TIME Media

Behind the Scenes: On the Record With the CIA

Sept. 30, 1974, cover
The Sept. 30, 1974, cover of TIME TIME (Photo: Ed Streeky)

Spilling secrets of TIME's 1974 cover story about the CIA

For the Central Intelligence Agency, 1974 was rough. It had, in recent years, been party to the Watergate scandal (five of the seven burglars worked for the CIA); it backed a military coup to oust Salvador Allende, a democratically elected president, who was replaced by the monstrous Augusto Pinochet; and it had been the subject of a critical, unflattering book called The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, which the federal government went to great lengths to censor, going so far as to take the author to court. And soon enough, Operation CHAOS, an “illegal domestic intelligence program” begun under President Johnson, was exposed in the New York Times by Seymour Hersh. (This wasn’t the last time the agency would spy on Americans.)

So it should be no surprise that the agency, which was founded on this day in 1947, soon found itself on the cover of TIME. The Sept. 30 story, “The CIA: Time to Come In From the Cold,” was written by associate editor Frank Merrick and reported by TIME’s State Department Correspondent, Strobe Talbott, and, to a lesser extent, reporter-researcher Sally Bedell. Talbott had been at TIME since 1968, as an intern in the London Bureau. “There was a ‘Get the CIA’ attitude then,” Talbott, who has been the president of the Brookings Institution for the last 12 years, tells TIME.com.

But the story revealed a CIA that, under its new director, William Colby, was trying to be somewhat less clandestine.

Since taking over as director, Colby has tried to reform the CIA’s operations and rehabilitate its reputation. To woo support, he has made a point of being more open and candid than his predecessors. He has in effect undertaken a task that to many seems self-contradictory: to be open about operations that by definition must be secret. Who ever heard of an espionage chief being publicly accountable? So far this year, Colby and other CIA officials have testified before 18 congressional committees on 30 occasions. Colby estimates that he has talked with 132 reporters in the last year, though rarely for quotation.

Today, Talbott isn’t sure how long it took him to report this particular story; for some articles, he was given as little as three days. But he was continuously on the intelligence beat in those days. Anything from that period, he says, was the result of “what was then a couple of years of experience.” And that work paid off: in the note that accompanied the story, publisher Ralph P. Davidson remarked that it was rare for the CIA to grant any journalist an on-the-record interview.

But not everything was copacetic between Colby and the magazine. The 5,000-word story was accompanied by a cover photo William Colby’s face, his eyes masked by dark shades. On the left lens is written “The CIA” and on the right, “Has It Gone Too Far?” (In the New York Times obituary for Colby, Tim Weiner wrote, “…when asked a question he did not care to answer, he would tilt back his head so light reflected off the lenses of his glasses, turning his eyes into blank white disks.”) Forty years later, that image still rankles Talbott, who apologized to Colby at the time for what he felt was “an editorial dirty trick.”

“I felt it was sensationalistic and unfair to him,” he explains, “because it made him look both opaque and sinister.” He was not. Colby, as Weiner put it:

…helped reveal the Central Intelligence Agency’s hidden history and confessed to its sins. In his eyes and in the eyes of many historians, he kept the agency from destroying itself or being destroyed by outsiders. And when the cold war was over, he proposed beating swords into plowshares, arguing that half of the billions for the Pentagon should go to education, economic competitiveness and programs for the poor.

Colby was eventually fired, notes Talbott, in part for his attempt to bring the CIA in from the cold–to give it at least a sliver of transparency. Which is precisely what he was doing in TIME’s cover photo; he was testifying in front of Congress. Alas, the “bastards in New York tried to sensationalize it.”

***

Colby was succeeded as head of the CIA by George Herbert Walker Bush, in 1976. He would die under tragic, strange circumstances 20 years later.

Talbott spent 21 years at the magazine. He went on to serve in Bill Clinton’s State Department, ultimately as deputy Secretary of State. He has been at the Brookings Institution for 12 years.

His years at TIME, during which he covered diplomacy, military strategy, national security and intelligence, proved helpful in his subsequent career. He recalls walking into a meeting at the State Department in 1993–the first he’d ever chaired, about the former Soviet Union–only to find out that he was familiar with some of the attendees. “A couple of people in the room were rather embarrassed,” Talbott says, “because they were career government people who had been leaking to me over the years.”

