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Jewish World Review March 2, 2004 / 9 Adar, 5764

Michael Ledeen

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Once Upon a Spymaster, Part II: Returning to a conversation | I felt badly at having left my conversation with the late James Jesus Angleton before asking him what he thought about the whole question of language skills, because it's a commonplace in much of the criticism of the intelligence community that we just don't have people who speak Arabic, Farsi, and the various regional dialects that are spoken by so many of the terrorists. And Angleton's the perfect judge of it, because he was a celebrated savant, having edited the literary magazine at Yale, and having been a buddy of T. S. Eliot, and personally conducted the interrogation of the mad poet Ezra Pound at the end of the Second World War. He even spoke Italian pretty well, he lived there for several years and the last time I checked his sister was still married to a Florentine artist. As I fidgeted with the ouija board, I asked myself if there are any such phenomena left at CIA, or whether they had all been homogenized or driven out.

After the usual initial failures, he came through.

JJA: Thanks, I wanted to add a few things myself.

ML: I thought so. First of all, the language thing.

JJA: It's a copout.

ML: Huh? But everybody says it.

JJA: Sure they do. Saves them lots of hard work. They can say, well, Congress wouldn't give us the money for linguists so we couldn't recruit anyone.

ML: But doesn't recruitment depend on trust? I mean, if somebody's going to risk his life by betraying his comrades to us, he'd better trust us. And it's easier to establish trust if you speak his language.

JJA: That's one of those easy generalizations that don't correspond to the way spies actually do their work. First of all, the whole business of "recruitment" is a bit of a scam. CIA case officers get a little manual on the subject, and they go out in the field and try to find people who will accept money from us in exchange for "information." Once that relationship is established, the case officers can claim to have recruited the "asset" and then they "run" him. And that happens all the time, there are lots of people willing to take our money and tell us what they think is going on.

ML: And that hinges on trust, doesn't it?

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JJA: Well, it's easy to imagine cases in which it would be very dangerous if it were known that they were taking money. Which is one of the reasons that the manual requires payment, because it gives the case officer a blackmail threat against the asset — not exactly a relationship of mutual trust. Machiavelli would have a better word for that relationship.

Don't forget that the most important spies in history were — in the overwhelming majority of cases — walk-ins. They weren't ever recruited, they approached us. And for the most part they acted out of political or personal passion, not for the money (although they needed money to provide for their family or, after relocating to the West, for themselves). They were driven people, and while they hoped we were reliable professionals, they weren't lured into spying for us because of a warm relationship with some case officer, for whom they had great trust. If anything, the trust developed over time. That certainly does happen. But you don't have to be fluent in the guy's language to work with him. That's why the Almighty created interpreters.

ML: Well, I must say I'm surprised. I expected you to say that language is really important.

JJA: Oh, language is important, but you know, it's probably better to have a great interpreter than to have a case officer who's had a few years of language training. The interpreter's more likely to catch the nuances. The same goes for ambassadors, by the way. Some of our best ambassadors were utterly hopeless in the language of the country, and some of our worst were guys who figured they spoke the language just fine, and didn't need an interpreter, and wanted privacy with their counterparts. My goodness, I could tell you stories about diplomats.

ML: No, no, that's ok. I take your point. What else did we miss last time?

JJA: Well, I think we slid over a couple of Tenet's remarks about Iran that I found surprising and instructive at the same time.

ML: That whole bit about the regime being secure?

JJA: Well, let's take it systematically. He starts by saying that the last elections were a serious blow to "governmental led reform." He continues by saying that "with the waning of top-down reform efforts, reformers will probably turn to the grassroots — working with NGOs and labor groups — to rebuild popular support." And then he says that since authoritarian rule has been strengthened, the regime will be less likely to break out of "old foreign policy patterns."

Let's deconstruct that. First of all, there has been virtually no reform in the last several years. If anything there has been greater repression, certainly in the press and the streets. Thus, his second point — claiming that the elections will weaken top-down reform efforts — is built on sand, since there were no such efforts. Moreover, the "reformers" never fought very hard or very effectively for reform, and there is every reason to think that they are totally discredited among the people. That's why there was such a low electoral turnout, wasn't it?"

