Ignatius: Ethical dilemmas are very present in international espionage


David Ignatius, columnist for The Washington Post and author of the novel Body of Lies, gives the Thursday morning lecture at the Chautauqua Amphitheater. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

When David Ignatius was trying to get his first novel, Agents of Innocence, published, he found himself rejected by a dozen companies. The book started as nonfiction, but it became fictionalized as he wrote.

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., finally approved the novel, but only on the basis that they wanted a nonfiction book next.

Later, once Agents was published, Ignatius said he remembers speaking to his children’s classes. First, he would read the rejection letters — which weren’t very nice, in his opinion. Then, he’d pull the book from a bag, placing it on the table. Then he’d place the same book in French, then German.

“And pretty soon there’s this stack of books that was translated into, maybe, 15 languages, and it’s this high,” Ignatius said, holding a hand about two-and-a-half feet from the podium, “all balanced on these letters of rejection that were so mean. So the moral of the story is: Stick with it.”

Ignatius, an international affairs journalist, columnist and spy novelist, presented three ethical dilemmas regarding foreign affairs. He said that by analyzing these issues, Americans may attain better public policy.

Ignatius delivered his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater. His speech, titled “Spy Fact, Spy Fiction,” was the fourth in Week Three’s topic on “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances.”

Political covert action

Covert action, Ignatius said, is the use of American resources to influence foreign political outcomes in America’s favor. Sometimes this can mean bribing politicians to vote differently, or maybe getting certain parties to speak up or to keep quiet.

“That may sound terrible,” he said, “but I want you to think about the greatest example of covert action in modern history.”

That example, he said, is the CIA’s late 1940s campaign to combat the spread of Communism in Europe. Some countries were very close to turning Communist — without these covert actions, Ignatius said, Communism likely would have spread.

The ethics of unmanned drones

To illustrate this point, Ignatius read almost five minutes of his most recent novel, Bloodmoney. It depicts the violent deaths of an entire family due to an American drone in South Waziristan, Pakistan.

Though one official Ignatius spoke to about these drones said he feels no ethical dilemma at all about them due to their precision and control, Ignatius said there is most definitely an argument to be had.

That very same man said a drone could hover over a mark playing with a grandchild until the child leaves, if that was the case. Drones, the man said, reduce the number of bystander deaths.

Ignatius said his main problem with drones is not the harm drones can cause.

“Rather, I worry that these weapons are becoming addictive,” he said. “It is too easy — and an effective way to project power — without putting boots on the ground, to use the common phrase, and risking American lives.”

The danger these drones pose is quickly becoming a threat to America as well, he said. Other countries are attempting to develop similar weapons.

It’s not that he wants to completely eliminate the use of drones, Ignatius said. Instead, he thinks it’s important for the public to be aware of them. As moral and democratic as the U.S. is, he said, there needs to be more debate on the subject.

Ambiguity in covert action

In 1979, a Palestinian Liberation Organization terrorist named Ali Hassan Salameh was assassinated with a car bomb in Beirut, Lebanon.

In 1980, Ignatius had lunch with an anonymous administration official as part of his preparation for covering a story.

“You know, the Israelis just killed our man in the PLO,” the official said to Ignatius.

“What?” Ignatius said.

“Oh, I shouldn’t have said that,” the man responded.

To this day, Ignatius said, he isn’t sure whether the man purposely let that information go. Nonetheless, it put him on the trail. He began to think the man the official referred to was Salameh, the PLO chief of operations. At the time, PLO was the biggest terrorist adversary to the U.S.

For the next two years, Ignatius worked on that story. He found sources and began to spend more and more time with those people. A story began to unfold that was deeper than he had originally thought.

Salameh, he discovered, had been working with the CIA for almost 10 years.

“This man was a terrorist,” Ignatius said. “But also, according to the testimony of American diplomats and others who had worked with him, he had saved hundreds — maybe thousands — of Americans lives.”

In 1983, months after this discovery, Ignatius was in Beirut again when a bomb went off in the U.S. embassy. The bomb had killed Robert Ames, a CIA analyst and director, along with more than 60 others.

This event left Ignatius the only person, he said, who knew the ins and outs of the Salameh story. Arabs who had worked with the CIA began to come to Ignatius to share their stories.

“I became the repository for this history than I had been scribing,” he said. “It didn’t take long to realize that there was no way that I could write all of this in a newspaper story.”

Agents of Innocence, that first novel, resulted.

The point of this story, Ignatius said, is the ambiguity. The U.S. worked with a terrorist to reduce the number of American deaths by terrorism. Meanwhile, that same man was killing Israelis, residents of a U.S. ally.

When Israelis questioned U.S. officials regarding the agreement, the relationship was denied.

