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The Black Arts


There are secrets and there are secrets, and it is distinguishing between the two that has challenged some of the best minds of our time—currently Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s—to come up with a workable commonsense approach to keeping secrets. Such an approach would grant the United States government power to remain silent about the few genuine secrets that matter, while compelling it to disgorge in reasonably good time the oceans of paper stamped “secret” solely in order to relieve officials of the awkward duty of explaining why they have done, predicted, or recommended something dumb.

What is a secret that matters? Answer: any undertaking of the state which requires for its success that it be unknown, unobserved, or unanticipated. Classic examples would be the time and place proposed for the Allied invasion of France in 1944, or Boris Yeltsin’s plan to devalue the ruble. But most official American secrets—roughly six million new classified documents a year, at last count—record the conversation of the government with itself. Now that we have the actual report in hand in Bay of Pigs Declassified we can see that the CIA’s Inspector General’s Survey of the Cuban Operation, printed in something like twenty copies and circulated in the fall of 1961 to a handful of high CIA and government officials, contained a bushel of legitimate secrets. The Survey was not only a devastating critique of the agency’s unrealistic and even reckless plans to overthrow Fidel Castro by invading Cuba, but it served as a kind of blueprint of the CIA’s Directorate of Plans and discussed frankly the conduct of a struggle while it was still underway. You could argue that the policy was unwise or unworkable, but you could hardly fault the Kennedy administration for trying to keep secret exactly where and how it went wrong in a first attempt to achieve a goal—the overthrow of Castro—to which it was redoubling its commitment.

What is a secret of convenience? Answer: any item of information which, if released, might invite non-trivial public criticism of policies, endeavors, or officials. Governments entertain rosy hopes, overlook imminent dangers, lie about their purposes, and do foolish things just as people do, and so long as these gaffes remain unknown they do not have to be explained, defended, or, sometimes most difficult of all, openly confessed. For more than twenty years, and certainly since the 1976 publication of many of the agency’s darkest and most embarrassing secrets in the numerous green-bound volumes of the Church Committee Report, the Inspector General’s Survey of the Cuban Operation has been an outstanding example of this sort of secret, too. “In unfriendly hands,” wrote the deputy director of the CIA, General Charles Cabell, back in 1961, “it [the Survey] can become a weapon unjustifiably [used] to attack the entire mission, organization, and functioning of the Agency.” Unfriendly hands have got it at last, but it took thirty-seven years, much water has since flowed under the bridge, and whatever critics might say of the “mission, organization, and functioning” of the CIA is now mainly the ho-hum stuff of graduate school seminar rooms.

The Inspector General who conducted the survey, Lyman Kirkpatrick, now dead, was one of the major figures in the early history of the CIA, and his unvarnished account of the Bay of Pigs bungling, which abandoned a thousand Cubans to be captured by Castro’s army and deeply embarrassed President Kennedy—Theodore Draper described the whole sorry episode as “a perfect failure”—bitterly stung the architects of the plan, CIA Director Alan Dulles and his deputy in charge of clandestine operations, Richard Bissell. Until he was stricken with polio in the 1950s Kirkpatrick had been a fair-haired boy with a shot at being named director, and many thought he orchestrated the Survey from his wheelchair in order to belittle his rivals and give new life to his own ambitions.

I well remember the red-faced, stuttering, snorting outrage when Bissell in an interview, furiously twisting paper clips as he spoke, described his deep sense of affront on learning that Kirkpatrick had committed the unpardonable discourtesy of giving a copy of his report (on November 21, 1961) to John McCone, Dulles’s successor as Director of Central Intelligence, before showing it (on November 24) to Dulles himself. In Peter Kornbluh’s edition of the Survey, recently pried loose from the keepers of secrets at the CIA, we may now read that Bissell went so far in a memorandum to McCone of January 27, 1962, as to say baldly that the IG’s report “constitutes a highly biased document and that the bias is of such a character that it must have been intentional.” And Bissell was not alone in this belief. McCone, in a spirit of fairness, ordered that a single copy of the Survey be preserved in the director’s office and that Bissell’s own vigorous defense be appended to it so that future readers, which now include us, would not accept Kirkpatrick’s attack before knowing what Bissell had to say in his own defense.

Kornbluh has also included Bissell’s rebuttal in Bay of Pigs Declassified, along with a useful chronology and other materials. Among these is a previously unpublished interview with two Bay of Pigs planners, Jacob Esterline and Colonel Jack Hawkins. But it is the 130-page Survey that makes Bay of Pigs Declassified one of the half- dozen basic texts on the United States and Cuba in the 1960s, and that makes it required reading for anyone who wants to understand what happened to the United States after World War II.