Read the full cover story here, in TIME’s archives: The CIA: Time to Come in From the Cold

TIME intelligence

CIA Says ISIS Ranks May Have Tripled

ISIS Mosul Iraq Islamic State
Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they carry the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq on June 16, 2014. AP

Foreign fighters, including Americans, appear to be pouring into Syria to support the terrorist group

The number of combatants fighting under the banner of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) could be three times larger than intelligence officials previously believed, according to a new estimate from the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA estimates that ISIS, the Islamist terrorist group that has declared a caliphate in the large swath of Iraq and Syria which it now controls, “can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria, based on a new review of all-source intelligence reports from May to August, an increase from our previous assessment of at least 10,000 fighters,” a CIA spokesperson said. That estimate accounts only for individuals fighting with ISIS itself, not with any affiliated group.

The new estimate reflects a sharp uptick in recruitment over the summer “following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate,” the CIA spokesperson said.

The CIA believes more than 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries—at least 2,000 of whom are Westerners—have traveled to Syria to join ISIS ranks. A dozen or more could be Americans, the CIA believes.

A U.S. intelligence official cautioned that the CIA’s estimate is not a precise figure and reflects a broad approximation based on limited intelligence. “The gap between the low and high points indicates there is uncertainty about the exact number of fighters in (ISIS),” a US intelligence official said. “Given the changing dynamics of the battlefield, new recruits, and other factors, it is difficult to assess the precise number of individuals in a terrorist group that is evolving and practices good operational security.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 19

1. To understand the conflict in Ferguson, we must acknowledge and overcome structural racism.

By Karen J. Aroesty in the St. Louis Dispatch

2. As we leave Afghanistan, we owe justice and transparency to civilians caught in the crossfire of our occupation.

By Christopher Rogers in Al-Jazeera America

3. The wisdom of crowds: The CIA is learning a lot by aggregating the guesswork of ordinary Americans.

By Alix Spiegel at National Public Radio

4. In the age of MOOCs, remote labs are making a comeback and giving STEM students affordable new ways to do research.

By Steve Zurier in EdTech

5. Delaying child bearing and getting a high school diploma could drastically alter the future for today’s teen moms.

By Emily Cuddy and Richard V. Reeves at the Brookings Institution

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME intelligence

CIA Apologizes for Snooping on Senate Staff Computers

CIA Director John Brennan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on March 11, 2014.
CIA director John Brennan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., on March 11, 2014 Carolyn Kaster—AP

In a dramatic reversal from the agency's earlier position

Updated at 3:24 p.m.

A report from the CIA’s inspector general faulted agency employees for improperly accessing Senate staffers’ computers during an investigation into Bush-era CIA interrogation practices.

The report, released Thursday by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General, represents an admission that CIA employees improperly accessed computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff to review top secret documents as part of a probe into harsh interrogation practices. Staffers were given access to special computers in a neutral facility with access to documents through a closed CIA network. By agreement, the agency was not supposed to have access to the computers used by Senate staff in the facility — an agreement the agency violated, according to the inspector general’s report.

In a reversal of his previous public comments on the matter, CIA director John Brennan apologized for the overreach.

“The Director subsequently informed the SSCI Chairman and Vice Chairman of the findings and apologized to them for such actions by CIA officers as described in the OIG report,” CIA spokesperson Preston Golson said in a statement. According to the statement, Brennan will form an “Accountability Board” to review the report’s findings and make recommendations, which “could include potential disciplinary measures and/or steps to address systemic issues.”

The report is a vindication for Intelligence Committee chairperson Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein sent shockwaves through Washington with a long tirade on the Senate floor in March lambasting the CIA for accessing Intelligence Committee staffers’ computers.

“Heads should roll, people should go to jail, if it’s true,” said Feinstein in her speech. At the time, Brennan strongly defended the agency against Feinstein’s allegations.

Feinstein struck a conciliatory tone in remarks regarding the report Thursday.

“The investigation confirmed what I said on the Senate floor in March — CIA personnel inappropriately searched Senate Intelligence Committee computers in violation of an agreement we had reached, and I believe in violation of the constitutional separation of powers,” Feinstein said. “Director Brennan apologized for these actions and submitted the IG report to an accountability board. These are positive first steps. This IG report corrects the record and it is my understanding that a declassified report will be made available to the public shortly.”

The White House offered a vigorous defense of director Brennan’s role at the helm of the CIA.