American espionage versus the world

“I’ve written in my columns that the CIA sometimes seems to have a permanent ‘Kick Me’ sign on its backside,” Ignatius said. “And it gets kicked plenty, as we know reading the newspapers in the last few years. But for decades, this has been a controversial area.”

The truth is, he said, the U.S. isn’t the only country that has espionage and intelligence agencies — Americans have to remember that.

Since all these countries are spying on one another, there’s a lot of international lawbreaking even by American spies.

“Spying is about lying,” Ignatius said. “Our agencies are out there recruiting people through bribery, through blackmail, through other techniques, to commit treason in their own countries. And that’s just the simple part.”

Q: To begin, David, I wonder if you could comment on this whole scenario you’ve built about the GID in Jordan, starting with the reference to tenant and using that as a resource, then your familiarity with this person. Both in your book and the movie, there’s a certain amount of tragedy in the way in which the two countries’ intelligence services interacted. A fair amount of that seems to have been created by a cultural abyss. I guess the question of you is, is that true, and is that a general problem for our intelligence service as we try to work particularly in the Middle East in the Arab world?

A: I would say, without question, that lack of sufficient knowledge and clarity is our biggest problem in the Arab world, in the Islamic world, everywhere in the world. If there’s one theme that runs through each of my seven spy novels, it is that the United States does not know enough to be getting as deeply involved in the places where we go as we do. In Body of Lies, we see at the end of the book that it is the Jordanian who’s had all the strands of the story in his hands, and we have a CI officer, played by Russell Crowe, a kind of loudmouth know-it-all who thinks he knows what he’s doing who repeatedly blunders and is rescued by a Jordanian who had a deeper understanding of what the play was.  You’ll find that theme in many of my books, to some extent it’s in Bloodmoney, but I think it goes, Tom, to your question. Of course people in the region understand this better. They live there.  This is the sea in which they swim. We come in with our Aqua Lung and our night-vision goggles, and we think, “How can we make mistakes?” Well, we make mistakes because we don’t understand the basics.

Q: With Leon Panetta now Secretary of Defense, will the CIA merge with military intelligence, and since 9/11, how much cooperation is there really between the intelligence services?

A: One of the big trends in the last few years has been the joint operations of our special operations forces and the CIA. The most obvious example was the ray that killed Osama bin Laden, where Navy Seals were under the operational command of the CIA and Leon Panetta. The reason for that was that this was an active war in a country with which we’re not at war — Pakistan — and so had to be conducted under Title 50 and the authorities of the CIA. There is a wonderfully elusive fragment in the National Security Act of 1947 that says that the National Security Council shall conduct such other activities as it deems necessary. Folks, that is basically the legal rationale for covert action. So the CIA, under Title 50, has the authority to break the laws of other countries and deny it, and that’s the authority that we use, but these joint operations are increasingly frequent. If you and the audience would like, Tom, I just spent a week with General Petraeus, the next CIA director, and I can tell you in just a few words about where he’s going in the post-Panetta era. I did travel to Afghanistan with General Petraeus after his confirmation hearing. We talked for many hours. I’ve known him well for a number of years, and I’ll just say some basic things about Petraeus. First, he really wants this job, which is important. If he thought it was a consolation prize for not becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or something else — we’ve had CI directors, notably John Deutch, who had that feeling. They really would rather have been doing something else, and it’s not good. Petraeus really wants the job. Second, he knows that he needs to demonstrate, and demonstrate to his workforce, that he has sufficient intellectual distance from subjects, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he can be the president’s intelligence advisor. As part of that, he knows that he’s not a military commander anymore. You can’t just give an order and expect it to be carried out. The CIA isn’t like that. It’s a much more delicate kind of organization. He also knows, frankly, that this is a culture; this is an organization that can eat outsiders alive. I’ve been covering this for more than 30 years, and I have watched outside directors either been co-opted, so they become quasi-cheerleaders, or isolated and expelled from the culture. This is a rough crowd. Petraeus knows that. As he says, this isn’t the first time he’s managed difficult people. Petraeus is a complicated person, but I think what he accomplished in Iraq, with President Bush’s support, I think it’s a mistake not to just say that this was a real achievement. Getting into Iraq was Bush’s biggest mistake, but having the guts when the military and everybody wanted out — the country was screaming to get out — to stay long enough to come up with a more stable endgame than we would’ve had was a great achievement and a courageous achievement, and the person who did that on the ground was Dave Petraeus. I think he’s the real deal. To my mind, it’s fascinating Obama chose him for the CIA and fascinating that he accepted, and it will be the best spectator’s sport in town, if only we could get a seat, but we can’t.

Q: As you might imagine, there’s lots of questions about drones. There’s two parts to this question. One has to do with an inquiry about could you give us some examples of the rules that now govern decisions on whether or not to implement these strikes, but the other side of it has to do with moral accountability, and what are the moral responsibilities with a specific reference to Harold Koh, the dean of the Yale Law School, having said that drones are less harmful to human life than bombs and thus more humane? Would you comment on that kind of moral reasoning?

