Stansfield Turner, U.S. Spy Chief Who Reined in CIA, Dies at 94

(Bloomberg) -- Stansfield Turner, the CIA director who replaced cloak-and-dagger surveillance methods with technology to keep tabs on America’s enemies during President Jimmy Carter’s tenure in the 1970s, has died. He was 94.

His death was confirmed Thursday in an emailed statement from CIA Director Mike Pompeo. No details were given.

“An analyst at heart, Admiral Turner championed analytic innovation and applied his extensive military knowledge and insight to the challenges of the day, even taking a direct role in preparing the annual estimates on Soviet offensive strategic nuclear forces,” Pompeo wrote.

A U.S. Navy admiral who succeeded George H.W. Bush in the Central Intelligence Agency’s top job, Turner eliminated 820 positions in the espionage division in an effort to clean house after a congressional investigation into CIA misdeeds. He also aimed to make intelligence gathering more computer-based and less reliant on unethical techniques that compromised agents in the field. Turner later expressed regret for the extent of “the Halloween Massacre,” as the job cuts in 1977 were known.

“Technical collection,” involving data interception and the use of satellite imagery, downgraded the recruitment of “moles” by CIA officers, who were reassigned to analyze data and decipher Soviet codes. Critics claimed his neglect of “human collection” prevented the U.S. from knowing the intentions of its enemies before a hostile act took place.

“His real design for the CIA involved effectively abolishing espionage, except as an ad-hoc supplement in certain prescribed circumstances,” Edward Jay Epstein wrote in a 1985 article in Commentary magazine.

‘Navy Mafia’

Turner’s arrival in 1977 challenged agency norms, leading to the dismissal of many old-guard officers, who resented the “Navy mafia” brought in to shake up the CIA, based in Langley, Virginia. His appointment of eight Navy colleagues to CIA positions only gave the impression that Turner was trying to run the spy agency like he did a fleet of ships.

He was also seen as a “bean counter” who considered data assessment as the only path to efficiency. His efforts to reform the CIA were thwarted by an internal secrecy that protected dubious practices within the espionage division and he voiced frustration with the communication barriers within the agency.

“I simply didn’t have the levers to pull to ensure a team effort,” Turner wrote in “Secrecy and Democracy,” his 1985 book. “Whenever I tried to deal directly with the person who had the information I needed, it always seemed necessary to call for one more person. Often there wasn’t time to do that.”

Turner was also critical of White House pressure to produce reports that would boost the president politically, saying national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who died in 2017, had asked him to declassify information on the Middle East that would help Carter. Turner said the CIA failed to foresee the Shah of Iran’s downfall in 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that same year. He also accepted responsibility for faulty National Intelligence Estimates, used by the president to make policy.

Covert Actions

After leaving office, Turner spoke out against Ronald Reagan’s administration for its overuse of covert action to win wars, citing the Iran-Contra affair during which the U.S. government traded arms for American hostages in Tehran, and diverted the proceeds to Nicaraguan rebels.

In 1986, Turner recommended disbanding intelligence units in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, so the Defense Intelligence Agency could perform that role alone. He also advocated a drastic reduction in nuclear weapons after the Soviet Union broke up.

“There are only a few hundred cities of any size in even Russia or the United States, like 200, and you just don’t need thousands of weapons to demobilize a country,” he said in an interview in 1997.

Turner’s tenure was also notable for the release of 20,000 documents relating to Project MKUltra, a U.S.-government covert operation during the 1950s and ’60s that involved experiments aiming to modify the behavior of U.S. citizens, using LSD, hypnosis and various forms of abuse. The revelation led to a Senate inquiry in 1977.

Naval Academy

Stansfield Turner was born Dec. 1, 1923, in Highland Park, Illinois, to Oliver Stansfield Turner and Wilhelmina Josephine Wagner. His father was English and worked in real estate. Turner had a younger brother, Twain, who died from a car crash while in college.

Turner attended Amherst College in the early 1940s, and graduated in 1946 from the U.S. Naval Academy, where Carter was a classmate. Turner then won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy, economics and politics. He received a master’s degree there in 1954.

His naval career included positions as director of the systems-analysis division in 1971 and vice admiral the following year. He became president of the U.S. Naval War College from 1972 to 1974 and commander of the Second Fleet in 1974. Turner was promoted to admiral in 1975 and served as commander in chief of NATO’s Southern Flank.

CIA Proposal

Turner served a full term as CIA director until Carter left office in 1981. The former spy chief then became a professor and senior research scholar at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies. Turner wrote several books, including “Caging the Nuclear Genie” (1997) and “Burn Before Reading” (2005), in which he suggested that breaking up the CIA would be best for the nation.

After publishing “Secrecy and Democracy,” Turner criticized the Reagan administration, saying it had forced him to remove more than 100 passages in the book, even though some of the censored material was non-secret.

In later years, he lambasted George W. Bush’s administration for the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on faulty intelligence, and he criticized the torture and other interrogation methods of U.S. detainees.

Turner’s marriage to his first wife, Patricia Whitney, ended in divorce. They had two children: Laurel and Geoffrey. His second wife, Eli Karin Gilbert, died in a plane crash in Costa Rica in 2000. Turner was seriously injured in the accident.

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