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An Interview with Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former CIA Intelligence Officer

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has served as a CIA Intelligence Officer for some 23 years, including domestic assignments such as the Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations and international postings in Zurich, Moscow and Oslo. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY and served in the U.S. Army prior to his career in intelligence. Before his appointment as a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, Mr. Mowatt-Larssen served as the Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy. He has received a number of his awards for his service to the country, including the CIA Director’s Award and the Secretary of Energy’s Exceptional Service Medal. 

The Politic: In your article on “Understanding the Rules of the Game,” you explained that written no-spy agreements are inherently disingenuous. Are these agreements just for show, then, or do you think that leaders want to believe in them?

They want it to work because they understand that we do need trust. If you look at the subtext of the whole story it is how do we establish trust. We can agree that a written or verbal agreement works in some ways toward trust, but you could also say that it makes trust worse if you have to break it. What I was trying to highlight was that yes, with countries like Germany, we should try to not only consider ourselves allies, but we should also be consistent in our actions as allies. The bigger question is do we need to spy on each other. What I tried to raise is that we probably still do. And it isn’t because Germany is an enemy or there are things they’re doing were concerned about, but because there might be things going on in Germany we can’t ask about but we might have to know one day.

The Politic: In your observations about ISIS, you reference American air strikes as being a good, but perhaps weak start to a long military campaign. Where do you see this campaign going? Do you think it will require boots on the ground, or, similar to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, do you think we should ultimately stay out? 

I don’t think we should say at this point what were not going to do or be too specific about what we are going to do, and especially as it relates to boots on the ground, I don’t even frankly know what boots on the ground means. We already have advisors there and people who are out and about and we have pilots over there. We have people at risk. If you are talking a ground war, that is premature. No one is talking about that. The US strategy, which I endorse, is that this is not a problem for the US to solve. These aren’t our countries. The people that must be defended or be able to express themselves are the people of Iraq and Syria. The US army on the ground is not going to be the solution to that problem. Hopefully the Iraqi army can come rise to the challenge and the US can help. Not just the US. It should be led by in many respects the Arab nations who have more of an interest in the regional sense than the United States does. That army and of course somehow the opposition in Syria, not just to ISIL but to Assad. That’s the complicated part. That has to come from peoples whose futures and destinies are tied to what happens there.

The Politic: Using its support of America’s campaign against ISIS as leverage, Iran has President Obama considering a nuclear deal that, according to the New York Post, could result in Iran keeping thousands of centrifuges. You discuss the importance of keeping Iran involved in the ISIS campaign, but is this worth it?

I’m a little resistant to linking US negotiations with Iran to support from Iran. I imagine the US administration is also reluctant to make that connection. I’ve seen statements out of Iran that Iran thinks like that, but that doesn’t mean the US has to respond. We have to be very careful with what we do with ISIS. We can’t lose sight of the bigger picture, and we can’t make deals we aren’t prepared to live with, whether it is with Iran or Assad. To the degree the US supports Assad in going after ISIS, it undercuts our credibility with the Syrian opposition that is working against Assad, so we might end up with the same problem we started with.

The Politic: Whether it be the threat of ISIL or a potentially nuclear Iran, there are several significant threats facing America today. If you had to pick, what do you believe is the greatest danger facing America today?

The answer to that question I would be most prepared to give based on experience is probably weapons of mass destruction. I’ll go back to the nuclear side of that, whether it is Iran if this deal falls apart, with whatever that might do to encourage a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, potentially adding more highly destructive weapons to a world that is getting more extreme and unstable. That would be my biggest concern. But there are a lot of other things to be concerned about. Think about Ebola, or poverty in the world, which is hugely underreported.

There are so many things to be worried about, which is why I think this is a bad time for any US president to forgo options, to say we wont do this or we will do that and then to realize that he has boxed himself in. I am against the redeployment of any US forces right now. We’re tired. We don’t want to indicate that were ready to do that again. Spying on friends is not something we can justify. But this is not a time where we want to say what we can and cannot do, because we may be forced to do something in the future. This is a time where we need a strong military, intelligence community, and ally network. That’s one of the benefits of what were doing with ISIL. We need more collaboration on all of these threats, and I solute the administration for that. A lot of people are skeptical, but what is the alternative to working together with countries with common purposes? Chaos. It’s Putin invading Ukraine. People often talk about US leadership not being strong. I have been overseas most of my life, and I always feel most secure when we work with other nations. When we go in alone it always makes me nervous. It is extraordinarily important to build a coalition to address these threats. We need to keep working with other nations in the future. 

