Courtesy Reuters

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.

Why would they have felt entitled to decide what their leaders should and should not know? A plausible theory is that it was only one aspect of an arrogance that dates back to the years in which the agency was created, the special dispensation from the rules of law and morality that cia agents were granted, and the sort of men who stepped into that environment and set the tone for the agency.

fragmented beginnings

In 1990 and 1992, the cia published two volumes of a history of itself, which it had commissioned for its own internal use and had long held secret. The volumes covered the first few years of the cia's existence.-1 The first was written more than four decades ago, in 1952-53, by Arthur B. Darling of Yale, who went on to become the first official historian of the cia. The second volume, completed in 1971, was the work of Ludwell Lee Montague, trained as a historian, who spent his life as an intelligence community professional. These books take the reader into a world in which nations and peoples, national interests and political causes are relegated to the background, and conflicts concern not politics and morality but turf and personality, organizational charts and chains of command.

The Darling and Montague histories begin at the end of the Second World War. Intelligence authority was fragmented. At the top was an interdepartmental Joint Intelligence Committee, chaired rather than headed by its senior officer. Its six members represented departmental rather than national interests. But its staff, we are told, developed into a unified and coherent group; and it was the staff that proposed, at war's end, the appointment of an independent director of intelligence reporting directly to the president.

Competing plans were proposed by the Department of State, the Bureau of the Budget, the several armed services departments, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by General William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, the colorful commander of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS). All of them, and the ambitions that animated them, were opposed by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, who wanted no competitors.

President Truman, even before deciding whether to have a centralized agency, created the position of director of central intelligence (DCI). His first appointee to the position, fellow Missourian Rear Admiral Sidney Souers, a reserve officer eager to return to civilian life, saw himself as a mere interim appointee: he served for six months. He was followed by the dashing, well-connected Air Force Lieutenant General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, who served for less than a year but set in motion the processes that led to legislation to create a central intelligence agency.

The legislation consisted of the National Security Act of 1947 and the Central Intelligence Act of 1949. The deliberately vague terms of Section 102(d)(5) of the 1947 act, which provided that the agency should "perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct," was intended, according to Clark Clifford, counsel to the president, to authorize covert actions. But the cia's general counsel advised otherwise. He did not believe that Congress intended to make so great a grant of authority.

Kennan's precaution

It was the Department of State that insisted on the need to launch political and psychological warfare. In 1948 it looked very much as though the other side was not playing by the rules. Instead of respecting the frontiers and accepting the partition of Europe into rival spheres of influence, the Kremlin appeared to be operating behind our lines. Seemingly, it was buying labor unions, disrupting Western economies, and using the communist party to unsettle regimes. The coup d'etat in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the tightening around Berlin that culminated in the blockade led to war jitters in Washington.

It looked as though the West had to fight fire with fire. George Kennan, head of policy planning at State, proposed to create a bureau that would run covert operations. In time of war, it would report to Defense; but in time of peace, it would be directed by State, which would nominate its director. It would be located, however, in the cia--presumably so State could disavow it.

Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, who had reluctantly agreed to succeed Vandenberg, becoming the third DCI, resisted. His attorney had told him that covert operations were illegal. His wartime experience had led him to believe that an agency cannot effectively engage in both information-gathering (which was the cia's mission) and covert actions--so he did not want the cia to undertake covert actions. Finally, to house Kennan's bureau without directing or controlling it gave him, as he saw it, the responsibility without the power.

But Hillenkoetter, who was junior in rank to his colleagues, proved to be a weakling. What he intended as conciliation ended in surrender, in this as in his other bureaucratic battles. NSC 10/2, dated June 18, 1948, and drafted by Kennan, established covert operations in a new bureau of the cia. Named by State as its director was Frank Wisner, a Wall Street lawyer serving in the State Department and a friend of Kennan. A dashing, well-born amateur with a circle of glamorous friends in the East Coast establishment, Wisner defined the habits and comportment for the new bureau.

Only a couple of years after Wisner's appointment, North Korea's attack on South Korea took the American intelligence community by surprise. A head had to roll. It was Hillenkoetter's. On October 7, 1950, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith replaced Hillenkoetter as DCI. Montague's volume in the agency's internal history shows the cia, as we know it, emerging only in 1950-53 under Smith, a hard-bitten battlefield soldier and chief of staff to General Eisenhower in the Second World War.

