Students learn from CIA career of city alumnus

Garrett Cochran – a 37-year-old Central Intelligence Agency veteran and 1952 Williamsport High graduate – is the grandson of Garrett Cochran, for whom Williamsport’s American Legion Post 1 is named. After speaking to Williamsport High School students Friday morning about his years in the CIA, Cochran the younger got talking about his grandfather in the course of a conversation about Weapons of Mass Destruction.

“My grandfather was trained on mustard gas,” Cochran said. “After the war, there was a ban to bar chemical weapons in the League of Nations – it never passed. The veterans said ‘why are we singling out chemical weapons? What about the other ones?’ “

Cochran (the World War I veteran) was a Princeton man and two-time All-American in football who captained the 1896 national champions. He was then hired by the University of California, before graduating college, where he coached two years, then spent a year each at Navy and his alma mater. He then took a “real job” at the Williamsport Wire Rope Co., where he was president when he signed up for the National Guard in 1915.

Cochran was part of the hunt for Pancho Villa along the Mexican border before he was sent to Europe as an officer with the 107th Field Artillery.

“He was an old man,” Cochran said of his grandfather. “Most of those young guys had never been out of Pennsylvania. He was like a father to his troops.”

Cochran died from tuberculosis on a ship coming back to America on July 8, 1918.

When the American Legion was first formed in 1919, posts had to be named after a deceased soldier.

Cochran told the story of how Williamsport’s post became the first in the state.

“Guys from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were fighting on the train back about who was going to have the first post in Pennsylvania. A guy from Williamsport said ‘we’ll make a compromise and put it in the middle.’ “

Cochran has plenty of stories from his CIA days, though he can’t tell them all. After graduating from Princeton and taking a master’s at MIT, he was hired by the CIA to analyze chemical work done by Soviet Bloc countries.

An example of that sort of work Cochran told to the students was telling sailors how to check ships coming into Cuba for red fuming nitric acid, a missile propellant.

Cochran moved into the CIA’s spy satellite program in 1968.

“One thing satellites do no other technology can do is broad area coverage,” he said. “They can cover large sections of country and confirm the absence of weapons like no other thing.”

Cochran, who retired from the CIA in 1995, says he is concerned that America’s focus on counterterrorism has weakened its capability for functions like broad area coverage.

His background also let him predict that Saddam Hussein would not have WMDs – though he was a mere private citizen by that time.

“WMD is a buzzword. Two guys buy a pressure cooker at Wal-Mart and put firecrackers in it, and the government calls it ‘developing WMDs.’ The intelligence community resurrected that term for what they thought was an innocent reason, to talk about certain categories of military capabilities to Congress. They couldn’t go back to senators when Congress was cranking up for Iraq and say ‘that’s not an accurate term.’ “

Chemical and biological weapons are not true “weapons of mass destruction,” in Cochran’s opinion.

“In the Iraq-Iran war, the Iraqis fired 100,000 rounds of chemical warfare weapons, and caused 20,000 casualties. Some half of that was mustard gas. To put that in the same category as nuclear weapons is enormously destructive.”