Washington — When Americans think of spies, they usually think of the US Central Intelligence Agency. But among Washington bureaucrats who read intelligence reports the highest prestige seems to attach these days to the nation's supersecret electronic snooping organization, the National Security Agency (NSA).
The United States faces enormous difficulties in its continuing efforts to place, or find, human spies among the ranks of its chief adversary, the Soviet Union. The Soviets keep foreigners under close observation, and they invest a great deal of talent and manpower in the arts of counterespionage.
The US has overcome its disadvantage, to a degree, by excelling in the ever-more-refined arts of electronic monitoring and satellite reconnaissance. Until the Soviets caught on, the NSA was reputed, among other coups, to have developed a system whereby it could listen in on telephone conversations between Soviet government leaders in the Kremlin and other leaders moving around Moscow in their chauffered limousines. A high-ranking US intelligence official says that thanks to its technological means, the US is not likely to be surprised by any major buildup of Soviet military forces.
But most of the raw material provided by the NSA and other technologically oriented US agencies means nothing unless there are highly qualified intelligence officers there to interpret the material and place it in the larger context of the Soviets' suspected intentions.
As Adm. Stansfield Turner, Director of Central Intelligence, put it in a speech to former intelligence officers last year: "Our capabilities in the photographic and signals intelligence areas, especially, are growing more rapidly than anyone, I think, ever imagined. Our real problem is becoming how to process, evaluate, and act on what we are able to collect."
But Admiral Turner insisted that even as technology commanding the skies and radio waves has burgeoned, so has the value of the human intelligence agent on the ground been enhanced: "As photographic and signals intelligence answer questions, they also raise new ones, new ones which only an individual on the ground can answer."
That may be the case with regard to the Soviet Union, but the value of the individual may apply even more when it comes to a key "growth area" for foreign intelligence gathering -- such as the Middle East -- where an intelligence officer's understanding of a foreign culture may prove to be more important than anything technology can provide. Admiral Turner says that human spies are out there working for the US, in regions such as the Middle East, but that human agens are being "targetted more carefully" than before.
Admiral Turner's critics -- among them many former intelligence officers -- think, however, that the admiral has been to a great extent oriented toward technology and uncomfortable in the murky world of human spies. They also fear that the activities and quality of CIA case officers -- the men who handle secret agents in the field -- may have suffered from what they consider to be uncertain leadership from the White House and the CIA.
One former CIA officer with more than 20 years experience is skeptical of the Turner approach. He sat in a Washington, D.C., hotel recently and tried to describe to this reporter what he would look for in the ideal case officer, one who has been assigned to recruit a Russian. Few assignments could be more challenging.
"The key to getting to that Russian could be anything," said the veteran CIA man. "He may like boating, he may like chasing girls, he may collect postage stamps.
"The good case officer is the guy who has the capacity and the imagination to find those keys -- to find a human rapport. You've got to overcome the Russian's other loyalties. . . . And it's not a matter of using blackmail."
The retired CIA officer is concerned that the agency may no longer be attracting the kind of man he thought was the ideal case officer: imaginative, socially adept, and well educated not only in foreign affairs but also in American literature, history, and ideals. The former CIA officer was a graduate of a prestigious Ivy League university and thus part of the "old boy network" Admiral Turner seems to resent. Indeed, for many years, many of the men at the top of the CIA have come from the Ivy League. Today, the percentage of such men throughout the agency is apparently much smaller than it once was.
The CIA has plenty of statistics to support its counter-argument that the quality of agency officers is improving, not declining. Despite the investigations and scandals of the past, the CIA has been getting more than 100, 000 employee inquiries every year. Of these, the CIA interviewed 16,000 in fiscal year 1979 and apparently hired only a small percentage of that number.
According to Alec Monroe, chief of the CIA's recruitment division, about 16 percent of the new recruits held doctoral degrees and 38 percent held master's degrees.
Mr. Monroe said that in the first half of fiscal year 1980, more than 30 percent of the recruits in the professional and technical fields were women. The CIA claims that both men and women have a tendency to stay with the agency longer than other government officials stay with their respective agencies.
But few women are used on the "front line" as case officers, apparently because in most countries, male chauvinism is still a fact of life. Most secret agents would apparently balk at being directed by a woman. An exception may have been Martha Peterson, an American vice-consul in Moscow who was accused by the Soviets in 1977 of having engaged in espionage in the Soviet Union. She was subsequently expelled.
