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John Deutch: From the CIA to 5.60 in One Year

Gabor Csanyi--The Tech
Institute Professor John M. Deutch '61 speaks about MIT and Washington.

By Stacey E. Blau
Opinion Editor

Institute Professor John M. Deutch '61 returned to MIT in January after a four-year stint in Washington that began with the No. 3 position in the Department of Defense and culminated in his appointment to the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency.

And just what does Deutch make of his time in Washington?

"Have you ever seen the movie Papillon with Steve McQueen?" he asks. "Being back at MIT feels like an escape from Devil's Island," he says, alluding to the movie's prison setting, where inhumanity and brutality rule.

"Being in Washington is very interesting, very stimulating, but also very full of stress," Deutch says. "So after a four-year period in Washington working on significant issues, getting back to a life of more normal day-to-day activity is very welcome."

Deutch, who continues to work in the Department of Chemistry, has been far from idle since his return to MIT. He has started to get involved in research again and has recently thrown himself into a scholarly controversy about solution chemistry and the interpretation of solution measurements in terms of molecular parameters. He also has been traveling and giving speeches about foreign policy around the country.

This past term, Deutch made a guest lecture appearance in Thermodynamics and Kinetics (5.60), a class he will be teaching next spring. He promises to make the class "the best presentation of 5.60 in 10 or 15 years. I hope to make it more lively - maybe get one of the sessions carried on C-SPAN."

In the fall, he will be a lecturer for a subject called Application of Technology, an engineering school-wide elective that will discuss the technical, economic, political, and environmental issues related to applied technology.

"It's mainly intended to be a course to give science and engineering undergraduate students a view of what it takes to make technology work in society," Deutch says.

MIT is a changed place

Deutch left the Institute in 1992 to become under secretary for acquisition in the Department of Defense. In 1994, he was promoted to deputy secretary of defense, the No. 2 job at the Pentagon.

In 1990, just two years before Deutch left for Washington, he had concluded a five-year term as MIT's provost under then-President Paul E. Gray '54. (For the record, seven years after the fact, his nickname is still "Provost" according to his finger info on Athena.)

Deutch says he finds MIT a changed place after four years.

"I'm surprised at how many changes there have been in the four years that I've been away," he says. A number of initiatives represent excellent and welcome changes, like the early retirement program, intended to encourage staff to retire and to allow a renewal of the faculty by making room for new junior faculty.

Deutch also praises the consolidation of student-related offices into the Dean's Office - a process begun during his tenure as provost - and the progress MIT has made toward welcoming toward diversity - another initiative that was important to him when he was provost.

As provost, Deutch was involved heavily in student affairs - an area that typically tends not to get much attention from the provost. Provosts are usually kept busy with research funding and administrative duties and more often than not find themselves on a plane to Washington.

"The issues that that I was involved in when I was provost were issues that were important to both Paul Gray and myself - issues of harassment, women's issues, housing issues," Deutch says. "All of these, I thought, were most important for maintaining and improving the educational climate at MIT."

Deutch's term as provost also saw the institution of several new humanities minors and science requirement changes.

During Deutch's term, the controversial Freshman Housing Committee chaired by Professor of Psychology Mary C. Potter released its report recommending that all freshmen be required to live on campus in dormitories and wait until the end of their first year to choose independent living groups or permanent dormitories.

"I'm still a great believer that we should have at least all freshmen living on campus," Deutch said.

But the Potter committee's recommendations met with a severe backlash from segments of the MIT community who believed that the plan would spell doom for MIT's fraternity system. The plan, obviously, was never implemented.

Still, Deutch rejects the idea that MIT often does not carry through on the big projects it sets out for itself. He says that the new Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which is examining MIT's educational mission, "promises to be interesting and thorough. I think it's a very timely task force to have, and I look forward to seeing what [it] has to say."

Deutch says that re-engineering, the Institute's sometimes-criticized ongoing effort to reduce the costs and complexity of MIT's administrative and other processes, represents a worthy goal.

"I'm not as familiar with re-engineering as I am with some of these other matters, but from what I have been able to detect, I think it has a bad rap with the faculty," Deutch says.

