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A couple weeks ago when I chastised the Washington Post for devoting only 11% of its column inches on Wikileaks to the actual content of the leaks themselves, I neglected to mention a notable sanctuary within the Post‘s HTML borders from the tyranny of Wikileaks meta-coverage: Jeff Stein‘s Spy Talk blog, whose motto is “Intelligence for Thinking People”—but don’t take it from him, take it from the folks at Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey, whose banner advertisements I have only ever seen on “Spy Talk”—and I don’t think they’re going after my sophisticated tastes, guys. Stein kindly fielded every dumb question I could think of and a few others I was too embarrassed to ask on the phone but slyly emailed him afterward, on topics ranging from Julian Assange‘s sex life to Steve Rosen‘s porn habits to Anna Chapman‘s service to her country, plus the CIA Christmas party, Bob Casey‘s deathbed confession and even the JFK assassination.
Q: What have been your favorite Wikileaks so far?
A: The American ambassador’s assessment of Moammar Gaddafi‘s travel habits, from the Ukrainian nurse who follows him everywhere, to needing to set up his tent wherever he goes, to his “diminished dependence on his legendary all-female guard force.” It was just a model of wonderful writing. I’m kind of a Gaddafi freak anyway, so I knew a lot of that stuff already, but it’s still such fascinating reading to see it all raw in the Ambassador’s voice.
Q: Do you have any sense of what the rhyme or reason is to the timing of the leaks being posted? I spoke to a reporter at the Guardian who was, himself, somewhat in the dark about the whole process. Have you been involved in any Washington Post attempts to collaborate with Wikileaks?
A: My own view is that Assange just started releasing them when he was ready. But remember, only a fraction has been released to date. I’ve not been involved in The Post’s acquisition of them. The Times and the other papers have had a big advantage by having these documents before anyone else, and their front page story last week about trying to chase terror financing is an example of that. It’s rich with context about previous efforts to stanch the flow of Arab money, particularly from Saudi Arabia, to terror networks. For more minute-to-minute comprehensive analysis I think Danger Room has been doing some great stuff. We’re still playing catchup with a lot of our coverage, but a lot of what we’ve done has been terrific. These cables are going to be in the headlines for months. It’s like a lifetime employment contract for national security reporters. We have maybe ten people over here on national security, and we could use twenty because there’s just so much going on. With so much material, it’s like sampling a tsunami from a raft with a tin cup. What I can get to, I’ve found fascinating. I’ve been up until four in the morning reading some of these things. If you look at the time stamp of my last blog post of the night last week it was something like 2:40 a.m.
Q: The emerging (least favorite word alert) “consensus” is that the release of the cables may be inconvenient for the State Department, but that it bolsters the public’s view of our diplomats and their general understated badassedness. Even Eli Lake, who has always struck me as one of those guys who never met a diplomatic challenge he wouldn’t rather see resolved by the Special Forces—recently Tweeted that the episode instills new found respect in America’s diplomats and that “the stereotype of the diploweenie is just wrong.” This, coming from a guy who was telling me months ago Julian Assange needed to be assassinated or executed or something like that…
A: He said that? For a minute I wondered if he was taking a jibe at me, because I’ve written a bit about the diploweenie stereotype in the context of the difficulty the State Department was having getting people to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. But that was a far different context. In any event I think that what the cables show is that there’s a lot of good reporting and analysis being done out there by State Department officers. A little glib at times, sure, but these days, who isn’t?
I think there’s probably some discomfort among people on the partisan right that the Wikileaks so far have shown the Obama Administration to be by and large so much more effective with regard to handling the Iranian nuclear program and aggressive with Afghanistan in particular than the Bush Administration was. Democrats are always tagged as being weak on national defense, but as the Saudi King Abdullah said in one cable, ‘You know, you really handed Iraq to Iran on a platter when you invaded…’ The point that the Bush people committed a strategic disaster for the U.S. by invading Iraq was never more pungently stated than that.
I don’t get the handwringing about WikiLeaks coming from some in the Obama Administration, which doesn’t come off badly at all, especially with regard to his Iran diplomacy in various Middle East capitals. I think it shows that the strategy of carrots has been working pretty well in terms of giving them the latitude to raise the stock. I’ll go along with Bob Gates on this one; it’s a momentary annoyance that our candid opinions of these world leaders is public for all to see, but you can sort of see Vladimir Putin reading this stuff and saying, “So what’s your point?” Even he would probably agree that he and Medvedev preside over a pretty corrupt regime. I mean, isn’t that what they want? “We don’t preside over it to not make money, guys.” Otherwise, I think that surfacing the reality that Arab leaders are freaking out about Iran and want to hold our coats while we attack Iran will cause them some trouble with the Muslim Brotherhoods they already have trouble with, but it won’t create a lot more problems that they don’t already have with their people.
