01/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What the CIA Doesn't Need You to Know

At a conference at CIA headquarters last Thursday, I asked the Director, General Michael Hayden, how he would like to alter public perception of his agency.

Without hesitation, he said, "More discretion on the part of journalists."

Ironic, I thought. I'd been under the impression that by habitually stonewalling journalists, the Agency prompts them to dig deeper, exacerbating the problem. In further contemplation of Gen. Hayden's response, though, I contacted Fred Rustmann, who was a CIA operations officer for twenty-five years (now he heads CTC International Group, the private espionage company). "'No Comment' would be the only words out of my mouth," Rustmann said. "Too many times what we say gets twisted around by the media and we have no control over what is eventually printed. A secret organization doing secret work needs to remain secret. There is no obligation for openness to the public. And we should be able to operate that way in a democracy as long as there is certain oversight by lawmakers."

"The problem is overclassification," said Jefferson Morley, National Editorial Director for the Center for Independent Media and author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA. Morley was in federal court recently, battling the CIA to obtain forty-eight-year-old classified documents pertaining to the Kennedy assassination. "Overclassification is so pervasive that it undermines people's confidence in things that are legitimately kept secret."

"The core issue is that a secret intelligence service goes against the grain of democracy," said David Ignatius, the international affairs columnist for the Washington Post (as well as author of Agents of Innocence and other thrillers that are all but required reading in the intelligence community). "There has become a sub-specialty in journalism of intelligence reporting. The problem [for reporters] is the CIA works hard to keep its successes secret."

Last Thursday's conference offered me evidence that that policy may have merit. The occasion was a tribute to the late Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski along with the CIA's declassification of eighty related documents.

Kuklinski was a Pole who bridled at Soviet oppression and, in 1972, sent a note to a United States Embassy offering our side his help. Over the ensuing nine years, each day spent in anticipation that he would be found out and executed, he capitalized on his military position to covertly photograph 43,000 documents, including the Soviet plans for attacking NATO, the exact locations of command-and-control bunkers, details on some two hundred weapons systems, and techniques used for evading US satellite surveillance.

Codenamed GULL, Kuklinski passed the film to CIA officers via elaborate dead drops, nighttime tosses into moving cars, and secret meetings at graveyards that lend credence to the most fanciful Hollywood takes on espionage. And he delivered even more "product" via a cigarette-pack-sized two-way electronic transmitter, built for him by the Agency in 1979, which worked much like a modern text-messaging device.

"We often compare intelligence analysis to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to go by, and with a lot of pieces missing," Hayden said. "Colonel Kuklinski didn't just give us a piece or two -- he gave us the picture itself."

According to Aris Pappas, a CIA Soviet military analyst during the GULL operation, "There are a lot of things that contributed to the fact there was no World War Three. The information that Kuklinski provided us significantly contributed to that outcome."

Another CIA conference attendee, New York Times reporter Benjamin Weiser, added, "Clearly [Kuklinski] made the threat that existed much more transparent. The U.S. was thus able to have an extraordinary window not only into the Soviets' plans, but into their minds."

Likely the strongest testimony on behalf of GULL comes via a detractor, Soviet Armed Forces commander Marshall Kulikov, who claimed that Kuklinski's intelligence value to the United States was greatly exaggerated. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, also at the Langley conference, recalled a 1997 meeting at which he told Kulikov, "Thanks to Kuklinski, the entire Soviet Command, including you, would have been dead within three hours of a Soviet attack on NATO." Kulikov could only gulp.

Perhaps equally pertinent today is the following excerpt from Weiser's gripping Kuklinski biography, A Secret Life. Regarding the recent debate about the effectiveness of the CIA's human intelligence capability, Weiser wrote:

The Kuklinski case human intelligence operations can succeed when they are handled with scrupulous care and imagination. The operation reveals a side of the CIA that is not often seen -- of case officers who joined the agency because they were attracted by the excitement and intrigue of undercover work and by the idea of public service. The CIA is the face America first offers people who, like Kuklinski, are inspired by Western ideals. To the extent the CIA fails to carry out such operations, the United States loses a powerful means of understanding nations, regimes, and groups that are hostile to the West.

Which brings me back to Hayden's request of journalists. "When their spotlight is cast on intelligence activities, sound judgment and a thorough understanding of all the equities at play are critically important," he said recently, adding, "When those operations are exposed, it reduces the space and it damages the tools we use to protect Americans."

With the GULL revelations, among other public outreach efforts, Hayden is taking significant steps to soften critics of the CIA's overclassification and other obfuscations -- and perhaps even to rekindle America's confidence in the Agency. This isn't to say that the Fourth Estate should have a diminished role at Langley, or that CIA human intelligence operations can go without substantial legislative and executive oversight -- as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "If you want a secret respected, see that it's respectable in the first place." But if among those intelligence operations there is even one comparable to the Kuklinski case, as a citizen and a journalist, I'm happy not to know about any of them. Until they're ready for declassification.

Col. Ryszard Kuklinski

The first of thousands of communications from GULL (declassified 12/11/08)


Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?