Burn Before Reading

Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence

by Stansfield Turner

Burn Before Reading

Paperback, 308 pages, Hyperion Books, List Price: $14.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency looks back on the long and complicated relationship between the U.S. presidents and their CIA chiefs, from World War II to the present day, analyzing the decisions that have shaped the intelligence community, how intelligence gathering works, and how politics and personal issues interfere with government business. Reprint.

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Excerpt: Burn Before Reading

Burn Before Reading

Burn Before Reading

Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence


Hyperion Books

Copyright © 2006 Stansfield Turner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780786886661

Chapter One

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND "WILD BILL" America's First Central Intelligence Apparatus

The teams of OSS officers and enlisted men on the ground were trained to expect and anticipate almost anything. They were trained to operate well behind enemy lines, in this instance in Burma during World War II. But no one had prepared them for a visit by their own commander, William "Wild Bill" Donovan, brigadier general and head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He held an incredible storehouse of American military secrets in his head; he really shouldn't have exposed himself to the risk of being captured.

But Donovan was, in the words of his assistant, Ned Putzell (who was also on this trip), the sort of leader who "couldn't ask somebody to do something he himself wouldn't do." He would appear unexpectedly in dangerous locations just to pay a visit to the operatives he'd sent there. In this case, Donovan arrived with Colonel Carl Eifler, head of OSS operations in Burma, in a "damn little biplane," landing on an improvised airstrip at an OSS base well behind Japanese lines. After Donovan had completed his tour of inspection and was talking with both OSS personnel and the Kachin guerrillas they were training and supplying, someone came running. The enemy was closing in. Donovan had to leave. Donovan's men pulled the camouflage off the very short airstrip, which ended in a river. On the other side was the face of a cliff. The men on the ground held the tail of the biplane until the pilot had the prop up to full speed. The plane carrying America's only spymaster then shot down the runway, barely getting off the ground before reaching the river, and just gaining sufficient altitude to make the turn before crashing into the cliff. Donovan was thrilled. Putzell was "sure as the Lord made little apples" that Donovan had escaped certain death.

Never since Donovan has one of America's spymasters been so deeply involved in operations. None of his successors would have dreamed of making a clandestine visit behind enemy lines. To be honest, when I was director of central intelligence, I considered myself a manager, nothing more. But "Wild Bill" Donovan, who got the ball rolling, couldn't shake the romance of the profession. He had to live it.

Now, Donovan didn't come to the job with any intelligence experience to speak of. He was a lawyer. He was not a close friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, he was a Republican. So how did such an unlikely character end up crafting America's first centralized intelligence service?

Preparing for war, a war that would propel America permanently onto the world stage, President Franklin Roosevelt made some changes at home. With incredible political dexterity, he threw the Republican National Convention of 1940 into disarray by appointing two Republicans, Frank Knox and Henry Stimson, to his cabinet. Knox would become secretary of the navy and Stimson, who had served under President Hoover just a few years before, would be secretary of war. Both believed, as did the president, that the war that had broken out in Europe in 1939 would inevitably, and soon, involve the United States. Roosevelt did not know at the time that he had just paved the way for Donovan to enter his inner circle of advisors, and that doing so would lead to the creation of America's first full-fledged intelligence service.

What Roosevelt did know was that the intelligence apparatus he had was quite inadequate. What the president had available to him were offices dedicated to intelligence in the Army, the Navy, and the State Department, plus some foreign intelligence gathering by the FBI. None of it, however, was very aggressively oriented. Today, with Pearl Harbor, the Cold War, and 9/11 behind us, it is difficult to appreciate how naive we Americans were about collecting intelligence clandestinely prior to World War II. Spying simply did not fit with our notions of "fair play." For instance, the president felt it necessary to emphasize in a press conference in 1938 that he would never "sanction espionage by American agents abroad."

The one exception, where our intelligence was reasonably aggressive, was in intercepting and deciphering radio and cable messages of other nations. Back in 1929, Secretary of State Henry Stimson had closed down Army code-breaking operations. Fortunately, the Army pursued code breaking nonetheless. By August 1940, we had broken the code known as PURPLE, in which the Japanese government communicated with its embassies around the world. Roosevelt, then, did have available to him deciphered Japanese diplomatic messages. These were of inestimable value as Pearl Harbor approached. Fewer than forty people-including the president; the secretaries of war, navy, and state and the top military brass; and those who worked on the codes-knew of this operation and had access to the decrypted messages. This system of intercepting and deciphering was named MAGIC, and it was the most productive intelligence operation we had as we headed for World War II.