“The fact of the matter is, director Brennan is somebody who over the course of the last five and a half years has played an instrumental role in helping the President make the kinds of decisions … that have decimated the leadership of core al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he currently is operating in a very difficult environment to ensure the safety of the American public,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday. “He is somebody who has a very difficult job, who does that job extraordinary well.”

The Justice Department announced earlier this month it would not launch a criminal probe into Feinstein’s allegations. A Senate investigation into the incident is ongoing.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 31

1. Sanctions have backed Vladimir Putin into a corner – and that’s where he is most dangerous.

By Julia Ioffe in the New Republic

2. The new vanguard of journalism entrepreneurs won’t destroy media; they’ll probably save it.

By Ann Friedman in Columbia Journalism Review

3. Can Congress rein in the spies?

By David Cole in the New York Review of Books

4. Already heavily subsidized, making mass transit free could help cities attack congestion and pollution.

By Henry Grabar in Salon

5. Things are improving in Africa: A data visualization

By Our World In Data

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 18

1. After the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, the world must push a political solution to the Ukraine crisis or risk it becoming much more dangerous.

By Dmitri Trenin at the Carnegie Moscow Center

2. We can’t disown the children at our border.

By Jim Gaines at the Reuters Great Debate

3. We should let failing arts organizations die.

By Devon Smith in Medium

4. Amazon Web Services deal with the CIA could revolutionize intelligence work.

By Frank Konkel in Government Executive

5. A Cold War lesson: Challenging the status quo in Iran as we did decades ago with the USSR.

By Nicholas Burns in the Boston Globe

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME foreign affairs

Don’t Be Fooled, Germany’s Outrage at U.S. Spying Is Just for Show

GERMANY-US-RUSSIA-INTELLIGENCE-NSA-PARLIAMENT
Activists wearing a mask of fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden (R) and of German Chancellor Angela Merkel take part in a demonstration in favor of an appearance by Snowden as a witness in German NSA hearings held in the German Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, outside the Reichstag building in Berlin on May 8, 2014. ADAM BERRY—AFP/Getty Images

It's unlikely Germany didn't know what the U.S. was up to, and kicking out a local CIA chief is largely political theatrics for a German citizenry still fuming over last year's revelations of extensive NSA surveillance, says former CIA lawyer John Rizzo.

After serving more than three decades as a lawyer at the CIA, I retired from the Agency nearly five years ago. Since then, I’ve been like everyone else in the outside world—all I know about what the CIA is reportedly up to comes from the media. For someone who had been privy to the most sensitive national security secrets for so long, I’ve found my new existence at once liberating and frustrating. I no longer have to help manage the messy controversies in which the CIA seems to be constantly embroiled, but I also wonder whether all the spy “flaps” I read about now in the newspapers really tell the true, or at least the complete, story.

So it is with the latest crisis du jour, the German government’s announcement that it was expelling the alleged local CIA station chief in the wake of the Agency’s “recruitment” of maybe one or two Germans working inside the government in Berlin. Germany’s official reaction has been outrage and hurt – how could the U.S. do such a sneaky, underhanded thing like spying on one of its closest allies? Critics in both countries publicly fret that a crucial bilateral relationship may have suffered lasting harm. But amid all the ensuing sturm und drang, when I read the press accounts, my experience tells me that there’s more going on here than the headlines indicate.

First, make no mistake: a key U.S. ally booting an alleged CIA station chief out of a country with such orchestrated public fanfare is a big deal indeed. I can’t recall anything quite like it happening during my 34 years at Langley. I do remember a number of occasions when a friendly foreign government, for any number of reasons, including a botched or “blown” covert operation inside its borders, would make no bones about how much it disliked or distrusted a senior in-country CIA representative.

In the current case, the Germans could have expressed their ire through private back channels to Washington and our guy would likely be gone. But it would be handled discreetly, the way spy organizations on the same side deal with each other on something like this. That political leaders in Berlin chose to trumpet the expulsion from the rafters tells me that the target audience here was not the American government but rather a German citizenry still fuming over revelations dating from last year, courtesy of Edward Snowden, of extensive NSA surveillance activities there. But setting up the alleged local CIA chief as a bogeyman and publicity ploy heretofore has been a tactic employed by the U.S.’s adversaries, not its allies.

