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The Road to Damascus with Malcolm Gladwell | S2/E2: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 2| Season 2| Revisionist History
Length: 39 min | Released: 6/21/2017

Malcolm Gladwell: I have a theory that the most interesting autobiographies are the ones written by second-tier people. I'm not using "second-tier" in a derogatory sense, like second rate. I mean it in the sense of hierarchy. When the people in the top tier tell their story, it's invariably boring. They have too much to lose by being honest. Their public stature works against them on the page because they know anything they write that's even vaguely controversial or opinionated, in other words anything interesting, it's gonna get dissected and distorted by the media. But the memoir of the person under the general or the president or the CEO, the person you've never heard of, that person has a lot less to lose and their memoirs are where the gold lies. Not long ago, I picked up a book called "Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in The CIA." It was by a man named John Rizzo. I checked the book flap for Rizzo's bio. He wasn't the director of the CIA, or the deputy director or even the head of operations, which is the person who runs all the spies. No, Rizzo was an attorney in the agency's legal department eventually rising to acting general counsel. When I saw Rizzo's book, I thought, "Bingo! I have to read this." I was not disappointed.

My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listening to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. This episode is about a story John Rizzo tells on page 148 of his autobiography. It's a story about a spy, a very good one, and what happened to him. Right after I read it, I got in touch with Rizzo. I asked him if I could interview him about the story of the spy. He said, "Of course." Then, in his email, he added a postscript. "PS: Interesting that you focused on that episode. When I finished the manuscript, I figured that if any single anecdote in the book would garner public attention, that would be the one. As it turned out, I don't remember anyone ever asking me or otherwise talking about it, which I found puzzling." Yes, it's puzzling.

John Rizzo: I mean, he was probably 40, maybeÔøΩ As, as I say, I saw pictures of him, photos of him at the time.

MG: I'm sitting at Rizzo's kitchen table at his house in Washington DC. He's telling me about the spy he mentioned in his autobiography.

JR: And he looked like Al Pacino, you know, circa Godfather 2. He was that EuropeÔøΩ I mean, he was European looking, he was still a young man and I think he reached sort of, you know, a stage in his life that he, he felt remorse, guilt about what he had done in his youth and in his formative years. You know, as simple and confounding as that. I mean, I don't reÔøΩ Honestly, I don't recall another instance of an asset coming to us under those kinds of circumstances.

MG: An "asset" is CIA-speak for a source, someone on the inside. This asset, the man who looked like Al Pacino, was a terrorist.

Do you know the details of hisÔøΩ How, how he approached the CIA to say, "I've had a change of heart"?

JR: IÔøΩ You know, I believed he just volunteered his services and I think he just walked into an embassy.

MG: And what wasÔøΩ What do we know about the quality of the information he was providing?

JR: It was very good. You know, he was considered, uh, highly reliable.

MG: And heÔøΩ

JR: He didn't want much money, that was the other interesting thing. He didn't want money. I mean, mostÔøΩ You know, most assets, they want money.

MG: Why didn't he want money?

JR: Because he said that he was doing this for his conscience, to make up, and that it was an act of expiation.

MG: "An act of expiation." You will want to take sides when you finish this story. My advice to you is: Don't.

If you make a list of the greatest investigative reporters of the last generation, there's Bob Woodward at the top. There's Mark Boden, who wrote "Black Hawk down"; Seymour Hersh, who wrote for the New York Times for many years and then the New Yorker; Steve Coll; Jane Mayer; there's a guy who I sat next to when I first started my career at the Washington Post many years ago, Mike Isikoff, who was a bulldog; and somewhere in that top cluster of investigative reporters is Tim Weiner. He's one of the few journalists ever to have won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book award. In the 1980s, Weiner worked with the Philadelphia Enquirer and in his first foreign assignment was covering the overthrow of the Filipino dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. When Weiner came back, he convinced his editor to send him to Afghanistan, where the CIA was then secretly funding the Mujahedeen in their battle against the Soviet occupation.

Tim Weiner: I called up the CIA, which had and always has had a public information office. And I said, "Hey, I'm going to Afghanistan. I understand you people do country briefings from time to time for foreign correspondents. How about it?" And he said, "Absolutely not," and hung up the phone. So off I went to Afghanistan, I had a jolly old time, came back and I hadn't been back in Washington for more than a day when my phone rang.

MG: It was a public information officer from the CIA. This time he was friendly. He said, "Why don't you come by for that briefing?"

TW: So off I went through the CIA, which is in the woods, about 8 miles outside of White House. Checkpoint 1, checkpoint 2, checkpoint 3, into the lobby of the CIA, and up on the left hand wall in great, gold letters it says, from the Gospel of John, "And ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free," so I'm hooked already.

