Thinking In Public

April 28, 2021

Spycraft and Soulcraft on the Front Lines of History: A Conversation with Former CIA Chief of Counterintelligence James Olson

Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. For more than three decades, James M. Olson served with the Central Intelligence Agency. For some of those years, he served the nation as the Director of Counter-Intelligence. He served in the Director of Operations and also served previously for decades in field service. He and his wife, both agents for the Central Intelligence Agency.

For over 20 years now he's been a professor of the practice in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Professor Olson has authored two books. The first Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying, and the second most recently, To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence. The entire field of espionage, spy craft, and counterintelligence raises a host of Christian worldview issues that make this conversation one you will not want to miss. Again, I'm looking forward to this conversation with Professor James M. Olson, and soon you'll understand why. Professor Olson welcome to Thinking in Public.

James Olson:

Well, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Albert Mohler:

I've been looking forward to this conversation for some time, because in my view as a theologian, the questions related to warfare in general, and then to espionage or to spy craft, raise some of the deepest questions of Christian moral understanding. And I have turned to your first book, Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying for years now and have cited it in writing. And then I did so fairly recently on the briefing and one of your former students actually said, "Well, you should talk to Professor Olson himself." And so that opened the door for this conversation. And then in light of your second book that came out just a matter of about a year ago, To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence. Professor you have lived one of the most interesting lives that I could imagine.

James Olson:

Yes, it has been an interesting life and a very fulfilling one, Dr. Mohler, because I felt that I was serving a cause, I really believed in the security of our country. So, I really am honored to have had that opportunity. And now I have, I think an equally fulfilling career as a teacher of the next generation.

Albert Mohler:

Well, you are a teacher and a teacher with an unusual background, and I believe your title is Professor of the Practice,which is a very interesting academic title—and I say that as president of an academic institution. It usually is followed by something like the practice of, but what exactly is the practice of which you are a professor?

James Olson:

I am a professor of the practice of intelligence. We have an intelligence studies program here. It's a master's level two year program for young men and women who aspire to careers in intelligence. It's a fine program at the Bush School. We're very proud of it. And we are sending our graduates into some really exciting and important careers out on the front lines of the intelligence community.

Albert Mohler:

It is one of the first programs of its kind, kind of outside the Washington ring, to become a major center for the teaching of national intelligence. And yeah, I think about the fact that the school in which you teach at Texas A&M, the George H.W. Bush school is named not only for the 41st president of the United States, but a man who prior to that was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. And then you had another Director of the Central Intelligence Agency was president of the university. Sounds a bit like a conspiracy.

James Olson:

You've done your homework. Yeah, you've nailed this. Yeah. We have very fine connections with the Bush family. We have fine connections with Bob Gates. We have been in this business for quite some time now, and it's about time that there were competitors in this field and intelligence studies outside the Washington, D.C. Beltway. And we're it, and we are, I think, recognized already as one of the premier institutions of this kind in the country. President Bush was very proud that we were doing this. It was his vision from the beginning that we would send our graduates into these kinds of careers. And we've lived up to his vision. We've carried out that mission and we're sending quality young people into these careers every year.

Albert Mohler:

You acknowledge in both of your books that spy craft or espionage will invoke some very serious moral questions. And in your first book, Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying, you actually set out so many of these explicitly, and I think with a lot of intellectual honesty. One of the things that you acknowledge is that it comes down to whether or not one will do spy craft or not. You write, "I will concede that spying is a dirty business. But my question is this, what's the alternative? No intelligence? Should we abstain from lying, cheating, deceiving, and manipulating and do without the intelligence they produce? Should we unilaterally discontinue espionage and covert action operations overseas? Should we put all our trust in overt sources of information, diplomacy and the peaceful arts and hope our enemies will not take advantage of us? Is that the real world? Would that be safe?" Well, you raise the question.

James Olson:

I did raise the question. It is something I've thought a lot about because my life was a paradox in many ways, because on one hand the most important things to me in my life were my country, my family, my honor, and my faith. But on the other hand, I spent my entire CIA career lying, cheating, stealing, manipulating, deceiving. So that's the issue that I wanted to deal with, can those two points be reconciled? Can a man of faith conduct himself in such a way that he is engaging in those things?

When Meredith and I, my wife was also in the CIA by the way, when we launched into this career, we had to make an upfront racialization. We had to say, all right, as people of faith, we know that we will be doing things we would not ordinarily be doing, the lying and cheating and so forth. But we sincerely believe that we're doing those things for a greater good, for the legitimate defense of our country. And I can tell you that throughout our career, even though we engaged in some things that sometimes bordered on, we did not see any conflicts between what we were doing and our faith or our moral code.

