“The Third Option” – US Covert Action with Loch Johnson (Part 2 of 2)
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: This week's guest has forgotten more about American intelligence than most people know. Loch Johnson is the author of over 30 books, served in some of the most high-profile intelligence commissions and committees, including the landmark Church Committee in 1975 and the Aspin-Brown Commission in 1996, and had a long, successful career at the University of Georgia, where he is an emeritus professor. He even has a society named after him. He's also a great guy and very humble, given his considerable achievements. In this week's episode, we discuss Loch's new book on covert action - aka "The Third Option" - propaganda, subversion, economic sabotage and paramilitary operations, the difference between regular intelligence and covert action and shaping history on the margins.
Andrew Hammond: If you have enjoyed "SpyCast" in 2022, please consider leaving us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. Guests this year have included ex-CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; head of NATO intelligence, David Cattler; former head of the Colombian Navy, Admiral Wells; and former State Department intelligence chief Ellen McCarthy. Coming up next year will be a former head of research for Israeli military intelligence, the current head of the FBI's counterintelligence division, and I'll look at some fascinating historical figures such as the Cuban spy Ana Montes and J. Edgar Hoover. We also have a cheeky episode on the historic hotel in London where Britain's crack Special Operations Executive, or the SOE, were formed. We hope you enjoy this week's show.
Andrew Hammond: One of the other things that I wanted to discuss as well was - just so our listeners can get a head around this. So we've discussed "The Third Option." We've discussed the things that you can do within "The Third Option" - coups, assassinations, propaganda, etc. Who is carrying this out? So the CIA do 95% of it. But help us understand - I guess it depends on what it is they're doing. If it's assassinations, then it's not going to be your just regular, run-of-the-mill case officer. But for something like funding the Mujahedeen in the 1980s, then it quite often was case officers with a specialism in a particular geographic part of the world. In the 1940s, there was, like, the - was it the Office of Policy Coordination? - that was the people that were doing all the dirty tricks and so forth. Is there a specific part of the CIA that's just - this is the covert action people, or is it done on a more ad hoc basis? So who's doing these covert actions, and how is it coordinated? Is there, like, a standing committee or a part of the organization, or is it just very ad hoc?
Loch Johnson: Well, you know, the CIA today is divided into three - into five divisions. They're called directorates. And one of them is the directorate for operations. And this is where covert action takes place. And within the directorate of operations, you have people who are responsible for espionage, particularly guiding our human assets around the world. But then you also have a Special Operations Group - SOG, it's called - in the Special Activities Division, and those get more into the paramilitary side. And so assassination would be a subset of paramilitary operations. And one of the interesting things about the paramilitary side of the CIA is most of those people have been brought over from the Pentagon - former soldiers. It's called sheep dipping, and I've never been able to figure out where that term came from, but that's what they call it - shedding your military uniform and coming over and working for the CIA, either on a specific project or maybe for a period of time - a couple of years or so. So if you wanted to assassinate some foreign leader, you'd bring over a sniper from the Pentagon and have him work for the Special Operations Group for however long that took. So that's basically the structure.
Andrew Hammond: Well, what about something like political operations or propaganda - where is that run out of? Is that the same...
Loch Johnson: It's the same thing.
Andrew Hammond: ...Directorate of Operations?
Loch Johnson: It's also in the Directorate of Operations, which, by the way, Andrew, next year will be having its 50th anniversary. So it's been around quite a while. And they have a political division. I've been out there many, many times. And you can go into a room out there, and there are people sitting around with campaign brochures and bumper stickers and pins that you can - and all of these are made in foreign languages so you can ship them out to foreign countries and help the politicians that are friendly toward the United States. It's like a little campaign unit within the CIA.
Andrew Hammond: Mmm hmm. And one thing that I wanted to ask you as well was - because you're - you know, you've been involved in the policy side, the legislative side - so the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Presidential Commission on Intelligence. So one of the things that I wanted to ask you was, as someone that's seen both sides, what do you think scholars of intelligence just don't seem to get? Is there something that you're like - you know, you - these people just don't seem to get this? Is there something that you saw on the other side that you think that people that study this but have never been part of the tribe, so to speak, just don't get?