Through all this, the way MAGIC was processed for delivery to the president was almost a comedy. While the Army had broken the Japanese code, the Navy had the best translators of Japanese. Processing the sheer volume of messages required both their efforts, and they worked together smoothly. But a certain amount of friction developed over the question of which military service would deliver the transcripts to the president. As will be seen throughout this book, intelligence services get their light and air from the chief executive. How much a president brings them into his plans and thinking determines how well they can target their efforts to serve him. How much a president, in turn, supports them in bureaucratic disputes is vital to their ability to function. How strongly a president backs their secret activities before Congress and the public can determine their long-term viability. So a fight that developed between the Army's and Navy's intelligence services over who would deliver MAGIC to the Oval Office was over more than just bragging rights.

The compromise arrangement was that the Army would deliver messages during odd-numbered months and the Navy during even ones. This was not so bad in itself, until July 1941, when there was a breach of security with MAGIC. It came from FDR's Army aide. This led the Army's chief of intelligence to begin sending summaries only, rather than complete messages, to the president. Thus, if there were another breach, it would not be so obvious that we had the actual texts of Japanese messages. The Navy, however, continued providing the complete texts. It took some time for Roosevelt to deal with this ridiculous anomaly. As diplomatic relations with Japan deteriorated, he demanded the actual transcripts from the Army, rather than summaries. It had to be crystal clear to Roosevelt that there was a serious lack of coordination and cooperation between at least two of his three key intelligence services: Army, Navy, and State. The fourth, the FBI, was collecting a certain amount of intelligence in Latin America and elsewhere through its personnel stationed at various American embassies. He could only guess how much his lack of adequate intelligence was due to such rivalry.

Roosevelt went about filling his intelligence gap in his own inimitable manner. Not only in intelligence, but also in almost every area of concern to the executive branch, he liked to have several sources of information. In the case of intelligence he simply deputized a number of individuals and groups to be unofficial intelligence services reporting to him directly. One was Joseph Grew, U.S. ambassador to Japan. Grew had graduated from Groton and from Harvard two years ahead of Roosevelt. They knew each other from days on the Harvard Crimson. Grew, whose view of Secretary of State Cordell Hull was less than flattering, visited FDR as well as Hull every time he came to Washington. He also felt free to write to the president directly from time to time. On December 14, 1940, he wrote: "It seems to me increasingly clear that we are bound to have a showdown [with the Japanese] some day, and the principal question at issue is whether it is to our advantage to have that showdown sooner or have it later." Interestingly, because Army intelligence had so few observers, let alone spies, in Japan, the chief of Army intelligence considered Grew his best source on what was going on there.

There were also some private citizens FDR used for intelligence gathering. One of them was the wealthy and well-connected Vincent Astor. Astor organized a secret club called "the Room" that met in New York to discuss gossip in the guise of foreign intelligence, aided by heavy drinking. In 1938 the president sent Astor and Kermit Roosevelt, a cousin of his and a son of Theodore Roosevelt, into the Pacific on Astor's yacht to collect information about Japanese installations. It appears that Astor had a thrilling adventure but did not return with any groundbreaking intelligence. Astor, though, was a director of the Western Union Telegraph Company, which allowed him to provide FDR with the text of sensitive telegrams and cables. And he had a number of bankers in his "Room" who allowed him to gather intelligence on transfers of funds. Roosevelt's directions to Astor are not on record, but Astor's messages to Roosevelt suggest that FDR fully approved of these questionable activities.

Still another unofficial intelligence operative was John Franklin Carter, a friend of the president's, who obtained FDR's approval for "a small special intelligence and fact-finding unit" that would get its funding from the State Department. Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, a skeptic about centralized intelligence, grumbled, "I am not, of course, familiar with what the President has asked him to do, nor do I wish to be." Carter himself later evaluated his contribution as minimal: "It was a picturesque and wildly funny affair at times. Very fantastically amusing things happened as they always do in off-beat operations and I think we all had fun." One of Roosevelt's first directives to Carter was to spy on and report about Vincent Astor's operation.

Much more effective and even more mysterious was Wallace Banta Phillips, a rather quiet and colorless businessman with a London-based rubber company. With Roosevelt's approval, Phillips entered the espionage field through the Office of Naval Intelligence in May 1940. The fact that Phillips's rubber company already had an industrial espionage ring in place meant that the Navy could spy without having to endanger its own attaches. Astor quickly learned of this newcomer and complained to FDR that the businessman was just a dangerous "social climber."

