A Former Top Spy Tells All

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Why you should care

Few men can say they know more about the greatest risks facing America.

Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin sat for a revealing interview with OZY’s CEO and co-founder on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.

On Russia and the U.S. Capitol Attack

Watson: How successful do you think the Russians or the Chinese or others were this past election? In this past election, how successful do you think foreign governments were in shaping voting habits and impacting the election?

McLaughlin: I have not seen data that would allow me to give a credible, confident answer. I would be misleading people if I tried to suggest I knew, but I have my suspicions. Well, we know they were active in social media. Lots of credible people in the Homeland Security Department and the FBI have said that publicly. We know that. What we don’t know yet is we don’t have the equivalent of the Mueller Report for 2020 yet. We need to have that, and we will get it eventually. I’m sure that the intelligence committees in Congress will ultimately document that. I will not be surprised, and this will sound like … Let me label this as, at this point, sheer speculation.

I will not be surprised if when we unpack what happened on Capitol Hill, we discover that in the social media stimulus for that we will find personalities and identities that ultimately will turn out to be Russian. I will not be surprised if that happens. But I have no data that tells me it is, but I’m just saying based on what we’ve seen them do, why wouldn’t they do that? Why wouldn’t they be in that mix? We still don’t know the composition organizationally and such for those people who attacked the Capitol. There’s probably a mixture of kind of innocent people swept along and people who were hardcore organizers knowing exactly what they wanted to do.

On whether he faced life-threatening risks at the CIA

McLaughlin: More in Vietnam than during my agency career. You know, when I was in Vietnam, we were pretty much under constant mortar and rocket attack. And in my office I have the remnant of a shell that came quite close once.

But in the agency, I would say not so much that I knew about. But when you traveled, you assumed you were under surveillance. And to some degree, you were at the mercy of whoever was surveilling you, if you didn’t have some kind of security. And in my earlier years, I had no real security other than my cover, my carefulness with avoiding surveillance and so forth.

There was a time once when I was flying into Baghdad during the Iraq War, when, just before we left Kuwait, we had reports that insurgents were going to try and take down our plane as it came in. Either take it down or attack the landing strip. And we had to debate whether to go or not.

And after some discussion we decided to go, because it was an Air Force plane that had a lot of chaff that could be thrown out to divert incoming weaponry of one sort or another. And what you typically do in a situation like that is you do a very steep decline. Now you’re way up here at 30,000 feet, and you go down to 10,000 feet in about two minutes. Boom, down there, and then you level off and land. And that reminded me of Vietnam, because we used to chopper into places up near the Cambodian border, dive down, jump out, run across the landing strip while people were mortaring the landing strip, and dive into a bunker.

In fact, I always joke, this is kind of a joke, but that doesn’t mean much to many people, but when we were doing that once, some old sergeant said to me, we were running across the landing strip, and he said, “Kid, if you like this sort of thing, they have jobs like this at CIA.” And I was an Army officer. So I just filed that away. And somehow it came to mind later on, when I wanted to apply to the CIA. So I always blame that sergeant for the rest of my career, you know?

When the Berlin Wall really fell

McLaughlin: There are good surprises and bad surprises and neutral surprises. Good surprise, though I want to lever that a little bit by saying we weren’t really surprised when the Berlin Wall came down. But it was a surprise nonetheless, that basically the Cold War was really ending.

I think the Cold War ended earlier in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Malta, the Malta Summit. And at the end of that summit — this would have been in early December of 1989 — they basically gave a press conference, made statements that said essentially the Cold War is over.

Now, the Berlin Wall didn’t come down until November 1989. But I had briefed George H.W. Bush two days before the Berlin Wall came down in the Oval Office. And he had asked me, “Is the Berlin Wall going to come down?” And my answer was at that time, “For all practical purposes, it already has.” We could see that the two Germanys were … that East Germany was boiling, and that these two countries, East Germany, West Germany, were going to come together.

During that period of time, [there was] great concern in the Bush administration about what would happen if that were to occur. In fact, George Bush, senior Bush, actually made a speech, I think in Kiev, Ukraine, encouraging Ukraine not to pull away from the Soviet Union, not to become independent. Because here’s two fears. The first fear was that the Soviet nuclear weapons were scattered among what would become four independent countries: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. And if the place fell apart, who would have control of those weapons, how would we know?

Ranking the strengths of various intelligence agencies

McLaughlin: In terms of raw capability, I don’t think anyone really has the raw capability across the spectrum of intelligence art forms that the United States does.

When you get past that, among friends, of course, there are what we call the 5Is, the intelligence services of the Commonwealth countries. The U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand and the United States comprise five countries that work so closely together, particularly on technical intelligence, that it amounts in a way to burden-sharing.

Obviously, the Russians and Chinese have very good intelligence services, better at some things than others. But look what the Russians have been doing with cyberattacks on the United States. On the one hand, you deplore it because they’ve succeeded in essentially invading our information architecture. In a value-free way, if you can stand back from it professionally, you’d have to say, “Oh, that’s pretty good stuff there. That’s pretty impressive.”

Same with the Chinese, who managed, we assume, to get the data in our Office of Personnel Management database. And both of those countries have very robust operational services, meaning they’re out to recruit Americans and others who can offer them information.

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