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Sea Control 145 – Strategic Communications with Bill Harlow

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By Matthew Merighi

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Bill Harlow, an author and former intelligence community spokesman, about his work in strategic communications in the armed forces. He talks about the public affairs career track in the military, his experience at all levels of government, and how that experience informs the civilian work he does today. 

Download Sea Control 145 – Strategic Communications with Bill Harlow

A transcript of the interview between Bill Harlow (BH) and Matthew Merighi (MM) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity. Special thanks to Associate Producer Cris Lee for producing this episode and writing the transcription.

MM: Now, as is Sea Control tradition, please introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your professional background, what you’re up to now, and how you got from where you started in your career to where you are at the moment.

BH: Well, I like to think of myself as a communications professional. I started out in the Navy, got a commission through ROTC from Villanova. And spent 25 fascinating years in the Navy, most of that as a public affairs professional. I had a number of very interesting tours while on active duty, including four years at the White House Press Office, and duty at the Pentagon many times in various spokesman positions. This included Chief Spokesman for the secretary of the Navy and retired as a Navy Captain in 1997, and went to work as chief spokesman for a secret organization. Sounds like it should be a pretty easy job.

Then I was the spokesman for the CIA for 7 years, from 1997 to 2004. I left that job and did a couple things, one was writing and helping various people, mostly former CIA officials, write their memoirs or books. I do that under my Bill Harlow communications hat. Then I also started a company called 15 Seconds, 15-seconds.com, with Fred Francis, a former NBC news correspondent. We do crisis communications and media training, and tell clients how to approach dealing with the media from the dual perspective of Fred who spent 40 years in network news and my perspective of spending almost that much time as a government spokesman, so it provides a unique perspective to people about how to deal with the media in the current environment.

MM: Well, that’s a very broad and diverse set of career experiences so what we’ll do is start from the beginning. As you can imagine, as our listeners already know, most of the people we have come through military backgrounds on Sea Control end up talking about more kinetic topics and have line officer backgrounds but you ended up in public affairs. What made you want to go down the public affairs route and how did you end up getting involved in that world?

BH: Well, I always had an interest in communications and media relations and those kind of things, but I owed the Navy four years of service for my ROTC scholarship and fortunately after a couple quicks and takes I ended up aboard USS Midway as the collateral duty public affairs officer. I got on board in Alameda and about three days later the ship got underway for Japan for a cruise that lasted a couple generations, but I was fortunate enough to be on board when the Midway went to Yokosuka for the first time. And while on board I was able to run the ship’s newspaper, the closed-circuit radio TV. It also involved dealing with crises that we had on board, things like that, while also standing bridge watches from time to time.

And although I eventually qualified as an Officer of the Deck underway on the Midway, I was having more fun doing the communicating part of it than driving the ship. So, at the end of my tour there I applied for conversion to the public affairs designator within the Navy. It’s a very small community within the Navy, Public Affairs specialists who do that solely for the rest of their careers, and I was fortunate enough to be selected. When I went ashore from the Midway, I was able to build on what I learned in the fleet to help the story of the Navy for the next twenty-plus years.

MM: I want to ask a more general question in terms of what then is the traditional glide path and the traditional trajectory for a person that is doing public affairs in either the Navy or the military services? What kind of assignments do you normally end up getting, what are the standard kind of cycles that you go through to get into those positions, and how exactly does a public affairs career end up unfolding?

BH: It varies widely and it certainly varies more widely when you talk about the different services. The Navy I think has the best track record of training and deploying their spokespeople. They give them a lot of responsibility early on, which is typical of the Navy in general as you know. And they tend to put their spokespeople in areas of fleet concentration, whether its Norfolk or San Diego or whatever. Or places where there’s lots of communications opportunities like the Pentagon and again there’s only a small number of people. When I was in less than two hundred, total. The seniormost person was usually a one star, and then on down to the junior-most person, they might be a JG or a LT. And so they’re spread pretty thinly but you get an opportunity to deal with both media relations and with the press, along with internal relations communicating within the Navy whether it’s through closed-circuit TV or through other broadcasts or internet platforms now. It also includes community relations and dealing with the public, trying to get the public to understand what the Navy does and why it does it and try to build support that can be anything from working with the bands or with the Blue Angels, to all manner of things. So those are the kind of jobs that you end up getting within the public affairs community.

MM: You had some pretty high profile and high visibility positions. So, let’s talk a little bit about your time at the White House. I’m looking at your bio and seeing the years. You were there right during the transition between President Reagan and President Herbert Walker Bush, which was obviously an interesting time for national politics and international affairs with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the new world order, complete redefinition of the world as we knew it. Which means that as things are changing quickly, I’m sure it was very, to put it mildly, interesting to say nothing of difficult to keep abreast of those changes and communicate what the White House was doing and what the world was becoming. So, tell us a little bit about what your time was like in the White House, particularly the transitions between the two presidencies and the transition in world order.

BH: Yeah, it was a fascinating time to be there. I guess it’s probably any time that the White House is fascinating, but it certainly seemed to be that I was fortunate at that particular time and it wasn’t meant to be as long as it turned out to be. At the end of the Reagan administration there was a vacancy at the White House press office in the part that handled national security. They reorganized several times back and forth, but that particular spot would be assigned to the National Security Council staff, but at the time we were considered White House staff. And there was a vacancy at the end of the Reagan administration and there weren’t any civilians beating down the door to take the job because there were only a few months left in the administration. So people didn’t want to leave a paying job to go there. So, people at the White House thought well maybe we can get a military guy to fill in for the final nine months of the Reagan administration. And they called over to the senior spokesman for the Pentagon and they asked if he knew anybody that would fit the bill, and at the time I was the senior military assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and he asked me for a recommendation and I said, “How about me?” And he kindly said, “Sure go over and interview,” and I went over and interviewed. I was fortunate enough to be selected for what I thought was going to be a nine-month job. But then when President George Herbert Walker Bush won election, he asked the Presidential Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater under President Reagan to stick around and keep that same job in the new administration and Marlin was kind enough to ask me if I would like to stay for a little bit longer. And I said, “heck yes.” So I took what was a nine-month temporary assignment and milked it for about four years.

