Former senior CIA official Mark Lowenthal with another view of the Agency’s performance recently.
HH: I want to begin with a new guest to the Hugh Hewitt Show, Dr. Mark Lowenthal. He is a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency. He held many, many senior positions there. He’s also now the founder and I believe the president of the Intelligence and Security Academy in Northern Virginia. He’s also the 1988 grand champion on Jeopardy!, which I find a great bit of background. Mark Lowenthal, welcome to the program, thank you for joining us.
ML: Thank you, Hugh.
HH: The CIA is much in the news. Tomorrow, I’m devoting two hours of the program to a conversation with Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Let me begin by asking you what do you make of the book?
ML: Well, Tim’s an old friend of mine, but I don’t think the book is a terrific history of the CIA. It’s…basically, they never do anything right.
HH: Yup, that’s pretty much what the book says.
ML: And even when something goes right, Tim has a way of denigrating it. There’s also an awful lot of factual errors in the book that I find disturbing. Not major things, but enough to begin to make you wonder. I just don’t find it a terribly reliable take on how the CIA’s done over the years.
HH: Now if it travels, and it traveled well with me, and I’ll talk to him at length about it tomorrow, it will damage the CIA’s reputation terribly. Is that fair to the Agency?
ML: Well, I don’t know whether or not it’s fair. I mean, Tim’s certainly entitled to his point of view. I just don’t think it’s as balanced a look at how the Agency has done over time. He sets a very high standard for what constitutes success, and basically, they never make it.
HH: Now let me ask you, Dr. Lowenthal, how many years were you with the Agency total?
ML: Well, I served in a lot of different places in the intelligence community. My last stint at CIA was three years. I was an assistant director.
HH: And before that, you were in the House Intelligence Committee staff, right?
ML: I was on the House Intelligence Committee, and I was a deputy assistant secretary in the State’s Intelligence Bureau, and I worked on the Hill in other intelligence capacities, also.
HH: Okay, now…and tell us briefly, what’s the Intelligence and Security Academy do?
ML: We offer courses to government agencies and to private sector companies who want to learn more about intelligence, who want to come up to speed on the issue.
HH: Now today, Pete Hoekstra, repeating something he began last week, Republican Peter Hoekstra…
ML: Yes, I know him.
HH: …blasted away at the rehiring of Michael Sulick at the Agency. What’s going on here?
ML: I’m going to see him tomorrow night at a reception, and will discuss this. I’m going to see Congressman Hoekstra. I disagree with him. Mike Sulick was the…this is going to take a little explaining…
HH: Please do. Take your time.
ML: …the assistant director of operations in the transition period between George Tenet, John McLaughlin and then Porter Goss. Sulick and his chief, Steve Kappes, got into an argument with Goss’ staff. And Sulick and Kappes both quit rather than knuckle under to the staff. And this led to a period of a lot of turmoil in the directorate of operations, who are the people responsible for espionage, for covert action. Then, as you know, Porter Goss left in May of ’06, and was replaced by General Hayden. One of his major jobs was to get the place settled down again. And so he brought Kappes back, this time as his deputy over the whole Agency, and he just announced that Mike Sulick, who is a career intelligence professional, is coming back to be the director of the national clandestine service. Mr. Hoekstra’s problem is he says that he thought there was going to be reform, and they’re just bringing back the old bodies. I understand the sentiment, here’s my problem. The most sensitive, dangerous things we do in intelligence are espionage and covert action. No satellite’s every going to be killed because it got caught spying.
ML: Human beings get caught, and bad things happen to them. And I don’t think that’s a place where you want a gifted amateur. You want a professional. And Mike Sulick is, and truth in advertising, Mike and I are colleagues and friends, we’ve done a lot of work together in the private sector in the last couple of years, but I just have tremendous respect for him as a career clandestine services officer, and I think he’s a good choice.
HH: Now the impression has grown, especially among conservatives, and I’m sure you know about this, Dr. Lowenthal, that the Agency is in a war against the war, and it’s opposed to George W. Bush. It hates him, actually, and it’s run amok in the last five years.
ML: Yeah, this began in 2004 when I was still serving there, and it began for a whole bunch of very unfortunate reasons. When there’s a presidential campaign, the CIA briefs both candidates. So there was contact between senior members of the CIA and Senator Kerry, just like there was contact between the CIA and Governor Bush when he ran in 2000. The CIA is out to get us, which I think is wrong, began because of a couple of unfortunate incidents, one of the senior analysts gave a speech in San Francisco that was supposed to be off the record, his personal views, some of the reporters there didn’t respect that. They reported it, they reported his title, the CIA said oh, look at this, the senior analysts are out after us. And there were a bunch of instances like that. I have to tell you, the officers in the CIA, you’re going to have to take this on faith from me now, pride themselves on the fact that they serve whoever the president is.