I go up to the seventh floor, which is where the executive suites were, and there are four CIA officers sitting around a table for my "briefing." But they really only wanted to know one thing from me, which was, "What's it like?" These were supposed to be the four top CIA experts on Afghanistan. They'd never been to Afghanistan. So I walked out of there thinking, "I'm going to devote the rest of my life to making a study of this agency." I was completely fascinated.

MG: Weiner went to the New York Times in 1993, continued covering the agency all throughout the 1990s. He was very, very good at it. Weiner was covering the CIA during the Aldrich Ames affair, you may remember that. Ames was a senior CIA officer who worked there for more than 30 years and he ended up telling the KGB everything he knew, including the names of the agency's assets inside the Soviet Union. It was one of the most damaging cases of espionage in American history.

TW: Ames is under arrest and I'm thinking, "I should go interview Ames. I wonder where Ames is right now." And, as it turned out, he was in a County jail. So I go to the County jail and I say, "I'd like to talk to prisoner Aldrich Ames," and I walked in the interview room and there was Aldrich Ames! We talked.

MG: How long did you talk to him for?

TW: Well, about an hour.

MG: Wait, you stopped after an hour? Did they stop you?

TW: Well, you know, thatÔøΩ It's a visiting hour.

MG: Tim, this is the greatest scoop of yourÔøΩ

TW: It's a scoop. And, um, I gave him my phone number and he called me collect, you know, on a regular basis. And, uh, I did a number of stories based on firsthand interviews where he, essentially, confessed to everything he'd done and gave me some rather vivid descriptions of life inside the CIA, most of which were true, demonstrably true.

MG: Maybe you have to have been a reporter to understand how fantastic that story is. I was a reporter at The Washington Post for 10 years. I would have assumed that the worst spy in American history was under triple lockdown somewhere, whisked away by a helicopter to a black site. I would have waited for the press release. But Weiner is the kind of person who would assume that, if the intelligence establishment was naive and disorganized enough to have its clock cleaned by a KGB mole, then it was probably naive and disorganized enough to park that same mole unattended in a County jail.

TW: And I covered them like you would cover a courthouse or the cops or Congress or the White House; they're an arm of the government like the Internal Revenue Service or the Post Office. They happen to be a secret arm of government.

MG: Weiner would later write a book called "Legacy of Ashes," that's how he won his National Book Award. It's an amazing book. Easily the best history of the CIA ever written. Some people within the agency thought that Weiner was biased against them. That, in his reporting, and particularly in "Legacy of Ashes," he went on too long about what the agency had done wrong and that he said too little about what the agency did right. I understand why they think that way, but I'm not sure that assessment is fair. Weiner is not biased; he's aggressive. You only have to meet him to understand that. He has one of those big, square, impressive heads, barrel chest, the kind of self-confidence that you have to have if you're in his line of work. He has a kind of relentlessness about him. I can't remember how many times we talked on the phone and went back and forth in emails before he agreed to sit down with me. He kept it up for weeks, clarifying, probing, "Why do you wanna do the story? What are your intentions?" Weiner is aggressive because, over the course of his career, he needed to be aggressive. It's not like the CIA puts out colorful brochures highlighting its latest initiatives. It's a secret agency.

There's a man named Jeffrey Smith who will figure in the story as well. Smith used to be the general counsel for the CIA. He's very much a member of the intelligence establishment, genteel, bookish. He's now in private practice at one of the most prestigious of DC law firms, Arnold and Porter, and one of the things that Smith says is, "It's a good thing for the Agency that reporters like Tim Weiner are aggressive. The Agency needs a free press."

Jeffrey Smith: It keeps you honest. It's not unlike congressional oversight. If any government agency is asked to do something or is considering something, the CIA, you have to think, "This is probably something that is going to have to be reported to our two oversight committees. How are they going to react? And what happens if it leaks? How do we explain what we're doing?" And that question comes up all the time and without a press, it wouldn't come up.

MG: So you need, CIA needsÔøΩ

JS: Yes.

MG: DoesÔøΩ Does the CIA always remember that?

JS: In the ranks, some people don't, don't see it that way. As you get more senior, you do see it that way. And the senior people have to explain to the younger people, as they're coming up through the ranks, why that's necessary.

MG: Why do we put up with a hugely powerful agency like the CIA, with a budget in the tens of billions, doing things we know very little about? Because we're confident that if the CIA does something truly evil or stupid, the press will find out and let us know. Weiner lives by this idea. He devoted his career to it.