It was a remarkable time to be there. President Reagan was a fascinating, wonderful guy to be around. You knew you were in the presence of somebody who was really powerful but also like your favorite uncle. You couldn’t help but like the guy if you were around him a little bit. He was truly a great communicator and he spent a lot of time working on his communications. And so, for a public affairs guy, that was a wonderful thing to observe and to play a small part in. I was there. And toward the end of his administration when he went to Moscow, for the summit meeting and things like that, I traveled with the president a little bit. It just was was a fascinating time.

Then the Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush becomes president, and it was a remarkable period in history. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Gulf War, the Soviet Union coming apart. And again, I was privileged to have been able to travel with him around the world, to a number of events and to be there taking part in figuring out how do we deal with these crises and how do you respond to a situation like the Berlin Wall coming down.

I think President Bush doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the way he handled all those things masterfully. He could’ve said or done things that would’ve triggered a negative response from the Soviet Union, but he handled it just perfectly and in a way which allowed the Soviet Union to take itself apart without taking down large portions of the West with them. So, it was a wonderful opportunity, working at the White House is of course a privilege.

One thing I would say is different about working in the White House and working in the military is that almost everyone at the White House understood the importance of communications. And so, you never had a problem getting the attention of some senior official to get them to give you information that you could use to respond to the media, to talk to them and think through the implications of how the reactions would play out in the media. Sometimes in the military, you run into senior officials who think “my job is to be a warfighter and that’s all I care about,” and that “The public doesn’t have to know anything about what we’re doing and therefore you press guys stay out of the way.” That was not the situation in the White House for they understood by the very nature of their jobs that they had to communicate effectively in order to do a good job for the administration and for the country.

MM: And so… when you’re within the White House versus in the military there’s a difference between how the senior leaders view the need for communications. What about the battle rhythm, sort of the day-to-day work. Was it fundamentally the same between those two organizations even though the leadership put a different emphasis on strategic communications, or is the nature of doing public affairs the same regardless of whether you’re on the civilian White House side or the more military DoD side?

BH: I think it’s close to the same, I brought with me sort of a military ethic when I got to the White House. I made a point of getting in an hour ahead of my boss, which is a typical military thing when you’re an aide or a military assistant or something like that. And  just immersing myself with the information to try to stay ahead of the game because there was so much information coming in since there are so many things you need to anticipate and deal with. And like in any organization, you just never know what’s going to come at you, there’s so many possibilities that you need to stay on top of things. The last thing you want at the White House or at any senior military command is to be surprised by actions that there’s any way to know of. You want to stay ahead of the curve but it was challenging, and it’s even more so today given the plethora of media outlets that are there to deal with so it must be even harder to stay ahead of the game.

MM: So that what it’s like on the civilian or the government civilian side and on the military side. So let’s talk about the third leg of that stool which is secret organizations. So, you went to work for the CIA in 1997?

BH: That’s correct, yes.

MM: So, in 1997, you joined the CIA as a communications person, as chief spokesman. You held that position for a number of years. So, tell us then what was the difference working on the intelligence side, as you mentioned what is it like to be in charge of the responsible for the communications or the organization whose primary cultural aspect is to try to give away as little as information as possible

BH: Yeah, it was certainly challenging. And I thought going into it I would have a little bit of a leg up on it because I had worked with the military and from time to time worked with the Navy submarine community, for example, which is notably tight-lipped and with the special warfare communities and things like that. CIA takes it obviously to a completely different level. And there are a large number of people within the organization who will forever think that the only response to any question should be “no comment.” And then they would be just as happy if the press job didn’t exist. But my argument and the argument which my boss Director George Tenet fully endorsed was that the agency has a responsibility to talk about what it can so that in those occasions when it must be secret, it has some credibility. When you say everything in the world is classified, everything is to be responded with “no comment,” but then you have no standing if the media come to you and they haven’t learned something secretive and you ask them “please don’t report that” because it would do damage to national security. You have no standing if you have been telling the same thing all along for every simple question that they might ask.

It’s also an opportunity, because of the nature of the organization, there are things that the intelligence community does that can be talked about. There’s analysis they do that is quite valuable to the public and the private sector, there are actions taken that can be spoken about and if you put some deposits in the credibility bag, they will be able to describe a few of the success against the inevitable stories that get out there about the failures the intelligence community or about the other difficult enemies you run into. You’ve got more ability to offset that if you play the game. If you totally stiff the media, totally refuse to respond to any question, when stuff goes badly, and it will, inevitably you’ve got little leg to stand on when they try to put it in perspective.

MM: So, let’s talk then about some of the specific events that happened while you were at the CIA because you were there for a number of years and I’d say the two that sort of pop up are 9/11 and the prosecution of the Iraq War. So, I was wondering if you could walk through then some of the specifics that you actually can talk about in your role. What it was like to be there during that tumultuous time and that very difficult time for our country?

BH: Yeah, again it was a fascinating time to be where I happened to be. The CIA was the one part of the government that was most alarmed about the potential threat from al-Qaida for a number of years. When I first got there in 1997, it was very worried about it, working aggressively against that target, but it was a very difficult one to get attention to. If you go back and look at the public testimony that the Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet made in 1998-99-2000 even early 2001, he was saying things along the lines of, “al-Qaida could attack any moment without further notice.” So, we were trying to get the word out that this was a serious situation of extraordinary concern to the agency and to the nation, but again you run into the difficulties of not being able to talk about many of the things you are doing, and also there’s so much that’s unknown about it. But we were definitely feeling the potential pressure of that situation as the 9/11 commission quotes that Director Tenet was saying that at the time the system was blinking red and we knew that something big was coming. We didn’t know precisely where, we didn’t know precisely when, we didn’t know how it would happen. We were trying to raise the alarm within government but there’s always only so much you can do there, because if you can’t tell them precisely what’s going to happen or where, they say to you, “aren’t you guys just crying wolf again?”

