Has the C.I.A. Done More Harm Than Good? – The New Yorker
Has the C.I.A. Done More Harm Than Good?
On January 4, 1995, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of New York, introduced a bill called the Abolition of the Central Intelligence Agency Act. It had been a rough stretch for the C.I.A. The year before, Aldrich Ames, a longtime officer, had been convicted of being a longtime mole for Soviet (and then Russian) intelligence. Despite having a reputation among his colleagues as a problem drinker who appeared to live far beyond his means, Ames had been given high-level assignments with access to the names of American sources in the U.S.S.R. When the F.B.I. finally arrested him, he was in the Jaguar he used for commuting to work at Langley; by then, he was responsible for the death of at least ten agents. Moynihan said that the case was such a flamboyant display of incompetence that it might actually be a distraction from “the most fundamental defects of the C.I.A.” He meant that the agency—in what he considered to be its “defining failure”—had both missed the fact that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and done little to hasten its end.
He gave a diagnosis for what had gone wrong. “Secrecy keeps mistakes secret,” he said. “Secrecy is a disease. It causes a hardening of the arteries of the mind.” He quoted John le Carré on that point, adding that the best information actually came from the likes of area specialists, diplomats, historians, and journalists. If the C.I.A. was disbanded, he said, the State Department could pick up the intelligence work, and do a better job.
Moynihan was, in some respects, being disingenuous. As he well knew, even if his bill had passed, spies and spying wouldn’t have gone away. The State Department already had its own mini agency, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The Departments of Energy and Treasury each had one, too. The Defense Intelligence Agency conducted clandestine operations; U.S. Army Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, and the Office of Naval Intelligence kept themselves busy as well. The National Security Agency was nearly two decades away from the revelation, by Edward Snowden, a contractor and a former C.I.A. employee, that it had collected information about the phone calls of most Americans, but it was a behemoth even in Moynihan’s time. So was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There were about a dozen agencies then; now, after reforms that were supposed to streamline things, there are eighteen, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (O.D.N.I.), a sort of meta-C.I.A. that has a couple of thousand employees, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. The Drug Enforcement Administration (which currently has foreign offices in sixty-nine countries) has an Office of National Security Intelligence. Four million people in the United States now have security clearances.
It can be hard to sort out which agencies do what; players in the espionage business aren’t always good with boundaries. Both the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. make use of satellite resources, including commercial ones, but there is a separate agency in charge of a spy-satellite fleet, the National Reconnaissance Office—not to be confused with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which deals with both space-based and ground-level imaging, or with Space Delta 6, the nation’s newest intelligence agency, which is attached to the Space Force. Abolishing the C.I.A. might do nothing more than reconfigure the turf wars.
As the senator from New York also knew, a large proportion of the C.I.A.’s resources are devoted not to intelligence gathering but to covert operations, some of which look like military operations. In “Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence” (Princeton)—one of several recent books that coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the agency’s founding—Amy B. Zegart, a political scientist at Stanford, writes that it’s “getting harder to know just where the CIA’s role ends and the military’s role begins.” Yet the agency’s paramilitary pursuits and related covert activities go back decades. They include the botched Bay of Pigs landing, the brutal Phoenix Program in Vietnam, and a long list of assassination attempts, coup plots, the mining of a harbor (with explosive devices the agency built itself), and drone strikes. These operations have very seldom ended well.
Moynihan’s bill had no more luck than another that he introduced the same day, aimed at ending Major League Baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws. In each case, people understood that there was a problem, but both institutions were protected by the sense that there was something essential, and perhaps authentically American, about them, including their very brokenness. A sudden turn of events can convince even the C.I.A.’s most sober critics that the agency will save us all, whether from terrorists or from Donald Trump. But, seventy-five years in, it’s far from clear whether the C.I.A. is good at its job, or what that job is or should be, or how we could get rid of the agency if we wanted to.
How did we end up with the C.I.A.? A familiar explanation is that the shock of Pearl Harbor made the United States realize it needed more spies; the Office of Strategic Services was formed and jumped into action; and, when the war ended, the O.S.S. evolved seamlessly into the C.I.A., ready to go out and win the Cold War. But that narrative isn’t quite right, particularly regarding the relationship between the O.S.S. and the C.I.A.
