Is the CIA Necessary?

Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala 1952-1954 Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C.

by Nicholas Cullather. History Staff, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central
available from the National Archives, Washington, D.C., 116 pp.

CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954

by Gerald K. Haines. CIA History Staff Analysis
available from the National Archives, Washington, D.C., 12 pp.

Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs

by Richard M. Bissell Jr.
Yale University Press, 268 pp., $35.00

Secrecy: Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy

Chairmen: Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Larry Combest
Government Printing Office, 114 with appendices pp.


Of all the organizations that miss having the Soviet Union as an enemy, the CIA has undoubtedly been hit the hardest. The reason is that the CIA was specifically established in 1947 to struggle with the Soviet enemy. Whatever sins the CIA was later guilty of, they could always be excused by its defenders on the ground that the Soviet Union did the same things or worse; one had to fight fire with fire. But now, the enemy has vanished. Its most dedicated American antagonist has been deprived of its mission. The CIA wanders about in a wilderness of self-doubt and recrimination.

Just how serious the CIA’s present crisis is may be shown by what has happened to two of its proudest triumphs. For years, the CIA boasted of its success in overthrowing the Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1953 and the Arbenz regime in Guatemala in 1954. These feats came early in the development of the agency and enormously helped it to gain the confidence of presidents and other governmental leaders. In subsequent years, nothing the CIA did equaled the dispatch and economy with which these regimes were eliminated.

In 1992, the CIA took on a young historian, Nicholas Cullather, who had recently completed a Ph.D. dissertation. He spent a year at the CIA restudying the Guatemalan operation and came out with a 116-page narrative of the events, called Operation PBSUCCESS. It was classified “Secret” in 1994 and declassified in 1997. But it was also “sanitized,” and various portions, especially names, have been eliminated from the text. Nevertheless, it is substantially intact and tells the story with an authority that it has never had before. Cullather was lucky because the Guatemalan records were still available for study, unlike the records of some other CIA operations. 1

The CIA, according to Cullather, viewed the events in Guatemala “not in a Guatemalan context but as part of a global pattern of Communist activity.” Political changes had been going on in Guatemala for a decade since the overthrow of the dictator Jorge Ubico by a group of army officers in 1944. The election of one of those officers, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, in 1950, with the support of the army and leftist parties, was for Guatemalans another stage in the process. Among those parties, however, was a tiny Guatemalan Communist Party, and that was enough for the CIA. In a nation of almost three million, the party had fewer than two hundred active members. Guatemala had in fact been a virtual colony of the United Fruit Co., and Arbenz was determined to break its grip on the country.

It happens that I went to Guatemala, before the overthrow of Arbenz, as a correspondent for The Reporter magazine^2. When I wanted to travel by train, I found that the International Railways of Central Amer-ica, valued then at $80 million, were owned by United Fruit; the big complaint was that it was more interested in carrying freight than people. When I wanted to send a telegraph message, I was told that the telegraph was controlled by United Fruit. So was the local newspaper. When I went to the American embassy for information, I was told that the most complete files were possessed by the United Fruit office in Guatemala City. When I wanted to see the vast United Fruit banana plantation, I was taken there in a United Fruit plane, which was the only way to get there. The only decent hospital was run by United Fruit at its plantation. Except for a few minor coffee plantations and some handicrafts, United Fruit’s bananas were the only important industry in the country.

Cullather found that “there is evidence that the Truman administration encouraged the company to take a hard line” against the Arbenz regime. With the backing of the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, the CIA decided to overthrow Arbenz and put in his place a dissident Guatemalan army officer, Carlos Castillo Armas. Cullather retells in detail from CIA sources the partially comic-opera story of how Arbenz was deprived of support from the Guatemalan army and prevailed on to resign. Castillo Armas staged an “invasion” of Guatemala from Honduras with 480 troops; they presented no threat to the much larger Guatemalan army and could easily have been put down. But the regular army officers convinced themselves that Castillo Armas’s ragged followers were merely the advance guard of US Marines. If that had not been their belief, they might well have stuck with Arbenz, who did not threaten their privileges.