Loch Johnson: Well, I think the major problem is that, throughout academe, in political science departments and international affairs departments, history departments, there's a tendency to view the CIA as an evil force involved in waterboarding and assassinations and so on. But the reality is, the overwhelming majority of people out there are well-educated, well-meaning, law-abiding individuals who are very bright, and there's a wonderful esprit de corps there. And they're trying to help leaders of the United States, both in the Congress and in the executive branch, make the best possible decisions. If you go into the office of the director of national intelligence, for example, you'll see, engraved on the wall - seeking, decision, advantage. And that's what this is all about.
Loch Johnson: Covert action - although, as I mentioned, sometimes has been the tail that wagged the dog - by and large remains a secondary mission out there, second to gathering information and trying to make sense of what's going on in the world. And by the way, that feeds in not only to the Oval Office, but to all the different layers in government. Take the DAS, for example - the DAS, the Deputy Assistant Secretaries. Those are the workhorses in the government - men and women who are writing the policy memorandums and passing down decisions made from on high. And they are daily recipients of important intelligence information to help form their understanding of what's happening in the world. Otherwise, we'd be like the old Roman Empire, in which the leaders of the Roman legions would throw animal entrails in the sand and decide what that meant in terms of intelligence. So we need accurate information about the world, and that's what most of what the CIA does.
Loch Johnson: Now, it does covert action, too, but in almost all cases, according - particularly since the Hughes-Ryan act - according to the policy directions of the White House and the Congress. So you have a lot more control over what they're doing now. In the earlier era, I think that's when the CIA got in trouble because, you know, you give an agency secret power and don't have any accountability over it, it's going to get itself in trouble.
Andrew Hammond: Well, I - you know, I personally make most of my decisions with the interpretation of animal entrails, but...
Loch Johnson: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...You know, each to their own. So what you can't see and our listeners can't see is that beside me at the moment is an intern working on "SpyCast," Erin. And on the other side is our vice president for programs, Mira. And one question that I had for both of them was, do you have any questions for Loch? OK, go for it. So Mira's going to ask you a question.
Mira Cohen: Oh, yes. First of all, thank you so much. This has been most fascinating. I feel like I just listened to covert action 101. And I love the way that you and Andrew work together to really categorize vast amounts of history and internal government processes, which are always hard to understand - so much, much appreciated. So I used to teach high school, and I do wonder - I taught high school government, and it's, like I said, very complex to, you know, the average American and even more so to young people. What would be the one takeaway that you would want the average high school student to know about covert action?
Loch Johnson: I think that - and by the way, thank you for your very kind comments. I think that covert action is one of many tools that a country has. And in my book, I talk about a fourth option. I think the most important way for a nation to behave in the international arena in the international arena is by setting a good example - by doing the right things. And, you know, when it comes to poison dart guns and murdering people or trying to - and, you know, I'm very distressed by the fact that we have propaganda aimed in fellow democracies, recruiting reporters in Germany and France. What if their intelligence agencies recruited and put on their payroll New York Times reporters or Washington Post reporters? We would be utterly incensed by that. So I think fellow democracies ought to be outside the boundaries of targeting for covert action.
Loch Johnson: But covert action, as I've tried to illustrate in the book, can be helpful at times. I mean, the man that was essentially my mentor for a couple of years at least, Frank Church, was very much against it, but I think he was wrong. I think there is a place for covert action in some cases. And I've, in the book, tried to give some illustrations of that. So I'd say to the high school student that America is not living in Beverly Hills, but a bad neighborhood at 4 o'clock in the morning. And it has to protect itself. And it has to know what's going on in the world, and the CIA is a good way to find out what's going on. And then if you can nudge history a little bit to ameliorate some of those problem areas by using a little bit of covert action, carefully monitored and carefully controlled, then one should do it.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after this.
Andrew Hammond: That was very fitting because recently, a few months back, Mira moved here from Los Angeles, although I don't think she was living in Beverly Hills.
