Foreign Spies and the US Response: A Brian Kelley Memorial Lecture with Michelle Van Cleave

November 8, 2012  |  PAST EVENTS

Below is a lecture delivered by Michelle Van Cleave given in honor of the late Brian Kelley at IWP on October 26, 2012.

Michelle Van Cleave served as head of U.S. counterintelligence under President George W. Bush.  A lawyer and consultant in private life, she is a senior fellow at George Washington University and a principal with the Jack Kemp Foundation, helping to establish and manage programs to develop, engage and recognize exceptional leaders.  A frequent guest lecturer at The Institute of World Politics, she is also on the faculty of the PASS:PORT program at IWP.


"Foreign Spies and the U.S. Response"
Michelle Van Cleave
Brian Kelley Memorial Lecture
Institute of World Politics, Washington DC
26 October 2012

It is a privilege for me to be here tonight, to inaugurate this lecture series in honor of Professor Brian Kelley.  I commend the IWP Alumni Association for your initiative in establishing this tribute, which he would have appreciated so deeply.  

In that spirit, I thought it would be fitting to begin with a touch of Irish humor.  Just in case there is anyone in this room who has not heard this one before, let me tell one of Ronald Reagan's favorite jokes, which he recounted upon signing the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982:    

It seems CIA had an agent overseas somewhere in Ireland. And there was an emergency, and it was necessary to contact him immediately. So, they called in another agent, and they instructed him, "Now, you'll go to Ireland and find him. His name is Murphy, and your recognition will be to say, ‘It's a fair day today, but it'll be lovelier this evening.'" 

So, he went to the little town in Ireland where Murphy was last known to be.  He went to the pub, elbowed himself up to the bar, ordered a drink, and then said to the bartender, "How would I get in touch with Murphy?" And the bartender says, "Well, if it's Murphy the farmer you want, he's two miles down the road, on the left.  But," he said, "if it's Murphy the grocer, his store is across the street."  Then he added, "And my name is Murphy." So the agent took a sip from his drink, then said, "Well, it's a fair day, but it'll be lovelier this evening." "Oh," the bartender said, "it's Murphy the spy you want. He's down at the other end of the bar."

Kelley is also a fine Irish name.  There was Kelley the gifted counterintelligence officer.  There was Kelley the unforgettable teacher.  And there was Kelley the falsely accused.  But never Kelley the embittered or vengeful.  Instead he became Kelley the crusader who dedicated the rest of his life to advancing the quality of his profession so that others might be spared the pain visited on him and his family.  All of those Kelleys were one in the same extraordinary man.  

Listen up because I am going to reveal a deep and precious secret for those who aspire to senior leadership posts in the national security profession:  Find the right people to stand at your side and to whisper in your ear.  To my great fortune and everlasting gratitude, for my time in office that was also Brian Kelley.

As it happens, the last time I saw him was at an event last year here in this room.  He had arranged for long-time author David Wise to talk about his latest book about Chinese espionage.1 Maybe some of you were also here that night.

There was quite an interesting relationship between those two men. Back in 2003, it was Wise who broke Brian's cover, revealing his name and status as an intelligence officer with CIA.  Wise included these details in his book about the spy Robert Hanssen,2 over the objections of Brian's lawyer and then-DCI George Tenet.

Most of you know why.  

Last summer, Ron Kessler published another book entitled The Secrets of the FBI.3 In that book, former FBI agent Mike Rochford, who was in charge of the "gray suit" investigation that eventually led to Hanssen's arrest, is quoted as admitting for the first time how wrong he was to focus only on the suspect at CIA.  You can be sure that passage did not escape Brian's notice.

E-mail missives from Brian were legendary among his colleagues and friends.  In preparation for tonight, I was looking back through some of mine, and I found his reference to "Mike Rochford who plays Inspector Javert to my Jean Valjean."  You will recall the Les Miserables parable about honor and redemption, in which Javert was relentless in his pursuit of the former convict Valjean.  He could not believe that a thief could change his ways and become a man of honor; he could not believe that he had spent his life pursuing a virtuous man.

Victor Hugo writes: 

Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the sense of duty, are things which may become hideous when wrongly directed; but which, even when hideous, remain grand: their majesty, the majesty peculiar to the human conscience, clings to them in the midst of horror; they are virtues which have one vice-error.4

We become invested in an outcome: Catching the bad guy.  Winning the argument. Proving ourselves right.  Once we have formed a viewpoint or a belief, we are loathe to let it go.  We seek out reinforcing evidence or opinions.  We will discount or discredit information that is at odds with our view or belief, or reinterpret it, or set it aside.  This is a very human tendency, which by the way seasoned deception planners understand and exploit.

