“Peter Earnest Memorial: Spook, CIA Spokesman, Spy Museum Director – [from the vault]
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: May 21, 2022 - the date of the memorial service at the International Spy Museum for Peter Earnest, the founding executive director of the museum and a 35-year veteran of the CIA. In honor of him, this week's episode is an exit interview he recorded with my predecessor, Vince Houghton, not long after Peter announced his retirement.
Andrew Hammond: Peter was a case officer at CIA for 25 years, largely in Europe and the Middle East, recruiting and running agents and getting involved in covert action, counterespionage and double agent operations. He later went on to work in the inspector general's office and as the CIA's Senate liaison. He concluded his career as the CIA's chief spokesman. From there, he came to the Spy Museum, where he stayed for 16 years, retiring in 2017. Our time at Spy never overlapped, but I did meet him a few times, and the last time I saw him was after a lunch when I made it out to McLean one time, where we discussed practically every topic under the sun. Such was his range. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He graduated from Georgetown University. He served in the U.S. Marines and the CIA. And he wrote many books on intelligence and espionage. He will be missed.
Vince Houghton: Thank you for joining us here on "SpyCast."
Peter Earnest: OK, it's good to be with you.
Vince Houghton: You've spoken in the past about your path to going to CIA in the first place back in the 1950s, but it's been a couple years since you've done a podcast, so I want to revisit that. And my question is this. I told you before we started I was going to start with a little bit of a difficult question. Do you think the 20-something-year-old Peter Earnest would have been a good recruit for CIA today?
Peter Earnest: Let me think about that. Yeah, I don't want to hold up the broadcast. What - do you mean...
Vince Houghton: Do you - did you have the skillset...
Peter Earnest: ...The person I was then...
Vince Houghton: The person you were there - do you think you would have gone into the CIA today and been a good operations officer - not a good one, but somebody that they would be looking for, someone that could do the same skillset as you did at the time?
Peter Earnest: That's a very good question, and I must say, it sort of makes me thoughtful. I'm not quite sure how to answer. I'm not going to just leap and say, oh, absolutely. One thing I would say - and I know this has come up in conversation with you - and that is, I had been in a service, military service, came back. My then-fiancee was CIA, and they were interested. They knew I had a college degree, done my military. So they said, whoa, would he be interested in the CIA? Then, at that time we didn't know a lot about CIA. We didn't have all the books and television and movies. It had to do with dealing with world affairs, particularly specifically communism and the Soviet Union and so forth. That appealed to me. And I'd gone to Georgetown Jesuit College. I had sort of an outlook even by then. I would not have known a CIA operation if it bit me. So - no, I'm serious. And so I talked to the recruiters. I talked about travel and languages and exciting things. And so I went into CIA really not fully aware of what I would be doing. And I don't mean that in any way to sound deprecating to the recruiters because later, when you're going through the training, you know exactly what you're supposed to be doing. The one thing I would say is again, you're saying would that 20-year-old Peter Earnest be a good recruit today?
Vince Houghton: How much have you seen the agency change, right? I mean, are they looking for the same kinds of people?
Peter Earnest: There's an absolutely tremendous focus on the whole terrorism business, which, you know, is sort of a motherhood issue. Any of us would join that. But there's also much more of a military - I mean, I was in the Marine Corps, so I'm not adverse to the military at all. I'm not quite sure how to answer the question because we know much more about CIA and because I was in the agency. I'm an advocate of - I mean, you know, if you've been in something, you see the good side and the bad side, but you also understand that a lot of criticism directed at it is not justified. So I think so. I'll give you a tentative think so. I'm sorry, it's a tough question.
Vince Houghton: It's never good when you stump the guest with the first question - well, that's right.
Peter Earnest: Yeah, well, I did my best, OK.
Vince Houghton: Let me try a different one because we've had a lot of conversations over the past four or five years, and you have a very analytical mind, and you seem to understand things from a perspective that many others don't, and I think that's why you've been very good at all the jobs that you've tried to do. You didn't know a lot about the agency, so you probably were never even given an opportunity to perhaps be an analyst at CIA. You were recruited directly into operations. Do you think you would've made a good analyst? Is that something that you look back and say, I did a lot of good work at CIA, but I probably would have made a pretty good analyst also?
Peter Earnest: I don't think so. I can give you a better answer on that one. I do - you're right, I do like ideas. I like thinking about things. But I'm very much of a sort of an interpersonal - more of an extrovert than an introvert, not that you have to be one to do analysis. But I've thought about analytical work, and of course, I've dealt very closely. Some of my best friends were analysts, as they say. I don't think that would have appealed to me. And frankly, I don't know that I would have been very good at it. I think being in the field, interacting with people, the sort of physical interaction and dealing with defectors and all that is sort - it's exciting. I think analytical work would have not held my - just would not have held me as much. That - I think I'm being honest about that one.
