I just called to say I'm guilty

The CIA is in a mess: its purpose is unclear, its morals are fuzzier still and its agents keep resigning. How does Daniel Jeffreys know? Because Julia B keeps 'phoning to tell him
Click to follow
The Independent Online
She began calling me two months ago. From train stations, street corners and shopping malls. She has something on her conscience. She says a man died because of her and now she's sorry.

"I felt I didn't have any choice," she said two weeks ago, her voice rising so she could be heard over a siren wailing past the call box. "There was a lot of pressure on me to get more information. I forced my contacts to produce, even though I knew it could be dangerous for them."

Her name is Julia B. Until two years ago she was a CIA field officer. She's scared and nervous. "I think I'm being watched," she told me when she called last. "Can you please destroy the faxes I sent you?" Julia's faxes came from a copy shop in Washington called Pentagon Graphics. Hundreds of people send a fax from there every week. They don't ask for identification or keep a list of customers. It offers complete anonymity, but that's not enough for Julia.

"I am a former CIA woman case officer," she wrote. "I recently resigned after 11 years of service. The CIA is a deeply troubled organisation, arguably at its lowest point in almost 50 years of existence."

Julia had tracked me down through a data base called Nexis which holds thousands of newspaper articles. She had seen a series of pieces I'd written about women in the CIA. "There's a story nobody knows," she said. "I'll call you in the next few days; I can't give you my telephone number."

"The prospects for the CIA look pretty bleak," she wrote on 22 January. "Young case officers are leaving in droves. The majority of them are not malcontents, but officers at the top of their `spy' class. Left behind is only a moderately talented team, with modest skills and intellect. The haemorrhaging is so bad that the CIA Inspector General has launched an internal inquiry."

Even a cursory look at the CIA's recent record supports Julia's anxieties. The case of Aldrich Ames, a field officer who became a double agent for Russia and lived like a millionaire on a pounds 50,000 government salary for three years before becoming an object of suspicion, is just the most startling example of the CIA's recent bungling. Two days ago, Harold J Nicholson, the highest-ranking CIA official ever to confess to espionage, pleaded guilty to selling secrets to the Russians. There is new evidence that the CIA helped to cover up the killing of an American citizen in Guatemala and the murders of six US citizens in Salvador. In London, a CIA subsidiary lost a sexual harassment case to Mary Fogarty, an Irishwoman, and is now struggling to avoid a victimisation suit from the same woman.

"Many people in the CIA have become disgusted with the `game'," Julia said one Sunday, from a pay phone in a shopping mall. As she dissected the CIA, Muzak played in the background. "The Agency no longer has a clear mission, now the Cold War is over. The Agency's job is to steal secrets, but whose? From which countries? Without a mission the line between right and wrong blurs and case officers, who master the skill of rationalising any action, become victims of their own art.

"Working as a case officer has become a slippery slope. When your job is to subvert people - to lie, cheat and steal for God and Country - a deep sense of personal integrity and a belief that your work matters are the only things separating you from the traitor across the table. Without a clear mission, it is hard to justify putting someone's life on the line."

Sandi Lucas is a former CIA officer who retired 18 months ago from her post as deputy chief of operations. Lucas says Julia's knowledge and behaviour confirm that she is an ex-CIA case officer. Lucas shares Julia's belief that the Agency may be destroying itself from within. "A case officer's killer instinct begins with recruitment," she says. "You have to be prepared to go for the jugular. You have to be able to look a potential asset in the eye and say, `I want you to commit treason, an illegal act, because it's the right thing to do.' You can only do that if you have a mission."

Lucas says that without a clear purpose some officers lose their sense of direction and morality, with catastrophic results. "I think that's what happened to me," says Julia B, as she begins describing how pressure from above led her to endanger an "asset".Promotion for Julia followed her success in recruiting "contacts", people who were prepared to betray their associates in return for money or protection. "The short cut to seniority is often through recruitments. We rarely worried whether the information from sources was something the US really needed," she wrote in one of her faxes. "Spying is often reduced to a numbers game - how many agents you can bring on - rather than the value of the information they provide."