Loch Johnson: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: Final part of the interview, Loch - one of the things that I wanted to ask you was about the transition from DCI - so director of central intelligence - to the DNI, the director of national intelligence. So after 9/11, this idea comes along. The director of the CIA is no longer going to be directing all of the intelligence community. He's no longer going to be the director for central intelligence, and we have this new office, the director of national intelligence, which means that the CIA director focuses on the CIA and the director of national intelligence is the person responsible for all of the intelligence community.
Andrew Hammond: So I bring this up because it's interesting to me how this may or may not affect covert action. And it's also interesting to me because, in your book and in some of your other work, you know, just thinking about the Church Committee in 1985, Stansfield Turner says that, you know, it's too much to have the - so he's a former director of Central Intelligence. He says it's too much to do both jobs. You have the Boren-McCurdy recommendations - so these are the chairmen of the Senate and the House Select Committees on Intelligence. Then you have the Aspin–Brown Presidential Commission, which you were involved in. All of these things that are in different ways saying that it doesn't really work having the director of Central Intelligence also be the CIA director. But then, after 9/11, it happened.
Andrew Hammond: So I just wondered, as somebody that is A, a scholar, but B, has been involved in these legislative oversight reform activities, what's your take on the evolution of that role, as it took 9/11 for this thing that everybody knew had to happen to happen because there was too much vested institutional interests from particular agencies for the status quo to continue? Or are - and you mentioned the interview the other week with Robert Gates, and, of course, he was offered to be the first director of national intelligence, but he mentioned to me that he always thought that that was a bad idea. So I just wonder, for our listeners, could you help them understand this shift from DCI to DNI and some of the other ideas or attempts to reform it along the way, some of what you were actually involved in?
Loch Johnson: Yes. Well, I think Bob Gates, in his interview with you, nailed it exactly. And that is the director of national intelligence, the DNI, is one of the most terrible ideas that's come along the pike. And that may sound strange, because you're also right that there was a lot of criticism about the DCI position being too weak to manage the entire 18-agency intelligence community. So how do you adjust these two different schools of thought? Well, first of all, let me point out that the Aspin-Brown Commission - and I was a top assistant to Les Aspin - said that, yes, the DCI is not working - that is the leader of the intelligence community up until 2004 - but it could work if we gave the office the right legal authorities. So the Aspin-Brown Commission view was you don't need to create a new institution like the DNI. Let's take what we have right now and finally give the DCI more than cosmetic authority over the intelligence community.
Loch Johnson: Now, what does that mean? Well, when you're running an organization, the two most important powers are, first of all, budget - and the DCI had very little budget authority over all the other agencies - only over the CIA, so you could change that. And the second one is personnel. The DCI could fire anyone he - and we've had one woman in that position; we need to have more. The CIA - the DCI could fire anyone within the CIA, but not within any other agency. So imagine if you had a DCI, which, as the Aspin-Brown Commission pointed out - and Bob Gates would support this view, too - that had budget and appointment powers. That would greatly increase the role of the DCI and brought about - what? What's the goal here? Integration. Integration of these 18 agencies that you have so that you have holistic intelligence - that the electronic information, the photographic information, the human spy information comes together in a package that makes sense that can then be delivered to the president and others who need the information.
Loch Johnson: But instead of doing that, and I think in part because the CIA got a couple of things wrong - they failed to predict the 9/11 attacks, and they failed to get the Iraqi WMD situation correct. So there was an effort in Washington to turn against the CIA because of these major mistakes. So in 2004, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act was passed, creating the DNI, and we had yet another layer of government. And that office - the office of DNI - is one of those 18. And the problem is it's all cosmetic still. The DNI doesn't have much authority. Just like the old DCI, it's a figurehead.
Loch Johnson: And I say that with Jim Clapper being an old high school buddy of mine, playing left guard when I was playing left running back. So we've known each other for a long, long time. And I thought he was a very effective DNI. Why? Not because of the law, not because of any powers he had, but because he had been in the intelligence business for 55 years and knew everyone throughout the intelligence community and had groomed a number of them to become heads of these agencies. So he could pick up the phone and get things done. But all the other DCIs - and I think there have been five or six others - did nothing of any use, and some of them resigned in frustration. In fact, they all did, except for Clapper.
