Starting from Scratch at the CIA

PARIS — Paris. -- Every time I have written about the CIA recently I have had a call or visit afterward from some former ambassador or ex-CIA officer with a story to tell.

These stories usually concern the CIA's running its own foreign policy out of an embassy in direct or partial contradiction of official U.S. policy. However they include accounts of CIA efforts to destabilize or discredit troublesome U.S. ambassadors, and one accusation, from a retired ambassador, that the CIA stood aside while the Mossad attempted to murder him.


I am impressed that so many such people are so angry about this matter. Most of their stories are examples of the kind of thing that has come to light in recent days in Guatemala, where the agency's long-standing relationship with the Guatemalan military appears to have been conducted with little reference to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, or even to the elected government in Washington.

Its extent was hidden from ambassadors, and since the scandal erupted in connection with the Guatemalan army's murder of two Americans, the president and secretary of state themselves have revealed their ignorance of what actually has been going on.


It is conventional to blame this kind of thing on "excessive secrecy" or to call it a "rogue" operation. It actually is something else. It is the normal result of an attitude within the CIA which holds that the agency has a commission to protect what it conceives as the national interest in circumstances and with methods it is better for the country not to acknowledge, or perhaps even to know about. The CIA considers itself the praetorian guard of the United States, which must from time to time subvert democracy in order to protect it.

The implicit assumption is that presidents, politicians, and press play vain and self-interested games; the public is ignorant or indifferent to what goes on abroad, so the CIA must provide TC stoic, secret and self-sacrificing defense of the national interest, dirtying its hands while dilettantes criticize.

Most intelligence services develop this state of mind. To be fair, the particular roots of the CIA's attitude should be noted. When the CIA was young it was correctly considered an organization of politically liberal outlook. It threw its support behind socialist as well as Christian trade unions in Europe, helped the parties of the non-communist left, and funded left-wing magazines.

During the period in which that grotesque demagogue, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was interrogating the functionaries of State and Treasury Departments and of the U.S. Army as to whether during the Great Depression, or in the war years of alliance with Russia, they, or someone resembling them, had displayed some sympathy or indulgence for communism or for a communist front cause, the CIA's secrecy allowed it to keep largely out of the senator's way.

Officials, intellectuals, or academic figures hauled before Senator McCarthy, or before the similar House Committee on "Un-American Activities," thereby becoming too hot to handle for State Department, USIA, or the pusillanimous university administrator, could find themselves quietly taken up by the CIA.

This experience is one reason the CIA came to think of itself as a place where "responsible" things were done which had to be kept apart from the turmoil of the rest of Washington, and above all kept away from Congress and the press.

The absurd and lamentable Castro assassination affair, prosecuted at the demand of at least two presidents, and the huge and eventually uncontrollable extremes of what the agency was ordered to do in Indochina, took it into dirty business which needed to be kept quiet. The squeamish found other careers. The unscrupulous could often do well.

Thus did the CIA acquire its institutional culture. The practices revealed by the Guatemala scandal and their attempted concealment are nothing new. Congressional hearings and new legislation in the mid-1970s, and the reform efforts of William Colby as director of central intelligence, 1973-1976, did not change this culture. They tended rather to cause it to be further internalized.


In the agency, Mr. Colby was compared disparagingly with his predecessor, Richard Helms, director from 1966 to 1973, the man "who had kept the secrets" by withholding information from Congress, and who had been prosecuted by the Justice Department for doing so. (He pleaded no contest to the charge and was given a suspended jail sentence and the maximum fine of $2,000 -- which was quickly paid for him by the voluntary contributions of 400 retired CIA officers.)

It is hard to believe that this culture can now be undone. Institutions acquire a certain character, and sometimes the only thing to do is to shut them down and start over. When the former ambassadors and the former CIA people bring their stories to me, I tell them to go to their senator, or to Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, the CIA's most important and responsible critic in Congress. Only Congress can do what should be done.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.