At the same time, there is an unmistakable “Captain Renault” quality to Berlin’s protestations of being “shocked, shocked” at what CIA was up to. The BND – the German equivalent of the CIA — is among the most sophisticated and coldly pragmatic intelligence organizations in the free world. Surely it has long assumed that other countries, including the U.S., were seeking to obtain secret inside information on Germany’s plans, intentions, motivations, etc. That’s what spy outfits have always done and are expected to do to each other, whether it be friend or foe. So take the German politicians’ laments for what they are: largely political theatrics. I bet the BND does; in fact, I suspect its career leadership is already quietly passing the word to its CIA counterparts that, “Hey, don’t pay any attention to the hoopla. We’re all professionals. Let’s forget about this and keep working together.”

Company Man jacket image

I have seen this phenomenon before when I was on the inside at the CIA for all those years. Like in the 1980s, when CIA was covertly arming the Contras in Nicaragua, to the publicly expressed consternation – but private encouragement and sometimes secret support – of U.S. allies around the world. Or in the early post-9/11 years, when leading politicians in many of the same countries took to the public airwaves to assail CIA terrorist interrogation techniques like waterboarding as illegal and barbaric, while at the same the spy organizations under their jurisdiction were quietly imploring the Agency to ignore the noise and keep the river of intelligence derived from those techniques flowing in their direction.

Sure, this all sounds cynical, but spies often have to have to maintain a healthy level of cynicism to do their jobs. So no one should blame our friends in Berlin for behaving the way they have. After all, it was my former employer that apparently violated one of the most cynical but enduring tenets in the espionage business: don’t get caught.

John Rizzo had a decorated career at the CIA, culminating with seven years as the Agency’s chief legal officer. Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA is his first book.

TIME U.S.-Germany spy scandal

Germany May Counter U.S. Spying With Typewriters

The use of typewriters instead of e-mail was adopted by Russia last year following similar claims of U.S espionage

A leading German politician has suggested that typewriters will be used to write confidential documents, in the wake of the U.S. spying scandal.

Patrick Sensburg, head of the German parliament’s enquiry into NSA activity, said that email may soon become redundant, in an interview with the Morgenmagazin TV show Monday night.

Faced with the incredulity of the interviewer, Sensburg insisted that his announcement wasn’t a joke. He added that should German politicians adopt typewriters, they’ll be using manual, not electronic, models.

Sensburg said that ongoing U.S. monitoring of Germany necessitated the change in operation.

Berlin isn’t the first country to consider reverting to old-school technology. Germany follows in the footsteps of Russia, which reportedly took similar measures after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the Kremlin had been a target of NSA spying.

The Kremlin’s security agency spent 486,540 rubles, or around $14,162, on typewriters equipped with a unique typing pattern that allowed each document to be linked to a particular machine.

The scandal surrounding U.S. surveillance of Germany escalated last week after the top U.S. Intelligence official at the American Embassy in Berlin was ordered to leave Germany.

The CIA station chief’s exodus clipped on the heels of news reports earlier this month that a German intelligence official arrested on suspicion of spying had been working as a double agent for the U.S.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Germany Sunday to play down tensions, calling the two nations “great friends.”

TIME National Security

CIA Celebrates Twitterversary and Addresses Tupac’s Whereabouts

And a request from Ellen Degeneres

The Central Intelligence Agency celebrated one full month on Twitter Monday. And so, to commemorate the occasion, the government agency decided to address five questions some of their followers had tweeted to them—including, do you know where Tupac is?

They also cannot help you get back into your Twitter account because they do not know your password. (Or, so they claim.)

And they addressed any possible hard feelings from Ellen Degeneres, who tweeted a month ago when the CIA first joined Twitter that she hoped they would follow her back.

The Tupac tweet had already garnered more than 20,000 retweets after roughly half an hour, but that’s nothing compared to their first tweet, which was retweeted over 300,000 times.

 

TIME intelligence

German Mistrust of the U.S. Deepens Amid Latest Spy Scandals

Angela, Merkel, German chancellor
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Ute Grabowsky—Photothek/Getty Images

Just as the outrage over U.S. surveillance in Germany was starting to die down, a fresh set of allegations sends their relations into another tailspin

The annual Fourth of July party this year did not go quite as the U.S. embassy in Berlin had planned. The event still gave the German political elites a chance to mingle with American diplomats, sample a hotdog and take home a box of donuts. But even as the band played the Star-Spangled Banner, some of the guests couldn’t stop grumbling about the spying habits of their hosts.

