30 Oct Spying in America: Rick Borman speaks with Michael Sulick, Ph.D., former Director of National Clandestine Service
Spook. Spy. Mechanic. Cloak-and dagger. Birdwatcher. MI6. KGB. These terms lurk in the dark corners of American vernacular and invoke cautious whimsy and whispers. They have tantalized and fascinated almost every one of us at some level. Intelligence and counterintelligence are subjects that by design and definition have remained veiled in mystery. Until now, that is.
Michael Sulick, Ph.D., has produced a fascinating read that is certain to captivate and entertain. Through his skillful writing and firm grasp of history, he has granted us an insider’s look at the importance of espionage in American history. Believe me, “Spying in America” is no dime-store spy novel. It’s a must read for those who relish unvarnished tales of how America has dealt with those who traffic in national secrets.
A 28-year veteran of the CIA, Mr. Sulick served as chief of counterintelligence from 2002-04 and as director of the National Clandestine Service from 2007-10, overseeing the agency’s covert information collection operations and coordinating the espionage activities of the U.S. intelligence community.
His book presents a revealing perspective on a career in clandestine services and sheds light on the indispensable craft of espionage. As a vital tool in our national war chest, it is a topic that we often don’t want to talk about publically, yet without it we would not still be a free nation.
“Spying in America” begs the question: Can you keep a secret? Well, can you?
Mr. Sulick and I met earlier this year when he was kind enough to accept an invitation to speak at a function I was hosting. When I ventured to ask if he would join me again, he humbled me with his graciousness, agreeing to participate in Town Hall’s evening with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Feb. 9. Mssrs. Gates and Sulick served together during Secretary Gates’ tenure as director of central intelligence. Here are excerpts from my recent conversation with Mr. Sulick:
Q: Espionage and intelligence collection have always been among the most indispensable assets in preserving our national defense. Our founding fathers understood this and employed spying as an integral component in the strategy to win American independence. What do you consider the most vital piece of intelligence in the American Revolution?
A: The patriots’ intelligence success in the Revolutionary War was more the cumulative effect of the collection than one piece of vital information. But one piece that stands out was acquired by the “mechanics,” a group of artisans in Massachusetts led by silversmith Paul Revere who were basically America’s first intelligence service. They learned that the British planned to march on Concord to capture patriot gunpowder and kidnap two key revolutionary leaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Revere’s famous Midnight Ride was probably the first delivery of a “threat warning” by American intelligence to policymakers. He warned Mr. Adams and Mr. Hancock and, armed with the information, local militias assembled to repel the British in this first conflict of the war.
Q: You spent many years in the former U.S.S.R. It is now widely understood that Russian spies infiltrated the United State at the highest levels in research, the military, business and even the White House. What was the most shocking revelation in terms of an infiltration during the Cold War?
A: The Russians infiltrated the highest levels during the 1930s and ’40s, when Americans were attracted to the lure of Soviet communism. During the Cold War, they didn’t replicate these achievements at high levels, but they were very successful at infiltrating lower levels where spies had access to critical national security secrets. The most shocking revelation was the espionage of John Walker, a U.S. Navy warrant officer who sold secrets to the Soviets that enabled them to read top secret military communications and jeopardized the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet, then the most invulnerable leg of the country’s triad of land, sea and air-based missiles. If the U.S. had gone to war with the Soviets, they would have enjoyed an overwhelming advantage thanks to Mr. Walker.
Q: Sen. Joseph McCarthy was considered (and is still considered by many) to be a reckless paranoid on a witch hunt. Metaphorically, he envisioned a communist behind every tree. His infamous hearings were highly publicized and in some cases ruined innocent lives and reputations. Was Sen. McCarthy a well-intentioned kook, or a courageous man in search of the truth? Will history ultimately be kinder to him, and are there legitimate lessons to be learned for our modern era?
A: Sen. McCarthy passionately believed that communist spies were lurking throughout the U.S. national security apparatus, but his allegations were not based on factual evidence required in espionage prosecutions today. His crusade is only one of a number of similar abuses of citizens’ rights in U.S. history — among the others are the detention of innocent citizens by the Union security chief Lafayette Baker in the Civil War, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s “Red Raids” in 1920, and J. Edgar Hoover’s “Counterintelligence Program” that searched for foreign spies and saboteurs in the civil rights and peace movements of the ’60s. None of these ever surfaced a major spy. The lesson is that the country needs agencies like the FBI and CIA using the full array of investigative and intelligence gathering tools at their disposal to acquire concrete evidence of espionage that leads to prosecution.