Vince Houghton: Let me ask you a related question that - knowing what we know now about the broader intelligence community - right? - we might not have known back in the 1950s. Some of these agencies didn't even exist at the time. Is there another agency that exists today that if, for whatever reason, CIA wasn't available to you, that would have interested you - FBI or NRO or DIA? Is there another one of the IC agencies that - let's pretend you couldn't join CIA. Is there one of these agencies that would have said, you know what? That's one that I could see myself working at.
Peter Earnest: I don't think so. And I say that because CIA was involved so much with personality assessment, psychological assessment and so forth. And that held me for many years - I mean, both feeling purposeful, being in the agency and what we were doing. I think you're pretty close to this. You know about CIA training. We go through a pretty, pretty rigorous inspection on the way in - psychologists, like how do you what - how is your mother and so forth and so on. And they try and select people as to where they're probably going to do better. I mean, that - when I used to say people, it's not the military, you're not a number. But they really feel this kind of work is sufficiently demanding. If you don't fit there, that's not good. The agency very much depends on people with tenure and experience, particularly in field operations. I think they pegged me right, that I was a field person and not an analyst.
Vince Houghton: This is not something you can learn in a book. It's not something that you...
Peter Earnest: Exactly.
Vince Houghton: ...You'll even learn in training. I mean, most of it - most people right out of training need to be grabbed very quickly by a mentor and taught how it works in the real world.
Peter Earnest: Yes. Yes. And the same - in some ways, analysis is the same. The agents and others - I know you've talked to people like Randy Pherson and others and sort of gotten some insight in the CIA analysis and not quite the same as, you know, journalism or other people are doing, like - although I'll say this. Obviously, you've got people out there who do tremendous analytical work as journalists and produce great pieces. But I think they read me pretty accurately.
Vince Houghton: So you're at CIA during some interesting times, from the late 1950s all the way up and through the 1990s. And there's always this perception that people within the - on the operations side keep all the secrets, right? That's where all the covert action, where all the secret stuff is taking place. And I wonder, how much did one side of the building know about what was happening on the other? And I don't mean analysts versus operations. I mean, you were in operations, but how much did you know about what was happening with Operation Mongoose or the stuff that was in the Family Jewels, or later on when the Iran operations or the recruitment of it and running of Adolph Tolkachev - like, all these milestone moments in CIA history? If you weren't directly involved, how much compartmentalization was there within the operation side of the house?
Peter Earnest: That's an easy one - a great deal. I would have not known about those other activities. Certain activities become more highly compartmented than others - sensitivity, money, whatever it is - Azorian, the one where we retrieved the submarine. That becomes highly compartmented. It's not just top secret, but it goes into a compartment. It's interesting. There were efforts by the agency to, in some cases, share successful operations. I'm trying to remember one. You know, we were all called into the auditorium and briefed, but by that time, it was sort of out. But the - even though there have been these aims and so forth and so on, it was always pretty hard to learn about what was going on in other area. People were sensitive about what they were doing, particularly about when you got into sources and what you were doing and so forth.
Vince Houghton: Well, that mentality shifted a little bit because if you go to CIA today, not only do you have a museum, but you have this art collection of successful operations in the past, and a lot of new CIA recruits are instilled with this appreciation for the agency history, for some of the accomplishments of the past, whether it's bin Laden's AK-47...
Peter Earnest: Sure.
Vince Houghton: ...Or piece of the Berlin Wall, or there is a painting of the Glomar Explorer - Azorian. There's a painting of Tony Mendez and all these operations. Has that changed over time, or was that something when you were a new recruit? See, I didn't have a lot of history at the time. I'm not trying to age you, but...
Peter Earnest: That's correct, yeah.
Vince Houghton: ...It's only about a decade at the point when you come in the CIA. But was there a, we come out of the OSS, like, this is our foundation? Is there...
Peter Earnest: Well, it's interesting. Because you and I now - you and I have been working together for a long - for not long time, but for several years, at a museum. And I was somewhat involved with the Marine Corps Museum down in Quantico, and I was also involved with the Agency Museum. We really didn't think about the museum as - well, we didn't think about it as important. We didn't give it weight as an inspirational thing for, you know, young recruits to walk down and say, gee, we did that and we did that. Well, look there. That failed.
Peter Earnest: But I now, having been here for a number of years, see museums in a very different way, particularly so-called legacy museums. The Museum of the Army, the - no, the Museum of the Army is not open, is it? Yeah, that would be your - no, but the point is that it's - now, the Marine Corps, which has one of the greatest marketing campaigns in the world. People down there - they're the mothers of Marines or the daughters or people who weren't killed and so on. It's a legacy museum. Well, that's what the CIA museum - it's - I think it's meant to be both inspirational for the staff and also for people who - parents and others who have come there maybe because their son is getting a star on the wall, having been killed or something. That's impressive. So I think museums do a lot more than we really - than we realize.
Peter Earnest: I think in the last few years, a great deal has been written about museums and what works and what doesn't. And I think the museum at the agency came under me for a brief period when I was director of media relations. I paid very little attention to it. There was someone who did it. And as long as she did - she had a love of baseball, so Moe Berg had a place there, and the Civil War. So we always had a Civil War display. But I just - I didn't attach a great deal of significance to it.
