Authors: Tim Weiner
The president invoked the cause of counterterrorism when he closed the case against Mark Felt and Ed Miller. The FBI’s veterans had been found guilty two days after Reagan won the White House in a landslide, convicted by a federal jury of conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of Americans. At their trial, they had freely admitted ordering warrantless burglaries and black-bag jobs. But they claimed they had the duty to carry them out on the president’s orders. President Nixon himself had testified at the trial, as had five former attorneys general. On the stand, Nixon stood by his doctrine: a president had the power to break the law, and the FBI had the right to commit crimes at his command, in the name of national security. President Reagan agreed. His longtime chief of staff, counselor, and future attorney general, Edwin P. Meese, drafted a declaration granting Felt and Miller full and unconditional pardons.
The president signed the order shortly before he was gravely wounded by a deranged gunman on March 30, 1981. “Mark Felt and Edward Miller served the Federal Bureau of Investigation and our nation with great distinction,” it said. “They had grants of authority reaching to the highest levels of government,” and they had “acted on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation.”
The president underscored that principle in his pardon. “America was at war in 1972,” it said. “Felt and Miller followed procedures they believed
essential to keep the Director of the FBI, the Attorney General, and the President of the United States advised of the activities of hostile foreign powers and their collaborators in this country.” The facts did not support that phrase: the FBI’s targets were not agents of foreign powers. But the pardon was a political decision. Reagan and his most powerful advisers wanted to reinstate the power of the government to spy at will within the United States, to abolish the rules instituted under Presidents Ford and Carter, and let the FBI write its own guidelines for wiretapping and bugging. Reagan vowed repeatedly to unleash American intelligence, revive its secret forces, and remove legal obstacles placed in the path of the war on terror.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced as soon as he was sworn in that the Soviet Union was training, financing, and arming the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups. The new chief of the CIA, Reagan’s wily campaign manager, William Casey, let it be known that the KGB was the world’s terrorist headquarters. The charge had a few elements of truth—Soviet archives unsealed after the Cold War showed that the KGB had backed a handful of murderous Palestinian militants in the 1970s, and the East German spy service, the Stasi, had sheltered radicals who tried to assassinate Haig himself in 1979. But those facts were not known to the president and his national security team. Nor were they essential to their crusading rhetoric.
“Let terrorists be aware,” President Reagan had said a week after his inauguration. If they attacked, America would deliver “swift and effective retribution.”
THE PRICE OF SILENCE
HE TARGETS OF
the first major counterterrorism case the FBI confronted under President Reagan were America’s allies in the war on communism. The FBI’s Stanley Pimentel called it “
one of the most gut-wrenching investigations” of his long career.
El Salvador’s right-wing military regime, backed by the United States, was fighting a small armed leftist guerrilla force. The military and its death squads killed roughly 65,000 civilians, including priests, nuns, church workers, union leaders, students, and peasants. Three American nuns and a lay worker were among the dead. They were “four innocent church women who were trying to do their job of helping the poor,” Pimentel said. They had been hauled out of a van, kidnapped, raped, shot at close range, and dumped on the side of a dirt road in December 1980. It was a clear case of premeditated murder, an atrocious act in a dirty war.
Pimentel, the ranking FBI legal attaché in Central America, faced formidable political obstacles. Secretary of State Haig subtly suggested that the nuns had sided with the left-wing guerrillas in El Salvador, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. (The FMLN had committed political murders, but far fewer than the government.) The Reagan administration started to double and redouble American military aid to El Salvador. Salvadoran military and intelligence officials worked in tandem with CIA officers.
But Pimentel found an ally at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, a young political officer with a source inside the military regime. Pimentel pursued his investigation to the top of the chain of command. He strongly suspected that the orders for the killing had come from the director of the National Guard, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova.
“I went to see Vides Casanova,” Pimentel said. He told the general to turn over the weapons assigned to the five murder suspects, all lowly enlisted
men. He planned to send the rifles to the FBI’s laboratory, along with the bullets extracted from the bodies of the church women and fingerprints lifted from the scene of the crime. He soon found out that Vides Casanova had ordered the murder weapons hidden; the general planned to turn over a clean set of firearms to the FBI.
“Vides Casanova was absolutely chagrined that we had caught him in this lie,” Pimentel said. “He became, of course, very irate.” Nevertheless, Pimentel obtained the original weapons, placed them in a diplomatic pouch, and drove to the airport to take the evidence to the United States. Standing on the tarmac, Pimentel faced an armed confrontation. “We were surrounded by about fifty National Guard soldiers, all with automatic weapons and rifles,” he said. Pimentel had a .357 Magnum loaded with six bullets. He held his ground and watched as the diplomatic pouch was loaded into the belly of the aircraft.
The FBI lab matched a rifle, bullets, and fingerprints to the soldiers at the scene of the crime. With that evidence, four National Guardsmen were convicted in the killings. But Vides Casanova was untouched. He became the minister of defense of El Salvador in 1984.
Throughout those years, FBI agents in the United States worked at cross-purposes with Pimentel. Shortly after Reagan’s inauguration, the Bureau launched a nationwide terrorism investigation into CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. The coalition of left-wing American activists had grown significantly after the murder of the four American church workers. The Bureau’s investigation was based almost entirely on intelligence supplied by Vides Casanova and his intelligence officers to an FBI informant named Frank Varelli.