That is why we have the truism, wisdom begins with knowing yourself.  In a town of full of opinionated individuals, it is not enough just to have your talking points down.  You also need to ask: What are your own biases, preconceived notions, rose-colored glasses?  

This school teaches that there are moral standards of absolute truth by which an individual's actions can be judged. In the world of espionage and counterespionage, questions of moral standards and ethical conduct are inescapably part of the job, whether by the investigator or DO officer in the field, the analyst at her desk, or the President accountable to the American public. That each of us must reach our own conclusions about these things - what is right and what is wrong - is not the same thing as saying that each conclusion is equally correct.  

This school also teaches that education in ethics and civic virtue is a necessary prerequisite to the responsible conduct of statecraft. We see such questions at the forefront of so many of today's national security challenges, and carried forward into the election our country will hold in 10 days.  And exactly 50 years ago this week, the responsible conduct of statecraft was tested as perhaps never before in our history.

Doubtless everyone here is aware that this is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. I want to take a moment to invite you to think about that.  Can you imagine what that experience was like?

  • October 22, 1962 was a Monday, just like October 22 this year.  The President met with the Congressional leadership, and then addressed the nation in a televised speech, announcing the presence of offensive missile sites in Cuba and demanding their withdrawal. U.S. military forces go to DEFCON 3. The U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay is reinforced by Marines. 
  • On Tuesday October 23, there's an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States, which unanimously approves the blockade against Cuba.  And by the end of the day U.S. ships had taken up position along the quarantine line.
  • Wednesday October 24, brings Soviet ships en route to Cuba with questionable cargo.  All of them either slow down or reverse their course - except for one. And military forces go to DEFCON 2, the highest ever in U.S. history.  For the American people and much of the world, this is a time of enormous anxiety and fear.  The US public switch network - then all AT&T - is overwhelmed with people trying to call one another.  "Are you okay? ... Who is staying with Mom? ...  I love you."    
  • Thursday and Friday, out of public view, there is much happening.  The one ship still en route to Cuba, the Marcula, is determined to be under Lebanese registry.  It is stopped and boarded, then allowed to continue on. Reconnaissance flights confirm that the Soviets are trying to conceal the missiles, but there is no halt in their deployment.   The KGB station chief in Washington requested a meeting with ABC News correspondent John Scali to pass a message: the missiles would be withdrawn in return for a public pledge that the United States will never invade Cuba. Khrushchev sends a letter to Kennedy formalizing that proposal, only to follow it with a second letter containing a new proposal that the missiles would be withdrawn in return for a public agreement to withdraw NATO missiles from Turkey.  No, and no, the United States would not submit to blackmail. 
  • On Saturday, "Black Saturday," the situation would grow even worse. An American U-2 is shot down over Cuba killing the pilot.  Another U-2 accidentally strays into Soviet airspace near Alaska and is nearly intercepted by Soviet fighters. Castro cables Khrushchev urging him to consider launching a nuclear first strike against the United States.  (If you ever needed proof that Fidel is truly crazy, just read that cable.)  That night, Kennedy sent his brother Robert to meet with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, to offer a private non-invasion pledge to Cuba and to warn that time was running out.  The President put the promise in writing. 
  • Finally on Sunday, Khrushchev would announce over Radio Moscow that he has agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba.  Five months later, history would record that NATO also pulled US Jupiter missiles out of Turkey - the side deal that Robert Kennedy had struck unknown to most of the President's senior advisors who made up the Executive Committee.  

What did we learn from the crisis some have called "the most dangerous moment in human history"?  The answers are still being written.  Among other things, there were practical lessons for communications requirements.  The two governments agreed to install the hot line between Washington and Moscow, to enable direct communications in times of crisis.  President Kennedy established the National Communications System (NCS), to ensure the preparedness of the public switched network to support national security telecommunications in times of emergency.  The NCS remains today the most successful model to ensure enduring critical infrastructure support across a range of new and emerging threats.

As students of statecraft, you might draw an even broader lesson: The fundamental importance of seizing and holding the strategic initiative.5

Thanks to overhead reconnaissance and other confirming intelligence, Kennedy had learned of the missile installations a full week before he went public with the news. During that time, he lined up support from NATO and the OAS and prepared the way for the blockade to buy time for the Russians to back down.  He chose the time and place to lay down the gauntlet.  And the Russians - who believed that their missile deployments were unknown to the United States - were caught off balance, scrambling to deal with a crisis and demands that they had not expected.

