I paid with two death sentences—from my native Romania—for the privilege of serving the CIA, our first line of defense against terrorists and nuclear despots, and I am appalled to see the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and third in line for the White House undermining the security of the United States for personal political gain.
Nancy Pelosi’s blistering public attacks on the CIA will severely damage its ability to recruit ranking sources in enemy countries for years to come. No, the CIA officers will not run for cover—they are anonymous heroes, not cowards. But the potential high-ranking CIA sources in Iran, Syria, North Korea, China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba and many other tyrannical countries will. Espionage is a matter of life and death. From my own experience as both intelligence recruiter and intelligence defector I know that no high ranking official puts his/her life in the hands of a foreign espionage organization publicly pilloried by its own government.
Trust is the most valuable asset of any espionage service, no matter its nationality or political flavor. This is the most important thing I learned after spending 27 years in Romania’s version of the CIA—six of them managing it—and another 31 years cooperating with the CIA. There are many ways an espionage service can lose trust. Disrespect for its own commitments and careless exposure of its sources and operations are just two of them. But nothing could be more devastating than public distrust from its own government.
I do not intend to compare the CIA with my former Romanian foreign intelligence service, the DIE, but there is a lesson there. At the peak of the Cold War, my DIE recruited as agents the highest-ranking employees the Soviet bloc ever had in NATO: the chief of NATO’s department for secret documents (François Rousilhe) and NATO’s deputy finance director (Col. Nahit Imre). We paid them in gold Napoleon coins. Both were eventually arrested by the French DST, and Romania’s tyrant Ceausescu ordered a vengeful public investigation of the DIE. My service was never again able to recruit any significant sources in any of its target countries. After I broke with communism, Ceausescu ordered another public investigation of the DIE, which soon disintegrated.
The CIA helped the U.S. win the Cold War without firing a shot because it was an ultra-secret organization trusted by its government and able to protect its sources and methods from public exposure. That allowed the CIA to gain the confidence of many ranking officials in both Eastern and Western Europe. Some became builders of democracy, others fighters of communism. In 1962, the U.S. avoided a nuclear war because a ranking CIA source (Soviet colonel Oleg Penkovsky) provided top secret documents proving that Khrushchev was installing nuclear rockets in Cuba. Soon after that, NATO neutralized the Warsaw Pact because another ranking CIA source (Polish colonel Ryszard Kuklinski) passed the CIA over 35,000 pages of Warsaw Pact secret military documents, making Moscow’s strategic plans obsolete.
In the early 1970s, however, when I decided to defect to the CIA, the Rockefeller Commission publicly painted the CIA as a rogue, out-of-control organization, and the Church Commission presented it as a criminal outfit that could not be trusted. Of course I postponed that irreversible step. If the U.S. government did not have confidence in the CIA, why should I?
In March 1978 I accompanied Ceausescu on a triumphant visit to the U.S., where President Carter publicly called him a “great national and international leader.” Four months later I screwed up my courage to break with communism, and I told the Carter administration that it was praising the wrong guy. The admired Ceausescu was in fact an international terrorist who had made a fortune by trafficking in arms and drugs, and who was in the process of selling weapons of mass destruction to terrorist states. Ten years later, this “great national and international leader” was executed by his own people.
Ceausescu was a two-bit Dracula, unable to endanger the security of the United States. But he illustrates the difference between the day-to-day intelligence collected by the CIA, and the intelligence provided to it by highly-positioned human assets able to tell what satellites cannot—what terrorists and nuclear despots have on their minds, and what their secret plans against us are.
In 1978, when I defected to the CIA, I hoped other heads of enemy intelligence services would follow in my footsteps. This has yet to happen. A new wave of Congressional investigations hit the press, exposing the CIA’s failures in handling intelligence defectors and agents. Those revelations would have scared the guts out of me, had I still been in Romania. They evidently scared off others.
The result? George Tenet’s “slam dunk” finding that Iraq had stockpiles of nuclear weapons is the greatest intelligence fiasco in American history. Over 4,000 U.S. soldiers paid with their lives for the CIA’s lack of an Iraqi Pacepa, able to tell the truth about Saddam. For the same reason, the clerical regime of Iran was able to build a massive—and until recently secret—industry for producing nuclear weapons. Also for the same reason, Putin was able to surprise the White House with his military invasion of Georgia, treacherously started during the opening night of the 2008 Olympic Games. And also, for the same reason, in 2009 the U.S. did not know if North Korea would launch a military rocket or a weather satellite until that event took place.
In 1986, Director of Central Intelligence Bill Casey sent me a letter explaining the CIA’s failures. The root cause, the DCI wrote, was the misguided management on the part of some earlier CIA bosses, who had relied almost exclusively on satellite and signals intelligence, a reliance that had wreaked havoc with the CIA’s entire human intelligence collection effort. That was indeed true—I had experienced it on my own skin—but the problem could have been quietly corrected. Instead, it generated new public hearings that caused new international distrust of the CIA.
The bipartisan oversight of our intelligence operations by the U.S. Congress is a desirable expression of democracy. To the best of my knowledge, however, none of our main allies has voluntarily washed the dirty laundry of its foreign intelligence business in public. Their services also make mistakes, but they are usually corrected quietly. Espionage is a secret and merciless war that is especially perilous when waged against brutal tyrants—even the slightest indiscretion could endanger the lives of our officers and their sources.
Former KGB colonel Vasily Mitrokhin spent 12 years collecting over 25,000 top secret KGB documents, described by the FBI as “the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source.” Mitrokhin intended to give this unique cache to the CIA, but he ended up delivering it to MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA. That foreign intelligence service gave him more confidence that his identity—hence his security—would be protected. Until very recently, even the name of the MI6 director was classified.
In the U.S., however, the 9/11 Commission spent 567 pages to publicly blame the CIA for not identifying the 19 terrorists before they hijacked the airplanes, although terrorists entering the U.S. may be as elusive a target as seeking a needle in a haystack. Some 80 million passengers flew to the U.S. that year alone, on 823,757 commercial and 139,650 private flights; 330 million people crossed the Canadian and Mexican borders during the same year by car, train and truck; and some other 18 million entered the country by sea.
The Commission also blamed the CIA for being unable to capture bin Laden. Nobody remembered that a homegrown American terrorist, Eric Rudolph, was still at large in the U.S. five years after blowing up the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, despite massive searches organized by thousands of FBI agents, police officers and volunteers. (Rudolph was accidentally arrested on May 31, 2003, while rummaging through a dumpster in Murphy, North Carolina.)
The Commission—and the U.S. Congress in general—ignored the most important requirement to make America safe against foreign enemies. That is: to build trust in the CIA.
President Barack Obama became the 44th U.S. president largely because he promised change. Changing the habit of Washington’s politicians to build their own careers by undermining our intelligence community is a good place to start. The U.S. has the best conceived, endowed and motivated espionage service that ever existed. It should be so. Made in America is a premium label around the world. We are at war, and this sensitive national security tool should be used to protect our country, not to improve the stature of ambitious politicians.
 President Nicolae Ceausescu’s State Visit to the USA: April 12-17, 1978, English version (Bucharest: Meridiane Publishing House, 1978), p. 78.
 Clifford J. Levy, “Putin suggests U.S. provocation in Georgia clash,” International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2008.
 Arnold de Borchgrave, “Sea no evil,” The Washington Times, March 15, 2005, Commentary.