For “agency observers in Miami and Washington,” Cullather writes, “what happened in the next few days seemed curious and magical. Just as the entire operation seemed beyond saving, the Guatemalan government suddenly, inexplicably, collapsed. The Agency never found out why.” Instead, “an Agency legend developed.” The CIA spread the word that Arbenz had “lost his nerve” as a result of its psychological pressure and radio propaganda. In fact, Cullather writes, “Arbenz was deposed in a military coup.” The CIA’s shenanigans had had little to do with it.

After Arbenz resigned, five successive juntas took over the presidential palace in eleven days. Finally, the US ambassador, John Peurifoy, “bullied and cajoled” and managed to put together a successor administration, including Castillo Armas, who was later assassinated by a member of the presidential guard. Cullather makes it clear that the Guatemalan operation was so inept that it would have resulted in a complete disaster if the Guatemalan army and Arbenz had not panicked and caved in. Instead, the story “went into Agency lore as an unblemished triumph.”

When it was over, President Eisenhower was formally briefed by the operation’s managers. Eisenhower asked how many men Castillo Armas had lost. Only one was the answer. “Incredible,” Eisenhower remarked. It was incredible because, as Cullather states, the briefer had “lied.”

As if this were not enough, a much shorter CIA study by Gerald K. Haines has revealed the details of the “CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954.” It was also declassified in 1997. This work shows that Castillo Armas first proposed to the CIA the assassination of fifty-eight Guatemalans who he claimed were leftist supporters of Arbenz. “CIA planning for sabotage teams in early 1954,” Haines writes, “also included creating a ‘K’ group trained to perform assassinations.” A CIA official, whose name has been “sanitized,” thought that the assassination of a smaller number, “say 20, would be sufficient.” In April 1954, “CIA received further Department of State encouragement for assassination plotting.”

Haines sums up: “CIA officers responsible for planning and implementing covert action against the Arbenz government engaged in extensive discussions over a two-and-a-half year period about the possibility of assassinating Guatemalan officials [an additional phrase sanitized].” Within the CIA, “discussions of assassinations reached a high level.” But “no covert plan involving assassinations of Guatemalans was ever approved or implemented.” In both the CIA and the State Department, “officers were divided (and undecided) about using assassination.” But it took two decades after the Guatemalan events for William Colby, then the CIA’s director, to prohibit CIA involvement in assassination. Yet former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft recently admitted that President Bush authorized the CIA to create the conditions for the killing of Saddam Hussein by “some elements in the military.”3

Haines limits his story to CIA assassination proposals in Guatemala, and as a result he says nothing about the efforts of the CIA to enlist the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba.4 We now know of three aborted CIA plans to assassinate leaders in Guatemala, Cuba, and Iraq, but nothing about assassinations that were actually carried out.

No such CIA studies have been or can be done on the operation against Mossadegh in Iran. The agency has admitted that almost all the documents were deliberately destroyed in the 1960s.5 We know a good deal about the operation, especially from the CIA official in charge of it, Kermit Roosevelt, but that is not the same as a neutral historian’s study of the CIA documents.6 The records of other CIA operations have also been stripped bare. There could have been only one reason for this purge of the records. The CIA had much to hide and decided to do it in the most effective way—by destroying the official record. This auto-da-fé of the paperwork is a self-accusation, but it has deprived us of a clear and comprehensive insight into an important part of American history.

Yet the Guatemalan and Iranian operations were once considered “unblemished triumphs.” In retrospect, they became preludes to disaster. In Guatemala itself, a reign of terror by the army followed, especially against the indigenous Indians, and lasted for decades. The United States intervened to overthrow Arbenz but did little or nothing to stop the Guatemalan army from terrorizing the people. In the end, the operation against Arbenz helped to mislead the CIA into backing the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba. The Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was put back on the throne but later proved to be unable to resist the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose successors still rule in Iran. The “unblemished triumphs” did not wear well and ended in failures.

