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The CIA from Beginning to End

In this way, clandestinity breeds a higher craziness. The bright university lads of the CIA do not agree with the real kooks of the John Birch Society, who find a communist under every bed. They pooh-pooh such talk, even though they sometimes encourage it for people who cannot get a more sophisticated grasp upon the communist danger. But the bright lads are also tough, not naïve liberals. They re-engage kookish specters at a higher level. After all, if there is not a communist under every bed, whose bed might better have a communist bug placed under it than a CIA agent’s? Shouldn’t one act as if one is there, just to be on the safe side? Thus does the higher Birchism creep in upon our saviors.

The CIA man is only important if his foe is. The stature of the enemy gives him his pride, as Aufidius and Coriolanus must boast of the other man’s prowess to establish their own. They are totally oriented toward each other. Each is the other’s Destiny.

   Thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have
   nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thy-
   self and me;
We have been down together in
   my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each
   other’s throat;
And waked half dead with

If communism were to disappear overnight from the face of the earth, some totally devoted anticommunists would find their lives not fulfilled but disintegrating. Life would be robbed of the normative thing that gave it meaning. Coriolanus wants to beat Aufidius, yet still to have Aufidius around to fight. That must be why Angleton could not give up his vision of a united communism menacing us on all sides. Even to diminish that threat slightly would unsettle, slightly, all his absolute certainties.

William Buckley has said that Stimson’s famous 1929 remark about gentlemen not opening other people’s mail was well enough in some other kind of world, but the menace of communism makes it necessary for us first to make the world safe for gentlemen. It is easy to predict that the world will never be thus safe: if virtue had to wait until vice disappeared before venturing to exist, the world would see no virtue. But it is true that the KGB and the CIA give each other their reason for being. They live for each other. The rest of us are not supposed to interrupt this clash of higher powers over our heads. They were born for this.


What to do about the CIA? That depends on the way you pose the problem. If the trouble is merely this or that abuse revealed to investigators, then one can try to eliminate that abuse by legislation—e.g., no more assassination plots or shellfish poisons. Senator Mark Hatfield has singled out one such abuse, the funding of CIA actions through religious fronts, and introduced legislation to keep church and state separate in the CIA (S. 2784). If the problem is simply our lack of knowledge about what is going on, and if we believe that contemporary awareness by competent people would prevent the abuses, we might try to invent a better machinery of oversight.

If the Agency is a “rogue elephant,” we can try to bring it under congressional control, or try to make the president control it. If it has some sound points (e.g., sheer gathering of information) and some unsound (e.g., covert activities), we might try to separate sound from unsound. The things badly handled can be abolished, or given over to people who might manage them better. Or one can try a mix of all such tinkerings and tactics of control, such as Leslie Gelb has proposed (in the Sunday New York Times for December 21). If, however, one thinks that the whole ethos of the organization is at odds with our principles of government, then the solution is both very simple and very difficult—intellectually simple and politically hard.

I start with the admission that intelligence operations, and extensive ones, are absolutely necessary to our government. I grant that it is hard to separate intelligence gathering from covert activities—e.g., trespass of some kind must be committed to use some kinds of electronic monitors. The problem is that we have been conditioned to think that the need for intelligence is equivalent to a need for the CIA. And that is simply not true. The CIA disposes of only a fraction of the American money and manpower devoted to intelligence. The best estimates indicate that military intelligence alone, in its three branches, has seven times the personnel of the CIA and a proportionately larger budget. The DIA is about the same size as the CIA, and the NSA is larger. The FBI devotes a great deal of its efforts to counter-intelligence embassy surveillance and the tracing of foreign influence in this country. The State Department has only a small intelligence division, but all its bureau reports are intelligence sources. So are the findings of various other agencies—e.g., the important material on the Arab boycott recently collected by the Commerce Department. Government-sponsored research at universities can yield intelligence data (e.g., on Russian laser capacities). Indeed, we have so many channels of intelligence that winnowing and analysis become difficult because of the sheer quantity of material.

One of the reasons the Central Intelligence Agency was set up, as its very name implies, was to coordinate these various intelligence activities and to prevent duplication of effort. It has largely failed in that task because of its own secrecy—it often cannot prevent others from working in an area without revealing too much of what it is doing there. Besides, its budgetary secrets have to be preserved. The Agency’s insistence on “compartmentation” and “need-to-know” makes it hide much of its activity from its own employees. There is nothing more absurd than the use of a deliberately compartmentizing agency as a coordinator. The results of this effort were seen when the military felt it had to spy on Henry Kissinger, chief of the CIA through the Forty Committee, to know what was really going on. Kissinger, for his part, kept NSC activities a secret from the William Rogers State Department. And the CIA, so far from coordinating intelligence activity, indulged in action that called for deceiving other parts of our own intelligence community.