"This `game' has undermined the integrity of the organisation and the case officer ranks," says Sandi Lucas. "Especially for women. They are under extra pressure to recruit. If they don't bring in more assets than men, it's interpreted as a sign that they're not up to the job."

Julia B felt that way, and went to extreme lengths in search of new recruits. "I was taught a trick by a senior case officer," she says. "He told me that potential spies who would not co-operate could be blackmailed. I should tell them I had photographs of our meetings which would be sent to `the right people'. I was offering them a horrible choice - spy for the CIA and have our protection, or don't, and we'll let people know you're one of ours anyway."

In December 1995, Julia says, she used the blackmail trick on a lawyer who was working for a leading Latin American cocaine distributor. "I thought if I could get one more significant asset that year, I'd satisfy my superiors," she told me. Within three weeks of the lawyer acquiescing to Julia's threat he had disappeared, a few days after she had picked up his first communications from a dead drop. His body was found in February 1996; his tongue and hands had been cut off. "That was the last straw for me," she says. "I realised I'd lost my mission, just like the Agency. When there was an obvious threat, from Communism, I could accept the Agency's intrusion into my personal life, like the annual lie detector tests where they asked me increasingly about my sex life and their harassment of any man I dated; but without a clear sense of purpose I felt the job became something perverted, a form of state-sanctioned sadism."

Julia also faced another problem. The lawyer she had forced into spying had told his wife about his CIA handler. "I noticed I was being followed, by a woman. I had no idea who she was," she says. "I thought it was a government agent. After a week it stopped." Unfortunately, that was not the last time Julia saw her pursuer. "I was leaving an embassy party in March. It was dark. My car was parked in a side street. As I put the key in the door she jumped me, with a knife. She was screaming about her husband; she wanted revenge. She vowed to kill me, whatever it took. I managed to push her away and drove off. I was shaking for days."

Within a week Julia had obtained special leave and departed for Washington. She never went back; her resignation was tendered the moment she entered the CIA headquarters in Virginia. "I'm sure his wife is still looking for me," Julia said during our last conversation. "That's one reason I can never meet you, or give you my home number. Actually, right now, I don't even have a telephone at home."

"Julia is a CIA officer, that part I'm sure of," says Sandi Lucas. "But I'm doubtful about her reasons for leaving the job. It would be highly unusual for a case officer to be successfully identified by a contact's family. Whatever the truth, I think the most important part of her story is how paranoid she sounds. Julia B is a perfect example of the problems the Agency faces. There are hundreds of talented officers like her who are being driven crazy by the job."

In January, the CIA advertised for "intelligence analysts" in The Economist but got a disappointing response. This spring, for the first time, they will be represented officially at university job fairs around the US. CIA officials say that they are especially interested in female recruits. Meanwhile President Clinton is struggling to get Senate confirmation for Anthony Lake, his nominee to run the CIA. Lake's authority within the Agency has already been undermined by revelations about his share dealings and an involvement in the Seventies with a vociferous anti-CIA group. As the CIA's third director in four years, Lake faces a monumental task which begins with the clandestine Directorate of Operations. The DO, which employed Julia B, is what makes the CIA unique. For the last 50 years it has been the CIA at its quiet best, or its clamorous worst.

"The Agency must define a new mission for the DO," says Julia. "Otherwise it will become a danger to itself and the country. In Russia, against a foe that has become a mix of gangsters and shyster politicians, intelligence has degenerated into a seedy sport; there are still plenty of casualties, only now all of them are senseless. In Latin America, the ground rules make devils out of everybody, even those with the best intentions. That's what happened to me. In all conscience, I could not advise anybody to join the CIA today. For case officers, all the risks are still there but nobody has any real idea what we have to gain"n