Wednesday, January 16, 2008.
By Larry Smith
"We went all over the world and we did what we wanted. God, we had fun." -- Al Ulmer, chief of the CIA's Far East division in the 1950s.
There was just one book on my holiday reading list this year - the 700-page Legacy of Ashes published recently by Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter, Tim Weiner.
It is an utterly absorbing history of the United States Central Intelligence Agency - from its foundation after World War Two to its recent humiliation after asserting that Iraq bristled with weapons of mass destruction.
Weiner presents on-the-record accounts taken from recently declassified documents as well as the personal recollections of those involved. And the bottom line is that “the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service (and) that failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States.”
Wow! When I was a leftist college student in the early 1970s, the CIA was considered omnipotent - a mythical monster whose tentacles reached out to control the world. We believed it was capable of the most extraordinary things, and we detested its power and influence.
But now we learn (from the horse's mouth it appears) that over the past 60 years CIA operations have been marked by incompetence and recklessness, and in many cases were counter-productive to US interests.
Weiner documents this appalling record using the actual words of the major protagonists. For example, a secret report to President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the end of his second term determined that “all of the covert action programmes undertaken by CIA up to this time” had not been worth “the risk of the great expenditure of manpower, money and other resources.”
In those early postwar years, thousands of agency recruits were sent to their deaths on futile missions behind the Iron Curtain in Europe and Asia. Millions of dollars were wasted on worthless operations. The political and social fabric of many third world countries was subverted at will, and often without good purpose. And many covert actions were undertaken without the full knowledge of the political directorate.
And although Weiner says one of the chief motivations for creating the agency was to prevent another Pearl Harbour, the CIA failed to warn the White House of the first Soviet atomic bomb (1949), the Chinese invasion of Korea (1950), anti-Soviet uprisings in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956), the dispatch of Soviet missiles to Cuba (1962), and the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, not to mention Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
In fact, Weiner's title for his book comes straight from the mouth of President Eisenhower, who complained bitterly about the failures of US intelligence as he was leaving office. The old general told a meeting of the National Security Council in 1961 that, in this regard, he would "leave a legacy of ashes" to his successor.
Weiner begins his story at the very beginning - with the disbanding of the wartime Office of Strategic Services by President Harry Truman a month after the Japanese surrender.
There was little interest in a permanent espionage service at the time, but as the US began to fear the Soviet Union, the CIA was created in 1947 with the twin tasks of collecting global intelligence and conducting secret operations for the president overseas.
In the 1950s the agency ran "swashbuckling" operations all over the place - toppling governments, fixing elections, buying political leaders or plotting to kill them, and sponsoring guerilla warfare. According to Weiner, its early leaders disdained intelligence analysis, supposedly a core mission, and CIA officers were often clueless about the countries they worked in.
The best example is probably Iran - also considered one of the agency's top successes. In 1953, an operation was launched to overthrow the elected prime minister and reinstall the exiled Shah on the pretext that the country's oil reserves might come under Soviet control.
The CIA fomented Islamic sentiments and hired mobs to assemble in Tehran for a "spontaneous revolution". Weiner quotes a US embassy official who witnessed the opening round:
"It began with a public demonstration...They began shouting anti-Mossadeq, pro-Shah slogans and proceeded to march through the streets... Many others joined them...Two of the men in the crowd were religious leaders. One was the Ayatollah Ahmed Kashani. Alongside him was his 51-year-old devotee, [Ayatollah Khomeini]...the future leader of Iran."
Now this seems like exquisite irony to me. But the agency's reaction is that Weiner views CIA actions "solely through the prism of events decades later, as though you can draw a simple, straight, decisive line of causation through years of complicated history....Legacy of Ashes paints far too dark a picture of the agency’s past."
Well, it is certainly clear to me that there is a direct link with the past. The virulently anti-American theocratic regime created by Khomeini in 1979, which is now seeking to join the nuclear club, is a direct result of the treatment of Iran by the British and Americans during the Cold War.
Legacy of Ashes points out that most of the agency's covert actions were mandated by the White House, and many were illegal. After the failed invasion of Cuba in 1962, President Kennedy called for Fidel Castro's head. And JFK's successor, Lynden Johnson, ordered the CIA to illegally spy on Americans in the anti-war and civil rights movements. Richard Nixon's national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, also told the agency to spy on Americans who opposed the war in Vietnam.
It wasn't until after 9/11 that Congress and the Bush administration gave the agency the legal right to spy inside the borders of the United States.
World leaders on the CIA payroll over the years included King Hussein of Jordan, President Joseph Mobuto of the Congo, Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi of Japan, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham of Guyana and the Shah of Iran. And like the Soviets, the CIA set up a network of false fronts - from the National Student Association to the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Radio Free Europe.
But Legacy of Ashes is not a comprehensive history despite its length. It is more in the line of investigative reporting, and therefore a thoroughly good read. For those unfamiliar with events over the past 60 years, the book provides little context, so we rarely know what the other side was doing at the time - such as crushing rebellions, causing famines, torturing and killing dissenters, and setting up puppet regimes.
As CIA historian Nicholas Dujmovic put it, "a fair treatment of intelligence and a realistic assessment of its history...would at least attempt to understand the very human context of what must be a record that will include failures. This context is especially necessary in appraising the early years of CIA, when enormous challenges were faced by a new generation for whom intelligence was something learned through often-bitter experience."
But even the CIA agrees that Weiner "accurately chronicles much of the chaos of the early days of CIA espionage and covert action...His recounting of events in the 1990s—the change in CIA’s relationship with the military as a result of the Gulf War, the effect of the “peace dividend” on agency resources, and the debacle of the Clinton administration’s attitudes toward intelligence—seem accurate and useful summaries."
Dujmovic doesn't mention the CIA's ultimate failure - the 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that justified the war and led to the agency's downgrading. CIA Director George Tenet insisted that he had "slam dunk evidence" against Saddam, leading the respected General Colin Powell to make a fool of himself arguing the case at the United Nations.
"We think intelligence is important to win wars," said David Kay, the agency's chief weapons inspector in Iraq. "What intelligence really does when it is working well is help avoid wars."
In 2005, a government report said the agency's overriding flaw was "poor human intelligence" - an inability to conduct espionage.
As Weiner put it: "The fictional CIA, the one that lives in novels and movies, is omnipotent...for 60 years tens of thousands of clandestine service officers have gathered only the barest threads of truly important intelligence - and that is the CIA's deepest secret."
Larry Smith writes a column called "Tough Call" every Wednesday for the Bahamas Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he now operates a communications agency in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). He also blogs at Bahamapundit.
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