Former CIA chief advises to keep politics open

Turner believes ends don't justify means

Posted: Thursday, June 18, 2009

SITKA - During his tenure as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Adm. Stansfield Turner said he constantly debated how far the United States government should go to obtain secret information from foreign governments.

James Poulson / The Associated Press
James Poulson / The Associated Press

There was never a hard-and-fast rule guiding his judgment, Turner said, just his steadfast belief that, at the end of the day, he should be willing to look the American public in the eye and accept responsibility.

"I had to make a tough choice every once in a while, would I do this or that to get information I thought was important to the country," Turner said Monday during an interview at the Sentinel's office. "You have to have your standards. Maybe a dirty trick I pulled would benefit the United States, you're constantly taking that gamble. Could I stand up and say 'yes, I did that. I agreed to do that.'"

Turner, 85, led the CIA under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981.

Turner's grandson, Grant Turner, is a graphic designer and Internet technology specialist at the Sentinel, and the former CIA director was in Sitka visiting him and other family members this week.

He agreed to chat with the Sentinel Monday and spent a few minutes talking about his career, the CIA, the controversies swirling around Langley these days and the difficult role that secrets play in an open government.

Asked about the current national debate over harsh interrogation techniques - some would say torture - that were authorized by the Bush administration, Turner said the ends did not justify the means.

"I feel very strongly that we should not be associated with torture," Turner said. "Whatever benefits you might gain from it, is not worth it."

Turner said intelligence gleaned from torture was dubious, and that the potential loss of the country's moral authority was not worth the risk.

Asked if torture should be allowed in a doomsday scenario - something out of the television show "24," for instance, in which a bomb is set to go off at the Super Bowl and a suspect with information that could save thousands of lives is in U.S. custody - Turner laughed.

He said that scenario was "highly unusual," but acknowledged there was a "logical argument there."

"I don't want there to be exceptions, but I can't rule out an exception," Turner said. "You have to err on the side of not torturing. The national reptutation is too important."

Turner was President Carter's classmate at the U.S. Naval Academy in the 1940s, and said he couldn't quite recall if the President asked or told him to take over the CIA. As a career Navy man, Turner said he essentially responded "how high" when the president asked him to jump.

"Oh, heavens no," Turner said, when asked if he ever imagined taking over the CIA.

Turner began his education at Amherst College in Massachusetts and transferred to Annapolis during World War II. He won a Rhodes Scholarship and, after a year at sea, spent more than two years studying at Oxford. He had a long career in the Navy that included a stint in the early 1970s as the head of the United States Naval War College, where he transformed the curriculum and added an emphasis on classic war literature. Turner initiated exams and required students to read 1,000 pages a week.

On Monday, he seemed to relish the memory of forcing Navy officers to read Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War

"It was a relevant issue at the time," Turner recalled. "The Athenians got overstretched going to Sparta and we were overstretched in Vietnam, because of the lack of public support. The students studied it and decided the Athenians had made a mistake."

Turned added: "The War College was considered kind of a sabbatical for naval officers, a timeout from the rigors of Navy duty. I decided naval officers didn't need a timeout."

After Carter was beaten by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, Turner assumed, rightly, that he was out of a job.

He went on the public lecture tour, became an author and took up teaching.

Turner is retired now and lives in Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C.

He said he keeps abreast of the news, but no longer receives any special briefings.

He was unequivocal when asked if the CIA was still relevant in 2009.

"Very much so," Turner said. "As long as other countries keep secrets from us, it's important to the country that we try to ferret out information."

He also said the issue of secrecy was a particularly difficult one for the United States.

"We have a terrible problem in this country, because we're an open democracy any secret is anathema to us," Turner said. "You can't run the CIA without secrets and without secrets you can't run the government. But secrecy can endanger the overall democracy. We're very dependent on the integrity of the people who are making those decisions. (You) have to be confident they are not withholding information because of some ulterior motive."

Referring to a scandal that reached the highest levels of the Bush administration, Turner called the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame a "great shame," and said he was surprised to see intelligence work politicized to that extent.

Asked, hypothetically, what he would tell President Obama if asked for advice about selecting a new director of intelligence, Turner said: "You want somebody honest."

"You're dealing in the underworld in a certain sense," Turner said. "You want someone who will not take advantage of that."

Turner laughed again when asked if leading the CIA, and having access to classified information about what's going on around the world, was "terrifying."

"No, it's not terrifying," Turner said. "Most things the director of intelligence deals with are known. How we get information is the most secretive aspect. Things like that have to be kept secret or we lose the opportunity to gain that information."

Turner grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, in what he described as a predominately Republican area. He said career military officers tend to "eschew any relationship to politics," but that he likely could have classified himself a Republican until he was pegged by Carter, a Democrat, to run the CIA.

Turner considered entering politics a few times during his career, although he ultimately decided to remain above the fray. He said, in retrospect, that he had made the right decision.

"I decided I just wasn't cut out for it," Turner said. "If you ask me what I think, I'll tell you. Politicians have to be more circumspect. I was too likely to be blunt. Not that politicians are duplicitous -- it's just a different game."

After leaving Langley, Turner also dabbled in the corporate world, but said the private sector "could not figure out what to do with an admiral spy who had never met a bottom line."

But Turner said he had few regrets.

"Earning a lot of money wasn't my objective," Turner said. "I wanted to do something interesting and worthwhile."

• Information from: Daily Sitka Sentinel,

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