increasing and dangerous politicization of intelligence under Ronald Reagan.

Politicization of intelligence makes for far lessriveting headlines than exposes on CIA guerrilla training manuals that advocate assassination or the agency's mining of Third World harbors. But the consequences are fundamental and farreaching, and threaten to pervert the very mission of the CIA.

As the agency finds itself increasingly implicatedin the Iranian arms scandal, the spotlight's glare is focusing on Casey's pell-mell plunge into clandestine operations--frequently against the advice of intelligence reports and his own deputies. But, as many observers of the tight-knit espionage club point out, one of the byproducts of his billion-dollar investment in covert actions has been pressure on the intelligence community to come up with the evidence to justify the expense. In cases like the agency's secret war against Nicaragua, critics charge that intelligence has been tailored to fit the Reagan administration's obsessions. During an interview with The New York times las tyear, Senator David Durenberger, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, took calculated aim at the CIA's Central American assessments. Said Durenberger: "Some of that stuff is cooked."

Some see in the current charges a sinister replayof the Vietnam era, when CIA analysts found Great Society policymakers openly hostile to facts about Vietcong strength that might have called U.S. military involvement into question--and, not incidentally, saved thousands of American lives. By refusing to see the world in terms that don't dovetail with its policies, the Reagan administration risks finding itself embroiled in another tragic foreign misadventure with potentially disastrous results. Says Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence scholar at Washington's American University and author of The Sword and the Shield: "It can be very serious if you wind up invading Nicaragua because you're convinced they're going to invade 12 other countries."

Golden years

In the bowerls of the CIA's fortress-style headquarters,planted on 219 barbed-wire-shrouded acres in suburban Langley, Virginia, a special passkey-activated elevator whisks the director of Central Intelligence directly from the parking garage to his seventh-floor penthouse suite. Using it, he avoids the agency's impressive marble entrance lobby, where a verse from the Gospel according to St. John is chiseled into one wall: "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." That lofty resolve was the CIA's cornerstone when it was built on the ashes of World War II. It was founded as an intelligence, not an operations agency, in reaction to the worst intelligence failure in american history--the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Without a centralized intelligence organization, the Fortress America over which Franklin Delano Roosevelt presided had not put together the hints that scattered U.S. military agents had been picking up about Japan's intentions. As soon as the war was over, Harry Truman moved quickly to fill that vacuum.

The CIA's mission was sketched out in only afew paragraphs of the 1947 National Security Act. It was so vague that certain factions of the intelligence community periodically have demanded a detailed charter, either to protect the agency or rein it in. But its fortunes have been left to fluctuate with the whims of succeeding administrations and the Directors of Central Intelligence (DCIs) charged with running it.

When William Casey took over in January1981 as the most overtly political DCI in history--fresh from orchestrating Ronald Reagan's landslide presidential victory--the agency's fortunes were at an all-time low. During most of the previous decade, the image of the CIA as an omniscient, intrepid force of clandestine Hardy Boys had been exploded in a succession of humiliating headlines and public congressional hearings. The list of its failures and misdeeds had exposed the agency's invincibility as a myth. Even one of the CIA's most affectionate critics, Roy Godson, a professor of intelligence studies at Georgetown University, points out: "There never was a great CIA golden age when everything was brilliant and then it all fell apart." As William Colby, the DCI who found himself at the helm when the agency braved it most ferocious public storms, now admits, "We made mistakes in the fifties too. You just didn't hear anything about it.c

But when the world finally did hear, duringSenator Frank Church's 1975 committee hearings, the most shocking revelations demonstrated that the agency had swiftly expanded its original intelligence function to embrace a paramilitary zal and had taken to toppling unfriendly governments around the globe. Yet in virtually ever case where a covert action had ended in defeat or disarray, it seemed the CIA had chosen to ignore or skew its own intelligence.

From the beginning, the glamorous cloak-and-daggerveterans who thrived under General "Wild Bill" Donovan's wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS) made no secret of their scorn for the caution of their deskbound counterparts. The CIA was barely a year old when it launched Operation Valuable: an attempt to overthrow Enver Hoxha's regime in Albania by parachuting Albanian refugees behind that country's...

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