Vince Houghton: Let me ask you a little bit about your broader career and people that you worked with because not only did you have colleagues who were lost in the line of duty, whether it's people like Richard Welch in Greece or it's people in Beirut when they - that was one of the largest loss of life in CIA history. But you've also had colleagues who have a more notorious ending. You worked very closely with Rick Ames. You were Rick Ames' boss at one point, or at least his supervisor at one point.
Vince Houghton: As now being a time of retrospection to a degree - and this is a weighted question. Let me ask it because, why not? Is it more emotionally disturbing to have someone die in the line of duty or someone to be a traitor? Maybe you look back and say, I am more disturbed historically about the loss of life in Beirut or in Greece, or the fact that someone like Rick Ames was able to do what he did.
Peter Earnest: You said none of these questions would be difficult.
Peter Earnest: No, it's interesting. You're posing questions that I simply haven't thought about that way. But now that you ask the question, I think the people who I know who died would, as we say, were doing exactly what they wanted to be doing. They died in the saddle or on the podium or however you want to put it. I think it's much harder to stomach the traitor, particularly someone that you've known and you had reason to be confident in or - in the case of Ames, he was a friendly fellow, and he did a good job. He was - he had Russian. He was - used it as a debrief. He hadn't turned at that point. This came later. I would say I've turned my thoughts more to Ames as a - as troubling me than my friends who are lost. Yes, of course my friends were lost. Yes. Ames is the more troubling one.
Vince Houghton: Did the friends that you had lost give you second thoughts for the safety of your family, and especially things like Beirut and the "Who's Who" book coming out and targeting particular - naming particular names? Was that - certainly, your family - some people knew what you did. Actually, some people were involved in the agency themselves. But you've told a story about - it took a while before you let your kids in on what you were doing. But what are their second guesses when you saw, firsthand, people that you knew losing their lives in the line of duty and kind of putting your family or your life as a - you know, a breadwinner or the head of the family, in jeopardy?
Peter Earnest: Well, I think being somewhat in jeopardy came with the job. As you well know, it's not James Bond. But there may be times when you feel things, you know, aren't going the way they should. But - and I had a - two or three of those occasions. I was concerned about the family. I think I would make one distinction here, and that is that during the Cold War, just to block that out, we really weren't trying to kill each other. And that's no longer true. With the terrorism and terrorists, CIA has got a big bull's-eye on its back - any intelligence service, any American, you know, overseas. So I would be even more concerned today. We're providing more weapons training, for example, to our families going out - defensive weapons training.
Peter Earnest: I was actually stationed in Athens when the fighting broke out in Cyprus. And so I went there right after the Turks had bombed the northern coast. This would have been '63. And I left my family in Athens. I felt they were in a sort of what you might call a safe haven. But, well, first of all, yeah, you're aware you're in some jeopardy because bombs were going off in the city and so forth and so on. And they were using kids to - you know, it's almost like suicide bombers. When you're separated from your family and they're not in the safe haven of CONUS, the United States, you are concerned about it, of course. I think I would be even more concerned today. I think the sacrifices and risks people are taking in the Foreign Service and CIA and so forth are even greater. Look at this latest thing in Cuba where...
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: ...We don't even know...
Vince Houghton: Yeah.
Peter Earnest: ...What it is. These - in fact, I saw the other day there was a report that - apparently whatever it was has caused some neurological damage. Yeah.
Vince Houghton: Well, that's interesting. I was going to segue onto this idea about the kind of unwritten rules during...
Peter Earnest: Yes.
Vince Houghton: ...The Cold War about where everyone...
Peter Earnest: Yeah.
Vince Houghton: ...Kind of understood that there were limitations to what you could do to each other's people, whether they were diplomats or diplomats suspected of being intelligence officers. And you've talked in the past about - you're not shooting everybody. You didn't carry a gun for the vast majority of the time.
Peter Earnest: The majority of time, I didn't. I think there were a couple of instances I did, but it was just because a situation was going on. But, yeah, it was like an unwritten rule, if you want. Yes. We're trying to embarrass each other. We're trying to recruit each other. We're trying to cause each other all kinds of grief. But the line stopped at the assassination.
Vince Houghton: Has that line shifted a little bit, even with countries like Russia? I'm thinking of the video of the American diplomat who was basically getting the tarnation beat out of him, trying to fight his way back into the U.S. embassy in Moscow or the stories about American diplomats being harassed, whether their family pets are being poisoned or their houses are being destroyed or trashed. That seems that the line has changed a little bit about what is considered legitimate activity for these kind of relationships.
Peter Earnest: Yeah. I think there were times in the Cold War where that activity went on. Some of our diplomats were given a rough time where the surveillance was not just surveillance but harassment surveillance. Obviously, homes were bugged. There were incidents involving things like pets and so forth. We finally had had enough. And so we appointed - there was an individual called Jim. His name was Jim Nolan in the FBI, and he was made an ambassador. And he, in effect - and I don't know if that still exists, but he, in effect, oversaw reciprocity between the countries. If you went to Bulgaria and had to spend three months getting a phone, by George, the Bulgarians would spend three months here getting a phone. That was...