But there comes a time in the life of any secret when it has been talked to death, and this is surely the case with the Bay of Pigs. What the Survey adds to the record is an intimate portrait of the CIA arguing furiously with itself, and, interesting as this can be, it is nevertheless hard to imagine that the book will get many readers not somehow professionally compelled to take an interest, such as graduate students working in the La Brea tar pits of cold war studies—the alarms, excesses, and miseries of the 1960s: Cuba, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, “the missile gap,” “mutual assured destruction,” the domestic upheavals encompassed by “the civil rights movement” and “the student revolution.” The ordinary citizen of a certain age begs to be delivered from yet another slog into the sticky morass.

What this says about the declassifiers at the CIA is that they have got their timing down about perfectly—nothing to be released until interest has faded away practically to zero (the Bay of Pigs), or until the participants who might usefully amend and amplify the story are dead or doddering, like the patient US Army (later National Security Agency) codebreakers who forced their way into the Soviet cable traffic of the 1930s and 1940s and deciphered the Soviet secret messages collectively known as VENONA. It’s a made-up word and the principal significance now of the 2900 messages read in whole or in part is the light they cast on a handful of notorious spy cases of the 1950s. It was VENONA that first directed official suspicions to the Rosenbergs and offered a degree of confirmation to the charges of Whittaker Chambers that Alger Hiss had been a spy for Russia.

In Secrecy: The American Experience, an oddly disjointed book redeemed by frequent flashes of the senator’s wit, Moynihan “reveals” that President Truman, who angrily dismissed Republican charges of wholesale Communist spying within the United States, was in fact “never told of the VENONA decryptions.” I put quotes around the word “reveals” because Moynihan’s evidence—an FBI memo of a conversation with General Carter W. Clarke, in 1949 chief of the Army Security Agency—merely reports an interagency dispute over whether to tell “the President and Admiral Hillenkoetter” about VENONA. Clarke told the FBI that General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “wanted…to make sure that the Bureau does not handle the material in such a way that Admiral Hillenkoetter or anyone else outside the Army Security Agency, [deleted], and the Bureau are aware of the contents of these messages and the activity being conducted at Arlington Hall [in Virginia, site of the early work on VENONA].”

It is a fact that the CIA was not told of VENONA at the time, but whether Truman was told then or later during his remaining fifteen months in office is not established by the memo Moynihan quotes. Presidents like to know what’s going on and their advisors like to tell them. Perhaps Bradley wanted to preserve the honor and pleasure for himself. Perhaps he didn’t want to confide in General Clarke. Perhaps he changed his mind on reflection later the same day. Before accepting Truman’s ignorance as proven I would want to see a lot more evidence. What is certain is that the Soviet Union soon learned its cable traffic had been broken in one of two ways—from William Weisband, a Soviet spy working for the Armed Forces Security Agency who had the run of Arlington Hall; or from the intelligence officer for [deleted] who was handling liaison with American intelligence organizations in Washington, the infamous Harold Adrian Russell Philby. Among the small ironies of cold war history are the facts that Kim Philby knew about VENONA before the CIA, and that the CIA and its fraternal organizations, now routinely required to disgorge their own secrets, still faithfully protect those of [deleted], no matter how anciently acquired.

But Moynihan reveals no doubts and makes vigorous rhetorical use of General Bradley’s refusal to tell Truman about VENONA.

What decisions would Truman have made had the information in the VENONA intercepts not been withheld from him?… If only he had known this—known for real, that is, from the likes of Bradley. If only political liberals had known. If only those in the universities had known.

All the bitter divisions of the McCarthy years, the exaggerated Republican charges of “twenty years of treason” and the Democratic countercharges of witch-hunting, might have been avoided, Moynihan suggests, with who knows what profound consequences. There might have been no fight to the death over who lost China, no lingering nightmares at the outset of the Kennedy administration that hands-off realism in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia would inexorably summon up new howling mobs demanding to know: Who lost Cuba? Who lost Vietnam?

Maybe, and maybe not. The VENONA documents included evidence of “Hiss’s guilt” as Moynihan writes, but I very much doubt that its publication would have impressed, much less silenced, Hiss’s defenders, who have proved over the years that they can explain away just about anything. The VENONA document incriminating Hiss, a translation of a Soviet cable of March 30, 1945, alleges that “ALES” had been “working with the NEIGHBORS [i.e., Soviet military intelligence] continuously since 1935” and that he “and his whole group were awarded Soviet decorations.” American counterintelligence experts identified ALES as “probably Alger Hiss” because both passed through Moscow following the Yalta conference.

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