The lone-wolf spirit of the CIA makes it a bad partner for its sister agencies. It was meant to be the “Green Berets” of intelligence, to think the unthinkable, to do what no one else can do. It has a tropism toward mixing with the bad guys—even trying to bring Howard Hughes, Las Vegas, and the Mafia in on our side of the anticommunist crusade. (Geoffrey Household’s Thirties novel in praise of gentlemanly assassination, Rogue Male, which became the Walter Pidgeon movie about assassinating Hitler, is used by Buckley to inspire his novel’s hero.) That is why I do not agree with those who dismiss the Church committee’s revelations of exotic poisons and dart guns as irrelevant to the “real” threat of the CIA. Few CIA agents, if any, may use such guns. Fidel, for that matter, still has his beard. Our sand-in-the-sugar tricks on Cuban ships did not accomplish much. But it is a part of the CIA’s legend and pride that this is what the Agency can do if it must. The possibility of assassination must always be considered. It is the venture-some tasks that give the corps its spirit. It is an action group, trained to think of itself as outside the restraints of normal military or intelligence operations. Victor Marchetti argues in convincing detail that two-thirds of the Agency’s manpower and money is spent on covert activities—since one must count in that figure the efforts spent on training, logistics, and research aimed entirely at “special operations.”5 Take that away from it, and it would lose its distinctive character—and we cannot suppose that it means to lose that without a struggle. Given its secret nature, it will win that struggle.

The Agency’s mystique arises precisely from its license to kill. It is important to remember that William Colby, the man who ran the most ruthless and bloody operation in CIA history—the Phoenix program of torture and assassination (Colby himself admits that at least 20,500 men were killed)—was advanced to the director’s office afterward. In Buckley’s novel, the hero only gives his heart fully to the Agency when his mentor, a veteran of MI-6, talks calmly of life-or-death risks: “Blackford rose, tipped his hand in mock salute, which, before his fingers reached his eyebrow in the old-time fly-boy casualness, had suddenly transformed into a salute suggesting something between respect and reverence. Rufus had been his appointed superior. He had become his leader.” The MI-6 tradition is passed on. The CIA was entirely formed out of the experiences of MI-6 and OSS, the unfettered teams of gentlemen encouraged to indulge in dreams of thuggery.

The problem is not one of control. The Agency has been most dangerous when it was controlled. It is the president’s secret militia. That has meant, in recent years, that it was Henry Kissinger’s private hit squad, since he is the presidential Forty Committee that directs CIA operations. Even as the Agency complained of being “hamstrung” by recent investigations, it went obediently into the turmoil of Portugal and Angola on Henry’s orders. It is only at this point that we reach the most important aspect of the CIA. The Agency is not a problem in itself. It is just part of the larger problem of the modern presidency, of the dramatic accretion and distortion of presidential powers in the last thirty years or so.

What we are talking about is the action arm of the Imperial President. The CIA polices the colonies for our Emperor. When William Colby says we need the CIA to have something between total inaction and sending in the marines, he means that the president should be allowed to make foreign policy outside constitutional restraints, by presenting Congress and the electorate with faits accomplis. We do not have to debate our attitude toward a democratically elected Marxist leader in Chile if the president can send his squad of goons to prevent such a man from getting elected. The Senate need not exercise its treaty-making power to woo or reject Fidel Castro if the president can get Castro bumped off. Cuban refugees in America do not need to agitate for political response to their plight if the president is already arranging an invasion of their country without his own countrymen’s knowledge.

It is silly to talk about making the president control the CIA. It is his own means of escaping control. It is his first recourse in heading off problems that would embarrass him if he had to cope with them in an open fashion. It is his means of getting intelligence and making policy in total secrecy, with autonomy. The nation cannot be for or against policies it knows nothing about. In other words, in a form of government where legitimacy arises only from accountability, the CIA was formed expressly to escape accountability. This is apparent in the blatant unconstitutionality of its secret funding process. Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution says: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by laws; and a regular statement and account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time.”

The mere existence of the CIA tempts a president to evade the Constitution—especially if he has a taste for intrigue (like Johnson or Nixon or Kissinger) or an image of himself as the dashing James Bond type (like John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy). The person who did more to shape the CIA than any other man was Allen Dulles, who did by virtue of the close ties he had with the president through his brother, the secretary of state. In the War Powers Act, the president is now ordered not to engage in clandestine warfare. Then why, if he is not supposed to do it at all, leave him the means for doing it? Already President Ford has used the CIA to support clandestine warfare in Angola. Given the CIA for his private use, most presidents will succumb to the hope that it can solve their problems quickly if deviously.