ML: Absolutely right. And I guess you're gonna say that, once power has been formally concentrated entirely in the hands of the hard-liners, they will be freer to play with foreign policy.

JJA: Yes. In fact they will be freer to play with domestic policy too, because there won't be any annoying dissonance from the parliament. Notice that they've already extended the curfew in the cities from midnight to 3 A.M., and they released a couple of Bahais who had been in jail for about fifteen years.

ML: And this regime is the sort that some of our diplomats prefer to work with, because there's no democratic process, no need to mobilize public opinion, just an iron fist.

JJA: Yes, like Arafat at the time of Oslo. Remember how Rabin and Peres went around saying that this was a great thing because Arafat was going to "take care of" the terrorists, and he wasn't bound by Western standards of decency?

ML: I used to remind my students that Mussolini was extremely popular among Western democratic leaders, in no small part because he was viewed as having enormous power, he could just tell the people what to do, and it was done.

JJA: But Tenet did point out that "the prospect of internal violence remains." A bit of an understatement, since there were demonstrations in several Iranian cities at the very moment he was testifying. And just before saying that, Tenet made one of those amazing statements that somehow creep into public testimony: "as has so often happened in Iran's history, Iran's leaders appear likely to respond to challenges in rigid and unimaginative ways."

ML: Cultural determinism?

JJA: I wonder what he's thinking of, maybe the shah. But the shah actually eased up on internal controls when he was challenged, and forbade his generals to crack down. Probably some frustrated historian wanted to show off, and got this line into the DCI's testimony. Historically, Persian leaders have often been very flexible and very imaginative. Whatever the source, it's a mistake. And anyway, we want our spymasters to tell us about the intentions of the current leaders, not pretend to be masters of psychohistory or national character. The question is not, what are the characteristics of Iranian culture, but what do Khamenei and Rafsanjani intend to do now?

ML: What do you think?

JJA: I think they intend to trick us some more. It's worked so far, and every year they gain means lots of money for themselves, lots of new weapons, including atomic ones, and therefore more regional power, and of course the great pleasure of ruling 70 million people. So they will keep pretending that they are willing to help us in Iraq and Afghanistan — all the while supporting those who are hell-bent to kill us in both places — and that they will very soon now turn over the al Qaeda leaders that they have "in custody," who in reality are getting luxury suites and plenty of help from the mullahs.

ML: And the political future of the country?

JJA: Oh, that's the worst part. He looks at the current situation, and he says that "the Iranian public does not appear eager to take a challenge to the streets," even though, as I said, there were demonstrations at that very moment, and there have been enormous demonstrations for several years now. He says, underlining the words, that in Tehran the prevailing mood is apathy, and that intimidation has kept the people in line. Ergo, "This mix keeps the regime secure for now."

ML: What's wrong with that? Lots of experts say that, in fact lots of Iranians say the same thing.

JJA: They certainly do. But the DCI should go beyond just taking a snapshot, even a controversial one. He might just as well have said that the country is in a classic revolutionary condition: an unpopular and discredited regime, a young and explosive population, widespread social misery, evident discontent, and the total collapse of the ideology on which the regime is based. But if he had said that, it would have pointed to a policy different from the one that CIA, State, and apparently the national-security adviser — want. They don't want to give active support to the Iranian people, so it would have been incautious of Tenet to provide a snapshot that might have implied that sort of policy. Instead, he gave one that permits the policy makers to do nothing.

ML: It occurs to me that this is the same sort of thing that economists do, when they calculate the consequences of a new policy without factoring in the changes that the new policy will generate. What do they call that?

JJA: I think it's static analysis, when dynamic analysis works better. Yes, think we got static analysis from the DCI instead of the dynamic analysis he might have provided. But again, he had good reasons.

ML: Yeah, good political reasons. But the head of the CIA is supposed to provide a clear-eyed vision of the world, isn't he? Even when it's not what the president wants to hear?

JJA: It's what he's supposed to do according to the textbooks and the movies, but in real life he wants to keep his job too — and — courage — crackle —

I'd lost him again.

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JWR contributor Michael Ledeen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of, most recently, ""The War Against the Terror Masters," Comment by clicking here.


