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CIA Spymaster Frank Anderson, 1942 – 2020

April 6, 2020

An undated photo of former CIA officer Frank Anderson. (Family photo)

Read his 1999 Interview with the Archive on Arming the Afghan Mujahideen Against Soviet Occupation

By Claire Harvey

Frank Anderson, the architect of the CIA’s Afghan Task Force in charge of arming the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet occupation in the late 1980s, died on January 27, 2020 at age 78 in Sarasota, Florida. Anderson’s decades-long career included service as chief of Directorate of Operations in the Near East and South Asia division, and director of the Office of Technical Services, where he was responsible for arming clandestine officers with gadgets, disguises, and weapons. After he left the agency to become the head of the Middle East Policy Council, Anderson became a vocal critic of the Agency’s torture program.

An Afghan guerrilla handles a U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missile. The shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile supplied to the Afghan resistance by the CIA during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, is capable of bringing down low-flying planes and helicopters.
AP Photo/David Stewart Smith

Anderson was one of dozens of high-level officials interviewed during the National Security Archive’s and CNN’s 24-part, Peabody-award-winning documentary series, Cold War. Anderson’s interview took place one year after the terrorist bombings of the United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed more than 200 people and prompted President Clinton to order cruise missile attacks targeting Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan.

Anderson said of the historical implications of aiding the Afghan mujahideen:

We worked very hard to ensure that there was no favoritism towards fundamentalist parties. We struggled with an understanding that a post war Afghanistan would not probably be very friendly to the United States. … [To those who say] …well we aided the fundamentalists and now we have the terrorism problem. It just doesn’t stand up to even a cursory examination in light of very recent and mid-term history. We had a terrorism problem before … [and] we have a terrorism problem now.

Anderson also emphasized that the CIA was not able to choose winners and losers among the many factions fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets. He stated, “we were not in a position to turn the tap or close it, at one week to the next in order to support the policy side.” Going into further detail, Anderson noted that:

Did we give aid to fundamentalist groups; did we give aid to moderate groups? What we did was give aid to the fighters and … I think we were quite successful in structuring our program so that the support went to those who were actually engaged in fighting, and, in fact, it was packaged for commanders for specific operations, and the effect of that was that it was distributed on really close to a per capital ratio.”

A fighter in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province holding his combat ration of peanut butter from the United States, on July 11, 1986.
AP Photo/Barry Renfrew

The full video series of  CNN’s Cold War series is available on YouTube here. The Archive has made available the accompanying transcripts of interviews for each episode, including interviews with George Bush, Aldrich Ames, Robert McNamara, and Henry Kissinger (to name a few), and can be found here.

Anderson retired from the agency in 1994 after former director James Woolsey ordered his reassignment over a dispute involving Anderson’s longtime colleague, Milton Bearden, and the scandal around Soviet spy Aldrich Ames. (Ames was charged under the Espionage Act in 1994 of leaking classified CIA documents to the Soviet Union and Russia, and pleaded guilty to selling classified national security information to the KGB in exchange for almost 5 million dollars.”)

In response to the Ames scandal, Woolsey issued severe reprimands to 11 senior officials— including Bearden, who failed to detect that Ames was a mole while under Bearden’s supervision. Anderson went to Germany the day after the reprimands were issued to present Bearden with an award for his work as Islamabad station chief throughout the 1980s. The New York Times reports that, “[Woolsey] apparently saw the award given to Mr. Bearden as a serious error in judgement, not an act of defiance.” In response, Woolsey demoted Anderson, who opted to resign rather than accept the re-assignment.

Anderson later served as President of the Middle East Policy Council, where, he was an outspoken critic of the agency’s torture program. In 2014, Anderson wrote for the Miami Herald:

“As an operations officer and leader, I learned that good guys have bad days, and that fear, anger and ambition degrade, rather than enhance, judgment and decision making. My friends and colleagues made serious errors in just such an atmosphere.”

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