We devoted our lives, Dr. Mohler, to protecting our country against totalitarian, evil, oppressive, atheistic communism, and we thought we were on the right side of that. And so we had no qualms about doing what we had to do for our country. If we're going to defend our country against the evils that are out there, we can't go out there with our hands tied behind our back. We've got to fight tough. And that's the issue. How tough is too tough? When do we cross the line? When do we betray those values that we're fighting so hard to defend? When do we become them? And that's kind of the point that we had to discuss throughout the book.

Albert Mohler:

In reading your first book as a theologian trained in ethics and teaching in writing in the area of ethics, I found myself thinking some things I had not really thought through before along these lines. And you don't address the issue so directly in your book, so I want to address it rather directly with you. The background to most Christian moral thinking, and you're Roman Catholic and you write from that perspective, but let's just say the classical Christian tradition, which I as a confessing Protestant and you as a Catholic would share. And that would include Thomas Aquinas and his kind of quintessential develop theory of just war, when a war is just—before a war is fought, the conditions for war and then the conditions of war—and I've struggled with this for a long time. It strikes me that your argument comes down to the fact that, looking at Thomas's definition, you were acting in a way which was defensive of the good in a context in which the good was actually proximately threatened.

James Olson:

Yes, I think that's accurate. That's the way I saw it. And I do believe that the just war theory does apply to us in intelligence community. If it could be morally acceptable as Aquinas said, to kill in legitimate defense of our country, it seems to me that it should be morally acceptable as well to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate course in legitimate defense of our country.

Albert Mohler:

That's a hard set of words for Christians to just let go by quickly. But I think one of the strengths of your character and your candor is you're willing to use those words straightforwardly. Because without those very moral acts or immoral acts, there is no spy craft.

James Olson:

No, not at all. Spying has always been based on deception. I look for guidance from the greatest of all sources, the Bible. And we all know the story from the book of Joshua, about how when Joshua was conducting his campaign for the conquest of Canaan, he’s standing before Jericho, and he sends two spies into Jericho to gather intelligence on the defenses. And the spies are sheltered, protected, hidden by the prostitute Rahab. And thanks to Rahab they survive when the king's men came looking for them, she lied about their whereabouts. They were able to return safely to the Israelite camp. And I think it was because of their intelligence to a large extent that the campaign was successful.

And we also know that in return for her kindness toward the spies, her lying and deception to protect the spies, Rahab and her family were spared when the Israelites took the city. I ask myself, all right, we know that Rahab is one of the great heroines of Israel, and if spying were inherently evil, why would she be honored and blessed for protecting the spies? So that gives me a lot of consolation, that gives me a lot of belief that what I'm doing is morally justified, because there is biblical history there. Spying as you know is ancient. It goes back to biblical times and before. And so I refer to the story of Rahab often in my teaching to kind of put some perspective on the fact that, yes, the spying is ethical, spying is moral.

 

 

Albert Mohler:

In the history of Christian ethical theology, there are different ways of approaching ethics, even given the same biblical and theological commitments. There's the deontological, that is an act is inherently right or wrong according to an external moral reality, and I think that's where most Christian ethics is located. There's the teleological in which it's measured by its end, more recently things like consequentialism and pragmatism. I'm very offended by merely pragmatist arguments.

And I think some people hearing an attempted defense of spying and espionage might hear a merely pragmatic response. But let's go into the weeds here just a moment. You and I both teach, so let's just do that for a moment as you have been. So in the Christian tradition, I think one of the most important ethical insights is that the alternative to a moral relativism or mere pragmatism is some kind of ethical absolute. And one of the principles of Christian thinkinghas been non conflicting moral absolutes. We don't believe that God in His sovereign majesty has commanded contradictory acts. But a serious Christian has to acknowledge that we find ourselves in situations where even affirming non contradictory, moral absolutes, we are not sure what is absolutely right.

I'm speaking to you from Louisville, Kentucky, and this split the Baptists in Kentucky during the colonial era. And it came down to the question as to whether you could lie to Indians, native Americans identified as Indians at the time, if they demanded to know where you had hidden your children with the ambition to take them. And it actually split the Baptists, the Baptists actually divided into two different churches in which you had the honest Baptists and the lying Baptists where the way it was done. And the amazing thing is just about every Baptist I know says that theologically they think they're supposed to agree with the honest Baptist, but as parents they would actually do what the lying Baptist did. And I think that is a microscopic picture of the worldwide quandary of espionage.

James Olson:

It certainly is. I often ask my students, "What are your moral absolutes?" And students say, "Well, I would never kill anyone." I say, "Well, you're a soldier, our country's being attacked. You are a parent, your children are being threatened. Could you kill to protect your children or your right?" Yeah, there are exceptions. Would you ever steal? I know I can never steal anything, but how about to feed your family? How about to steal the secrets from an enemy? Would you ever lie? No, but we all tell white lies. And there are occasions, as you mentioned, where lies I believe are the only course of action to protect human life.