Cullather’s CIA study of the Guatemalan operation does not fully agree with the more recent, posthumously published version by a CIA veteran, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., who watched the events from inside the CIA. Bissell had joined the agency not long before the operation against Arbenz was launched; he attended the staff meetings held by Allen Dulles, the first director, and later participated in some of the preparations for the campaign against Arbenz. Bissell writes that the coup against him was “definitely on Eisenhower’s mind.” Eisenhower approved the plan to oust Arbenz and put Castillo Armas in his place.

Of the greatest interest, however, are Bissell’s second thoughts about the Guatemalan operation. While it was going on, he was all for aggressiveness and risk-taking. Although Cullather says that the CIA was mystified by the sudden turn in Arbenz’s fortunes, Bissell claims that “the CIA was not completely surprised by Arbenz’s confrontation with the military and his subsequent resignation.” Both agree that the major factor was that “Arbenz felt that he was up against the might of the United States.” But Bissell surprisingly claims that the CIA officials did not take this factor into consideration in their estimate of how Arbenz might react.

By the time he came to work on his memoirs, Bissell saw that the operations in Guatemala and Iran were not “unblemished triumphs.”

Regrettably, the success in Guatemala, combined with the previous success in Iran in 1953, led Washington policy makers to overestimate the agency’s abilities in the area of covert action. For many policy makers outside the CIA, covert action became a quick fix, an easy way to deal with hostile foreign leaders and renegade nation-states. Certainly the agency’s success in Guatemala against Arbenz influenced its judgment in mounting the Bay of Pigs operation against Castro.

Bissell continued to believe in the policy of “overthrowing a foreign sovereign government.” But he had lost his old confidence in its efficacy:

With hindsight, however, I would be more cautious in estimating what would happen as a result of this kind of intervention and whether it was really in the best interest of the United States. I think it perfectly arguable that US interests over the years might have been better served if Arbenz had remained in power.

The reason he came to this view is that the United States, after bringing about the overthrow of Arbenz, lost interest in Guatemala. While Guatemalan society deteriorated, no one in Washington cared.

Shortly after the operation I addressed these points in a memorandum that said we’d have to 0do everything all over again in the near future if something wasn’t done to improve the state of affairs in Guatemala—that is, if other parts of the government did not pick up those tasks that were just as necessary for achieving the desired results. The ball was not picked up in Guatemala. Nobody in the State Department or the Agency for International Development recognized the urgent need to improve that society and no major program was undertaken to accomplish that purpose. In terms of an executive long-term policy, this is a glaring weakness. It was true especially in Guatemala because there we had destabilized a democratically elected government and therefore had a greater moral obligation than we did in most small Latin American countries to try to do something about the underlying situation.

But all this came too late to do any good. After the Guatemalan operation, Bissell was sold on the CIA and decided to stay in it.

By the time of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Bissell was deputy director for plans (an early euphemism for the clandestine service), of which the Bay of Pigs was the most ambitious ever undertaken by the CIA. His version is the latest we have on those events and is especially valuable because he was primarily responsible for the entire operation.

Bissell traces the development of the operation from its start under Eisenhower to its execution under Kennedy. It began as a relatively modest plan to infiltrate a limited number of Cuban exiles to stir up active resistance together with a small paramilitary force to land on the island and “detonate a coordinated resistance at the appropriate moment.” In this phase, the model was the guerrilla organizations of World War II. No more than between one hundred and two hundred highly disciplined agents were expected to build up an underground apparatus in Cuba. Everything depended on the assumptions that Cuba was filled with discontent and unrest, and the people needed only some initiative and leadership to turn against Fidel Castro.

