The Rope Dancer
In late November the Central Intelligence Agency conducted a series of “senior seminars” so that some of its important bureaucrats could consider its public image. I was invited to attend one session and to give my views on the proper role of the Agency. I suggested that its legitimate activities were limited to studying newspapers and published statistics, listening to the radio, thinking about the world, interpreting data of reconnaissance satellites, and occasionally publishing the names of foreign spies. I had been led by conversations with a number of CIA officials to believe that they were thinking along the same lines. One CIA man after another eagerly joined the discussion to assure me that the days of the flamboyant covert operations were over. The upper-class amateurs of the OSS who stayed to mastermind operations in Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, and elsewhere—Allen Dulles, Kermit Roosevelt, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes, Robert Amory, Desmond Fitzgerald—had died or departed.
In their place, I was assured, was a small army of professionals devoted to preparing intelligence “estimates” for the President and collecting information the clean, modern way, mostly with sensors, computers, and sophisticated reconnaissance devices. Even Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot, would now be as much a museum piece as Mata Hari. (There are about 18,000 employees in the CIA and 200,000 in the entire “intelligence community” itself. The cost of maintaining them is somewhere between $5 billion and $6 billion annually. The employment figures do not include foreign agents or mercenaries, such as the CIA’s 100,000-man hired army in Laos.)
A week after my visit to the “senior seminar” Newsweek ran a long story on “the new espionage” with a picture of CIA Director Richard Helms on the cover. The reporters clearly had spoken to some of the same people I had. As Newsweek said, “The gaudy era of the adventurer has passed in the American spy business; the bureaucratic age of Richard C. Helms and his gray specialists has settled in.” I began to have an uneasy feeling that Newsweek‘s article was a cover story in more than one sense.
It has always been difficult to analyze organizations that engage in false advertising about themselves. Part of the responsibility of the CIA is to spread confusion about its own work. The world of Richard Helms and his “specialists” does indeed differ from that of Allen Dulles. Intelligence organizations, in spite of their predilection for what English judges used to call “frolics of their own,” are servants of policy. When policy changes, they must eventually change too, although because of the atmosphere of secrecy and deception in which they operate, such changes are exceptionally hard to control. To understand the “new espionage” one must see it as part of the Nixon Doctrine which, in essence, is a global strategy for maintaining US power and influence without overtly involving the nation in another ground war.
But we cannot comprehend recent developments in the “intelligence community” without understanding what Mr. Helms and his employees actually do. In a speech before the National Press Club, the director discouraged journalists from making the attempt. “You’ve just got to trust us. We are honorable men.” The same speech is made each year to the small but growing number of senators who want a closer check on the CIA. In asking, on November 10, for a “Select Committee on the Coordination of United States Activities Abroad to oversee activities of the Central Intelligence Agency,” Senator Stuart Symington noted that “the subcommittee having oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency has not met once this year.”
Symington, a former Secretary of the Air Force and veteran member of the Armed Services Committee, has also said that “there is no federal agency in our government whose activities receive less scrutiny and control than the CIA.” Moreover, soon after Symington spoke, Senator Allen J. Ellender, chairman of the Intelligence Operations Subcommittee, admitted on the floor of the Senate, as the Washington Post reported, “that he did not know in advance about the CIA’s financing of any army in Laos.” Symington was able to get only thirty votes in favor of a Select Committee. An attempt to impose a budgetary ceiling on intelligence activities also failed.
Always intimidated by the mysteries of intelligence, senators were particularly unwilling in this case to assert their constitutional responsibilities because the President had just reorganized intelligence operations. Richard Helms had been given new authority over the budget of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Intelligence and Research Bureau of the State Department, and the other intelligence agencies. This centralization of intelligence, adopted over the protests of the military services, gives the Central Intelligence Agency and its director new and important powers.
The most striking feature of Nixon’s reorganization is the enhanced role of Henry Kissinger, who as chairman of a new National Security Council Intelligence Committee and supervisor of a new Net Assessment Group can now function as a chief of staff to the President on intelligence matters. Even more than before, his view of the world is the basis for the President’s decisions. The military services will now have fewer chances to sell the President their own version of events.
For more than ten years the CIA has had one public failure after another—the Bay of Pigs, the failure of its counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam during the early 1960s, its incompetence during the Dominican operation in 1965, the scandals over its penetration of the National Student Association and dozens of other organizations. But the Agency is once again becoming the most powerful bureaucratic force in foreign affairs. In part, its new prestige results from the Pentagon Papers.