A: There are rules to give at least the veneer of due process before we launch the missile from 10,000 feet. I have to say that those rules have been loosened somewhat under President Obama, so that what’s known as signature targeting, where you don’t need to be 100 percent certain of the individual, you hope you know who it is, but it has the signature, he’s got a telephone handset that you know has been in contact with people who are part of al-Qaida, or he’s driving in a car that yesterday was being driven by so-and-so’s body guard, or he’s going to a safe house that three days ago — so in other words, the signature is there, and so the rules of engagement, I believe, have been stretched to allow those kinds of attacks. As is well known, the Obama administration radically increased the number of predator attacks and the number of countries in which they’re used. President Obama said, before he was elected, that he was going to be aggressive with this weapon, and he has been. I have asked the top officials — these conversations were off-the-record, so I shouldn’t name them — but I’ve asked them, “Are you troubled morally by this? Does this raise issues for you?” And the answer that I’ve typically have gotten was, “No.” These are the most precise weapons that have ever existed, so far as I know. Because they have cameras, we can watch. If a target is playing with his grandchildren, we will hover and wait for the grandchildren to run away. This gives us a degree of flexibility that we would not otherwise have. You get those kind of defenses, and I’m even going to stipulate that the number of civilian casualties, relative to other weapons, is very low. Even so, I think we need to talk more about the use of these drones.

Q: There have been several references this week to the threat of homegrown terrorism, the number of young people that are attracted to the terrorist cause. Several questions ask you what’s your assessment of this as a risk, and where is the balancing point between protecting ourselves against that eventuality and infringing on the rights of American Muslims?

A: If you were to ask the FBI director, he would say, “Poor Stella Rimington.” It’s much harder to do this job in Britain, because their Muslim communities are nowhere near as comfortably assimilated in their society as America’s, and I think that’s still true. What we depend on is that Arab-Americans living in Detroit — let’s say, in Dearborn, the big Muslim communities around Detroit — have felt their chance to grab for the American dream, and in many cases have been extremely successful, and their friends see it and know it. Most struck by no matter how screwed-up politics are back at home, people come from that culture to America, and they have great ideas. They build good companies. They’re successful. That’s, to me, our saving grace, is that we are still a company where immigrants can come — whether they’re Muslims, Arabs, you name it, Chinese — and prosper, and then everybody sees it. Everybody in the Arab world has a cousin or an uncle who’s in the States and who’s done great. Because of that, our security service, the FBI, and our local police have been able to have networks of informants within these communities. Where there’s a mosque, you know, the sheik, or somebody close to the sheik, he’s in touch with the appropriate people, and when he sees a young person who’s beginning to get a little weird and get a little jihadi, he’ll tell somebody, and that’s what’s been our big protection. It is first the fact that people feel they are Americans and that they are respected as Americans and that they’ve done well, and they have a stake in the country’s stability. The idea that we should make Arab-Americans a special target and get all — I understand the human reaction to go, “Oh, you know,” — but if you want a guarantee that this problem will get worse, do that, and it will.

Q: Would you share your comments on the Valerie Plame affair?

A: Great movie. There are few absolute rules about press coverage of intelligence activities, but one of them is that you do not name CI officers whose identities are undercover, and it is well understood, and I believe respected by news organizations, and the fact that White House — let’s be honest; the fact that the Bush White House — more or less deliberately outed her and put that name out is outrageous. It is just outrageous. I think the people who were involved in that have been identified and punished, although, they were, in some cases, pardoned. Just to say one other thing about the press and these intelligence secrets. If a CI officer were here, there may be some, but if he took me aside after and said, “Nice of you to say all those things, David, but be honest; the press drives us nuts. As soon as we get a secret, you guys rush to blow it, and you’re one of the offenders.” I think there is tension between what people do in my profession, which is try to tell the public as much as we can about things that matter and try to talk, as I have today, frankly about issues that I think the public needs to think about, even if I get into areas that people say, “It’s really better not to talk about that.” We do have a practice that was inaugurated by my beloved, late chairman of the board Katharine Graham, who said in the 1980s that whenever a Washington Post reporter has some information that you’re thinking of publishing that affects one of the intelligence agencies, you have a responsibility, as a Post reporter or editor, to go to the agency that may be affected and let them make their case that this will be damaging. That this will get people killed, that this will have severe damaging affects on the United States, and they’ll listen. We’re not going to let them make up their minds, we don’t have a censorship system, but we’re going to listen to them and then try to make what we think is the responsible decision. She would say that now. I think we really have tried to follow that. We write a lot of stories that give the government heartburn. If you sat where I’ve sat as an editor, you’d be surprised at how many stories don’t get published.