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Vernon Loeb

Online Column: Intelligencia
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With Vernon Loeb
Washington Post National Security Reporter
andJohn McLaughlin
CIA Deputy Director of Central Intelligence


Monday, April 2, 2001; 1 p.m. EDT

Washington Post reporter Vernon Loeb covers national security issues and writes a biweekly column exclusively for the Web. His newspaper column, is also carried by this Web site.

On April 2 his guest will be John E. McLaughlin, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence. During his career with the CIA, which spans almost 30 years, Mr. McLaughlin has been involved with European, Eurasian and Russian issues as they relate to U.S. interests.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

A transcript appears below.


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or select "Automatically Update Page."


Washington, DC: In the Princeton speech, you mentioned that analytical resources devoted to Russia have been decreased by 60 percent since the end of the Cold War. Given the vast increase in Russian intelligence officers in the United States, do you think the CIA has scaled its Russia-related resources back too far?

John E. McLaughlin: In the Princeton speech, I also noted that the list of issues we must deal with seems to grow in length every year (take a look at the DCI's latest Worldwide Threat testimony). That means that there is tremendous competition for resources and attention in the intelligence world. Given all that we must do today, my personal view is that are sized about right in terms of the attention we devote to Russia. As I noted in the Princeton speech, I think we have done a good job in anticipating Russian developments over the last decade.


Vernon Loeb: I noticed John's comment about resources devoted to Russia being at about the right level. I'm guessing that some resources could start flowing back to the Russia account, in light of the recent tensions, and in light_as John noted in his speech_of just how hard Russia is to understand these days.


Washington, DC: As the agency's former chief analyst, how do you respond to critics who charge that politicization of intelligence is an inevitable problem since senior CIA officials, whether they realize it or not, end up telling the president what they think he wants to hear?

John E. McLaughlin: If there is a bumper sticker motto in this business, it is "tell it like it is" -- this really is the core ethic of our profession. And I can tell you without hesitation that we frequently are the bearer of bad news to Presidents. And I have yet to meet a President who would want it any other way. We would be of little value to a President if we behaved differently.

So strongly held is this belief, that we have built in safeguards to ensure against abuses. We actually have an Ombudsman (just like the Washington Post) who's job it is to respond with compete independence to any complaints of politcization within the business and te report confidentially to the DCI and myself. In addition, we emphasize to our analysts in the new Kent School the need to employ tradecraft that makes clear what we know, why we know it, what we don't know, and what we think -- and to draw clear distinctions among all of these. And we also teach a course in ethics to emphasize the responsibilities of the analysts.


Vernon Loeb: I take John's assertion at face value that CIA analysts are taught to tell it like it is. I also know that it is human nature, as one is analyzing something, to think about where one's "customer" is on a particular issue. Someone analysis can be almost subconsciously slanted in this way. Because virtually everything the CIA does is highly classified, it's hard for an outsider like me to gauge how well CIA analysts do in telling it like it is. That's why events like the recent Princeton conference are so valuable.


Washington, DC: Outside critics charge that the CIA is obsessed with its own secrets and dismissive of increasingly valuable open source information. Do you think this criticism is valid to some extent?

John E. McLaughlin: We do like secret information (if it's something the United States really needs to know), but we do also fully integrate open source information into our work and appreciate the contribution it makes. The fact that we are having this conversation is emblematic in a way, because for about two years now every analyst has had internet connectivity at the desktop precisely to ensure open source availability. The typical analyst these days will begin the workday by not only surveying the overnight classified "take" but also searching through a couple dozen bookmarked sites. Moreover, most of our major papers now benefit from being read and critiqued by outside experts from the academic, business or think tank world -- a recognition on our part that in today's world we do not have the market cornered on wisdom.


Vernon Loeb: There certainly have been many well-known instances of analysis that has allegedly been politicized. And they don't always involve liberals accusing the CIA of backing conservative points of view. Recently, conservative commentators bashed CIA analysts for being too soft on China. But most instances in which the CIA tells it like it is, when policy makers want to hear something else, don't become public controversies. They just get quietly buried. Again, judging the agency's long-term track record, from the outside, is next to impossible.


