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THE CIA: An Old Salt Opens Up the Pickle Factory

9 minute read

No one knows whether CIA spooks wind up in heaven or hell when they die, but wherever they are, they must be rattling their bones in protest. Barely a decade ago, almost no high officials in Washington talked directly about the Central Intelligence Agency. It was obliquely referred to as “the pickle factory” or “our friends” or “across the river” or, more openly, “the agency” or “the company.” When the CIA’s $46 million headquarters opened along George Washington Memorial Parkway in suburban Langley, Va., in 1961, the deceptive highway sign said only BPR, for Bureau of Public Roads. Even Soviet KGB agents laughed at that. Finally the sign was changed to read: CIA. Now candor has gone further. For the first time, a photographer—from TIME—has been allowed to take some pictures of the people and operations inside the pickle factory. Guided public tours of Langley may soon be held, if only on Saturdays, but agents unready to come in out of the cold will be warned to stay out of sight to avoid a happenchance recognition by touring friends.

Visitors will find that Langley looks much like other airport-modern Government office buildings. It has more guards than most (including some behind thick glass walls on the executive floor), more desktop boxes with various-colored covers to conceal their contents, more plastic wastebaskets whose contents are for burning, more locked cabinets, steel vaults and restricted areas. Tourists presumably will not see the more arcane laboratories, operations and communications centers, and photo-interpretation rooms.

The agency, hurt by revelations of its abuses of power both abroad and at home, is on a much needed public relations campaign. Of greater significance, the CIA is sailing on more open waters under its new director, Admiral Stansfield Turner, 53. As he told TIME Correspondents Strobe Talbott and Bruce Nelan in an interview, “We operate well when the public is well informed. The information we have which need not be classified should be in the public domain. The public has paid to get it.”

In Turner’s view, the CIA is indeed like a company. He says that it has “a product”—international information and analysis—which it should share with its “customers”: the nation’s military strategists, its civilian policymakers, headed by the President, and, at least in some instances, all Americans. Explains Turner: “I think we need to sell our product to our customers more, and I think we need to expand our service to other customers—including the public.”

The notion that public relations is a legitimate CIA function worries many oldtimers. Though the agency has always had a p.r. official of some sort, it did not formally admit so, and he was rarely helpful to the press. But as the CIA was drawn into public controversies, the office became more professional and more open. Now p.r. is expanding to an 18-member staff under Herbert E. Hetu, a retired Navy captain.

Turner readily recognizes that all the new salesmanship will be useless unless the CIA improves its product. And while the CIA’s shrouded world of spies and its secret efforts to influence political events abroad have been widely criticized, its more basic function of supplying reliable intelligence has been faulty too. TIME’S Talbott and Nelan asked top officials in the White House, State Department and Defense Department who regularly receive CIA analyses to grade the agency’s work. The report card:

For highly technical military or economic facts: A.

For political intelligence on breaking developments: B.

For longterm, “over-the-horizon” forecasts of future global problems: C.

For political predictions: D.

Contends a National Security Council official: “The agency is best when there’s something very specific you want to know, preferably a question that can be answered with numbers—or at least with nouns. The fewer adverbs and adjectives in a CIA report, the more useful it tends to be.”

Specialists in arms control, for example, credit the agency with providing what one calls “a good factual and technical base,” on developments in Soviet military research and strategic weaponry. Says an Administration expert in Soviet affairs: ‘The information provided by the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community has provided the whole foundation for our position in the SALT talks.”

But the Kremlinologists note that the CIA failed to anticipate the sharp Soviet rejection of President Carter’s sweeping arms-limitation proposals, carried to Moscow by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (the State Department itself should have foreseen this). Nor did the agency predict the political demise last month of Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny. Carter was annoyed at the CIA’s failure to forecast the Likud coalition’s upset victory in last month’s Israeli election. In China, the CIA seemed surprised by the rise of Chairman Hua Kuo-feng, the vilification of Madame Mao and the rehabilitation of Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-p’ing. “The wide-scope stuff tends to be soft and mushy,” says a National Security Council officer. “It just doesn’t do us much good.” A CIA official concedes that “there’s a lot of bureaucratic ass-covering that goes on when guys write long-range stuff. They don’t want to be wrong, so they tend to be glib and platitudinous.” Yet many Government officials say that CIA experts are much more explicit and insightful when they make verbal assessments—in meetings or on the phone—and do not have to write and file reports that could come back to haunt them.

