Earnest: U.S. espionage has been present since revolution


Peter Earnest, executive director of The International Spy Museum, speaks in the Amphitheater on Monday. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

It’s thousands of years ago. Humankind is undeveloped, living practically naked in caves. Wealth is not measured in gold, but rather in nuts and berries — the only things that will keep your family alive.

A neighboring cave houses another human, but you notice this human has better nuts and berries than you do.

“Your national security is your family, because that’s all you have,” said Peter Earnest, executive director of the International Spy Museum.

So the next morning, before your neighbor leaves his cave, you climb a tall tree to watch where he goes. This, Earnest said, is intelligence covertly acquired. It is also surveillance — the first “aerial reconnaissance,” as Earnest called it.

If you then attempted to eliminate that patch of nuts and berries, you’re using covert action, he said.

Earnest walked the audience through the history of espionage and intelligence gathering during his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater. His speech, titled “Intelligence Today: Why We Spy — How We Do It,” was the first in Week Three’s topic on “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances.”

Earnest spent 35 years working for the CIA and was a founding executive of the International Spy Museum. While working at the CIA, he ran counter-intelligence and double-agent operations. He has been awarded two medals from the CIA for his work.

Earnest said that that very intelligence gathered through espionage is the basis of winning battles. The task of intelligence workers, Earnest said, is to give information to policymakers so that they can make informed decisions. It is not the business of intelligence agencies to decide what to do with it.

It wasn’t always called “intelligence,” but Earnest said information covertly acquired has always served the same purpose: security.

Since the very beginning

Espionage has been around since the beginning of war, although Earnest said it wasn’t always used as a means to gather information solely from the enemy.

Alexander the Great read the letters his soldiers had written for the family and friends they left behind. Caesar disguised himself as a soldier to walk among his men. Both leaders used these tactics as a way to measure the morale of their troops, to know what they were saying and thinking about the operations.

“The difference between then and now,” Earnest said, “is that it (used to be) the decision of an individual commander — whether it was Caesar or Alexander or whoever — to go out and to get intelligence.”

‘The father of American intelligence’

George Washington was not just one of the Founding Fathers. Earnest said he is also the father of American intelligence.

“He had an acute sense of the need for accurate and timely intelligence,” Earnest said. “He did not want secondhand information.”

One of the museum’s success, Earnest said, was the acquisition of a letter written and signed by Washington. The letter assigned its recipient to create a spy network in New York City, which was then held by the British.

Intelligence during the Civil War

Earnest said most people would think of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency when asked to think of Civil War espionage, but that’s not the only one.

The Pinkertons claimed to have foiled an assassination attempt on then-president-elect Abraham Lincoln after acquiring intelligence on the alleged event. There are several other instances of non-government intelligence agencies during this time.

At the time, Col. George H. Sharpe was the only designated intelligence officer in the Army, Earnest said.

However, the first real government agency dedicated to intelligence gathering was the Bureau of Military Information.

“The bureau … was the beginning of modern military intelligence,” Earnest said, “because they used information from all sources — from prisoners, from newspapers, intercepted telegraph lines.”

Modern espionage

Trench warfare, gas and machine guns killed thousands of people in order to achieve small strides during World War I, Earnest said. He called these tactics the first weapons of mass destruction.

Military intelligence was used during these times to intercept radio signals and to break codes. This was the beginning of the tactics employed by the National Security Agency during the Korean War.

During the time between World War I and World War II, the Soviets recruited more than 500 agents in the U.S. The U.S. recruited none in Moscow. There was no U.S. agency dedicated to such a feat, Earnest said.

It wasn’t until 1947 that the CIA was created. It continued to evolve into what it is today through the Cold War, Vietnam War and Korean War.

‘Failures of imagination’

Earnest said intelligence agencies in the U.S. acknowledge their failures because they are learning experiences.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was an intelligence failure, he said, because the military had broken the Japanese naval code but did not know the precise location of attack.

Earnest used the phrase “failure of imagination” to describe the attack on Pearl Harbor. He used this phrase because it was possible to predict, but yet it was not foreseen.