Loch Johnson: So one of the most pressing reforms - and I don't know if this will ever happen, but it should - would be for the United States to revisit the 2004 law that created the DNI and either get rid of that altogether and increase the powers of the CIA director as the original leader of the intelligence community, which would be the right way to go, or, if they're not going to do that, to finally give the DNI the kind of budget and appointment powers that he or she needs to run the full community. Right now - let me say this clearly and plainly - the United States does not have a director of intelligence, and that's not a very good situation. And by that, I mean a director of intelligence who has the kinds of authorities that he or she needs.
Andrew Hammond: Let's just get into the weeds a little bit on this, because it's a complex issue, but it's very important, right? Why spend billions of dollars and have some of the smartest people in the country caught up in intelligence if we're not doing it in the most efficient manner possible? So I just - if you'll indulge me, I just want to get into the weeds a little bit on this. So when you mention the director of national intelligence, like, they don't actually direct it. So what - they're a figurehead, and we know that figurehead roles - you can get people like Elizabeth, the queen that just recently died, who does it quite effectively. And then you get other people that don't do it quite as well. And so the example here would be Jim Clapper. He was good, but not because of the powers that came along with the role, but just because he knew everybody and everybody respected him.
Andrew Hammond: So what are - what can they direct and what can't they direct? Like, can they phone up the director of the CIA or the NGA or the - you know, the NRO and say, come to my office, you know, I need you to do this and they have to do it, or, like, how does it work? Are they able to just short circuit it, or are they able to just - the to just - the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he gets summoned to go to the director of national intelligence. And, you know, she says, you're going to do this, and you're going to do that. And he just goes back to the Pentagon and says to his bosses, I'm not going to do it, and they back him up. Help us understand how this all kind of cashes out.
Loch Johnson: Well, I think I have understated, purposefully, to try and make the point that the DNI office is rather weak, but I've understated some authorities that that person does have. I'll give you an example related to covert action, which is what we're talking about. Today, covert action has to go through many approval steps - in the operations directorate, initially, but then up to the director of the CIA. Then comes in this director of national intelligence layer. And that person also has to sign off on the covert action. And he or she could stop it in its tracks at that point or at least force the director of the CIA to then go to the White House and say, this is my view, and here's the director of national intelligence view. You're the president. You have to make the final decision. So there is another layer in there. And any good director of the CIA will understand the political reality that there is now a director of national intelligence, so when they go up to Capitol Hill to defend their covert action budgets and get the money they need to carry out covert action A, B, C, or D, they take with them the director of national intelligence. And if they can present a uniformed view on this, then they're almost assured of getting the support. But if they go up and they're bickering over it or disagree, then it's probably going to collapse.
Loch Johnson: So what it means is the DNI is a player and has to be taken into account. And any CIA director is going to nurture those relationships. But if the goal was to have a strong spymaster in the United States to bring all these agencies together and really get them out of their silos and sharing information and working together well and if they didn't, have the DNI fire the person who's unwilling to cooperate or cut back on their budget - if that was the goal, it's been an utter failure because we don't have that. So you see - there's kind of a gray area here in which the DNI has some influence but nothing near the way it should. And let me just add very quickly, Andrew, the reason this occurred is because of an 800-pound gorilla in Washington, D.C., and that 800-pound gorilla is known as the Department of Defense. And they lobby very effectively.
Andrew Hammond: I thought you were going to say me.
Loch Johnson: No (laughter).
Andrew Hammond: Thanks.
Loch Johnson: No.
Andrew Hammond: Oh. Whew.
Loch Johnson: The Pentagon has had, since 1789, practice on how to lobby the Congress, and they're very effective at it. And they were fearful during the passage of this 2004 act that the United States would create a super intelligence czar would - which would tell them how to run military intelligence. And they don't like to be told what to do by anyone, except maybe the president from time to time. And so they fought it mightily. And that's why this final law in 2004 was so diluted and so weak. And so it's such a false premise, though, because you and I know that any president is going to put protection of the fighting men and women in the field foremost above any other intelligence priority. So the Pentagon may want to have its way, but it's got to keep in mind that we're a nation with 18 intelligence agencies, not just the Defense Intelligence Agency and the other intelligence units in the Pentagon, 18 of them. And we need to have them all working together. And that means the Pentagon releasing some of its authority to a higher authority, the director of national intelligence. But it's refused to do that so far.
