Listen to the Admiral

America’s most experienced intelligence official on Porter Goss, Donald Rumsfeld, and William Casey’s deathbed confessions.

Adm. Bob Inman, born Bobby Ray Inman in East Texas in 1931, may know more about U.S. intelligence matters than anyone. In the course of his 31-year career, he has served as director of the National Security Agency, vice director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, director of Naval Intelligence, and deputy director of Central Intelligence Agency—under both Republican and Democratic presidents. In the 1990s, he was asked by Bill Clinton to run the CIA as director and also offered the job of secretary of defense. He declined both offers to enter the private sector. He is now chairman of a venture capital company and holds the Lyndon B. Johnson centennial chair in national policy at the LBJ School at the University of Texas in Austin. A.L. Bardach interviewed Inman on two separate occasions, Oct. 14, 2004, and Dec. 9, 2004.


Slate: Let’s get right to 9/11. What were the failures that led to it? How did U.S. intelligence not know that airplanes were going to fly into American buildings?

Inman: Well, there are several different factors. Around 1989-1990, fewer resources began to be allocated to the intelligence community. So you had agencies under great budget pressure, losing people and dollars that could be used to do new things. That’s the background. Another factor is the decision, made in 1976, to sharply divide the FBI and the foreign intelligence agencies. The FBI would collect within the United States; the foreign intelligence agencies would collect overseas. The foreign intelligence agencies were specifically precluded from collecting on U.S. citizens or on persons or companies that had the equivalent of a U.S. green card.


Slate: So, basically no one anticipated the form of terrorism we would confront?

Inman: Exactly. Yes. … As best I can tell there was no advance warning of the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, which was the first significant foreign terrorist activity in the U.S. … No tip-offs that it was coming. And I can’t find any evidence that there was any addition of resources to work on that problem after the attack on the World Trade Center in ‘93.


Slate: So the 1993 World Trade Center attack was not a wake-up call?

Inman: It was not a wake-up call.

Slate: This week, Congress finally passed the Intelligence Reform Bill. Is it a reform bill?


Inman: It’s half a reform bill. They’ve done some positive things, but they haven’t dealt with the analytical side. We need what some call a Chinese wall. This is necessary so that the analysts are totally independent from and without any loyalty to any [intelligence] collector.


Slate: And independent of the political process?

Inman: Exactly … I don’t believe you will solve a lot of the problems we’ve seen either in the run-up to 9/11 or the run-up to Iraq until you separate collection from analysis. The analysts are always going to feel under pressure—whether it’s real or not—to make the clandestine collectors look good. And to not speak out about their shortcomings. This bill doesn’t address that.


Slate: What about a central czar for all intelligence?

Inman: I testified back before the Brown Commission, Jan. 19, 1996, in favor of creating a national intelligence director … so I can’t very well argue against it now.


Slate: Is new CIA Director Porter Goss too partisan, as his critics say?

Inman: Goss is turning the [agency] upside down in a fairly short time. He became increasingly persuaded that the clandestine service was badly led and that it [needed] fundamental change. … I think what he’s already done discredits the [partisan] argument. Whether he will have broad enough vision of all of the needs of the government, we’ll just have to wait and see.

But you know, it’s phenomenal that a guy serving [in the agency] is permitted to publish a book [Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris ] critical of policy. You want to keep intelligence separate from policy. It was said to be by “Anonymous” initially, and now he’s out there with his name. This never has occurred before. It clearly went through a review process at Langley and they approved it.


Slate: Interesting.

Inman: Indeed. I was astonished that it was allowed to be published.

Slate: What do you make of the grim assessment by the Baghdad CIA chief that was recently released to the New York Times?


Inman: Not released, leaked. So somebody has already ignored Porter Goss.

Slate: Somebody in the Baghdad office?


Inman: Oh, my suspicion is that it occurred in Washington. Back in my day it probably would have gone to State, NSA, DIA, the White House situation room. It would have been pretty broadly distributed.

Slate: If you were a betting man … Langley?

Inman: Yeah.

Slate: Anybody in particular?

Inman: One of the disgruntled ones who hasn’t left yet.

Slate: Let’s go to the Echelon Project. That is a project that you, I think, instituted at the National Security Agency?


