Admiral Bobby Inman Drops Out of the 'Eyes Only' World and Takes a Hard Look at U.S. Spy Efforts

updated 11/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, 51, is the superspy who stunned intelligence circles last April with his decision to quit as CIA deputy director. Despite Inman's reputation for honesty, there was skepticism over his claim that he was leaving "the Company, "as insiders call the CIA, mainly for personal reasons. Formerly head of the National Security Agency, the nation's largest intelligence operation, Inman stepped into the No. 2 spot at CIA only after, he recalls, Ronald Reagan gave him "the smoothest job of arm twisting I've ever encountered." But differences over the CIA's role at home and abroad reportedly led to friction with CIA Director William Casey and with the White House. Last month Inman resigned as a consultant to the House Select Committee on Intelligence because he feared what he calls "politicization" of its watchdog function. Born in Rhonesboro, Texas, Inman joined the Navy in 1951 after graduating from the University of Texas with a history degree and built his career primarily in military intelligence. Since leaving government, the veteran spook hasn't pulled a vanishing act. He is lecturing on campuses around the country on U.S. intelligence and the Soviet challenge, and remains alert to events in his old trade—notably the July arrest of code translator and alleged Soviet spy Geoffrey Prime in Britain and the mysterious death last month in Virginia of former CIA technician Kevin Mulcahy. Mulcahy was to testify this month in the trial of Edwin Wilson, a former CIA operative charged with shipping explosives to Libya and conspiring to commit murder. Inman has stated that in 1976 he fired Wilson from a naval intelligence task force for influence peddling. In Washington, Inman discussed Company business with Margie Bonnett of PEOPLE.

How much damage could Geoffrey Prime have done?

Any successful espionage penetration of an intelligence agency is damaging, no matter how minor the access may be. My own guess is that it's not a Kim Philby-scale case, which was the most damaging of the postwar era. In the press there are allegations of the kind of information he passed that I can't believe a language translator had access to. I know there are substantial efforts to blow this story up, and I don't understand the motivation behind that.

Would you elaborate?

Much of the information being published at this point, to my mind, is disinformation. I believe someone is trying to weaken the cooperation between the U.S. and its allies. I don't know who's doing it or what combination of forces is working on it. I just think that a substantial amount of what has been published is not only inaccurate, but—judging from the number of times my phone has rung—it's been pushed to reporters.

Could a Soviet mole like Prime have burrowed into the U.S. intelligence network?

Quite possibly. I'm afraid the Soviets have had espionage successes around our government, but not in the form of a mole a la John le Carré at the most senior levels. Over the last eight years I've been exposed to a wide variety of sensitive, compartmentalized information I'm confident the Soviets would cut off if they were aware we were acquiring it.

Do you suspect foul play in the death of Kevin Mulcahy?

No, I don't. My gut instinct with no direct knowledge of him is it's a very sad case of a bright individual whose self-destructive impulses led him to a bad end. He drank himself into a stupor and then, sitting out there all night long in the cold, almost undressed, let the elements do the rest.

You opposed the Reagan Administration over domestic surveillance by the CIA. Did that contribute to your resignation?

No. There were indeed a great many proposals that would have turned back the clock to the wiretapping and other questionable domestic surveillance practices of the late 1960s. Those proposals finally got reviewed in the White House, and I agreed with the final judgment: The CIA's role is abroad, on a foreign intelligence and counterintelligence mission, and the FBI's role is to do the counterintelligence job in this country. Where American citizens in the U.S. are concerned, the CIA has no role, in my view.

Don't you fear that the CIA may try to overstep its bounds in the U.S.?

No. The government control mechanisms are in place, and the instincts of the work force at the CIA are against domestic spying. People there believe that a lot of damage was done to the agency by the congressional hearings during the 1970s, and they don't want to see that happen again.

How do you define "covert action," and what's your stand on its use by the CIA?

Covert action is when you're trying to influence events in another country, and you don't want your own activities to be acknowledged. I think one can make a good case for covert action to offset Soviet use of force outside their borders. But when you move beyond that, I'm not persuaded, in looking back over history, that our efforts to change governments have served our interests in the long term. Remember that Vietnam began with covert actions.

Who is the world's most dangerous leader?

Libya's Gaddafi is probably the most erratic. North Korea's Kim II Sung would be a very strong competitor.

Is World War III imminent?

No. I don't believe World War III has to occur. We're going to go through a very dangerous period in the next 15 years with the U.S.-Soviet military balance not favorable to us, particularly in conventional forces, and with a new generation of Soviet leaders after Brezhnev. But sensible people can manage, even in an unfriendly relationship.

How would you rank U.S. intelligence services against other countries?

In any grouping we'd be in the top five. The Soviets have by far the most people in intelligence, about three and a half times as many as we do. The Israelis are very good on areas in the Middle East. The British have a good aptitude for the business, and they continue, even with very limited resources, to look at worldwide problems. The U.S. probably has the best technology available to it both in collecting and in processing information.

Has the intelligence budget suffered from Reaganomics?

No, it's actually growing faster than the defense budget in which it's contained. The intelligence budget itself is classified. I think the Soviets would be surprised by how small the expenditure is. But we pay a price for that secrecy. We spend far less than the public presumes we do, and as a result we don't get the public support we need.

Do you read spy novels?

When I was younger I really enjoyed them. Of the few I've read in recent years, I'd say John le Carry's are very realistic. Some spy novels have a lot of people being killed, and in the real world that in fact doesn't happen. Agents in real life get arrested, their careers get ruined, but they don't get killed by the services of the opposition.

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