Andrew Hammond: And do you think that there's a danger - so if we think about the period pre-'75, before the Church Committee that you were involved with, where the CIA were doing things off the books, on the down low and without any kind of - without accountability or congressional oversight, do you think that, with the director of national intelligence, that means that there's more of an inclination to go back down that route? You know, like, in institutions, when someone comes in that doesn't - you think doesn't get it or just complicates everything, quite often, people are like, let's just quietly kind of cut him out because it's just more trouble than it's worth. I'm not that anybody's doing that or would do it, but I just wondered if you thought about that in terms of covert action. Like does it matter, for covert action, the director of national intelligence? Or has it just went on completely the same as it did when - under the DCI? Has the DNI role affected covert action, like, at all, or does it have the potential to?
Loch Johnson: Well, imagine someone like Jim Clapper - 55 years of intelligence experience or knowledge. When the director of the CIA goes to him before they go to the White House for a final decision and tells them this is what we'd like to do against country X, here's the covert action we have in mind. What do you think? I mean, you're part of the decision process now. In fact, you're above me in the hierarchy now. What do you think? And the DNI will say, well, that's a pretty good idea. Or he might say or she might say, well, you really ought to think through this. We don't have a good ally on the ground to help us out, to make this succeed. So I would back away from that. So this can be a very positive opportunity if you have the right person in the office. Now, President Trump put someone in there who was completely clueless about any intelligence, really. In fact, his own intelligence was questioned at times. So it depends, as in all government positions, on the abilities of the individuals in high office. Go back to Plato and Aristotle, which I know you've done, Andrew, at some point.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, I did.
Loch Johnson: And you'll find that their prescription for good government is to have good people. And Bob Gates talked about that, too - honest, candid people in high office. That's the secret to good government. And we can have all these covert action laws and rules and oversight and so on. And if you've got people, as happened during the Reagan administration - Casey and Oliver North and Poindexter and a few other people - who want to bypass these laws, those laws crumble quickly. So good people in high office is important, but also, good structure is important. And right now, with the weak DNI, the structure's rather poor. By the way, one other very quick point because I know that time is limited. In terms of the power of the director of the CIA and the power of the DNI, I don't care what the wiring diagrams suggest. They would suggest the DNI is superior in his role or her role.
Loch Johnson: But in reality, where are the analysts in the United States government? Eighty percent of them, roughly, are in the Central Intelligence Agency. And so when the president says, what am I going to do about Ukraine? - the DNI doesn't have that information. He doesn't have any analysts - or very few. It's the experts out at Langley, at the CIA, the Ukrainian experts, who are going to be called upon. And the CIA director is probably going to take the top one of them over to the Oval Office to brief the president on Ukraine. So power - knowledge is power, it's often said. And where is the knowledge in the U.S. government when it comes to foreign affairs? Most of it, a great deal of it, is out at the CIA, not in the office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Andrew Hammond: So just indulge me here. So think about the - say, the Air Force - if you have someone in charge of the Air Force who is a former pilot, who gets what the Air Force is and why it exists the way it is, then that's one model of the leadership of that institution. But if you have somebody that is above the head of the Air Force, then it seems to me if the person above the head of the Air Force - they are then trying to balance out all of the different people that report to them. I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you're one person - who's - who the next people down are the 18 heads, is there a danger that that somehow means - and I'm not packing sides or saying one agency is more important than another, but does that not somehow mean that all of those 18, to some extent, are - have to be treated equally? We've got 18 kids, and we have to make sure we love them all and, you know, spend money on them all.