So, there was a tremendous feeling of pressure at the time and then when 9/11 happened. I was at the CIA headquarters that morning and we were in a senior staff meeting and one of the watch officers came in to the director’s conference room and said a plane has just hit the World Trade Center. And while many people will say their initial reaction was “it’s probably a small plane that got lost or something,” I think our reaction was generally was it could well be al-Qaida and I went back to my office and saw the second plane and then certainly knew instantly that it was. Then there was the tremendous outpouring and support where the entire country came together to try to band together against this fight. And the wonderful work that was done by the agency and special warfare community in going into Afghanistan after a couple weeks of 9/11 and essentially routing the Taliban and putting al-Qaida on the run was a very dramatic period in the country’s history.

And then what inevitably happens after a crisis like that, the first reaction is that people pull together and work together and the second reaction is that people start pointing fingers. “Why didn’t somebody tell us? Why didn’t you stop this? Why didn’t you do whatever it is in retrospect what should’ve been done?” And after the crisis whether it’s that one or whether its any other one you could name, it’s very easy to go back and look at things that might have been done, should have been done. You now have the complete picture and you go back and find the pieces of the puzzles that were missing. At the time when you’re in the run-up to a crisis, the cliché is that it’s like having a jigsaw puzzle without the box top, or worse than that is a jigsaw puzzle without the box top and thousands of pieces of other jigsaw puzzles mixed in among them that look like they would it but really don’t fit. So, after the fact, you know precisely what to look for and you can find a dozen pieces you can put them together and understand what may have happened and what might have been missed. In the lead up, it’s a different picture. So that was 9/11 and the aftermath to it involved a tremendous work of effort and focus at the agency. And I was privileged to be in there and help tell as much of that story as we could at the time and help try to explain the things that we couldn’t answer, and trying to explain why we couldn’t answer the question. 

That whole atmosphere played into the next one that you mentioned, the run up to the Iraq War. You can’t overstate how much impact of 9/11 had on the thinking within the administration about dealing with the potential threat of Iraq. And there were a couple mainstream ideas that touched on things that I was able to deal with at the time, one was the terrorism threat and there were a lot people who were connecting Iraq to al-Qaida, inappropriately we thought. They were over-stressing, this is outside the intelligence community, over-stressing the potential connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. And I spent a lot of my time, to the extent that I could, factually dealing with that, trying to knock down the notion that there was some direct link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida. Things like that. And then there was the WMD portion and as Paul Wolfowitz famously said at one point, “That was the one thing that everyone could agree on.” This includes every intelligence service around the country, even Saddam’s, I would bet you. Every pundit for the most part was pretty well convinced that Saddam had some fashion of weapons of mass destruction. Turned out that it was nowhere near as far along as feared. And you can write books, and I’ve help write a couple, thinking in to a great detail about how did it happen, how it could’ve happened. But it was a tremendously complex period in the country’s life. And there was a feeling of “we don’t want to get this one wrong. If we get this one wrong and we underestimated it, the results could be catastrophic.” You could argue though we got it wrong in the other direction, and we certainly did, but it was a difficult period and the life of the intelligence community in the country’s history.

MM: And then not too long after that, you ended up retiring from your role and then taking that experience to the ventures that you are working on now. So, the PR firm, Bill Harlow Communications, and also 15 Seconds that you mentioned earlier that you co-founded with Fred Francis from NBC. So, what was that transition like, to go from what must have been the most difficult part of your career dealing with 9/11 and the lead up to the Iraq War and the immediate aftermath, into the private sector just all of a sudden. Was it a difficult transition, was it hard to learn the new tricks and tips and things that you have to figure out? Or was the transition relatively smooth? What kind of things did you learn what things in your previous career helped you find a new one?

BH: Yeah, well backing up a little bit, I had actually retired from the Navy before I took the job at the CIA. So, I had been out of the Navy for a while, and although I left the Navy on a Friday and started on Monday at the CIA, the only difference was showing up in civilian clothes. But there wasn’t much difference between those 25 years in the Navy and seven years at the CIA. Then all of a sudden, I left the CIA. Frankly after 33 years of fairly intense service, I was kind of exhausted, so I welcomed the opportunity to not show up at work at 5:30 or 6 in the morning every day, and stay until 7 or 8 at night.

Initially, one of the things I was able to pursue shorty after leaving the agency was to help George Tenet with his memoirs, which were published in 2007, in a book called At the Center of the Storm. And that too was a fairly intense process, a very difficult one to figure out what could be said, help him get it written and get it through the CIA clearance process which is challenging. So that kept me busy, and at the same time, I was setting up this other company 15 Seconds with Fred Francis where we were trying to pitch ourselves to both the private sector and we had a few governmental clients as well where we helped train people to deal with the media. So, all that kept me busy and it was an interesting change of pace. So, it wasn’t as difficult a transition as I might have feared

MM: And so with all of those things that ended up happening to you, how much of that did you say did you build intentionally? How much happened by luck?

BH: I think about 90 percent of life is luck. You just keep showing up to the work and doing the best you can and networking at the extent that you can. I never planned to spokesman for the CIA. In fact, when I retired from the Navy, the one thing I didn’t want to do was go back to work for the government. At the time you had to give up most of your retired pay if you went back to work as a civil servant and that made no sense for me to do that at all so when the guy who was spokesman for CIA was leaving at the time I was shopping around for a job, and I knew him from the Pentagon in the past, he asked me if I wanted to go over for an interview for his job. And I had no intention of getting that job, I thought it might be good practice to interview over there and then when I went out to the private sector I’d have more practice with job interviews.

