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The Black Arts

But what if the CIA had got the Soviet GNP numbers right? That would have had no direct or necessary effect on agency estimates of Soviet military strength, which had to do largely with existing hardware and the rate at which more was being added. Counting things—planes, tanks, ships, missile silos—is one of the things the CIA has been good at since the advent of satellites and overhead reconnaissance in the early 1960s. If the Soviet economy was only half the size of CIA estimates, then the percentage of it devoted to military programs was double the estimate. In fact, during the last two decades of the cold war, when the Soviet Union was embarked on a massive buildup of strategic missiles, the percentage of its GNP devoted to the military was at levels approaching those of World War II, and was far greater than the Pentagon’s slice of the American GNP.

Why this was so—what drove the Kremlin to sacrifice so much for military power—remains a troubling and unanswered question. It may have been habit, or paranoia, or the simple result of efforts by the Soviet military to consume ever more of the pie, or it may have been the fruit of the darker intentions so often imputed by Washington hard-liners who argued that nothing would make the Russians feel safe short of global dominance. An explanation for this extraordinary Soviet effort doubtless lies hidden in the archives. But one thing is sure: the CIA, and the men it advised, would not have been reassured by the discovery that Moscow was willing to outspend Washington in preparation for war by two or three times the proportion of its available wealth. The analysts would have wanted to know why the Soviets were behaving like a nation at war, and they would not have relaxed and kicked back on being told not to worry, it’s only habit, paranoia, or elbowing at the public trough.


The culture of secrecy, the routinization of secrecy, and the use of secrecy as a form of regulation discussed by Moynihan are all genuine features of the ballooning of American intelligence capacity since the end of World War II. The remedy for these excesses, Moynihan feels, is openness. As chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, Moynihan led an important battle to open up government files and give the American people access to their own history. The commission’s report, published in 1997, recommended an overhaul of American secrecy regulations intended to reduce the number of needless and pointless secrets in order to protect those that really mattered, and to speed the process of declassification. In theory, ten years would be the maximum life of new secrets, but secret-keepers don’t give up easily; they know what they want, and they extracted from Moynihan’s commission an agreement to extend classification from ten to thirty years if the custodian says it’s necessary, and beyond thirty years if the custodian can show (whom?) that harm (to whom? of what sort?) will result.

This is roughly the system in place now. The custodian gets to keep the secret until he is good and ready to let it go, and the rule of thumb is that if anybody is interested, then it’s too soon to let it go. My own proposal for routine declassification might be called a fifteen/thirty rule—any document retained by the government at the end of fifteen years must be released after thirty. Exceptions would be granted only after public submission to Congress of a specific request for continuance executed by the President in his own hand—place, date, request for continuance of classification of such-and-such document, generated by such-and-such agency on blank date, under authority granted to me by public law such-and-such, for an additional period of blank years on such-and-such grounds (the lengthier the better), signed in the presence of the secretary of state (name) and the vice president of the United States (name)—the whole damned thing handwritten, no typing and no auto-pens. That would open the files on schedule.

It’s nice to think about, but it’s not going to happen. The reason is what Moynihan’s book about secrecy fails to say about secrets—what they are for.

Think of intelligence organizations as the instrument of a nation’s id—the desire of a government to do certain things without having to explain, defend, or justify them. Fairness, justice, restraint, and respect for the rights of others may be important terms in the public language of international politics, but when a foreign government takes action that seems seriously hostile—when Fidel Castro nationalizes American business in Cuba, when Nikita Khrushchev puts nuclear missiles into Cuba, when Hanoi thumbs its nose at American military might, when other nations want what they want and won’t ask by-your-leave—then the United States government, or any other government with its back up, may decline to turn the other cheek, may seek recourse outside the limits of official remonstrance and international law, and may attempt to impose its will in secret with methods it would never confess in public. The range of methods is wide—theft of secrets is of course a main one, but there are also slander, forgery, blackmail, bribery, sabotage, terrorism, and assassination. The black arts are called black for a reason, and their common feature is the fact they work only in secret, and exposure brings them to a halt.

Think of modern intelligence organizations as being like a modern army—huge and sprawling, bureaucratic, just about everybody involved in some sort of prosaic support activity, maybe one in ten assigned to an actual combat unit, or to clandestine activity in the field. What the 10 percent does is carefully shielded from public scrutiny, but it’s what the 10 percent does that makes governments willing to pay for the whole. Following the Bay of Pigs disaster President Kennedy said he’d like to scatter the CIA to the winds, but on reflection he settled for firing Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell. Far from turning his back on secret intelligence, Kennedy drew it more intimately under White House control. No other Western leader shared Kennedy’s intense interest in secret operations, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill. For a time Kennedy even considered naming his brother Bobby to run the agency, and he did put Bobby in charge of Operation Mongoose, the CIA’s renewed effort to get rid of Castro. Only the President’s own murder brought a halt to CIA plots known to have included many plans for the killing of the Cuban leader.