Andrew Hammond: If you think about the Air Force example, the person - yeah, it would be like if you have the person that's responsible for logistics, the person that's responsible for administration, the person that's responsible for air power for flying the planes in operations all coming to you, and you say, OK, well, I need to keep all of you happy and, you know, give you all what you need. But actually, the purpose of the Air Force is to project air power. So it's just a matter of fact that the head of logistics and administration should have less of a voice than the head of operations because the whole point of the Air Force is to project military force. So what I'm trying to say with all of that is that - is there a danger? And if you're one person who's got - who's responsible for 18 directors, then they'll - you have to maintain some kind of equity and say, well, you know, we can't privilege one kid over another. But everybody knows that some of those kids are actually more important to the whole enterprise than the others. It's like - yeah, again, it's like a soccer team. Like, all of the people individually make up the soccer team, but nobody's under any illusions that there's certain players that just make that team the team that it is. So to try to say that we're going to treat all of them in the exact same way or they should all go through a similar reporting process is actually not a great way to do it. Have you got any thoughts on that?
Loch Johnson: No, I think you're exactly right about that, Andrew. But let's take a couple of practical examples. First of all, let's take the president's daily brief, which, as the name implies, is a newspaper that goes to the Oval Office and a few other top people every morning that explains what's happened in the last 24 hours that they should know about around the world, particularly in hotspots like Ukraine. When you're putting that together - and it's the combination of the DNI and the director of the CIA who have responsibilities for doing that - what you're doing is putting out an alert to all of these 18 agencies - not that they all know everything about what might be an important topic on that particular day, but some of them might. And let's say the new agency, Space Force, which has a particular focus on outer space, writes back and says, well, we're not going to participate in PDB for tomorrow because we don't know - we don't have anything to contribute on that.
Loch Johnson: But the idea is you send out an alert, and you get back, as quickly as possible, whatever information is in these different 18 agencies that might be melded together to present to the president and others in the next day's report. And what's often happened in the past is that these agencies remain silos, and they'd rather go over and talk to the president separately because it gives them a chance to have access to power. That's what you want to cut out. You want to have a strong leader who says, you keep doing that, and you're going to be fired, or I'm going to cut your budget. And you get them to be part of a team. And for the president's daily brief, send over what they think is important for that topic, for that day. Or long-range research, the National Intelligence Estimates - the same thing. Let's say you're having one on leadership succession in China. Who can contribute to that? Well, maybe 5 out of the 18 agencies or maybe 6. But you want to send out the alert and say, if you can contribute to this National Intelligence Estimate, then come over and meet with us at Langley or the DNI's office, and we're going to work on this together. So the whole idea is to make sure that this is a team, that they're not separate silos, and if you can't participate on every topic, then fine, but participate where you can.
Andrew Hammond: This is so interesting. This could also be an entirely separate podcast. So final question, really - on this idea of intelligence failure - so you mention 9/11, and I know that you've written about this elsewhere. So intelligence failure - let's just look at the 9/11 example. How possible is it to say, this is the specific date, this is the specific time, these are the specific people? I know that it does happen, but how realistic is it to set that up as the goal of intelligence? So, you know, even people that have spent 40 or 50 years studying financial markets, they still can't predict, to a certainty, what they're going to do. And it seems to me that there's always on air - an element of volatility in international affairs. How can you predict everything, you know?
Andrew Hammond: So with the 9/11 example, if you've got George Tenet banging the desk and saying, you know, the system's blinking red, we're going to get hit, if you have memos, if you bring people in to back up your point, if you're telling the administration that this is important and that this is going down and you need to focus on it, but they just don't do it in a way - you know, they don't really do it, but then, after the fact, they say, well, you didn't give us a specific date or a specific time, is that not a little bit like - again, indulge another analogy of mine - is that not a little bit like me being the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and we're playing the Buccaneers and me saying to my defensive team, listen; Tom Brady's dangerous, here's where he's dangerous, these are the types of things he's got a habit of doing - and then them coming to me when he scores a walk-off touchdown or a Hail Mary touchdown and then them coming to me - well, he didn't tell us precisely where he was going to be and, you know, where he was going to throw the ball? I mean, well, that's not the point. I told you that he's dangerous, and he does these types of activities. So I just wondered if you had any thoughts on that, on this idea of prediction and intelligence failure.
Loch Johnson: Well, Andrew, every one of your wonderful questions could be a separate podcast in itself.
