"We were only playing a game," he says, fingering the heavy silver cross which hangs on a long chain across his chest. "I was serving the home office. I was doing what I was supposed to do. There are definite threads of guilt in my past. These things trouble me. But I'm less bothered since I left and I'm not doing them any more."
John Stockwell leans against the banquette of the Madison Hotel coffee shop, speaking in slow deliberate tones, only a slight Texas lilt in his voice. He is clear-eyed, direct and humorless. He sits ramrod straight and talks with the same ease and absence of emotion as anyone would who has repeated horrible stories so many times that they become devoid of meaning.
He is quite handsome at 40. In fact, if you didn't know he was a former CIA agent you might take him for a country singer.
He has the mustache of the day, the proper long sideburns, the red turtleneck sweater under the sport jacket, the chain and cross hanging around his neck.
It is the same handsome, controlled face, the same unflinching gaze that millions of people first saw Sunday night on "Sixty Minutes" when John Stockwell went public after a year and a half in secrecy writing his expose of the CIA Angola operation, "In Search of Enemies -- A CIA Story."
He talks about the "threads of guilt," the things that bother him." Like for instance the coup he almost engineered while he was stationed in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast.
It was in a small neighboring country which he refused to name. He recruited an agent, then insisted that the agent find unrest. The agent couldn't find any unrest. "Well," asked Stockwell, "what about your cousin?" The agent was on the payroll. Without unrest he would lose his fee. THe agent reported his cousin was unhappy. Soon the cousin was promoting a coup. "We hatched ourselves a little plot," says Stockwell, solemnly. But the cousin had agitated a coup and soon Stockwell was meeting secretly with the president of the country at night before it was scheduled. His agent was arrested and thrown in jail for seven years.
"It never occurred to me then," he says now, that I was fomenting a coup. But I do know that my recruit would never have talked to his cousein about a coup if I hadn't set it up."
It may not seem so from his calm demeanor, his cool manner, his self-asurance, but John Stockwell is a confused man.
John Stockwell is facing a moral dilemma, a crisis of moral values and ethics right in the middle of his life.
For in 1964, when he joined the CIA, it was the honorable thing to do. Today, in 1978, after Vietnam, after the defeat and embarrassment of Angola and other CIA and U.S. military operations, after Watergate, today in the era of The New Morality, it no longer is the honorable thing to do.
John Stockwell knows it. And he's sorry.
"I'm guilty," he says comfortably, this newest penitent spy-of-the-week, the CIA's latest whistleblower with a book to sell.
In the old days John Stockwell liked the idea of making a lot of money. Now, he says, "If I made a lot of money on this book, if I got rich off this book, I would feel uncomfortable. I think it would be an inappropriate thing. War is a dirty thing. It is a crime against humanity and I participated. To run off and make a fortune off of it would trouble me."
This, even though he now admits his guilt. "I shared the blame," he says. "I did speak out against our programs while I was in the agency." He pauses. "But that wouldn't get me very far in a moral court. I protested. But I did it anyway."
Nonetheles, Stockwell says that he would have felt differently if the operations in both Vietnam and Angola had been sucessful.
"I thought it was callous, but if you're going to do something, do it right," he says. "It's like speaking a language. if you don't speak it well you should just speak it louder. And besides, history has a tendency to vindicate winners. At least people would say that America is serious. But to go into a program that is doomed to fall . . ."
Stockwell is now a publicity tour not designed to fail. "All my friends agreed that '60 Minutes' would be the best way to present the book," he says.
On "60 Minutes" he alleged that the CIA had deliberatedly destabilized Angoloa in preparation for a war against communism, that it had hired mercenaries and sent advisers to Angola, that it encouraged the South Africans to intervene, that it disseminated false stories to be distributed to the press and that it even recruited call girls to spy for it.
He also charged that former CIA director William Colby had led the cover-up witholding this information from Congress. Colby has denied this.
For that reason, John Stockwell can understand, identify with a John Dean, for instance.
"I had a certain sympathy for John Dean," he says. "The nation didn't but I did. You're in the White House you're working for the President, you're part of the team, they're telling you what to do. It's very simple for people on the outside to say, 'Why didn't you quit?" But that takes more than they know. To tear yourself out of an organization . . . You have ambitions, you have loyalties. You're taught that people who do those things are traitors and finks."
