SEATTLE — Stansfield A. Turner, who served as CIA director under President Jimmy Carter and oversaw reforms at the agency after the Senate uncovered CIA surveillance aimed at American citizens, has died. He was 94.
Turner’s secretary, Pat Moynihan, confirmed to the Washington Post that Turner died on Thursday at his home in Seattle but Moynihan did not disclose the cause.
A Rhodes scholar and 33-year Navy veteran, Turner commanded NATO’s forces in southern Europe from 1975 to 1977 before being chosen to direct the Central Intelligence Agency.
Turner headed the agency from March 1977, shortly after Carter took office, through the end of Carter’s term in January 1981.
Turner promised at his Senate confirmation hearing to conduct intelligence operations “strictly in accordance with the law and American values.” He also said “covert operations must be handled very discreetly. People’s lives are at stake.”
A day later, the Senate unanimously confirmed his appointment.
As in recent years, questions of how to structure and oversee the nation’s vast military and civilian intelligence operations were a big issue in the 1970s.
The investigation of the CIA in 1975 and ‘76 by the Senate committee headed by Sen. Frank Church had exposed CIA assassination plots, including the hiring of Mafia hit men in a failed bid to kill Fidel Castro, as well as CIA surveillance aimed at American citizens.
When Turner was chosen as CIA director in early 1977, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote that “he’s got a bear by the tail, one that even the most bold and determined director probably can’t control.”
Current CIA Director Mike Pompeo praised Turner in a statement Thursday night.
“Admiral 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,” Pompeo said. “An analyst at heart, Admiral Turner championed analytic innovation and applied his extensive military knowledge and insight to the challenges of the day.”
Turner was the first director given full authority over the agency’s $7 billion budget. Assassinations and medical experiments on unwitting human subjects were prohibited. But he argued that some proposals aimed at sharing agency information with Congress went too far, because some operations were too sensitive and the possibility of damaging leaks too great.
Among the events occurring during Turner’s term was the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81 and the disastrous U.S. attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980 that left eight U.S. servicemen dead.
In 1982, the by-then-former CIA chief Turner told The Washington Post that the rescue mission should be investigated, “not to look backward and cast blame but to look forward and learn the lessons that surely lie buried in (it.)”
After leaving the CIA, Turner’s positions frequently put him at odds with Carter’s successor, President Ronald Reagan. In 1987, Turner told reporters Reagan had to have known about the diversion of Iranian arms sale proceeds to Nicaraguan rebels at a time when Reagan said he had no knowledge of the plan.
In his 1985 book, “Secrecy and Democracy,” Turner said the CIA under the Reagan presidency had violated the law in failing to notify Congress of covert operations “in a timely manner.”
“Our ethical standards in dealing with our Central American neighbors were revealed as not what we would like to believe them to be,” Turner wrote. “The world saw that we had endangered the lives and property of countries not involved with the dispute between us and Nicaragua, and that we were deliberately interfering in the affairs of Nicaragua to the point of undeclared war.”
When President George W. Bush revamped intelligence in 2005, naming a national intelligence director with oversight over all operations, Turner argued for a more radical overhaul that would combine all intelligence-gathering under one roof, separate from the analytical function.
Each information-gathering agency, he said in an Oct. 6, 2005, speech, tends to value its own intelligence findings ahead of all others. Constant “tweaking” of the spy agencies’ functions and structure by successive administrations “has not left us today with a coherent intelligence structure,” he said.
In the post-Cold War years, Turner also was a strong advocate for nuclear disarmament. In his 1997 book “Caging the Nuclear Genie — An American Challenge for Global Security,” Turner propounded the concept of “strategic escrow” — effectively mothballing hundreds of nuclear missiles by storing them hundreds of miles from any launch site and allowing Russian observers to keep track of their movements.
The hope was with that gesture, the Russians would reciprocate and mothball a number of its own warheads.
Turner maintained that even if the Russians didn’t reduce their arsenal, the United States would still have enough nuclear weapons to retaliate with deadly force if ever needed.
Born in Highland Park, Illinois in 1923, Turner was an author, professor and corporate director.
Turner was in the same 1947 naval class at Annapolis as Jimmy Carter, but the men didn’t know each other. Turner finished 25th in the class of 820 cadets while the future president finished 59th.
After serving in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, Turner was appointed president of the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island in 1972. He was promoted to the rank of admiral and became commander of NATO’s southern European forces in 1975.
Turner praised his old boss in 2005 at the ceremony when the huge submarine USS Jimmy Carter officially entered the Navy’s fleet.
He said Carter was a model as “an effective president while also showing the world what the United States stands for in values, in integrity, in morality, in unselfish compassion for others, in the pursuit of peace.”
In addition to his writings and speeches, Turner taught in recent years at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.
Turner’s first marriage to Patricia Busby Whitney ended in divorce in 1984. They had two children, Laurel and Geoffrey. Turner married Eli Karin Gilbert in 1985. She and three other passengers were killed in 2000 in a Costa Rica plane crash in which Turner was seriously injured. In 2002, he married Marion Levitt Weiss.