In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s former labor secretary, Raymond Donovan, was acquitted of fraud and grand larceny charges after an eight-month trial in the Bronx. After the end of his ordeal, he famously asked: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
That is the same question that Robin Raphel must be asking today. This distinguished diplomat served as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and later as ambassador to Tunisia in the Clinton administration. She developed deep ties to Pakistan since ever since first being posted in Islamabad in 1975. (Her first husband, Arnold Raphel, was a U.S. ambassador to Pakistan who was killed in 1986 in the same mysterious midair explosion that also killed Pakistan’s president Zia ul-Huq.) Those ties led Anne Patterson, then ambassador to Islamabad, to ask her to come out of retirement in 2009. Patterson needed someone who understood the ins and outs of Pakistani politics–something that few U.S. diplomats or intelligence officers do, given the crippling security restrictions imposed on American officials to combat the growing regional terrorist threat.
As Wall Street Journal reporters Adam Entous and Devlin Barrett wrote in a riveting, must-read article about Raphel: “The State Department’s Diplomatic Security service, charged with protecting the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, had grown so concerned about terrorism that the compound was often put on lockdown. Fewer embassy workers ventured out and usually only then in U.S. armored vehicles. For security reasons, the State Department had begun to limit foreign-service officers in Islamabad to one-year tours, giving them barely enough time to acclimate before shipping out. Many officials spent their time in a secure room reading signals-intelligence reports or working on their suntans by the pool.”
Raphel was one of the few old-timers left who would actually go out and get to know the Pakistanis who mattered in shaping that country’s policies. The downside of her connections was that, like many diplomats, she developed a case of “clientitis.” That is, she tended to see the world through Pakistani eyes and inevitably pleaded for Washington to go soft on Pakistan in any crisis, no matter how blatant the Pakistanis’ transgressions. I have long believed we needed to adopt a tougher line on Islamabad, which is one of the most dangerous sponsors of terrorism in the world. Regardless of what policies you pick, it’s essential to understand what’s going on in Pakistan, and Raphel sound as if she was an invaluable source of such understanding.
Later, Raphel moved back to Washington but continued to work on Pakistan issues, traveling there regularly as a member of the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. What she didn’t realize was that her Pakistanis sources had triggered alarm bells at the NSA, which was monitoring the phone calls and emails of Raphel’s Pakistani contacts. The NSA alerted the FBI, and FBI agents assigned to the case got it into their heads that Raphel was a Pakistani spy. They set about using every technique at their disposal to prove their case–from wiretaps to surreptitious and not-so-surreptitious searches of her home.
The investigation of Raphel became public when it was revealed on November 21, 2014, by the New York Times–presumably, because the FBI decided to leak it. Raphel was instantly dismissed from the State Department and publicly humiliated. She had now been branded a possible spy. And why? Largely because of the ridiculous over-classification of information in the U.S. government.
As agents listened in on her conversations with Pakistanis, they would hear discuss subjects such as drone strikes, possible coups in Pakistan, and peace talks with the Taliban being discussed. Then they would check back with U.S. intelligence officials and ask if this material was classified? Of course, the intelligence officials said it was–so Raphel was being suspected of being a spy for doing no more than repeating what was in the New York Times every day.
The most damning piece of evidence that the FBI found was some 20-year-old files that contained once-classified information in Raphel’s home–files that she had taken with her when she retired, as do many U.S. government officials. Even after it became obvious that Raphel couldn’t be charged with espionage, the FBI hoped to charge her with mishandling classified information–the same rap that nailed General David Petraeus. But the Justice Department, mercifully, would not play along and all investigations were finally ended earlier this year. Yet, as far as I know, no public apology has been issued to Raphel for this unwarranted ordeal, and no attempt at restitution has been made.
Raphel’s Kafkaesque case reminded me of some of the “investigations” overseen by James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s legendary head of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1974. A world-class eccentric and paranoiac, Angleton was convinced that the CIA had been penetrated by Soviet moles and would spare no effort to ferret out the traitors. He never did find a mole but, in the process, he virtually immobilized the Soviet Russia Division with his promiscuous allegations and incessant suspicion. He even thought that the Sino-Soviet split was just a ruse designed to confuse the West.
A certain amount of suspicion is healthy for any counterintelligence officer–and complacency can be deadly especially in an age when, as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have shown, it is all too easy to steal the government’s most sensitive secrets. Likewise, it’s important to maintain adequate security for diplomats and intelligence officers in the field. But it’s all too easy to go overboard in both areas and to make the quest for perfect security an all-enveloping requirement that smothers initiative.
Doing their jobs for diplomats and spies requires taking risks and cultivating people in “target” countries–even people who have not been recruited for controlled “agent” relationships. Someone in a high position in any administration needs to keep a gimlet eye on the gumshoes to keep them from abusing their authority and gumming up the works even while recognizing that, yes, this will make security breaches more likely. But perfect security isn’t possible and the quest to achieve it will be self-defeating.