All that is behing him now, he says. "I've gotten out in the outside world. I've learned that journalist have a lot of integrity. In the CIA we saw journalists as irresponsible liberals. 'I'm much more of a liberal now than I wa 10 years ago. Do you realize at least 12 journalists knew about my book while I was writing it and not one of them exposed me?"
John Stockwell grew up in Texas where his father was an engineer at Dow Chemical, then spent eight years in the Congo deep in the bush where his father was sent to work on a hydro-electric plant. He went back to the University of Texas, then joined the Marines. He signed up with a reconnaisance company at Camp LeJeune. "Instead of doing drills I was parachting from planes and scuba diving." he says. "It was real post-adolescent fun."
After his marriage and the birth of his children (he has two boys and a girl) he quit, went back to Texas for a while, then worked in the sales department at Gates Rubber Co. in Denver, Colo.
There he was recruited for the CIA, partly because of his Marine Corps background, partly because of his African expereience and the languages he learned therer.
"I hadn't realized how attractive I looked to them or I would have gone in at a grade higher than G-9," he says.
He was 27 at the time, still impressionable. And, as he recalls, "I was ripe for the picking. I was restless. I was terribly naive. I saw the worlddivided between the good guys and the bad guys. We were the good guys. We were going to save the world from communism. I was highly receptive. I felt right about what I was doing."
And it was during his indoctrination that he ran up against what looked like trouble. They asked him if, because of his missionary schooling (in the Congo) he would be suitable for the CIA. He thought they meant killing and immediately became upset, saying he would not be able to kill. "The interviewer reasured me that the CIA didn't have any intention of doing that sort of thing," he recalls. "They just wanted to know if I was tough enouth to resist Communists. And they told me that their best officers were the ones with the highest integrity.
"Sometimes," he says, "I'd be out jogging with my chief and I'd turn to him and say, 'Come clean, doesn't the agency kill people?' But they always denied it.""
In 1966 John Stockwell was sent overseas to Africa." I went with great confidence and self-righteousness. I was the perfect prototype."
Abidjan, the Ivory Coast -- his first disappointment. "There were no targets. The country was stable and pro-American. All we did was scurry about getting reports on the health of the president. My boss kept telling us that they werer expecting a heavy influx of Chinese and Russians. But he was an empire builder. He wasnted more men under him. But I thought I ought to be out saving the world from communism."
Stockwell also was upset that the CIA office was listed in the phone book. "People kept coming up to me at cocktail parties and asking me what was going on at the CIA."
When Stockwell asked about it, his boss told him everybody knew who they were anyway.
"It didn't make any sense to me," says Stockwell, "but my rationale was that it was not appropriate for me to question anything, even whether or not we should be there."
That was to be his continuing rationale for the rest of his tenure at the agency. "Ours not to reason why . . ."
"I just figured," he says, "that there were a bunch of generals back in Washington with a big map moving pins around and my job was to look as good as possible, to learn as much as possible and to look forward to a better assignment."I'm a hard-driving, hard-working person," he adds. "So I just made a lot of recruitments." It was in doing this assignment that Stockwell engineered his famous coup.
Even though his agent ended up in jail for seven years, Stockwell and his station presented it as "a beautiful intelligence operation," engineered raises and congratulations for themselves. "I left just in time," he says. "I didn't have time to sit around and let my conscience bother me."
Stockwell's madcap tales of CIA blundering my soundlike scripts from the theater of the absurd. But Stockwell isn't laughing.
Onward and upward to his next assignment -- Lubumbashi, Zambia -- and his next disappointment. "Again," he says, "there were no targets. Mostly I just charged around trying desperately to justify my existence."
Next assignment -- Burundi. "At 30 that was a big break. It was full of excitement, lots of targets, lots of Soviets. We ran operations against them. Got their ambassador expelled! It was a Cold War game. We were the front-line soldiers."
Nevertheless, Stockwell says it was in Burundi that he had his first talks with his wife about resigning. She was against his work, did not like the CIA. "She saw things more clearly, said it was a bad outfit; I argued against her."
