—Ronald Reagan, January 1977
As an unprecedented, colossal “stimulus” package was passed by the new president and Congress, something rather extraordinary slid beneath the public eye: Leon Panetta was confirmed as our next director of central intelligence—i.e., as head of the CIA.
Personally, I had a unique inside angle on this political theater. Here at Grove City College a few weeks ago we hosted Herb Meyer, who in the 1980s had been the right-hand man to President Reagan’s CIA director, Bill Casey. Meyer was one of those behind-the-scenes, unsung heroes of the Cold War, who worked with Casey to take down the Soviet empire through numerous means ranging from economic warfare to aiding anti-communist forces from Krakow to Kabul. He was the subject of our third annual Ronald Reagan Lecture. (Watch the video here.)
As I arrived at Meyer’s room to pick him up, I was greeted by a genial, pleasant man who was worked up over what he was watching on television. Meyer was enduring C-SPAN’s coverage of Panetta’s confirmation hearings for CIA director. Something really insidious was on display at those hearings: a curious consensus that if American intelligence—heaven help us—knew there was a ticking bomb in a major city, and had in possession the terrorist who knew the bomb’s location, that it would be wrong to “torture” the suspect to disclose the location.
This is where the unceasing hatred of George W. Bush has finally brought us: bloody irrationality. In truth, everyone in that Senate room knew it would be imperative to use whatever time-tested techniques to prevent, say, two million innocents from morphing into a mushroom cloud over Manhattan. Of course, if such a scenario ever develops, every senator in that room—plus the New York Times editorial board—would urge Panetta to begin water-boarding the suspect immediately.
Yet, at this point in the sad state of the republic, none of the gentlemen could dare make such an untoward claim. “Can you believe this?” Meyer shouted at me and the TV as we observed this political spectacle.
No, I could not. Or maybe I could.
That’s just one illustration of the new man in charge and the new mindset at the CIA.
But the crisis is even more acute. One of Herb Meyer’s most crucial reminders is the thing that made Bill Casey’s CIA different, and what made Ronald Reagan’s presidency different: it was the objective to win, to win the war, the Cold War—and to think creatively, outside-the-box, to make that happen. As Meyer emphasizes, Casey was a maverick, and a maverick was needed to win the Cold War, just as one is needed now to win the War on Terror. To win today will require the right CIA director (like a Casey), the right president (like a Ronald Reagan), the right head of the National Security Council (Bill Clark), the right secretary of defense (Cap Weinberger), plus an Ed Meese, a Jean Kirkpatrick, and the unappreciated folks in the shadows, individuals like Roger Robinson (at the NSC) and Herb Meyer at the CIA.
“Reagan didn’t play to lose,” says Meyer. “He played to win. And that’s what made him different from every other president.” Meyer puts it this way:
Ronald Reagan was the first Western leader whose objective was to win. Now I suggest to you that there is a gigantic difference between playing not to lose and playing to win. It’s different emotionally, it’s different psychologically, and, of course, it’s different practically…. It was Reagan’s judgment that the time had come to play offense—that they [the Soviets] could be had. When he made that decision … it flowed from a decision to play to win.
And Reagan needed Bill Casey at the CIA to achieve this. As Casey’s special assistant, and as vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, Meyer observed the full scope and brunt of the Reagan strategy. That strategy, said Meyer, citing the tandem of Reagan and Casey, was “very dangerous … very gutsy…. And there were a lot of people who said, ‘Oh dear, you’re right, the bear is wounded. Don’t poke sticks at a wounded bear.’ But the Reagan-Casey approach was: ‘Hey, my enemy is on his knees. It’s a good time to break his head.’”
They broke the head of the bear through a multi-pronged approach, carefully and successfully calculated to avoid armed conflict and nuclear war—to win peacefully. As Meyer described it, they launched a systematic campaign to identify Soviet economic weaknesses. “What we realized is that the CIA had been monitoring Soviet strengths,” said Meyer. “It was not looking at Soviet weaknesses.” With Reagan’s backing and urging, Casey and crew searched for vulnerabilities that they could exploit to accelerate a Soviet collapse.
That is not where we stand today in the War on Terror. We need people who are not concerned with being politically correct, who will take risks, who will think outside the box, who, first and foremost, will play to win. “We win and they lose,” as Ronald Reagan had put it in January 1977, four years before he was inaugurated president.
Bill Casey did not care what the press thought about him, nor the encomiums of the kind of senators who postured before the C-SPAN cameras to demonstrate their humanity before Leon Panetta. Casey did what he did for the right reasons, to change history for the better, and not for himself or his career. It was mix of bravado and creativity, of breaking the mold. It was exactly the opposite of what we have just sworn in.
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