By ANDREW COCKBURN
Photograph by Henry Leutwyler
Court proceedings inside the Immigration and Naturalization Service jail on Terminal Island, 30 miles south of Los Angeles, are customarily conducted out of sight -- the I.N.S. does not welcome press and public -- and out of mind of the world at large. The judge, without benefit of a court reporter, pecks notes into a laptop, periodically interrupting testimony to change tapes on a cassette recorder. Lawyers, guards, defendants' families and the very occasional reporter cram into three short rows of wooden benches. There is little majesty of the law here.
The defense co-counsel who walked into the cramped and dingy Court No.2 one day last April came from a different world. R. James Woolsey, director of central intelligence from 1993 to early 1995 and now a $440-an-hour Washington corporate lawyer, customarily conducts business in boardrooms and similarly well-appointed venues. His rare court appearances are likely to be in billion-dollar civil actions, where his well-tailored suits and gracious manner blend in with the surroundings. On Terminal Island, they stood out. Court officials, not normally noted for their politesse, suddenly adopted an almost deferential demeanor. Judge D.D. Sitgraves stood up and gave him a fulsome smile. The prosecution nervously referred to him as "the gentleman."
This was a situation replete with paradox. The former chief of United States intelligence, proud of his record as a cold warrior, was taking on the C.I.A. His client, sitting beside him in the scarlet jumpsuit of a high-security prisoner, had been part of an Iraqi resistance group nurtured and financed by the C.I.A. Now he was under threat of deportation to Saddam's Iraq, where an execution warrant had already been made out in his name, simply because "intelligence" had decreed him a threat to the national security of the United States.
Dr. Ali Karim came into Jim Woolsey's life on a March day in 1998, when the Iraqi resistance leader, Ahmad Chalabi, brought two Los Angeles public interest lawyers to his office at the Washington corporate law firm of Shea & Gardner. They told Woolsey a strange and disturbing story. Six Iraqis, members of a resistance movement supported by the C.I.A., were sitting in a United States jail. They had been evacuated by the U.S. along with hundreds of others after Saddam Hussein's tanks had driven them out of their base in northern Iraq in September 1996. However, on their arrival in California, the immigration service had declared them a "danger to the national security of the United States" and sentenced them to be deported to Iraq. But the I.N.S. was refusing to say why they were a danger. All charges and evidence in the case were secret, withheld from the defense on the grounds that the lawyers were not "cleared." The lawyers had come to Woolsey because, as a lifelong member of the national security establishment and former director of central intelligence, he had stratospheric security clearances and would therefore, they thought, be able to review the evidence.
Surprised to learn that a person could be locked up in this country without seeing the evidence against him, Woolsey agreed to take the case -- without fee. He had always viewed pro bono work as a duty, following the example of his father, a successful lawyer in Tulsa, Okla., who, according to Woolsey, regarded the law as "a service rather than a business."
He assumed then that his role would be that of a dispassionate adjudicator, enjoying full access to the secret evidence. "'I thought I would act as a mediator between the I.N.S. and the defense," he remembers. "I could look at the evidence from an expert point of view and recommend to the defense what might be taken seriously." He was, after all, familiar with secrets. He was soon to learn, however, that "secrets" can be smoke and deception.
The Washington equivalent of a heraldic banner is the "wall" -- signed photographs of the subject in the company of powerful people, the more powerful the better. The wall in Woolsey's corner office is selective but impressive: every president from Nixon to Clinton, complete with glowing tributes from each. In most, the lawyer, born in 1941, looks solemn and intense, though never overawed. Through Nixon and Ford, his hairline recedes gradually. In the Carter era, when he was under secretary of the navy, it goes into full retreat, a development he treats with typically amiable self-deprecation. "If I tell you something off the record," he remarked to me once, "I don't want to see it attributed to a 'follicly challenged former senior C.I.A. official."'
