Eclipse: The Last Days of the CIA
The Bear Trap: Afghanistan’s Untold Story
The Red Web: MI6 and the KGB Master Coup
The FBIKGB War: A Special Agent’s Story
Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton: The CIA’s Master Spy Hunter
Molehunt: The Secret Search for Traitors that Shattered the CIA
No Other Choice: The Cold War Memoirs of the Ultimate Spy
The Cambridge Spies: The Untold Story of Maclean, Philby, and Burgess in America
The Central Intelligence Agency: An Instrument of Government, to 1950
General Walter Bedell Smith as Director of Central Intelligence, October 1950February 1953
Moscow Station: How the KGB Penetrated the American Embassy
The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA
America’s Secret Eyes in Space: The U.S. Spy Satellite Program
American Espionage and the Soviet Target
The secret war concealed within the cold war achieved a kind of climax one chilly morning in the early 1960s in the Congo, when two boats slowly approached each other along the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. These were no native dugouts, but long, sleek craft with powerful engines. Whether it was someone in the southern boat heading north or someone in the northern boat heading south who first distinguished the low diesel rumble of the approaching boat over the growl of his own, I cannot say, for my informant is now dead. Nor can I say who spied the other first, or who fired first, or what was shouted in the panic and confusion as bullets were exchanged during the frantic moments before engines were revved up and the two powerful craft veered off into the mist. But I can report that the shouts of alarm that echoed over Lake Tanganyika, uttered by the hired warriors of the United States and the Soviet Union, were in both cases Cuban Spanish, mother tongue alike of the Cubans who went to the Congo to make a revolution with Che Guevara at Soviet expense and the Cubans dispatched to foil them by the intelligence agencies of America.
This brief encounter, a kind of bump in the night, summed up for my friend Sam Adams, a former analyst for the CIA, the loony quality of the secret cold war—a clash of proxies in an out-of-the-way corner of the world which was nevertheless freighted with heavy strategic significance for the policy makers of Washington. What gave Adams’s story its power for me was the fact that Adams had never set foot in Africa, much less the Congo. What he loved was the stacks of secret documents that crossed his desk at the Central Intelligence Agency. A morning’s work memorizing the correct pronunciation of the names of native tribes made him the house expert on the Congo. It became his job to read the Congo cable traffic every morning, and there he found the story of the battle of Lake Tanganyika. He passed it on to me a decade later with such conviction that for a year I assumed he had been in the CIA boat with the CIA Cubans looking death in the eye.
Adams’s story came to my mind following the collapse of the Soviet Union two years ago, so like the disintegration of an army routed in wartime. The manner of its ending revealed some fundamental things about the cold war: it really was a war, and prosecuting it took conscious effort and resolution. The control of nations was at stake, one side lost, and the other prevailed. In every way it was like the other great political contests of history save one: there was no spasm of bloodletting at the end. Why this was so is a question intimately related to another one, also central: How important to the outcome of the cold war were the battle of Lake Tanganyika and all the other clandestine skirmishing, the spying and the counterspying, the black propaganda and hidden pulling of strings, the keeping and breaching of secrets during the forty-five years after the Soviet Union planted its armies in the heart of Europe at the end of the Second World War? In short, did the United States, which spent perhaps half a trillion dollars on intelligence since 1945, get its money’s worth?
The CIA was far from alone in the secret war waged against the intelligence services of the Soviet Union and its allied states. The National Security Agency, with its code-breaking computers, dwarfs the CIA in this country, and a host of foreign services were involved in the West, especially the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), or Federal Intelligence Service of Germany, and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) of Great Britain. But the CIA was to the Western effort as the US Army was to the Allied landing at Normandy in 1944, first among equals and the principal source of men and money. The agency brought a crusading passion to the struggle on its founding in 1947. Disappointment and setbacks taught patience and realism to intelligence professionals, but they never lost confidence that they could handle the Russians if the Congress and the press would only stay out of the way. Joseph Persico in his fine but unfootnoted biography of William Casey reports that an Israeli journalist once asked President Reagan’s new Director of Central Intelligence why he gave so much attention to a banana republic like Nicaragua. Casey answered, “I’m looking for a place to start rolling back the Communist empire.”
This was confidence on the grand scale, and it got Casey and the Reagan administration into deep trouble. If the Iran-contra affair can be said to have had one preeminent cause it was the administration’s determination to keep up the pressure on the Sovietbacked government of Nicaragua despite the Boland Amendment of July 1983 which prohibited the use of American funds to arm the contras. The Congress had a hard time deciding what it wanted to do in Central America, but Casey did not. As an Irish Catholic trained in Jesuit schools, Casey had no trouble in the 1930s choosing sides in the Spanish Civil War. The way he saw it the Soviets were backing Marxists who raped nuns and killed priests. One of Casey’s old friends, Leo Cherne, told Persico that Casey “was 100 per cent for Franco and 100 per cent against the Loyalists.”
