Blowing the Whistle When Things Go Wrong

During the Reagan administration, CIA Director William Casey and Robert Gates, who held several key positions at the agency, were the “Gepetto and Pinocchio” of U.S. intelligence, according to former CIA senior analyst Mel Goodman. To Goodman, Casey and Gates oversaw a politicization of the intelligence process that was detrimental to U.S. interests and was merely a rationalization for Reagan’s massive military buildup, at a time when the CIA knew, even before glasnost and perestroika, that the Soviet Union could not compete with the US in the arms race.

That was just one of Goodman’s insights as he discussed his new book, Whistleblower at the CIA: An Insider’s Account of the Politics of Intelligence, at Santa Fe’s Collected Works bookstore. Joining him in front of a standing-room-only crowd was Valerie Plame, a recent transplant to our fair city and the victim of intelligence politicization herself. You might recall that during the George W. Bush presidency, she was “outed” as a CIA operative by the Bush administration for having the misfortune of being married to a former US diplomat who spoke out against some of Bush’s rationale for the war in Iraq.

IMG_8719 (2)_1Plame began by asking Goodman, why this book now. He said he was concerned about the ongoing political damage caused by ideologues running the country’s intelligence apparatus. He had seen firsthand how they “prostitute the intelligence process” by shaping their reports to fit a president’s desired political outcome.

During the 1980s, Goodman was a Soviet analyst who watched Gates and Casey play loose with the facts to satisfy Reagan. Goodman eventually quit the CIA in 1990 and turned whistleblower the next year. He spoke out against Gates’s nomination to lead the CIA and detailed the many ways the agency, under his and Casey’s direction, had cooked the books when it came to intelligence reports. One example, which Goodman did not discuss at Collected Works, was the assertion that the Soviet Union was behind the plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II. Gates and Casey were convinced from the outset that the KGB had arranged it, even as CIA analysts could not find clear evidence of this. In 1985, Casey ordered Gates to prepare a new report on the assassination attempt, and Goodman testified to Congress that Gates did not want analysts to include any information that might show the Soviets were not involved. Gates later rewrote some of the report to suit his interpretation of events.

Plame asked Goodman about more recent whistleblower cases, including Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Thomas Drake. The last name might not be familiar to many readers, but he was charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act after the Obama administration accused him of passing along classified information to the media.  As Goodman noted, Drake tried to follow established procedures for alerting his superiors about illegal activities at the National Security Agency, where Drake worked. Only when he was ignored did he become a whistleblower.

As far as Snowden and Manning, Goodman said he thought they had released more information than was germane to their concerns, but he still supported their actions. Asked why Barack Obama was so aggressive in pursuing these and other whistleblower cases, Goodman said that he thought the president might have felt intimidated by the military and intelligence communities for his lack of experience in their realms, so he wanted to appear tough.

Most of the discussion focused on a range of foreign policy and intelligence issues, and the challenges the country faces in those areas under Donald Trump. The president, Goodman said, is “the symptom of a much larger crisis,” and Goodman does not share the faith some media outlets seem to have in the strength of our democratic institutions in the face of the Trump onslaught. “The guardrails of democracy have been compromised,” Goodman said. While not challenging the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian involvement, in some form, in the 2016 election, he doesn’t see an impeachment coming out of the Mueller investigations. He didn’t rule out, however, some indictments over money laundering tied to the Trumps and the Russians.

IMG_8715 (2)_1Going further into the previous election, Goodman noted that Vladimir Putin, in his KGB days, often collected information on Western elections. And as far as Hillary Clinton, Putin had a “real contempt” for her, after the way the United States handled the overthrow of Muammar Qaddfi in Libya. Russia abstained on a UN measure to send military forces there, because Clinton assured the Russians that regime change was not part of the plan. While Putin hated Hillary, he also thought he could work with—or manipulate—Trump, hence the Russians’ clear preference in the race.

