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Week of 11.17.06

Excerpt: On the Brink: An Insider's Account of How the White House Compromised American Intelligence
By Tyler Drumheller. Reprinted with permission of Carroll & Graf Publishers

Cover: On the Brink: An Insider's Account of How the White House Compromised American Intelligence Three decades as a spy for the CIA put me under cover for years in Cold War Africa, in charge of the agency's biggest station after the Berlin Wall fell and at the helm of the European division, where I was responsible for dozens of stations and hundreds of people, at the toughest time in its history. Yet coming out into the light with this story has been one of the hardest things I've ever done. It went against the very grain after spending half my life in anonymity in order to protect my identity, the safety of my family and the lives of my fellow intelligence officers and sources.

But so many misleading tales have been told about the CIA since September 11, 2001 attacks that after I retired in February 2005, I felt driven to set the record straight. One catalyst for this book was the unprecedented leak of identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover intelligence officer in an apparent bid to undermine her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a prominent critic of the Iraq War. While we do not know if there was any vindictive intent on the part of President Bush's administration to blow Plame's cover, at the time of writing, Karl Rove the president's top adviser, is in jeopardy as a result of an investigation into who revealed her name and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, has resigned after being indicted on perjury and other charges in connection with the probe.

You will also find here uncomfortable details about the political machinations of the men surrounding Porter Goss, who replaced George Tenet as director of central intelligence (DCI) around the time I retired. I think it is important that the public knows the games with the agency at a time when this country needs a highly functioning intelligence community more than ever.

The CIA has always been a convenient lightning rod for the White House because its generals and foot soldiers are disinclined to come out and defend themselves. Like soldiers in regular army, they feel it is their duty to serve—and even to die—and never take credit for their successes.

I have grown increasingly angry at the way the CIA has been made a scapegoat for one foreign policy disaster after another. This tendency reached its most dangerous point with the September 11 attacks and the Iraq War, which heralded a frenzy of finger pointing and emotional reforms that in my view will not help us achieve a safer world for future generations. If we do not face up to the fact that no CIA, under any leadership, will be able supply the country with a silver bullet for the war on terrorism, or for any other foreign policy challenge, then we risk missing the real opportunities to improve our defenses against our enemies, be they suicide attackers armed with a few pounds of explosives or dictators with nuclear ambitions.

I want Americans that at the European division, on my orders and with the support of Tenet, we made real changes in the way we work with our allies abroad, the kind of behind-the-scenes earthquakes that need to happen if we are to prevent the bloodshed of Madrid and London being repeated in other capitals of the world. By necessity, these shakeups did not hit the headlines. But they can happen and will continue if we keep our eyes on the goal and politics out of the equation. The intelligence community must be allowed to do its work without being used as a political instrument, and real reforms must be undertaken. Tragically, we have once again imposed superficial fixes and purged the institution's memory with expulsions of senior officers, a trap that has caught us again and again since I joined the agency.

No president on my watch has had a spotless record when it comes to the CIA. Ronald Reagan used intelligence channels to try to exchange weapons for hostages. The first President Bush had a soft spot for the agency born of his days as director in the early 1970s. But even he allowed officers to be pilloried for their roles in carrying out President Reagan's policies in Iran and Central America. In the end he pardoned those who faced the most serious charges, but this came only after a number of them had been pulled into court; still others, who had spent their lives serving their country, had their long and distinguished careers ruined. Bill Clinton took years to understand that the CIA could be used as a crucial instrument in securing peace in the world.

They all had their prejudices, where a cool-headed calculation of how the agency could best be used to serve the interests of the country and the wider world was called for.

But never have I seen the manipulation of intelligence that has played out since the second President Bush took office. As chief of Europe and one handful of geographical division chiefs in the Directorate of Operations—the covert branch of the agency—I had a front row seat from which to observe the unprecedented drive for intelligence justifying the Iraq War and for someone to blame for the September 11 attacks. One of Tenet's most experienced top deputies, I watched my staff being shot down in flames as they tried to put forward their view that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. I watched as politicians, using intelligence that was at best questionable, spoke passionately about the impending threat of nuclear attack by Iraq before we sent our men and women out to die in the Middle East. I railed inwardly at the stubbornness of this country's leadership as it ignored voice after voice that warned of the perils of an ill prepared war in the Arab world. Eventually I had to accept that nothing we said or did was going to change the administration's collective mind. Saddam certainly deserved to be overthrown, but I hated the way the public was told there were only two choices—unleash "shock and awe" on the evildoer or face the risk of nuclear attack from a boat in New York Harbor or missile over London and more mass graves in Iraq. I reveal details here that demonstrate that there was another option available to us, one that might have saved American and Iraqi lives and made the world safer instead of more dangerous, as I believe it now is. Now that I have retired, I am finally free to speak my mind in public.

