The appointment of Max Hugel, a New Hampshire businessman and Reagan campaign organizer, as deputy director for operations of the CIA has set off waves of criticism from members of the intelligence community. They contend that his lack of experience disqualifies him for what is in effect the top "spymaster" post in government.
The choice also stirred expressions of disbelief from some former campaign associates, who said it was only Hugel's friendship with William J. Casey, the former Reagan campaign chairman now serving as CIA director, that saved the Brooklyn-horn Hugel from being ousted from his job as organizer of ethnic, nationality and citizen's groups for Reagan last year.
"Does the White House know about this?" Stuart K. Spencer, President Reagan's 1980 campaign strategist, asked incredulously when informed that Casey had named his campaign protege to the CIA operations post. Spencer is now a private campaign consultant in California.
White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes said he had "no comment," noting that the appointment was Casey's and not Reagan's. But a senior White House staff members acknowledged he had had calls from two previous CIA directors protesting the choice.
Casey strongly defended the appointment in a telephone interview, saying, "I looked over the field very carefully and I believe I made a good choice."
He said Hugel's lack of experience was compensated for by his deputies, and that "his ability to apply private vigor to an organization . . . has made a very strong impression around here."
Hugel, 54, learned Japanese in the Army during World War II, and served in military intelligence units in the Philippines and Japan for two years, handling counterintelligence duties and interrogation of Japanese prisoners-of-war returning from the Soviet Union, according to the CIA.
After leaving the military in 1947, he set up a Japan-based export-import firm that became one of the world's main builders and distributors of sewing machines and typewriters.
Later, he merged it into Centronics Data Computer Corp. of Hudson, N.H., and was executive vice president of that firm until he resigned in March, 1980, to work full time with Casey in the Reagan campaign. Hugel ran the Reagan effort in his home city of Nashua during the 1980 primary.
He was originally named by Casey as the deputy director for administration.
But two weeks ago he shifted into the vacant operations slot, without public announcement. It was that shift into what intelligence professionals consider the most sensitive position in the agency that has stirred up a storm.
George A. Carver, a 26-year veteran of CIA who served on Reagan's CIA transition team, said, "This is like putting a guy who has never been to sea in as chief of naval operations . . . . It's like putting a guy who is not an M.D. in charge of the cardiovascular unit of a major hospital."
Samuel Hoskinson, a CIA and National Security Council official in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, said that Hugel "starts from ground zero" in a job where "total familiarity with this kind of arcane business" is essential.
"The head of the clandestine service really has to be a guy with lots of moxie and good, solid instincts who knows when to use these instruments and when not to. That may involve countermanding your staff, who may be more eager to go out there and do something you aren't. The last thing you want is a man who is captive of his staff, who doesn't have the experience. . . ."
Cord Meyer, a former top CIA officer, wrote in a column in yesterday's Washington Star that "the KGB chiefs in Moscow will find it incredible that the Americans should entrust the DDO [deputy director for operations] responsibilityl to someone with virtually no previous experience." o
John Greaney, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, said there was "general concern about his lack of experience for a very sensitive job. . . . It is the heart of the organization's collection function, and to my knowledge there has never been this kind of appointment in the past."
But Greaney added, "I don't know the man, and Mr. Casey is entitled to his choice of associates, so it might be better to hold off and see what kind of a job he does."
Casey said the criticism was coming from "a bunch of guys who think you can only understand this business if you've been here 25 years." Noting the abundance of "very experienced people" in the geographic divisions of CIA, Casey said he did not believe experience was the main criterion for senior executives.
Hugel had some other strong defenders. William Loeb, the publisher of the Manchester, N.H., Union-Leader, who said he introduced Hugel to the Reagan campaign, said "I personally feel it will be a great shot of fresh air in that organization to have him in that position. . . .CIA could stand a man with brains. He has the instincts of a street-fighter, trusts very few people and will make an ideal spymaster."
Differing from Carver, another member of Reagan's CIA transition team called the appointment "the first decent thing that Bill Casey has done," explaining that "this fellow lives in the real world, unlike a lot of the professionals who are carping."
But a third member of that transition team, who also insisted on anonymity, called the choice of Hugel "a living disaster. Maybe he's a great businessman and maybe he did a great job as head of the Reagan-Bush volunteers. But he came in as deputy director for administration and quickly made a reputation as a hip-shooter, telling everybody, 'You guys don't know modern business methods.'
"Then Hugel decides he wants the DDO job and Casey give it to him. He doesn't know the territory, he doesn't know the agents, he doesn't know what we call tradecraft, the technique of running agents. He doesn't know foreign government liaison. He doesn't know beans, and Casey gives him the most sensitive job in the business. I can't understand what's gotten into him."
The puzzlement is shared by some people who worked with Casey and Hugel in the campaign. Spencer said that in organizing special voting groups Hugel "built the biggest bureaucracy I've ever seen in a campaign," but that repeated efforts to curb him or oust him were frustrated by his friendship with Casey.
Casey contended that Hugel "did the best job of that kind I've ever seen. There are a lot of people who don't understand and what he did, but it was very significant in the outcome."
Hugel drew press notice once last fall when The Wall Stree Journal reported in its Washington Wire column the following item: "Clear THINKING: In the Reagan camp, Max Hugel, top aide to campaign chief William Casey, confided to Reagan campaign workers this week: 'We're going to concentrate on the bigger states because they have more electoral votes.'"