Henry Kissinger was wise to resign as head of the presidential commission on the intelligence failures that led to Sept. 11, 2001. For despite his gifts as a statesman, Kissinger at times fostered the politicization and consequent enfeeblement of the U.S. intelligence process that should be one of the commission's concerns.
Before Kissinger withdrew as chairman of the panel a week ago, an e-mail was circulating among some former diplomats and spies documenting some of what the writer argued were Kissinger's abuses of intelligence almost three decades ago, while he was secretary of state. A copy of this e-mail landed in my in-box, and with the permission of the ex-CIA officer who wrote it, I will share some of its details. While some of the CIA yes-men involved come off looking as bad as Kissinger, the story shows what can happen when strong, professional intelligence officers get too caught up in politics.
What especially troubled my informant was what he claimed was an off-the-cuff request by Kissinger in 1974 for a coup d'etat to overthrow one of the emirates in the Persian Gulf. The secretary of state was furious at the time about the Arab oil embargo and determined to teach the Arabs a lesson.
One day, remembers my ex-CIA informant, Kissinger was leaving a meeting of the super-secret "40 Committee" that deliberated covert action plans and other secret operations. Kissinger "threw over his shoulder to my CIA division chief an oral instruction that the Agency should overthrow the government of one (any old one) of the oil sheikdoms in the Gulf, as a display of Henry's impatience with the situation," my informant recalls.
The CIA division chief, being too much of a good soldier, took Kissinger's comment as an order and marched off to implement it. CIA headquarters selected one of the emirates as its preferred whipping boy and held a meeting of station chiefs from the region to plot the coup.
When the division chief outlined the plan, his lieutenants were furious. They demanded that Kissinger sign a written order authorizing the covert action. (This was in the days before the formal presidential "findings" that are required for such skulduggery today.)
Then a brave officer named Jim Fernald, who was chief of station in the country where the unfortunate sheik was due to be toppled, said that if the proposal wasn't withdrawn, he would resign on the spot. Fernald died last year, so he can neither deny the story nor take credit.
The division chief retreated to Washington to reconsider the project. But by that time, it seemed, Kissinger had dropped the idea. Probably he had never been serious at all, but in the hothouse environment of those days, the CIA felt under pressure to deliver, even on what may have been meant as a joke.
Responds Kissinger: "I can't say what I might have said over my shoulder as a meeting was breaking up. But nothing like that was ever seriously initiated or discussed by the 40 Committee." He notes, rightly, that part of the blame in any such case would lie with a too-eager intelligence officer.
Kissinger loved intelligence -- with its back channels and special communications arrangements -- and he occasionally used station chiefs instead of local U.S. ambassadors to communicate with key governments. But even some of Kissinger's friends and former colleagues agree that he tended to politicize the intelligence agencies -- driving them toward the policy goals he favored.
Kissinger's Mideast "shuttle diplomacy" illustrates the tension. Intelligence officers who worked in the region at that time are still peeved at what they say was Kissinger's habit of telling somewhat different versions of his plans to different audiences. Kissinger's diplomacy may have been successful, they say, but their agents and sources began to doubt the credibility of U.S. statements and guarantees.
Over time, politicization of intelligence -- and the resulting demoralization of officers and agents overseas -- increased. The problems worsened after Watergate and the CIA investigations of the 1970s, when the CIA began wearing what amounted to a "Kick Me" sign on its backside, and CIA directors began to see their main job as keeping the agency out of political trouble. CIA directors such as Stansfield Turner and William Webster sought a more acceptable public image, but it came at the cost of covert effectiveness. William Casey wanted to restore a more robust spying agency, but by then many of his officers were so scarred that they often preferred to play it safe.
The agency's low point came during the Clinton years. The price for doing aggressive intelligence work too often was to be called on the carpet. One intrepid CIA officer sent to Iraq in the mid-1980s to try to organize opposition to Saddam Hussein was actually summoned home and briefly investigated by the FBI for allegedly conspiring to murder the Iraqi leader. Given such experiences, does anyone really wonder why CIA and FBI officers weren't more aggressive in fighting terrorism in the years before 9/11?
Congress, too, became part of the problem. In principle, congressional oversight of intelligence sounds like a good idea. But in practice, it led to second-guessing and even more politicization of the CIA and FBI. Now, directors didn't just have to make nice with presidents and secretaries of state but with committee chairmen and their staffs, too. And it must be said that to ask politicians to sign off on the systematic violation of the laws of other countries -- which, after all, is what intelligence agencies really do -- may not be realistic. The oversight committees tended to dutifully support the intelligence agencies until there was a flap -- and then it was finger-pointing time.
One of the best things about the current director, George Tenet, is that he has tried to resist this politicization. He should have fought harder to make the Clinton and Bush administrations act on his fears about Osama bin Laden. But he has at least tried to stand behind his people, and protect them from the second-guessers.
Henry Kissinger is hardly to blame for the ills of the modern CIA. And it's a shame, in some respects, that the country lost the chance to tap the brains and experience of one of its wise men.
But Kissinger wasn't the right person for this job. He tended too often to use intelligence agencies as his tools, rather than treat them as independent and professional organizations. He was right in thinking that, too often, the CIA wasn't up to the tasks it must fulfill. But he and many dozens of others over the next three decades failed to build an intelligence service that could have performed better.
A crucial task for the Sept. 11 commission will be to understand how this politicization of the intelligence agencies has made our secret warriors better at covering their backsides and avoiding lawsuits than at gathering intelligence. Kissinger was part of that unfortunate process, and he was sensible to step aside and let others lead the inquest.