Of course, Russian distrust of the United States began soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Bill Clinton broke the US promise not to expand NATO into any former Soviet republics. Other promises were broken as well. Goodman said, “We need a better relationship with Russia,” so we can work with them on issues where we have similar interests, such as terrorism. But anti-Russian/Soviet feelings here have 100-year-old roots, and the recent charges of collusion have only fanned them. Goodman said Putin wants Russia to be seen as an equal of the United States  in international affairs, and some of the moves he makes that upset Americans are really done out a sense of weakness—and the memory of the broken promises since 1991.

Other random observations Goodman shared: Current UN ambassador Nikki Haley is “incompetent,” and he had nothing positive to say about CIA director Mike Pompeo or the recent push, under both Obama and Trump, to have former military men holding so many national security positions. Goodman said the left wing can be as bad as the right in accepting conspiracy theories, and he doesn’t believe there is a “deep state” trying to undermine Trump or any other president. The CIA in particular, he said, “is in no position to hold back any president.” Asked to cite some past intelligence successes, he said the various departments provided good information on Soviet weapons programs and had the tools to successfully monitor and verify SALT and other arms limitation pacts. And Richard Nixon’s ability to improve relations with the Soviet Union and China rested in part on good intel. In general, Goodman said, our country’s intelligence-gathering capabilities are supreme. The problems have come with how the information has been used or misused, or with ill-conceived covert missions. One intelligence failure, though was 9/11. Then the commission that studied the attacks protected the CIA and President Bush in its final report.

Asked for good sources of information on what is happening in the world, Goodman singled out the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist (a lineup sure to raise the hackles of some sectors of both the Left and the Right). In general, though, he said journalists are lazy, and they need to look deeper at something he sees as a bigger problem than Russian meddling in the 2016 election: Republican Election Day shenanigans and ongoing efforts at voter suppression. Another of his takes on the previous election: Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate, in part because of her decision to use a private email server while secretary of state. She compounded her problems by ignoring advice to campaign in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and other states she thought she had wrapped up—and then lost by small margins. And the Democrats as a whole underestimated the anger of the middle class and largely ignored its concerns.

In the midst of all the recent political chaos, Goodman singled out one person for praise: “Sally Yates is a hero of mine.” The former assistant attorney general is a model public servant, he said, because she spoke up when she saw something illegal—which of course is what any good whistleblower should do.

Recycling Research

On April 29, 1862, Timothy Webster prepared to die. He would soon become one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans to perish because of the Civil War. But Webster was not a Union or Confederate soldier or an unfortunate civilian caught in the crossfire. Webster was a spy for the North—and the first spy to be executed during the four-year conflict.

twebsterWebster’s name doesn’t appear in many history books, except perhaps ones devoted to Civil War espionage. I came across his story while researching a You Choose book on spies of the Civil War (due out next year). His exploits provided the background for one of my three story threads, and after finishing that book, I began doing a little more research on Webster for a query I wanted to write for a children’s magazine profiling little-known heroes of the Civil War (you can read about my time at Yale University doing that research here).

Unfortunately, the deadline for submitting the query passed before I could get my act together and write it. But like any historian, I didn’t want my research to go for naught, hence the post you’re now reading.

Most of the information about Webster and his undercover work came from his boss, Allan Pinkerton, of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Pinkerton and his operatives—including several women—formed the core of the Union’s first spy service during the war. Even before the fighting started, Pinkerton was involved in national security issues—more on that in a bit—and after the war he wrote about his and his staff’s deeds of derring-do in The Spy of the Rebellion.

Pinkerton, though, had a habit that has made life hard for historians: he liked to embellish the truth. For more than a century, popular writers took Pinkerton’s words about Webster as gospel and passed them along. It took Corey Recko, with his 2013 book A Spy for the Union, to poke holes in the tall tales with well-researched facts (I’m indebted to Recko’s work both for my You Choose book and this piece).

As it turns out, the truth is intriguing enough, painting a portrait of a calm, brave agent working behind enemy lines. Webster came to America from England when he was 12, and in his early 30s joined the New York Police Department. While on the force, he met Pinkerton, who convinced him to come to Chicago and join his detective agency.