Loch Johnson: Let me begin by pointing out what Dean Rusk, a friend of mine, a former secretary of state, said to me. He said the providence has not given humankind the capacity to pierce the fog of the future. And that's very true. None of us has a crystal ball. But nonetheless, we can do a lot to make the world more clear than it might otherwise be, those entrails in the sand that the Roman emperors use. Let's take, for example, the question of the decline of the Soviet Union. I've carefully studied the CIA reports on that from 1986 up until '89 and through '91. And none of those reports said, look; next Tuesday at 9:30 in the morning, that's the end of the Soviet Union. What the - particularly the economic analysts out at Langley did was trace minutely and with great insight and with enormous capacity for researching lots of materials, this steady decline. And it was clear that place called the Soviet Union was falling apart. And these warnings were given to Reagan and then George H.W. Bush on a daily basis. So they could see kind of in slow motion what was happening over there. That's very valuable to know. But to give the precise times is a different story.
Loch Johnson: When I was on the Aspin-Brown Commission, I came across a top-secret report from the Center for Counterterrorism at the CIA. And I was reading it. It was about 50 pages long. And I came to one point, which has been declassified - that's why I'm talking about it - this point that said, America may face aerial terrorism. I'd never heard that phrase before, so I looked at that. And it said, terrorists may hijack American airliners and land them somewhere - Kansas or someplace - and have prearranged bombs and so on to put onto these airlines and then fly them off and crash them into skyscrapers in LA or New York or some other place - 1995. That top-secret report went to, obviously, the president, but also to key members of Congress and the department - secretary of the Department of Transportation and some other key people. What happened? Nothing. Nothing happened. What could have happened? You could have put sky marshals on airliners. You could have redoubled the security at airports, really checking up on who's trying to come on. You could have done a lot of things. None of that happened. Why? Because all of it costs money. And the view in the Clinton and then the Bush II White House was, oh, yeah, you know, a lot of things can go wrong. Someone who's a terrorist might bomb a nuclear reactor, but we can't react to all these things and have defenses in place everywhere.
Loch Johnson: It's like Katrina. People - the Corps of Engineers told the leadership in New Orleans, prior to 2005, look, your dykes are not very good. And if there's a Hurricane 5, they're going to blast right through, and your whole city is going to be flooded. Oh, OK. Well, how much will it cost to fix those dykes? Oh, about a billion dollars. Yeah. Where am I going to get a billion dollars? Besides that, if I get a billion dollars, I'm going to spend it on roads and some other things that the people in my district really want. I'm not going to worry about a Hurricane 5 level, which may never occur. Even when you try to warn policymakers - may not give them a precise day, but you give them a pretty good outline of what could happen - they may not do anything. So I think that 9/11 and other cases are not just intelligence failures, they're policy failures.
Loch Johnson: So the short answer - and I'm sorry I've been a little long-winded on this - is that no. Most likely, you're not going to get the specifics of the exact time of day that something might happen. But you're spending all this money - $80 billion a year in this country, which is far more than any other country. I think the Brits spend about, you know, four or $5 billion dollars a year on intelligence. Eighty billion dollars a year does give you a lot of very useful information. And keep in mind that, you know, on a daily basis, the CIA and these other agencies are feeding information over to the State Department. State Department's sending a delegation to Paris to talk to people about trading relations. The CIA is providing profiles of all the other foreign leaders who are going to be there, what their likely position is and where one could negotiate with them, and what the fallback position might be best for the United States. These kinds of things go on every single day and help the American government become much smarter. So it's asking too much, I think. It's impossible, given the weakness of we human beings, to have specific times and days. But you can do a lot to prepare people to make the right decision at the right time.
Andrew Hammond: This has been so fascinating. I've really enjoyed speaking to you, Loch. I really hope to do it someday over beers or something.
Loch Johnson: Yes, I do, too.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks ever so much. This has been a real tour d'horizon, and I've enjoyed it very much. Thank you.
Loch Johnson: Oh, my pleasure. And as I tell everyone, you're going to Washington, D.C., priority No. 1 - go to the International Spy Museum.
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 @IntlSpyMuseum 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. 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.