No one accumulates his kind of CV without a solid reputation for reliability on issues of national security. Despite a brief foray as an activist against the Vietnam War at Yale Law School, Woolsey's first and most important mentor in Washington was Paul Nitze, the legendarily hawkish cold warrior, whom he met when Nitze's daughter was marrying one of Woolsey's Stanford classmates, W. Scott Thompson. Soon after, Nitze hired him for the SALT 1 negotiating team. From there, Richard Perle, feared as the "prince of darkness" for his ruthless effectiveness as a hard-liner, eased him into a potent post as general counsel of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In his Navy job, Woolsey earned the affection of the admirals for his zeal in promoting their cherished budgetary aspirations, even going to the lengths of losing at tennis -- he had made the Stanford junior varsity team -- to Les Aspin, then a congressman influential on military matters. ("Only once," said Woolsey sharply when I reminded him of this, "the day after Carter vetoed our new aircraft carrier.") The Reaganites drafted him for high-powered commissions on strategic issues. President Bush recruited him to negotiate a crucial arms-control agreement with the Soviets.
Affable, always congenial company, he appears to have accumulated remarkably few enemies. Assessments by his peers tend to include words like "decent," "loyal" and "moral." Thompson recalls that when his marriage to Nitze's daughter ended in bitter divorce, "Jim made a point of staying in close touch, even as I was being ostracized by the rest of the Nitze crowd." In 1992, Bill Clinton tapped Woolsey to be his director of central intelligence. George Stephanopoulos recalls: "We needed conservative Democrats. Woolsey had bipartisan appeal and good experience." That was about all the Clinton team knew about him. Just before they announced his appointment, Woolsey had to ask them not to call him "Admiral," because he had never even been in the Navy. "I guess we'd better change the press release," said Dee Dee Myers. Though somewhat disconcerted by the casual manner in which the Clintonites set about appointing a C.I.A. chief, Woolsey eagerly set off for Langley.
"Sure I was excited," he recalls now. He had been privy to the world of classified intelligence ever since his first job, reviewing supersecret spy satellite programs inside a Pentagon vault. Thus, as a longtime consumer of intelligence, he arrived at the C.I.A. respectful of the institution and full of notions for adapting the agency to a post-cold-war world. Like most outsiders, he knew next to nothing about the world of espionage, but he looked forward to getting involved. "He had an obvious love of spookery, an affection for the idea of clandestine service," observes a former C.I.A. case officer who served under Woolsey.
Once inside, Woolsey was quickly exposed to the murkier side of life at the C.I.A. Not long after his arrival, he was briefed on Aldrich Ames, a veteran case officer who had been blithely betraying agents to the Russians since 1985. The fact that Ames, a drunken incompetent, had not stood out among his peers was a damning indictment of the institution, yet when the media and Congress erupted in a storm of criticism of the C.I.A. in the wake of Ames's arrest, Woolsey doggedly fought for his agency like a lawyer defending a client, refusing to concede there were major shortcomings or even to fire anyone.
His campaign won him scant support. Things might have been different if he had had backing from the boss, but from the beginning, according to Woosley, he had no support in a White House that apparently thought little, and cared less, about the C.I.A. or its director. "It was the first time in Jim's career that he didn't click with the in crowd," says his friend Thompson. When a deranged pilot crashed a small plane into the White House grounds in the fall of 1994, the isolated C.I.A. chief bitterly repeated a joke that this was Woolsey making a desperate attempt to see the president. In December 1994, convinced that he would never get support from above, he announced he was quitting. "I sort of wandered in and I sort of wandered out" is his mordant summary of service in the Clinton administration.
But it was not just his president who had failed to back him. There had also been disloyalty inside, and that he finds harder to accept. "Jim underestimated the manipulative quality of the agency bureaucracy, where lying and deception are institutionalized," says a former senior national security official. "He was too trusting, and that made him easy prey. He wasn't ready for people lying to him when he was loyal to them."
Leaving such a job under these circumstances was a bleak moment. Thompson remembers that "Jim was as down as I have ever seen him." Nevertheless, there was plenty to occupy him at his old law firm, with cases and causes ranging from Internet technology to stopping international prostitution rings to alternative energy sources. Regularly consulted by reporters and members of Congress as an authority on security issues like missile defense (for) and terrorism (hard-line), he kept any doubts about what he sometimes called "my old outfit," the C.I.A., to himself. Woolsey got used to emotional visits from his client's mother. Once, she literally cried on his shoulder, and he promised not to let anyone kill her son.