Because usually in the military you don’t do job interviews, that’s not really the way you get assignments. So, I went over there thinking I would work my way up the bureaucracy with people and I’d practice my interview skills. Well, the first guy in the interview was George Tenet. And I just hit it off with the guy, just was totally impressed with him, and I thought, “you know it might be fun to work with him for a year or two and then go off and into the private sector.” Well, a year or two turned into seven years and I never planned it that way, but it turned out to be a wonderful thing. I didn’t anticipate that so many historic things would happen when they did and I helped convince him that he ought to tell his story, and then he asked me to help me do it and then one thing led to another. I think that if he tried to plan it then that never would have happened. When I went to the White House and I was only going there for nine months, it was a temporary job and I had no way of knowing that President Bush would be elected or that he would ask Marlin Fitzwater to stick around or that Marlin would ask me to stick around. So, it was just the luck of the draw and I’ve been very lucky.

MM: So then let’s talk a little bit more about the crisis communication aspect, since you’ve lived through crises. I imagine your firm 15 Seconds has something to do with crisis communications so if you could walk us through why did you founded that particular organization company and what is it like to handle crisis communications, how do you do it, and how is it different from non-crisis public relations.

BH: We call the company 15 Seconds, it’s sort of a play on Andy Warhol’s in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. He said that 40 years ago and things have sped up so much that you only get 15 seconds. And our theory is that in a crisis situation you’ve got to respond enormously fast in order to get ahead of the curve and in order to establish what you’ll want to say because everybody else is going to be out there: all your competitors, all of the people who are your opponents, all your pundits, all the people who are just looking to get some notoriety will be out there talking about your issue whether you want to be or not. So, the difference between crisis communications and normal public relations, is that you don’t really get a vote on whether you play or not. If you’re at Equifax and you’ve just been hacked and lost the details of 143 million people, you got to get out there and talk about it whether you like it or not because otherwise your company’s going to be decimated. In normal situations, people in organizations can pick and choose, “Do I want to engage, do I not want to engage, do I want to put out a spokesman, do I want to just respond in a written response, can I just let this go and keep your head down and maybe we’ll do fine?” But in a crisis situation, you’ve got to play, because otherwise you’re just going to get your head handed to you because everybody else is going to be damning you, putting out information which may or may not be true, and redefining your organization. So, it’s a challenge and we think that organizations who only think about crisis communications after the crisis hits have put themselves in a very difficult position. Because if they haven’t thought through how you would respond to a crisis, if you haven’t thought through who would be your spokesman on it, if you haven’t thought through mechanisms on how we get information out, “do I put out a press release, do I put out a press conference, do I know how to hold a press conference, do I know where to hold it?” If you haven’t thought through it in advance, the chances of it coming out perfectly well aren’t so good.

MM: Let’s talk also then about the part of your career that you alluded to when you were talking about helping write At the Center of the Storm with George Tenet, his memoirs. You’ve written a number of other books too, one with Michael Morell and a number of others, primarily about al-Qaida and the war on terrorism. How did you end up deciding to pursue that business model of helping others write their stories and how is that different from other kinds of writing that you have to do either in your private sector or in your public-sector PR roles?

BH: Well, the first book I wrote was actually a novel that I wrote towards the end of my time in the navy, called Circle William. And it was about two brothers, one who was a White House press secretary, obviously based on my experience, and the other was a captain of an Arleigh Burke destroyer, and that was actually based on a friend of mine and yours, Jim Stavridis. I had worked with him within the secretary of the navy staff, and when he was a young commander. So using those two worlds of the Navy and the White House press operation, I worked on this novel which was well-received. I wasn’t able to promote it that much because by the time it came out I was at the CIA and I had a full-time job but it was an interesting experience as simply getting published is both rewarding and challenging. So, I had been through the process.

Then at the end of my time at sea, I had been published once at least and I knew the mechanics of doing it. I had this belief that George Tenet had a terrific story to tell and I wanted to help him tell it and it came out very well. His book opened number one in the New York best seller list, you can’t complain about that. But I didn’t intend to get into that line of work, but having done that successfully with Tenet, other book opportunities presented themselves to me. Fortunately for every book that I have coauthored, the people I worked with were first friends before coauthors, so Michael Morell and then Jose Rodriguez, and Jim Mitchell is the most recent one.

So, these are people I certainly knew of and in most cases, knew well and were friendly with. And that made the process a lot easier to help them tell their stories. Of course, this is their story, it’s not my story, but they’re also all very busy people and the extent that I could help them convey what they want to convey, about their lessons learned from their time and any government, it’s been a worthwhile and rewarding experience.

MM: Since you’ve done this a number of times already, do you have any writing advice for our people out in our audience, who I imagine most are more used to say, writing articles for CIMSEC or doing background papers in their government jobs? Any writing advice that you gleaned from both your time in uniform, and as a government civilian, and as a writer?

BH: One bit of advice would be to keep writing, it’s something that gets better, and it gets easier the more you do it. And to the extent that if you let that skill atrophy, it takes a while to get back in the saddle. And don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just keep writing and writing. The other bit of advice is, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard, when you’re writing, leave out the parts that people are going to skip anyway. I see a lot of people writing things and it is way too long. I get a lot of former CIA and military people who want to write novels or non-fiction books who come to me and ask for some advice, and what I tend to see is that they write too much. People who write books which if they ever got published would kill thousands of trees. It’s much better to leave people wanting more than to have them wanting less. So, to the extent that you write stuff, if you could keep it punchy, memorable, short, it’s to your advantage. Other times, where you need to write long, the Tenet book, At the Center of the Storm, was a pretty hefty sized book, but he had so much material to cover and so many historical things that justified it. But for most of us, writing material to keep it punchy and short is much better. 