But it was soon decided that Castro had taken steps to handle a guerrilla movement and that something more decisive was needed. This shift of American policy came under Eisenhower, who approved a plan to train a larger invasion force of Cuban ex-iles in Guatemala. Eisenhower was so anxious to get rid of Castro that he considered various moves little more than a week before the end of his administration:

The president seemed to be eager to take forceful action against Castro, and breaking off diplomatic relations appeared to be his best card. He noted that he was prepared to “move against Castro” before Kennedy’s inauguration on the twentieth if a “really good excuse” was provided by Castro. “Failing that,” he said, “perhaps we could think of manufacturing something that would be generally acceptable.” For those who were fooled by Eisenhower’s avuncular manner, this is but another example of his willingness to use covert action—specifically to fabricate events—to achieve his objectives in foreign policy. He wasn’t the only participant at the meeting willing to “create” history. Secretary [of State] Herter suggested we stage an attack on Guantanamo.

Kennedy took office so strongly opposed to Castro that he held a meeting concerning Eisenhower’s plan a week after his inauguration. Only the CIA was enthusiastic about the invasion preparations. The original plan had called for a landing near Trinidad, a city on the southern coast of Cuba near the Escambray Mountains, to which the invading force could retreat if hard pressed. But Kennedy thought that this objective was “too noisy,” meaning that it was likely to expose the role of the United States. As a result, the landing was moved to the Bay of Pigs, a swampy coastal area a hundred miles to the west, because it was far from a major population center and was not expected to attract much attention. Bissell thinks this change was “the most clearly identifiable single error that we can be accused of,” and he blames himself for backing it. Within the CIA, skeptics about the operation were not lacking, but Bissell was so sold on it that he paid little attention to them.

Kennedy was so anxious to reduce the “noise” that, at almost the last minute, he ordered Bissell to drastically reduce the first air strike against Castro’s air force and to cancel the second one altogether. To Bissell, “cutting the air strikes by 80 percent proved to be the operation’s death sentence.” Some of Castro’s air force survived and sank two supply ships; the other supply ships withdrew far from shore. “Without resupply and air cover, the venture was doomed.” Kennedy told Bissell that he had to resign from the CIA.

In retrospect, Bissell also has second thoughts about the Bay of Pigs. Even if the supply ships had not been sunk and the air strikes had not been cut back, he came to think that “the brigade might not necessarily have established and held the beachhead.” Bissell had believed that “securing the beachhead and operating aircraft from its landing strip would have served to confuse and disorganize the Castro regime.” He expected Castro’s nerve to break and important elements of the Cuban armed forces to defect. Thus the crucial element was still Castro’s hold on the Cuban people and army—factors which the CIA had no way of testing in advance. In the end, Bissell blames Kennedy’s cutback of the air strikes, but he cannot be certain that they would have insured success.

Bissell continued to believe in the necessity of covert operations, whose control, he maintained, should always rest with the executive branch, not with Congress. How the United States could remain a constitutional democracy if Congress was excluded from all knowledge of clandestine activities, he did not explain. It was this mentality which brought about the destruction of the CIA records and, in effect, protected the CIA from investigation by both the executive branch and Congress.7

Another CIA study tried to get at the reason for the agency’s failures. The trouble, according to a review of twelve case studies in 1983, came from what is called “single-outcome forecasting.” In effect, CIA analysts assumed that they could count on historical trends remaining the same and that they could disregard the possibility of sharp changes or discontinuities. As a result, they bet on a single outcome and disregarded other possibilities. This study stated:

In the estimates that failed, there were a number of recurrent common factors which, in retrospect, seem critical to the quality of the analysis. The most distinguishing characteristic of the failed estimates—the Sino-Soviet split, the development of the [Soviet] ALFA submarine, the Qadhafi takeover in Libya, the OPEC price increase, the revolutionary transformation of Ethiopia, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the destruction of the Shah’s Iran—was that each involved historical discontinuity and, in the early stages, apparently unlikely outcomes.8

This paragraph lists some of the major events that the CIA failed to anticipate. The Shah’s fall in Iran is among them because the CIA considered it to be an “improbable outcome.” But the CIA’s ignorance of what was going on in Iran seems a far more serious failing than a defect of analytical methodology.