Just before presiding over the party on Friday, U.S. Ambassador John Emerson was called into the Foreign Office in Berlin to explain the latest case of alleged U.S. espionage against the German government. It wasn’t the first time. Since last fall, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel learned that the U.S. had been tapping her cell phone for years, U.S spying allegations have eroded decades of trust between Berlin and Washington. But the mess just keeps getting worse.

Last week alone saw two separate scandals involving U.S. espionage in Germany. The first one broke on Thursday, when German media reported that the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, has been spying on a German privacy advocate who works to protect Internet users from the snooping of … the NSA. The following day, July 4, a second scandal broke in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and other media, which reported that an employee of Germany’s foreign-intelligence service, the BND, had confessed to selling secrets to the U.S. government. New details of that case continued to emerge on Monday, with Reuters reporting that the CIA was involved in the spying operation that led to the man’s recruitment. But German officials have confirmed little about the investigation, saying only that a 31-year-old man was arrested July 2 on suspicion of spying for a foreign government.

So Chancellor Merkel, who is on a trip to China this week, was cautious when asked about the case on Monday. “If this is true, then I believe we are dealing with a very serious development,” she told a news conference in Beijing. “I would see this as a clear contradiction to what I understand as trusting cooperation of intelligence services as well as of partners.”

Not everyone in the German leadership has been so diplomatic. After their long experience living under the watch of their own secret police — first the Nazi gestapo and then the East German Stasi — the German public is particularly sensitive to issues of individual privacy. So they were especially alarmed last year when Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower, revealed how millions of German citizens, including Chancellor Merkel, had been caught up in the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs.

William Binney, another NSA whistle-blower, testified last week before the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the Snowden leaks in Germany, and his characterization of U.S. spying practices as “totalitarian” and “senseless” made headlines across the country. The latest set of spying allegations came out against this background, and the public reaction was summed up nicely over the weekend by German President Joachim Gauck, who said if the allegations are true, “It’s really time to say, ‘Enough already!’”

What makes the most recent scandal particularly galling is not the scale of the spying so much as its apparent clumsiness, says Sylke Tempel, the editor of a leading foreign-affairs journal in Berlin, Internationale Politik. The suspected double agent at the BND was apparently not even providing the U.S. any groundbreaking intelligence. According to the German media reports, he approached the U.S. embassy in Berlin offering a small stash of secret files, some of which were related to the German Parliament’s probe into the Snowden leaks. “They could have gotten that same information just from talking to German lawmakers,” says Tempel. Instead, the U.S. reportedly paid the man about $34,000 for his secrets.

Asked to respond to these accusations on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. would “work with the Germans to resolve the situation appropriately.” But he declined to say whether any of the claims were true. “What I can say, more generally, though, is the relationship that the United States has with Germany is incredibly important,” Earnest said.

But if the U.S. had wanted to repair some of the damage to that relationship, it could have informed the BND that one of its employees was hawking secrets, says Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, a think tank focusing on U.S.-German ties. “That would have been a huge help in rebuilding trust,” she says. “So I don’t know what our American friends were thinking. This is just awful incompetence.”

So far, the scandal doesn’t seem likely to cause any sudden rupture in relations, but the broader lack of trust is sure to eat away at Germany’s willingness to help the U.S. on a variety of issues. By the end of this year, the U.S. is hoping to sign a free-trade and investment deal with the E.U., where Germany has a decisive vote. In the Western standoff with Russia over Ukraine, the U.S. also needs to maintain solidarity across the Atlantic, and it could find support dwindling for new sanctions against Moscow if Germany turns away. “The spying just adds to the feeling of exasperation, disillusionment, fatigue with America,” says Tempel. “It becomes so much harder to defend the transatlantic relationship.”

That issue becomes more important — especially for younger German voters — as each new spying scandal breaks, and that has made it costlier for a German politician to tout the U.S. as a trusted friend and ally. “This is indicative of larger trust issues,” says Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund. “This isn’t something that just blows over.” Yet when the U.S. ambassador arrived on Friday to address the Fourth of July party, he made no mention of the scandals that all his guests were talking about. “We are a nation of forests and fields and farmlands,” Emerson assured them from the stage before the band began to play. “Of mountains high and deserts wide.” But to a growing part of the German electorate, the U.S. has come to feel a bit like a nation of spies.

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