Mayor Sue McCloud sits across the table from me at Il Fornaio. Neither of us have anything to eat or drink. The waiter doesn’t even bother to check up on us. This is strictly business. And though the mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea is happy to discuss economic revitalization, muscle cars and dogs, she gets edgy when I toe a line she has drawn in the sand.
I want to ask her about the CIA’s so-called “Family Jewels,” a recently unearthed cache of information on illegal agency activities conducted from the 1950s to the mid-’70s. The 700-page file had been mostly hidden from view since it was produced in 1973, but in June the CIA’s dark secrets came to public light in response to a 15-year-old Freedom of Information Act request.
In the weeks before McCloud and I meet at Il Fornaio, newspaper headlines had paraded various skeletons from the CIA’s closet: reports of agency officials wiretapping journalists, spying on anti-war groups, plotting to assassinate foreign leaders, and even dosing unsuspecting Americans with LSD.
Propping my elbows on the table, I ask the mayor if she had any involvement with the deeds described in the file.
“Some of them,” she replies with a shrug. But none of the Latin America stuff, she adds quickly. Just a few of the operations in Europe and Asia. No further comment.
McCloud has long acknowledged that before entering Carmel politics she was a CIA case officer. She’ll vaguely accede that from 1963 to 1994 she worked on Cold War-era intelligence and counter-intelligence, but she determinedly refuses to broach the details of those 31 years.
When she shares her life story, rich descriptions of her youth and post-retirement years bookend a dry recitation of talking points about her CIA career. In hopes of squeezing out a cloak-and-dagger tale or two, I tell McCloud that I imagine those decades were dense with adventure and excitement. “I don’t know if exciting is the word,” she lobs back.
• • •
No, Sue McCloud won’t tell me who she once was, but will gladly talk about who she has become. As the mayor of her hometown, she prides herself on her attention to the needs of residents, business-owners and city staff. She gets animated talking about a “day-in-the-life” podcast recently made about her beloved Dandie Dinmont, Robbie – a short film that involves a leashed tour of Carmel, capped by a run-in on the beach with McCloud’s sister and her dog, orchestrated to appear coincidental. She likes talking about these things.
But when I ask questions about the CIA, McCloud’s candor fades. When pressed for details, the smile drops from her face and she bristles.
Her reaction is understandable. The CIA is notoriously secretive. In most cases, even the Freedom of Information Act can’t penetrate its shadows. In 1995, Pres. Clinton issued an executive order calling on the CIA to begin declassifying all documents over 25 years old – but the going is slow, and much of the released material is heavily redacted. “The CIA won’t even agree to having its budget from the 1970s published,” says Terry Francke, general counsel for open-government advocate Californians Aware.
A majority of Carmel’s citizens are unfazed by McCloud’s wish to leave her past in the past. She has built a strong circle of friends in her town, and they’ve elected her mayor three times.
But some of her detractors suggest that McCloud’s penchant for secrecy shows up in her behavior as mayor.
VillageInForest.blogspot.com is a forum for those disgruntled residents. The anonymous bloggers come down hard on McCloud, alleging that she bullies those who disagree with her, spreads disinformation and runs the city in a guarded fashion more befitting the CIA than a municipal government. Each allegation is backed up by lengthy quotes from City meetings and codes – stuff so dull that barely 100 people have viewed the blog since its creation in March 2006.
It’s not the first time McCloud has been accused of being secretive. But City Councilor Paula Hazdovac defends the mayor’s openness. “This is far more transparent than what I experienced under a former mayor,” she says. “Sue is very forthcoming, and she will ask my opinions on things.”
City Administrator Rich Guillen notes that under McCloud, Carmel has begun posting a City website and televising City Council meetings. “Her detractors have said she runs a secret government and so forth, but the mayor and I try to be as accessible as possible,” he says.
He goes on to praise McCloud for being a fair and determined leader, a team player and a philanthropist. Then he adds with a laugh: “Obviously you’re gonna hear positive remarks from me, or I wouldn’t have worked here for seven years.”
For her part, McCloud declines to even respond to the anonymous attackers. All the slung mud seems to roll right off her. “I don’t read blogs,” she says dismissively.