Therefore, when the Iraqis turned to him in March 1998, he had no doubt that his polite requests to the I.N.S., C.I.A., F.B.I. and Department of Justice to discuss the classified evidence would be honored. He was, after all, an insider.
But what he got was silence. Suddenly, it seemed, Jim Woolsey could not be trusted to keep a secret. He began to get angry: "What got me in a slow burn were the various reasons the I.N.S. came up with for withholding the information. First they suggested that I might share the classified secrets with my clients. Then they said that there was 'no public purpose' for me to have access: I was the defense counsel, and I was supposed to have no 'need to know'?" This, for a former C.I.A. director, was an extraordinary slap in the face. He began to fight back, and he knew how to enlist powerful allies. Senators Trent Lott, Orrin Hatch and Jesse Helms are not normally associated with the defense of the downtrodden, but it was these Republicans, prodded by Woolsey, who wrote a sharp letter to Janet Reno inquiring about the case. Abruptly, in July 1998, the government announced that most of the evidence in the case of what was becoming known as "the Iraqi Six" had been classified "in error" and could be released to the defense.
Finally free to read what the government had fought to conceal, he was astonished to discover that the case against his clients was, as he put it, "a joke." One of the Iraqis, for example, had been the victim of an Iraqi attempt to kill him with thallium, a rat poison so lethal that it is banned in the United States. Yet the F.B.I. had solemnly reported that this resistance fighter (the object of two other assassination attempts) had been taking thallium as a "recreational drug." Dr. Ali Karim, who had treated visiting C.I.A. officers at an Iraqi resistance base, was, unrealistically, suspected of spying for both Iran and Iraq (bitter enemies), partly on the basis of a few childhood trips to Iran and a medical degree from Baghdad. Most significant, the United States government had ineptly concluded that Ali Karim had attempted to conceal his relationship with his cousin, an important resistance leader named Aras Karem. This lethal assortment of misconceptions had been solemnly shrouded under the rituals of classification, as had been the considered opinion of one F.B.I. agent that "there is no guilt in the Arab world, only shame."
Woolsey had not anticipated anything this bad. "My expectation had been that there would be something real in the material, some sign of ordinary human intelligence at work," he says. "But this was junk, just junk." Nevertheless, despite exposure of the clearly threadbare nature of its case, the government kept the Iraqis behind bars, refusing to talk to the defense team.
By now, Woolsey was getting personally involved. "The more I found out about the case, the madder I got," he says. He and his colleagues at Shea & Gardner were becoming used to emotional visits by Ali Karim's mother, Zakia Hakki. Hakki, herself a veteran Kurdish freedom fighter, literally cried on Woolsey's shoulder, declaring: "If they're going to kill my son, please tell them to kill him here. Don't send him back to Saddam Hussein." Woolsey consoled the distraught matriarch, assuring her that he would not let anyone kill her son.
In October 1998, Senator John Kyl, an Arizona Republican, with his Democratic colleague Dianne Feinstein of California in tow, held a subcommittee hearing, before which Woolsey appeared as a principal witness. Deploying his considerable gift for articulate invective, he said that his clients were the victims of "simple, sullen, foot dragging [by] bureaucrats not caring that they're treating people unfairly, even in life-threatening circumstances." He said that he was "ashamed for my country."
Open outrage of this kind is not the hallmark of the establishment in which Woolsey had flourished for so long. "Many of our friends said, 'There's surely no need to be so public about it, embarrassing the administration,"' says Sue Woolsey, his wife. "This is Washington, where everyone keeps track of who crossed whom and when," observes an administration official who, off the record, admires Woolsey's stand on the issue. "Jim certainly burned his bridges with some people."
In private, I was hearing comments that indicated his faith in the system was taking a severe buffeting. In February 1999, the Iraqis, by now incarcerated in a remote California desert jail, were set on and savagely beaten by fellow inmates. Woolsey called me in a white-hot fury to report what had happened. He was prepared to believe that the authorities, motivated by spite over defense successes in publicizing the case, had actually been complicit in the attack. "God," he suddenly growled, "this is such a fascist country."
