Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

Twilight of the Spooks

A pair of books expose the politicized squalor of the CIA

Burton Hersh


Since the cold war ended, the CIA has become a slow-motion bureaucratic sacrifice within the intelligence community. Like the chinook salmon, it has been shedding body parts every year as it struggles upstream to expire.With New York Times reporter Tim Weiner’s dismissive 2007 study, Legacy of Ashes, the fate of the agency seems sealed—whenever the world changes, the New York Times is traditionally the last to know.

If studies such as Weiner’s supply the sources of the agency’s collapse, a pair of important new titles explore some of the hows and whys. In Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, one of the agency’s prickliest and most highly regarded analysts, Melvin A. Goodman, has given us an insider autopsy. Goodman worked for the CIA for decades and ultimately rose to senior analyst in the Office of Soviet Affairs. Throughout the ’80s, while I was putting together my group portrait of the founders of the CIA, The Old Boys, I kept picking up reverberations of Goodman’s unsettling presence in this brittle bureaucracy, his objections to the directorate’s skewed analytic product, in particular his corridor battles with Director William Casey and Casey’s ambitious, fast-rising deputy, Robert Gates. (When I recently had the opportunity to meet Goodman, to introduce him before a regional Council on Foreign Relations meeting, I discovered that he had not softened his judgments.)

More than anything else, Goodman’s testimony on the agency’s cold-war miscues helped convince Congress that Gates had soft-pedaled evidence that the Soviet Union was falling apart so as to help promote the Reagan administration’s bloated defense spending. As a result, Gates himself was turned down in 1987 on his first pass at the director’s job and waited in the shadows until 1991, when George H. W. Bush moved him up.

If there is a motif to Goodman’s unflinching primer, it is his concern that Harry Truman’s purpose in forming the agency in 1947—to supply policy makers with an accurate, unbiased version of what was happening out there—has been corrupted into a kind of lapdog readiness to bark in any direction the White House prefers. The ultimate and perhaps most tragic performance came in 2002, when a submissive agency supplied Colin Powell and other key policy makers those “slam dunk” assurances that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was bristling with weapons of mass destruction and maintained an umbilical relationship with al-Qaeda, charges the CIA’s own experts were well aware were largely trumped up. Goodman takes particular umbrage at the extent to which the agency has been “politicized” to support the fantasies of the regnant neocons.

Goodman’s themes can overlap confusingly. At times, he stresses the agency’s overall politicization; at others, the tenures of successive directors—an approach that frequently leaves him rehashing too many incidents. What is most valuable here is the amassing of insider details—which individuals thought what, who came down where as each crisis developed inside the gray seven-story fastness of Langley. For example, Goodman cites the inspired digging by two analysts, Richard Barlow and Peter Dixon, that alerted the agency during the middle ’80s that the Pakistani physicist A. Q. Khan was buying restricted nuclear technology from sources in the United States and Europe. Khan would subsequently provide atomic secrets to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Because it was the Reagan administration’s policy just then to coddle Pakistan, elements in our intelligence community suppressed these revelations, and in the end, Pakistan surprised us with its own nuclear arsenal. The intra-agency outcome was predictable: For discoveries that embarrassed the politicians, both analysts got fired.

Never much of an enthusiast when it came to the covert-warfare (operations) side of the agency, Goodman is fair enough to itemize what successes there are on the human-intelligence side, from the softening up of Poland by way of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity union to the tracking of insurgents such as Che Guevera and Carlos the Jackal. What haunts Goodman is the prevalence of blowbacks after purportedly successful operations—the extent to which our interference in Iran in 1953, for example, undermined the rule of the parliament and set up the ayatollahs, or the way our opportunistic support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the ’80s created Osama bin Laden.

A kind of nostalgia crops up as Goodman roves across the decades. He himself joined the agency in 1966, just as the first generation of analytic pioneers was nearing retirement. OSS veterans Sherman Kent of Yale and William Langer of Harvard were old-fashioned enough to insist on the integrity of the intelligence-gathering process and helped create autonomous entities like the Office of National Estimates, which produced the original and highly respected National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), attempts at completely objective, politically—and, more significant, economically—unbiased treatments of important concerns of the White House. But too often, these analyses turned out too unbiased for the agency’s political masters; historical context and the long-term implications of agency directives gradually disappeared from the NIEs. By the Clinton years, the President’s Daily Brief from the CIA lagged behind CNN reporting in accuracy and regional insight.

By Goodman’s lights, prospects for the agency are bleak. During the late ’70s, revelations by the Church Committee highlighting agency abuses—from assassination planning to a long list of regime replacements in third world countries—led to the appointment of select committees in both houses of Congress to thwart, or at least anticipate, future mischief. Major covert operations required the issuance of a presidential “finding.” In some cases, the interference—and leaks—by Congress headed off the worst blunders, such as the Iran-Contra travesty, sufficiently to keep the fallout from utterly poisoning our foreign affairs. But behind the scenes, agency lawyers were hard at work. A new category of information, “compartmented intelligence,” was created for classified material too sensitive to be entrusted to mere lawmakers. Complaints to the chief executive by the Pentagon after 1991 led to the extraction from the CIA of perhaps its most successful and innovative programs, the interpretation of U-2 and satellite surveillance technology, which since the ’50s had provided uncorrupted order-of-battle information about the Soviet bloc. Entire new bureaucracies—the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the National Photographic Interpretation Center, the National Reconnaissance Office—now joined the National Security Agency among the unpublicized technological workshops tucked in solidly beneath the eagle’s wing inside the Pentagon’s vast budget.

