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Is the CIA Necessary?’: An Exchange

In response to:

Is the CIA Necessary? from the August 14, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

Theodore Draper’s article “Is the CIA Necessary?” [NYR, August 14] made a disappointing read to this former member of CIA’s Operations Directorate.

Draper misstates the reason for the Agency’s creation. He fails to place the covert actions he criticizes in their historical context. Like Francis Fukuyama, he seems to believe the fall of the Soviet Union signals the end of history. He describes Allen Dulles as the Agency’s “first director,” when he was actually its third.

Draper is mistaken in asserting CIA was “specifically established…to struggle with the Soviet enemy.” It was established to give the United States what it never had before: a national intelligence agency with the operational, analytic, and coordinating capability to guard against another Pearl Harbor.

Covert operations are fraught with a potential for unintended consequences. The United States should not engage in them lightly, for they can be incompatible with the principles of a country that espouses democracy. But the first responsibility of those who govern is to defend their country. To judge their actions soundly one must ask: Had they not acted, what could they have reasonably expected to happen? Draper nowhere considers this question. He cites subsequent events in Iran and Guatemala as evidence of the inadvisability of the ousters of Mossadegh and Arbenz; but one cannot ascribe to a single cause everything negative that ensues.

He ignores the pressures under which CIA functioned in its early decades. The leadership had only limited experience in intelligence, acquired mostly during the Second World War, and worked in an organization as yet without institutional memory. Draper quotes Gerald K. Haines’s statement, that State Department officers were “divided (and undecided) about using assassinations”: evidence these pressures did not affect CIA alone. The Doolittle Report of 1954 reveals the prevailing atmosphere:

It is now clear…we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive…we…must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us.

Those implementing US foreign policy had seen extensive evidence of Soviet subversive activity; the Red Army advance into Central Europe and remain; Soviet pressures grow in the Middle East; Soviet influence extend its reach to the Western Hemisphere; the Communists seize power in China; and North Korea invade South Korea. They would have been grossly negligent not to seek to foreclose the possibility of further Soviet aggression. No thoughtful person today endorses every United States undertaking to meet the Soviet challenge. But, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one can imagine how Americans acting in good faith, if with inadequate information, could have taken initiatives that some would now call unwise. (Draper never mentions the CIA’s support of Afghan freedom fighters in their struggle against Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan. But the outcome there hardly supports his thesis.)

Draper’s concern about the compatibility of a secret intelligence service with the principles of democracy is legitimate, although one learns as one grows up that an adherence to absolutes may render one ineffective in the real world. An intelligence service’s need for secrecy requires safeguards to insure it does not engage in activities that undermine or negate principles and policies of fundamental national importance. In judging whether CIA meets these requirements, we need to remember that it has never engaged in covert action without approval from higher authority. Congressional oversight committees provide another safeguard. The first such parliamentary bodies to be created anywhere, they take their responsibilities seriously.

Oversight is not enough. The service itself must insure that those who direct clandestine operations do not apply the deceit and secrecy their work requires in dealings with one another or with other parts of the government. Paradoxical as it may seem, the leadership must consist of persons of unchallengeable integrity, with an awareness that blindness to ethical issues can both damage the country’s reputation and significantly diminish support from the public. Such support is vital to attract staff of the requisite quality.

Turning to today, I disagree that one cannot identify requirements that only a secret intelligence service can meet. Countries that lack the transparency afforded by a democratic form of government can secretly develop a capability to threaten US security. Technical means provide information on capabilities. The clandestine recruitment of well-placed reporting sources is vital for the acquisition of information on intentions.

The Operations Directorate conducts clandestine intelligence collection as well as covert action. No US intelligence agency is more experienced in the conduct of human intelligence operations. Whatever its failures, it has also had significant successes as the number of agents betrayed by Aldrich Ames sadly confirms. That CIA has suffered serious problems in recent years is no reason to call for its abolition. The US Army left Vietnam with major weaknesses in morale, discipline, and combat effectiveness, and a damaged reputation in the eyes of the American public. By focusing on fundamentals, it brought about the recovery we have all witnessed. I see no reason the Agency cannot do the same.

