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Tyee Books

Curse of the CIA

Corrupt. Inept. Affliction to all. A killer history.

By Crawford Kilian 12 Feb 2008 |

Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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  • Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
  • Tim Weiner
  • Doubleday (2008)

In 1959 or 1960, I spent three consecutive evenings in McMillan Theater on the Columbia University campus listening to former president Harry S. Truman deliver a series of speeches. I remember the man better than what he said: a middle-sized, pink-cheeked old guy in a grey suit, speaking with a high, flat Missouri accent. I do recall his confidence, especially when he said he'd been right to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He was a likable man, and he'd fully recovered from his 1940s unpopularity. What we didn't know, and what he may not have known either, was that he had done more than to fight and win the world's only nuclear war. He had been duped into a decision that has shaped the lives of all of us on the planet since 1945, and that has ruined the lives of most of us.

That decision was to replace the wartime Office of Strategic Services with a new spy service, the Central Intelligence Agency.

Tim Weiner has written this highly critical history of the CIA based entirely "on the record -- no anonymous sources, no blind quotations, no hearsay . . . compiled entirely from firsthand reporting and primary documents." Much of what he tells us has been known for decades. But Weiner strings together events that we might otherwise not connect, and the result is appalling.

Sixty years of failure

Less clearly known is how the CIA managed to get away with 60 years of gross failure. That failure began with the subversion of Harry Truman's modest wish to have a reliable source of information. And in its first decade the CIA struck the themes that have dominated our lives ever since.

Weiner shows that U.S. intelligence barely existed before Pearl Harbor, and imploded within weeks of the war's end. During the war itself, intelligence agencies did a fair job, though they needed mentoring and support from the British spy agencies.

The Office of Special Services conducted much of this intelligence, but its real forte was in dropping agents into Nazi-occupied Europe. Many were lost, but they did manage to do some damage and to support resistance groups.

After the war, suddenly out of a congenial job, some ex-OSS officers managed to persuade Truman that he needed more than just a postwar spy service -- he needed covert operations that would frustrate Soviet plans and advance American interests.

The OSS had been known during the war as Oh So Social, a cozy group of Ivy Leaguers. They'd had so much fun that they wanted to fight their last war all over again.

Their war, of course, had been a covert matter of dropping saboteurs into occupied Europe. They went on doing so, in the vain hope that guerilla forces might take over Ukraine or Albania.

In the postwar chaos, however, the Reds had sent their own agents west, and they easily worked their way into the infant CIA's networks. Most of the troublemakers dropped behind the Iron Curtain were picked up on arrival and shot. A few were used to exploit the CIA's gullibility, sending disinformation back to their handlers.

Meanwhile, the agency was setting up its first overseas prisons, primitive Guantánamos where prisoners could be interrogated without reference to U.S. laws or the Geneva Conventions.

Supposed victories of the 1950s

We've heard a lot about the CIA's early covert triumphs: the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala. Weiner shows that these were near-disasters, but they set the agency's course from the Bay of Pigs to Panama and the bribery that really won the opening stages of the war in Afghanistan.

Less well known is the CIA's success in postwar Japan, where it used money and war criminals to create a bogus democracy. In Europe, it drew on funds from the Marshall Plan to buy a congenial government in Italy -- while the Poles supported the Italian Communist Party with gold obtained from the CIA's botched airdrops.

In its first decade the CIA also demonstrated its inability to meet Truman's original desire: to supply reliable information about what was going on in the rest of the world. It totally failed to insert agents into Soviet-bloc governments. Intelligence came from the antennas of the National Security Agency, and from a few Soviet volunteers.

Decades later, a drunk named Aldrich Ames, who "failed upward for 17 years," gave the Russians the names of every Soviet agent he knew about, and he knew most of them. After all, he was the CIA's chief of counterintelligence for the USSR and Eastern Europe. He also supplied the names and jobs of hundreds of his colleagues. It took the agency seven years to catch him.

A litany of incompetence

Reading this litany of incompetence, it's hard to see how the CIA survived even its first decade. Many of the presidents it served regarded it with contempt and distrust.

But while the CIA couldn't fool Soviet counterintelligence, or outsmart Osama Bin Laden, it could always present something that its political masters would swallow: a convenient thug installed in some government, some Soviet helicopters downed by U.S.-supplied missiles in the hands of the mujahideen. The blowback would come, but on someone else's watch.

Weiner's portrait of the agency is probably too one-sided. No doubt it achieved some covert successes that really did advance American interests, and obtained intelligence that guided American policy.

But even the CIA's own statement about his book is notably defensive: Yeah, Ames sold our guys out, but they did good work before he nailed them.

What seems clear from Weiner's book, though, is that the CIA effectively ruined the lives of almost everyone on the planet. It corrupted democratic governments and backed up dictators. It gave the Soviets and Chinese good excuses for oppressing their own people. It trained Osama Bin Laden and then failed to stop him when he turned against the West.

Perhaps we'd have been better off if Secretary of State Henry Stimson, back in 1929, hadn't shut down the U.S. "Black Chamber" that had been decoding foreign messages since 1917. "Gentlemen do not read one another's mail," he primly explained.

But if Stimson had let a professional intelligence service continue to grow, it would have been well prepared for World War II. The OSS amateurs would never have got off the ground. Postwar U.S. governments would have had reliable information.

And the rest of us might have had longer and happier lives.