CIA Directors are Not 'Yes-Men'

In his new book, The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, bestselling author Chris Whipple delves into the difficult decisions made by the men and woman who have led the world's most powerful intelligence service over the last 50 years.

Newsweek talked with Whipple about, among other things, the fear of Russian interference in the 2020 election, the difficult role of the CIA director and the biggest challenges facing a CIA director in the next administration Edited excerpts:

Why this book?

Except for president, perhaps no job is more consequential than CIA director. He or she serves as the president's eyes and ears when history-altering decisions are made. But The Spymasters is also the story of a rogues gallery of characters that John le Carré could not dream up: from Richard Helms, the James Bond-like director who, martini in one hand and cigarette in the other, faced down Richard Nixon over Watergate; to Gina Haspel, the first woman to rise to become CIA director from stints as a covert operative in Africa, head of an infamous CIA black site, and London Station Chief—only to report to a president who reviles the agency as a "deep state" bent on bringing him down.

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What was the most shocking thing you learned during your interviews?

It's hard to single out one thing. One of the most shocking things is how often CIA directors must tell presidents things they don't want to hear. LBJ rejected Richard Helms' dire predictions about the Vietnam War. Right now we are suffering the catastrophic consequences of a president who paid no attention to the CIA's warnings about a coronavirus.

And the most important thing you learned that could provide insight into the 2020 election?

CIA directors must be prepared to resist presidents who trample the rule of law. "They were all asked to do things they shouldn't do," lamented Richard Helms' wife, Cynthia. Helms went along with LBJ's order to conduct illegal surveillance in order to discredit Vietnam War protesters. But when Nixon tried to enlist him in the Watergate cover-up, Helms balked. More than 40 years later, is it too far-fetched to imagine Donald Trump ordering Gina Haspel to concoct false evidence that Black Lives Matter is run by so-called antifa groups?

Did any of the CIA directors you interviewed express concerns about election tampering? Is there any reason to think that Russia is at it again? Or that any other foreign actors might interfere in the current election?

Most former CIA directors are convinced that Russia will try to interfere again in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Yet we're seeing evidence now that intelligence being given to the president is being skewed and soft-pedaled out of fear of confronting him with the truth. A recent intelligence report said Russia is trying to interfere in the 2020 election, but so are China and Iran. The three cases were lumped together—even though China and Iran simply have a preference for who wins—so as not to anger Trump.

Does the intelligence community think voting by mail is a security concern?

Almost certainly—but because the CIA deals exclusively with international threats, the U.S. mail service is outside its jurisdiction.

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Writer and producer Chris Whipple. David Hume Kennerly/Getty

What will the biggest challenges be for a CIA director in the next administration?

If the president is Trump, the challenge will be getting him to take his briefings seriously and not reject facts that contradict his beliefs. If the president is Joe Biden, the challenge will be to repair the damage done to the CIA's credibility after four years of politicization of intelligence by his predecessor.

What's next for you?

I'm already at work on my next book, but you know the old saying: If I told you, I'd have to shoot you.

CIA Directors are Not 'Yes-Men'