A top CIA veteran tells all he wants to be known - and it's very scary

February 09, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Complaining about William Webster's appointment and tenure as director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency late in the Reagan years, Duane R. Clarridge makes the essence of his own career as a top CIA agent and executive startlingly unequivocal:

"All of [Webster's] training as a lawyer and as a judge was that you didn't do illegal things. He never could accept that this is exactly what the CIA does when it operates abroad. We break the laws of other countries. It's how we collect information. It's why we're in business. Webster had an insurmountable problem with the raison d'etre of the organization he was brought in to run."

At another defining spot, he expresses contempt for the order, affirmed by the Ford administration in 1976, prohibiting "U.S. government agencies from undertaking assassinations."

How about legality at home?

Even aside from the Iran-contra scandal, in which he was deeply enmeshed, Clarridge expresses exquisite respect for the letter of the law and total contempt for its spirit. So goes much of his "A Spy for All Seasons: My Life in the CIA" (Scribner. 430 pages. $27.50).

As should be expected, Clarridge is good at dodging. Given that, the book, read attentively, is a remarkable compilation of the mundane and the romantic, the principled and the pernicious, in the business of espionage - overt and covert, informational and influential.

Angel-food narrative

Much of the narrative moves along very swiftly. So swiftly, in fact, that one can easily overlook significant "omissions." There is no talk of the nature of payouts and payoffs, no suggestion of anything that reveals events or procedures that might be illegal or insensitive. No surprise - or ground for objection, really. The manuscript had to be - and was - passed by the CIA's Publications Review Board. Without that, it could not have been published.

Through the book, he uses the device of putting F in square brackets - [F] - after certain names to indicate they are fictitious. That adds credibility to the narrative, unlike books in which the reader is left to guess which names are real and which are not.

Clarridge was indicted for perjury in connection with his testimony about the Iran-contra matter, never tried, and then pardoned by President Bush. Unsurprisingly, he begins his book by calling the Iran-contra controversy "nonsense" and ridiculing Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor.

He claims that his indictment for perjury was the result of his being honest in his responses to questions, without resorting to private counsel.

Throughout the Central American chapters, he rains contempt on the U.S. Congress and its oversight committees, with particular scorn for what he characterizes as hypocrisy and political opportunism. He has only slightly more affection for the State Department, where he dismisses almost everyone as virtually useless.

In contrast, Clarridge's spooks are angels. His inside story of the agency is, you could say, a sort of angel-food-cake narrative - light, fluffy, sweet, and vanilla all the way through. Espionage is good, clean, birthday-party fun.

Throughout, the book reeks of condescension, of smugness, of a kind of shopkeeper's scorn for tradesmen in all lesser lines of goods.

When it looks outside the beloved fraternity of his trade, this is an angry, often vindictive book. Espionage faddists and professionals will find it engaging and useful, whether they delight in empathy with Clarridge or seethe with fury against him. The book is valuable if it is read in the full context of other published information on both the institutions and issues; alone, it is dangerously misleading.

For those of us at The Sun, the book offered promise: Clarridge was chief of the CIA's Latin America Division, and concentrated most of his time and effort on Central American matters, from August 1981 until the autumn of 1984.

Horrific abuses

This was the period in which there was widespread, methodical torture and murder of Honduran citizens by a secret army unit that had been trained and monitored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Those abuses were exposed in horrific detail in a series of articles, "Battalion 316," written by Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson and published in The Sun from June 11 through June 18, 1995.

Clarridge does not fulfill the promise. There is not a single mention of any of those abuses in his entire book, the largest single portion of which is devoted to his Latin American involvements. He never hints at the torture, murder and other abuses of human rights that were, in effect, overseen by CIA operations he takes pride in having micromanaged.

Or it could be said that the promise is fulfilled, by omission. The fabric of the book suggests he knew and did not care.

Constantly flying to Central America, closely questioning, minutely observing CIA staff and foreign connections, how could he not have known?

Throughout his very personal narrative, he records in intricate detail his private life - marriages, relations with wives and parents. Yet there is something terrifyingly cold about what should be so human. I could detect not a glimmer of convincing feeling in any of these relationships or events.

Ultimately, this is the deeply telling memoir of a man living without the compass of a conscience, a man unburdened - perhaps - by a soul.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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