• • •
Rewind to McCloud’s childhood, and she opens up. She’ll tell you that her family moved to Carmel when she was in second grade. Her father was a line officer at what is now the Naval Postgraduate School; her mother ran a school uniform business. Young Sue and her little sister Sarah earned top academic marks, first at Sunset School, then Carmel High, and finally Stanford.
After graduating in 1956 with a degree in political science, McCloud moved to San Francisco. “There were a lot of do-good projects, like working for the World Affairs Council, but they didn’t make any money,” she says. She eventually took a job at the Crown Zellerbach Corporation.
One evening, a CIA recruiter called McCloud to ask if she was interested in joining the agency. She thought the call might be a spoof. The next day, she went to the Federal Building to confirm that the recruiter’s call was legit. It was, and she signed up.
This is where her story gets hazy.
On the phone after our meeting at Il Fornaio, McCloud explains that she served overseas – in France, England, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden and Bulgaria – until the late 1980s. She won’t name her job titles, but she will confirm that she was CIA chief in two of those countries and posed as a ho-hum government employee.
“I was undercover overseas – except when I wasn’t,” she offers helpfully.
In the mid-’80s, McCloud returned to the States and attended the National War College in Washington, DC, followed by a succession of other posts in the capital. Again, she mostly clams up on the details, although her resume notes that she led the damage assessment team after the CIA’s Aldrich Ames was caught selling secrets to the Soviets.
In 1994 McCloud retired and moved back to her childhood home, where she adopted Robbie’s predecessor, a runny-eyed terrier named Bruce. But rather than kick back, she began ascending the municipal power ladder. First she nabbed a position on the Carmel Planning Commission, and then on the City Council. She was elected mayor in 2002 and re-elected in 2004 and 2006.
It’s a unique career shift, and one that sparks the imagination. But the mayor doesn’t see why her old life should interest anyone. “This is another chapter,” she says. “I’m just going forward and not looking back.”
Then she offers a joke I’ve heard her tell before: “It was easier to help win the Cold War than to be the mayor of Carmel. You knew who your enemies were.”
In light of the Family Jewel revelations, I ask if, after three decades with the CIA, her conscience is clear. That earns another joke: “I did nothing that was illegal, immoral or fattening. Except eat at French restaurants.”
• • •
After a string of interviews, I get the impression that Sue McCloud holds her community dear and works hard to portray it in the best possible light. She steers conversations toward the charming aspects of Carmel, and when it comes to stickier matters such as affordable housing or Carmel Valley incorporation, her responses are thoughtful and direct.
But as my queries about her CIA work persist, another side of McCloud’s character emerges. She repeatedly advises me against pursuing this story, saying it won’t do Carmel any good. She resorts to various strategies – by turn scolding, flattering, insulting, deflecting and intimidating me. “This is the wrong story at the wrong time,” she snaps during a particularly heated conversation.
And though she loves dogs, she doesn’t find it at all endearing that I’m sniffing around her business. When I ask her for the names of some friends I can talk to – in hopes that they’ll shed light on her fascinating transformation from undercover operative to small-town mayor – she becomes suspicious. And while I am sure she didn’t put thorns under anyone’s thumbnails, I do get the sense she’s instructed people not to talk to me. In response to an interview request several weeks ago, McCloud’s sister, Sarah Berling, leaves a voice message saying that she’ll be happy to talk at greater length. The next day, McCloud leaves a tense message advising me to back off. “I am not going to drag my friends and contacts into this,” she says. “I am just not gonna go there.” Berling doesn’t return subsequent calls.
A half-dozen of McCloud’s other associates, including City Councilors and members of nonprofits she’s helped, either did not return the Weekly’s calls or declined to go on record.
As my deadline approaches, McCloud even cautions me that this article could incite threatening behavior, citing recent graffiti at City Hall depicting a clown holding a video camera and the words, “Thanks for taking care of tourists before citizens.” As another example, McCloud offers that “a small man with a large backpack” wandered around the foyer of City Hall during a recent Council meeting. He was perfectly innocent, she adds, but you can’t be too careful. “It’s just the reality of the world we’re living in today,” she says.