The United States has always used spies of some sort. George Washington had a discretionary espionage budget for which he didn’t have to turn in receipts. In the early part of the twentieth century, the State Department had an intelligence-analysis unit, along with a cryptography group called the Black Chamber, which operated out of a brownstone in New York’s Murray Hill until it was shut down, in 1929. The Army and the Navy had cryptography and reconnaissance units, too. When the Second World War began, their operations ramped up dramatically, and, as Nicholas Reynolds recounts in “Need to Know: World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence” (Mariner), these units, not the O.S.S., handled most of the code-breaking. The problem became the volume of raw intelligence. The task of making sense of it and of turning it into something that policymakers could use went to an office within the Army’s military-intelligence division (or G-2), which, Reynolds says, produced “the country’s best strategic intelligence” during the war. That office’s work was directed by Alfred McCormack, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone and a partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Many of the people he brought in were young corporate lawyers; the theory was that their training in plowing through mountains of documents made them ideal intelligence analysts.
William J. Donovan, who led and largely conceived of the O.S.S., was also a Wall Street lawyer, but one with an aversion to the “legalistic.” What Donovan envisioned was essentially an array of commando units that would operate stealthily and behind enemy lines. In practice, what he tried to build, according to a colleague, was a “private army.” His escapades often risked too much and gained too little. In late 1943, one of his own officers wrote to him that “the set-up has been incredibly wasteful in manpower and, except for a few spotty accomplishments, has been a national failure.” And it had produced “chaos in the field.” Donovan’s nickname was Wild Bill, but his staff called him Seabiscuit, after the thoroughbred, because of his tendency to race around, engaging in what was basically war tourism. In the end, though, the O.S.S. made real contributions, including through its contacts with the French Resistance. But Donovan’s complaint about D Day was that there was “too much planning.” Counterintelligence and strategic thinking bored him, and the O.S.S.’s analysis division was seen as secondary to its operations.
When Harry Truman became President, in April, 1945, he took a look at the O.S.S. and, in September, 1945, abolished it. About two years later, he signed the National Security Act, which established the C.I.A. (and the Department of Defense), but he didn’t want the new agency to be like the group Donovan had run. Instead, it was supposed to do what its name suggested: centralize the intelligence that various agencies gathered, analyze it, and turn it into something the President could use. “It was not intended as a ‘Cloak and Dagger’ Outfit!,” Truman later wrote. He also had to deal with public apprehensions that he might create what a Chicago Tribune headline called a “Super Gestapo Agency”—which is why, in its charter, the C.I.A. was banned from domestic spying.
Reynolds’s book is the best of the recent batch, and the most readable. It does not retrofit the history of the O.S.S. around the assumption that the C.I.A. was the inevitable lead postwar intelligence agency. There were other contenders, including a version of McCormack’s office in the State Department—something like what Moynihan wanted. J. Edgar Hoover argued that “World Wide Intelligence” should be turned over to the F.B.I., with military intelligence subservient to him. In some alternative history, he might have pulled that off; by 1943, he was running undercover operations in twenty Latin American countries. And so things could have been worse.
Donovan was an adept publicist, but what mattered most, in the end, was that he was good, or lucky, when it came to hiring people. Despite the “pale, male, and Yale” stereotype, the O.S.S. was somewhat more diverse than other units, and certainly more eclectic. Among its ranks were Ralph Bunche, Herbert Marcuse, and Julia Child. Many of its officers moved straight to the new C.I.A. Most consequentially, perhaps, four future directors of the C.I.A. were O.S.S. veterans: Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, and William Casey. Each seems to have had glory-day memories of the O.S.S., which is to say that each, in various ways, was afflicted with what a general in Army intelligence called “the screwball Donovan effect.” Casey, who put a picture of Donovan on his wall, said of his old boss, “We all glowed in his presence.” Wild Bill lost the bureaucratic fight but won the personnel and mythology wars.
