Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

September 21, 2000

Wen Ho Lee, John Deutch and the Future of Intelligence

It remains to be seen whether the impulse has "legs," as they say in show biz and in that branch of it that they call politics. But the freeing of physicist Wen Ho Lee from solitary confinement in New Mexico has focused renewed attention on the case of John Deutch, the former CIA director who is accused – apparently rather credibly – of pretty much the same offense the government finally charged Dr. Lee with: mishandling computer files containing secret information.

The question is, what will happen to Mr. Deutch in the wake of Dr. Lee being freed with an apology by a federal judging (after copping to one of the 59 counts and agreeing to talk some more)? Hardly anybody really believes Mr. Deutch was involved in espionage, even though investigators discovered that he had "placed large volumes of classified material on unsecured computers in his home, including information about some of the government’s most sensitive covert operations," as James Risen put it in a May 5 New York Times story. This activity "represented potential violations of both agency rules and federal law." Furthermore, "Three days after the classified material was detected, Deutch deleted more than 1,000 files from his personal computer, the inspector general’s report said."


The more you look into the background of both cases, however, the more it looks like something larger than simple hypocrisy or even special treatment for the insider lies beneath both scandals – and much else that is wrong with the CIA. In the wake of the end of the cold war the CIA has been floundering for 10 years, an agency in search of a mission. In the meantime questions old and new are arising about the alleged need for secrecy, – or at least the need to classify increasing volumes of material (much of which is already available elsewhere from utterly open sources) – so it becomes illegal for certain people to have access to it.

The big questions lurk. What is the role of intelligence agencies, both government and private in an interconnected world without an active superpower confrontation? Is government secrecy an effective way of thwarting enemies or would-be enemies? If it is needed, is the CIA the right agency to do it, or is it so encrusted with a cold war corporate culture that it would be better to abolish it and start over with a new agency? In the Internet world does government secrecy or government intelligence acquisition even have a useful or legitimate role?

It would have been appropriate to have been examining and discussing such questions openly and with a variety of input from the moment the Berlin Wall fell. But aside from a few cranks, that hasn’t happened. Institutional inertia won out over whatever latent desire for a fresh approach to the new realities of a new era might have existed, and the CIA has been allowed to stumble blindly for the last 10 years.

There’s even some evidence – from a 9/10/00 story by James Risen in the New York Times that shows the agency a certain sympathy, no less – that the current administration has been undermining the CIA and hindering the search for a reason to live. It’s more by incompetence and inattention than by design, but the CIA – indeed, the whole idea of intelligence in a world where national borders are less important – though not altogether unimportant – is in a deep crisis


But to the Deutch case. The apparent violation of transferring material to unsecured computers was discovered as Deutch was leaving office in 1996. As CIA director he would have had access to most anything he wanted, but even when in office not the authority to transfer it to an unsecured computer. He was almost certainly expected to work at home and take stuff home, but only under certain security provisions. No doubt he was not the only CIA employee to be sometimes lax about the details of security procedures.

But the law – at least in the abstract and in some cases in reality – is said to be concerned with actions first and motivations second. Did he do the deed? If there are mitigating circumstances and necessities involved in essentially technical violations, fine; maybe only a reprimand or reminder is necessary. But the law’s first concern is whether the violation occurred.

An internal security investigation of Deutch’s downloading was begun in December 1996 but shelved after a few months. According to a classified report by the agency’s inspector-general’s office apparently seen in January by James Risen of the Times, actions by the agency’s former executive director, Nora Slatkin, and general counsel, Michael O’Neill, "had the effect of delaying a prompt and thorough investigation of the matter."

The inspector general’s office didn’t get involved in the case until late 1997 and didn’t tell the Justice Department about the Deutch matter – involving a possibly prosecution – worthy violation of federal law, not just internal agency regulations – until early 1998. George Tenet, the current director, learned of the possible security breach quickly, but didn’t reprimand Deutch until the inspector general’s office notified Justice. Nobody breathed a word to the congressional committees with oversight jurisdiction, although most committee meetings are held in secret and important leaks are not all that common.

In a word, as some CIA security officials concluded, senior officials were protecting Deutch. Who knows whether anything would have happened if a CIA employee hadn’t complained to the inspector general’s office and triggered an investigation?


Mr. Deutch has undergone more intensive investigation since Justice was informed and some details leaked out. He may face indictment and prosecution. As Stratfor.com put it in its 9/18 open-source daily intelligence update – I get it by e-mail and most people can – "If they’re going to hammer Lee, then they’re going to hammer Deutch. It would look too bad not to do so."

Stratfor.com gives the appearance of being a private company staffed by former intelligence people who still buy into the broad outlines of the intelligence ideology but with the independence that can come from not drawing a government paycheck anymore. I don’t know that to a certainty, and I don’t always agree with their realpolitik approach to the world, but they often seem to know what they’re talking about when it comes to intelligence matters

According to Stratfor, "both cases [Lee and Deutch] perfectly illustrate one of the American intelligence community’s greatest problems: the cult of classification, in which information both rare and commonplace is safeguarded with equal zeal. Both cases also illustrate the intense political pressures on intelligence and counterintelligence agencies, polluting the value of the nation’s intelligence. These are the parts of our system that are broken, the ones that no one in Washington wants to talk about."

In short, when you classify everything, including material that has appeared in scientific journals, the New York Times and on the Internet, you waste too much time and resources protecting trivial non-secrets and inevitably devote less attention to real, important secrets. "While we obsess over these ["banal drivel" and cases like Lee and Deutch] the true secrets will fly out the door to the four corners of the earth."


I might disagree with Stratfor about what should be a "true secret," but there’s little doubt that overclassification serves ego and self-importance more than it serves whatever version of national security you prefer – I’d choose restoration of a limited-government republic as the best guarantor of security. And there’s no question that in the era of Internet and the transfer of wealth and information across national boundaries in microseconds rather than months (in a sailing ship) or even hours, concepts like secrecy, protection of privacy, protection of information and even copyrights are in the midst of a near-revolutionary change whose shape we won’t know for some time.

Bottom line: We really ought to get rid of the CIA – not simply as a cost-cutting measure (although that wouldn’t be a bad reason), but as part of a process of thoroughgoing reevaluation of the roles of information, secrecy and intelligence in the emerging world.

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