Vince Houghton: Yeah.
Peter Earnest: ...The spirit of that. That may have helped temper that. But there were times where the - certainly the then-Soviets were not - what's the word? They were not immune, or they were not adverse.
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: They were not adverse to - people have gotten roughed up, yes - not killed but roughed up.
Vince Houghton: If we could transfer you back to the 20-year-old Peter Earnest or the 25-year-old Peter, would you be dying to be part of Moscow station today? Is that where it's at - to be a young CIA case officer sent into Russia to do old-fashioned human work?
Peter Earnest: Well, it sounds very exciting. I had - you catch me at an odd time because I'm reading "The Billion Dollar Spy," which is Tolkachev and the others. And I spent 10 years in the agency's Soviet East European division. So I worked directly with Soviet operations and met some of these people like Kuklinski and so forth, who were extraordinary people. As you know, too, because you're a historian, many of our sources were volunteers. They were trying to come to us for one reason or another.
Peter Earnest: That would still sound exciting to me, yes. I was in fact - I was on track to go to Warsaw COS at one point, and circumstances got in the way. But that is something that appealed to me then and would still appeal to me. It's very exciting, challenging. I know that in one operation I was involved in, not in the so-called denied area, you know, I knew that what I had gotten went to the president's desk. There was a certain exhilaration...
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: ...In that.
Vince Houghton: And he probably read it, too, which is...
Peter Earnest: Well...
Vince Houghton: (Laughter).
Peter Earnest: He wouldn't have read the whole thing.
Vince Houghton: Yes.
Peter Earnest: It was the plans for the SA-2.
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: Yeah.
Vince Houghton: I was making a joke about...
Peter Earnest: No, no, but I (laughter) - yeah.
Vince Houghton: ...Reading presidential daily briefs that - yes. Let's kind of make that transfer to the relationship between the agency and the government because you witness Church and Pike from within CIA and some of that. You were working for CIA when those mid-1970s reforms took place.
Peter Earnest: Yes, not - well, go ahead. You do your question.
Vince Houghton: Well, it was more of - you're inside CIA during that time period. And then, of course, you become part of the CIG. And so I want to ask you about - is the Office of Inspector General, is SSCI and HPSCI, are the oversights - are they still working? Or did they ever? Or I understand that, at heart, there are legitimate reasons for having them. But have they ever stood - have they ever lived up to the expectations?
Peter Earnest: I would say in the main, I think they have. You have to remember we're - the agency is a relatively large organization involved in a myriad activities. The House, the HPSCI or the Senate - it's a handful of people because, you know, you have the members. Gates writes very well about that in his book, "Out of the Shadows." Each senator is on about X number of committees. They can only address so much. And there happened to be - I was covering the Senate. There were senators like Glenn who took a special interest and came out to the agency, was briefed and so forth. They weren't all like that. A select committee, by definition, has been selected by the leadership - that is, people who they consider have the gravitas to sit on those committees. They are like Lippmann once described journalism. It's like a searchlight. It's in this corner, and then it jumps over to that corner. It's not like it covers everything together. So that's both the strength and weakness of the oversight committees.
Peter Earnest: The spirit of the oversight committees, I think, is good. I was in some - all the - many of the hearings were closed. But I was - I'll give you a specific example. I was up there with Admiral Turner when he was DCI - and he's just passed away. And they actually cleared the room of most of the staffers and many of the others who were there. And - because he was briefing them on a sensitive operation. And they said, well, let me ask you, director - they preferred to call him director rather than admiral. Let me ask you, Mr. Director - and he said, do all of - do your staff components agree with this operation? And his answer was no, frankly, they don't. And several of them have written letters to me, which I'll be glad to share with you. It was a chance - they were very frank with one another. He was frank that it was a sensitive operation. He was frank in disclosing that people hadn't agreed. And they treated it accordingly.
Peter Earnest: I was up there - when they decided to look into something and they had competent leadership at the staff director level, they could be very, very effective. Here, again, I became close friends with a couple of the staff members. We just - you know, we were interested in the same things. And even though we were adversaries in title, we were not in - that in spirit. You know, we're way out there in Langley, and the people who covered the Hill had these old beat-up cars we used. But I was down there two and three times a day.
Vince Houghton: Well, and I think it's what people may not understand is that, like you mentioned, the members themselves, all - they get all the headlines - Burr and Warner in all the headlines, but it's the staffers and the staff directors that are doing a lot of the heavy lifting. And they're the ones that have to be free from politicization. Even though there are Republican. Staff, there's Democratic staff. Like, it's - you get a job as a Democratic staffer on SSCI, it's not like you're just on SSCI.
Vince Houghton: So let me ask you about the politicization of intelligence because it seems like the House side, since the - the Pike Committee was politicized far more than the Church Committee was. And then today, there's almost a direct lineage where SSCI seems to be bipartisan, members working together, whereas the House is a bit of a mess. And is that - has that been your perception throughout the years, or have there been times when one was better than the other?