TW: What does the CIA look like in the absence of a free press? It looks like the KGB. We have a uniquely American problem here, Malcolm. We're trying to run a secret intelligence service in an open democratic society. The Russians don't do that, the Chinese don't do that, not even the British do that. We need to have a constant tug of war between a free press, a cantankerous press, a skeptical press and the powerful institutions of our government. But there are gonna be arguments.

MG: Believe me, there were arguments.

Announcer1: He's the world's most wanted man, the son of a wealthy Venezuelan lawyer, his profession is spreading terror worldwide. He has links with groups like the PLOÔøΩ

MG: The most notorious terrorist in the 1970s and 1980s was a man named Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal. He was born in Venezuela but worked closely with the radical group called The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, setting bombs, assassinating people. He was thought to be responsible for the deaths of more than 80 people. He played a role in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Carlos the Jackal was almost as notorious in his day as Osama Bin Laden was in ours. He was the subject of a massive international manhunt that went on for years.

Finally, in 1994, he was captured in Sudan by French intelligence. How did they find him? Because of a tip from the CIA. Where did the CIA get its information? From a man who was once high up in the same world as the Jackal, the guy John Rizzo wrote about, the asset who looked like Al Pacino. Here's Rizzo again.

JR: Usually, you workÔøΩ Case officers, you work potential sources and assets for months or years before even pitching them to help. This guy just walkedÔøΩ I mean, just, just walked in. So, yeah, I mean, at the time of his recruitment, there was a great deal of excitement and eagerness that this is one of the few guys, the best guy, we have inside a terrorist organization.

MG: So you never met him?

TW: Never met him.

MG: But you saw a picture of him?

JR: Mm-hmm.

MG: Um, and you say, you describe him as looking like Al Pacino. There was something kind of glamorous about him, is that whatÔøΩ?

TW: Yeah. He's sleek, dark hair, he's European looking. I mean, he was notÔøΩ He was not your Jihadi. I mean he was, he was Westernized.

MG: Al Pacino helped the CIA find Carlos the Jackal. But by the following year, the summer of 1995, the CIA found itself in crisis. The Aldrich Ames scandal had devastated the Agency's reputation. What's more, the Cold War was over and since the CIA was essentially created to fight the Cold War, lots of people in Washington, serious people, wondered if the United States even needed the Agency anymore. Then all kinds of stories broke about shady characters the Agency was mixed up with in Central America, murderers, drug dealers; it was the last straw. President Clinton brought in a new director, John Deutch, with the mandate to clean house. Deutch ordered what's called an asset scrub, a review of every spy, informant, and asset on the CIA payroll with a specific emphasis on ethical considerations. As the CIA's general counsel, Jeff Smith was in the middle of it.

JS: Were there assets who had committed major felonies, human rights violations or had attacked Americans? And so we added that dimension to the asset scrub that was currently underway.

MG: And one of the files the agency reviewed was that of Al Pacino. John Rizzo was Jeff Smith's deputy. He was in the middle of it as well.

JR: It was discovered that he had actually committed terrorist acts against Americans, uh, bombings in Europe. And that he had wounded some with his bombs. I mean obviously, the intent was to kill them. Now, that was somehow missed. Now, you know IÔøΩ I don't know how it was missed or whether, frankly, it was just overlooked, but it should have been a red flag.

MG: You can imagine what some people inside the CIA thought of the asset scrub. The function of a spy service is to find out what the bad guys are doing and the best way you find out what the bad guys are doing is to have another bad guy tell you, right? So why would you have a rule saying the CIA needs to be extra careful about hiring bad guys? But at the same time, there's a group that says, "Look, the Agency is a mess. We might not have a future unless we clean up our act. We have to play by the rules."

JS: So what that meant was we belatedly discovered that we should have reviewed his record before entering into a relationship with him and we should have actually gone to the law enforcement, the FBI and the Department of Justice, at the outset, before we even began a relationship. And, uh, I would've been the guy to do it, was to go to JusticeÔøΩ We did not do that.

MG: In the middle of all that handwringing, someone calls Tim Weiner.

When, so when did you first get wind of the retired terrorist?

TW: As I recall, in the late spring or early summer of 1995, I get word from inside the CIA that we have a problem here and I begin to make enquiries.

MG: So somebody from inside the CIA. What is their motivation for telling you this?

TW: The CIA has screwed up. It has failed to inform the Justice Department that they have an asset on their books, a foreign agent, who has, again euphemistically, American blood on his hands.

MG: So why did they want to call the New York Times?

TW: To right a wrong. Because sometimes public, uh, disclosure is the only way to write a wrong.