“It did not occur to leadership — they did not imagine — that the Japanese would do what they did,” he said. “And if you would leap forward a few years, intelligence had warned that al-Qaida was going to resort to the use of planes, that they might intend to use them as weapons.”

Yet the U.S. failed to take precaution, Earnest said. Thus, he said, 9/11 is also viewed as a failure of imagination.

However, not all intelligence failures can be attributed to this phenomenon. He said recent intelligence failures include that of the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the idea that Saddam Hussein was involved with the 9/11 attacks.

Today’s issue: Cyberwar

Espionage today uses all those tactics used in the past, but they are also applied to the Internet. Milton Maltz, another former spy and chairman and founder of the International Spy Museum, opened Monday’s lecture, explaining that cyberwar is becoming more prominent.

Cyberwar is the attempted hacking of computer systems to gain military or political intelligence. Most prominently, the Chinese, Russians and Americans have used it in recent years, Maltz and Earnest said.

In 2007, Estonia was attacked by thousands of Chinese “cyber-spies,” Maltz said. Its infrastructure and economy were devastated. The U.S. Department of Defense said millions of attempts have been made to hack into its computer system.

“As the world becomes increasingly dependent on the Internet,” Maltz said, “electric utility grids, our nation’s water supply (and) our banking system are vulnerable to attack.”

Earnest also touched on WikiLeaks as a potential issue in intelligence, although it is not necessarily related to cyberwar. He said that, had Osama bin Laden read through WikiLeaks properly, bin Laden would have moved his location and would still be alive. He called leaks like that “totally irresponsible.”

Espionage: a child’s dream

President Barack Obama and his family visited the International Spy Museum on June 30, 2010. Earnest personally gave them a tour of the museum. Earnest said Obama was especially interested in the letter from George Washington.

Earnest said the Obama children are on record as saying the Spy Museum is their favorite place to visit in Washington, D.C.

“Everybody wants to be a spy,” Earnest said. “The president’s kids are no exception.”

Q: Much has been said about the disruption of multiple arenas of intelligence gathering. Post-9/11, one of the commissions reports was that intelligence communities needed to be coordinated better, thus a restructuring of all of that. What’s your read about the status of that restructuring, and have things been improved?

A: Let me touch on that terrific question. Post-9/11 Commission felt that in some way, the intelligence community should be centralized, if you will. Remember, in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was created. The word that’s important there is “Central.” Trying to do the same thing that (Col. George H.) Sharpe did during the Civil War, it was an agency designed to get reporting from all over — signals, intelligence, satellites — bringing it into one place, analyze it and report to the president and the policymakers; that was the role. But the individual that held that office wore another hat. He was to head the community as well. The commission determined that was too much — no man or woman could spread themselves that wide. Better to have an individual of another office, so they created the Director of National Intelligence. General Clapper presently holds that post. It is still trying to find its role. Is it like (the Office of Management and Budget) — is it simply to help manage and coordinate resources and people? Is it supposed to direct the intelligence units? I think the verdict is in: It’s not expected to do that, but it is still working out what it is expected to do. The other office that was created by the 9/11 Commission was what we now know as the Department of Homeland Security. That, with a wave of the wand, created an agency of 180,000 people. That has not gone smoothly, either, but that is with very bright and very dedicated people working the problem. No one, confronted with some of these problems, could have done better than they have done. It is still less than perfect; it is a community that is involved in continuous self-improvement because it needs it and is aware of it.

Q: Let’s talk about checks and balances. Intelligence has unique requirements of secrecy, and yet our country is founded, in part, on a recognition that people are fallible, greedy, eager for promotion, power-hungry and that checks and balances are essential to proper governance. With that in mind, how can we effectively oversee and govern our intelligence agencies?