Ever since the directorship of Robert M. Gates, beginning in 1991, the CIA has been trying desperately to live down its past and make itself worthy of trust in the future. Nicholas Cullather’s narrative of the Guatemalan operation, Gerald K. Haines’s study of assassination proposals in the same operation, and the attempt to find out why some of the CIA’s more important estimates turned out to be wrong are part of this effort to present a new CIA. This effort came after the Iran-contra affair of the 1980s had damaged the CIA of William J. Casey almost beyond repair.

Yet the old CIA refuses to go away. Cullather’s book is apparently the only one of its kind; the documentation is missing on the Iran and other operations. The wholesale destruction of documents saved the CIA from close examination but it also disclosed how much the CIA had to hide. In a democratic system, a department or office or agency which can wholly control its records and destroy them at will makes itself virtually impervious to criticism and control. In this sense, the CIA acted outside the democratic system of government and set itself up as an autonomous body within it. The mass destruction of documents is not an American custom, as a new study of government secrecy shows.


Secrecy is the title of the official report put out by the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, of which Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was chairman and Representative Larry Combest vice chairman. It is the first study of its kind in forty years and only the second ever made. Among other things, it contains an invaluable collection of facts and statistics dealing with the classification of government documents and their release to the public. Anyone who wishes to understand something about this subject could not do better than to start with this report.

A few facts extracted from the report show how immense the subject is:

In 1995, over $5.6 billion was spent classifying documents in government and industry.

Some two million Federal officials, civil and military, and another one million persons in industry, can classify information.

Twenty-nine departments and agencies currently possess the authority to classify information.

Except for aspects of nuclear energy, any Federal official with a stamp can decide to classify documents as secret without any statutory basis.

At present, government vaults hold over 1.5 billion pages of government records over 25 years old still classified and unavailable to the public.

In 1995 alone, there were an estimated 3.6 million new classification actions, of which about 400,000 were Top Secret.

Open sources,” such as books, newspapers, and public broadcasts, are sometimes classified as Secret, and can account, as in economic analysis, for up to 95 percent of the intelligence information.

About classified documents reviewed by a Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts stated: “I do not think more than a hundred, or a couple of hundred, pages of the thousands of documents we looked at had any current classification importance, and more often than not they were documents that remained classified or were classified to hide negative political information, not secrets.”

Why are official documents classified? The commission found: “The classification system, for example, is used too often to deny the public an understanding of the policymaking process, rather than for the necessary protection of intelligence activities and other highly sensitive matters.” To this extent, the classification of documents makes officials into a separate class with the power to make decisions outside democratic control. Classification is not merely a technical action; it is a political decision at the heart of democratic government. Documents are not merely words on paper; they represent actions, plans, and proposals which are classified precisely because they are so important. When a document is classified as Secret or Top Secret, it becomes available only to a small elite class with the necessary clearance. In most cases, the smaller the class, the more important the document.

When the CIA officials destroyed the documentation of the Iran and other operations, they did more than shred pieces of paper; they made it impossible in perpetuity for the American people to find out from its own records what actions the CIA had taken. Those CIA officials acted in the name of the American people but could not afford to let the American people ever know what they had done.

The agency that classifies the most documents—53 percent of the total—is the Department of Defense. But the CIA is second with 30 percent. These two agencies classify tens of thousands of pages every year, most of them automatically.

In 1995, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12958, according to which records over twenty-five years old will be presumed declassified beginning in the year 2000 unless an agency acts to keep them classified based on an exemption in the order. But declassification is proceeding slowly. One year after the order came into effect, some agencies had done almost nothing to comply with it. The CIA had 165.9 million pages subject to the order, and 59.3 million pages to be reviewed, but had declassified only 19,600 by January 1997.

