The CIA is our first line of defense against terror and tyranny. As every expert has warned after 9/11, years of hysteria-laden, politicized public investigations since the Vietnam era have eroded its capabilities. Yet the ability of the CIA to recruit highly positioned human assets is vital to our security. Only human espionage lets us see what satellites intrinsically cannot–what evildoers may be planning against us.
The CIA is now being raked over the coals for incompetence or alleged overstatement. Why didn’t it anticipate 9/11? Where are Iraq’s WMDs? Why didn’t it predict every detail of the guerrilla war being waged against us in Iraq? There are currently seven new public investigations of the CIA going on. This, in my opinion, may prove dangerous to America. Espionage is necessarily a secret business. Even the slightest indiscretion can endanger the lives of our officers and their sources. The world’s tyrants and terrorists are merciless. The CIA should not be trashed just to satisfy the ambitions of politicians seeking publicity. What other country in the world washes its dirty intelligence laundry in public? America is a wonderful country in its willingness to scrutinize, and to correct swiftly, its mistakes. But we also need to understand that no spy service is perfect. Mistakes in a human-oriented business are inevitable. It would be safer if these mistakes were not exaggerated and sensationalized in the media for partisan purposes. In this area, mistakes are best corrected in-house.
What America needs now are high-level defectors and informers from enemy ranks. But such people have a hard time putting themselves in the hands of an espionage organization when it is being publicly flailed and denounced by its own government. I know this from personal experience.
In 1972 I decided to defect to the CIA. I trusted it. I admired the efficiency of its secret war against the Soviet empire, and I wanted to help. It was a difficult step for me. It took years to summon the nerve to renounce my huge salary, my cars and drivers, my villa with its swimming pool and sauna, my tennis court, my summer house on the Black Sea, my hunting lodge in the Carpathian Mountains. Dictators reward their spy chiefs extremely well.
Then, in 1975, the Rockefeller Commission report describing the CIA as a rogue organization was released. The Senate’s Church Commission published 14 more reports in 1976 calling the CIA–in the trendy, overheated left-wing rhetoric of the time–a criminal organization. Over in the Soviet bloc, we regarded it as a triumph. KGB chief Yuri Andropov exclaimed to Bucharest: “The CIA’s tyranny is over.” Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu popped a bottle of champagne. A couple of months later I had dinner with Janos Kadar, the ruler of Hungary and the first chief of its Communist espionage service; he raised his vodka glass with a toast: “To the CIA’s funeral!”
The Rockefeller and Church Commissions froze me in place for quite a few years. If the U.S. government did not trust its own CIA, why should I?
Defections from the enemy camp are America’s best weapon against terrorists and rogue regimes. The late colonels Ryzsard Kuklinski and Oleg Penkovsky are only two others who, like me, chose to put their lives in the hands of the CIA because they trusted it. Both played major roles in the spectacular defeat of the Soviet empire.
After I finally defected, in 1978, I was sure that other heads of enemy espionage services would follow in my footsteps. But it didn’t happen. I believe it was because yet more investigations hit the press revealing CIA bungling with its agents and defectors. Had I still been in Romania then, I sometimes wonder whether I would be here now.
In 1986, director of Central Intelligence Bill Casey sent me a letter explaining the CIA’s failures that led to the disastrous re-defection of KGB Colonel Vitaly Yurchenko. After the Church and Rockefeller Commission reports of the 1970s, the CIA’s new management gutted human-intelligence efforts and tried to rely almost exclusively on satellite and signals intelligence. It is a well-known tale told in many books, such as Mark Riebling’s Wedge: How the Secret War between the FBI and CIA Has Endangered National Security, and Robert Baer’s See No Evil. These problems could have been quietly corrected. Instead, we unleashed more public investigations–mostly for political bread and circuses, not constructive reform.
Twenty-five years ago, when I started cooperating with the CIA, most of the operational and logistical matters facing me were promptly solved by my case officers. Now, after years of public investigations demanding “reform,” the CIA’s case officers have no autonomy. Armies of lawyers check their every step. Even the simplest operational matter may take months to solve–in one instance I know of, years. The CIA’s worst problems today were created by the partisan investigations of the 1970s, whose recommendations amounted to tying the CIA’s hands with red tape. Worse, this was done intentionally, in a fit of partisan distrust of America’s defense establishment.
At the peak of the Cold War, the DIE (Ceausescu’s secret police) recruited the most important agents it ever had, the chief of NATO’s department for secret documents (Frenchman François Rousilhe) and NATO’s deputy finance director (Turkish Colonel Nahit Imre). Then, in the late 1960s, France arrested both, based on information provided by the CIA. Ceausescu ordered a vengeful investigation of the DIE. Heads rolled. Guilt was parceled out, and officers “made examples of.” After that, no one in the DIE took any more risks; its officers just tried to protect their backsides and survive quietly. As a result, the DIE never again recruited any significant sources in its target countries.
After I broke with Communism, the DIE again became the subject of an investigation. Why, the Politburo asked, had Ceausescu been “betrayed” by his own spy chief? The DIE became Ceausescu’s scapegoat. Soon after that, the whole DIE collapsed. I was credited by the CIA with “demolishing an entire Soviet bloc espionage service, an event without historical precedent.”
The gleeful public scapegoating of the CIA can easily hurt more than it helps. The CIA is by far the world’s best intelligence organization. It contributed decisively to America’s victory in the Cold War against not only great odds, but also in the face of domestic political pressure. Over the past 25 years I have worked with a number of CIA officers. All have been good professionals and devoted patriots, ready to go to any lengths to protect our national security. They do not need more public investigations. These are often the productions of non-experts playing at reinventing the wheel of espionage management. America does not need yet another bulky Commission report to reiterate the obvious to its security agencies. What it needs is to let the CIA get back to work quietly regaining the trust of its potential sources abroad. Trust is the most valuable asset of any espionage service.
One way of rebuilding trust would be to clear the names of defectors in their home nations, where they left roots, relatives, friends, and the graves of ancestors. So far, only one of the many patriots who helped the CIA during the Cold War is honored in his own country: Polish Colonel Ryzsard Kuklinski. Most former Soviet bloc countries are now NATO members. Congress and the State Department should help to insist that such liberated nations clear the names of those who cooperated with America. This alone may help recruit the Kuklinskis of the future.
Meanwhile, I have a message to those like my former self still living in China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Syria: Do what I did! This coming July I will celebrate 26 years since I broke with dictatorship, and my only regret is that I did not take that fateful step earlier.
–Ion Mihai Pacepa was acting chief of Romania’s espionage service and national-security adviser to the country’s president. He is the highest-ranking intelligence officer ever to have defected from the former Soviet bloc.