It's always kind of a gray situation in our world. My world of spying a covert action raises some particularly esoteric moral issues. We face them every day. And that's why I wrote the book. I think the ordinary life of people also has those morally conflicting questions that you described, and how we deal with them, I think, requires us to rely on our faith, our conscience, but it's very, very hard to say that some courses of action in the abstract could be construed as morally wrong, but when put into the circumstances of the case, I think they become not only justifiable, but in some cases necessary.

Albert Mohler:

For Christian theology, the 20th century was a horrifying test case for Christian ethics. And the ethical consensus that was kind of taught in a facile sort of way, simplistic sort of way, before the Second World War fell apart after the Second World War. Now, I think part of that was catastrophe professor, I think the rise of a relativistic understanding of morality and kind of out of protest atheism just emerged from exhaustion, moral exhaustion, and from just the horror of the Holocaust and everything else just becoming more than many people in society wanted to have to take intellectual responsibility for.

But amongst Christian theologians, and this would include the entire world of those identified as teaching in the Christian field, the reality is that the consensus developed that there are at least some principles that are involved here, and one of them is the mandate to save life and to preserve life. And so, if you are in a situation, the argument came, where there are conflicting absolutes, you cannot kill, you cannot lie, you shall not deceive, et cetera, but there are situations in which you also have the command, you must preserve life, you must protect the widow and the orphan. And at this point it comes down to something like a Reinhold Niebuhr would say, "It's the least worst thing to do."

But I think the honesty is, and this is deeply Augustinian. And we would share, I think, a great affection for Augustine. Augustine would say that there are no sinless acts even of the purest motives. And I think that's good for us to keep in mind as well. It's a humbling realization.

James Olson:

Yes. I think that's exactly right, that motive is kind of a key in whether or not we are acting in a moral way or not. I certainly would support your view about the sanctity of human life. And I saw what I did in my career as protecting human life. How many American lives, for example, have been saved on the battlefields against terrorist attacks, because we had superior intelligence? Many. And I think that's amorally good. But how did we get that intelligence? We got that intelligence because we had spies out there who were practicing deception, who were stealing the secrets, who were suborning foreign citizens to get the intelligence from them, lying, manipulating, coercing in some cases. And I believe that that all goes together as a great good for the ultimate objective of saving lives. That's kind of the overriding goal, I think, of those of us who are in the intelligence career, those who serve our country, who are out there defending the lives of our people. And that's, I think, an honorable thing to do.

Albert Mohler:

I agree it’s an honorable thing to do, but you're not merely saying that the end justifies the means.

James Olson:

It's close. And I don't want to be labeled a utilitarian, but a lot of the means that we use. Let's take some examples, targeted killings, waterboarding, blackmail, seduction are ugly things in the abstract, but have they saved lives? Have they been for a greater good? By waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed, how many American lives did we save? How many terrorist attacks did we thwart? By killing Osama Bin Laden, assassinating him extra judicially, didn't we in effect render justice? Didn't we prevent anything that he was planning in the future?

Now a lot of people objected to those acts and I understand why. But as I point out in the book, and you cited that, what if we had not engaged in those activities? What if we'd refrained from collecting that intelligence? Where would we be? And I think that's an unacceptable alternative. I believe that when we go out there, we've got to have the tools at our disposal to match the evil forces that we're fighting against.

Albert Mohler:

I would just offer at least as a contribution to the discussion, the fact that in a fallen world, if we take sins seriously, I think the Christian has to acknowledge that these things will happen, they do happen, they have happened, they will continue to happen. And at the same time we believe that there are certain actions that are categorically morally wrong. And I'll just say, I think waterboarding is one of them. Torture is one of them. And of course that raises a whole host of definitional issues, but you mentioned waterboarding by name.

But I have to admit, and that's why I didn't join any of the statements about these issues, because I felt like they were detached from taking moral responsibility for such statements. I think the fact is that under some circumstance, virtually every person I know would either have to take responsibility for the deaths of people or for this categorically wrong act. And the thing that amazes me is that you and your colleagues put yourselves in the position of knowing you would have to make those choices and take such actions.

James Olson:

Yes. It's not a comfortable position to have to be in, but we do have to make some very, very serious decisions. And quite often when we're out on the street of some foreign capital, these dilemmas present themselves unexpectedly very quickly. And that's why it's so important that we recruit people for the intelligence community. That we find people who have a good, strong, moral code, but they are inclined to make the right ethical, moral, Christian decision when the circumstances present themselves, because they don't have time to consult.

