The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence
In drafting impeachment articles the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives charged Nixon with “misuse of the CIA.” The more fundamental question was outside the scope of their inquiry: What is the proper use of the CIA?
In the national security world Watergate has become a code word for official dismay that the wrong people were supplied with ill-fitting wigs and burglar tools at the wrong place and time. Nixon’s defenders on the committee argued that if the president had reason to think that the CIA was involved in “proper” covert operations that would be jeopardized by a vigorous FBI investigation he was indeed obliged to mislead the chief investigating arm of the federal government. The president’s accusers believed that he committed an impeachable offense by allowing members of the intelligence underworld like Hunt and Liddy to go after the wrong targets.
“National security” is the holy oil that converts felonious acts into patriotic exploits. It has been sprinkled liberally to justify break-ins at foreign embassies, but it is, fortunately, not yet available to bless burglaries on Beverly Hills psychiatrists. In the practice of covert intelligence the working tools are burglary, assassination, extortion, blackmail, and lying. It is hardly surprising that agents like E. Howard Hunt labor under some moral confusion. The following exchange between Hunt and Assistant US Attorney Earl Silbert took place before a federal grand jury in April, 1973.
Silbert: Now while you worked at the White House, were you ever a participant or did you ever have knowledge of any other so-called “bag job” or entry operations?
Hunt: No, sir.
Silbert: Were you aware of or did you participate in any other what might commonly be referred to as illegal activities?
Silbert: Yes, sir.
Hunt: I have no recollection of any, no, sir.
Silbert: What about clandestine activities?
Hunt: Yes, sir.
Silbert: All right. What about that?
Hunt: I’m not quibbling, but there’s quite a difference between something that’s illegal and something that’s clandestine.
Silbert: Well, in your terminology, would the entry into Mr. Fielding’s [Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist] office have been clandestine, illegal, neither, or both?
Hunt: I would simply call it an entry operation conducted under the auspices of competent authority.
Hunt’s responses illustrate what Victor Marchetti and John Marks call the “clandestine mentality,” the state of mind which sustains the entire covert intelligence effort. Richard Bissell, former head of clandestine operations, once put it that CIA men “feel a higher loyalty and…they are acting in obedience to that higher loyalty.” That higher loyalty is a definition of “national security” developed and communicated in secret by higher-ranking bureaucrats hermetically sealed from public scrutiny. “The nation must to a degree take it on faith that we too are honorable men devoted to her service,” CIA Director Richard Helms declared in 1971. There is indeed a code of honor operating in the intelligence underworld, which is made up of people who surpass most of us in dedication to a higher cause. The question still obscured in the Watergate debate is this: What is that higher cause for which we must stand accepted norms of civilized conduct on their head?
Marchetti and Marks barely suggest an answer to that question in their heavily censored book The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. The book mainly describes the life they observed when Marchetti was an assistant to the deputy director of the CIA and Marks worked for the director of intelligence in the State Department. They make no full analysis of the effects of the intelligence underworld on domestic politics and foreign policy. That book remains to be written. But when it is, the efforts of Marchetti and Marks to collect specific data on the structure, finances, and operations of the CIA will be an indispensable source. For the increasing numbers of concerned citizens who vaguely feel they are being conned by government this book will be clarifying and infuriating. It destroys the CIA official cover story that it has replaced its spies, adventurers, and assassins with rows of Princeton graduates reading foreign newspapers. The following passage, which the CIA tried unsuccessfully to excise, makes it clear how important “dirty tricks” still are:
At present the agency uses about two-thirds of its funds and its manpower for covert operations and their support—proportions that have been held relatively constant for more than ten years. Thus, out of the agency’s career work force of roughly 16,500 people and yearly budget of about $750 million 11,000 personnel and roughly $550 million are earmarked for the Clandestine Services and those activities of the Directorate of Management and Services (formerly the Directorate of Support), such as communications, logistics, and training, which contribute to covert activities. Only about 20 percent of the CIA’s career employees (spending less than 10 percent of the budget) work on intelligence analysis and information processing.
