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How could the CIA fall so low? Nicholson spy case points to loss of leadership since 1970s


The news of yet another former colleague's arrest on charges of spying caused a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. When will it all end?

Like a boxer long past his prime, the CIA is reeling from the continuous barrage of jabs from the press, Congress and elsewhere over alleged drug dealing and misdeeds in Central America.

Powerful hooks and uppercuts have been delivered by the betrayal of the likes of Aldrich H. Ames and the recent allegations against Harold J. Nicholson. How could this happen to the once proud agency? A review of the years since the CIA's birth offers clues.

When I was recruited by the CIA 30 years ago, the Vietnam conflict was in full swing and the agency's leadership consisted of seasoned veterans of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and World War II. Members of this proud, aloof group of colorful heroes held virtually every senior CIA post, and they instilled their values of "duty, honor, country" in the junior officers who followed them.

The Central Intelligence Agency was a closed society, well-insulated from outside attacks. "No comment" was the most that ever escaped the agency's lips. The much-maligned "old boy" network was in full force. But the mere thought that a member of this select fraternity would betray its code was unheard of.

But as the CIA aged, things changed. The first serious blow to the organization occurred in 1973 when James R. Schlesinger, an outsider, took over. He was ambitious, unschooled in the arcane business of intelligence and only wanted the job as a steppingstone to secretary of defense.

In the short year of his tenure as director of central intelligence (DCI), he decimated the ranks of senior management through a contentious reduction in force and threw open agency doors to censure from the outside. For the first time, the agency was on the defensive. Schlesinger's successor, William E. Colby, was left to deal with the mess he inherited. The CIA withdrew to lick its wounds, and morale plummeted. This was the beginning of the decline.

The next disaster occurred in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter appointed his Naval Academy buddy, Adm. Stansfield Turner, to the post of DCI. Turner came to the agency with the belief that the CIA's emphasis on human intelligence was obsolete and that intelligence-gathering through technical means, such as spy satellites, was the only way to go for the future.

Turner believed that the job CIA operations officers were doing was immoral (recruiting and handling unsavory spies) and, therefore, that they must be personally immoral.

As a prelude to another massive purge of CIA ranks, he launched an absurd and insulting witch hunt to investigate the moral behavior of agency case officers. He sent his friend Rusty Williams, another Naval Academy buddy, to CIA stations around the globe with orders to delve into the personal and professional lives of case officers. One of the things he found was a particularly high divorce rate among CIA officers. Predictably, he attributed this more to loose morals rather than stress, long hours and the dangers of their work. The purges began when Williams returned to Washington, and Turner announced that, henceforth, only "patriots" would be recruited; case officers should no longer recruit venal turncoats motivated solely by money.

It took about a year for Turner to realize that he was wrong, and to his credit, he tried to rebuild the operations directorate. But the damage to agency morale and public image was done, and the stage was set for the first foreign penetration of the CIA. In 1980, a case officer named David Barnett pleaded guilty to spying for the Soviet Union while serving in Indonesia. The impossible had happened. The CIA's inner sanctum had been penetrated for the first time, and agency morale plummeted even further.

Things improved for a short time in the early 1980s under William J. Casey, but new scandals related to events such as Iran-contra started things spiraling downward from the mid-1980s on, and other defections followed as attacks mounted.

The year 1985 was particularly bad for the agency. Former journeyman case officer Edward Lee Howard fled the country as he was about to be arrested by the FBI for passing secrets to the KGB, and Sharon Scrange, a CIA operational support assistant in Accra, was convicted of passing secrets to the Ghanaian intelligence service. That same year, Ames began his traitorous association with the Soviet Union.

The agency now is at an all-time low in terms of morale, mission and leadership. Talented officers are bailing out in unprecedented numbers. Soon after the dust settled from the Ames case, another popped up. Nicholson has been charged with betraying his country to Russia for a paltry $180,000.

Only part of the blame for these CIA defections can be attributed to the erosion of loyalty among its officers and the loss of public trust and confidence in the organization. Convincing a member one intelligence service to spy for another is the ultimate in salesmanship, and it is a highly personal process. It involves an in-depth assessment of the potential recruit's vulnerabilities and motivations, and then the offer of rewards based upon that assessment.

Money alone is almost never the sole motivation for treason. Sure, a spy will almost always accept money in return for providing state secrets, but there is always a stronger, deeper, more personal motivation that leads them over the edge.

Revenge is the prime motivator, and there are others: the desire for recognition not provided by the agency, wanting to stick it to the organization and/or supervisors who wronged you or didn't promote you enough, wanting to show that you can get away with it - that you are smarter than "they" are, or just for the thrill of seeing if you can get away with it.

One thing is certain: None of these people thought they would get caught. But they did, and at least in the cases of Ames and allegedly Nicholson, they got caught because they were incredibly stupid.

They forgot the first lesson of Clandestine Tradecraft 101: They lived beyond their means; they spent the ill-gotten rewards of their betrayals.

R.W. Rustmann Jr. worked for the CIA for 24 years and now heads CTC International Group, a provider of business intelligence.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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