And it's really unfair after the fact, I think, for people sitting back in Washington to say, "You went too far, you should not have kidnapped that person. You should not have waterboarded that person." Because it's easy to say, and our people were doing this with the best of intentions. Waterboarding is nasty. I hate the fact that we had to do that. But it's easy to take the moral high ground and say, "We're not going to do that." And of course the Obama administration decreed that we would not do it anymore. That's fine, tell us, we won't cross the line. But we have to realize that when we refrain from activities like that, and I would contend as my good friend and colleague Jose Rodriguez wrote in his book, Hard Measures, that waterboarding these three people did save lives. And these people were not permanently harmed, the ones who were waterboarded.

And so that's kind of a horrible calculus that you have to make weighing the lesser of evils. But I take the position that in an extreme case with preferably judicial oversight, we should not take enhanced interrogation off the table. If we have an imminent threat to our country, lives are at stake, we know the information could be extracted that can save those lives and that enhanced interrogation is the only way to get it. That's a horrible position to have to state, and I'm not proud of it, but I believe that in the greater good you can make that case.

Albert Mohler:

Well, it's a horrible context. And I find myself recoiling a bit, even hearing you speak, but obviously with respect, and I think about this and I think, well, I mean, that could be used to eventually justify just about anything. I know you're not saying that, but eventually it could be used at least in the most extreme situations to justify acts beyond what I think you or the CIA or your allied intelligence agencies would undertake.

James Olson:

Dr. Mohler, let me ask you this, waterboarding is bad, but it does not kill.

Albert Mohler:

Well, that's actually where I was headed. I wanted to say many of the same people who would say this conversation is not even legitimate would acknowledge the need to kill and this is short of that. Forgive me, I was setting it up to acknowledge that, which is why this is a very respectful conversation. I deeply respect your your candor. I'm just being equally respectful to say, I wonder about myself sometimes thinking about this. I find myself in the position, I think a lot of Christian citizens are saying, "I could not do this”, I think, but I'm glad you and your colleagues were, to use a movie metaphor, there on that wall. But as you know, and you've already said in your book, I just want to make very clear, is really clear about this. There are boundaries, so let me put it in history. You spent so much of your time in spy craft on the field, at great risk, during the cold war. And so just let me ask you bluntly, tell us the difference in the basic worldview on these issues between say the KGB and the CIA.

James Olson:

It's a world of difference because the KGB is an atheistic organization. It has no moral constraints. If it furthers the objective of the Russian state, they do it. We know Vladimir Putin is a killer. We know that they are ruthless. They have absolutely no bounds. Even worse of course, they’re our terrorist adversaries. Their only objective is to kill Americans whenever and wherever they can find them. We're different, we have boundaries, we have laws, we have moral limits. There are things that we would not do. And I think that that’s something we can be proud of as Americans.

Albert Mohler:

And there are accountabilities in our system that are completely absent elsewhere.

James Olson:

There are accountabilities. I understand that we are the most moral intelligence service in the world. And look at our good friends the Israelis. Israelis are fighting for their survival as they see it, and they have engaged in some very, very ruthless activities to protect their people and to preserve their state. And I have respect for what they're doing and I understand what they're doing. They do things that go beyond what we would do.

Albert Mohler:

Yes. Well, and that was true at the beginning of Israel. I mean, Israel had to ... The Jewish people they're in what we now know as Israel had to undertake actions beyond anything that for instance, took place in the American revolution given the context, otherwise there would not be a nation of Israel.

James Olson:

Yeah, the Israelis, I mean I worked with the Mossad in my career and they're tough. They don't have these moral debates in the extent that we do. That's, I think, a difference in our two situations. They're surrounded by enemies. And so I think that they have been able to justify some extreme measures that go beyond what we would routinely do. But if you ask the average American, Dr. Mohler, did you approve of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden? I was expecting even Christians would have a majority in saying, "Yes, it was justified." Here's a man responsible for the deaths of 3,000 plus Americans and many more. So, I don't see any moral outrage that we took that action. But it was murder.

Albert Mohler:

I think you're absolutely right. I mean, the only outrage that really emerged from that came in more academic form you might say, or ideological form, but without having to take any responsibility and that's a part. Reading both of your books, and I guess I really was impressed with this more by your second book, To Catch a Spy. I mean, there have to be, in a world like we inhabit with the dangers that are out there. And at one point you say that more than 80 different nations have applied espionage against the United States, including as you acknowledged, our own allies in many cases, but far more perverse intent. Someone's got to take responsibility for this, and this is an ongoing tension in our own experiment and constitutional self-government. It's been a tension from the beginning.

James Olson:

Yes, that's true. And for most of our history as you know, there's been a diversion to spying. The view was, is that this was not quite American, that we Americans are different from the old world that have had long traditions of espionage and covert action. It really wasn't until World War II and the threat of the Nazis and the Japanese that America said, "All right, we're going to have to do some things we have not done traditionally in the past.” And the Office of Strategic Service was a very, very hard-hitting ruthless organization when it had to be, because the stakes were so high.

Albert Mohler:

And look what it was up against with the Abwehr.

James Olson:

Exactly. The Abwehr, the Japanese, Nazi Germany, the things they were capable of. We talk about evil personified. And so the American view was to accept kind of the nasty business of spying. Our squeamishness about spying, ithad historically been true of America, was pretty much dissipated because of the Nazi threat. And then of course right after World War II, the new threat emerges, expansion is communist. And so, there was an acceptance that we need to maintain those activities, the covert action, the espionage.

Albert Mohler:

And there were two issues, if I may raise them, historically that may help those listening to this conversation to connect to this. One of them was the historical fact that Pearl Harbor represented an enormous failure of American intelligence. And I think virtually any American leader would have to say, "We must plug the hole in our national defense," as represented by the fact that, as you document your second book, To Catch a Spy, the Nazi networks were talking about Pearl Harbor. And if the Americans had just picked up and listened to what was available to them, they would have understood that this was not a coincidence. The second-

James Olson:

It's a great example.

Albert Mohler:

Go ahead.

James Olson:

It's a great example of the consequences of poor intelligence or low intelligence. And I would dread an America where we didn't have advanced warning. And the advanced warning comes from your intelligence community, on behalf of all Americans. We're out there collecting this intelligence for you, for the American public, to protect you. That's why we go into this career. Without intelligence, we would be, I think, probably have been destroyed already, if we didn't have good intelligence on the Soviet Union. It wasn't preordained that we would prevail in the Cold War, but I think superior intelligence protected us. It also prevented some cataclysmic outcomes. Now, what if we had not had good intelligence on Berlin in 48 or in Cuba in 62, or in the Middle East in 73 or Europe in 83. Intelligence averted what could have been a nuclear Armageddon. So, I think intelligence has been a cause for good over the years. And I'm proud to have been part of that.

Albert Mohler:

There's also a flip side to that, just the second historical case I'd point to. And as a college student I got to meet Edward Teller. And I'll never forget Teller saying that the greatest failure he thought of the United States was to prevent the espionage by which the Soviet Union was able to basically steal nuclear secrets to develop, first of all, an atomic bomb and then a hydrogen bomb in what was a tragically short period of time. And that stuck with me ever since I was a college student.

James Olson:

Right. One of the great failures of American counterintelligence was the ease with which the Russians could steal what should have been one of the most protected secrets ever, the atom bomb secret. We let our guard down. We were so intent on fighting the Nazis that we allowed communists into the Manhattan project, into Los Alamos. Our screening of government employees and our clearance process was totally deficient. And so, people got in who were fellow travelers, who believed that an American monopoly on atomic weapons would be destabilizing the world peace. I think that's very misguided. But to a large extent we did it to ourselves and I would agree with Edward Teller that that was a horrible historic failure on our part. But the Russians inevitably would have had the bomb themselves because size always moves in just one direction—it proliferates, it expands. But we allowed them to have the bomb a lot earlier because of their ability to steal it from us than they would have otherwise.

Albert Mohler:

And Teller’s point was that that was tremendously injurious to the freedom and liberty of so many in Eastern Europe. Because even as the iron curtain, as Churchill said 75 years ago, last week. Even as the iron curtain was up, before the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, there were still the opportunity for some tactical pushback but all that disappeared.

James Olson:

I think that's an excellent point. I think it's historically valid. A nuclear weapons capable Russia was able to assert its domination over those poor enslaved people in Eastern Europe, much more forcefully because they had the bomb. They had deterrents, they could keep the Americans from intervening because of the fact that we had that nuclear equivalence. And the poor people of Eastern Europe, I mean I've felt so badly throughout my career, the fact that they were living that horrible, horrible and forced regime.

Albert Mohler:

And you were posted in places during your foreign service years in the CIA, in places such as Vienna, where you were able to witness this firsthand there to your East.

 

James Olson:

I did, I was on the doorstep of Eastern Europe. We had a lot of Eastern European refugees coming through. We saw firsthand what communism was doing to those people. And Dr. Mohler, I also lived in Russia. And so, I saw what the Russian communist system was, what it did to its own people. The cruelty of it, the oppressiveness of it. And what that did was just reinforce my conviction that I was doing a good thing by fighting that, by dedicating my life to it. And my wife and I would do it all over again. And I have no reservations about my role in preparing these high quality young people at the Bush School of Texas A&M to come in behind us, to follow in our footsteps, to go out there and do dangerous things in dangerous places to protect the American people. I think it's a fine thing that we're all doing here. And the truth is I've never known finer people, than the people I served with in the United States intelligence community, people of honor, patriotism. I think it's probably not well known that a place like the CIA is very faith filled. We had Bible studies in CIA headquarters. We had cleared ministers and priests and rabbis who could come in and minister to our people. We're probably violating some law of separation of church and state, but we're the CIA we're going to do what we want. But it was important to us to allow that connection between faith and service to our country. I think that they're compatible.

Albert Mohler:

Professor, I have to raise an issue, it takes us all deeper here, at least in my mind it does. Because we've really been talking mostly about intelligence, spy craft, and I think amazingly candid conversation. But you were actually at Langley for the CIA Director of Counter-Intelligence. And as a Christian theologian I'm not debating whether that's right or wrong, I believe it's necessary, but nonetheless, it takes us into even darker corners. Can you talk about that just a bit? When you talk about counter-intelligence, you're talking about a ring inside of intelligence that takes us deeper, and I think it'd be helpful to have that defined for us and hear you speak of it.

James Olson:

Let me start by defining what counter-intelligence is. Counterintelligence is the discipline within intelligence that has as its mission to thwart, to prevent the activities of foreign intelligence services, to suborn our citizens, to steal our secrets, to hack into our databases. It is a defensive mechanism to protect the American people from the depredations from abroad. We live in a very dangerous world. And today we are under assault from the Chinese in the first place, from still the Russians, from the Cubans, from the Iranians, many other countries. And as you pointed out, even so-called nominally friendly countries are trying to steal our secrets. That's our job in counter-intelligence, to prevent all that from happening.

Counterintelligence takes you into a world of deception, into a world of illusion, a world of manipulation, and you can lose your bearings in that world. And you can in fact get into a very dark place. You're aware of James Jesus Angleton. He was a Director of Counterintelligence for 20 years at the CIA, and he fell prey to the paranoia, the lack of trust, the righteousness trap that what he was doing was so righteous, so important for the defense of our country that he could cut some corners, he could violate the law even, that he could ruin people's lives. And that is a horrible abuse of counter-intelligence.

When I took over counterintelligence, one of the first things I did was to establish a training course for all of our counter-intelligence officers. And I call that my CNA course, or my ANA course, I'm sorry, Angleton Never Again. And I wanted to make certain that people who were in intelligence kept their moral code, stayed within the law, did not fall victim to that paranoia, which is kind of an occupational hazard of counterintelligence. And I think we were successful in doing that. You can do a good job of counter-intelligence without betraying the principles of our country.

Albert Mohler:

James Jesus Angleton, that character you speak, who kind of pioneered counter-intelligence from within the American intelligence community was such a dark figure. It's very interesting to read your account of the one meeting you had with him as a young officer, when he sat in his dark office surrounded by smoke, and all you could see is the reflection in his eyeglasses. That sounds like a James Bond movie.

James Olson:

Yeah, it was a bit of a movie. I'll never forget it. I was struck by how this great mind, and he was a great mind, this brilliant counter-intelligence officer had gone off the deep end. He was no longer in touch with reality as I saw it. It was apparent to me even as a very young junior officer. And it's funny Dr. Mohler, because as I was excoriated by him for not being able to see through the machinations of the Soviet communist system, some outlandish conspiracy theories that he had, as I left that meeting thinking my CIA career for which I had set great hopes was dashed forever me. How could I withstand being treated that way by one of the giants of our profession? I walked down the hall and I said to myself, "I don't know what this career will lead to if I somehow survive it. But I know one thing, I'm never ever again going anywhere near counter-intelligence." So, it is a bit ironic that I ended up being the actual director in that same line as Angleton.

Albert Mohler:

I want to talk just a bit about that, but first I want to note that you in your work on counter-intelligence here, what you call the art of counter-intelligence, there's a lot of morality in what you argue. And I was very moved by something that I later discovered that your wife had said to you. And again, she who was an agent for the CIA as well, and you serve together as a tandem couple or a tandem team at least for some years. But she, when you received the invitation to the post as director of counterintelligence—I'm paraphrasing what I understand your wife to have said to you—that she said, "Do it, but not for long."

James Olson:

That's right. Yes. When I got the message from the director, when I was out in Vienna as Chief of Station that I was being asked to go back to be takeover counterintelligence, Meredith and I went out for a walk that night, so we could talk openly. And Meredith was familiar with the reputation of counter-intelligence and what it did to people. She knew the Angleton experience. She didn't want her husband to fall into that trap. And so that's why she said, knowing as she did what it could do to people, good people, she said, "Okay, Jim, if you really want to do counter-intelligence, fine, but don't stay too long." And that's actually one of my ten commandments of counterintelligence, go into this field, don't stay too long. I required that my officers rotate in and out repeatedly to kind of recharge their batteries, to ventilate their minds, to get a different perspective, because a steady diet of counterintelligence that are keen murky world, that you have to live in in counterintelligence can be very detrimental to your mental health.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I felt it was detrimental to my mental health at risk just reading your book, in the sense that I had to ponder things. And so I will tell you that I think even in this conversation, it's clear that you are neither paranoid nor cynical.