MG: Do you it's eaÔøΩ Did, did they think it would be easier for them to fulfill their obligation to inform the justice department if there was a kind of leak of this fact first?

TW: There was a battle royal going on inside the CIA over the scrub.

MG: So Deutsch is pushing that and, within the Agency, there's a considerable amount of push back. So they're, they're anticipating that this is going to be a struggle.

TW: "A considerable amount of pushback" is an understatement. There was fierce opposition.

MG: So I'm guessing the people who call you are the ones who are in favor of the scrub?

TW: The people who call me are patriots who love their country and who are sworn to upholdÔøΩ Let me rephrase that. The people who called me, I believe, are patriots who love their country and are motivated to live by their oath to uphold the constitution and obey the laws of the United States.

MG: Weiner waits, continues to ask around, then late in the summer of 1995, the CIA decides to take its medicine. Rizzo goes to the Department of Justice and tells them good, bad, and ugly about their Al Pacino.

JR: They were upset. You know, basically, "Why're you just telling us this now? You know, why didn't you tell us before you get in bed with this guy?" So, yeah, they were upset, as I knew they would be. You have to weighÔøΩ This guy is, you know, gold, against the fact that well, you know, heÔøΩ He's got attempted murder of Americans in, on his resume.

MG: At the same time Rizzo's having that conversation, the head of the CIA's counterterrorism center went to Capitol Hill and briefed members of Congress about the asset scrub. They weren't happy either. People all over Washington now knew about Al Pacino. People in the department of justice, people in the White House, people on the hill, representatives, senators, staffers; and Weiner's phone rings again.

TW: My rule of thumb on a story like this is I wanna have three sources and I want to make sure that the second source is not the first source, in which case, I have one source, right? So I had two sources. I did get a call. The call was a call to have a conversation outside of the normal circuits of the telephone lines. The conversation was with a member of Congress. At this point, I have three sources. Uh, subsequently, there was a fourth who is an American diplomat, was an American diplomat at the time.

MG: Weiner calls the CIA press office and talks to the Agency spokesman at the time, Dennis Box. I met Box in a restaurant in northern Virginia.

Dennis Box: And it was it that point where they said, "This is not good. Um, this is, this is really gonna put somebody at risk," and I said, said, "Well, let's invite him in and try to lay out for him, you know, what's gonna, what the risk is." He sat, he sat in my office with the head of Counterterrorism Center.

MG: Yeah. And what wasÔøΩ Do you remember much? What was the, what was the nature of the conversation?

DB: Well, it was pretty straightforward, it wasÔøΩ He's got a fairly mild demeanor, he's not, at least with us, he, you know, he wasn't aggressive or abrasive. I mean, he was just kinda laying out, "Here'sÔøΩ Here's what I have, here's what I've been told," but it was the detail, it was the details of this particular asset that got our folks worked up.

MG: "This particular asset," meaning Al Pacino. Box says the head of the Counterterrorism Center explained all the specific things that, if published, would put Al Pacino in danger. He tried to interest Weiner, instead, in a broader story about the asset scrub, which wasn't really a secret at that point.

These kinds of conversations between reporters and government officials are not unusual. This is how Washington works. In the United Kingdom, there's something commonly known as a D-Notice, which is a government order issued to a media organization saying, "You shouldn't publish what you want to publish because it endangers national security." If this story were taking place in the United Kingdom, the minute Weiner called to say, "I know about Al Pacino," the British government would have slapped a D-Notice on him, end of story. But the United States doesn't have D-Notices; it has a constitutional right to freedom of the press. So what happens instead is a negotiation. The reporter comes in, he or she gets briefed, maybe the head of the CIA calls the editor of The Washington Post or The New York Times and says, "Look, we're really uncomfortable with this. Here's why."

Just as I was writing this episode, The Washington Post reported that, in a meeting with Russian officials, president Trump let slip some very sensitive intelligence from an ally. It was about the intention of Middle East terrorists to use laptops as bombs. Huge story! But if you read the initial news accounts closely, it's obvious that the reporters held some information back. They didn't tell us which American ally gave us that information. It seems like they knew the location of the spy, but they didn't tell us that either. This is what I'm talking about. Somewhere along the line, there was clearly a conversation between those reporters and the CIA and the reporters listened and then said, "We're going to disclose what we think is necessary to make the point about the recklessness of the president, but we're willing to withhold details that you tell us might damage national security."

Jeff Smith says he's been involved in lots of these conversations, both on the government end and now on the media end because he has media organizations among his clients.