The record made available thus far shows that the CIA analyzed South Vietnamese politics in the late 1950s with remarkable accuracy. The Agency’s Board of National Estimates, which prepares the National Intelligence Estimates for the President, was perceptive about the weakness of the Diem regime and, unlike Rusk, Bundy, and McNamara, the Agency saw that the Viet Cong was an authentic southern movement, not merely the creature of Hanoi. The CIA presented a strong case showing that bombing the north would not win the war in the south. Each time a major escalation of the war was proposed, its predictions, though always hedged in the characteristic manner of investment analysts and other professional prophets, were duly pessimistic.
The current prestige of the CIA is also explained by the failure of competing agencies. Robert McNamara’s effort to create the Defense Intelligence Agency, a little CIA to consolidate the intelligence work of the military services, was not a bureaucratic success. A former Air Force man described it for a Newsweek correspondent as a “giant vacuum cleaner picking up millions of pieces of lint that we store in our computers.” It did not help the reputation of Army intelligence inside the government when it was caught spying on such figures as Senator Adlai Stevenson. The State Department Intelligence and Research Branch, which also had a reasonably good record of accuracy in the Vietnam war, is small, depends upon other agencies for information, and shares the generally low esteem in which the State Department is held by those in charge of American foreign policy.
But the most important reason for the new ascendence of the CIA and its highly publicized professionals is the Nixon Doctrine, which is in many ways a throwback to the policies of the Eisenhower era, the CIA’s Golden Age. John Foster Dulles and his brother used the CIA as an instrument of political warfare to extend US control over the internal politics of countries throughout the world, without military intervention. During the Eisenhower years troops were used only in the brief adventure in Lebanon and for evacuating some tiny islands off China. But CIA agents brought down governments in Iran and Guatemala, attempted to do so in Indonesia, installed Mobutu in the Congo, and staged a secret war in Laos.
These were the years in which the CIA established itself, as the principal arm of US diplomacy in a number of countries and reduced many ambassadors to embarrassed ceremonial figures. Sometimes intelligence agents were openly appointed to strategic embassies. In 1953, for example, General “Wild Bill” Donovan, the creator of OSS and the senior American specialist in espionage, was appointed ambassador to Thailand so that he could set up a variety of covert operations in Southeast Asia, of which many still survive. The Eisenhower era was a period of intense undercover activity, but under the cover of Dulles’s belligerent rhetoric Ike delivered eight years of peace.
Nixon now promises a full generation of peace. According to the neo-Metternichean vision of Henry Kissinger, expounded in State of the World messages and in the President’s major foreign policy speech last summer at Kansas City, US troop strength around the world will be reduced and largescale military interventions will be avoided. Instead, Nixon will take diplomatic steps to reduce confrontations around the world. When the United States finds that it has no alternative to the use of force to protect what are still deemed our “vital interests” in other countries, the emphasis will not be on crude military power. The Nixon Doctrine calls for increased use of foreign military assistance, the development of an “electronic battlefield” and other lethal technology that can be operated at a safe distance, and reliance on air power.
When the United States finds it necessary to use military action abroad, every effort will be made to ensure that the color of the bodies on the battlefield will render them invisible to US newspaper readers. President Nixon has made it “perfectly clear” that the United States is not abandoning its traditional view of its interests in Southeast Asia or Latin America. We will continue to resist or harass revolutionary movements even when, as in Chile, they come to power by legal means. But a major effort is being made to find ways that are cheaper, more effective, and more acceptable politically than sending in the Army or the Marines. Clearly such a strategy creates irresistible opportunities for CIA action, the more “covert” the better.
In recent months much evidence about how the CIA operates has come to light. As we have seen, the Pentagon Papers provide the first public glimpse of its “estimating” process, but the papers also show how little such estimates can matter. On the major foreign policy crisis of this generation, the Vietnam war, they were continuously ignored. When I asked one of the government officials responsible for war planning how he could have recommended escalation in the face of the CIA analyses of the nature of the NLF and the impact of air bombardment on North Vietnamese resistance, he replied testily that nobody pays much attention to intelligence estimates. Remembering how bored and confused I was by the reams of red, yellow, brown, green, and blue documents from intelligence sources during my own days in the State Department, I had to admit he was right.