And, of course, the agency found customers and collaborators in the White House. There was no mention of covert action in the law that chartered the C.I.A., but Presidents—starting with Truman—began using it that way. One of the agency’s first operations involved meddling in the 1948 Italian election, to insure the victory of the Christian Democrats. The subsidies and outright bribery of Italian politicians, some of them on the far, far right, continued into the nineteen-seventies.
Almost from its creation, though, there was a sense that something about the C.I.A. was off. The split between covert action and intelligence gathering and analysis was part of it. The director of the agency was also supposed to be the leader of U.S. intelligence as a whole, but, invariably, the person in the job seemed more invested in preëminence than in coördination. That setup remained in place until the establishment of the O.D.N.I., in 2004, a move that thus far has mostly continued a tradition of trying to deal with the C.I.A.’s dysfunction by setting up ever more agencies, offices, and centers. (The N.S.A. was established, in 1952, in response to a series of cryptography-related failures.) “Legacy of Ashes,” Tim Weiner’s 2008 history of the C.I.A.—and still an invaluable overview—takes its title from a lament by Eisenhower about what he’d be leaving his successors if the “faulty” structure of American intelligence wasn’t changed. Since Weiner’s book was published, the ashes, and the agencies, have only been piling up.
Zegart’s “Spies, Lies, and Algorithms” aims to bring that history to the present. Zegart has served as an adviser to intelligence agencies, and she provides a decent guide to our current bureaucracy. Throughout, her book is clear and well organized—maybe a little too well organized, one feels, after taking in the “Seven Deadly Biases” of intelligence analysis, the “Four Main Adversaries” and the “Five Types of Attack” in the crypto area, and the “Three Words, Four Types” that define covert action. (The covert-action words, incidentally, are “influence,” “acknowledged,” and “abroad.”) Not a few paragraphs read like PowerPoint charts; contradictions are displayed without really being reckoned with. She observes that the balance between “hunting” and “gathering” seems off, but, in her telling, the fact that Presidents of both parties regularly turn to the C.I.A. for paramilitary and other covert tasks constitutes proof that doing so is part of the order of things. The impression she leaves is that if it all goes wrong, it’s because some checklist has been missed. One of the top priorities of U.S. intelligence today, she thinks, should be persuading tech companies to get with the program and help out. She moots the creation of yet another agency, to deal with OSINT—open-source intelligence.
In one chapter, Zegart provides a list of scandals involving spying within the U.S. by various intelligence agencies—notably the N.S.A., the F.B.I., and the C.I.A. “All of these activities violated American law,” she writes. “But that’s the point: domestic laws forbid this kind of surveillance of Americans.” How is that the point, exactly? She depicts the Senate’s 2014 Torture Report, which detailed profound abuses in the C.I.A.’s so-called black sites, as a they-said, the-agency-said, who-knows case. She turns it into a parable about the problems with Congress—suggesting that, although the committee structure may have needed rejiggering, the moral compass of those involved in the program of torture was just fine.
Another new volume, “A Question of Standing: A History of the CIA” (Oxford), by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Edinburgh, offers the insights of a more distant observer. He can be astute about how “false memories” of the O.S.S.’s accomplishments have led the C.I.A. astray. Part of his argument is that the agency has acted as if its influence depended on its standing with whoever is in the White House, thus motivating it to offer Presidents quick fixes that fix nothing. The net effect is to reduce its standing, and that of the U.S., with the public at home and abroad. But Jeffreys-Jones is prone to rash generalizations and pronouncements. He theorizes that, in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush’s national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, may have been susceptible to “war mongering” due to her status as “a descendant of slaves,” and that the working-class background of the C.I.A.’s director, George Tenet, made him more likely to vouch for the faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used to justify the war. “Social mobility so often leads to conformity,” warns Jeffreys-Jones, himself the son of an academic historian.
During the Vietnam War, the C.I.A. had discouraging intelligence to offer, and, when successive Administrations didn’t want to hear it, focussed on being helpful by providing those supposedly quick fixes. That meant abetting a coup in 1963, spying on antiwar protesters, and launching the Phoenix Program, an anti-Vietcong campaign marked by torture and by arbitrary executions; in total, more than twenty thousand people were killed under Phoenix’s auspices.
