April 13, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Not-So-Secret Agents

Perhaps there was a good reason why secret agents used to stay secret.

So long as espionage was a profession that average citizens encountered only in fiction, we could imagine spies were like James Bond – OK, maybe not so dashing, but at least well-trained and effective. 

Or, for the more sophisticated, there was George Smiley and the other nuanced characters that came from the pen of John Le Carré — serious people who struggled with moral uncertainties but whose competence was never in doubt.

Nowadays, by contrast, former spooks seem to be everywhere: writing books, columns and op-eds, making the rounds of the TV and radio talk shows, speaking at conferences, lunching at the Palm in Washington DC, posing for photographs in Vanity Fair. And they're not just discussing “tradecraft.” They're proposing policy, dabbling in politics and engaging in gossip.

Overall, this has not been beneficial for their image. On the contrary, it has become clear that many of them don't …well, don't have a clue. Quite a few of these guys sound less like Bond or Smiley than like Maxwell Smart –without the humor.

There are exceptions. Bob Baer is sharp. Reuel Marc Gerecht is brilliant. James Woolsey, who wasn't an operative but a CIA director, is a man of immense wisdom. But as two recent blue-ribbon commission reports on intelligence make clear, the CIA at some point was transformed from a razzle-dazzle espionage agency to another plodding Washington bureaucracy.

Certainly, Vincent Cannistraro is no Sydney Bristow. Author David Frum notes on his blog that this former CIA official recently suggested (in an interview with Pacifica Radio, a voice of the far-left) that a forged document about Saddam Hussein shopping for uranium in Africa may have been produced by Michael Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

To those who know Ledeen – a congenitally grumpy professorial type – that allegation is uproariously funny. “What's next?” asked Frum. “That Ledeen kidnapped the Lindbergh baby?” Frum added that Cannistraro “has lost either the ability or else the desire to distinguish between fact and vicious fantasy.”

That assumes he once had such ability/desire. Alternatively, perhaps, it was intelligence officials of Cannistraro's ilk who, in the years prior to 9/11, chased phantom conspiracies while failing to notice that a Soviet mole, Aldrich Ames, had penetrated and compromised the CIA, as did Robert Hanssen at the FBI. 

And that was not all. The Economist magazine recently noted: “At one point every CIA case-officer working on Cuba was a double agent. All but three CIA officers working on East Germany allegedly worked for the Stasi.” The intelligence community “failed to predict both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in1979 and the Soviet Union's break-up a decade later. In 1998, America's spies were surprised when India tested a nuclear bomb. They also advised Bill Clinton to flatten one of Sudan's few medicine factories, wrongly believing that it made nerve gas. The next year, on the agencies' mistaken advice, an American warplane bombed China's embassy in Belgrade…The CIA had not a single agent in Iraq after the UN's weapons inspectors were expelled in 1998.” And, of course, no serious attempt was made to infiltrate al-Qaeda during those years.

Another poster child for what went wrong at agency headquarters is Michael Scheuer, for 22 years a senior CIA official. Scheuer became famous for writing “Imperial Hubris,” a book designed and timed to prevent President Bush winning re-election (another failed mission). He wrote it while collecting a CIA salary and he used the byline “Anonymous.” It took about 20 minutes for savvy Washingtonians to see through that clever disguise and figure out who “Anonymous” was.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Times, Scheuer demonstrated the kind of analytic thinking that apparently afflicted much of the intelligence community. He wrote: “America's ‘Muslim problem' is not that Muslims do not understand our policy, but rather that they believe they understand it precisely…Muslims believe that American policy is meant to destroy their brethren and faith, seize their oil, occupy their sanctities and arm Israel to batter Palestinians.”

He added:  “These perceptions are not true, I trust” – he trusts? – “but they are reality for tens of millions of Muslims.”

Oh, so perceptions become “reality” when people “believe” them. If that's so, it must follow that since quite a few people believe the CIA carried out the 9/11 attacks, it's also “reality” that Scheuer and other CIA officials should be prosecuted for those attacks. You and I may “trust” that Scheuer had nothing to do with such atrocities — but if a different reality is real for others, who are we to judge?

Scheuer concluded this train of illogic by saying that Americans eventually “will demand changes in U.S. foreign policy.” But if our policy is misunderstood, why would it help to change it? Wouldn't it still be misunderstood? And wouldn't that misunderstanding still be – to him at least — as real as anybody else's version of reality?

This is the kind of reasoning one might expect to hear in the freshman dorm of a junior college late at night after too many sundry intoxicants.  It certainly would not be welcome On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.