In the face of Woolsey's dogged campaign and consequent pressure from Capitol Hill, the government finally offered a deal. If the prisoners admitted entering the country without a visa (they had been flown here by the U.S. Air Force), they would be released on parole while the United States searched for a country to which they would be deported. In the meantime, they had to live in Lincoln, Neb. Woolsey, given his Oklahoma roots, didn't think this was so bad. "I told them they were going from the worst of the United States, an I.N.S. jail, to the best, a Midwestern college town," he says cheerfully.
Five of the men agreed and were flown to Nebraska. However, Ali Karim, egged on by his formidable mother, refused to take the deal on the grounds that he had not done anything wrong. Both sides, accordingly, prepared for a retrial, this time with most, but not all, of the evidence out in the open. In April, Woolsey arrived on Terminal Island, wafting an aura of big-time legal theater into the depressing little courtroom.
There was one more surprise in store. For two years, Woolsey had been eloquent in denouncing the "blithering incompetence" of the I.N.S., which behaved "as if it were plucked from Pinochet's Chile." Now, in cross-examination by Woolsey and his fellow counsel, it emerged that all along, in the background, the C.I.A. had been pulling the strings. F.B.I. agents testified that Ali had been targeted because his cousin, Aras, the resistance commander in northern Iraq, was deemed by the C.I.A. to be on the Iranian payroll. Former colleagues of Aras's, including his leader, Ahmad Chalabi, and Warren Marik, a former agency case officer who had worked closely with him, testified eloquently and convincingly that the charges were groundless. So what was really going on here?
Woolsey had his suspicions. Operating in northern Iraq, Aras was known to have seriously irritated a senior C.I.A. official who resented Aras's and Chalabi's disinclination to follow orders. It was indeed possible, Woolsey speculated, that Ali had simply been the victim of a private C.I.A. "jihad" against his cousin and ended up spending three years in jail. "Jim has always operated at the top level," says Bill Butler, a fellow Washington lawyer and Woolsey's close friend and next-door neighbor. "It's educational for someone like him to see what happens at the bottom."
For some in Washington, Woolsey is now "radioactive," to quote a former Clinton administration official. Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocombe, an old and close friend, points out that although "Jim's attacks on Clinton might earn him a place in a Bush government, no administration likes people who are too independent-minded. There's the fear that 'he might do it again."'
In his prison cell, Ali takes a simple, straightforward view: "That man saved my life."
At the conclusion of the Terminal Island trial early in May, Woolsey called me in an ecstatic mood. Judge Sitgraves had just announced that she was disposed to rule in his client's favor and would be issuing her written decision shortly. But the months have dragged by, and Ali remains behind bars. In late June, the defense learned that the judge's decision was under indefinite review by a "security office" somewhere in the Justice Department bureaucracy.
Woolsey's newfound cynicism about the government bureaucracy deepened further at the news. "I hadn't had this kind of a relationship with the U.S. government before," he told me. "This whole thing was just despicable."
Past Articles from the New York Times on the Career of James Woolsey
• Iraqi Doctor, Once on C.I.A.'s Payroll, Fights to Stay in U.S. (April 11, 2000)
• Evidence to Deny 6 Iraqis Asylum May Be Weak, Files Show (October 13, 1998)
• Ex-CIA Chief Offers Aid to Iraqis Facing Deportation (March 21, 1998)
• The List for C.I.A. Director Is Short, for a Good Reason (December 30, 1994)
• Director of C.I.A. to Leave, Ending Troubled Tenure (Decmber 29, 1994)
• Senate Report Faults C.I.A. For Ineptitude in Spy Case (November 2, 1994)
• A Decade as a Turncoat: Aldrich Ames's Own Story (July 28, 1994)
• In Proposed Plea, C.I.A. Official Is to Admit Spying for Moscow (April 26, 1994)
• A Spy's Story in a World Of Many-Sided Betrayal (February 23, 1994)
• C.I.A. Head Surveys World's Hot Spots (January 26, 1994)
• Washington at Work; Tension With White House Leaves C.I.A. Chief Out in the Cold (December 25, 1993)
• C.I.A. Nominee Wary of Budget Cuts (February 3, 1993)
• Campus Activist to Insider: Journey of the C.I.A. Nominee (January 11, 1993)