You’ve written a book, Good Hunting. Aren’t spies supposed to be covert?
Almost all covert action eventually becomes public. Very little I did is still classified. I believe covert action is a very important instrument to statecraft. And the book has been scrubbed [by the CIA].
Your main job in the field was recruitment, which is a nice way of saying you got people to betray their countries for money. How do you do that?
How do you sell anything in life? You have to have a product, you have to develop a relationship, and in that relationship you have to be able to identify people’s strengths and weaknesses. And then you have to be able to ask that tough question: Will you help me? There is a sense of timing in it. It’s an art form, very frankly.
You write that your crowning achievement was helping the mujahedin expel the Russians from Afghanistan in the ’80s. Since that led to the rise of the Taliban, was it a net positive?
It’s almost impossible, at least in my experience, to fully grasp the unintended consequences 20 years hence. I supported the idea of trying to maintain a presence in Afghanistan after the Russians left. But now I think that if we had tried to put $100 million in infrastructure, it would not have mattered. You cannot force-feed democracy.
You also helped destabilize the Allende regime in Chile through funding and propaganda. Do you feel guilty about what happened there afterward?
Maybe this says something about me, but I don’t. The CIA’s mission [at that point] was to support the opposition elements, not to foment a coup. Allende was overthrown in September ’73. As late as June, the CIA’s view was the military would support the government. When [General Augusto] Pinochet came to power, we had no idea what was going to come.
What do you do when you doubt the goal of your job?
You can say, “Look, you know, I’d like a job in Japan.” But that doesn’t always work. You then have to be prepared to say, “I’m not going to do this one, and you can either move me or I’m going to step down.” I think this is a key to public service.
So given Edward Snowden’s conscience, do you think he should be pardoned?
Not in your wildest dreams. I didn’t call it Good Hunting for nothing. He would be right on my list [of potential defectors]. He knew what the system was, that there are ways to bring a problem up. Every defector has some big story, but at the end of the day, they’re usually underperformers.
Have his actions hurt the U.S. in a way that’s not yet apparent?
For sure. And I hope it won’t become apparent. What he had access to is not just the paper but the mechanism for collecting. Some of those capabilities have appeared in the press, and they have been shut down.
What is the perfect age to tell one’s child that one is a spook?
I have six children, so I had a chance to practice. Early teens, 13, 14, is almost perfect. They’re not looking at the world in complicated ways. I caught my middle daughter at 16, and her response was, “My father is an assassin!”
What is the closest thing that you have to a shoe phone?
I remember the [CIA] director would see something on [Get Smart] and call down to the poor technicians and say, “Why don’t we have one of those?” On my first assignment in Chile, fresh out of training, I had a [contact] sign a receipt for money in invisible ink. A couple weeks later the paper had crumbled to nothing. I had to get it signed again. This will give you a sense of why we were not rogues. We had to produce receipts.
This appears in the June 16, 2014 issue of TIME.
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