Finally, Draper observes that Inside the CIA’s Private World, a collection of articles from CIA’s quarterly, Studies in Intelligence, contains only one of self-criticism. Were he able to read the quarterly itself, he would see that in recent years it has printed a number of articles, both classified and unclassified, that are critical of Agency practices and procedures.

Michael S. Thompson
Charlottesville, Va.

To the Editors:

I revere Theodore Draper for his magisterial books on American Communists and on Iran/contra. And his reviews of the recently declassified material on CIA’s Guatemala affair (1952-1954) are helpful in bringing new revelations to wider attention. Indeed the assassination planning connected with Guatemala is even more significant than he senses, because it completes the picture of Guatemala as the comprehensive model for the Bay of Pigs. To recognize that, one needs to add to what Draper provides about Cuba some evidence for a high probability that assassination was a crucial component of the most secret US planning there also.

Such evidence can be found in the posthumous Richard Bissell memoir that Draper did also review, but not searchingly enough. A close reading of Bissell’s pages there on assassination planning and on Bay of Pigs decision-making—when juxtaposed with authoritative evidence from a Church Committee investigation report (1975) and with personal observations made by Bissell in articles and interviews in 1984 (but glossed over in the book)—indicates very strongly (1) that Castro was supposed to be dead by the time of the landing, and (2) that Bissell’s willingness to go along with the most drastic reductions in the April invasion’s anticipated “noisiness”—thus apparently crippling any prospects for its success—came exactly at the time (mid-March) when CIA’s poison was transferred to the Cuban who was commissioned to administer it to Castro at a restaurant.

I infer that Bissell became buoyant enough about this progress toward assassination that he saw it as offsetting the risks of President Kennedy’s anti-“noisiness” cutbacks (indeed Kennedy’s own insistence on the cutbacks may well have been buoyed by the same closely held secret knowledge, but for this surmise there is less evidence). Of course, Bissell and Kennedy must presumably have learned later, before the actual invasion, that the assassination plan was somehow not succeeding after all; but by then the momentum of the crippled military arrangements was (as everyone knows) extremely difficult to undo. Debacle ensued. (Bissell was edged out; but raiding and top-secret US attempts to kill Castro continued as long as Kennedy lived.)

I have a minor personal bone to pick with Draper, about a glancing swipe he directs (in a footnote) at my selected edition of formerly secret articles from CIA’s in-house journal Studies in Intelligence. He cites one of them as “the only one in it of self-criticism; the other articles seek ways to improve the CIA’s work.” Indeed they do, often very far-reachingly and all with continuing pertinence even now. And if that is not institutional “self-criticism,” Draper (forgive me) would appear to be using that term in the way that Soviets were wont to do.

This is worth mentioning at all because it fits with the main theme to which Draper steers his reviews of the whole set of books: namely that CIA should now be abolished and its functions scattered to other agencies that are already performing parts of them. “No case has been made that the CIA is superior or indispensable in dealing with them.” Nor is any case made here by Draper to the contrary. He does not even bother to name the alternatives, much less compare them. In particular, although secretiveness is Draper’s particular bone of contention with CIA in this review-article, he makes no effort to show that other US intelligence agencies are less secretive than CIA. Indeed the very fact that most of us (apparently including Draper) now know so much more about CIA than about the other ones suggests that, willy-nilly, CIA has become the less secretive, in fact a lightening rod for the whole Intelligence Community. Therefore scattering CIA’s functions/duties now would most likely increase net secretiveness (as Draper himself should readily be able to infer from Iran/contra, Ollie North, et al.). To be sure, some people who bemoan CIA’s relative glasnost do favor scattering it precisely in order to restore secretiveness—but not Draper, nor I. It is at least too soon now to give up on CIA’s capacity for constructive self-criticism and its responsiveness to sober, informed criticism from outsiders.