MM: Excellent. Now since we’ve reached the end of our episode, let’s conclude the same way we conclude every episode. Especially since you’ve worked in communications, you likely know this question well, what kind of things are you reading nowadays, and for the people out in the audience who are either interested more in the public relations and public affairs world or just interested in what’s on your mind, what things would you recommend that they pick up?

BH: I don’t read a whole lot about the public affairs world, so I may let down your readers on that regard. I tend to find myself reading more nonfiction historical stuff, that’s what interests me and that, when I break away from my daily routine, is what I tend to focus on. One book I’m reading right now is Churchill and Orwell, by Tom Ricks, terrific book, I’m only about halfway through it but I would never have thought to have combine those two people in a single book, but Tom is doing a great job, has done a great job telling two stories of two quite remarkable men during a critical period in the world’s history. Tom is somebody I knew, he was a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal and he’s someone who has given me writing advice early on, so I certainly respect everything that he does. I also read stuff that is sort of on the periphery of things that I have done or there’s a number of books by former CIA officials or people who are interested in CIA things. There’s one coming out from the Naval Institute Press called Operation Blackmail about Betty Macintosh, who was a woman in the OSS in World War II in the Pacific, who led a remarkable career. And that’s a book I read in galley form. It’s well worth a read by people who read your blog and who are interested in World War II history and espionage. It’s quite a remarkable book.

MM: I’ll definitely have to pick it up I’m sure. Thank you again Bill for taking the time today. Really appreciate you appearing on Sea Control and best of luck in all of your ventures, writing, and communications and otherwise.

BH: Thank you very much, it’s been my pleasure.

Bill Harlow is the President of Bill Harlow Communications and Co-Founder of 15-Seconds.com. He is the author of Circle William and has co-authored a number of books, including At the Center of the Storm with George Tenet and The Great War of Our Time with Michael Morell. 

Matthew Merighi is Senior Producer for Sea Control, CEO of Blue Water Metrics, and Assistant Director for Maritime Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

The Men Who Shaped A World: Author and Journalist Stephen Kinzer on John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles

brothers

Back in March, I had the opportunity to listen to a panel at Brown University on civilian-military relations, titled, “In and Out of Uniform: Civilian Military Relations Reconsidered.”  The panel was born from the provocative piece by James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine, titled, “The Tragedy of the American Military.”  It was an interesting discussion.  One of the highlights that day, at least for me, was walking away with a book.  I happened to sit next to journalist and author Stephen Kinzer during a lunch that preceded the panel.  We got to talking, and eventually he brought up his book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and their Secret World War.  Later that day he gave me a copy.  A few weeks later I read it.  It was a fascinating book on two men that, unknown to me, had a big impact on American foreign policy during the Cold War.  Recently I had the chance to chat with Stephen about the Dulles brothers and their legacy in U.S. foreign affairs.

Stephen Kinzer, welcome. I enjoyed the opening anecdote of your book about the naming of the Dulles airport and how you “found” the bust of John Foster Dulles.  How did that come about?

This is a fascinating story and there is actually a footnote that you probably don’t know. So as you say, I do start out my book with this anecdote about Dulles airport. So of course, John Foster Dulles was the secretary of state during the 1950s when his brother Allen was head of the CIA.  The new airport being built outside of Washington D.C. was being named after John Foster Dulles.  In 1962 there was a big ceremony at the airport.  I watched a video on YouTube which showed when the airport was inaugurated.  President Kennedy was there, former President Eisenhower was there, Allen Dulles was there.  And a curtain was pulled back to reveal a bust of John Foster Dulles.  The bust was placed in the center of the airport.

While I was writing this book I decided I want to go to the airport and find the bust.  I wanted to commune with it in a sense; I wanted to see what it looked like.  But I couldn’t find it.  I asked around and nobody knew where the bust was.  It’s a long story, but ultimately I found it in a closed conference room.  And I used this story as a kind of a nice metaphor for how much we have forgotten John Foster Dulles. I repeated that story during my book tour.  I probably gave 100 talks about this book over the last year or two and that was often the way it would start out.  This story about how this guy was so famous and now how you can’t even find his bust.  So that’s the story, but here’s the footnote.

President John F. Kennedy and former President Dwight Eisenhower at the opening of the Dulles Airport.

Not long ago I got a phone call from one of my friends who said, “You are not going to believe this.  I’m calling you from Dulles airport.  The bust is back.”  And sure enough, they’ve taken the bust out of the private conference room and put it back on public display. So first I wondered if this had something to do with the fact that I had pointed out what had happened with the bust.  I thought I had achieved something great that showed the massive power of the press.  But now I realize that it’s not so good because I have brought him out of the obscurity which into it had fallen, but without any context, so he is essentially being portrayed as a heroic figure.  I am wondering whether I couldn’t set up a little booth next to the bust and sell copies of my book so people could understand who he really was.

Why the Dulles brothers?  What interested you about them to write a book on those two men?

I am interested in the question of American intervention overseas.  One thing I often ask myself is Why are Americans like this? Why do we do this? Why are we so eager to intervene in the affairs of other countries?  I concluded that the story of the Dulles brothers and what they did in the 1950s would help explain some of that.  The forces that created the Dulles brothers are the forces that created America.  If you can understand those sources you can understand a good deal about this country.  And they left us some important lessons that are still relevant.  So I am presenting a biography here: this is the story of these two immensely powerful brothers who helped shape the world in the 1950s.  But in the larger sense I am using the framework of biography to ask larger questions about the way the United States behaves in the world.

It seems like John Foster Dulles, and Allen Dulles to a certain extent, were very religious.  And as I read your book, it appeared that their religious background colored their world view.  Did it not?