The son of the former chief of the national police in El Salvador, Varelli offered his services to an FBI agent in Dallas who had no experience with international intrigue. Varelli said he had intelligence sources at the highest levels of the government of El Salvador. He confided that CISPES had forged a terrorist alliance with the leftist guerrillas of the FMLN, in concert with the Soviet Union, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya. He was taken at his word.
The FBI investigated some 2,375 Americans affiliated with 180 CISPES chapters across the United States. The Bureau placed these political suspects under photographic and visual surveillance, infiltrated their meetings and rallies with undercover agents and informants, investigated their
church groups and campus organizations, scrutinized their financial and telephone records, searched through their garbage cans, and confronted them with aggressive face-to-face interviews.
The investigation lasted four years. It produced no evidence.
The FBI finally took a harder look at Frank Varelli. It concluded that much of what he had reported was “
blatantly false,” in the words of Webster’s top criminal and counterterrorism aide, Oliver B. “Buck” Revell. “Some of it was concocted out of his own mind,” Revell told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “And some of it was fabricated on the basis of contacts that he had initiated in El Salvador.”
Those contacts were intelligence officers who worked for General Vides Casanova. The general had manipulated and misled the FBI.
Vides Casanova received a military Legion of Merit award from President Reagan, along with a green card allowing him to move to Florida.
From 1988 onward he was “living fat, dumb, and happy down in the Fort Lauderdale area,” Pimentel said.
“Justice has not really been done,” he concluded.
DD MAN OUT
While President Reagan was waging the war on communism abroad, American turncoats were stealing secrets for the Soviets from deep inside the national security establishment of the United States. Together they had undertaken the biggest attack on American military secrets since the atomic bomb spies of World War II.
In July 1981, François Mitterrand, the president of France, personally gave President Reagan a revelatory intelligence file known as the Farewell Dossier, derived from four thousand KGB documents delivered by a defector during the 1970s. It took the United States months to decipher their meaning. They described the work of Line X, a division of the Soviet intelligence directorate for science and technology. They depicted how the Soviets used the spy services of Eastern Europe—especially the Poles and the Czechs—to steal weapons technology from the United States.
They were skillful collectors of intelligence on behalf of the Soviet Union,” Webster said. “Due to some very interesting and helpful activity by the French intelligence service dealing with high-ranking KGB officials, we
became aware of their program to steal our technology in the United States. The inventory list that they had supplied, or the wish list that they were given, enabled us to track their activities.”
The FBI began making felony cases against members of the Polish service and the Americans who served them—chiefly crooked weapons contractors and enlisted men with money problems. A retired marine sold more than one hundred documents on American nuclear weapons systems for $250,000. A Hughes Aircraft executive received $110,000 for details about the newest American radars, aircraft combat systems, and surface-to-air missiles.
The Czech intelligence service had done even better: it penetrated the CIA. For ten years, from February 1973 to August 1983, a naturalized American named Karl F. Koecher had been working at the CIA, having convinced the Agency of his allegiance to the United States. He spent that decade smuggling highly classified data to his Communist controllers, including the names of CIA officers working at home and abroad against the Soviets.
The Hungarian intelligence service had recruited an army sergeant in West Germany, Clyde Conrad, who was in charge of the vault where the Eighth Infantry Division kept its set of NATO’s operational plans for fighting World War III. Conrad sold top secret files revealing the locations of NATO’s nuclear weapons and the order of battle for troops, tanks, and aircraft. He was paid more than $1 million, and he ran a ring of at least a dozen American soldiers and veterans who kept a steady flow of secrets going east across the Iron Curtain for fourteen years.
The longevity and scope of Conrad’s espionage was surpassed by the work of John Walker, a navy veteran and private detective, who enlisted his brother, his son, and his best friend in a ring selling the top secret communications codes of the navy to the Soviets. The FBI only discovered Walker after his ex-wife, Barbara, made a series of telephone calls to the Bureau accusing her husband of being a spy. She was not taken seriously for five months, because she was drunk every time she called and drunk every time an agent went to interview her. But once the FBI began to investigate Walker, it took only three months before he was caught trying to deliver 129 highly classified navy documents to the KGB. He had been giving the Soviets the keys to unlock the encrypted messages of American naval forces since 1967. “
There is little or no doubt he caused the death of an untold number of our troops in Vietnam,” said the FBI’s Robert W. Hunter, who arrested Walker.
The FBI uncovered at least sixty-eight Americans working to steal secrets for the Soviets during the 1980s. But it never found hard evidence that Moscow was behind a terrorist organization taking aim at the United States.
Though America’s leaders kept raising the threat of state-sponsored terrorism, the number of attacks on the home front had plummeted. While the FBI’s espionage cases multiplied threefold between 1981 and 1985, domestic terrorism cases diminished fivefold, dwindling to one a month. The FALN struck most often, killing U.S. Navy personnel, bombing FBI offices in New York, and robbing $7 million from an armored truck in Connecticut. The Weather Underground fugitives pulled off one final attack, placing a bomb beneath a bench outside the chambers of the United States Senate; the explosion, at 10:58
on November 7, 1983, injured no one, though it shattered the walls, mirrors, and chandeliers of the Republican cloakroom. But that was a last gasp. For the first time in at least twenty years, since the rise of the antiwar resistance and the renaissance of the Ku Klux Klan, no bombs were going off.