Washington, DC: With Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld focused on intelligence reform, what is the single most important step that should now be taken to improve the performance of the U.S. intelligence community?

John E. McLaughlin: A tough question, and I would have to say that it is hard, maybe impossible, to persuasively put forward a "single" most important step. Here are some ideas, in rough order of importance: It is time for a new round of investment in intelligence collection systems (the last major cycle of investment was about a decade ago and, while we still have the best intelligence system in the world, many systems are aging); the Community needs better and more efficient ways of "connecting" all of its people electronically in order to maximize the expertise and synergy on the toughest issues; and we need to think hard about new "out of the box" collection strategies to get at some of the toughest problems.


Vernon Loeb: DDCI McLaughlin agreeing to go live on-line is probably more of a historic event than most of us realize. I mean, I can't imagine the No. 2 person at the CIA agreeing to do something like this five or 10 years ago. But I think the era in which intelligence agencies could exist in absolute secrecy is over. The CIA and the NSA now must compete for scientists and techies with Microsoft and IBM, and in today's world, without some overarching Cold War threat, kids coming out of college aren't going to go into an intelligence community they know nothing about. The intelligence agencies must, in my opinion, project some kind of public image as forward-thinking, cutting-edge places, even while much of what they do remains classified. And John's presence on the web, and many other similar events, like the Princeton conference, will help craft such an image. I know for a fact that NSA Director Michael Hayden feels very strongly about this_and is busy trying to create a public image for the NSA. If the NSA can have a public image, anyone can.


Vernon Loeb: In terms of reform, many former case officers and operations types have commented to me that the Directorate of Operations needs to re-think it's basic "cover" arrangement, in which most case officers work out of embassies using diplomatic cover. This fools almost no one. And as the threats become "transnational," involving terrorists and narco-traffickers, it gets harder and harder to understand how these "first secretaries" based at U.S. embassies are going to get at them, especially when the host countries' counterintelligence services know exactly who they are.


Los Angeles, CA: We hear quite a lot about the threats from Russia, China and so-called rogue states as well as the intelligence efforts directed at keeping up with them. But in your statement about re-organization of the Office of Transnational Issue into the Center for Weapons Control, as well as Director Tenet's testimony to Congress on current threats, we hear about narcotics as a serious threat. Why then doesn't it sound as if much effort is being made in studying the changing political dynamics in Latin America. Are we still dogged by Eurocentric thinking at CIA?

John E. McLaughlin: Counternarcotics is a major emphasis for us. In fact, for about eleven years now we have also had a DCI Center for Crime and Counternarcotics. Because nearly all of the world's cocaine comes from Latin America, we spend a lot of time on that area. A very dedicated group of people in the Center does for the USG the authoritative estimates on narcotics related crops worldwide. The Center also coordinates the development of intelligence and operations that helped account for some dramatic successes, such as the arrest or surrender of all of the leading figures of Cali cartel between 1995 and 1997 and some similar successes in Colombia this year. Bottom line: we are far from "Eurocentric" these days. As I said before, the list of high priority things is very long indeed.


Vernon Loeb: I also believe that the CIA should take most of its analysts and non-covert employees and take them from behind the fence at Langley and re-locate them in the real world, where they can have real world contact with academics, businesspeople_even reporters! They could, in my opinion, benefit from such open status, without compromising any of the agency's secrets. So, the Directorate of Intelligence, say, could be right down here on K St.


New York, New York: What actions will you take if the Chinese board the EP-3 plane? With the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade as well as the impending vote on arms to Taiwan, What do you think will be the immediate, and long term, influence of this incident on U.S. China relations?

John E. McLaughlin: As you can imagine, I spent considerable amount of time this weekend staying up on the events surrounding our aircraft in China. I don't think I can say much more at this juncture, given that this is an ongoing and delicate affair on which the President has just spoken and that involves the safety of our Service people on the ground. Suffice to say that it is a serious matter, and that the nation's policy makers are working hard to ensure that it is resolved properly.


