Notes from Underground

Frank Snepp
Frank Snepp; drawing by David Levine


Before we start reading Know Thine Enemy, we encounter two falsehoods, one trivial, the other at the heart of a debate over the nation’s intelligence services. First, the trivial: Edward Shirley is a pseudonym for Reuel Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency operations officer and specialist on Iran. He used a nom de plume, understandably, to protect himself and those who had associated with him and who might suffer if it became known that he was a spy.

The second and more interesting falsehood is the subtitle of his book, “A Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran.” In fact, to do what we think it is that spies do—in this case, make a clandestine trip in disguise to a hostile country and speak to its people firsthand about their government—Shirley had to quit the CIA. He made his fascinating—and first—visit to Iran as an ex-spy. While actually in the agency’s employ as one of its handful of Farsi-speaking specialists, he was confined to gathering such intelligence about Iran as he could from working in the visa office at the US consulate in Istanbul, trying to recruit Iranian spies who would then return to Iran and report on conditions there.

Despite all the novels and films about swashbuckling, free-ranging, devil-may- care espionage agents that have proliferated during this century, US spies almost universally work under diplomatic cover, protected from arrest—though not from terrorist attack—by diplomatic immunity. They work, and often live, inside embassy compounds. Since the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by Islamic militants in 1979, the United States has had no diplomatic representation there and therefore (from what we can gather from Shirley’s book) no on-the-ground intelligence presence, and it has contented itself with snooping at long range and by proxy. To spy on Iran, Shirley quit America’s premier espionage agency and entered the country on his own.

This is only one of many revelations in Shirley’s book and it is central to the never-ending conflict between secrecy and intelligence that burdens the CIA. Although the agency’s role is to gather foreign intelligence by covert means, an increasing number of critics argue that the constraints of security and the agency’s fascination with being covert have often overwhelmed its ability to find out what is going on abroad.

In the CIA’s view, spies do not collect information unless it is secret. When rumors spread a couple of years ago that Fidel Castro had died, Clinton administration officials gathered in the White House to assess the situation. Shortly before their meeting, Radio Havana reported that a much-alive Castro had just given an interview to a group of Mexican journalists. “Someone at the meeting looked at the CIA rep and asked if we had called the Mexicans to verify the report,” a participant in the White House meeting told me. “The CIA guy said, ‘We don’t do overt collection.”‘ True enough. It doesn’t…

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