"The characterization that re-engineering is just a slogan that has proven to be very costly misses the point," he says. "We have a responsibility to continuously examine what we do and how we do it to ensure that we get the best value for our dollar."

"Even if it's been done wrong," Deutch says, "the objective is a worthy one." Long-term decision-making processes like re-engineering are often drawn out, usually because achieving a consensus on issues is difficult, he says.

"Well, there's nothing that I like better than fascism myself," Deutch says only half-wryly about decision-making. But achieving consensus is also important, if time-consuming, he says.

Deutch sometimes found himself a target of criticism for his closed decision-making processes during his time as provost, particularly his and then-Dean of Science Gene M. Brown's 1988 decision to dissolve the Department of Applied Biological Sciences, Course XX.

One continuing concern that Deutch has about MIT is that it too often turns inward and does not go after the more global projects that embrace things outside MIT.

Deutch cites Project Athena and programs like Leaders for Manufacturing as type of large-scale, global projects that MIT should be more involved in.

"One thing which I think is important about MIT is our ability to do things on the national and global scale," Deutch says. "I would argue that we're not doing enough of that."

Deutch notes the involvement of Institute Professor David Baltimore '61 in a national committee to find a vaccine for AIDS as the most recent "example of what we should be doing more of - improv[ing] the world rather than just improving our world."

Washington rumors exaggerated

Deutch says that rumors that he may expand his activities back into Washington "are greatly exaggerated" but would say nothing more about the truth of the rumors. For now, Deutch is limiting his involvement to advisory roles. He also has dealt with some external issues for MIT involving fund raising.

He wrote a column recently for The New York Times about the controversy sparked last year by reports in The San Jose Mercury News that alleged a link between the CIA and the introduction of crack-cocaine into Los Angeles during the 1980s.

That controversy represented one of the more difficult episodes of Deutch's tenure as director of central intelligence. In general, the post "is absolutely not a fun job," he says. "There are few people who can appreciate how complicated how difficult it is."

"It's a hugely important and interesting job," Deutch says. "The director of central intelligence's principal responsibility is to give the best advice he or she can to the president of the United States and the senior leadership of the country. I took that very seriously and believe I performed that function effectively."

The job is "a very unpopular" one, Deutch says. He did not initially want the job, which candidates have drifted into and out of with unprecedented frequency during the past few years. Clinton's efforts to coax Deutch into the position received heavy publicity at the time.

"The president had to force me to do it," Deutch says. "He twisted my arm to do it."

The CIA had been facing and continues to face mounting pressure to reform itself, and Deutch took steps toward bringing the agency toward increased openness.

"It's difficult to both encourage change and to support the important activity," specifically the covert activity that the CIA carries out, Deutch says. "It's just hard to do it in a democracy where there's always an understandable tension between clandestine activity and openness."

Deutch is currently serving on a congressional commission on protecting and reducing secrecy. The committee just released a report, which Deutch is immensely proud of.

Part of the job of director of central intelligence involves the management of intelligence collection and analysis programs, and that aspect of the job is largely concerned with space and reconnaissance technical intelligence, he says.

But there is also another side of the job involving human intelligence collection and covert action, one which involves a very human element that is not often that appreciated, Deutch says.

Return to normalcy or presidency?

For the past several years, rumors have abounded that Deutch wants to become president of MIT - in fact, some newspapers reported that Deutch was hesitant to take the CIA post because he feared it might hurt his chances of becoming MIT's president some day.

Does he still want to be president?

"We have a very good president of MIT," Deutch says. "And after what I've done, I'm not very eager to take on big administrative responsibilities."

Besides, he says, "whoever said I wanted to be president of MIT?"

Deutch says that he is happy to continue the much calmer life he has led since his departure from the CIA. He particularly has enjoyed spending time with his wife Patricia, whom he married just two years ago.

The day they were married, Deutch, feeling unable even to take the rest of the day off, went back to work at the Pentagon at 2 p.m., only two hours after the wedding.

"The president called. He said, Is it true that you went out and got married and came back to the office?' he said. Why'd you come back to the office?' To take your call, Mr. President."