They were brought up in a particular Calvinist religious tradition and came from a long line of clergymen and missionaries.  They were taught, first of all, that the world was divided between good and evil  and that there was one true religion, that all the other religions were wrong and evil.  If you believe that about religions, it is a very short step to believing the same thing about world politics — that there is one political system that’s the right and good system for people to live under rather than all the other systems which are wrong and evil.  In addition, they grew up with a strong admiration for the missionary idea, which tells you that a good Christian should not simply stay home and hope that good triumphs over evil, but now he has to go out and wage the fight on behalf of good.  This is another religious precept that is easily transferable to the political realm.  You begin to believe that it isn’t enough for us to enjoy the blessings of freedom at home.  We need to go out into the world and liberate others who are not enjoying what we consider the blessings that they deserve.

While the brothers do share similar traits, they did have different temperaments.  Is that correct?

It is quite a remarkable feature, their personalities.  Politically and professionally they were identical.  They saw the world the same way.  They had grown up intimately, shared a worldview and hardly ever disagreed about anything.  That was one reason it was so dangerous to the United States to have the two of them in power.  They never felt the need to consult any experts other than the two

of them.  So politically they were peas in a pod. In their private lives however, in their personalities, they were direct opposites.  Foster Dulles was dour and gruff and socially inept.  I have a whole page in my book about all the awkward things he would do.  Even his friends didn’t like him.  Allen Dulles, the CIA director, was just the opposite.  He was a sparkling personality with an endless supply of stories. He had a wine cellar; he was a tennis player; he had a 100 mistresses; he was a wonderful addition to the Washington dinner scene.

Allen Dulles, as you say in your book, was intrigued with Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.  Do you think this paved the way for him to become a spy.  Is this something that he was incredibly intrigued with?

I think there was a kind of romantic fascination on the part of Allen Dulles in the idea of covert action.  He read Kim when he was a young man and he kept it with him his whole life.  It was on his bed table when he died.  I would go on to another equally romanticized version of the espionage trade that Allen Dulles came to appreciate later in life.  That was the novels of James Bond. Those novels have nothing to do with real life intelligence work.  They show that the work of a single intrepid agent can change the course of history and that there are never any long term effects as soon as the bad people are done away with.  This is a very dangerous mindset for intelligence agents to get into because the real world is not like that.  At some point Allen Dulles even asked his tech division at the CIA to duplicate some of the gadgets that James Bond used.  He was told that those were not realistic.  It shows a little bit of the danger of mixing reality and fiction.  I think Allen Dulles fell into that sometimes.

The First Edition of Rudyard Kipling's Kim. First published in book form in 1901.
The First Edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. First published in book form in 1901.

 

The Dulles family, specifically their grandfather and their uncle, had a lot to do with their path in life.  I thought it was fascinating that John Watson Foster, their grandfather, is responsible for the concept of defense attachés in our embassies.  Could you expound on that?

I mentioned a moment ago that one of the factors that shaped the Dulles brothers was their religious background.  A second factor is the family background to which you refer. Their uncle was secretary of state — Robert Lansing — but their grandfather, John Watson, was also secretary of state.  So as kids they grew up with these two remarkable relatives.  John Watson Foster was a remarkable paragon of the American experience during the age of Manifest Destiny.  He grew up on the frontier and made a business for himself, ingratiated himself to powerful men, rose through politics and became an ambassador, and then became secretary of state.  Doing among other things, he modernized the state department and began the practice of systemic research into

John Watson Foster. The thirty-second US Secretary of State and Grandfather of John Foster and Allen Dulles.
John Watson Foster. The thirty-second US Secretary of State and Grandfather of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles.

foreign embassies and advances in foreign weaponry military tactics.  He sent messages to all American legations asking them to send people to libraries and bookstores to look for anything new that was being developed in these fields.  John Watson Foster was also the secretary of state who presided over the first American overthrow of a foreign government — that was Hawaii — in 1893.  He would have later understood the role John Foster Dulles played, almost half a century later in overthrowing governments in Iran, Guatemala, and other places. I began to wonder if there wasn’t some genetic predisposition to regime change in the Dulles family.

The Dulles brothers seemed to jump back and forth between public service and the private sector — particularly back to the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell.  Was this a trend throughout their lives?

Now you are putting your finger on what I think is the third most important factor in shaping the Dulles brothers.  Religious belief was one, family and class background was the second, and certainly the third was the decades that the brothers spent working for the remarkable law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in New York.  This was not a law firm like any other.  It had its speciality.  Its speciality was helping big American companies pressure foreign governments into doing what they wanted.  Virtually every large American multi-national corporation retained Sullivan & Cromwell.  Every time those companies had trouble in some other country they would turn to Sullivan & Cromwell.  Sullivan & Cromwell found ways to make offers to those countries that they couldn’t refuse.  It means that the Dulles brothers understood the world from the perspective of their Wall Street clients. It also means that at an early age they became experienced in the technique of pressuring foreign governments.  The skills that they learned at Sullivan & Cromwell would serve them well when they came into power in the 1950s.

Both men went to law school.  Was the law just a stepping stone for those men in that age?

John Foster Dulles was the highest paid lawyer in America during the peak of his career.  He was a masterful servant of the plutocracy, although he was not a plutocrat himself.  I think their service in that world gave them a certain perspective about what should motivate American foreign policy.  They saw a world in which a great force was arrayed against the United States.  And they took this back to the experiences they had at the law firm and they felt that foreign governments were always seeking to use pressure on American companies as a way to pressure the United States. It was not possible for them to imagine that foreign governments would take steps that would be harmful to American companies. This was strictly out of reasons that came from domestic politics; not because they had been ordered to do so by the Kremlin or that it was some part of a broader geopolitical plot.  So they came to office with a narrow vision that I do think came from their legal work.

Something that surprised me to learn was that John Foster Dulles was supportive of National Socialism in the early thirties.

