The CIA: Would you believe, fiasco?

The Baltimore Sun

Legacy of Ashes

The History of the CIA

By Tim Weiner

Doubleday / 702 pages / $27.95

In 1952, amid a stalemate in the Korean War, the Central Intelligence Agency dropped more than 1,500 Korean secret agents behind enemy lines in North Korea.

The operation was overseen by the station chief in Seoul, Albert R. Haney, "a garrulous and ambitious Army colonel who boasted openly that he had thousands of men working for him on guerrilla operations and intelligence missions," writes Tim Weiner. Haney and other CIA officials sent shameless self-praise and piles of reports back to Washington, including an astounding, precise description of each North Korean and Chinese military unit on the front line.

When the operation was revealed as a fraud, the CIA covered it up. Hundreds of operatives were immediately captured and killed. All the remaining important infiltrators turned out to be double agents "who had for some time been living happily on generous CIA payments" and feeding dangerous disinformation, including the order-of-battle dispatch. "Almost every report we received," recalled Haney's successor, John Limond Hart, "came from our enemies."

Allen W. Dulles, chief of the agency's covert operations and soon to be its director, lied to Congress about the project because he feared that demonstrated failure would deprive the agency of funds and power. American commanders sent troops to fight and die based on information that the CIA knew to be false.

It was an appropriate debut for the new organization. As Weiner demonstrates in this infuriating page-turner, operational and moral failure, and keeping Congress and the White House in the dark, are CIA stocks in trade. All Americans should read the book to get a full picture of the outrages perpetrated by the agency in our name with our tax dollars.

Conceived as a way to gather and filter intelligence, the CIA turned almost immediately into a paramilitary plaything for the Georgetown cocktail crowd. Weiner, a reporter for The New York Times, argues persuasively that the agency's love of covert operations distracted it from its primary job of discerning the intentions of the enemy.

Its intelligence failures are breathtaking. From the 1949 explosion of the Soviet atomic bomb to the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the agency has repeatedly been left flat-footed and in many cases predicted the opposite of what happened. Its assurance that Saddam Hussein's Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction is only its latest spectacular error.

Three times it insisted that Communist Chinese troops would not intervene in the Korean War, even after they began crossing the border. It calculated the Soviet Union would not have intercontinental ballistic missiles until 1969, which was off by a dozen years. Even though it had sources inside the junta ruling Greece in the early 1970s, it failed to anticipate the coup the junta orchestrated on Cyprus. It didn't predict the Soviet collapse.

Espionage is difficult, the world is complicated and predictions are hard. Some lack of success is understandable. What's enraging are the CIA's insouciant murders, tortures and coups committed in the name of freedom and democracy.

With the deepening of the Cold War in the 1950s, the agency found it could extract money from Congress by stressing the Soviet threat and conjuring cockamamie ways to fight it. Then it went one better, exploiting the communist menace as an excuse to adopt the standards of the enemy.

"Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply," concluded a chilling 1954 report by Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the war hero commissioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to chart the CIA's future. Doolittle also urged that the agency be reorganized, that dubious operations be slashed and that incompetent managers be fired.

Dulles, now the agency's director, wholeheartedly embraced the suggestion to embrace "repugnant" methods. The others he ignored.

He and his successors promoted or achieved coups in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Congo, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Haiti, British Guiana, Cuba, Laos and Chile. They were intimately involved in assassinations of top government officials in South Vietnam, Chile and the Dominican Republic.

They set up secret overseas prisons, not just recently to hold terrorism suspects, but in the 1950s, to interrogate suspected double agents with "techniques on the edge of torture, drug-induced mind control and brainwashing," Weiner writes.

"Bomb repeat Bomb," ordered the U.S. ambassador to CIA planes poised to attack Guatemala's capital in 1954. They did, blowing up, among other things, a radio station run by American missionaries.

"I enjoyed killing Communists," said a CIA officer who bombed Indonesia in a failed 1958 coup attempt, in an interview with Weiner. "We killed thousands of Communists, even though half of them probably didn't even know what communism meant."

Numerous honorable and competent people have served the CIA. Few appear in this book, because too often their influence has been thwarted by terrible leadership and institutional recklessness. The roster of dilettantes, cowboys and boozers at the top levels of agency management over the years is staggering.

Frank Wisner, the first chief of covert operations, was a heavy drinker who wanted the United States to fight its way through East Germany to Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War. The former Wall Street lawyer spent a spell in Baltimore's Sheppard Pratt hospital for the mentally ill and later committed suicide.

The alcoholic James Jesus Angleton practically ruined the agency's Soviet service by suspecting everyone of being a mole. The CIA itself later concluded that Angleton was "a man of loose and disjointed thinking whose theories, when applied to matters of public record, were patently unworthy of serious consideration."

Even CIA "successes" blow back to hurt the United States. The 1953 toppling of Iran's Mohammad Mossadeq set the stage for the rule of the ayatollahs. Arming Afghan fundamentalists to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s helped light the fuse of Islamic extremism. The 60-year subversion of elected governments has bred hatred for the U.S. across the globe.

It's true that often the CIA acts at the behest of elected U.S. leaders, but equally often it does not. As the book notes, too many times it has been better at deceiving Congress than its enemies.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre grimly sums up the problem in an interview with Weiner: "It is an organization that thrives through deception. How do you manage an organization like that?"

None of this is news. What Weiner has done is sew it into a brilliant narrative to achieve the most complete history of the CIA yet. Plus, he employs dozens of smoking, newly declassified documents - many unearthed by him and his researchers - that add poignant details. His writing is economical and clear. He is master of the devastating juxtaposition of indisputable facts.

After recounting Vice President Richard M. Nixon's grandiloquent toast to a Guatemalan puppet installed after the CIA overthrew the elected leader, Weiner points out: "Guatemala was at the beginning of forty years of military rulers, death squads and armed resistance."

After CIA Director William J. Casey masterminded President Ronald Reagan's arms-for-hostages trade in the 1980s, Reagan praised his successor as somebody committed to the rule of law. "The same, writes Weiner, "was never said about Bill Casey. His own bishop denounced him from the pulpit at his funeral."

The United States has many enemies. They are powerful and malicious. If the CIA did not exist, the American people would demand that something similar be set up. But how should the world's only superpower run a clandestine agency that is accountable, competent and as ethical as it is possible to be in an inherently unsavory business?

Weiner shows it still doesn't have a clue.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad