Leon Fuerth Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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From the State Department, you moved on then to the Congress to work as a staff person?
Yes. I was hired by the late Congressman Les Aspin to be a senior staffer on a subcommittee that he was running inside of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. The subcommittee was a subcommittee on covert action. In order to join that committee, I had to make up my mind to resign from the Foreign Service. If I could have stayed in the Foreign Service with the option of going back, I would have liked it. But the chairman of the committee, a wonderful but crusty guy from New England, said, "I don't take people with dual loyalties. If you're coming here, I have to have your allegiance and not the State Department."
Although I had had very exotic security clearances doing strategic intelligence, I didn't know anything about covert action. So that exposed me to a whole dimension of statecraft that was not visible to most of my colleagues or former colleagues in the Foreign Service.
Les Aspin was an extremely active intellect, and he wasn't going to stop short at covert action. He hired me after asking me a question over lunch, which was, "How would you attempt to measure the quality of intelligence?" And then he proceeded to force me to try whatever field caught his attention. So it was a very good general education.
Were your answers good?
He didn't fire me.
And it was this background previously at the State Department that put you in the position to be able to do that?
Well, first of all, I had had the experience within the intelligence community, seeing how it was put together, understanding what its vulnerabilities were, understanding the lingo that analysts used in order to express relative degrees of uncertainty in a way that convinces readers that they know what they're talking about. This is called estimative language. And at other times in my career, I had become a consumer of intelligence because I returned to do arms control work on chemical weapons limitations, comprehensive test ban, mutual balance force reduction talks in Europe and so on. Each one of them necessarily depended upon a stream of intelligence. So things just sort of came together accidentally on purpose.
Do you feel in the current period that there has been a degradation of the quality of intelligence that we had in earlier periods?
No, I think there's been degradation in the quality of the consumers of intelligence. One of the things I learned is that the quality of the intelligence you get is partially a function of the quality of the questions you ask. If you don't challenge, if you don't create excitement among the people who are working for you, then they will continue to work hard because that's their ethic. But if they know that you are actually reading and thinking about what they're sending you, that's the stimulus that they often don't have, and it gets you from regular work to extraordinary work.
What, on the other hand, if they want certain information and an intelligence officer comes to realize that the information you give will be shaped a certain way, whether or not it validates the position of the consumer?
I'm not entirely sure I understand the question, but I'll make a stab at it. If my answer if off, then tell me and I'll correct it.
The most important thing that you need to do in relationship with intelligence people is to convince them by your demeanor, day in and day out, that the only thing you want from them is what they believe to be the truth, that you can forgive error but you can't forgive deception and you can't even forgive failure to honestly convey what they think the truth is. That's difficult, because a harsh word or an inadvertency can radiate out and convince people that they put themselves at risk if they cross what your policy wishes might be. But if you don't do that, then you have nothing to navigate by.
In the Congress, you worked for the Intelligence Committee later in its early period, correct?
I worked for the House Intelligence Committee as my first job after leaving the Foreign Service. I was there for a total of about six years. Around that time, Aspin was reassigned to the Arms Services Committee, which he eventually chaired. The House leadership assigned, then, young Congressman Gore to the Committee. One of my jobs in the committee was to be the staff resource on arms control verification, and Gore expressed an interest to learn something about this. The staff director steered me in his direction, and we began to form at first just a ... the two of us talking about these issues in a systematic way. When that was finished, after about a year, it began to develop into a purposeful collaboration to affect the course of public debate on nuclear weapons and arms control.
He was a person who had been elected to office. What in his character or his personality made him open to looking down the road to the future and understand issues? That's not a virtue that many people in Congress seem to have.
No, but it was something innate in him. By the time I met him, he had already been involved in forming something called the Congressional Clearinghouse for the Future.
This would have been what year?
Don't ask me the years.
Yeah, okay, all right.
I can't subtract that fast. But ...
Early, really early. I remember that when the staff director directed me to go see Gore, he said, "The new member says to me he wants to learn something global." And at that point, the idea of globality was a little odd to me, but it was like an isotopic marker for Gore's method of thinking. I mean, he naturally went for the full system. I didn't understand how smart he was for a while, but it became clear. The other thing in the relationship is that he told me early on, explicitly, to tell him what I thought was best for the country and leave the politics to him. And he meant it. So that was the foundation of the relationship, that I knew I could tell him anything -- I could tell him the truth, I could tell him I thought he'd just done something wrong, and that it would be absorbed without rancor, and that my value added to him was to tell it as I believed it.
This is, I presume, not the way most congresspeople are?
I wouldn't say that, because by implication that would be a criticism for many excellent people in the Congress.
Okay, you're right.
All I can tell you is that's the way he was.
He was exceptional, let's say.
I think he was in many ways. I also know that there were times when on my advice he would not take positions that had become popular and accept political cost for these. I saw him do it time and time again, sometimes with his teeth gritted.
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