In each of these failed experiments, we see a president hungry for information direct from the source, delivered by people untainted by politics. In some cases, we see Roosevelt using a shroud of secrecy to bypass Congress. In spring 1938, he wanted to support the Spanish Loyalists, then fighting Francisco Franco's Nationalist forces, but the 1936 Neutrality Act tied his hands. Roosevelt, though, was able to route supplies to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War in direct violation of the neutrality legislation. He built a tiny spy ring for this operation, consisting of his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who cabled messages to Ambassador William Bullitt in Paris; a journalist; and his brother-in-law G. Hall Roosevelt. A scheme to supply 150 airplanes to the Loyalists fell apart when France began to seal its porous border with Spain. Much later, when Roosevelt again felt tied down by the neutrality law, he was able to turn to Bill Donovan.

Donovan was a second-generation Irish Catholic born in Buffalo, New York, in 1883. His family, which had fought for labor rights, was decidedly not Republican. Donovan showed early promise in college (while also working in factories and on construction sites) and obtained a scholarship to attend Columbia University Law School. Athletic, articulate, and handsome (those who knew Donovan, male or female, always remarked specifically on his dazzling blue eyes), Bill Donovan came into his own at the law school where FDR was a student contemporary, though Roosevelt barely knew Donovan there. After graduating, Roosevelt would soon be involved in politics and public service, while Donovan would return to Buffalo to start a law firm.

During the First World War, the defining event of their generation, each served in a way appropriate to his station in life. Roosevelt was an assistant secretary of the navy, while Donovan was a lieutenant colonel serving in the army in France. Roosevelt cultivated the image of a rule-breaker, a rebel inside a staid bureaucracy who got things done for the good of the men and women in uniform. Donovan already had earned the nickname "Wild Bill" while chasing after Pancho Villa along the Mexican border in 1916. Then, serving in the "Fighting 69th" regiment in France in 1918, he personally led an assault on an extremely well fortified German position and remained engaged and exposed even after being shot by an enemy machine gun. He received medals from several foreign governments for this action, and eventually the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, and many other medals, becoming one of the most decorated men in American military history. But he often broke down crying when he spoke of the men who "died out of loyalty to me" and requested that his Medal of Honor be deposited with his regiment.

After the war, Donovan's law practice flourished, but he was also drawn into state politics on the Republican side as U.S. attorney for the western district of New York. He made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor of New York. When one of his law school mentors, Harlan Fiske Stone, became U.S. attorney general in 1924, Donovan joined him as an assistant attorney general. Now Donovan started to get a glimpse of where his unbridled ambition might take him. Within a year, he thought of being in the president's cabinet, maybe not as secretary of state right away, but eventually. By 1928, there was muted talk of a Hoover-Donovan ticket.

Donovan's labors on behalf of the Hoover campaign of 1928 did not go unnoticed; it seemed almost certain that the administration would reward him with an appointment to a significant position in the government. He was offered the job of governor-general of the Philippines. He refused, citing family reasons, but the real reason was that he felt it meant being exiled from Washington. Donovan tried to reenter public life by running for governor of New York in 1932, the same year Governor Franklin Roosevelt first ran for president. The gubernatorial election was a disaster for Donovan. His defeat-he received only a third of the votes-by a banker in the midst of the Great Depression seemed to put a final cap on his political ambitions.

Still, he traveled to Europe frequently in the early 1930s, and each time he came back he was more convinced that it was time for America to take a more active role in the world. Because of his distinguished war record, Donovan had entree to important people all over Europe. He met with Mussolini in Italy and a number of top officials in London. He saw impressive demonstrations of German military hardware. After these experiences, he told a group of American veterans: "In an age of bullies, we cannot afford to be a sissy." By the end of the 1930s, more people were coming around to this view, but a majority of the American public (not to mention the Republican party) were isolationist, so Donovan was going against the grain. His attempts to draw the nation's attention to the dangers posed by the rise of two aggressive powers, Germany in Europe and Japan in East Asia, brought him closer to Roosevelt.

Donovan had no experience in intelligence-either spying or analysis. He had limited experience in government, and practically none in managing large bureaucracies. So why did Roosevelt give him the job-initially with the intriguing title of Director of the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI)-of creating and heading a new intelligence operation? Donovan had a wide and diverse network of connections that enabled him to recruit talented people ranging from businessmen and Wall Street lawyers to academics from Yale and other elite institutions. He essentially was in the right place at the right time. He also had enormous charm and charisma. "He could charm anybody," recalled Ned Putzell. "He experienced idolatry everywhere. And people admired him so damn much." Another former Donovan subordinate in the OSS, Fisher Howe, remembered, "When you were with him, you were the only person that counted, and that is a tremendous talent."

Continues...



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