Peter Earnest: I think, like politics itself, it waxes and wanes. What I would say is that what we had - and I'll take the SSCI as an example. Each senator on the committee had a staffer that was his staffer. So obviously, that was a Democratic senator, his staffer was Democratic-oriented. But then most of the other staffers were what were called professionals. That is, they were not - they might have been Republican at heart - Republicans or Democrats - but they were considered professional. They were considered totally nonpartisan in their work. And we respected that. I thought that the system worked. That was what happened was that the Church-Pike Committee took place in '75, '76. And I was sent to be head of the Senate staff, and a friend of mine - head of the House staff - because we were both operations officers, and they wanted professional operations officers to be dealing with the Senate - in other words, with the members. So they would know they were dealing with a real operations officer and, you know, not getting....
Vince Houghton: Someone from somewhere else that's just as equally important...
Peter Earnest: (Laughter) Somewhere else, yeah, yeah.
Vince Houghton: ...But not - yes.
Peter Earnest: Yeah. So I think - and, you know, Vince, it's - so much of it is leadership. The leadership - we had some wonderful members - Senator Inouye who was up there and others - who were well-regarded by other senators. And so when they had been briefed on something and went to brief the Senate themselves, they had credibility.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after this.
Vince Houghton: Not to get too political because I get nasty emails as it is, but keep them coming. I love them. Let me ask you about your view of the government writ - the administration's relationship with CIA today. Is that something that bothers you, seeing the - CIA over its history has had times where it deserves to be criticized. There have been some mistakes along the way. There's some missed intelligence, some bumbling covert action, some really bad ideas. So there are times when CIA should be criticized. Is it frustrating as a former CIA lifer to see the CIA being criticized or used as a political tool when it doesn't deserve to be, like some have argued it is being today?
Peter Earnest: Yeah. Well, I think - yeah, I think there's a real - well, let me put it this way. You're - particularly in the case of CIA, you're talking with people who have largely been trained not to seek publicity, not to look for - there's going to be no parades, not to - there's no parade after the Cold War - not to look for the kind of recognition that might come out of being a winning army in World War II or something similar to that. And so people in CIA are trained not to look for that sort of recognition. On the other hand, to be abused publicly is demoralizing. It is demoralizing, and I can't say anything else right now at this time of doing the podcast. It's almost like saying it's the FBI's turn in the barrel.
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: They're going through a terrible time. But I have to tell you, a lot of that work, FBI work and CIA work - it's lonely, it's hard. There are sacrifices to our families. And then to be beaten up in public - and yes, no question, there have been times when criticism was due, times when praise would do, but couldn't be given. So I think you shouldn't underestimate the effect that bad leadership or unfair leadership can have on a workforce.
Vince Houghton: Are you surprised at how vocal some more recent CIA directors have been? I think of George Tenet after 9/11 and after he'd stopped being CIA director.
Peter Earnest: Sure.
Vince Houghton: And the - like the documentary "Manhunt," which was such a good documentary about 9/11 and about the hunt for bin Laden were - and talking about enhanced interrogation and things, or the documentary about all the spymasters, if you saw that, where they got all the former CIA directors. It was on Showtime and...
Peter Earnest: Yeah.
Vince Houghton: ...Bringing up the ideas about mistakes in the past, everything from enhanced interrogation. And I'm thinking about people like John Brennan and Jim Clapper nowadays - and Jim Clapper not being a CIA director, but a DNI...
Peter Earnest: Yeah.
Vince Houghton: ...About how openly vocal - Mike Hayden's another good example, right? These are people who are - Mike Morell - people who are on TV all the time, being very vocal about politics, about national security, about things that - I can't imagine Allen Dulles doing this. I can't imagine one of the former operations guys, like...
Peter Earnest: You remind me of - when you say Allen Dulles, you make me think of Casey because...
Vince Houghton: Right, yeah, of Casey.
Peter Earnest: No, but Casey - yeah, I remember, we'd go up with him to the Hill, and it was just a nightmare because he mumbled so much, they couldn't understand him. So finally, what they did, they had a microphone rigged just in front of him. So then what they got was amplified mumbles.
Peter Earnest: You know, there are several views on people speaking out. David Atlee Phillips felt so strongly about the agency having been misunderstood and abused during the Church Pike Committee period that he chose to resign, and he found that association of former intelligence officers, which in its own way has tried to be an advocate, a nonpartisan advocate of a robust intelligence service. I think - I have to say, when I was director of media relations under Bob Gates when he was at the agency, and he was for greater transparency, and I agreed with that. And so I feel the same way now. And I feel that we are at a point in our history as a republic where we hear from everybody on policy - actresses and actors and so forth and so on. Intelligence people, you know, by definition are people who have spent their whole careers trying to understand what's going on in defense of our country. So I think that I would not deny them a voice. I think - I feel a little way about - the same way about former senior military officers. I think they're military people. They've been trained. And where they feel there's been abuse or they feel misunderstood, after they get out, they speak out. Now, they're encouraged to speak out if they're in the staff, the general staff. I frankly, and the people I see speaking out - you used the example of General Hayden and General Clapper - I find it quite edifying. I'm supportive of that.