While I could not include all the facts in these pages, you will find a missing piece of the story of the run-up to the war that will help explain why one ally in particular publicly opposed it so vehemently, despite being a country with which I have cooperated for years, with the enthusiastic support of our leadership. When I was called to testify before the Silverman-Robb Commission, which looked into intelligence failures for President Bush, I was questioned at length about this story, which relates to attempts by a close friend and colleague, who like other characters in this book, can only be identified by his first name Bill, to make face-to-face contact with an Iraqi source to confirm his claim before the war that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. The tale of Bill's futile round-the-world odyssey, which at the time I foolishly believed might avert bloodshed but which fell like a tree in a forest in the rush to war, was not revealed explicitly in the commissioner's report. The commission believed that this issue fell outside their mandate, but it is an important story that should be told. Now you can read it for yourself.

It may suit this White House to have Americans believe a black and white version of reality—that it could have avoided the Iraq War if the CIA had only given it a true picture of Saddam's armaments. But the truth, as all CIA officers know, is always several shades of gray. The truth is that the White House for a number of reasons, believed what it wanted to believe. As I describe in this book, the White House deliberately tried to draw a cloak over its own misjudgments by shining a light on ours. That is the kind of behavior that is guaranteed to prevent the agency from becoming the indispensable weapon I know it can be in the twenty-first century war on terrorism.

In telling this story, I hope to continue to serve in the interests of the American people by giving them a truer understanding of the spies who work in their name at constant risk to themselves and to the foreign agents who are brave enough to join their fates to ours. It is very tempting, now that the Cold War is over, to say, as some CIA critics have, that we don't need the agency anymore. But in my view we need it like never before. I have run covert operations and undertaken them myself time after time and I know that we have skills that can be put to good use. Instead of running around frantically trying to figure out how to change our methods, we need to map out our targets painstakingly and patiently, as our enemies do, and get into the roots of militant organizations, as our enemies do, and get into the roots of militant organizations, as I know we can, because I did it myself when I penetrated the South African death squads and the African National Congress; and I saw our allies do it from my vantage points one of the CIA's top operators in Europe.

We had begun in similar fashion to map out militant presences in Islamic communities in Europe when I left the agency, using the knowledge we accumulated in Europe when I left the agency, using the knowledge we accumulated unearthing spies before the Berlin Wall fell. That knowledge hasn't lost its usefulness with the passing of Soviet power, unless we believe that Islamic militants are driven by something demonic rather than by their own interests, and that their plans cannot be unraveled. We have to work at this methodically, looking at local communities first. It is the only chance we have to stave off attacks like those that happened in Madrid and London. Such random bombings will always pose the greatest danger, and we can never be sure of preventing them. But we improve our odds dramatically if we take the time to understand and cover the émigré communities from which they arise.

In revealing how politics and knee-jerk attacks on the intelligence community have prevented us from doing our best work in the past, I hope to reduce the risk that history will repeat itself in future. By speaking out, I hope to discourage politicians from abusing intelligence the way this administration has done, so that there is a better chance that a new, enthusiastic wave of professional can be found to penetrate the madrassas, the mosque and the Islamic centers where future Al Qaeda cells are being bred, to unearth sources and agents who might point us to the next Mohammed Atta or Osama bin Laden, in Europe and elsewhere.

So far the shake-up of our intelligence community that has quite correctly been undertaken by Congress has only repeated the mistakes of the past. It has purged and repackaged, but not truly reformed. There are new faces at headquarters, but there is no real reckoning with events of the last few years—at least none that I can detect. Changes were badly needed, but changes that would make the United States safer. The new structure is aimed at serving the requirements of the Washington bureaucracy, not the officers in the field and the analysts who must work without interference if there is any hope of really dealing with terrorism in the modern world.

At a time when we desperately need the brightest brains to go out into the world and find friends in unlikely places, I want potential recruits to know it is possible to do the job I love, to influence policymakers by opening their ears to the truth instead of being used to tell a lie. I know because I have experienced it.

I could have kept my corner office with the view of the Virginia woods, after rising to the top of the agency, outranked by less than a handful of people. But it was clear I would have to kowtow to yet another series of new bosses as the latest purge at the agency played out, and I was past that. I fight my last intelligence battle in this book. I hope you find answers to some of the questions you may have had since the world turned upside down on 9/11.

—Tyler Drumheller
January 25, 2006