Out of a total CIA manpower of perhaps 16,000 or 17,000 persons, only a few are chosen to be case officers. These are the people who do some of the agency's most sensitive work, not only gathering intelligence in the field but also, when the Washington policymakers deem it necessary, planning actions aimed at influencing overseas events. Such actions have apparently increased since the fall of the Shah, the taking of the American hostages in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But one high-ranking US official said that "political action" by the CIA amounted to "peanuts" today compared with some of its past operations.
Some experts on intelligence think that members of what is known as the clandestine service of the CIA were treated in the past, at least, as too much of an elite.It is said that their favored status worked to the detriment of the agency's analysts. The analysts are supposed to provide the president of the United States and other policymakers with a clear and independent view of where real threats to the United States lie and where potential threats are likely to develop. Recently they have come under considerable scrutiny.
Despite the mystique attached to the work of the clandestine service, several former case officer said that morale, which is good among the younger officers in the service, begins to decline when one moves into the middle and upper ranks.
Of the 15 former CIA officials interviewed by this reporter, the majority were critical of the current director of the CIA, Admiral Turner, who also holds the all-embracing position of Director of Central Intelligence. They concluded that while Admiral Turner may have been a fine military man, one cannot run an intelligence agency like a battleship. They charge that the admiral, while publicly espousing a "collegial" system at the CIA, has actually failed to encourage the kind of give-and-take with veteran CIA officials that would be required to get the most out of their experience. A couple of these veteran CIA men said they simply "gave up" on Admiral Turner and took early retirement.
"Admiral Turner is, in some ways, the antithesis of the kind of people who made the agency powerful, interesting, and lucrative in an intelluctual sense," said one of these critics, a former CIA chief of station. "There was an enormous premium put on unorthodoxy, but he's doing it according to the book."
According to almost everyone's account, Admiral Turner's attempt to establish a National Entelligence Tasking Center to coordinate the assignments for the collection of intelligence has been a flop. A retired Army lieutenant general with little apparent experience in intelligence was chosen as its first director.
"The general," said one former intelligence professional, "was considered to be out of his depth. He came down and gave us a preview -- papers with flow charts and lots of mumbo jumbo. It was truly laughable."
Officials from other Washington bureaucracies say that the agency's analytical products are sometimes impressive, an example being a report on oil production that shows the Soviet Union moving toward becoming an oil deficit nation in the mid-1980s. But they also say there is a great unevenness in quality. (The agency's less-than-brialliant performance in the difficult business of providing political intelligence and predictions will be reported on in part five of this series.)
The outlook at CIA headquarters, seven miles outside Washington, D.C., in Langley, Virginia, is by no means totally grim. Several of the agency's senior officers are highly respected. One of them, Bruce C. Clarke Jr., director of the National Foreign Assessment Center is often pointed to by Washington officials as a first-class professional.
Admiral Turner has instituted more vigorous standards for promotion. People who deal with the CIA budget say that it is now more coherent than it had ever been in the past. And the failure of most of the foreign policy establishment for foresee events in IRan in 1978 and 1979 has resulted in a devil's advocate look being taken at intelligence estimates on a regular basis as well as in the establishment of what is believed to be a more effective intelligence warning system.
Far from being the aggressive monster it remains in the eyes of some people on the political left, the CIA still appears to be trying to recover from purges , criticism, and the lack of a clear foreign policy to serve. But the agency is also far from being the shackled, helpless giant some Republicans say the Carter administration has made it.
Regardless of who wins the presidential election this November, there appears to be a consensus in Washington that the CIA, or at least the intelligence-gathering work it does, is indispensable. Increasingly, the question being asked in the US Congress is how to strengthen the CIA, not how to restrict it.
A Louis Harris poll taken in the wake of events in Iran showed that 73 percent of the Americans polled would like to see a strengthening of intelligence-gathering activities. But according to Lou Harris, many Americans have reservations about seeing the CIA engage in secret political actions that might prevent other peoples from determining their own destinies.
(The questions of secret action, secrecy, and public opinion will be analyzed in the sixth and final part of this series.)
For 26 years, Soviet spies were Larry McWilliams' specialty.
Now retired, the plain-spoken Mr. McWilliams once interviewed the much-publicized Soviet spy of the 1950s known as Col. Rudolph Abel.
