Former director of the Central Intelligence Agency John E. McLaughlin strode onto the stage at the Dickens Parlour Theatre in Millville last week and got right down to business.
McLaughlin, who served as deputy director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004 and acting director of the agency from July 2004 to September 2004, chose five topics involving national security on which to focus during his hour-long talk.
It was during McLaughlin’s time as acting CIA director that Richard Bloch, owner of the theater, met McLaughlin, Bloch had told the audience for the first lecture in the venue’s inaugural lecture series.
Bloch recalled meeting the longtime intelligence officer at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, where the two men talked about their mutual love of magic — which Bloch joked made McLaughlin’s lurking security detail nervous as the men discussed “secrets” — about magic, not national security.
McLaughlin said choosing five topics for his lecture was a bit of a challenge. “There has never been a time in your life when the list of issues we have to worry about has been longer,” he told the audience.
He started with the topic that was undoubtedly topmost in the minds of the audience, as Congressional committees and a special investigator delve into the questions surrounding Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He called the moves “the most serious infringement of our sovereignty that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and we can’t let it happen again.”
McLaughlin assured the audience that the core tactics that Russia appears to have employed in its interference are not new and in fact date back as far as the Russian czarist period.
“I’m drawing on history,” McLauglin said, “but also on personal experience,” which includes three trips to Russia in the past three years “where I had the chance to actually sit down with people from the Kremlin and the foreign ministry” — the last one just before the November 2016 election.
He pointed to the Russian news agency RT as an important player in the attempts to affect the American political process. One little-known fact, McLaughlin said, is that RT reaches 100 million homes through cable television. He also mentioned the Sputnik news agency, and a secret relationship with Wikileaks as avenues through which Russia attempted to influence the American presidential election.
The techniques, he said, were set during the Cold War, and technology has allowed their expansion.
McLaughlin did not equivocate as to whether or not the Russian government meddled in the election — he discussed three types of Russian influence, known as “active measures” in the intelligence community, beginning at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917.
“This was a series of techniques they developed to affect public opinion about a regime that was widely thought of as a pariah regime,” he said. Dividing them into types labeled with the colors white, gray and black.
White, he said, would include “what they say openly,” in attempts to change public opinion. “Gray” would include “front groups” — those claiming to be independent of the Russian government “but which are actually not.” Black, he said, involves more clandestine measures, including secret agents and espionage.
And while President Donald Trump may have popularized the term “fake news,” McLaughlin said “Russians are actually the authors of fake news.”
The ex-CIA director discussed the rise of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, during a time when Russia was reeling after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. “It was a mess, by 1999,” he said, adding that Putin stabilized the country.
He likened international relations to a family dinner where Russia had been relegated to the children’s table, and said that, with its recent attempts at interfering in American politics, Putin was “sawing the legs off the adult table.”
He said that when he last visited Russia in October 2016, he heard news programs talking about the need to prepare bomb shelters in case Hillary Clinton was elected. While McLaughlin said pro-Trump actions on the part of the Russians are “harder to prove,” he said he is “absolutely certain he was seeking to damage Hillary Clinton.”
Whether Americans were colluding with Russia in that effort, he said, has yet to be established. He did say, however, that he senses the investigation by Robert Mueller into that possibility was “going into higher gear” in recent weeks. He also said that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian authorities last summer “was a classic Russian intel operation.”
In the aftermath of the Russian interference, McLaughlin said, the United States “needs to make sure state, local and federal elections are secure.” To that he added that President Trump “needs to confront the Russians with it.”
McLaughlin next addressed rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. He told the audience that, that same day, he had spoken to NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell and told her that he believes North Korea has been working on intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. for at least 22 years “and within the term of this president, they will achieve that.”
Of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, McLaughlin said, “I don’t think he’s irrational. I don’t think he wants to commit suicide.”
He also warned that he does not believe a pre-emptive strike is possible in the event the U.S. learns of an imminent attack, because the North Korean border is too close to Seoul, the capital of U.S. ally South Korea.
McLaughlin said recent sanctions placed against North Korea by the United States are “very serious” and will be part of an ongoing series of moves to deter North Korea from launching nuclear weapons, which will also include flyovers by supersonic jets, as well as diplomacy.
“I think they can be deterred,” he said. “In the end, I think this is going to devolve into an issue of (the U.S.) and the Chinese managing this problem.” McLaughlin added that he sincerely hopes such moves are possible, because “playing nuclear chicken with [Kim Jong Un] will make the Cuban Missile Crisis look like pinochle.”
Of the United States’ relationship with China, McLaughlin said it is “the most important bilateral relationship we have.” He lamented President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying the move “created a vacuum” in international relations.
He said that, in his dealings with China through his intelligence work, he has learned that “they have a vision of who they are, where they’ve been and where they’re going,” which makes them unique in the world.
“We face a serious competitor there,” McLaughlin warned, “and we need to pay attention.”
McLaughlin also addressed risks involving Syria, a nation where “at least four combatants” have kept the nation in crisis for years, the most recent and most serious of which is ISIS. McLaughlin said he remains confident that the U.S. will be victorious there.
“We will take down the caliphate,” he said.
Under the general umbrella of terrorism, McLaughlin summed up what he said he feels are the important facts right now.
“I would just say that we haven’t been attacked again,” since Sept. 11, 2001, he said, adding that “homegrown terrorists are our biggest problem right now.” He said that Europe is currently experiencing serious terrorism threats that “we need to help them with.”
McLaughlin said that Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, had a way of looking at the world that he feels sums up current events well. Brzezinski, he said, thought there were three possible states the world could be in: Stable, messy and nasty. McLaughlin said he feels the world currently is in a “messy” state, but that, “if we’re not careful, we could have a nasty world.”
And, on that note, he took questions from the audience.
After that, since he is also a magician and he was in a magic parlor, McLaughlin rolled up his sleeves, pulled out some century-old silver dollars, and made them seem to magically move between his hands, to the delight of the audience.
He said that, while technology has brought innovation to many fields, including intelligence, in magic, technology poses a unique problem.
“The range of things that astonish people have gotten smaller,” he said. He did, however, manage to pull it off in the Millville theater that night, judging by the audience’s reaction.
The lecture series at Dickens Parlour Theatre continues Thursday, Oct. 12, with an appearance by Jim Brochu, an actor, director and playwright who won New York’s Drama Desk Award for his performance in “Zero Hour,” a one-person play about the life and work of actor and comedian Zero Mostel. He has also appeared in television series from 1976 through 2002, ranging from “Law & Order” to “Cheers,” and appeared in the 1993 movie “Mother of the Bride.”
Tickets for the lectures are free; and will be available two weeks before each lecture, through the theater’s box office at (302) 829-1071 or on the theater’s website at www.dptmagic.com.