Inman: I have difficulty in talking to you, Annie, in a recorded, print interview about Echelon because it was a classified project and it’s never been declassified to me.

Slate: Well, I have an idea. You have the classified problem, but I don’t. So maybe you can just correct me where I’m wrong.

Inman: OK, fine.

Slate: My understanding was that Echelon gave authority, in Europe, to spy on calls and faxes. But only in the European theater. And so, therefore, when suspicious things happened in the American theater there was no way to really do anything with it. Am I correct?

Inman: You’re close. In fact it wasn’t just Europe; it was worldwide. It was a worldwide effort to collect information on faxes … then go back and apply what I’ve already told you. First, that’s a foreign intelligence collection operation. It can’t collect in the U.S. And secondly, anything it collected internationally on U.S. citizens or people with green cards couldn’t be used, couldn’t be published.


Slate: So that’s a major handicap.

Inman: Yes, indeed.

Slate: Echelon came out of the Cold War, is that correct?

Inman: Yes. Its real impact was economic, on financial issues.


Slate: And did it garner some good intelligence?

Inman: In its earlier days it did. But, again, I really can’t talk about it without crossing a line. But you are absolutely free to make your own interpretation.

Slate: So, in other words, when you were at the National Security Agency, and also the CIA, when something interesting appeared in Echelon, but they happened to be an American citizen …

Inman: Yeah. If an American was one part of the conversation or they had identified a green card, that’s it. You have to suppress it, you can’t report it. The only thing, the only exception, was clear evidence of criminal activity.But, well, you know, when you’re trying to track terrorists you don’t know whether they’re going to be doing criminal acts or not.


Slate: So you couldn’t act on suspicious behavior?

Inman: No. Even in drug deals. …

Slate: When you look back at your long career, were there times when no matter what kind of data and analysis you submitted to the president, he would act out of sheer domestic political considerations?


Inman: There were lot of times when we would send up intelligence which was not welcome.

Slate: What would you get back? A sort of “thank you, but no thank you”?

Inman: In some cases, “Why don’t you withdraw that? It’s potentially politically embarrassing.” If the intelligence we sent forward supported the views that [the administration] had, it was welcome and we were told what a great job it was. And if the intelligence that went forward didn’t support the views of the policymakers, it was instantly condemned.


Slate: You worked with Bill [William] Casey. Any interesting memories?

Inman: Bill Casey intensely disliked George H.W. Bush. Didn’t want him invited to CIA. …


Slate: Why was that?

Inman: It goes back to Republican Party politics. [Casey] didn’t want [Bush] anywhere near the place. And was furious when I invited the vice president out to preside over swearing in my successor when I left in June 1982 [as CIA deputy director]. John McMahon [Inman’s successor] had worked for the vice president when he was DCI [director of central intelligence], and wanted him to speak, so I waited until Casey was out of town, and I invited Bush to come preside over the ceremony. And he was furious with me for doing it.


Slate: What did he say to you?

Inman: He wanted me to cancel the invitation. And I declined to do so. And there are wonderful pictures of Bush walking around with John McMahon, and everybody cheering and clapping, and a very grumpy Bill Casey walking along behind them.

Slate: Does this business—with Casey and George Bush Sr.—go back to when Donald Rumsfeld suggested making George Bush the head of the CIA in 1975?

Inman: The standard rumor at the time was that Rumsfeld, as chief of staff, had persuaded President Ford to appoint George H.W. Bush as director of Central Intelligence, assuming that that got rid of a potential competitor for the presidency.

Slate: Donald Rumsfeld had his eye on the presidency?


Inman: Oh, yes. Yes. In ‘75. … He was looking forward. You know, Ford was going to run in ‘76, so Rumsfeld had his eye on ‘80. But it was a clever job of, you know, sending Bush out there—”He’s buried. He’ll never come back to be a presidential candidate.”

Slate: Some people think he was given the directorship of the CIA because he had a CIA background and they mention that his father, Prescott Bush, was a member of the OSS. …


Inman: No, no, no. None of that’s valid.

Slate: That’s not true? It was really political considerations?

Inman: Absolutely. He was a good soldier willing to go do it. He’d enjoyed his time out in Beijing and at the U.N., so he was willing.


Slate: And why did he step down after such a short tenure?

Inman: He offered to stay, and Carter declined.