What are the implications for U.S. national security today?  Daily, the President and Congress are consumed with dealing with the threats to the United States and our allies - the threats of radical Islam, the threats of an unstable and uncertain Middle East, the threats of the Euro crisis, the threats of a backward-looking Russia, the threats of a bellicose China.  And it is vital that we have intelligence to warn of threats and sound policy and the capability to counter and protect against them.

We don't often get to pick and choose the threats that come at us; but we do have some control over whether or not we pursue opportunities.  

Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, published an article in the current issue of World Affairs Journal entitled "The Coming Collapse."  What do you suppose he was talking about?  The Euro dollar?  The Arab monarchies?  The housing market, again?  No.  He was talking about the governments in Moscow and Beijing.  The two countries, he argues, give "the illusion of durability," but the reality is far different:

Their rulers have grown rigid and are mired in corruption. Both their political elites and their average citizens are growing visibly restless. In the next decade, it is likely that one or both of these global powers will undergo an economic crisis and a dramatic political transformation. When and how it will happen is the most important ‘known unknown' that Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will face during the next US presidential term.6

Do you agree?  Consider this: Just in the last 20 years, we have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union.  We have seen the nations of the former Soviet bloc struggle to transform themselves to independent democratic states, with varying degrees of success.  We are witnessing a vast and wildly unpredictable upheaval across the Arab world, and restless voices in Iran refusing to be still.  

If you allow the possibility that Russia or China or both could become destabilized in the next several years, then there are both dangers and opportunities for the United States.  The challenge is this:  How can the United States seize the strategic initiative to advance the prospects for change to freer, more peaceful societies?  

If you were advising the President, how would you approach that challenge?  You might ask:  Where are the sources of power sustaining the governments now ruling Russia and China?  Are there weaknesses or pressure points to exploit?  Pathways to strengthen proponents of freedom and democracy?   Modes of engagement that will encourage greater respect for private property, liberty and individual dignity?  

The essential point is this: It's far better to be working toward the goals we have defined than to find ourselves forced into react mode.  To that end, we need well-developed, purposeful strategy to organize and drive US national security.  And where possible, we need creative plans to seize the strategic initiative.  

So here we are, more than halfway through tonight's lecture, and I know that some of you are thinking, Fine, but what does all of this have to do with the topic, "Foreign Spies and the U.S. response?"  Well, in order to answer that question, let me tell you a little bit about the history of US counterintelligence.

Unlike most other nation-states, the United States has never had a unified organization or a national counterintelligence "service" to carry out CI operations.  Instead, CI operational authority has been split in gross terms between the needs of domestic security against foreign agents (assigned to the FBI), and the operational needs of human intelligence collection (assigned to CIA) and military actions in the field.  How did that come about?

When German saboteurs first began operating within the United States during World War I, there were no laws against domestic espionage or sabotage, and no lead agency for domestic security.  The situation was grim.  Fires and explosions at plants.  Bombs on ships.  Hundreds of lives lost.  In response, Congress passed the Espionage Act, and its enforcement was assigned to the 400-member Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department - the precursor of the FBI.  In the mid-1930s, the FBI's jurisdiction over domestic intelligence was secretly expanded by President Roosevelt, prompted by his concern over the growth of domestic movements supporting communism and fascism.  Throughout World War II, the Bureau concentrated on Axis espionage threats within the United States as well as Nazi intelligence operations throughout Latin America.  

When the structure of the intelligence community was formalized in 1947, the FBI's 20-plus year history in domestic security (intelligence, counter-sabotage and counter-espionage) resulted in its de facto assignment as lead agency for counterintelligence.  Under Executive Order 12333, which President Reagan signed in 1982, the FBI was explicitly directed to conduct and coordinate all CI activities in the United States.  As you know, the FBI took on even more responsibilities for counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11.  Yet despite its steadily expanding intelligence-centric duties, the FBI remains first and foremost a law enforcement agency, with all of the advantages and the limitations that implies.  

However, when it comes to counterintelligence duties abroad, the picture is far more muddled.  When the National Security Act laid the foundations for America's national security architecture and created CIA, it was silent on CI responsibilities.  In particular, CIA was not directed and did not attempt to create a worldwide CI service designed to detect, analyze and counter all foreign intelligence operations abroad that were directed at the U.S. and its interests. Far from being a partner with the FBI to build a global perspective on the operations of foreign intelligence services, CIA has interpreted its counterintelligence job as confined to protecting its own house and mission.  During the Cold War, the Directorate of Operations correctly understood one of its primary tasks, the clandestine penetration of the KGB, to be an important contribution to the overall, but generally undefined, national U.S. counterintelligence mission.  But the Agency has never seen itself with a comprehensive overseas CI mission corresponding to the mission that evolved for the FBI domestically.  