A: I can’t remember anybody eager for promotion. Some of you will remember the Church and Pike Committees in the mid-’70s. Frank Church from Idaho, Otis Pike from New York — they conducted hearings and found that both the CIA and the FBI had engaged in some irregularities — irregularities that were against the law. These had to do with mail openings to the Soviet Union and some wiretappings. As a result of the Church-Pike Committee hearings in the 1970s, they then formed, on Capitol Hill, two permanent oversight committees: one in the House and one in the Senate. We report to those committees; we don’t take our direction from them. They investigate us. Congress approves every nickel we spend, so we are answerable to Congress in that regard, and, yes, there’s the usual tug and tensions between executive and legislation, as historically there are, and that’s part of checks and balances. But, that is one of the strongest oversight mechanisms you have. The president also has a president’s foreign intelligence advisory board, as well as an oversight board. I have had to testify before all of them. They are all made up of distinguished people who are doing their best to insure that intelligence is on track and not going off the track, as can happen from time to time. So those bodies take their role very seriously, and it’s always the hope that they will master what intelligence is, so they neither overestimate nor underestimate what its capabilities are.

Q: The CIA prides itself in retrieving foreign nationals who have been informants. Why did the CIA so easily cash in on Valerie Plame? Why didn’t the CIA stand behind its valuable employee? I think “not standing behind her” refers to the controversy of her being exposed.

A: Well, I know Valerie Plame, and I had Valerie Plame to the museum. She appeared there as a featured guest. Valerie Plame, through no fault of her own, was, as they say, “outed.” She was exposed as a CIA — we don’t call ourselves “agents” — she was a CIA case officer. She was conducting operations. She did use cover. She was in touch with people who, as a result of her being outed, fell under suspicion as being covert assests of the United States government and of the CIA. Through no fault of her own, this happened. I think she tried, in her way, to defend herself, all compounded by the fact that her husband, Joe Wilson, had carried out a mission for the CIA trying to get to the bottom of what turned out to be a fraudulent letter from Nigeria on a weapon of mass destruction ingredient. So I’m not clear on — you were using the words “CIA cashed in.” I’m not sure that the agency cashed in on anything. I think it was a very awkward situation for the agency.

Q: Historically, where have you seen the greatest conflict between intelligence processes and human rights, and how have they been resolved? Another question is more terse: Can you comment on spying and ethics?

A: I’m a graduate of Georgetown University. I had four years of Jesuits there — maybe that explains where I ended up — four years in which I took ethics every single day. To get there, I went to Georgetown Prep, which is run by Jesuits, and I had three years of ethics training there. I, like everyone else who enters the agency, have my own background. Whatever their education was, whatever their upbringing was, whatever their culture was. I attended several symposia in CIA on the ethics question. We regularly had outside people come in and give us lectures on the subject. There was, I think, an American — and I’ll call it American consciousness — of what was appropriate and what went beyond the pale. Where we are seeing this play out today, probably — and this isn’t just CIA; this is us as a nation, our military and the intelligence services — is on some of the signals intelligence, a very tricky area to get a hold of. Osama bin Laden was reduced to using an ancient form of communications: couriers. He, because of a media leak, knew that were listening to his cell phone. He knew we were listening to the cell phones of people around him, and it was a cell phone call that resulted in our identifying his courier and getting his true name, but I think that area is one of the ones that brings up ethical questions. There are courts trying to deal with it; it is being addressed in the process. The other one, of course, is the interrogation of prisoners and the treatment of prisoners. That, too, is being played out by the press, and I think it raises questions for all of us.

Q: The most frequently asked question, I think, most directly put: How did the CIA get it so wrong with the Iraqi WMD capabilities?

A: One of the things that you hear so often is: Yes, they got it wrong, but so did everyone else, and part of the problem with the wrong call on WMDs is that’s no excuse. It doesn’t matter if everyone else got it wrong. There were dissenters. The small intelligence unit in the state department, State INR, believes that that was incorrect. There were dissenters within the agency. Dissent is encouraged in the agency, right up to the director. As I said, the emphasis is on getting it right, getting the truth. That was encouraged. I went to a hearing with one of the directors — a closed hearing — to talk about covert action, and the senators in that hearing asked the director, “Mr. Director, does everyone agree with this covert action that you’re proposing in the Middle East?” and he said, “No, sir, they don’t. In fact, I have a number of letters from my senior officers. Would you like to see them?” Dissent — disagreement — is a practice that is valued. There are several things, also, to keep in mind. One, there are those that feel that some of the chemical weapons may have been slipped out of Iraq just before we went in for the inspections. That’s easy to say; they may have gone to Syria. And the other thing is, and this gets to (Donald) Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” and “known unknowns,” Saddam Hussein — as we learned from his statements to the FBI agent, you remember, before he was hanged — had his own interest in not revealing to Iran, his archenemy, that he did not have weapons of mass destruction. He had been on that path; he conned his own generals into believing that he had weapons of mass destruction. If we had had an asset sitting at his staff conferences, they would have said, “Oh, no, we do have, and we are making progress on, weapons of mass destruction.” So here is a man lying to his own subordinates about that, and this can be argued, and I’m going to do this: It’s not quite fair, but I’m going to ask you to raise that question with Bruce Riedel. Don’t tell him I told you to do it, but here’s a fellow who was very close to that and will offer great insight into how that issue was handled.