Smith imposed himself by force of personality as well as high rank. Typically, Smith canceled the Kennan-Hillenkoetter agreement. He took matters into his own hands, firmly establishing cia control of covert actions. Harboring a dim view of political and psychological warfare and of covert operations in general, he brought in another tough army general, Lucian Truscott, to investigate what Frank Wisner and the other State Department types had been doing on the front lines of the Cold War ("I'm going to go out there and find out what those weirdos are up to," Truscott told Smith).

Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, took office promising to stop the mere passive containment of Soviet expansion and instead to roll back Soviet rule actively, liberating Central and Eastern Europe from the Red Army. Yet at the same time, Eisenhower proposed to slash the government's budget and curtail military spending. The apparent inconsistency was resolved by adopting covert action as Washington's day-to-day mode of operation in the Cold War world. It was inexpensive; it was warfare on the cheap.

Smith was transferred out of the cia. Allen Dulles, ex-State and ex-OSS, younger brother of the secretary of state, became DCI. Dulles was another gentleman amateur, with a long history of involvement in secret service work and a romantic view of it. In his administration Wisner and the others who had been in eclipse under Smith were given full license. Covert actions no longer were superintended by the prudent Kennan or the skeptical Smith; they were in the charge of an enthusiast.

The Secret History

Conceding that "many good histories of the cia in this period" already have appeared, Evan Thomas writes, "My purpose is different. This is in many ways a social history." And that is indeed the special value of his readable and illuminating biography of four senior agency officials, The Very Best Men. For Thomas argues persuasively that many of the qualities apparent in cia covert activities in the formative years of the agency reflect traits of personality common to the Wall Streeters who were its leaders in those years, and who were products of the same schools, law firms, banks, and clubs.

Thomas claims to be "the first author or historian ever permitted to read the cia's own secret histories." Yet there is nothing of importance in his account of the institutional history that we did not know before. His characters are recognizably the same as those found in earlier books by Miles Copeland and Burton Hersh, and his characterizations of them are not dissimilar.-2

Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson were the authors of The Wise Men, a widely praised biography of six American government officials during and after the Second World War who shared some of the same background and who worked together to achieve common goals. The co-authors since have gone their separate ways, Isaacson to Time, Thomas to Newsweek, but The Very Best Men is nonetheless meant to be a sequel. In the words of its author, it "is intended to be in some ways a companion to The Wise Men. . . . The four cia officials portrayed in this book came from similar backgrounds, shared the same worldview, and were devoted to the same cause."

Wisner is the chief figure among the four. He served as the first head of covert operations, from 1948 to 1958. The second is Richard Bissell, who succeeded Wisner and served until 1961. The third and fourth, Tracy Barnes and Desmond FitzGerald, worked closely with Wisner and Bissell.

These were men who seem to have pictured themselves as figures out of a Fitzgerald novel. As was true of so many Fitzgerald characters, there was a great deal of immaturity in them: a great deal of the undergraduate fraternity house. They set off stink bombs at communist youth festivals. They launched balloons that dropped 300 million leaflets into East Europe. When Bedell Smith was appointed DCI, one of his inspectors reported that, inside the psychological warfare offices, cia officials were sitting around shooting balloons with bb guns. One of their psychological warfare schemes was to drop gigantic condoms apparently made for Americans, labeled "medium," into Russia; one former official claims that this was intended as a joke, but General Smith, tired of the cia's obsession with retail rubber goods, barked, "If you send me one more project with god-damned balloons, I'll throw you out of here."

Wisner and his friends seemed to have seen themselves as favorites of the gods: gifted amateurs, improvising at every turn, and outwitting the heavy-handed professionals on the other side. It was a lark, they thought. They bragged to one another of their successes in overthrowing the governments of Guatemala and Iran in the early 1950s. In Guatemala they had taken a drunken army officer, dragged him through a cold shower to sober him up, got him dressed, and set him up as the country's new leader. In Iran they had done almost the same thing.

At a distance, the difference in scale between these pranksters, with their balloons and condoms, and the task assigned to them by the Eisenhower-Dulles administration of rolling back the legions of the Russian and Chinese communist empires is not funny. It is appalling. From Evan Thomas' account, one gathers that, over time, Wisner and his colleagues began to suspect that too.

