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Former Spymaster On Three Decades In The CIA

Michael Sulick
Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Government

Michael Sulick spent 28 years in the Central Intelligence Agency, serving as chief of counterintelligence and director of the Clandestine Service.

When he retired to North Carolina, he wrote a two-volume history of espionage in America. The first book, Spying in America, covers the Revolutionary War to the dawn of the Cold War. The second, American Spies, takes the story up to the present day, and is due out from Georgetown University Press this fall.

A central theme in his books is that spies have often been successful in the U.S. because Americans are consistently loath to believe their countrymen would betray them. "You certainly see in the first hundred years or so [of American history], they are totally blind to this," Sulick told host Frank Stasio on The State of Things. "But even on into the 20th century, in the 1930s and 1940s when the Soviets basically riddle the FDR administration and the Manhattan Project with - now they're estimating - about 500 spies."

The Cold War ended some of that naivety, says Sulick, but betrayals were still unexpected. "I know I and my colleagues were shocked when we found out that one of our own, Rick Ames, was a spy. Even though we spy on other people and we tried to recruit Soviets as spies in those days, we never believe one of our own would do it; but he did. And the FBI had the same shock when Robert Hanssen, one of their own, was arrested a few years later."

Sulick had two retirements from the CIA. He first left in 2004, shortly after becoming deputy director of the Clandestine Service. It was the beginning of an exodus after President George W. Bush appointed Congressman Porter Goss as CIA Director.

Sulick says Goss's aides brought a partisan political mentality with them from Capitol Hill. "We lose our credibility if we cook our books," Sulick said on The State of Things. "Administrations come and go, but agency staffers remain for years and will ultimately suffer if we violate that cardinal tenet of our craft, which is objectivity - whether the answers are welcome to the policy maker or not... I think they saw things from a political prism that we don't. There was some intimidation of people and we just didn't want to stand for it any longer."

He returned to the agency as the nation's top spy in 2007, after Michael Hayden took over as director.

As for the major intelligence failure of the Bush administration - the allegation that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction - Sulick says there was a combination of lack of sources, bad intelligence, and concern among CIA analysts about underestimating Saddam as they had before the Gulf War.

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Isaac-Davy Aronson is WUNC's morning news producer and can frequently be heard on air as a host and reporter. He came to North Carolina in 2011, after several years as a host at New York Public Radio in New York City. He's been a producer, newscaster and host at Air America Radio, New York Times Radio, and Newsweek on Air.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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