Nothing in the career of the agency’s new director, William Colby, suggests that covert operations will now become less important. Colby was an alumnus of OSS parachute operations in France and Norway, director of the 30,000-man Meo Armée Clandestine in Laos, designer of the agency’s “Counter Terror” program in Vietnam (described by a former US Foreign Service adviser to South Vietnamese internal security programs as the use of “Viet Cong techniques of terror—assassination, abuses, kidnappings, and intimidation—against the Viet Cong leadership”), and coordinator of the Phoenix program two years later (20,587 “executions” of “suspected Viet Cong” in two and a half years, according to Colby’s own testimony). Probably more than any of his predecessors, he represents the clandestine mentality. Marchetti and Marks describe how this upside down view of the world is taught:
He learns that he must become expert at “living his cover,” at pretending he is something he is not. Agency instructors grade the young operators on how well they can fool their colleagues. A standard exercise given to the student spies is for one to be assigned the task of finding out some piece of information about another. Since each trainee is expected to maintain a false identity and cover during the training period, a favorite way to coax out the desired information is to befriend the targeted trainee, to win his confidence and make him let down his guard. The trainee who gains the information receives a high mark; his exploited colleague fails the test. The “achievers” are those best suited, in the view of the agency, for convincing a foreign official he should become a traitor to his country; for manipulating that official, often against his will; and for “terminating” the agent when he has outlived his usefulness to the CIA….
Most operators see no inconsistency between an upstanding private life and immoral or amoral work, and they would probably say that anyone who couldn’t abide the dichotomy is “soft.” The double moral standard has been so completely absorbed at the CIA that Allen Dulles once stated, “In my ten years with the Agency I only recall one case of many hundreds where a man who had joined the Agency felt some scruples about the activities he was asked to carry on.”
The authors describe some of these “activities.” Colonel Lansdale’s “psywar operation” would ambush suspected Huk rebels, puncture their necks “vampire-fashion with two holes,” hang their bodies upside down “until the blood drained out” and put the drained corpses back on the trail to scare off other insurgents. (Enterprising agency anthropologists had discovered that even revolutionary Filipinos in the area would melt at the thought of encountering a vampire.) The CIA broke into a bonded warehouse in Puerto Rico in order to contaminate Cuban sugar stored there. Tibetan refugees trained in Colorado raided mainland China and stole mailbags. The Green Beret operation in Peru in the mid-1960s secretly provided helicopters and arms, as well as counterguerrilla training, in a “miniature Fort Bragg” deep in the jungle. Secret operations in Southeast Asia were carried on under the cover of Air America, Southern Air Transport, CAT, and Air Asia. Mountain Air Aviation “served as a conduit in the sale of B-26 bombers to Portugal for use in that country’s colonial wars in Africa.”
Since Marchetti and Marks did not take part in such covert operations, their account of them relies largely on inside gossip and outside sources rather than direct experience. Although they add a few new details to previously published accounts of CIA operations in Indonesia, Tibet, Bolivia, and elsewhere, they do not take us much beyond Thomas Ross and David Wise’s The Invisible Government, a brilliant piece of investigative journalism published in 1962. They do give the best available description of what the agency looks like at the top, particularly its structure and mystique. No one has yet been able to give a full picture of what agents in the field do, although a book about to be published in England by Philip Agee, a secret agent in Latin America for many years, may begin to fill this gap.
The agency itself has confirmed the accuracy of The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence by its extraordinary efforts to censor it. So far their efforts have been largely successful and have cost the publisher over $100,000 in legal fees, as the CIA is no doubt aware. One hundred and sixty-eight passages are still deleted pending the ruling of higher courts and almost 200 more passages were restored only after persistent negotiations. The latter appear in boldface type throughout the book. By examining the bold-faced passages and filling in some of the gaps one can, thanks to the diligence of Jack Anderson, gain some insight into the minds of the CIA officials who seem so worried about this book. They do not mind taking credit for the 1954 “coup” in Guatemala but don’t want us to know about Indonesia capturing a CIA pilot who carried out secret bombing missions against the Sukarno regime, something that has been public knowledge for years. They are uneasy about references to CIA guerrilla raids against North Vietnam in 1964 at the time of the Tonkin Gulf affair even though the raids were revealed in the Pentagon Papers.
For the most part the deletions appear to be based on concern for public relations rather than for national security. The Russians are undoubtedly aware of the ridiculous incident in Tokyo when CIA and KGB operatives scuffled over a would-be Soviet defector and were carted off by the Japanese police for disturbing the peace; the American public is not. The Chinese know about the mountain-climbing crew that installed a nuclear listening device which collapsed and contaminated the Ganges river: most congressmen do not know about such extremely provocative operations.
The CIA also does not like references to its cavalier use of clandestine funds, such as Robert McNamara’s secret transfer of CIA funds to Norway in 1967 when the Pentagon military assistance budget ran short, or Lyndon Johnson’s use of “The Directors Contingency Fund” to supplement the State Department’s entertainment allowance during an OAS meeting in Uruguay the same year. The CIA also cut references to its use of secret funds to play the stock market for the same reasons of “national security” that Richard Nixon used to protect private and public wrongdoing.
