Back-stabbing, CIA-style

The John Deutch scandal shows that the spooks spend more time trying to ruin each other than they do chasing down security breaches.

Published February 3, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Tennis chat, anyone?

John Deutch, the ex-CIA chief whose security clearance was stripped because he had 17,000 pages of classified documents on his home computer, also maintains a very un-spooklike visibility on the internet.

In his America Online profile, which AOL subscribers fill out at their own choice -- and risk -- Deutch lists his family status (married), occupation (scientist) and hobby (tennis). His residence is listed as Bethesda, Md. His AOL screen name is not much of a disguise, either --

According to CBS, someone using that account has visited porno sites on the Web.

But if he has other names for, say, tennis talk in AOL chat rooms, he's keeping that private. Otherwise, he's hiding in plain site -- not much of a James Bond.

All of which has apparently outraged an unlikely alliance of CIA malcontents and defenders of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who charge that current agency chief George Tenet and his honchos adopted a double standard for Deutch after gumshoes brought his computer indiscretion to their attention.

He should have been prosecuted, they say, just like Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese scientist who's been jailed since nuclear documents were found on his computer.

But this is about back-stabbing, Washington-style, not spies. If the spooks spent as much time conspiring to get rid of Saddam Hussein as they did trying to ruin each other, the Iraqi dictator would be playing golf with Baby Doc Duvalier instead of pulling out the fingernails of CIA agents in Baghdad.

"There's more covert action inside CIA than outside it," one agency old hand says.

This latest Gilbert and Sullivan production from the CIA began Monday, when somebody leaked the results of an agency investigation to the New York Times, charging that current CIA boss Tenet and his minions soft-pedaled the internal finding of classified documents on Deutch's computer. The drift was that enemy spies could have stolen the computer or hacked their way into Deutch's hard drive via AOL and stolen valuable CIA secrets.

Like what, one might ask. Deutch was forced out at the CIA when he contradicted White House claims that U.S. missile strikes on Iraq were effective. The attacks hadn't damaged Saddam Hussein one whit, Deutch told Congress in an unusual display of Washington candor. It cost him his job. Perhaps he had more "secrets" like that on his computer.

The fact is, Deutch remains an unpopular figure inside the bureaucracy, and his protigi Tenet has ruffled feathers by bringing big changes to the CIA. This week's skirmish is just bureaucratic back-stabbing, CIA style.

Besides telling the truth, Deutch was disliked because he tended to be impatient and brusque.

"He'd come into a room and say, 'Get to the point, I don't have time for this twaddle,'" a former intelligence official says. "Just unnecessarily ... Deutch almost seemed to enjoy hurting people. But he's a very bright guy."

"Knowing him, and I do," the official added, "I would guess his having that stuff on his own computer was ... typical. He thought he was above all of the petty rules which apply to mere mortals."

Confronted with the alleged security lapse, Deutch immediately erased the documents from his home computer, according to reports, and signed up as an unpaid consultant to the CIA so that he'd officially be permitted access to information. After considering the matter for several months, Tenet stripped his former boss of his top-secret clearance, a striking rebuke in Washington, where security badges are equated with penis size.

"I quite frankly was almost shocked at the time that he was humiliated by yanking his clearance," said a former colleague. "I thought that was pretty brutal."

Only in a ritual sense, however. It's highly unlikely any of the Pentagon and CIA-connected corporations whose boards Deutch sits on have barred him from the door.

In any event, the CIA probably loses more documents in a day than Deutch ever stored on his computers. Tales abound of the CIA selling off surplus computers or office furniture with classified material still in it. Last year a classified U.S. military data cartridge was found in a scrap yard in Budapest. The State Department, it has been reported, failed to tighten security even after the FBI warned it a Russian bug had been planted in the building.

Charges that Deutch's security lapse is comparable to those committed by Wen Ho Lee or even CIA traitor Aldrich Ames have a partisan ring.

"It seems to be a pattern. I think it's very troublesome," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told reporters at a hearing Wednesday. The still-classified findings of the CIA inspector general raise "fundamental questions," he said. Even those who really dislike Deutch, though, disagree.

"It's probably a slow news day," said one source, "plus somebody's playing games inside ... My God, this to me is a nothing."

Deutch, meanwhile, is going on about his way at MIT, where the bespectacled professor teaches chemistry and has a Web page.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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Cia Espionage