Daring Amateurism: The CIA's Social History

In his 1928 Ashenden stories, W. Somerset Maugham, who had undertaken missions for British intelligence in the First World War, portrayed espionage even for our side as morally corrupting, usually incompetent, and more likely to harm our friends than our enemies. Graham Greene and John le Carré later made these their themes. We now know that this body of literature should not be classified as fiction.

Even by the standards of a le Carré thriller, America's Central Intelligence Agency suffers from a singularly bad press. On the front page of the October 15, 1995, New York Times, we read that in its initial essays in economic espionage, eavesdropping on Japanese officials, the agency flunked out. To the Commerce Department, the cia's efforts looked "amateurish." A top American official told the Times that "the important stuff is garbled. And most of what you get is garbage."

That is praise compared to what is being written about the agency's performance of its original and basic mission: the conduct of political and military intelligence. When it became known, a couple of years back, that Aldrich Ames, chief of counterintelligence for the Soviet--East Europe division of the cia, had been working since 1985 for the Soviet Union and then for Russia, Angelo M. Codevilla, a former senior staff member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and certainly no dove, commented that "the United States would have been better off not having an intelligence service at all."

But the Ames affair was only 1994's bad news. The revelation for 1995, datelined October 31 and printed on the front page of the November 1 New York Times, is that the agency "knowingly gave the White House and the Pentagon inside information on the Soviet Union from foreign agents it knew or strongly suspected were controlled by Moscow." According to members of the relevant congressional committees, "The information was crucial to Washington's perceptions of Moscow in the last seven years of the Cold War. . . ." In effect, U.S. policy toward Russia was being shaped by the Kremlin.

Ten days later the Times disclosed something about employees of the cia who, knowing that America's information about Russia came from tainted sources, had taken it upon themselves to withhold this vital knowledge from three directors of central intelligence, the Pentagon, and three presidents of the United States. They were mid-level officials.

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