Soon after taking office, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld launched within his own department the Office of Special Plans, an unembarrassed attempt to co-opt the CIA’s Operations Directorate—which promptly found itself depopulated, marginalized, and renamed the National Clandestine Service. More than half of the supersensitive work in operations would now be contracted to private firms. As Goodman specifies, as early as 2002, “Rumsfeld’s . . . Office of Special Plans produced disinformation to support the case for war.” In 2004, a new, supreme supervisory entity, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), was granted authority to institute a level of management above the CIA, whose leader since 1947 had technically functioned as the DCI—director of Central Intelligence—the overseer of all sixteen intelligence services. The newly constituted DNI would even come up with its own competing counterterrorism center. Senior generals currently oversee both the CIA and the DNI. The utter militarization of intelligence in America that Goodman feared all along has evidently come to pass.

Entropy inside the agency also preoccupies John Diamond in The CIA and the Culture of Failure. An assiduous young reporter who broke in with the Associated Press and moved on to defense and intelligence affairs with the Chicago Tribune and USA Today, Diamond has put together a sequence of long, trenchant, truly eclectic essays on the CIA’s internal workings, consistently stressing its tendency to outsmart itself. He has astutely canvassed active and recently retired agency personnel, cultivated top personalities in the congressional-oversight committees, combed through the documents and professional literature, and emerged with fine-grained, fair-minded analyses. The result is a collection of riveting specific case studies, with sharp and frequently surprising judgments.

Utilizing late-Soviet-era documents, Diamond is especially effective at pointing up how the unending game of blindman’s buff between the aging superpowers has actually been played. He traces, move by move, the series of misjudgments that led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which effectively restarted the cold war. He follows the reasoning that tempted agency planners, aware of their own complicity in provoking the Catholic Church and Solidarity to rise up against the Soviet occupation in Poland, to conclude that the Russians were certain to move main-force units into Poland if the disruptions continued. In this, as in so many other smoldering situations, the CIA brain trust was measured, logical—and wrong. Its performance was extraordinary at times. Given the opportunity to select one out of almost a hundred bombing targets in Yugoslavia during the war with Milosevic, CIA analysts delivered up the Chinese Embassy.

Diamond takes a serious look at the role of April Glaspie, the US ambassador to Iraq whose 1990 observation to Saddam Hussein, “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts,” left her the scapegoat when the Iraqi dictator actually marched into Kuwait. The fact was, the preponderance of agency analysts were telling the US government that Hussein was bluffing. Although the renegade analyst Kenneth Pollack kept insisting that the buildup on the border suggested an invasion really was imminent, his conclusions were militantly ignored and, like so many other unwelcome opinions, wound up largely excised from the official histories.

One of the book’s most compelling studies comes courtesy of Diamond’s inspired mousing around in the Aldrich Ames case. There exists a spate of books detailing the transgressions of this midlevel operator. A listless drunk whose bad tradecraft all but lit him up as he rummaged the intelligence suburbs of DC throughout the Casey years, passing his Soviet handlers the agency’s deepest secrets, Ames would later insist that he was selling out not his country but rather the CIA, “because of his disdain for its role in perpetuating the Cold War.”

Diamond concludes that the unraveling in public of the Ames case “hurt the reputation and morale of the Directorate of Operations as had nothing in CIA history going back to the Bay of Pigs.” Ames had betrayed as many as thirty agents in place in the Moscow area. What Diamond is shrewd enough to recognize is that the Ames revelations not only steamrolled the agency; they convulsed the KGB, “which suddenly realized the extent to which it had been penetrated by the CIA.” Worse, Ames’s itemization of the various ingenious technical penetrations the agency had in place, from tapping undersea cables to photographing railcars moving heavy ordnance around the provinces, undermined the Soviet assumption that they were the masters of the game. Clinton’s first CIA director, James Woolsey, called the Ames debacle “a systematic failure of the CIA,” but before long, he lost his post, in good part for mollycoddling the senior agency officers who had mollycoddled Ames.

The widely perceived failures of nerve and imagination highlighted in the Ames case generated ripple effects, which helped undermine professional self-confidence and bring down intelligence establishments on both sides of the iron curtain. With Diamond’s detailed treatment of key, catalytic incidents alongside Goodman’s insider revelations, the astute reader can appreciate the many setbacks—more than a few self-inflicted—that in turn produced full-blown debacles such as the Ames case and the falsified assessments that sparked the Iraq war.

Burton Hersh is the author of The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA (Scribner, 1992) and Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America (Carroll & Graf, 2007). Next month, Esquire will publish his investigation of the US media’s role in suppressing crucial facts about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

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