There’s a historical precedent here: when the Iranians captured the American embassy in 1979 the State Department had failed to totally destroy its files and the Iranians basically scotch-taped them all together and published them, and while I think that actually turned out to be far, far more damaging than the diplomatic cables we’ve seen from WikiLeaks so far, the American Empire wasn’t destroyed by that, either.
Q: You recently wrote a post about morale at the CIA quoting an apparent CIA employee on an anonymous workplace message board bemoaning her superiors’ “obsession with ‘chasing the news’ and little focus on real analysis.” I bring this up because obviously, I relate to it but also because my dad, a former Foreign Service Officer, told me that the cable inquiring about the mood swings and medication habits of Cristina Kirchner that I likened to some urgent mass email you’d get from a celebrity magazine editor was in all likelihood actually requested by the CIA.) Since the tabloidy tone and personal line of inquiry was so strikingly different from the detached politeness of the of the cables, I wondered if that might shed some light on Gates’ dismissal of the impact of most of the cables. Do you think Gates, a former CIA director, just basically believes diplomats are too polite and ineffectual to produce anything of consequence? A: Well, Wikileaks didn’t release his cables, so I think it’s just easy for him to say they don’t matter. On the other hand Gates was really upset about the Afghan and Iraqi military intelligence reports, which were in general not very damaging, being very low level and a lot of it wrong because it was just instant battlefield reporting. The suggested cover-ups of killings of civilians was the important revelation. And you also got a portrait of intelligence that just wasn’t very good. But Gates got pretty exercised about all that. Then these diplomatic cables come along, and he dismisses them as a huge security disaster, and I think he’s right this time. There’s a huge amount of clamor about how people’s feathers have gotten so ruffled they’re gonna stop talking to us, they can’t trust us now. I’ve heard that a hundred times going back many, many years, every time there’s been some embarrassing leak; but foreign officials not gonna stop talking to us because of this. That’s ridiculous.
I hope this spawns more Wikileaks — starting in Moscow and Beijing. Julian Assange is kind of a left-winger but he’s also just sort of an anarchist. I think he would take stuff from the Kremlin in a heartbeat, from China in a heartbeat, and boy, wouldn’t it be really interesting to see the documentation of some Russian minister yapping about Hillary Clinton’s hair or bad breath? Not that she has bad hair or breath, of course.
Q: What are you excited to see more of in the leaks? And do people in Washington actually think reflexively writing off their revelations as “nothing new” or anyway “nothing to see here” as the Post did on Tuesday, when only 250 or so of 250,000 of the cables had even been released— makes them sound smart? A: I don’t think The Post actually said quite that. But It’s really pretty cynical to say there’s nothing new in these documents. It’s one thing to guess or infer these things and quite another to see them all addressed candidly in raw form, like in these cables. I think they’re dynamite. And we’re just at the beginning.
Q: The convoluted story of Stephen J. Rosen, the former AIPAC official and spy who exposed the powerful Israel lobbying group’s rampant porn and sex addiction (and also their regular trafficking in classified US government documents) has been a staple of your blog. I don’t entirely get it, although it sounds slightly more scandalous than the George Soros J Street saga that consumed a lot of the same news cycle, but I must ask: is there anything in the Wikileaks cables that you think would surprise anyone at AIPAC, or in the wider Israel lobby? Could Rosen have done what Julian Assange did?
A: Well, Rosen only made countercharges when AIPAC’s attorney got him to confess his own porn addiction during a deposition. In any event, I doubt that much in the cables we’ve seen so far would surprise anybody at AIPAC, because they’re been so throughly wired into Washington at the highest levels for so many years. But I’d love to see more cables relating to Israel, the Arabs and Iran from the American embassy. For people who really cover this stuff —which is to say, more closely than I do—seeing the Middle East-Israeli-Palestinian nexus from cable traffic would truly be going inside the sausage factory. [Ed note: very few of the 5,411 cables in Wikileaks’ possession filed by American diplomats stationed in Israel have been posted.]
Much of the controversy over AIPAC stems from the fact that it’s not a registered foreign agent, but they’re lobbying on Israel’s behalf all the time, and according to Rosen and many other sources over the years, they regularly trafficked in classified information. (He was fired by the lobbying group during an espionage investigation into his document sharing activities.) AIPAC’s last document dump in the court case was an attempt to scare him away with all these revelations about how he watched porn. I have no idea what their logic was there, because it surely didn’t cause him to back off.
Q: Before this whole Wikileaks cache broke, what was your pick for most under-appreciated story on your beat?
A: In general I would say that the excesses of intelligence contractors, which is something I’ve been working on, and The Post was working on before I arrived here last March. The behavior of some of them has been really “off the reservation”, and they’ve gotten away with a lot of crap that hasn’t been reported. I’d also like to do and see more reporting on the key personalities in the intelligence apparatus, people like Steve Kappes, who I profiled earlier this year in Washingtonian magazine just before I came to the Post. I would have waited to give it to the Post, but they’re slower than Congress, as somebody put it, about hiring people, so time ran out. I just thought Kappes was such an obvious target, because here was a guy who had such a reputation for brilliance, but everywhere he went he left a trail of disasters…there’s a lot of stuff that goes around that could use more attention, a lot. But we’re very much more understaffed than we ever were.
Q: One of the things I’ve found sort of nice about cablegate is it’s forcing reporters to sit down and read something longer than 140 characters for once. The news cycle moves so quickly these days I feel like no one gets to digest some of the more complex narratives even when our colleagues bother to piece them together. (I think this is why I found the movie Fair Game so disappointing, because I wanted it to remind everyone of all the myriad sins and frauds of the entire Bush Administration, and that is obviously a bit ambitious for a two hour movie.) In the off chance interested anyone is able to tear themselves away from the internet for longer than two hours, what are some helpful books you’d recommend for someone looking for context to understand the current situation?
A: This may not sound very timely, but I just read a wonderful biography of [legendary godfather of modern American spycraft]Wild Bill Donovan by Doug Waller, who was at Time and Newsweek that gives you a pretty good perspective on today’s CIA, it’s very insightful and has a number of historical newsbreaks in it THAT I’ve been planning to write about. And I thought Bob Woodward‘s book was terrific; it’s woven together very beautifully and there’s still a lot of news in there. I picked through it when it first came out for a few spot stories, but there’s a lot in there that I don’t think anyone’s picked up on yet.
Two books that I think have some of the most important inside stories of the post-9/11 CIA are Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq by former CIA operations officer Charles Faddis, and another memoir by a former CIA ops officer, Ishmael Jones called The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture. There’s also a little-noted but important memoir by a former DIA analyst named A.J. Rossmiller called Still Broken: A Recruit’s Inside Account of Intelligence Failures, From Baghdad to the Pentagon. All of them a very illuminating and filled with all sorts of interesting (and important) inside dope which has never been—well, not to blow my own horn but I wrote about Still Broken in 2008— but I don’t think anyone else has even addressed many of the issues they raised. If people really knew how feckless the Agency can be—particularly the way it’s depicted in Operation Hotel California, which is by the CIA officer who led the first team into northern Iraq on the eve of the invasion—I think they’d be alarmed. The portrait that emerges is that we’re really out of our league as conspirators in the Middle East. It’s a place where our great economic and military power doesn’t seem to count for much any more. It’s depressing to have to keep writing about it. I’m always wary when an ex-CIA person says to me, “Oh, are you the one who wrote such and such about us?” I steel myself. But often they’ve said “oh thank you, that was so right on.”
Q: Are you just making nice with Bob Woodward because he’s still pissed that you blogged about Kevin Shipp, that former CIA security officer who claims he made up the dramatic scene at the end of Veil featuring Bill Casey‘s deathbed confession? A: Ha, no. Bob’s immune to pea-shooters like that. He knows I was just reporting it out. It just bounces right off him. In fact I had a nice chat with him the other day when he was in the newsroom filming that…
Q: Oh no, the iPad app commercial!
A: Yes, the one you were making fun of. And it was kinda amusing. And it evoked some warm memories of my stint as editor of the Washington City Paper, back in the early eighties, when I think we were still printing it on stone tablets. I fondly recall the freedom to write with a lot of “attitude.” But I’m all grown up now.