Vernon Loeb: Getting back to John's comment on new ways of collecting people electronically, one of the interesting aspects of the espionage case against Robert P. Hanssen involves just such connectivity. Hanssen was something of a techie and knew how to exploit and navigate computer networks. Indeed, some of the documents he allegedly gave the Russians were downloaded from the FBI's computerized case management system. While broadening access via networks is often a good thing, it can become a disaster when one of he people on those networks is a spy. So, as the intelligence community moves toward electronic dissemination of more and more data, there's a fascinating security component to this trend.


Washington DC: In today's article about the shifting focus of the DI to transnational issues, Mr. Loeb talks about the need to analyze a host of emerging threats like narcotrafficking, and that the agency must be ready for surprises. Yet in government, it seems as though we're still stuck in the Cold War- missile defense, "strategic partners", and a general unwillingness to recognize that international cooperation is the only way to combat these issues. What changes do you see on the part of policy makers to keep up with the times?

John E. McLaughlin: Of course I am not a policy maker, so it is bit unfair for me to characterize their view on things. I would just say that the issues you mention happen to be the ones grabbing the headlines at the moment. Also I would offer you the assurance that most policy makers that I work with are fully attuned to the increasing complexity of the transnational issues you mention and appreciate the need for consultative mechanisms to deal with them. But "complexity" means just that -- these issues are harder to deal with and resolve than the average bilateral problem.


Vernon Loeb: Getting back to John's comment on new ways of collecting people electronically, one of the interesting aspects of the espionage case against Robert P. Hanssen involves just such connectivity. Hanssen was something of a techie and knew how to exploit and navigate computer networks. Indeed, some of the documents he allegedly gave the Russians were downloaded from the FBI's computerized case management system. While broadening access via networks is often a good thing, it can become a disaster when one of he people on those networks is a spy. So, as the intelligence community moves toward electronic dissemination of more and more data, there's a fascinating security component to this trend.

John E. McLaughlin: Vernon is right. There is a tension between the need and desire for greater connectivity and the necessity for good security. Squaring that circle is what makes this goal so hard to reach. But we will get it done.


Vernon Loeb: There certainly has been a lot going on lately on the China front. Richard Boucher just said at the State Department that 20 Americans are being held in China for various things. There's the American University staffer, Gao Zhan, being held, and Li Shao Min, a PHD researcher, is also being held. Finally, there's the Chinese Army lieutenant colonel who recently defected to the United States. As if the Bush administration didn't have enough foreign policy problems on its plate.


Vernon Loeb: Back on Hanssen, I was never able to verify that Hanssen had access to Intelink, the intelligence community's top secret intranet, although I assume he did. This would have expanded his access to all sorts of sensitive information. However, I understand there are controls on Intelink that makes it hard to download data. And more and more, compartments are being created on Intelink, so that access to the network does not necessarily guarantee access to all of is compartments, which require separate passwords. There are_as John said_ways to have networks, and security, too.


Harlingen, Texas:
Mr. McLaughlin said, "we need to think hard about new 'out of the box' collection strategies to get at some of the toughest problems."

During, I think, the Rumsfeld proliferation study, the suggestion was made that "TRYINT" might sometimes be a useful surrogate for actual collection against hard-target technical questions.

For example, a team of newly-minted US engineers without clearances could be charged to "try and see" how good a missile, anti satellite weapon, etc. they could build using only commercially available technology.

Has this suggestion been acted on?

John E. McLaughlin: I don't know whether this specific suggestion has been acted on yet somewhere in the Community (I like it), but the spirit behind it animates many of our attempts to get beyond conventional thinking. On several occasions, we have asked private sector experts in a particular field to bring us their ideas or to tell us how they would interpret a body of data that we have interpreted. And in a similar vein, in my last job I appointed a senior officer to serve essentially as a "devil's advocate" charged with arguing an opposing point of view on issues where we thought we knew the answer.


John E. McLaughlin: Vernon -- Thanks for inviting me. Sorry we're out of time, but I've got to get back to that "long list" I've referred to several times today. Thanks to your readers for lots of thoughtful questions. John Mclaughlin


Vernon Loeb: Thank you very much. Given all that's happening around the world today, I really appreciate your willingness to come on-line. We still have a ton of unanswered questions, so I'm going to come back on a noon on Friday and try to answer as many of them as I can. See you then. Thanks, all. And, again, thank you John McLaughlin.


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