At first glance, Draper’s broader point is more telling, about duplication of mission—using the familiar line that “CIA is now an organization in search of a mission.” But one needs to incorporate in that discussion some elements of practicality. (1) CIA, for all its faults, has been and can continue to be a valuable check-and-balance (as also indeed it needs to be checked and balanced itself) in the entire shadowy world of the US Intelligence Community and wider national security community. (2) A dismantled CIA could not be reassembled in less than several years beyond the time when some US consensus (popular or at least elite) may emerge in support of some overriding core mission (Draper refers to a “clear and extraordinary mission”) that would benefit crucially from CIA’s unique composite of skills. That is a lesson of the 1945-1955 decade; the dismantling of OSS and its eventual reassembly into CIA.

In that light, can one feel confident that no such new mission will come to be seen consensually as needed so as to be made operable by say, 2010 (thus that neo-isolationist complacency and lack of focus will still be safely able to characterize America’s role in the world until at least a dozen years from now)? Otherwise, as with the somewhat downsized US military, the value of a somewhat downsized CIA should be judged not so much in currently definable missions as in “surge capacity,” to rise to a wide variety of kinds of possible occasions in a wide variety of possible places, in a possibly dangerous future.

H. Bradford Westerfield
Damon Wells Professor of International Studies
Yale University

To the Editors:

Theodore Draper’s rhetorical question whether we should have a CIA has been answered politically and legislatively since the end of the cold war—the CIA is here to stay.

A more meaningful question would have been how CIA operations and, implicitly, US government international operations could be made more effective and brought into line with a democratic society no longer threatened with nuclear extinction. In spite of Mr. Draper’s critical review of the CIA’s analytical “single outcome forecasting,” it appears that what he would like us to focus on is the CIA’s covert action responsibilities.

I had helped the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein (I was mentioned in Mr. Draper’s essay), and I think a summary of those events offers lessons for the future of active measures the US government can take to eliminate, in James Woolsey’s term, the “poisonous snakes” of the world.

The democratic Iraqi opposition, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), established itself in the free zone of northern Iraq as a presence that approximated the winning cold war strategy vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union in Europe. In northern Iraq, however, the INC was discouraged by the US government from maintaining a defensive capability that might provoke Saddam’s army. The US vice president had publicly promised that the United States would provide the needed protection, but when the Iraqi army attacked northern Iraq last August, that promise was forgotten and many INC members were killed in fighting or executed as prisoners.

Concern about those lost INC members is not just sentimentality. Saddam’s invasion of northern Iraq, I believe, was part of a gambit in the summer of 1996 that handed the United States a major setback:

*In May, Saddam negotiated a loophole in UN economic sanctions against Iraq that he is now exploiting.

*In June, Saddam destroyed a coup plot by an Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord (INA) based in Jordan, that had supplanted the INC in the dreams of the administration; the failure of this opposition group, which had been thoroughly penetrated, greatly embarrassed King Hussein.

*In July, possibly with Saddam’s concurrence, the Iranians sent forces into northern Iraq to attack one of their Kurdish enemies; this undermined the stated US policy of dual containment but there was no US response.

*In August, a Kurdish group invited Saddam’s army to enter the free zone of northern Iraq, and the Iraqi army drove most of the opposition out of northern Iraq.

The United States has been outmatched by Saddam. He has slowly rebuilt his power despite the millions of taxpayer dollars that the US government spent to keep him in his box. Saddam has directly or indirectly killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and continues to represent a major threat to our interests in the Middle East. He has conducted terrorist operations in the past and is capable of doing so again, if he has not done so already.

While Mr. Draper may think that covert action is now discredited, to deny an administration the capability to confront criminal regimes such as Saddam’s is morally ambiguous. In Iraq, since the failure of the INA’s “silver bullet” coup attempt in June 1996 and the Iraqi invasion of northern Iraq in August 1996, the United States has been left with only economic sanctions as a weapon against Saddam. In effect, our government is now saying to the Iraqi population, “We will starve you indefinitely while we watch you risk massacre by attempting to overthrow, without our assistance, a well-armed totalitarian regime so that we may stop starving you in the future.” The morality for such a position I leave to the personal consideration of the readers of The New York Review.

Covert action in the form of the silver bullet may be dead, but to deal with the world’s poisonous snakes the United States must develop capabilities that are less than the bombs and cruise missiles of war and more than the buckshot of economic sanctions that hurt the innocent more than the guilty.