Phoenix was run by William Colby, the O.S.S. alum, who was soon promoted to C.I.A. director. At lower levels, discontent about Vietnam fuelled leaks. In December, 1974, the journalist Seymour Hersh told the agency that he was about to publish a story in the Times exposing its domestic spying. Whether in a miscalculation or (as Jeffreys-Jones somewhat breathlessly speculates) as an act of personal expiation, Colby gave Hersh partial confirmation. Amid the scandals and the Congressional hearings that followed, Colby angered some of his colleagues, and Henry Kissinger, by laying bare even more. It emerged that, in 1973, Colby’s predecessor had asked senior agency officials to produce a list of things the C.I.A. had done that might have been unlawful. The resulting document, covering just the prior fifteen years, was known in-house as “The Family Jewels,” and was almost seven hundred pages long.
The question of how much it matters who works at the C.I.A. is a perennial one. The influence of Donovan’s acolytes shows that decisions about whom you recruit can, in a formative period or at a critical juncture, make a big difference. But, once an institutional culture has become entrenched, it can be easier to see how the institution shapes the people within it than vice versa.
“Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage” (Putnam), by Nathalia Holt, comes at the question from a different angle. It’s about five women who worked for the early C.I.A.; three also worked at the O.S.S., and one, Eloise Page, began her career as Bill Donovan’s secretary. Holt is also the author of “Rise of the Rocket Girls,” about women in the early years of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and “The Queens of Animation,” about women at the Walt Disney Company. Her book contains fine material for a beautifully art-directed streaming series, with set pieces in postwar Paris, nineteen-fifties Baghdad, and nineteen-seventies Greece, where Page was the C.I.A.’s first woman station chief. It even has a framing device in the form of the “Petticoat Panel,” a working group of C.I.A. women that convened in 1953 to document their unequal pay and treatment. Holt quotes the transcript of the meeting at which the leadership of the agency summarily rejected their findings. Helms, the future director, says, “It is just nonsense for these gals to come on here and think that the government is going to fall apart because their brains aren’t going to be used to the maximum.” (In 1977, Helms was convicted of lying to Congress about the C.I.A.’s machinations in Chile.) What the book is not, unfortunately, is a coherent history of the C.I.A., of the era it depicts, or even of these women’s work.
Holt’s research does turn up evidence that Jane Burrell, one of her subjects, was the first C.I.A. officer to die in the line of duty, in a plane crash in France, in 1948, a fact that the agency itself apparently missed. Holt ends her book with a call for a star honoring Burrell to be added to the C.I.A.’s memorial wall. Of the hundred and thirty-seven officers represented there, she writes, forty-five died accidentally, the majority in plane crashes, meaning that Burrell’s case would be fairly typical. Burrell was on the return leg of a trip to Brussels, where she’d been sent to talk to war-crimes investigators about a mess the C.I.A. had created by relying on an agent who turned out to have worked with the S.S. and was now in custody. In that respect, too, Burrell, who had personally handled the agent, was typical of the C.I.A. (After Burrell vouched for him, the man was released.) The subject of the C.I.A.’s postwar relations with former Nazis—some of whom, like Reinhard Gehlen, it helped to install in West Germany’s new intelligence service—and with collaborationist émigré groups is, no doubt, a morass. Holt, alas, manages to make the story even more garbled than it has to be. In the end, she basically treats the whole sordid episode as a learning experience for the Gals.
The problem is that the agency doesn’t seem to learn much. Holt credits Mary Hutchison with helping to build a network of émigré Ukrainian nationalists. Beginning in 1949, the agency parachuted some of them (including one whom Hutchison apparently distrusted) behind the Soviet border, where they were quickly captured—and repeated the same procedure for a number of years. “Despite the catastrophe, the Ukraine operation would serve as a template moving forward,” Holt writes. “The C.I.A. had more success with back-to-back operations in Iran and Guatemala, where covert action was able to deftly oust leaders considered undesirable.” It’s odd to describe these coups as deft. One of Zegart’s handy lists is of the “unintended consequences” in Iran: “religious extremism, a revolutionary overthrow, the American hostage crisis, severed ties, regional instability, and today’s rising nuclear dangers.” Guatemala is still dealing with the violent legacy of the coup that the C.I.A. visited upon it. Then there’s the question of the intended consequences, which were, respectively, to elevate a shah and a military regime. Secret wars tend not to be so secret in the country where they take place.
