JFK AND BEYOND
The Lawyer Who Came In from the Cold
Journey from Student to Activist
VICKI DIVOLL IOP 2004 wants to make one thing clear. “I’m not a spy. I’m a lawyer.”
Last fall, Divoll was also a fellow at the Institute of Politics, where she led a study group on “The Politics of Intelligence.” Divoll has intimate knowledge of both, having served as a general counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 2001 to 2003, and, before that, at the Central Intelligence Agency, as the deputy legal advisor for the Directorate of Operation’s Counterterrorist Center.
The petite, effervescent Divoll may not have been a spy, but she’s definitely known a few. One of her early assignments with the agency was serving as the CIA’s lead lawyer in the Harold Nicholson espionage case, helping federal prosecutors get a 27-year prison sentence for Nicholson, a CIA covert officer who had been selling national secrets to Russia. She then moved into covert operations, where she and one other lawyer handled all of the legal implications for the CIA of the Clinton administration’s secret plans to capture Osama bin Laden. “It was 1997, and like most of the public, I had never heard of Osama bin Laden,” says the Massachusetts native and mother of three.
“It was highly classified work,” adds Divoll. Many of the details of that work are now documented in the 9/11 Commission Report, pages 126 to 143, to be exact. Although the commission never called Divoll as a witness and does not name her in the report, it relied in its account on memoranda she drafted seeking presidential approval for bin Laden’s capture.
“The commission didn’t get it all, but what they got they did accurately,” she says. Though Divoll praises the report overall, she thinks the commission was excessively critical of the CIA.
“The CIA is an incredible institution,” she insists. “To the man and woman, it is made up of intelligent, dedicated professionals. Especially the young people, in their mid- to late-20s, who are taking on important roles early in their careers.”
The 53-year-old Divoll was herself in mid-career when she arrived at the CIA in 1996, after stints at a Washington, DC, law firm and the White House counsel’s office. When the CIA job came up, friends warned her that “if you ever wanted to teach, you’d be considered toxic.”
“Academic institutions used to be a little paranoid” about associating with the spy agency, Divoll explains. But times and attitudes have changed. “Now, post-9/11, intelligence is important. People want to study it, to understand it.
“That can only be good for the agency, and for the country.” — JB