Competing Daily. But papers are a CIA staple. Each day the agency provides two classified intelligence summaries. One, called the “President’s Daily Brief,” goes to only five people: Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale, Vance, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. The other, the “National Intelligence Daily,” omits a few supersecret items and circulates to about 100 high officials. Yet at the White House, a competing daily intelligence summary from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) is considered superior. The INR staff was shaped and honed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and is described by one White House staff member as “leaner and more self-confident” than the CIA.

The CIA also contributes heavily to periodic papers called “National Intelligence Estimates,” which attempt to pull together the expertise of all the U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies, including those in the military services, on specific topics. The agencies’ main aim has been to assess Soviet strategic capabilities and, more significant, Russia’s intentions. These reports were read critically by Kissinger, who sometimes penciled in the margin “flabby” or “bureaucratic bullshit.” They are still held in low esteem at the White House.

Aware of these failings. Turner, whose two-hat job as CIA chief and director of Central Intelligence gives him leadership of the entire intelligence community, has recruited two top assistants for tough assignments:

> Robert Bowie, a Harvard political scientist and director of State Department policy planning under President Eisenhower, will concentrate on overhauling and improving the “National Intelligence Estimates.”

> Robert (“Rusty”) Williams, a management consultant and longtime friend of Turner’s, will review and recommend changes in the agency’s directorate of operations, the much criticized unit that carries out covert operations.

Yet it is Turner’s promise to make greater public use of CIA expertise that is the most striking change. The first such move was the declassification of the CIA’s assessment of worldwide oil and gas reserves. Agency veterans fear that making studies public may reveal their secret information-gathering techniques and sources. But Deputy Director Henry Knoche, a CIA career man and its second-ranking official, argues that “there are ways of more adroitly writing our reports so we don’t give away sources and methods, but can impart our conclusions.” Turner believes too much secrecy makes it harder to keep the significant secrets. Says he: “The less we classify, the better off we are in protecting what we have to protect.”

There is one CIA weakness for which Turner has no ready solution: detecting and countering the efforts of foreign intelligence agents to acquire U.S. secrets. The weakness stems in part from a shake-up in which veteran counterspies were replaced. The shifts took place before Turner arrived, but Knoche believes such work requires a periodic turnover of agents who will go all-out for a time and then take on other duties. Explains Knoche: “The work by its nature—where you constantly have to build negative or paranoid assumptions—can almost guarantee a form of illness.”

Overall Czar. Another problem is the prohibition against CIA investigations of spying within the U.S. By law, that is an FBI duty. “The textbooks say the two agencies shall consult,” says Knoche, “but the relationships of people involved at the working level may differ. We may keep book on a Soviet intelligence operative in Geneva, but the minute he transfers, say, to the Soviet U.N. mission in New York, we notify the FBI, and then it’s over to them. But the guy following it in New York may not get himself sexed up about it at all.” Yet Knoche concedes that giving one unit control of both internal security and counterintelligence abroad “would be too much power for one department.”

No proposal is in the works for that kind of centralized authority. But the creation of an overall intelligence czar with Cabinet-level status is being considered favorably. This intelligence boss would supervise the budgets of all the intelligence agencies, including those in the military.

A parallel proposal is being worked out by a Senate subcommittee under Kentucky’s Walter Huddleston. The plan would also: create a National Security Council subcommittee to review proposals for covert operations, ban the hiring of outsiders to conduct illegal acts abroad (such as burglaries and antigovernment protests), prohibit political assassinations and require the FBI to secure federal court orders before conducting surveillance of suspected spies.

Congress and the White House must still work out how much control the new czar should have over military intelligence officials. A gentlemanly argument is developing between Turner and Defense Secretary Brown over this. But some trends are clear. The director of Central Intelligence will be strengthened; his control over budgets, assignments and the collection of information will be tightened; and he almost certainly will be Admiral Stansfield Turner.

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