Q: Ha, well, you know me, I can never get enough “freedom”, but the double edged sword is that it can make everyone hate you and maybe eliminate a lot of potential sources. Which brings me to your approach to the delicate balance of “sourcing.” I always figured the spy community would be much tougher than most for building trusting relationships with sources. But according to your recent post on last week’s Christmas party, some journalists are so trusted they even get invited to agency social events! You reference the “usual passel of spy-beat journos” as including Andrea Mitchell and single out Ron Kessler and his wife Pam for being particularly “spy friendly.” How friendly are youwith the Agency, and do they invite you to their parties? A: No, I wasn’t invited to the Christmas party once again this year, and my heart was broken again for about 30 seconds. But I made a few phone calls and found out what went on. (Laughs.) I’m really an outsider there. But then again I’m not a CIA beat reporter, per se. Beats always come with their advantages and their disadvantages. As with, say, somebody who covers a baseball team. You’re in the clubhouse all the time and you’re with the players, but if you wash their dirty laundry in the paper they’re not going to talk to you anymore. Likewise, officials can fly away, like blackbirds on a wire, if you knock their agency. Which is why beat reporters are hesitant to beat up officials on their beat—unless other high officials are ratting them out, of course. So when senior CIA officials want to get a story out they don’t call me. But I have other sources who do call me, who are much lower down the food chain, or many times they’ve just left the agency and they know they’re not going to face another polygraph exam, so they feel safer to talk. But just because they’re not senior officials doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s going on, quite the opposite. They’re not necessarily spilling sources and methods. but they will talk about disasters or policies that are eating them up. Usually they’ve got beef with the agency and its policies, over one of its many operations that are not as successful as the Agency would like you to believe. Then there’s the daily grist that comes from Inspector General reports and Government Accountability Office reports and congressional investigative materials—which is no different than the stuff any other reporter combs through. Very few people have time to read these things all the way through anymore, but if you’ve been following these things for long enough you know how to read them. What appears like a dry report can be just golden if you’ve been following the subject for five or ten or twenty years, and you remember something from five years ago that totally contradictS what they are now saying…
Q: How did you get your start in the business?
A: I wrote my first piece as a journalist in 1972 I was a graduate student. I had gone to Berkeley to get an MA in China Studies and the wife of one of the professors there, Franz Schurmann ran a little thing called Pacific News Service, which was publishing less than cheerful stories about the war. I had been an intelligence case officer in Vietnam, and they encouraged me to write about that. I was probably at that point on my way to being a teacher at some leafy prep school. But after I wrote my first piece I realized that journalism could be a different kind of teaching, showing people stuff they might not know and putting it in context. So I developed a love of reporting as years went by. My first apprenticeship, at a weekly over in Virginia, involved covering county sewer permit hearings — where I learned that sewer permits are the rosetta stone of future development. It was great, even if I was terribly bored by the suburbs. As a journalist, you’re endlessly discovering keys to the way the world works.
But I was also really lucky to have intelligence training and to have learned to think as a spook. The training involved running around Baltimore planting things under benches, hiding them in books in the library, snapping miniature photos of documents with A Minox camera, writing in invisible ink…coming ashore from a submarine in the Long Island Sound, making my way to a motel “behind enemy lines” and contacting a “stay-behind agent,” played by some Army Intelligence guy, who you then “teach” everything you’ve learned—dead drops, brush passes, the whole deal. All the while the “secret police” were trying to find me. You know from the previous class that you’re eventually going to be caught and have to demonstrate your counter-interrogation techniques… It was really fun, actually, and I ended up using a lot of those tricks in Vietnam. Spying is a boy’s life.
Q: Do you have any favorite conspiracy theories, and do you subscribe to any yourself?
A: Well, conspiracies exist, hello. It’s part of life, isn’t it? If three of your friends decide to go to a bar and leave you out of it, that’s a conspiracy. The CIA and other intelligence agencies, by definition, conspire to do things in secret. Their job is to get other people to commit treason by working for them, or to play dirty tricks on people, and keep that a secret. I suppose the term “conspiracy” conjures the Kennedy assassination or something like that, but the fact is intelligence agencies hatch conspiracies every day. I wrote a fair amount about the assassination of Orlando Letelier for instance, which was part of a larger conspiracy of the U.S.-BACKED Chilean military government and other Southern Cone dictatorships, using CIA-trained Cuban exiles, kill their enemies.
Q: When you bring up the JFK assassination, do you mean to imply it wasn’t a CIA conspiracy? A: I’m not going there. It gives me a headache.
Q: Hey, which reminds me: Julian Assange’s rape case: a load of crap? A: First of all, much of the news media keep calling it “rape,” which has a particularly horrid and vivid connotation, when the actual charges are far less than that. There are also unanswered questions about the way in which the charges were revived. So I’m keeping my mind open.
Q: Do you think there was a major angle to the Russian spy scandal that the media totally missed, or was Anna Chapman being really hot about the extent of it? A: Anna Chapman certainly made our page views rise, yes. But I think a lot of people didn’t really understand their role here, and mocked them as do-nothing “spies,” when it’s quite apparent that their functions were less than that but still valuable: basically to spot potential agents and targets and conduct other support functions, such as delivering cash and messages.