Unlike some modern-day American intelligence men, who speak of the Soviets as "our principal adversaries," Larry McWilliams still calls them "the enemy."
But the former FBI man also speaks with respect of his erstwhile opponents, having watched many of them develop from ill-clad bumblers in the 1950s to the smooth technicians of today.In his view, "Colonel Abel" was exceptionally clever for his time.
As Larry McWilliams sees it, the "greatest gift" that was ever given to Soviet spies anywhere in the world was the United Nations headquarters in New York. When he worked as a special agent against the Soviets in New York, the UN was off limits to the FBI. Apparently, it still is today.
"Russian spies at the UN had complete freedom to travel anywhere in the US," he said. "But the FBI was never allowed to enter the grounds of the UN."
The Soviets were nonetheless easier to deal with in those days, according to the ex-agent.
"In the early days, you could pick out a KGB man in a short period of time," said Mr. McWilliams, speaking of Soviet intelligence operatives who posed as diplomats, scientists, newsmen, or trade representatives as they pursued the cold war spy trade.
"They stuck together," he said of the KGB men. "They shunned the real diplomats. . . . For a while, they seemed to be the only ones who had cars.
"In the early days, you'd have a guy come over, and he'd say, "I'm the embassy scientific attache," but if you talked with him about electric light bulbs, he wouldn't know the first thing.Now some of them have got PhDs.
"You could spot all the Russians about a mile away," he said. "They'd wear those bell-bottom trousers, and they'd keep the same shirt on for a week.
"These days they don't have the old inferiority complex," said Mr. McWilliams. "They no longer walk around with a chip on their shoulder."
"Before, if a Soviet saw an American icebox, he'd immediately tell you what great things they have in the Soviet Union. Now he'll say, 'Hey, that's interesting. Let me take a look at that.'
Despite the advent of detente between the Soviet Union and the United States in the early 1970s, the Soviets continued to spy on the US at a brisk pace. And , if anything, just as the number of Soviet tourists, seamen, and trade representatives visiting the United States increased, so did spying. As a result, the FBI fought some battles with the State Department over certain cases where visa restrictions were relaxed. State, of course, had the final say. At one point, the FBI also requested a significant increase in manpower for counterespionage, but apparently never got it.
Some State Department officials felt the FBI was being alarmist, either mistakenly overestimating the Soviet spy threat or deliberately exaggerating it to support budget requests. The State Department had an additional concern -- making certain the US was living up to guidelines established through the Helsinki agreements of 1975 for easing visa restrictions.
At any rate, the FBI's problem did appear to be expanding. When Larry McWilliams started working as a special agent against the Soviets in the early 1950s, Soviet and East European officials stationed in the United States numbered only a few hundred. By the time of his retirement as chief of the FBI's foreign counterintelligence training in the late 1970s, the figure had reached nearly 2,000. As many as one out of very two or three of these Soviet and East European officials were believed to be intelligence officers.
In Mr. McWilliams' view, however, the most important change was the growing sophistication of the Soviet spies and their colleagues from the East European countries. The Soviet spies became more carefully integrated into the Soviets' overall diplomatic, political, and economic effort. At the same time, KGB men who appeared to have a watchdog role over other officials seemed to come under greater control. Larry McWilliams detected a rise in the prestige and authority of Soviet scientists. And the FBI once monitored a meeting at which a scientist with a group visiting the United States told one of the KGB's "watchdogs" to "get away. . . . I'm sick and tired of having you interrupt me."
Like most of those who met Colonel Abel of the KGB, Larry McWilliams was impressed. Colonel Abel was working, not under diplomatic or other official cover, but as "an illegal," as they are called in the trade. He took up painting in a Brooklyn studio, and apparently maintained contact with Soviet agents who never knew his real name. Despite the press's description of Colonel Abel as a "superspy," the FBI was never able to determine whether he stole any significant secrets.
"I remember once Abel asked for some paper and a pencil," said Mr. McWilliams , recalling a visit he made to the colonel in an Atlanta prison. "He started writing out some Einsteinian equations -- just for fun."
Colonel Abel had so many hobbies -- someone said he played the guitar like Segovia -- that one wondered when he had time to pick up secrets.
"He was an artist, a master mechanic, and radio technician," said Larry McWilliams, describing a few of Colonel Abel's many talents. "He was a magnificent enemy -- a pro."
Second of six reports. Next: Paris, a capital that has everything -- from the most violent of terrorists to new-style KGB sophistication.