John Foster Dulles was quite sympathetic to the Nazi party in the 1930s.  He spent a lot of time in Germany.  He was an admirer of Hitler in the 1930s.  John Foster Dulles became the principal broker in the United States for German bonds that supported the municipalities and corporations.  He also weaved the Krupp iron works company into an international nickel cartel that gave the Nazis access to nickel, which of course is important in warfare. He continued to visit Germany all the during the 1930s.  His law firm closed its office in Germany but he was against it.  So Foster Dulles did have a history of sympathy for the Nazis.  I think part of the reason for that was he saw them as a bulwark against the Communists.

What is happening during the brothers during the 30s?  When did they figure out that they would have to fight the Nazis?  Did John Foster change his thinking?

In the mid-1930s Sullivan & Cromwell took a vote to close their Berlin office.  As I said, Foster Dulles opposed that.  But once the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 it became impossible to paint them as peace lovers.  And certainly after the American declaration of war everything became quite clear.  It was after that declaration that Allen Dulles was named head of the OSS station out of Bern,

Allen Dulles CIA ID card.
Allen Dulles CIA ID card.

Switzerland.  It was a very important post because it was one of the last remaining neutral outposts in Europe.  Allen had a quite an adventure getting into Bern.  He had a lot of fun times in Switzerland.  It was his second tour there, he had been an intelligence officer in Bern during the First World War.

Let’s fast forward a little bit to the 1940s and 1950s.  Tell us what operation Ajax was and please, if you could, tell us about Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles roles in that operation.

When the Dulles brothers came into office in the early 1950s, Iran was establishing its democracy and had propelled this interesting leader — Mohammed Mossadegh — to the prime ministers job.  Mossadegh had persuaded the Iranian parliament to vote for the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry.  This industry had been previously owned by one British company which was in turn owned principally by the British government.  So the nationalization of Iranian oil was quite the topic at the time the Dulles brothers came into power.  And they had relations with Iran in the years before that.  The Dulles brothers, when in Sullivan & Cromwell, represented the bank for the British oil company that operated in Iran, and that bank lost its interest.  So the Dulles brothers came into office with a grudge against Mossadegh.  Mossadegh had also helped kill a big development for American engineering firms that Allen Dulles had helped broker.  His threats to the international oil cartel was thought of as dangerous, not just to oil but to all international and multinational businesses because they challenged the concept that rich countries are entitled to resources from poor countries at the price that they want to pay.  So once in power, the Dulles brothers began immediately plotting against Mossadegh, and he was overthrown eight months later and Iran never recovered from it.

President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles in 1956.
President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles in 1956.

Communism was also a driving concern for the Dulles brothers at this time as well, correct?

Certainly the way the Dulles brothers saw the world was a great confrontation between Communism and capitalism.  That would have been the way most Americans saw the world.  Most of our major institutions saw the world through that prism.  The Dulles brothers believed that everything that happened in the world was in some way related to this conflict.  People in other parts of the world saw the global situation differently.  In much of Asia and Africa and Latin America the world looked like it was divided in a different way.  It seemed to be divided between dozens of new nations that were trying to find their place in a turbulent world on the one hand.  And then there were the old traditional ruling powers that were trying to keep them back and prevent their nationalism from flowering into projects of development at home and neutralism abroad.  So the world looked very clear to the Dulles brothers, and everything that happened in it seemed to be part of the Cold War struggle.  That’s why they found so many enemies in the world; they were loose in their interpretation what constituted an enemy or hostile activity.

They didn’t necessarily agree with some of the other big names back then that also didn’t like Communism — John Foster Dulles was not a big fan of George Kennan, was he?

No, as a matter of fact it was Dulles who forced George Kennan out of the state department.  Kennan didn’t see the world in as clear black and white terms as Dulles did.  And I think the state department was not big enough for both of them.  It was clear that Dulles could not run the state department listening to Kennan.  And Kennan didn’t want to be there giving advice to someone who saw the world so differently.

The famous theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr also disagreed with Dulles, didn’t he?

Niebuhr warned against nations becoming too arrogant.  He felt if the United States was faced with extinction as a country it wouldn’t be from a foreign threat; it would be from our own hubris and self-destructive impulses. That was not the way John Foster Dulles saw the world.  So they were critics of each others visions.

Is it true that the birth of the U2 program started at a dinner party?

Allen Dulles was having a dinner with some scientists and they spoke about some advances in high-altitude photography.  This led him to call a few people into his office and ultimately produced what became the U2 project.  That was particularly important in those days.  One reason the Cold War became so intense was our absolute ignorance on what was going on inside the Soviet Union.  Because we were allies during WWII we hadn’t really concentrated on building intelligence networks inside the Soviet Union. So when the war was over we were really shut out; it was a denied area to Americans. One of the very first flights that the U2 took brought back information that we had greatly overestimated the number of fighter jets that the Soviets had.  This kind of information came back repeatedly from U2 flights.  That did play a role, I think, in calming some overblown fears.

 

Let me close with one more question.  What do you think the Dulles brothers biggest effect was on US foreign policy?  What is their legacy look like today?

The Dulles brothers approach to the world did not work out well for the United States. Rather than confront that fact and see what lessons we can draw from that experience, we find it easier to forget about them and move on.  That’s one reason why these brothers who were so famous in the 1950s are now effectively forgotten.  They did however leave some very important legacies.  One is that they were strongly opposed to negotiation with our enemies.  John Foster Dulles always opposed summit meetings between the U.S. President and leaders of the Soviet Union or Communist China.  Nations should first show some sympathy toward us or be friendly toward us or we should not negotiate with them.  That tendency is still strong in the United States today.

A second tendency that they felt was an absolute lack of understanding of the nature of Third World nationalism.  They saw every assertion of nationalism by countries in other parts of the world as defiant to the United States.  They wanted countries to be subservient to the United States.  They couldn’t understand the desire for countries to make their own choices, even if they were not good ones.