Vince Houghton: Do you think the fact that more people at least think they know more about the CIA today makes it easier or harder to be a spokesperson for the agency? It - does the amount - because if you're a spokesperson for CIA in 1959, when very few people know what the agency does or what it's done or what it's going to do, that's one problem because you have to educate the people about the agency itself.
Peter Earnest: Yes.
Vince Houghton: But now, there's so much pop culture, there's so much information, a lot of bad information about the agency. Is it a double-edged sword that it's both easier and harder, or do you lean one way? Would it be easier to be the spokes - because you were - was it 90 - when were you the spokesperson for CIA?
Peter Earnest: Oh, roughly 80 - late '80s through '91.
Vince Houghton: Would your job be easier today or harder today if you're the spokesperson for CIA?
Peter Earnest: Well, I made a point of never saying can neither confirm nor deny - I never said that. To me, the strength of that position was developing good relations with the so-called national security journalists - people who covered us - and being able to level with them and, if necessary, go off the record. And also, you could - if there was a relationship of trust, you could bring them in on - brief them on something and ask them maybe to hold this element or something. I think - and certainly overseas - when I was overseas, I knew the American journalists overseas. We're all doing the same thing. We're all trying to understand the local government and what's going on. And it made no sense to me not to talk to people who were doing exactly the same thing.
Peter Earnest: I think that the Office of Public Affairs with its relationships - and one of the things that we've done historically is we will bring journalists in who are going to areas of the world, and they'd like to hear the CIA view. We bring them in and give them a briefing. There's two things about that. It's not classified. And two, we're not tasking them. We don't say, now that you're going so-and-so, here are the questions. It's just - it's one way, I think, that we feel we can pay back the taxpayer - a select few in this case - for the work that we do.
Vince Houghton: Along the same vein, let me ask you about pop culture, because we've certainly dealt with it plenty in this museum. But you've dealt with it also because you were the liaison between CIA and those making the pop culture. There's multiple questions I could ask. I could ask the burden or benefit question, but I'm not going to because I won't put you on the spot there. But I find it interesting - and you can comment on this - that at one point during the Second World War - and, of course, it's the Second World War, so rules don't always apply the same way they would today. The OSS was fully funding John Ford to make a movie that won an Oscar. And you can see the Oscar here in the International Spy Museum.
Peter Earnest: Yeah.
Vince Houghton: But then jump ahead to a couple of years ago where the CIA had a minor role in assisting the filmmakers for "Zero Dark Thirty," or you yourself had a minor role, and the CIA had a minor role in helping the Tom Clancy movie. Was it "Patriot Games"?
Peter Earnest: "Patriot Games." Yeah. yeah.
Vince Houghton: "Patriot Games." And there was a backlash against that. There is a public backlash and sometimes a very - a lot of vitriol about the CIA propagandizing Hollywood. Is this overstated, or is this a line that has to be carefully walked to make sure that the CIA is not heavily influencing what's being done if they're assisting in something?
Peter Earnest: Yeah. I think the times that we have advised on film - on films - we're using that as an example - movies, films, maybe TV are essentially - are passive in that we don't go out and say we want to play a role. As you know from the literature, J. Edgar Hoover insisted that every film made about the FBI would go by his desk. We have nothing like that. People do come to us. And they are looking for accuracy. They are looking for - whatever it is they're doing - they want it to have at least the appearance of being real. I'm not talking about the Bond-type films, but the ones like "Zero Dark Thirty" and so forth. And so to the extent, I think, that we can steer them away from really ridiculous assumptions or...
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: ...Presumptions about the agents - yeah, I think that's a valid - a useful input.
Vince Houghton: What do you think about former CIA officers who have gone on to do fiction work? - like Joe Weisberg with "The Americans" or Jason Matthews with "Red Sparrow," which is now in the movies now. I mean, you yourself didn't go this direction, but you dabbled with talking about fiction in your book - about the Harry Potter series. So, of course - and you look back at Ian Fleming being a former intelligence officer...
Peter Earnest: Sure.
Vince Houghton: ...Writes the ridiculous Bond novels, which are much more realistic than the movies are, that's for sure. You think that is a positive, or is it problematic and that a lot of weight gets attached to a project if there's a former intelligence officer helming it? - that - "The Americans" have done a great job of kind of staying true. But if "The Americans" took a turn into "Homeland" territory, where things got somewhat out there, would there be a problem with having a former intelligence officer attached to a show like that? How - let me try to - I'm trying to find a way to ask this question. How much of a burden is there on a former intelligence officer to tell it the right way in order to make sure that people who read it, watch it, ingest this pop culture are getting a quasi-realistic portrayal of reality?