02/24/04: The Great Iranian Election Fiasco: What actually happened; what we must do
02/20/04: Stalinist Mullahs: The Iranian regime is in open battle with its own people
02/11/04: The Jihadis' Primal Scream: Zarkawi's "Yaarrrhhh!"
02/04/04: Inelegant Lies: Making sense out of mullahs
02/03/04: Potemkin WMDs? Really?
01/27/04: The Jihad on Iraq: Bad analysis and bad policy
01/20/04: Our Moment of Vainglory: A p.c. mess
01/06/04: Aftershocks: The West must read the meter in Bam and Tehran
12/02/03: Managing Iraq: We can't continue this way
11/26/03: Back to the Angleton Files
11/25/03: The Turks, Italians & us — never again
11/06/03: Regional Struggle: Fighting narrow vision in Iraq
11/04/03: Unpunished Failure: What are we waiting for?
10/21/03: Curses: Diamonds and Naples
10/15/03: Into the Quagmire: Important days ahead for Iran
09/18/03: The Ayatollahs’ bomb: An invulnerability strategy
09/12/03: You can't make peace until the war is won
09/11/03: Ron Paul, dishonorable congressman
09/03/03: The Latest Horrors: Still organized
08/29/03: The Peace Trap: Back to the war, please
08/27/03: Angrier and Angrier: Self-deception, big-time
08/25/03: Iraq's terrorists have friends in high places
07/10/03: The Future of Iran: Armitage might want to rethink that "democracy" line
07/02/03: Looking Toward July 9: Independence Day in Iran?
06/24/03: Iran: Back the freedom fighters
06/17/03: The Iranian Revolution, 2003: Regime change in the air
06/05/03: Academic Standards: A Middle East scholar has his way with the truth.
05/28/03: The Moment of Truth? U.S. policy could determine Iran's destiny
05/15/03: Iran's Path: Stopping the mullahs in their tracks
05/13/03: The Nuclear Axis of Evil: The people solution
05/08/03: Inside the Dark: Applebaum's ‘Gulag’
05/06/03: Tough Guy: Powell's curious priority list
05/01/03: Desert Shame Redux: Want a free Iran and a free Syria? We have to fight for it
04/25/03: Timing Is Everything: We have a narrow window in Iraq to win Shiite support
04/15/03: Political war can remove terror masters in Syria and Iran
04/07/03: The Others: We have miles to go in eliminating the Axis
04/02/03: French Lies: Take the foreign minister at his word
03/31/03: Why muzzle Saddam's foes?
03/28/03: The post-war terror threat
03/26/03: All Fronts: Military war, political war, psychological war
03/24/03: More Bad News for Daschle: Taking out terror of all nationalities
03/21/03: The Killer Pneu: Virus terror from China
03/13/03: Iran: Nuclear suicide bombers?
03/11/03: A Theory: What if there's method to the Franco-German madness?
03/05/03: The Iranian-Election Revolt: The people speak. The West won't listen
02/19/03: The willful blindness of those who will not see
02/12/03: The Europeans Know More Than They Now Pretend? They choose to dawdle and obstruct
02/03/03: Monumental failure: Nelson Mandela had promise
01/30/03: Elevation: The president knows what it's all about
01/29/03: No Leader: France's Chirac is all about personal interest
01/28/03: The Axis of Evil Redux: Same place, a year later
01/27/03: The Return of the Ayatollah: Washington could afford a little more attention on Iran
01/13/03: How we could lose
01/09/03: Fish are Better than Women: Gauging U.S. priorities
01/07/03: The Shape of Things to Come: The terror masters are now waiting for us
12/20/02: A Prophecy for the New Year --- Faster, please!
12/16/02: Scud Surrender: The "W" factor
12/13/02: The Heart of Darkness: The mullahs make terror possible
12/12/02: The Real War
12/09/02: Tom Friedman's Reformation: His Iran
11/26/02: How Tyrannies Fall: Opportunity time in Iran
11/22/02: The Blind Leading the Blind: The New York Times and the Iranian crisis
11/13/02: The Temperature Rises: We should liberate Iran first --- now
11/05/02: End of the Road: Iran's Mohammed Khatami, on his way out