The cold-war liberals believed that the CIA must be maintained to avoid leaving intelligence to the Pentagon, which slant its intelligence toward war and the need for massive military establishments. Yet we still have the massive establishments, and reliance on them has caused less trouble, in recent years, than Kennedy’s trust in “leaner” hit-and-run tactics. It is argued that CIA intelligence estimates, contained in the Pentagon Papers, were consistently better than the military’s own. Yet Sam Adams has revealed (in Harper’s, May 1975), that the CIA tilted its own estimates toward the army’s when the president showed he would prefer that. Besides, the mere existence of the CIA tempted Kennedy and Johnson to think in terms of counter-insurgency and Edward Lansdale techniques—which is what got us into Vietnam in the first place.

The real point is that cold-war liberals liked the CIA in the Fifties and early Sixties because they liked the Imperial Presidency then. They wanted the president to escape the constraints of a fuddy-duddy Congress, just as they wanted the CIA to slip past a muscle-bound Pentagon. They thought it was desirable for the executive branch to cut corners. These liberals believed in their own version of a higher code, of an “enlightened” internationalism that had to evade, by benign deception, popular tendencies toward isolationism on the one hand and a crude anticommunism on the other. In the process, what was evaded was often the Constitution. Even when the CIA exceeds its presidential mandate (e.g., by saving toxins the president ordered destroyed) it does so on the principles instilled in it by a presidency that thinks of itself as free of control. Miles Copeland even tries to give the CIA credit for bringing down the Nixon regime, a ridiculous claim. But if the CIA ever did bring down an American president, this would be because American presidents had taught it to bring down regimes all over the world for good liberal cause.

Some liberals indulge an unjustified fear that America’s military will supply us, someday, with a dictator. Our military is not aristocratic in tradition. The inability of the services to maintain even the minimal professional exclusiveness is witnessed by the fact that the academies have had to accept women.

The fault of the American military is not autocratic haughtiness but timorous evasion, the shifting of responsibility up or down the command chain. This means, fortunately, that the military cannot defy Congress or the public the way the CIA does. Its supporters write no novels glorifying the man who will not submit to authority. There was a My Lai cover-up, and no officers higher than a lieutenant were convicted once the scandal came out; but at least there were courts-marital and the Peers Report as a result of My Lai. When have we had anything like that accountability for the slaughters of the Phoenix program, or for any CIA wrongdoing? An American citizen is sent to his death by the CIA’s drug experiments upon his mind, yet those who perpetrated this are not called before any court because they belong to the CIA. In at least nine cases that we know of the CIA has blocked United States courts from trying its agents on criminal charges by refusing to release classified evidence. More inclusively, the Justice Department has allowed the CIA itself to investigate charges brought against its employees, abdicating prosecutorial responsibility.

It is true that we need civilian control of the military, and that intelligence should be coordinated at the political level. But the CIA has failed in its task, and on purpose. It was part of the executive operation that opposed not only the military bureaucracy but the State Department (with which it warred while getting “cover” from its diplomatic corps). The rogue presidency wanted to make all policy out of the White House—which led to Kennedy’s and Johnson’s treatment of Dean Rusk and Kissinger’s humiliation of William Rogers. The State Department was too cautious for the president’s international guerrillas—which suggests a solution to our problem. The central intelligence operation should be located in the State Department—and the CIA must be abolished to make that possible.

There is no guarantee, of course, that a department of dirty tricks will not grow at State or in some other agency. We have already discovered the illegality of NSA phone and cable taps, of military intelligence units spying on potential rioters. But some of this may have arisen precisely from making the CIA our “prestige” intelligence agency, toward whose freedoms the others aspired. And, at any rate, it would be harder for other agencies to equal the license enjoyed by the CIA, which was entirely shaped to evade the rules from the outset. The War Powers Act has outlawed clandestine presidential war. Abolishing the CIA with its secret budget and semi-guerrilla training would do more to discourage irresponsible “tricks” than any paper prohibition of specific actions by name.

After all, what are we ending if we end the CIA? Even its adherents doubt it will ever regain its full stature or immunity. The afflatus of such a group cannot be maintained at full strength when the circumstances of its exercise have changed so drastically. The CIA is bound to be wounded, not just because of isolated revelations (these did no lasting harm at the time of the Bay of Pigs), or congressional investigations (which have been rather deferential), but because the Imperial Presidency, of which the CIA is so large a part and expression, has been wounded. Buckley’s own hero laments, “There’s no feeling anymore for the kind of thing we’re doing, and there’s no way, overnight, to stimulate that kind of feeling.”

Rule out total recovery, then, and what do you have? An agency that will try to reassert its ethos in a situation no longer receptive to it. Better kill it off now, before its crippled energies are used in even more distorted ways than its full ones were. Fumbling around for “controls” merely proves that we do not have the clarity or resolve to deal with an agency that was born, on principle, out of control.

  1. 5

    The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks (Knopf, 1974), pages 70, 71, 78-79.

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