James Olson:

Thank you. I think I'm okay, I'm not sure. Some people might disagree, but I think am all right.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I will tell you that I knew from talking with others, including those who had been your students over the years, that you are neither. But it strikes me that there would have to be some incredible internal compass and commitment to prevent one from becoming paranoid, utterly suspicious and cynical through that kind of service. I mean, you are dealing with matters of life and death.

James Olson:

Yes, exactly right. And you talk about a moral compass. Let's just call it faith. Without faith, Meredith and I could not have done what we did. It was always there. It gave us boundaries for what we could do in our professional personal lives. And beyond that, Dr. Mohler, it gave us strength. This was a dangerous profession. I lost a lot of friends and colleagues. What Meredith and I did was high risk. There were operations where I was not absolutely certain I would return. But when I was out there in the most dangerous of circumstances, underneath Moscow in a manhole, some of the other real dangerous spots around the world, doing things that could have been life-threatening, I could literally feel His protecting presence. I knew I was not alone, and I can't tell you how much consolation that was, how much strength it was to know that He was there with me. It's indescribable, but we could not have done what we did without that faith behind everything that we were doing. And we were being protected. I have no doubt about it.

Albert Mohler:

And speaking of what was at stake, two things I want to ask you about here, but the first of them is just to have you make clear to folks what was at stake. You look at failures of counter-intelligence leading to the deaths of dozens of American friends within the Soviet Union. And even more recently, as recently as I think 2017, report about a failure of counterintelligence leading to the deaths of American agents in China.

James Olson:

Yes. There are fatalities in this business. It's not a game, it's life and death, and many courageous, many fine people lose their lives in this enterprise, Americans and those foreigners who are putting their lives in our hands by cooperating secretly with us. And you're right, it was tragic that we lost so many of our agents in China because of treachery from within. It's tragic that we lost so many Russians, Russians that I worked with personally, people who were working with us for ideological reasons, fine people, some were secret believers, and they were betrayed.

I worked personally with Aldrich Ames at the CIA, a CIA officer. He sold out to the Russians. He gave them the identities of all those Russian spies that were working with us, condemning them to a certain fate. On your knees, bullet fired through the back of your head. And I can't think of a lower form of human life than someone who would do something like that. Aldrich Ames is in prison. I often think of Dante’s Inferno and the ninth and deepest level of hell, circle of hell, is reserved for traitors. And I think that that's a good place for them because I have nothing but contempt for people who could betray our country on behalf of another country and to do it for money, which they all did.

 

Albert Mohler:

Yes. You were echoing there none other than General George Washington.

James Olson:

Yes. You've done your homework. That's exactly right. George Washington was ahead of his time and he said that what he dreaded above all was they are speaking of new spies and that we needed to do everything we could to detect them and to prevent them from stealing our secrets. So yeah, that's kind of the marching orders for us. It started with Washington. He was a great spymaster. It kind of fell into that’s the way to it over the years, unfortunately, where we did not have an effect a counter-intelligence program until, as I said, World War II woke us up, that we had to get back into the business.

Albert Mohler:

And just to make an historical note, we weren't much better at policing internally in terms of intelligence, even something such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, again, a massive failure of intelligence internally. And so, I mean, we went a very long time without anything like either the FBI or the CIA.

James Olson:

Yes we did. Yes we did. And where would we be without them today? I shudder to think what life would be like for us Americans without those fine people in the FBI and CIA out there doing your jobs every day.

Albert Mohler:

Professor I found just as a human being, a father, grandfather, just a really urgent moment of looking at your life when I realized that going to the Bush School over 20 years ago, you had to come out of the CIA world and in doing so, and I find this almost impossible to believe though I know it's true. I'd love to have you just talk about it. You had high school children at the time, and they did not know that both mother and father were spies. You had friends who had been walking life with you for decades, who did not know that you were spies. You were evidently very good at this. What was it like all of a sudden to go from one world into another?

James Olson:

It was traumatic. Meredith and I had never wanted to come out from undercover. And a lot of our colleagues retire undercover and never have to reveal the fact that they've been living a lie, that they'd been leading a double life. For the 30 plus years that Meredith and I were in active duty, we were undercover. We were living that lie. My parents did not know that I was in CIA. Meredith’s parents did not know. Our children did not know. Our friends did not know. But we had to be very, very careful about protecting our cover because our effectiveness in our job depended on the integrity of our cover.