The military services are the other major players in CI operations.  War planners, of course, understand the necessity of neutralizing the intelligence capabilities of the adversary.  As General George Washington famously said, "What I fear most are their spies."  Accordingly, counterintelligence as a military mission has long been counted among the war arts.  But in peacetime, counterintelligence (including counterespionage) at the Department of Defense is grounded in the larger force protection mission of the military services.  

The Defense Department owns or controls most of the secrets worth stealing.  But DoD does not command the suite of resources necessary to counter foreign intelligence operations directed against those secrets.  Nor does it have the authority to take on that mission alone.  Executive Order 12333 requires that DoD coordinate its CI operations abroad and at home with CIA and FBI respectively, which have lead CI responsibility in those domains.  Nor does the Reagan era Executive Order assign DoD or any of its sister agencies the duty of forging an integrated CI mission to protect the United States against foreign intelligence threats.

As a result, U.S. counterintelligence is an amalgamation of specialized activities, each of which is measured on its own terms, rather than for its contributions to a larger whole.  The CI professional's caseload is developed, assigned and managed within the well-established channels and authorities of the cognizant agency.  The training and the mental discipline needed to master the specifics of a case, the voluminous details of an investigation, the intricacies surrounding an asset's recruitment, handling and reporting, all focus on the practical objective at hand.  

The measures of effectiveness in counterintelligence and in personal advancement in the profession have been delimited by individual cases.  Did we catch the spy?  Did we find the microphones embedded in the embassy walls?  Did we discover the true owners of the front company engaged in technology diversion?  Such successes are very good things, which can make for fabulous stories revealing flashes of brilliance, creativity and daring, and some true legends in the business.  

Far more rare is the case when the operational possibilities of ongoing investigations, or the access of a given penetration, or a double agent tasking, have been fitted against a larger tapestry of the adversary's strategic purpose to inform a CI plan for dealing with the whole.  The counterintelligence business model, with its tactical, case-by-case orientation, does not work that way.  As a result, America's FBI agents, or our military investigators, or our case officers at CIA, may not be in a position readily to appreciate the relevance of big picture national strategy to the high demands of their daily work.  

The "business model" for our adversaries, however, is very different.

At the start of the 21st Century, there are many more highly capable foreign intelligence services in the world than ever before, which are organized, trained, equipped and deployed directly against the United States and our interests.  And we are only just beginning to understand their modern potential as an extension of state power. 

The Russians and the Chinese (and others) rely on their intelligence services for many things: to steal secrets or technology, to carry out influence or perception management operations, to disrupt and counter U.S. national security operations.  While American military power may be unparalleled, intelligence adversaries persist because they have found that in important ways we are vulnerable; and they employ their intelligence assets as part of classic asymmetric strategies to advance their interests and to disadvantage the United States, our friends and allies.  

Countering these hostile intelligence operations is an essential part of any U.S. strategy to seize the initiative and to shape events in our favor. 

But here we have a problem.  The U.S. CI enterprise has not been structured to serve a strategic purpose, nor is it postured globally to disrupt a foreign intelligence service.  There is no standard approach to targeting across the CI enterprise; interagency information sharing is sparse, and infrastructure support even worse.  Even the modest national mechanisms developed to deconflict offensive CI activities stop at the water's edge, a legacy of the old divide between foreign and domestic operational realms.  

If there were a coordinated national strategic counterintelligence program, the FBI, CIA and the several elements at DoD each would have valuable strengths and resources to bring to bear.  But the totality of what they do today in pursuit of their individual missions, as vital as their work is in its own right, does not add up to a strategy.  By definition, strategy is applying means to achieve a defined end, not simply adding together such means as one may have then concluding, "Okay, we're done."

Now those of you who have been students here at IWP, or have followed the reforms of US intelligence and counterintelligence over the last decade, may be thinking to yourself, isn't that why the office of the NCIX - the National Counterintelligence Executive - was created?  To bring this strategic guidance and coherence to US counterintelligence?  My answer may surprise you.

