After holding forth for more than an hour on analytic tradecraft, the value of secrets and the realignment of Europe, John E. McLaughlin agreed to do a magic trick in his office on the seventh floor of CIA headquarters.
"Do you have a dollar?" he asked, taking a bill from his interviewer. "I want you to watch closely and tell me if you ever see the dollar bill leave your sight."
McLaughlin slowly folds the dollar several times--and slowly unfolds a Benjamin, smiling wryly at his own sleight of hand, having somehow transformed a $1 bill into a $100. He then reaches into his pocket, returns the dollar bill and says with a laugh, "I've just made ninety-nine bucks!"
Is there a metaphor in this for the games people play at Langley, where things are definitely not always what they seem?
"Occasionally," McLaughlin allowed. "I'll do a trick and say to analysts, 'This is yet another reminder that you can't always believe what you see.' "
An amateur magician, McLaughlin's day job is being deputy director for intelligence at the CIA. "Harrison Ford played me in the movies," he said, referring to Tom Clancy's brainy, swashbuckling Jack Ryan, who is the DDI, not the deputy director for operations, as one might expect.
The covert guys get all the glory. But McLaughlin evinces no operations envy. He is every bit the analyst, right down to his wire rim glasses, tweed suit and suspenders. His boss, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, calls him "the smartest man in America." He's only half kidding.
Whatever the Directorate of Operations manages to dredge up overseas, McLaughlin's analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence polish it up for briefing papers and explain it all to top policymakers in Washington. McLaughlin himself is responsible for deciding every night which purloined pearls of wisdom will go into the President's Daily Brief the next morning.
"Obviously, that's got to be my highest priority," McLaughlin said. "The thing that keeps me awake at night is the fact that no matter how good a job we do, it has to be done every single day. I think we take Christmas off in terms of delivering a book [the President's Daily Brief], but every day, no matter how well you've done, at 9 o'clock in the morning, I'm thinking about eight to 10 blank pages staring me in the face."
McLaughlin well knows the pressures inherent in briefing the president. He made his first Oval Office appearance in November 1989, the day before the Berlin Wall came down. No one knew that at the time, of course, and things were changing so rapidly on the ground in Germany that McLaughlin remembers saying, "I'm leaving in 45 minutes to go brief the president of the United States, and I don't really know what I'm going to say yet."
He took urgent phone calls from headquarters on the drive downtown, and when his moment of truth finally arrived, he turned to President George Bush and said, "Mr. President, I have to tell you, I've had to tear up my notes three times in the car on the drive from Langley, so let me just try and give you a sense of the fluidity of the situation."
At the time, he was the Directorate of Intelligence's director of European analysis, a job he took earlier that year, just as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies were roiling Eastern Europe. Two years later, he became director of Slavic and Eurasian analysis just as the Soviet Union crumbled, and held the post until 1995, when he became acting chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
Tenet named him deputy director for intelligence in July 1997.
"If you take advantage of the opportunity this place gives you, you will see the tectonic plates move," McLaughlin says. "You will see history made."
In his office, McLaughlin has the requisite shelves full of political and espionage memoirs. He also has a popular slogan in a picture frame near his desk: Subvert the dominant paradigm.
It's not exactly the ethos most would expect from the CIA's highest-ranking intelligence analyst.
"We shouldn't be prisoners of our own experience," he says. "We should ask ourselves, what does the American public expect of us? They expect us to be experts, they expect us to speak languages, they expect us to have ground truth about countries."
How good is the CIA?
McLaughlin ponders that for a moment, then directs his interviewer to President Harry S. Truman's photograph hanging in the first floor hallway with those of all the other presidents. Truman's inscription reads: To the CIA, a necessity to the President of the United States, from one who knows."
"That's my answer," McLaughlin says.
John E. McLaughlin
Title: Deputy director for intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency.
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, Wittenberg University; master's degree in international relations, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Family: Married, two children.
Previous jobs: Vice chairman for estimates and acting chairman, National Intelligence Council; director, Office of Slavic and Eurasian Analysis, CIA; director, Office of European Analysis, CIA.
CAPTION: John E. McLaughlin, deputy director for intelligence, uses his hands and a dollar bill to prove "you can't always believe what you see."