The commission’s report tells the discouraging story of one request for information:

A journalist who filed a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request with the Department of State in 1984 seeking information on oil production in Saudi Arabia during the 1970s finally received a reply in 1993—nine years later. That reply consisted of a one-page chart that the State Department had retrieved and referred to the originating agency, the Department of Energy. In 1989, the DoE sent it to the Central Intelligence Agency for further review. It was then returned by the CIA to the DoE in 1993, and finally sent to the journalist with half of its numbers deleted and a notation in the document that it had actually been declassified in 1992. After nearly a decade of waiting, the journalist had long since moved on to another story.

This story is not exceptional. The commission’s report says: “Many who try to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—even to get information in government files about themselves—routinely wait up to several years before they receive a response. Even when records are eventually released, they are often riddled with excisions (frequently called ‘redactions’).”

The commission’s chief recommendation is the creation of a National Declassification Center to coordinate national declassification policy and activities. It can do no harm but whether it could do much good is uncertain, so long as the various departments and agencies are determined to delay declassifying their enormous stores of documentation. The main virtue of the commission’s report is to provide information, for which we may be grateful.


The past haunts the CIA but the future holds the greatest threat to its survival. The reason is that the CIA, founded in a different era, may have outlived its usefulness.

Nineteen forty-seven was the year of both the National Security Act, which established the CIA, and the Truman Doctrine, which gave it a theoretical justification. For the first time, the doctrine made the United States responsible for “free peoples” all over the world. The occasion for this vast extension of American policy was a temporary crisis in Greece, which had traditionally been a British client state but which the British could no longer support financially. President Truman might simply have called on the United States to substitute for Great Britain in Greece and to deal with other problems as they arose. Instead, he seized the opportunity to give the United States the responsibility for protecting Turkey as well as Greece and to enunciate a universal policy “to support free peoples” everywhere.

In any case, the CIA was created in the name of “national security” at a time of “cold war” with the Soviet Union. But the cold war is over and without a looming Soviet threat national security has taken on a more equivocal meaning. The question is: What is the mission of the CIA in the new post-Soviet era?

The first director of the CIA to struggle with this question was Robert M. Gates in 1991. At his confirmation hearing, he declared:

The old verities that guided this country’s national security policy for forty-five years and thus its intelligence service have disappeared in an historical instant. Communism is dead or dying, a number of long-standing regional conflicts are coming to an end, the Cold War is over, the Communist Party lies mortally wounded in the Soviet Union, wounded by its own hands, and the forces of real reform are at least ascendant in the Soviet Union.

Gates then tried to find a new and different place for the CIA in the new and different world. The best he could come up with was the idea of change. “The challenge [is], then,” he said, “[that] CIA and US intelligence is to adapt to this changing world, not just in places like the Soviet Union and Europe, but to the very idea of change, the idea that for years to come change and uncertainty will dominate international life.” As for what could be done about it, he was only able to suggest that the president should launch a major effort “to determine the intelligence needs of the United States for the next decade or more, to the year 2005.”9

In effect, Gates himself did not claim to have a clue to what change meant for the CIA. He passed the problem on to President Bush.

Another Director of the CIA, R. James Woolsey, faced the same question in 1993. Like Gates, he looked back at the past with some nostalgia: “During the cold war we had a formidable adversary—a single power whose interests fundamentally threatened ours…. But although our intelligence task was of vital importance, it was relatively focused. Of our top ten intelligence priorities, probably well over half were variations on the theme of understanding the USSR and its workings in the world.”