Peter Earnest: I guess I would use as an example yourself. You were involved in what I would consider combat operations, and I could see someone like you being hired as a, you know, consultant and so forth on a film about combat, for example. And I think that the role is very similar. In many cases, you're saying, no, I wouldn't do that, or, no, it wouldn't have happened that way. But the authors and even the filmmakers do play by the rules. I don't want to say everybody does, but there is a publications review process in the agency. The two people you've met - I know Jason Matthews has gone through that. I don't know how - I know Weisberg, who's done "The Americans," and I know - one of the people on our board I know - Keith Melton is one of the advisors on that. And yet there are many people in intelligence who would look at "The Americans" and say, oh my God.
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: I'll never - all these things would never happen all at once. But again, it's Hollywood - Hollywood with a big H. You know, intelligence people were professionals. So I think it's like bringing a military officer or somebody from the Air Force in - or advise on "Top Gun" or something involving, you know?
Vince Houghton: Let's wrap this up by talking about where we're sitting right now in this museum. This is basically the exit interview for the Peter Earnest tenure as executive director. You're sticking around on our governing board. We're going to see a whole lot of you moving forward.
Peter Earnest: I'll be looking over your shoulder (laughter).
Vince Houghton: Yes. How crazy was the idea for a paid museum in Washington, D.C. focused on spies when it was first brought to you? I love hearing this story because your response to our founder, Milton Maltz, when he said he - what he was going to do, you didn't think it was going to work.
Peter Earnest: No, you're absolutely right. I was - I'll give them credit. Milton Maltz and one or two of his people came out to the agency to brief us. And they just wanted to say, look, we're not trying to uncover secrets or give away the farm or anything. And that was - it was a courtesy kind of thing. It was nice to do. And that's the last I thought of it. There had been a little effort by somebody to start something called the U.S. Intelligence Museum, and it never got any money. It never got anywhere. The people that did it were intelligence people not businesspeople. And I think if it had opened, you know, out in Scaggsville or something, called the U.S. Intelligence Community Museum, it probably would have gotten 100 visitors a year or something like that. So I, frankly, was skeptical, a healthy skepticism about - given the limitations on what could be placed in a museum like that, yes, I had a skepticism, which I shared with him at the time. I remember this. And to the extent that even when I was approached about being the executive director, I had some skepticism. I also had some reservations about wanting to get into a full - this kind of a demanding job. My wife said to me on the eve of my meeting with Mr. Maltz and his colleagues here, well, why are you going down there if you don't even - you're not even sure (laughter) you want to go in? And I said, listen, I'm an intelligence officer. If somebody wants to talk to me, I'll talk to them.
Vince Houghton: If you remember my first interview with you, that was my wife talking to me the night before. Like, you don't really want to work at a museum. What are you going talking to him?
Peter Earnest: (Laughter) I don't know. I've never heard that.
Vince Houghton: Yeah, no.
Peter Earnest: Yeah.
Vince Houghton: That was a...
Peter Earnest: Yeah.
Vince Houghton: Yeah. So that was never my intention, but you never know what happens when you walk in and have a...
Peter Earnest: No, you don't. Yeah.
Vince Houghton: ...Conversation with people.
Peter Earnest: Well, in fact, let me just pick up on that. You really - your understanding of and your commitment to intelligence work, in my view, grows as you go into it. I did not go into the CIA thinking, oh, boy, I'm going into intelligence work. I'm going to be a spy or anything - nothing like that. The more I knew about the work, the more I became involved, the more committed to it I began. And I have to say, that's very true of museum work. And you look at it in a profound sense, and you have been as deeply involved as anybody in shaping - helping shape what this museum will look like. But it's a thing that grows on you. It's not just putting stuff on shelves.
Vince Houghton: Well, you know, I mean, my boss - who we won't name because she hasn't said it was OK - but my direct boss here at the museum, the first question she asked me in the interview was, what do you love about museums? And I said, I don't really like museums (laughter) all that much, so...
Peter Earnest: Well, set a bar, yes.
Vince Houghton: You know, I was trying to be honest.
Peter Earnest: Well, there you are.
Vince Houghton: I was just like, I don't know why I'm here (inaudible). Let me ask you this - because we have to walk a fine line here between being accessible to a teenager and not dumbed down so much that a former...
Peter Earnest: Exactly.
Vince Houghton: ...Professional like...
Peter Earnest: Yeah.
Vince Houghton: ...Yourself will think that we're Disney World for spies. I wonder, since you have a close association with AFIA, which you've already talked about, you know all the former colleagues, some who are - have been retired for 20, 30 years, some that are just retired. So you have a wide range of ages. I'm wondering, from the last 15 years, if the perception of the museum has changed with older professionals. Have we gotten better perceived among those of that higher level than...
Peter Earnest: First of all, I'm going to start by quoting General Clapper, whom you referred to, when he was here the other day for a luncheon. Among his closing remarks was he thought how generally ignorant the public is, through no fault of its own, about how intelligence and intelligence agencies were dealing with the many, many issues that they have to cope with. And he said, I believe this museum can play a role in helping that process. It's funny you ask this because I think there are any number of people in intelligence who might not come down because oh, a museum. It's sort of disdainful, if you will. Those who have come tend to come back because it both - they want to show their friends...