Even their two successes, Guatemala and Iran, began to look less and less successful. It turned out that neither of the leaders the cia overthrew was a communist, or in Russia's pay. In both cases private corporate interests were served by American actions; less and less did it seem that the security interests of the United States had been at stake. Forty years later, the cia is still reviewing its Guatemala file with an eye toward eventual declassification; for the moment, one can only guess how it will further tarnish reputations when it is made public.

Thomas' story, which begins in farce with the condoms and balloons, turns eventually to tragedy, as Wisner and his friends move from the life of a Fitzgerald hero to the self-destructive life of Fitzgerald himself. Charmed and doomed scions of the East Coast elite, they were amateurs playing games that only professionals stand a chance of surviving. They destroyed those they touched and, in the end, themselves.

From the beginning, the Soviet Union knew every move they made. Thomas writes that "the cia's success in the Philippines in the early 1950s stands against a backdrop of failure: of agents betrayed; dropped into the waiting arms of the communist security apparat; dragged before people's tribunals; interrogated, tortured, and shot. In Germany, cia case officers painfully listened on Moscow radio to the show trial of agents they had unwittingly delivered into communist hands." Again and again, American agents were dropped into Albania, and always into the waiting arms of their enemies. In Berlin, the cia, at great cost and effort, dug a tunnel into the eastern sector; the Russians allowed it to be used for a short time and then shut it down.

In the beginning it was Kim Philby; in the middle it was the Walker ring; in the end, it was Aldrich Ames. The Soviet secret services always seemed to be deeply implanted in U.S. intelligence. Setback after setback, followed by the disaster of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, were enough to drive Wisner mad. It took time for it to be recognized; only in 1958 was he committed to a private psychiatric hospital and diagnosed as suffering from psychotic mania. He was replaced by Richard Bissell. In 1962, Wisner's cia files were reviewed by a successor, who destroyed them as "the ramblings of a madman." In 1965, Wisner committed suicide.

no ordinary duty

Bissell was the architect of the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, for which he lost his job. But it also was Bissell who was responsible for creating the U-2 spy airplane, one of the outstanding triumphs of the American intelligence community.

The successes of the United States, and also of its ally Great Britain, in non-human intelligence--aerial surveillance, cryptography, and technologies of various kinds--when taken with America's dismal record in traditional intelligence and counterintelligence, might suggest that we should stick to the technological intelligence we do so well and give up on the human side: no more spies, counter-spies, or covert operations. But in the real world, that is not a policy that circumstances allow us to pursue.

A Century of Spies reminds us how central the ordinary business of spying and counterspying has been to the politics, diplomacy, and wars of modern history. Almost encyclopedic in scope, Jeffrey Richelson's valuable and comprehensive book provides concise and clearly written summaries of espionage operations from 1900 to our time. His summaries are in chronological order, but as the author supplies neither an overarching narrative line nor a framework of analysis, it is for us to draw our own conclusions.

One of these is that espionage is an essential activity in international politics. Another is that in the future it may be even more so. It looks very much as though the dangerous enemies of the future may be not only states, as has largely been the case until now, but also terrorist gangs, fragmented factions, and deranged individuals supplying one another with whatever is needed to fabricate or purchase weaponry. Aerial surveillance and cryptography are of limited value against such as these. Infiltration by human agents will be needed; so will be the ability to carry out Entebbe rescues of hostages. Technology alone will not be able to do the job.

So while the dark arts of the secret services are indeed both dirty and dirtying--Maugham was quite right about that--we cannot dispense with them. Maybe we should disband the cia, but if we do, we will have to reassign some of its duties to other agencies. Not until human nature in politics changes can we afford to bring our spies in from the cold.

1 - Arthur B. Darling, The Central Intelligence Agency: An Instrument of Government, to 1950, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990. Ludwell Lee Montague, General Walter Bedell Smith as Director of Central Intelligence, October 1950-February 1953, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

2 - Miles Copeland, The Game of Nations: The Amorality of Power Politics, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970. Subsequent volumes include Without Cloak or Dagger: The Truth About the New Espionage, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974, and The Game Player: Confessions of the CIA's Original Political Operative, London: Aurum Press, 1989. Burton Hersh, The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, New York: Scribner, 1992.