In This Review

Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA

Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA
By John Prados
752 pp, Ivan R. Dee, 2006

Prados is an extraordinarily tenacious researcher who has made a career of exploring the activities of the intelligence community, particularly covert operations. He builds his case using whatever evidence he can find. There may be arguments about points of detail and some inferences, but this account of the "secret wars" undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency since its founding in 1947 is an impressive achievement. Many of the stories are familiar -- the coups in Iran and Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the embrace of dubious rightists in Central America -- but what is striking is the range of countries in which the CIA has meddled and how counterproductive that meddling has so often been, even when the short-term goals were achieved. The anger generated (the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddeq still factors into Iranian attitudes toward the United States), the poor choice of political friends, and the ease with which the CIA fits into conspiracy theories have ended up undermining U.S. interests in the long run. This book does not suggest that the CIA is a rogue arm of the government; the problem is that a covert capability proves too tempting to presidents seeking quick fixes to otherwise intractable problems.