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: ...Or other people not the specific operation they worked on but sort of the nature of the work. Why was such a camera made? Why was such a thing designed? It sort of helps be a catalyst for more discussion about it, whether it's with their families, whoever. I know when I've gone out to the agency, I've had people literally come up to me and say, I just want you to know I think the museum is doing - is just great - because they see it as one of the places - I mean, look at the number of visitors. What is it, almost 9 million?
Vince Houghton: Yeah.
Peter Earnest: They see it as one of those places - apparently there's a fairly broad respect for museums by the American public. They're distrustful of almost everything else, but the trust in museums is fairly high. And so I think it's a place that some of those senior professionals refer to if they would come down.
Vince Houghton: Is there anything we left on the table that we regret we didn't accomplish during your tenure as executive director? Is there anything in the 16 years you've been here that you set out to try to do, and we just weren't able to pull it off for one reason or another?
Peter Earnest: Well, I (laughter) - there are two things. One, I think, was circumstances, and that is that, you know, as you well know, we have been a for-profit right up until very recently. And that really didn't - did not enable us to do some of the things that we now do, the wonderful relations we now have with other museums, intelligence community museums and others. And you've been on the forefront of that. That just wasn't happening, and it was because we were a for-profit museum. You know, every agency now has a cadre of lawyers.
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: And I don't mean to denigrate them, but if you're going to help this museum, how come you're not going to help others? It's a perennial question. And so I think the doors to that kind of collaborative work and so forth simply were not open. Let me put it that way. And yeah, there was one thing that I bent my sword on. I always thought that the Boy Scouts - we've had any number of people who've been as directors, Webster and others...
Vince Houghton: Gates (inaudible).
Peter Earnest: ...Who've been Eagle Scouts. Yeah, who...
Vince Houghton: Bob Gates was a head of the Boy Scouts, right?
Peter Earnest: Bob Gates was an Eagle Scout. Webster was an Eagle Scout. I just read that Ridge, former head of Homeland Security, I think was an Eagle Scout. But anyway, my point here is the scouts began by being, well, the sort of people who look on the coast to make sure no one was invading. But the very nature of scouting work, to learn and observe and so forth and so on, lends itself to intelligence work. And so I've always - I was disappointed. I took a couple of runs on it. And it's bureaucratic. It's a bureaucratic organization, and it was bureaucratically hard to get them to adopt a new merit badge, not just a patch, which says, I've been at the Spy Museum. We do that - but a merit badge. And I think it would - I really think it would behoove the scouts to have a merit badge for national security. In other words, we're not trying to create a cadre of little spies...
Vince Houghton: Right.
Peter Earnest: ...But people who - national security is about understanding - analyzing things, understanding things, really be motivated to try and get such a merit badge and - because it's all about what they're doing. What are we looking at, STEM studies and that sort of thing? So any time the scouts can orient themselves to that sort of thing is for the good. I failed. So that...
Vince Houghton: We'll keep working on it.
Peter Earnest: (Laughter) So I think if I would point to two things, I would say those.
Vince Houghton: So what's next? You've been busy your entire life. You really haven't had time to pick up a lot of hobbies. Do you know how to relax?
Peter Earnest: (Laughter).
Vince Houghton: What's the next 10 years look like? What are you - are you riding off into the sunset to play golf? I've never seen you as a golfer.
Peter Earnest: No.
Vince Houghton: Yeah.
Peter Earnest: And I'm not. Yeah, I did play golf. I wasn't all that good at it. But no, what I would like to do - my immediate problem is we're downsizing and moving into a condo. So trust me, if you ever have to do this, the books...
Vince Houghton: Yeah.
Peter Earnest: ...Are the hardest thing. And I don't have a - I have some intelligence books, but it's not a collection, like, French first editions. It's an accumulation. It's still hard because we're going to move into a condo. But that done, then I'd very much like to keep my hand in. There's a movie that's - that I'm partially involved in, if we can get the option back, and it happens to deal with intelligence. And I'll tell you what it is off air, so we can - I don't want to give the thing away. But that sort of thing or some writing or being involved with creative works would appeal to me very much. Not a 9 - I say 9-to-5. This is not 9-to-5. This is really more than 9-to-5 - but not this kind of sort of time-demanding thing. So I'd like - no, I'd like to keep my brain alive.
Vince Houghton: Peter Earnest, the now-retired former executive director at the National Spy Museum, just hung up his trench coat and fedora and is now moving on to bigger and better things. Peter, we really appreciate you taking the time - I was going to say one last time for "SpyCast," but we're going to have you back at some point in the future. So for now, we appreciate you taking the time...
Peter Earnest: OK.
Vince Houghton: ...To talk to us here.
Peter Earnest: Vince, thank you very much for the interview. It was a very good one. You made me think.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @INTLspycast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian.
Andrew Hammond: This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence- and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.