For all of the good work of its contributors, the "CI-21" study of the late 1990s, which led to the creation of the NCIX, is part of the problem.  Its touchstone was the Ames case and the devastating losses suffered because of his treachery.  How could someone at the heart of CIA's Russia program be working for seven long years for the other side?  Little did they foresee Hanssen's 21 years of espionage, Montes 16 years working for the Cubans, or Katrina Leung's duplicity for 22 years on behalf of the Chinese.  Clearly, something is profoundly wrong when spies can operate undetected for such extended periods of time, to the great detriment of our national security.

Accordingly, CI-21 was properly concerned about the seams among the several CI entities which adversaries could and did exploit.  Their report called for establishing for the first time a head of counterintelligence, who would have the mission of integrating the activities of the several CI entities of the federal government in order to plug the holes.  And since they were meeting in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union, when travel and commerce between East and West was expanding rapidly, the need to guard against economic espionage was also much on their minds.  

Yet here is where CI-21 fell short.  The study did not make a convincing intellectual case that identifying and neutralizing (or exploiting) foreign intelligence activities must be a part of U.S. national security strategy and policy.  Nor did Congress, in enacting the Counterintelligence Enhancement Act of 2002, assign the strategic CI mission a purposeful role in national security planning.  The law created a head of US Counterintelligence - the NCIX - but it never created a strategic counterintelligence mission for the United States.  

This gap between national security policy attention and CI effort reflects what may be the single greatest weakness in our national CI posture today.  Apart from wartime, we have not routinely addressed foreign intelligence capabilities as part of a national security threat calculus informing national strategy and planning.  The WMD Commission, convened to review intelligence shortcomings leading up to the Iraq war, underscored the importance of a national strategic CI mission; but its recommendations were not followed.   By and large, the national security policy community seems unaware or unconvinced of the dangers to U.S. national security posed by the intelligence activities of foreign powers - not to mention the advantage to be gained through selectively degrading or exploiting those activities. 

Did you watch the last presidential debate?  At one point, President Obama chided Governor Romney for calling Russia our number one geopolitical foe.  As though Russia did not continue to build and modernize its nuclear forces.  As though it did not seek to intimidate former Soviet "territories" such as the sovereign state of Georgia.  As though it did not have more intelligence operations in the United States today than during the height of the Cold War.  And while China was barely mentioned during their debate, students at this school will not be unfamiliar with the growing bellicosity of China towards its neighbors, the quadrupling of its military budget in the last decade, its predatory cyber operations and expanding intelligence presence worldwide.

The future of China and Russia are the central national security questions of our time.  If our national security leaders should ever take on the task of gaining the strategic initiative to help shape those futures, they will need to take the formidable Chinese and Russian intelligence capabilities into account.  And that will require a strategic counterintelligence mission, program and execution to provide options to policymakers to degrade or exploit those intelligence activities as part of that larger national undertaking.  

Here is my bottom line.  It is not enough for the United States to respond to foreign spies, as the title of tonight's lecture suggests.  At the tactical level, our CI agencies and professionals have a fair handle on responding to foreign spies.  The real national security challenge is how to seize the strategic initiative where it really matters to our security and prosperity and the evolution of a freer, more peaceful world.  In order to do that, we will need the institutions, processes, and policy vision to enable U.S. counterintelligence to assume its proper place as an effective instrument of state power.  

Having opened with an Irish joke, I thought I should close with an Irish blessing.  There are many lyrical ones to choose from, such as "May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back."

And then I read the inscription on the wall plaque here, honoring Professor Kelley.  In a fitting tribute, it quotes of the words of Aristotle: "Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them."  So in deference to Aristotle, and in memory of Brian Kelley, here is my Greek/Irish blessing to you:  May your lives be lived in dignity.

David Wise, Tiger Trap, America's Secret War with China (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 2011.

2 David Wise, SPY: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America (New York: Random House) 2002

Ronald Kessler, The Secrets of the FBI (New York: Random House) 2011

4 Victor Hugo, Les Miserables Translated from the French by Isabel Hapgood (New York: Crowell & Co) 1887, Book 8th Chapter III

5 See e.g., Philip Zelikow "Learn the Cuba lesson and seize initiative" Financial Times October 18, 2012

6 Jackson Diehl, "The Coming Collapse: Authoritarians in China and Russia Face an Endgame"  World Affairs Journal (Washington DC) September/October 2012

Michelle Van Cleave, Brian Kelley Memorial Lecture October 2012

Above: Trish Kelley, widow of Brian Kelley; Amanda W, Student Government Association; Michelle Van Cleave; John Lenczowski, IWP President