This strain of anti-Communist zeal, undiluted after fifty years, shocked and frightened much of the foreignpolicy bureaucracy in Washington in the early 1980s when President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and some of his aides—Paul Nitze and Richard Perle among others—talked of speeding up the strategic arms race in order to spend the Russians into bankruptcy. Reagan cited the practical burdens of a flood of refugees if the Communists went unchecked in Central America, but what really seems to have worried him was the Reds’ slow chipping away at the “Free World.” Vietnam and Cambodia were lost, Ethiopia and Angola were defended by Cuban troops, the Russians were in Kabul after one hundred years of trying; they were also sending arms to the Sandinistas, and the Sandinistas in turn were backing a revolution next door in El Salvador. But when Casey and the President talked about bankrupting the Soviets and “rolling back the Communist empire,” they aroused fears of reckless provocation leading to large-scale war on the part of much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, the liberal press, a great many university professors, the World Council of Churches, the Democratic Congress, and me.
Now, only a few years later, Casey is dead of a brain tumor and President Reagan has retired to his house in the West, but the joke is not on them. They were barely out of town when the Communist empire began unraveling. To celebrate a milestone in the historic retreat, Casey’s successor, William Webster, held a little party in the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on February 15, 1989, according to Mark Perry in his oddly titled new book, Eclipse: The Last Days of the CIA. On that day, after ten years of failure as expensive as they were humiliating, the Soviets pulled the last of their troops out of Afghanistan. A couple of years later they wouldn’t even be Soviets anymore. Webster was no tiger of the cold war like Casey, but he could see the end had come. “This is a victory for America,” he said, “but it is also a victory for the CIA.”
It is too soon to say whether Marxism as an evangelical movement died with the Soviet state, but it is a good moment, perhaps, to examine claims such as Webster’s about what destroyed it. If we grant that the cold war itself was the test failed by the Soviet regime, then it follows that the secret cold war was a principal field of conflict. The torrent of intelligence books published during the last year or two touches on many of the themes and battlefields of the secret war, starting with the first clandestine skirmishes in the Baltic and Ukraine at the end of World War II, and continuing on through the technical triumphs of overhead reconnaissance and the ten-year guerrilla war in Afghanistan. Defeat there would not have been a disaster for a healthy superpower, but the Soviet Union in the 1980s was not healthy. In this last battle of the cold war the money and the arms provided by the CIA weighed heavily in the scale.
The invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 caught Washington unprepared. A Soviet client state in Kabul had been faltering under guerrilla attack but the CIA, preoccupied with Iran, had failed to recognize the warning signs. This amazed no one; intelligence agencies have a dismal record of predicting things that have not happened before. The Soviet attack was stunningly swift and efficient, and it was especially alarming because it broke an unwritten rule of the cold war—that the Soviets were extremely cautious about committing their own troops to battle outside Europe. But not even the hard liners in the Carter administration suggested launching a serious attempt to drive the Soviets out again. The President simply authorized a low-level CIA program of aid to the mujaheddin rebels to make life more difficult and more expensive for the Soviets.
Backing a guerrilla war takes a hard heart. The mujaheddin—soon referred to as “the Muj”—wanted enough arms to win, but the CIA and other backers were reluctant to push the Soviets to the brink of defeat for fear of setting off a big war. The tension of managing such a conflict is well-described by a former Pakistani intelligence officer, General Mohammed Yousaf, in The Bear Trap, published recently in Britain and Europe. When Yousaf took over the Afghan bureau of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) in October 1983, he faced a supremely delicate problem—in providing arms to the seven Afghan political groups actually fighting the Soviets, he was in effect directing seven different wars.
The Muj had the political support of the entire Muslim world including Iran, of the United States and Britain, and of China, but when it comes to arms, business is business. Egypt, for example, sold whole warehouses full of obsolete Soviet arms to the CIA, which transferred them to Pakistan where they were divvied up for the different factions of the Muj.
The idea was to maintain the fiction that the Muj were capturing their arms from the Soviets on the battlefield. The reality was that Egypt got hard currency for worthless weapons, the CIA kept the US at arm’s length from the war, and the rebels were outgunned. But Yousaf had to take what he could get, including 60,000 rifles and 8,000 machine guns of World War II vintage dug out of warehouses in Turkey, an unbelievably cumbersome Swiss anti-aircraft gun which fired $50,000 worth of ammunition per minute and took twenty mules to haul around the Afghan countryside, and a British surface-to-air missile called the Blowpipe which had proved useless in the Falklands war.