10/29/02: The Angleton Dialogues, Contnued: What George Tenet doesn’t know
10/24/02: The Iranian Comedy Hour: In the U.S., the silence continues
10/16/02: Sniper, Saboteur, or Sleeper? Channeling James Jesus Angleton
10/01/02: The real foe
09/27/02: The Iranian String Quartet: The mullahs get increasingly nervous
09/25/02: The Dubya Doctrine
09/23/02: Intelligence? What intelligence?
09/12/02: America's revenge: To turn tyrannies into democracies
09/10/02: Iran & Afghanistan & Us: We'll have to deal with the mullahcracy, sooner or later
09/04/02: Iran, according to the Times: All the nonsense that's fit to print
08/21/02: Life and death of Abu Nidal tells us a great deal about our enemies
08/08/02: Can You Keep a Secret?: The media silence on Iran
08/06/02: Fantasy Reporting: The latest disinformation from the Washington Post
08/02/02: Propping Up the Terror Masters: Europe's Solana on tour
07/16/02: Bush vs. the Mullahs: Getting on the side of the Iranian freedom fighters
07/12/02: The State Department Goes Mute: It's official: State has no message
07/09/02: History being made, but the West appears clueless
06/05/02: Is George Tenet endangering peace in Israel?
06/03/02: Ridiculous, even for a journalist
05/20/02: So how come nobody's been fired yet?
05/14/02: Open doors for thugs
04/20/02: Iran on the Brink … and the U.S. does nothing
04/16/02: It’s the war, stupid … someone remind Colin Powell
04/08/02: Gulled: In the Middle East, Arafat doesn't matter
04/02/02: Faster, Please: The war falters
03/26/02: The Revolution Continues: What's brewing in Iran
03/18/02: Iran simmers still: Where's the press?
03/05/02: We can't lose any more ground in Iran
02/14/02: The Great Iranian Hoax
02/12/02: Unnoticed Bombshell: Key information in a new book
01/31/02: The truth behind the Powell play
01/29/02: My past with "Johnny Jihad's" lawyer
01/21/02: It's Munich, all over again
01/08/02: What's the Holdup?: It's time for the next battles in the war against terrorism
12/11/01: We must be imperious, ruthless, and relentless
12/06/01: Remembering my family friend, Walt Disney
11/28/01: The Barbara Olson Bomb: Understanding the war
11/13/01: How We're Doing: The Angleton Files, IV
11/06/01: A great revolutionary war is coming
10/25/01: How to talk to a terrorist
10/23/01: Creative Reporting: Learning to appreciate press briefings
10/19/01: Not the Emmys: A Beltway award presentation
10/15/01: Rediscovering American character
10/11/01: Somehow, I've missed Arafat's praise of the first stage of our war on terrorism
10/04/01: What do we not know?
09/28/01: Machiavelli On Our War: Some advice for our leaders
09/25/01: No Room for the U.N.: Keeping Annan & co. out of the picture
09/21/01: Creative destruction
09/14/01: Who Killed Barbara Olson?
08/22/01: How Israel will win this war
08/15/01: Bracing for war
08/09/01: More Dithering Democrats
08/02/01: Delirious Dems
07/31/01: Consulting a legendary counterspy about Chandra and Condit, cont'd
07/19/01: Be careful what you wish for
07/17/01: Consulting a legendary counterspy about Chandra and Condit
07/05/01: Let Slobo Go
05/30/01: Anybody out there afraid of the Republicans?
05/09/01: The bad guys to the rescue
05/07/01: Bye-bye, Blumenthal
04/20/01: Handling China
04/11/01: EXAM TIME!
04/05/01: Chinese over-water torture
03/27/01: Fighting AIDS in Africa is a losing proposition
03/14/01: Big Bird, Oscar, and other threats
03/09/01: Time for a good, old-fashioned purge
03/06/01: Powell’s great (mis)adventure
02/26/01: The Clinton Sopranos
02/20/01: Unity Schmoonity: Sharon is defying the will of the people
01/30/01: The Rest of the Rich Story
01/22/01: Ashcroft the Jew
01/11/01: A fitting close to the Clinton years
12/26/00: Continuing Clinton's shameful legacy
12/21/00: Clinton’s gift for Bush

© 2001, Michael Ledeen