That Willy Brandt took money from the CIA when he was a young politician after the war might have been politically embarrassing to him, but to impose unconstitutional censorship in order to suppress that fact is more than we owe even the most cooperative foreign politician. That the so-called Penkovsky Papers were an agency forgery has been one of Washington’s worst kept secrets. It was an elaborate but quite useless prank, fun for those in on the joke; nothing is damaged by revealing it except the reputation of the CIA. Bugging Kremlin limousines sounds like the ultimate in espionage coups, but in fact it produced only the gossip and trivia one would expect. Perhaps this information was useful in preparing the famous psychological profiles in which the agency specializes (unless, of course, it was too secret because of its source to entrust to psychiatrists); no one in the US was wiser or safer for it.
The CIA’s spies, buggers, code-snatchers, crop contaminators, covert philanthropists, and secret political manipulators live in an atmosphere of pretentious banality. Vast amounts of money, time, and energy are expended in designing signal transmitters that can fit in a false tooth, in amassing gossip on the eating, drinking, and sleeping habits of political figures around the world, and in caring for defectors, the agency’s principal “assets” in communist countries. (Colonel Penkovsky was given a secret CIA medal and a US Army colonels’s uniform as assurance that transfer of allegiance would involve no loss of rank.) Other secret activities such as overflights of the Soviet Union, China, and Albania, electronic surveillance by ships off North Korea and Israel, hidden bases in Pakistan and elsewhere involve much higher costs than an occasional stage prop. We know of too many CIA missions that not only failed—e.g. the U-2 and RB-70 overflights in the Soviet Union and the unhappy voyages of the Pueblo and the Liberty—but ran serious risks of provoking war.
Secret bases and secret armies which are intended to “open up the options” for US foreign policy have a way of doing precisely the opposite. Once the secret base is established, its “cover” must be protected. Considerable concessions have been made to Pakistan, Ethiopia, and other countries to protect such “assets.” (One of the reasons why President Kennedy decided to go through with the Bay of Pigs adventure, in spite of misgivings, was the fear the Cuban exiles in the training camps would talk if they were not staked to an invasion.)
What is it all for? Although there is rampant silliness in the intelligence underworld, it is also a necessary institution for managing a modern empire. While the failures are spectacular, it is the successes that raise the most important issues. No one can quarrel with the need for intelligence, which is merely another name for information on which to base decisions. But the CIA is spending a major share of its budget on covert action, which is not information-gathering at all, but secret warfare. Bissell has catalogued some of the activities of covert action specialists:
(1) political advice and counsel; (2) subsidies to an individual; (3) financial support and “technical assistance” to political parties; (4) support of private organizations, including labor unions, business firms, cooperatives, etc.; (5) covert propaganda; (6) “private” training of individuals and exchange of persons; (7) economic operations; and (8) paramilitary [or] political action operations designed to overthrow or support a regime.
To manage political and social change around the world and to oppose national revolutions, as in Chile, is a “responsibility” that requires covert action. As long as the US maintains its extravagant policy of trying to make the world safe for established political and economic power, there will always be men like Colby, Bissell, and Hunt ready to lie, steal, and kill in that higher cause. Indeed there are many reasons why the CIA now seems a more political instrument than ever, including the improved techniques for “low profile” interventions, the growing desire to control resource-producing Third World countries, the increasing difficulties in mounting conventional military operations abroad. If we do not wish to use the state to legitimize criminal activity at home and abroad, then we must stop trying to set the conditions for the internal development of other nations.
In 1963 Harry Truman said that he was “disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational arm and at times a policy-making arm of the Government.” But fifteen years earlier he began the process by establishing the Office of Policy Coordination, the first postwar “dirty tricks” operation. Classified National Security Intelligence Directives broadened its scope, giving it, among other powers, the authority to question Americans about their foreign travels and to enter into contracts with American universities. Once the cold war defined the American national purpose, lethal pranksterism became a growing industry. The CIA’s legitimacy, once accepted, cannot be effectively controlled, as the sorry record of the Senate “watchdog” committee attests.