But now, he went on, we “have prevailed in the cold war.” What does it mean for our “intelligence needs”? He could not say. The answer “will require some careful study for us to begin to answer it and we will probably be revising the answer for the rest of our lives.” Still, he asserted that “Yes, we have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes.” Among the snakes were ethnic and national hatreds, the international narcotics trade, and new economic and environmental challenges.10

The latest director, George Tenet, grappled with this problem before a friendly committee at his confirmation hearings on May 6, 1997. He had served as deputy director for two years and then as acting director. He recognized that “leadership at this moment means closing the door on the cold war and embracing the challenges and opportunities of a new era.” Like his predecessors, he particularly cited as substitutes for the Soviet enemy crime, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation—each of which is already dealt with by other agencies. His estimate of the CIA’s past was modest: “Now, the record is not perfect. We’ve done some good things and bad things.”

The formerly much-used term, “national security,” was brought up once but not by Tenet; it was mentioned by Senator Orrin Hatch, who wanted to know whether it was broad enough to include a threat from “crime families.” Yes, said Tenet, because “they get in the way of our own interest in a fundamental way.” This definition of national security is so tenuous that it is almost meaningless. Tenet indicated that he was not in favor of continuing the CIA’s policy of “openness,” which had enabled Cullather to produce his study of the Guatemalan affair: “I would turn our gaze from the past…. It [is] dangerous, frankly, to keep looking over our shoulders.”11

The CIA has had five directors in seven years. It has cut down on its staff and expenditures. Clearly, these CIA directors were groping for something to hold on to. Almost any problem faced by the United States was good enough, they felt, to claim the attention of the CIA. The CIA is now an organization in search of a mission. If it were abolished, there are plenty of intelligence organizations in Washington to take up the slack. The CIA is only one of about a dozen other intelligence agencies in the government.12 Intelligence bureaus in other departments address each of the problems mentioned by Woolsey and Tenet, and no case has been made that the CIA is superior or indispensable in dealing with them.

It may well be that the CIA had trouble with its traitors, such as Aldrich H. Ames and Harold J. Nicholson, because its employees had lost much of the zeal and fervor of the earlier period. The problem is not only that there have been renegades in the CIA; it is that they were able for so long to evade the detection of their co-workers, who apparently showed little interest in what they were doing and how they were living. The Inspector-General recommended that twenty-three current and former officials be held accountable. Then-Director Wolsey decided to do no more than to issue letters of reprimand to eleven CIA employees, seven retired and four current. No one was fired, demoted, suspended, or even reassigned.

Another sign of the CIA’s deterioration of morale is the willingness of a recently retired CIA agent to turn on the CIA and accuse it—as well as the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, and the State Department—of bungling one of its most important, technically still active operations. In a lengthy article by Jim Hoagland in The Washington Post of June 26, Warren Marik, a twenty-five-year veteran in the CIA, retired only six months ago, told the story of how efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq went awry.13 Marik belonged to one CIA faction which believed in overthrowing Saddam Hussein by working with Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group of anti-Saddam activists made up partly of ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq. This strategy was intended to overthrow Saddam by gradually putting together a “liberated zone” in the Kurdish north. Another CIA faction wanted to overthrow Saddam by encouraging former political associates and generals to mount a palace coup. Washington supported this plan because it held out the promise of quick results. In fact, the United States tried both methods, and both failed.

Hoagland writes that the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group drew up “a classic covert operation similar to those that had worked with varying degrees of success over the past half-century in Iran, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and elsewhere in the Third World.” At least $100 million was spent in the effort. Thus the old Iran-Guatemala formula of overthrowing the head of a government continued to tempt the decision-makers in Washington. It did not work in this case because Saddam easily broke up the plot, arrested one hundred of its contacts in the military, and executed thirty officers. Both Marik and Chalabi were disenchanted with the CIA.

Apart from particular questions about the CIA, there is the problem of the place of a secret agency in a democracy. Secret agencies, especially those which can conceal their secrets more or less permanently, necessarily operate outside the democratic process. They are most difficult to control and even to scrutinize. They tempt presidents to use them to escape from ordinary political oversight. They offer a quick panacea instead of patient, long-term policies. Without a war, hot or cold, they can do more harm than good.

