WASHINGTON -- More than 30 years ago in a Vietnamese jungle, Army intelligence officer Rob Simmons watched a U.S. colonel scratch out enemy strength estimates Simmons had provided and fill in smaller numbers.
The lie, and many like it, was designed to demonstrate progress to U.S. policy-makers and the public. But it left American and South Vietnamese forces unprepared for the communists' Tet Offensive of 1968 that changed the course of the war.
"A lot of people died and our whole policy in Vietnam went down the toilet because people lied about what was going on," said Simmons, a freshman House Republican from Connecticut.
Convinced that intelligence work was critical to the nation's defense -- but disillusioned by the military's deception -- Simmons noticed that CIA's agents had accurately warned of a pending offensive. So he decided to become a spy.
Getting a hearing
Now, as one of only two House members with that background, he's being sought out by lawmakers who want an insider's view of the intelligence failures that led to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"The minute he says, 'When I was in the CIA,' all ears are focused on what's the next thing he's going to say," said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Simmons has been telling lawmakers that U.S. intelligence agencies might have predicted the attacks if they had more spies overseas, especially in places hostile to America. But he blames Congress as much as anyone for failing to add agents.
"If they had put some in Afghanistan, and if they had put some in Iran, and if they had put some here and there over the years, maybe they would have discovered that you do need people like this," Simmons said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., the other ex-spy, also spent a decade with the CIA, working in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and the Mediterranean before a heart ailment forced his retirement.
Goss lets Simmons join classified briefings, even though he's not a member of the committee. Simmons is competing with dozens of members for a vacancy created when former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., became head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"He knows the business," said Goss. "It doesn't hurt that a couple of us have been on the inside and know how it really works."
Variety in intelligence
Goss, for his part, has said Sept. 11 resulted not from a massive intelligence failure but the combined government failure to come up with the right information on the right day. He says the country has a good intelligence capability but needs more of it in different places, and he has called for border security, visa program and intelligence technology improvements.
Simmons said the CIA and Congress should have recognized the need for more spies to gather information and alert the government to the possibility of such an attack.
"You can't simply show human beings to the door and say we're not going to engage in this activity anymore without paying the price," he said. "We paid the price on September 11th."
After leaving the CIA and working as a congressional aide, Simmons returned to Connecticut, where he taught political science courses at Yale University and served 10 years in the state legislature.