It is hard to find public defenders of “dirty tricks” these days. Despite the evidence now coming to light about the agency’s role in the Greek coup of 1967 and its generous payments to high Mexican officials, the only clandestine activity to which the CIA admits is covert intelligence collection. How else, Colby asked recently in a speech to the Los Angles World Affairs Council, can we get “information on the intentions of other powers”? The revolution in technical intelligence-gathering of the past twenty years, he points out, has “not removed the need to identify at an early stage research abroad into some new weapon system which might threaten the safety of our nation.”
Richard Bissell has provided us enough of a glimpse into the “intelligence community” to expose the disingenuousness of this statement. Clandestine intelligence collection is primarily directed against those societies least able to hurt us because these also happen to be the societies least able to protect themselves from penetration. The Soviet Union makes such a large investment in counterespionage that, except for an occasional defector like Penkovsky, most of the information about their intentions has to be pieced together from open sources. Powerful countries, the only plausible security threats, can develop sophisticated codes that are, as cryptologist David Kahn puts it, “unbreakable in practice.” In 1970 Admiral Gayler of the National Security Agency admitted privately, according to Marchetti and Marks, “that a good part of the NSA’s successes came from breaks” into embassies and other places where code books can be stolen. Thus it is possible to break the codes of poor Third World countries such as Chile. “One surreptitious entry can do the job successfully at no dollar cost,” the authors of the 1970 Huston Plan reported to President Nixon. But such cheap petty thievery produces information the US government does not need or should not have.
The reason the underdeveloped world “presents greater opportunities for covert intelligence collection,” as Richard Bissell explained to a Council on Foreign Relations study group in January, 1968, is that governments “are much less highly oriented; there is less security consciousness; and there is apt to be more actual or potential diffusion of power among parties, localities, organizations, and individuals outside the central governments.” Thus, the same internal suspicions, rivalries, and bribery that keep poor nations from effectively organizing themselves to overcome mass poverty make them attractive targets of the intelligence underworld. Real and exaggerated fears of being infiltrated help to keep such societies in a continual state of political disorganization. As Bissell points out, the less totalitarian the society, the easier it is to find out and to influence what goes on there. Salvador Allende’s tolerance of forces opposing him made it easy for the CIA and other intelligence agencies to work with them to hasten his downfall.
Bissell argues that espionage in the poorer countries is needed to produce “timely knowledge” of “tactical significance.” In fact most clandestine collection of information serves no purpose other than to support covert activities that subvert foreign regimes. Bissell himself concedes that sometimes “the tasks of intelligence collection and political action overlap to the point of being almost indistinguishable.” For what legitimate purpose does the United States need to immerse itself in the internal political developments of Third World and other countries which pose no threat to the security of the United States other than the assertion of their own independence?
The usual argument for a large secret warfare department is that other nations have them too. The “clandestine mentality” pervades the Soviet Union, and the record of the KGB for murder, theft, torture, and forgery is probably unmatched. But do criminal activities of other countries require us to maintain our own? Certainly it is necessary to carry on counterintelligence work against penetration and manipulation of our government and theft of military secrets. But there is a difference between such defensive counter-espionage operations and secret warfare against other nations, although there is always the risk that the one can be disguised as the other. The “gap” in dirty tricks (if indeed there is one) is no more justification for the United States to corrupt our own society and distort our foreign relations than the “missile gap” or the “bomb shelter gap” of the 1960s.
Like all other arms races we have been running mostly against ourselves, the “back-alley-war,” as Dean Rusk calls it, could be drastically cut down on our side with a net gain in security for the American people. This is so because most of the information so expensively and dangerously procured by clandestine means often turns out to be politically worthless. The work done by spies is inherently suspect because specialists in espionage are in the business of producing disinformation as well as information. Indeed the more esoteric and elaborate the deception required to produce a given bit of data, the less likely are the spy’s political superiors to believe it. Thus some of the great intelligence coups of history—the advance warning to Stalin of the impending German attack, for example—were never translated into effective policy (as more recently the warnings of the Defense Intelligence Agency that the Egyptians and Syrians were about to attack in October, 1973, were ignored by policy makers). Meanwhile the bribery, blackmail, and theft that produces piles of tape recordings of foreign politicians, photographs of documents, and dossiers on friends and enemies breeds fear and distrust of the United States around the world. The blunders and petty triumphs of US agents abroad have done more to damage the reputation of the US for trustworthiness and decency than all the machinations of the KGB.
For the protection of our own society the “dirty tricks” department must be recognized for what it is, a criminal enterprise. Dismantling it and preventing its reappearance in newer and slicker disguises would be one of the first acts of a new administration genuinely concerned to preserve constitutional liberty and to stop the wreckage our paid pranksters are causing around the world.