The time has come to ask whether the country still needs the CIA. It remains an expensive adjunct which has lost its way and shows little sign of finding one. Its past is littered with “unblemished triumphs” that are now recognized as having led to disasters. Its potential for misdeeds is frightening, but it has been so secretive that there has been no telling, until much too late, what it had been doing and why. Without a clear and extraordinary mission, such as contending with the Soviet enemy, the CIA is a relic that the country does not need.


Is the CIA Necessary?’: An Exchange October 23, 1997

  1. 1

    Cullather’s book will be published next year by Stanford University Press under the title The CIA’s Secret History of Its Guatemalan Coup. There have been previous academic studies of the Guatemala operation: Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (Doubleday, 1982); Richard Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (University of Texas Press, 1982); Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954 (Princeton University Press, 1991). Cullather was able to use the CIA documents on the Guatemalan events because Stephen Schlesinger had filed a lawsuit to get them under the then relatively new Freedom of Information Act. The CIA won the lawsuit but was inhibited from destroying the documents. Schlesinger believes that the 1,400 pages on the Guatemalan events recently released by the CIA do not do justice to the 180,000 pages previously admitted to be in its possession. (See The Nation, July 14, 1997.)

  2. 3

    Unfinished Business—The CIA and Saddam Hussein,” ABC News special, June 26, 1997.

  3. 4

    The Cuban assassination scheme is discussed by the former CIA official Richard M. Bissell, Jr., in his posthumously published Reflections of a Cold Warrior, pp. 157-158. He says that the Mafia connection came under the CIA’s Office of Security. Bissell supported the plan but was not personally involved “mainly because I was not competent to handle relations with the Mafia.” Later, Bissell “came to believe that it had been a great mistake to involve the Mafia in an assassination attempt…. These were people who were not subject to any kind of security control by the agency, and they posed a great risk.”

  4. 5

    See Tim Weiner, “CIA Destroyed Files on 1953 Iran Coup,” The New York Times, May 29, 1997, p. A19.

  5. 6

    Kermit Roosevelt, Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran (McGraw-Hill, 1981).

  6. 7

    Bissell’s book contains chapters on some other subjects, especially his part in the U-2 overflights and the Marshall Plan. The chapter on Cuba is the longest in the book and was finished by the time he died in 1994. The book as a whole is mainly based on interviews with Bissell by one of the editors, Jonathan E. Lewis, who also conducted interviews with former colleagues, reflected in the text. Some of the chapters were not completely finished at the time of Bissell’s death.

  7. 8

    Willis C. Armstrong, William Leonhart, William McCaffrey, and Herbert C. Rothenberg, “The Hazards of Single-Outcome Forecasting,” in Inside the CIA’s Private World, edited by H. Bradford Westerfield (Yale University Press, 1995), p. 241. This book contains declassified articles from the CIA’s in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, from 1955 to 1992. The above article is the only one in it of self-criticism; the other articles seek ways to improve the CIA’s work.

  8. 9

    Hearings Before the Select Committee on Intelligence of the United States Senate, Volume 1, September 16, 1991, pp. 442-443.

  9. 10

    Hearing Before the Select Committee on Intelligence of the United States Senate, February 2, 1993, p. 76.

  10. 11

    Tenet’s testimony has not yet been printed. I have used the stenographic transcript.

  11. 12

    In 1996, former CIA Director John M. Deutch told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that there were “a dozen or so other intelligence agencies” (Secrecy, p. xxxiv). In 1997, the then Director-designate George Tenet told the same committee that “there are about 14 or 15 [intelligence] collection communities that operate today” (Hearings, May 6, 1997, p. 15).

  12. 13

    Marik also appeared briefly on Peter Jennings’s ABC News special, “Unfinished Business—The CIA and Saddam Hussein,” June 26, 1997.