Q: Can you comment on cooperation between Israel and the United States regarding intelligence?

A: I think there has been probably extraordinary cooperation between the United States and Israel. People are often very complimentary of the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, and, I think, rightly so. One of the advantages, I think, the Mossad has, by and large, their target is fairly constrained — that is, a very sharply focused area. There is no question that for all intelligence services, the phenomenon of the Arab Spring is, yet again, enormously complicating the world, and it will complicate the world of Israeli intelligence because the world that they’re used to. It’s like a kaleidoscope — you keep turning it and different beads and different colors come up. But certainly, there has been cooperation. We are in touch with intelligence services. The first thing that happened when the Cold War happened, Bob Gates, then-director of the CIA, flew to Moscow. He wanted to sit down with the head of the KGB and explore, “The war’s over. How can we cooperate?” He took with him, by the way, the photographs of the bodies of the Russian sailors that we brought up in the Glomar Explorer operation from 16,000 feet down. No one had ever done that deep. The deepest was well over 200 feet, and the word went out, “What agency can go down 16,000 feet?” and the CIA, “Oh, we can do it!” and they did it. We brought up bodies and we buried them at sea, and we provided, as close as we could, a Russian naval burial service ceremony, and we videotaped it. Bob took that videotape to Russia to give to the president and the head of the KGB as one of the signs of our good faith as a people. His word to me when he went, because I was then his director of media relations and spokesman, he said, “When I give that to the Russians, I will cable you, and you release it to the American media,” which I promptly did.

Q: There has been much controversy over the covert role the CIA played destabilizing the Chilean government under the presidency of Salvatore Allende, leading to the military coup and assassination of Allende. Would you please comment?

A: There is a process for covert action. Covert action is attempting to influence the outcome of events through covert means. We employed covert action in trying to keep Italy from going Communist at the end of World War II, in trying to keep France from going Communist; we employed it in Poland. In Chile, there was concern about Allende’s government, and I am trying to recollect whether there was a presidential finding. To carry out a covert action, today, of significance, you require what’s called a presidential finding. The president of the United States must find, in writing, that this action is necessary. I do not remember if there was a finding for that period, but, typically, when the CIA carries out a covert action, it is not because a bunch of guys went in on Saturday morning and said, “Hey, I found a small country we can probably overthrow!” It comes from the president and it comes from the National Security Council and, typically, it has the stamp of the attorney general, and, often, the ideas don’t come out of CIA; they come out of somewhere else. I have never had the experience of the agency acting alone.

Q: How does a person become a member of the Intelligence Committee? Is there a civil service test, and, I love this part, what are the age limits?

A: Who’s interested? I’ll take your name! Right now, for what we used to call “junior officers,” for what I did, clandestine operations, I think the age limit is 35. Typically, most of our analysts, we could staff a university today. Most of our analysts hold master’s (degrees), many of them hold Ph.D.s or are getting them. On the operations side, we like to look for a college degree. We are looking for personality. We are looking for people who are judged to be able to learn languages, to move into a foreign culture, to function in a foreign culture and to be able to deal with people from another culture effectively. Those things, typically, are looked for the moment you express interest in the agency and are screened. We’re not big enough, like the military, to sort of bring you in and send you somewhere else. When I was commissioned in the Marine Corps, they said, “Where do you want to go?” and I said, “Well, I’m engaged. I’d like to stay here to get married and get on with a family.” Fine, they sent me to Japan. If the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one, for heaven’s sake.

– Transcribed by Patrick Hosken