Neither of the two serious investigations of the Bay of Pigs disaster begun under Kennedy—Lyman Kirkpatrick’s as Inspector General, and a second conducted by General Maxwell Taylor—included a reference of any kind to the assassination plots and Kennedy’s closest advisors at the time still stoutly deny that the President or his brother Bobby authorized or even knew about the various attempts to poison, shoot, or blow up the leader of the Cuban revolution. The fact that many historians still elect to treat this question as open demonstrates just how secret the secret operations of an intelligence organization can be.

The fundamental cause of the disaster,” Kirkpatrick wrote in the Survey, “was the Agency’s failure to give the project…the topflight handling which it required….” This conclusion, kept under lock and key by the CIA for decades, is clearly the self-serving argument of a man insisting he could have done the job better, and still might, given a chance. The real cause of the failure was prosaic and obvious—the impossible hope that an invasion force of a thousand might successfully defeat opposing forces of scores of thousands. Dulles and Bissell were not stupid men; they knew our Cubans couldn’t beat their Cubans. What gave them confidence to go ahead were two calculations never explicitly confided to paper—the hope that Castro’s murder at the outset of the invasion might panic and demoralize his government, and the hope that President Kennedy, despite his robust desire to keep the whole operation at arm’s length, would be forced in the event to intervene directly with American troops to end the ghastly spectacle of the slaughter on the beach at the Bay of Pigs.

It hasn’t happened yet, but Moynihan’s efforts to reform the keeping of American secrets may still bring useful results—a reduction in the number of classified documents generated every year, from the mad to the merely ridiculous, and a brisker pace in the rate at which they are shipped to the open shelves of the National Archives. At the moment the pace is zero, with something like a billion pages still awaiting declassification, according to the Secrecy and Government Bulletin published by the Federation of American Scientists. Congress has called for a dead halt pending creation of a plan to prevent the inadvertent release of “restricted data” about nuclear weapons. If the files are declassified, working through them will usefully occupy future generations of graduate students, it will keep our history honest, it will make apparent what American policy at any given moment really was, and it will tell us, not everything that intelligence organizations may have done, but what they are like.

But that’s it. The secrets at the heart of secrets are rarely confided to official paper or the appropriate files. The deepest secrets of all have nothing to do with the burn time of ballistic missiles, the configuration of fissionable material in nuclear weapons, or other technical matters, but rather with what presidents want, and what official agencies do to give them what they want. Those are what the ancient Chinese writer about war and statecraft Sun Tzu called “mouth-to-ear” matters.

One such surfaced recently when the Assassination Records Review Board released a two-page “Memorandum of Conversation” from the Gerald Ford Presidential Library recording some comments of Henry Kissinger on January 4, 1975, during a discussion of news stories by Seymour Hersh claiming extensive wrongdoing by the CIA. According to Max Holland, who is writing a book about the Warren Commission, Kissinger, then serving as both Ford’s secretary of state and his national security advisor, had sought a blanket denial from the agency but had been informed by William Colby that some major secrets remained hidden. A former director, Richard Helms, was summoned back to Washington from his post as ambassador to Iran to fill in the details for Kissinger at a breakfast meeting shortly before Kissinger met in the White House with President Ford and Brent Scowcroft, who was taking notes.

Helms said all these stories are just the tip of the iceberg,” Kissinger said, as recorded by Scowcroft during the meeting with Ford. “If they come out, blood will flow. For example, Robert Kennedy personally managed the operation on the assassination of Castro.”

The friends and defenders of the Kennedy brothers say it isn’t so; but there it is on paper, written down in the heat of a government crisis, the words of a man in a position to know, recorded on the day, perhaps even within the very hour, they were uttered.

Holland and Hersh, still on the case, also learned recently the name of the CIA intelligence officer named to serve as liaison with the attorney general during the year in which he continually pressed the CIA for results in getting rid of Castro—a career intelligence officer, now dead, named Charles Ford. According to Ford’soffice-mate Sam Halpern, a CIA officer also assigned to Task Force W in the agency’s effort to get rid of Castro, Ford traveled hither-and-yon about the country on Robert Kennedy’s business, but there public knowledge comes to an end. Hersh’s book The Dark Side of Camelot, published last year, includes some additional ancillary detail. Whether still-classified CIA files can fill out the story of Ford’s work for Bobby remains unknown but it’s likely, just as it is likely no one will be given free range of the files until many, many additional years have passed, if then.

Think of the CIA’s files as the nation’s unconscious. There you may find the evidence, like the gouges on rock where a glacier has passed, of what American leaders really thought, really wanted, and really did. Does this eternal battle over access to the files make sense when most people have quit caring what happened at the Bay of Pigs? Does it matter whether we are permitted to haul up the last piece of paper to the light of day before letting it rest? There is no right answer, just personal preference: some would rather know, and some would rather not.

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