Slate: There’s a great scene in one of Bob Woodward’s books, Veil,where Casey is dying of a brain tumor, and Casey has a deathbed conversation with Woodward.

Inman: The scene is at the end of Veil, in which Woodward reports that he got into Casey’s room and asked him a number of questions and got responses. I absolutely believe Bob Woodward that he was able to get into the hospital room and the rest of it. I do not believe there’s any possibility that Casey actually understood what [Woodward] was saying [or] that he actually responded to detailed questions.


… And let me tell you why I say that. Don Regan, as chief of staff, called Bob Gates at CIA and said, “We need to get on with replacing Bill Casey, we need a resignation from him to get the process in place.” Bob Gates called Sophia Casey and the two of them went to the hospital together with a prepared resignation letter and it took 25 minutes to get Casey to understand what he was being asked to sign. And they were, all three, in tears. Now, it took that long to get him to understand a simple, three, four line letter, resigning.


Slate: So, in other words, Woodward got into the hospital room of Bill Casey and is giving questions and interpreting his utterances.


Inman: And interpreting the answers, yes. He was probably wearing hospital orderly clothes. And that’s fair game to do it. And I would say that Woodward believed he was getting answers in the process.


Slate: Let’s talk about Iran-Contra. I think it’s generally agreed that Bush was pretty much the point man in the administration and in that venture.

Inman: In the Iran-Contra? Absolutely false. He was cut out of it, totally.

Slate: I’ve interviewed people like Luis Posada and the Felix Rodriguez crowd down there in the field and they were quite convinced that Bush had full knowledge of events. … Felix Rodriguez actually had a meeting with Bush in Washington.

Inman: I would lay you high odds that Bill Casey was Ollie North’s case officer. That he knew everything Ollie North was doing. And Bush would have been, by Casey’s preference, totally cut out of it.


Slate: So this idea that Oliver North was this adventurer running amok with no supervision …

Inman: I don’t believe it for a moment. Bill Casey knew everything he was doing.


Slate: And approved it?

Inman: Absolutely.

Slate: And was basically having North do his bidding?

Inman: Yes. See the Dunn legislation had said, “No agency or department may use funds to support the Contras.” But it didn’t say anything about staff. Casey made his fortune writing books on how to avoid paying taxes. And his whole view—we got into many quarrels over it—his whole view was that anything not specifically excluded by law is permissible. And it just fits.

Slate: And Oliver North was really a good soldier, up to the last moment, shoving memos into the shredder and defending the policy to the end.


Inman: Ah-humm.

Slate: What do you make of the pardons that George Bush Sr. gave to many of the people involved with the Iran-Contra situation?

Inman: Loyalty. They [the Bush family] give loyalty and they prize loyalty. I can remember—I don’t want to identify the individual—but a very prominent Democrat, who compared looking at Carter and then Reagan, and then Bush, and observed that many of the people around Carter were totally disloyal to him.


Slate: Interesting that Rumsfeld’s disloyalty to Bush Sr. would be rewarded by Bush Jr.


Inman: Certainly Rumsfeld didn’t get the job in Defense through personal loyalty to Bush; he got it because Cheney was his sponsor.

Slate: And Rumsfeld is one of the few who hasn’t resigned.

Inman: If Rumsfeld were to be there for the next four years there will be a lot of my military colleagues who will be very unenthusiastic about it. But as much as they dislike Rumsfeld, they would not want to see a change in this immediate period. With the run-up to the Jan. 30 election in Iraq, you don’t want to disrupt the chain of command.

Slate: After the elections, your military colleagues might welcome a change at the top?

Inman: They would not be greatly disappointed if he did not turn out to [serve] a full four years.

Slate: One assumes they feel the same about Paul Wolfowitz; we saw a lot of him and the neocons in the Iraq war run-up. They have virtually disappeared. Why is that?

Inman: They don’t want to take the blame. … [T]hey were willing to take credit for things earlier; they don’t want to take blame.

Slate: Who is going to take the blame?

Inman: I think we’d better stop there.

Slate: We can’t go opining about certain members of the administration?

Inman: No, no. Not gonna do that.

Slate: And the administration has sealed most of their documents for years to come.

Inman: Yeah, the historians are going to have a field day in 30 or 40 years.