Pinkerton assessed Webster this way: “There was such a decided mixture of sternness and amiability, of innate force and gentle feelings, of frankness and resolution stamped upon his features that he instinctively impressed the beholder at a glance.…Though not a man of great enlightenment, he was gifted with a large amount of natural shrewdness, which enabled him to successfully meet any emergency which might arise. From his association with people in the various walks of life, he had acquired that habit of easy adaptation which made him appear, and feel, perfectly at home in almost any society, whether in the drawing-room or the tavern, in the marts of trade, or laboring at the plow.”

That habit of easy adaptation helped Webster gain the trust of Confederate sympathizers in Maryland even before the start of the war. Along with Pinkerton agent Hattie Lewis, Webster went to Perryman, Maryland, shortly after Lincoln’s election. The two were supposed to gather information about rumored plots to blow up railroads in the state. Instead, Webster heard anti-Lincoln men talking about the possibility of the president’s  assassination as he passed through Baltimore on his way to his inauguration. That and information gleaned by other agents convinced Pinkerton that the threat of an assassination was real, even if he didn’t have concrete evidence of a well-conceived plot.

Lincoln's safe arrival in Washington , as depicted in  Pinkerton's book.

Lincoln’s safe arrival in Washington , as depicted in Pinkerton’s book.

When the time came for Lincoln to travel through Baltimore, he did it in disguise, secretly in the dead of night, with Pinkerton and several armed detectives traveling with him. Along the route, Webster stood watch, and as the train passed through Havre de Grace, he used a lantern to signal that all was clear. Lincoln reached the capital safely, though he regretted the clandestine trip. After being ridiculed in the press, he called the trip a “grave mistake,” from a political perspective. But as Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer notes in his book Lincoln President-Elect, given the real assassination plot of 1865, Pinkerton was not unwise to take the earlier rumors and threats seriously.

As for Webster, when the war broke out he found himself in Maryland, posing as a friend of the Confederacy. In that guise, he convinced real pro-South men that he wanted to arm Baltimore residents to battle Union troops. He also traveled into Rebel territory, visiting Tennessee and befriending Confederate officers, who openly talked about troop movements and strength. Everything he learned, Webster sent back to Pinkerton.

Later in 1861, Webster went to Richmond, maintaining his ruse as a Confederate supporter. He carried messages from Confederates in Maryland to the South’s capital, and once again he earned the trust of Confederate officers and government officials—so much so that they asked Webster to carry documents north for them. The South’s Secretary of War, Judah Benjamin, even wrote out passes for Webster so he could safely cross military lines. The Pinkerton operative coolly took on the role of double agent, with Union men copying down the contents of the messages he carried north before they reached their intended recipient.

In Richmond, Webster once again worked with Hattie Lewis; the couple posed as husband and wife. Early in 1862, Webster fell ill, and the pair stopped sending messages north for a while. A concerned Pinkerton sent two other agents to Richmond to check on Webster. Almost immediately, they were identified as Northern detectives by someone who had known them in Washington, D.C. They were arrested and sentenced to hang. To save himself, one of the men, John Scully, confessed his espionage activities and fingered Webster and Lewis as spies. Later the other nabbed agent, Pryce Lewis, followed Scully’s path. Both men avoided execution.

Webster receive his warrant for execution, as depicted in Pinkerton's book.

Webster receive his warrant for execution, also from Pinkerton’s book.

But not Webster. Neither side had executed a spy at this point in the war, but Corey Recko speculates that Confederate leaders were so angry at being duped that they wanted Webster dead. He was executed on April 29. In Pinkerton’s telling, Webster asked to be killed by a firing squad, rather than to be “hanged like a common felon,” but the Southern commander in charge refused. When the time came, Webster stood calmly with the noose around his neck. The trap door swung open, but something went wrong—the noose slipped and Webster did not die. As the Confederates prepared the gallows again, Webster said, “I suffer a double death.” This time the procedure went as planned and Webster was soon dead.

At this point in his narrative, Pinkerton waxed poetic for one of the unsung heroes of the Civil War: “Farewell, brave spirit! I knew thee well. Brave, tender and true; thou hast suffered in a glorious cause, and died a martyr’s death. Thy memory will long be green in the hearts of thy friends. When treason is execrated, and rebellion is scorned and despised, the tears of weeping friends will bedew the sod which rests above the martyred spy of the Rebellion—Timothy Webster.”