JS: One of the things I fault the government on is, too frequently, the government just says, "Well, harm could result." That then leaves my clients, when I'm on the, on the client side, in the terrible dilemma of saying, "Well, what's the harm?" and they go, "Well, we can't tell you."

MG: But Smith, as you can imagine, can see the government side as well. If you're the CIA trying to convince a reporter or an editor not to spill a secret, you have to tell them enough about the secret so that they understand what's at stake. What you don't want to do is reveal even more the secret than what has already been revealed. And all of this while respecting the fact that the press, in America, can, at least in principle, do pretty much whatever it wants.

JS: What the government tries to do is indicate gradations of harm. You know, "This is really bad. This is less bad," and leaving the editorial judgments to the press. But the government should not be in the business of saying, "We agree, you can print this."

MG: It's tricky.

JS: From the national security side, you have to trust the editors of, or the publishers or whomever you're talking to, and tell them why, in as specific as you can, what the harm would be so that they can make a judgment. It's then incumbent upon the editors to take that seriously.

MG: This is exactly the kind of elaborate dance Weiner and the head of the Counterterrorism Center are having in the summer of 1995. In Rizzo's book, he says that some of the things the counterterrorism chief told Weiner left him bug eyed with shock. Weiner says that's nonsense, but the point is this: Their conversation wasn't the CIA giving instructions to the New York Times. That's not how the balance between a free press and a clandestine service works.

MG: Did the counterterrorism chief say to you, "Don't mention this guy at all"?

JR: It was the strong preference, uh, of the counterterrorism chief that certain identifying details that were known to me stay out of the public realm and I agreed with that. I mean, what is the point of publishing the guy's country of origin, the intelligence service he worked for, the specific time and date and place of the attacks? Does the reader need to know that? No. The story's about the balancing test. I knew who he worked for, I knew the specific time and place of the attacks, and I knew how grievous the attacks had been. Every detail of that was scrubbed of my own free will and volition from that story based on my principle that I do not want to publish anything that can get anybody hurt.

MG: But Weiner made it clear to the CIA that he wasn't gonna leave Al Pacino out of the story entirely. He was going to reveal that Al Pacino was the source who helped find Carlos the Jackal, that Pacino had, and I'm quoting from the story Weiner eventually wrote, "A brutal resume." He'd been involved in two bombings in Western Europe in the mid-1980s that had injured Americans and he had only broken with his terrorist group in 1987. Four separate people: Someone inside the CIA, a congressman, a diplomat, and someone else in the know, had told Weiner about Al Pacino. Al Pacino was the person about whom the Agency had failed to tell Congress and the Justice Department. From Weiner's perspective, Al Pacino was the story.

Jeff Smith says that when he realized what Weiner intended to publish, his heart sank.

MG: What was the, in general, the feeling within the Agency about the possibility of this story being written?

JS: Anger. Anger that if it leaks so quickly, uh, and then a real desire that itÔøΩ That we do all we could to not have the details of what this individual had told us and what happened to come out.

MG: When you say "what happened," do you meanÔøΩ Are you talking specifically about this individual's involvement with, uh, fingering or helping to find Carlos the Jackal?

JS: Yes, yes. Yeah.

MG: To your mind, that was the identifyingÔøΩ?

JS: Yes, yes.

MG: The Agency scrambled to get in touch with Al Pacino. They had to warn him. Here's Rizzo again.

JR: You can't just call up an asset and say, "Meet meÔøΩ You know, meet me in a cafe around the corner in an hour." I mean, they'd have locate him, signal that emergency meeting was necessary. I think the meeting actually took place either it just immediately before the story came out or on the day the story came out.

MG: And what did the asset say during the meeting when told this?

JR: Well, I, uh, I was told that he was flabbergasted. Felt absolutely betrayed, "How could this happen? How could you do this to me? I'm a dead man." You know, when our case officer broke the news to him, offered immediate evacuation, safe haven, get him the hell out of there. And he refused. He just walked away. He said, you know, "You, you betrayed me," and, and that was it. He just walked.

MG: The story ran on August 21, 1995 on the front page of The New York Times. "CIA Re-examines Hiring of Ex-Terrorist as Agent." It was also translated and ran in newspapers around the world. Al Pacino's case officer put a copy of the Greek version on his wall and when the case officer was asked why, I'm told he said, "I do this because it is a reminder to all of us in this division about the consequences of breaking faith with your asset."

One of the most famous of all New Testament stories is what happened to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. Saul was a strong opponent of the early Christian church. He persecuted the early Christians, the Bible says, beyond measure. He stood by and watched as one of the earliest of Jesus' followers, Stephen, was stoned