And also, and I don't want to overdramatize this, but it is true. Our personal safety and the safety of our families depended on our cover. So we were very, very serious about protecting our cover. When we came out from undercover as we were required to do to come to a university the CIA requires us to come up from undercover, we cannot be on a college campus covertly. If I'm going to teach intelligence at the Bush School with President Bush as my mentor and colleague down here at the Bush School, I've got to be out from undercover.

Our first concern was the difficult conversation we'd have to have with our parents. Would they be hurt that we'd be lying to them all those years. And both sets of parents, Meredith’s and mine, reacted independently in exactly the same way. You know what that was? Thank you for not telling us sooner. They said, "When you were in those foreign countries, we would not have wanted to know that you were in the CIA and have to worry about what it was that you were doing."

We told our children because, and this is in the book, we had a death threat in Vienna from some Iranian terrorist, a death threat against me personally by name, Meredith personally by name, and against each of our three children and that was frightening. That was real. The CIA actually offered to pull us out of Vienna because of the death threat to the children. It was really Meredith, a remarkable woman, kind of contrary to all maternal instincts, she said, "No." She said, "We've been sent here with the mission to perform. We're not going to be chased away by ugly letter from some terrorists."

So, we stayed and finished our mission, but that was the time when we felt that because of the death threat to the children, we needed to bring our oldest into the picture. He was only 16. So we sat him down in an acoustically secure room. We said, "Listen, Jeremy, mom and dad are in CIA. There has been a death threat against our family. We need your help." It's kind of a lot to put on a 16 year old. You've got to watch out for your brother and sister, be alert to your surroundings. Jeremy reacted with pride and as we'd hope he would, and he did a good job of watching out for his younger brother and sister and with his help and a lot of other precautions we put on the children we were able to stay and finish our assignment in Vienna.

And then when they were a little bit older, we were able to tell our other two children, Josh and Hilary the truth. They reacted with pride too. And if you guys just admitted, Dr. Mohler, I would like to say how proud Meredith and I are of our three children. Jeremy, the oldest went on to become a United States Marine Corps officer, and then went into campus ministry, which he felt called to do. Our second son was United States Navy officer and our daughter is a missionary in Ethiopia. So we're very proud that our children have all chosen careers of service, others in one form or another, we're very proud of them.

Albert Mohler:

Oh, I can only imagine. And I appreciate you sharing that. And frankly, I just appreciate the generosity of heart in which you share so much of this in your writings and in your teaching.

James Olson:

I hope I didn't come across as an ogre or as a monster who spent his life doing all these nasty things, but I did not see them as nasty. I saw them as necessary and legitimate defense of our country. I saw them as consistent with the just war theory. I saw them as consistent with my faith and my moral code.

Albert Mohler:

Well, you're very courageous and generous to share all that with us. And I do not have conversations with ogres, not willingly anyway.

James Olson:

Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Albert Mohler:

Yes. I mean, that's a very low threshold, but I will tell you that I am very honored by this conversation, your willingness to enter in this conversation. And I owe you a great deal just in terms of helping me think through some of these issues. And I want to return to that in just a moment, but before we bring this conversation to a close, I just want to say that I'm also very moved by the fact that you and your wife are both deeply involved in the pro-life movement. And I appreciate that as well.

James Olson:

Yes, it's very, very important to us. I was the founding chairman of the board of 40 Days for Life. We've been involved in other pro-life ministries. It is we believe the moral issue of our day. And so we're very, very committed to that as I know you are. And I would like to say also Dr. Mohler, that I appreciate everything that you do, being such a voice for faith and morality. And I use your book on leadership in my classes, because I think it is so rare today unfortunately, that you make that connection between leadership and moral character, that the two are inseparable. And I believe that that is a wonderful lesson for my students and for anybody who's interested in effective leadership. So thank you for that.

Albert Mohler:

Well, thank you. That means a very great deal to me just to hear that. And I do want to say thank you to you, especially for this conversation today and for all you've contributed in the generosity of your teaching and writing. And by the way, I want to say thank you on behalf of my own son-in-law, Riley Barnes, formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, who is a proud graduate of the Bush School-

James Olson:

Yes he is.

Albert Mohler:

... and so many others. And I just want to say thank you on behalf of a grateful nation. It's not that I can speak for the entire nation, but in a sense, I want just to say thank you. And thank you for the liberties you defended, for the nation you love, for the sacrifices you made, the risks you took and for the courage to speak to all these.

James Olson:

Thank you. It was an honor.

Albert Mohler:

Many thanks to my guest, Professor James Olson, for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find more than 100 of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab, Thinking in Public. For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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