His marriage began to dissolve. And it was there that he secretly had to admit that "we were not contributing to peace in that country. We were stirring things up.
One of the things he says he had to rationalize was the death of an agent he had recruited. "He had a wife and six children. And he had never contributed one single piece of intelligence. It was pointless. He was picked up and executed."
For most people who suffer a moral metamorphosis, there is a turning point.
John Stockwell says he had one of these. It was Vietnam.
"Before that," he says, "I could rationalize that maybe HEW, AID and the State Department weren't either. Then I was assigned Vietnam. The operations were grotesquely inefficient. It was Catch-22.
"Ninety-eight percent of the people we dealt with were fabricated because if you didn't recruit you were leaned on or busted. So we invented recruits. And then when we evacuated Vietnam we had to dump our Vietnamese case officers. My boss said we had no responsibility for them. It was their misfortune to be born Vietnamese. That was intolerable to my self-image. I tried to help them. But in the end we dumped them. I told my bosses I was going to resign. I told them to screw their medals."
Why didn't he resign?
"Well, it got worse. Well, it's well, you have to understand. I was getting divorced. On the other hand, Vietnam was as good a place as any to weather a divorce. I enjoyed the physical aspects of it. I played a lot of tennis. My idea was to get through the divorce in Vietnam, come back and get a good assignment in Afric."
When he got back in 1975 he was promoted to GS-14.
"Professionally everything was going fine."
He didn't resign. "I decided I didn't want to stay in operations but I had to have my paychecks. I had financial obligations. But I was sick of clandestine services. I was not a renegade. I wanted to find another niche, keep a career, get promoted, make more money, have respect."
Nevertheless he enjoyed minor rebellions. Like wearing his representation of the Southern Cross of Africa. "I had it in my junk and needed something to clip my CIA badge onto. Everybody gave me a lot of trouble about it at Langley, teased me so because I was wearing body jewelry and accused me of being a hippie or something. It became a trademark. Then I was faced with a decision. I had to meet the director. Should I wear it or not? If he'd been offended. Other days I would wear a bush jacket. That was part of the charisma. You've been overseas so you'd show up in a bush jacket, you know."
He took three months off, then was recalled as chief of Angola operations. "My jaw really dropped. My first reaction was to say no. But what got me was curiosity. There was no harm in listening. I was deeply intrigued. And before I had always been on a lower level. I really wasn't qualified to make judgments.
"Here," he says, "I would be chief of staff. There was no force that was going to make ame resign for the next three months.I was confident. I knew what it was about. And it was a very competitive situation."
Angola -- next assignment -- next disappointment. "It was a hard and somewhat disgusting lesson. Convert little wars don't work. Thirty million dollars is not enough. Thirty million dollars is a nothing war. And besides, being secret you could do nothing."
For the first time in the interview John Stockwell demonstrates some passion. "If we'd had Puff The Magic Dragon (a specially equipped air-craft)," he says, "it's incredible, if we'd had that weapon we would have won the war in Angola. But we could never have done it secretly the way we had to. I felt a covert operation would never work."
So it was then that John Stockwell finally decided to resign from the Agency.
"I spent six months making the secision," he says. "Should I resign, put on a trenchcoat and walk off into the fog as spies are supposed to do? Should I go to a reporter, cut off my options for the future, cause a stir and totally cut myself off from the agency, or should I write a book and tell the full story."
The book won out. And he didn't have to wrestle with his conscience long. "I think it would be impossible to write such a book if I believed the agency was essential to national security."
And for this reason he has no objections to anyone leaving the agency and spilling the goods. He believes, instead, that the CIA should be an intelligence-gathering organization only, with no covert operations, no involvement in paramilitary operations.
"I have wound up profoundly skeptical and distrustful of the secrecy game," he says. "Secrecy breeds mediocrity and arrogance."
He says he will not make a career off of the CIA but that he doesn't know what he will do with his life after "I see this thing through."
He has a couple of ideas, though.
"Writing a novel about Africa and Vietnam," says John Stockwell a novitiate in the New Morality. "And of course jouenalism is a possibility."