The finally legacy they left us is that they had no idea of what today we would call “blowback.”  It never occurred to them that their operations would have such long term consequences.  Perhaps, like James Bond, they kept this idea that you go out in the world and you violently intervene in the political process of another country and then everything will go back to normal, with no serious effect.  It never occurred to them that by destroying democracy in Iran it would send that country into a spiral of dictatorship and religious rule that would last for generations.  When they overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala that a genocidal civil war would break out in which hundreds of thousands of people would be killed.  When they decided to pursue Ho Chi Minh after the British and French decided he could not be defeated, it never occurred to them that it could trigger a war that cost so much pain and horror for Vietnam and the United States.  That’s a good lesson for us to learn from them — I think all three of those are.  Never negotiate with your enemies.  Don’t recognize the nationalist sentiments of people of other countries.  And delude yourself into believing that there will never be any long term effects to foreign intervention.  Those would be the three lessons from the Dulles brothers that we would be wise to learn from.

Thank you very much Stephen, what’s next for you?

I am working on a book about the period when the United States first became involved in taking overseas territories, which was around 1898.  Maybe we can get together for another chat then.

That sounds great.  Thank you Stephen Kinzer, it was a pleasure talking with you.

Thank you.

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent whose articles and books have led the Washington Post to place him “among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling.”  Kinzer spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, most of it as a foreign correspondent. He was the Times bureau chief in Nicaragua during the 1980s, and in Germany during the early 1990s. In 1996 he was named chief of the newly opened Times bureau in Istanbul. Later he was appointed national culture correspondent, based in Chicago.Since leaving the Times, Kinzer has taught journalism, political science, and international relations at Northwestern University and Boston University. He has written books about Central America, Rwanda, Turkey, and Iran, as well as others that trace the history of American foreign policy. He contributes to the New York Review of Books and writes a world affairs column for the Boston Globe.  Currently, he is a Fellow at the Watson Institute of International Studies at Brown University.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval intelligence officer and the book review editor for the Center for International Maritime Security.  He is a recent graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI.  Those interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC can contact LCDR Nelson at books@cimsec.org  The views expressed in this paper are those of only the authors and do not express the official views of the US Navy, the DoD or any agency of the US Government.

Introduction: Challenges to Intelligence Collection

“Intelligence remains our basic national instrument for anticipating danger—military, political, and economic.”—President George H.W. Bush

In preparation for our first “Challenges to Intelligence Collection” week, our CIMSEC editors observed a surprising lack of published information on intelligence collection, both in the general world of scholarship and here at CIMSEC, despite intelligence collection being one of the most controversial topics in the media in the past year. Furthermore, few organizations have adapted as drastically to institutional and operational changes since September 11th as the intelligence community. Yet the body of knowledge on this subject remains conspicuously sparse.

Recently, John O. Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, delivered the keynote address at the first annual “Ethos and Profession of Intelligence” conference. In his address, Director Brennan admitted “the Central Intelligence Agency does not hold a lot of public conferences. Our foreign counterparts tend to hold even fewer—as in zero”. [2]  Subsequently, our valiant contributors will attempt to address this uncharted academic terrain. We will publish new articles that address and identify possible operational, procedural, and cultural impediments to efficient intelligence operations.

Georgetown University and the CIA hosted the “Ethos and Profession of Intelligence” conference on June 11th, 2014 in Georgetown’s historic Gaston Hall. Despite the overt anachronism of discussing cyber attacks and geospatial intelligence under Gaston’s neo-Gothic paneling, the elaborate setting emphasized the role of intelligence as a historically significant aspect—and perennial fixture—of the United States’ national defense organization. Conversely, panelists’ discussions addressed pressing concerns for the future of the intelligence community, such as evolutions in cyber technology, the emerging importance of public sector involvement, and the precarious balancing act between domestic transparency and community integrity. [2]

Ultimately, the conference emphasized the irrevocable tension between meeting the demands of the future while still maintaining the core tenants of the intelligence profession. The mere fact that the CIA was willing to participate in a public conference represents exactly how far the intelligence community has evolved in the past decade. The joint CIA-Georgetown University conference marked the CIA’s first-ever public national security conference, suggesting that as the intelligence community rises to meet the demands of the future, the CIA intends to lead this evolution. At the same time, the careful and intentional inclusion of the word “Ethos” in the conference title involuntarily invokes the Aristotelian appeal for credibility and the enduring need for trustworthy intelligence professionals. [3] It is also reminiscent of the gravity of the intelligence mission; in the domain of intelligence, the ability to persuade is often a matter of life and death.

In a similar vein, CIMSEC will feature articles this week that connect the intelligence community’s past to its demands for the future. Our contributors will demonstrate how far intelligence collection has evolved since the end of World War II and portend the challenges that will threaten specific intelligence communities in the future. Likewise, form will follow (editorial) function; we will feature previously published articles on Naval intelligence, cryptology, and emerging technology, highlighting the need for continued discourse on this subject and CIMSEC contributors’ willingness to address this significant knowledge gap.

Jillian Danback McGhan is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and a former instructor at the United States Naval Academy. She is currently a student at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a research assistant for the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorist Events (CREATE). The views expressed here are her own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, Georgetown University, or CREATE.

[1] “Remarks for Central Intelligence Agency Director John O. Brennan as Prepared for Delivery at the Conference on the Ethos and Profession of Intelligence, Georgetown University”, 11 June 2014. https://www.cia.gov/news-information/speeches-testimony/2014-speeches-testimony/remarks-for-cia-director-brennan-at-georgetown-conference.html.

[2] Video footage of the conference, including all panel discussions and remarks by CIA Director John O. Brennan and former FBI Director Robert Muller, can be found on the CIA’s website: https://www.cia.gov/news-information/blog/2014/cia-georgetown-conference-livestream.html

[3] For a refresher on Classic rhetorical appeals, see the Purdue Online Writing Laboratory’s summary “Aristotle’s Rhetorical Situation”,   https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/625/03/.