The Politic: Regarding your time with the CIA, I assume there are a lot of stories you can’t share, but are there any stories you can share that you believe represent a time in which you or someone you know did something meaningful for our country?

While talking to students about intelligence and the state department and other government institutions, I like to emphasize that it was never work. It was always an honor and a privilege, even during the hard moments, like a scandal or a mistake. During my tenure, for example, we found moles and realized we hadn’t done a good job policing ourselves internally. But these incidents were swept away by the amazing things we were doing. It’s a culture where no one ever hears about most of your successes, and you have to enjoy that. You have to enjoy being in the shadow. Any true altruistic action is not something you do because you want recognition.

One example of it this is the way in which the Agency reacted to the breakup of the Soviet Union, a tumultuous period of history in the 1990s. We went in and tried to reinforce emerging democracies. There is a mixed record on the results, but for me I was a young officer and roughly a decade into my career. Washington gave me stunning responsibility to go into Armenia right after the Russians had left and work with the new government, all the way up to the President. We literally established the embassy in those months.

It’s a funny thing when you think about it. At that time, in all that instability, at one point we set up in the only hotel in town that had reliable electricity and power had. The Iranian flag was flying right next door to ours outside of the hotel because the Iranians were the second embassy to set up shop. Here are the so-called Iranian and American embassies flying their flags having breathtaking discussions about how to start things like a foreign ministry. We were involved in nation building. Not in the sense of Afghanistan. But it is the idea of philosophically talking through why we do what we do. I remember talking to senior intelligence figures in the country trying to convince them why they would want an intelligence organization similar to the CIA. I was trying to convince them to the wisdom of Intelligence that has legitimate oversight by the people, that serves the people, and where secrecy serves a purpose other than controlling the people, which had been the KGB experience in the USSR.

The single most important thing I learned in a life overseas is to never take for granted what Americans have in the rule of law. We have a unique notion of the rule of law. The notions that we have, I don’t know if our founding fathers stumbled upon them, but we have the ability to develop them in ways ancient countries can’t. What we’re fighting about in the Middle East is to offer not just American airpower, but also to lend a hand. I think fundamentally why Obama chose to get involved was the humanitarian catastrophe, that’s what got us creeping back in there, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We should never apologize for standing up for people who could be slaughtered on a mountaintop or exterminated by their leadership. And that is really what we are facing here. That is a very altruistic spin, but when we act altruistically it tends to serve our own interests as well.

The Politic: For students who want to make a difference, what career advice can you give?

I really do think the younger generation can get it right. This question really is very personal. Where do your skills and interests lie? Maybe in an intelligence agency, but maybe in an NGO.. Business can do it too. That is a hard one for me because the only thing I did decide was that I would be a lousy businessman. I just am not interested in money. Part of it is knowing where you can make your contribution. Doing something for others is really amazing. I know that doesn’t sound very spy like. I don’t wear rose-colored glasses. Some of the things we did were wrong. I’ve studied the CIA in the 50s and 60s and I’m horrified with what went on in Latin America, but you have to take the good and the bad. If you want to make a difference, it’s never going to be you wake up every day and its paradise. There’s going to be pain along the way. You have to learn to deal with the disappointment of bureaucracy. A lot of young people I know in intelligence or the state department grow frustrated with bureaucracy. Some people leave because they’re frustrated or become a part of the problem. CIA is far more bureaucratic than it was when I joined. I don’t know if I would join today. The mission is as great as ever, the purpose, the quality of the people. It’s just a different time.

The Politic: And finally, I have to ask: any thoughts on Army’s recent overtime loss to the Yale Bulldogs?

I guess I can say with considerable satisfaction that I’m glad I didn’t know that. You can gloat if you like but I’m ignorant, until now that is!

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