HH: Now I know a couple of long…they’ve retired now, they were Reagan-era people…
HH: And I would agree with that, but what about Michael Scheuer running around, saying these outlandish things…
ML: Well, Michael Scheuer doesn’t work for the CIA anymore. Now he was allowed to write a book…
ML: …when he was a serving officer, and I think that was a questionable call. My feeling is when you take the King’s schilling, you don’t do that. However, he was allowed to write the book, and then eventually, he quit, because they tried to get him to say…look, we let you write the book, you can’t do all these radio shows, and he just quit. He wanted to be fired, and they refused to fire him. I happen to know about this meeting, and he quit. But he’s not a part of the Agency anymore. And also, the CIA, as the entire intelligence community knows, you cannot, first of all, you don’t pick a fight with the White House, no matter which White House it is. And number two, you’re not going to win the fight. So what’s the point?
HH: Now what about the Plame affair? I’m just connecting all the dots…
ML: Yeah, I know. Oh, God, don’t say connect the dots. One of the dopiest things ever said about our business was connect the dots.
ML: But the Plame affair, that had to do with a leak to a journalist. We know who leaked it. That was actually Deputy Secretary of State, Mr. Armitage…
ML: And then Scooter Libby made the mistake of not being honest in front of a Grand Jury. But that had nothing to do with the CIA…I mean, the CIA was the byproduct and the victim of that issue.
HH: Now when Tim Weiner writes that the WMD was not a selective use of intelligence, it was not cherry-picking, it was not fixing the facts to fit the war plans, it was the intelligence said the best intelligence the Agency had to offer, Colin Powell spent days and nights with Tenet checking and rechecking the CIA’s reporting, Tenet looked him in the eye and told him it was rock solid, is that accurate? And do we know what’s going on inside of Iran? I’m not interested in beating dead horses.
HH: I’m interested in can the country and the political leadership trust what the Agency and the intelligence agencies say is going on inside of Iran?
ML: I have to tell you, this is going to strike you as very odd, the things that are the hardest to do analytically are the big things, the things that run counterfactual. Think about 2002. We have 500,000 troops on Iraq’s border, he won’t let us in to inspect, he knows we’re willing to invade and we’ve done it before, we’ve already picked apart his air defenses north and south, and he’s not letting us in the country. What does that look like? It looks like a guy who’s hiding something. And our analysis had all sorts of flaws in it, but even the Senate Intelligence Committee has said we did not write the analysis to suck up to the administration. Now we did a couple of things wrong in that analysis, but Mr. Tenet posed this question to me late one Saturday evening, long after the war was over. He said how would you have written a paper based on intelligence analysis that said I think Saddam Hussein’s telling the truth? It’s almost impossible to describe what that paper would look like.
HH: Well, I agree. I understand why it happened. But it does lead to this, along with all these other incidents I’ve referred to, to a crisis of confidence as to whether…
ML: Yes, I understand. Listen, and it’s unfortunately, you know, because of 9/11, which was an attack that we really couldn’t have prevented, and Iraq, which was a war that we didn’t cause, but unfortunately, yes, there’s perceptions that these guys aren’t doing a good job, and these guys have let us down. And the only thing that’s going to get the community out of that is to settle down. And they had a very unsettled period. That was one of the reasons why they replaced Porter Goss with Mike Hayden, and let them get back to work.
HH: What about Lawrence Wright’s indictment in The Looming Tower that the Agency sat on information that might have allowed John O’Neill to break up the 9/11 plot?
ML: I know this argument well, and I don’t think anyone…I mean, there’s lots of ifs involved in this. Nobody yet has been able to make, to my satisfaction, a case that argues that if this and this and this had gone right, we could’ve disrupted the plot. I know the eleven issues that are involved in this. I still find them hard to believe that this would have led us to…and there’s a reason why people want to believe this, because if you can just find the one or two things that went wrong, then you can believe the attack was preventable, whereas if you can’t find those things, it leads you to the conclusion oh my gosh, it can happen again. And I’m sorry, it can happen again. Not the same way, but that’s just the reality of a war on terror.
HH: Dr. Lowenthal, we’re running out of time, quick question.
HH: Do you think Iran has, is close to obtaining nukes?
ML: Close? No. Do I think they’re trying to obtain a bomb? Yes, I do.
HH: And what time frame do you see them being able to go critical?
ML: Well, their cascades apparently are not working well, thank goodness. I would say five years, seven years.
HH: And can we afford to have you guys guess wrong this time?
ML: We don’t guess, we make estimates. And sometimes, they’re not right. But this is a case where everybody except for Iran, all of the members of the Security Council assume that this is a weapons program.
HH: Great talking to you. I hope you will come back, and we can continue the conversation.
End of interview.