In the case of Iraq, the INC, since the debacle of the summer of 1996, has reestablished a foothold in northern Iraq with no administration support. The INC still represents a diverse, democratic approach to the horrors of Saddam. The United States should honor its past commitments to the INC and openly support its activities.

Warren Marik
Washington, D.C.

Theodore Draper replies:

All these letters have one thing in common—they want to keep the CIA in business. I have no illusions that the US government will not find a way to carry out secret missions with or without the CIA. But I think the time has come to get rid of an organization which has botched so many secret operations and has secrecy built into its ethos. I touched on one aspect of the CIA’s operations in my article, but it deserves more attention. The CIA does not decide on what covert operations it undertakes. The President must issue a “Finding” in writing before any operation can take place. The CIA is thus a presidential tool to do covertly what the President does not want to do openly. If the CIA did not exist, he might give the same job to the Defense Department, but that department is not primarily dedicated to secret work. In the end, the President must be held accountable for the dangers inherent in the CIA, but I would hope that abolishing the CIA would make it more difficult for him to hide behind it.

So I don’t think we will get a perfectly open government by getting rid of the CIA. The US bureaucracy is now so enormous and ubiquitous that the battle for openness—meaning merely to let the American people know what its government is doing in its name—will have to be fought again and again.

As for why the CIA was originally formed, Michael S. Thompson’s tale is absurd. Pearl Harbor took place in 1941; the CIA was formed in 1947. The National Security Act of 1947, which also originated the National Security Council, was a creature of its time—and that time was filled with the early Soviet threat, not another Pearl Harbor.

It is useless to ask me to answer the question of what could reasonably have been expected to happen without the CIA’s intervention. In the case of the Guatemalan operation, the United States conspired to overthrow a legally elected government. It is enough to say that we had no business deciding what government the Guatemalans should have and then leave the country in the lurch after we had deprived it of its elected government. This kind of defense of the CIA gives the United States the authority to change what might possibly happen all over the world that is not to its liking; it is a license to intervene, whenever and wherever the President thinks it is in our interest to do so—but secretly, so that there can be no check on what he “reasonably expected to happen.” The CIA is the perfect instrument at his command for this purpose; anything else will offer greater difficulties and restraints.

Is it too soon now “to give up on the CIA’s capacity for constructive self-criticism and its responsiveness to sober criticism from outsiders,” as Professor H. Bradford Westerfield puts it? Some evidence to answer this question came to my attention too late to put into my article.

Professor George C. Herring published an article in the May 1997 issue of the Organization of American Historians Newsletter. In 1990, he was asked to serve on the CIA’s Historical Review Panel to determine what CIA materials might be ready for declassification. He accepted enthusiastically.

The panel met in August 1990 and then not again until June 1994. Then it did not meet again until February and August 1996. Herring relates:

Officials continued to insist that protection of sources and methods made it impossible to consider the release of operational files of any age. In an especially chilling moment, one troglodyte from the Directorate of Operations referred to the executive order [of 1995 requiring agencies to meet minimum levels of declassification] as that “silly old law.”

Shortly before the August 1996 meeting, Herring and two others were removed from the panel. He cannot prove, but believes, that “this change was designed to get rid of troublemakers or eliminate the expertise that some of us had gained.” He concedes that some “slight progress” has been made but maintains that the main problem remains “the culture of secrecy that has pervaded the agency since its founding.” He sums up:

My years with the CIA have not left me optimistic. Rather than feeling that a new era of openness is upon us—and that I’ve helped pave the way for scholars and citizens to study material that might help them understand the hidden drives of U.S. foreign policy—my time at the agency has taught me a very different lesson, one about the limitless ability of bureaucrats to frustrate change.

As I noted in my article, the present Director of the CIA, George Tenet, served notice at his confirmation hearing in May 1997 that he intended to “turn our gaze from the past…. It [is] dangerous, frankly, to keep looking over our shoulders.” With these words, he took his stand with the “troglodytes.” They dominate the CIA. Perhaps another presidential tool would be less set in its ways and offer more resistance to antidemocratic society.

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