Adm. Stansfield Turner, who led the Central Intelligence Agency under President Jimmy Carter and presided over a controversial downsizing of its clandestine operations, has died. He was 94.
Current CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a statement late Thursday that Turner “was a devoted patriot and public servant who led our Agency through a turbulent period of history, including both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution.”
“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 said.
The Washington Post writes of Turner that he was, “An Oxford-educated Rhodes scholar … long considered to be one of the Navy’s sharpest analytical minds and brashly confident leaders. He was a four-star admiral and commander of NATO forces in Southern Europe when he was tapped in 1977 by [Carter], a Naval Academy classmate, to lead the U.S. intelligence community.”
Turner headed the CIA from March 1977, shortly after Carter took office, until the end of Carter’s term in January 1981.
He took over amid the excesses uncovered by Watergate and Pentagon Papers and a Senate investigation of the CIA led by Sen. Frank Church that exposed the agency’s dirtiest secrets – among them, the surveillance of U.S. citizens and assassination plots against Cuban leader Fidel Castro and others.
At his confirmation hearing, Turner promised to conduct intelligence gathering “strictly in accordance with the law and American values.” He also insisted that covert operations “must be handled very discreetly” because “people’s lives are at stake.”
Months after taking up the CIA post, Turner ordered a reorganization, shifting the emphasis away from “human intelligence” — with its highly exposed agents and assets on the ground — toward such alternatives as “signals intelligence” that rely on intercepting the communications of target nations and leaders.
On Oct. 31, 1977, in what the media dubbed the “Halloween massacre,” Turner announced the elimination of 820 positions among the CIA’s clandestine operations staff, 649 jobs would be axed through attrition, 154 by involuntary retirement and 17 were simply fired.
The Post writes:
“Some of the officers who left had been with the CIA since its inception in 1947. Critics said Adm. Turner’s reorganization amounted to a brain drain of the agency’s most experienced covert officers.
‘Many of the old cadre never forgave Turner for this reduction in force that he carried out,’ said John Prados, an intelligence expert and senior fellow at the National Security Archive in Washington. It did not matter, Prados said, that Adm. Turner ‘was only carrying out preordained orders.'”
In his 2005 memoir, Burn Before Reading: Presidents, CIA Directors and Secret Intelligence, Turner acknowledged, “In retrospect, I probably should not have effected the reductions of 820 positions at all, and certainly not the last 17.”
Despite the downsizing, The New York Times notes:
“… under Mr. Turner, the C.I.A. mounted covert actions aimed at Moscow, Warsaw and Prague, printing and distributing magazines and journals in Poland and Czechoslovakia, circulating the written work of dissidents in the Soviet Union, placing fax machines and tape cassettes in the hands of people behind the Iron Curtain. These acts, approved by President Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, sought to subvert the control of information that was the foundation of repression in the Communist world.
None of this enhanced the C.I.A.’s understanding of the Soviet Union, Mr. Turner acknowledged. ‘We were appreciating as early as ’78 that the Soviet economy was in serious trouble,’ he said after the Cold War was over, but ‘we didn’t make the leap that we should have made — I should have made — that the economic trouble would lead to political trouble. We thought they would tighten their belt under a Stalin-like regime and continue marching on.'”
After leaving the CIA, Turner went on to become a lecturer and television commentator and served on the boards of several U.S. corporations. Besides his 2005 memoir, he authored a number of other books about the agency and on such topics as nuclear proliferation and international terrorism. He also taught at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.
Turner was divorced from his first wife, Patricia Busby Whitney, in 1984. They had two children, Laurel and Geoffrey. He married Eli Karin Gilbert in 1985, but she was killed in a plane crash in Costa Rica in January 2000. Turner himself survived the crash, but was seriously injured, according to The Associated Press. In 2002, Turner married a third time, to Marion Levitt Weiss.