It was, no doubt, frustrating for Hutchison when, a few years later, her colleagues on the Bay of Pigs task force failed to make use of her Spanish-language skills. But are we supposed to think that the whole misconceived enterprise would have gone off without a hitch were it not for the C.I.A.’s misogyny? One of Holt’s minor themes is that women in the C.I.A. were seen as more natural analysts than operatives—with analysis, in turn, seen as less manly, and less valuable, to everybody’s detriment. But she is more intent on showing that these women were also daring. The main point of “Wise Gals” is that it’s cool that women were in the early C.I.A., and therefore that the C.I.A. itself was cooler than we’d realized. Holt celebrates a big promotion Page got that afforded her access to the secret of a safe containing shellfish-derived poison. You don’t have to be pale, male, and Yale to be complicit in a bungled assassination plot, or, for that matter, a program of rendition and torture.
Why do so many books about the C.I.A. have trouble getting their story straight? It can’t just be the secrecy of the work itself, at least with regard to the earlier years, about which much has been declassified. (Much remains under wraps: Moynihan complained that classification created more than six million supposed secrets in 1993; Zegart writes that the number in 2016 was fifty-five million—not all of which can possibly have been critical.) The aura of secrecy, by contrast, probably does distort the judgment of its chroniclers. And the scope of the agency’s work is a challenge: it’s hard to write expertly on places as far-ranging as the Democratic Republic of Congo (where the agency initially planned to poison President Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste, and instead ended up handing a quarter of a million dollars to Joseph Mobutu, the country’s future dictator, who facilitated the assassination) and Afghanistan (where the C.I.A. has had forty years of illusory gains and worse losses). But the biggest problem may be the agency’s own pattern of self-deception. Holt, for example, sometimes seems to go wrong when, rummaging through the archives, she gives too much credit to contemporaneous internal assessments of an agent’s or an operation’s worth.
In truth, the C.I.A. has had a “defining failure” for every decade of its existence—sometimes more than one. For Moynihan, in the nineteen-nineties, it was the lack of foresight about the Soviet Union; in the two-thousands, it was the phantom weapons of mass destruction, followed by torture and, in still evolving ways, by the drone-based program of targeted killings, with its high toll of civilian deaths. Barack Obama’s rapport with John Brennan, the C.I.A.’s director from 2013 to 2017, seems to have brought him to accept the view that the killing of American citizens abroad was acceptable, if managed prudently. The overuse of the agency on the battlefield is due not to a military-manpower shortage but to wishful thinking about the benefits of secrecy and of a lack of accountability.
It’s difficult to know, at this point, what the C.I.A.’s next defining failure—or, if one tries to be optimistic, its stabilizing success—will be. Donald Trump has had a complicated relationship with the intelligence community—increasingly capitalized and abbreviated to I.C.—which is presently conducting a damage assessment regarding documents with classified markings that he kept at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home. He might, of course, be reëlected, and have the C.I.A.’s tools at his disposal again. If the C.I.A. isn’t the place to turn for an expedient solution to foreign-policy problems, neither is it bound to be the place to turn for a solution to our democracy’s political problems.
“If you ask intelligence officers what misperceptions bother them most, odds are they’ll mention ethics,” Zegart writes. She quotes an official who complains that “people think we’re lawbreakers, we’re human rights violators.” She insists that “officers think about ethics a lot.” She portrays the agency as being filled with hardworking moms and dads who do a great deal of “agonizing.” No doubt she’s right. But if the C.I.A. keeps falling down all the same, something must be tragically amiss in the agency’s structure or culture, or both. All the talk of coups and assassination plots, Zegart worries, distracts people from understanding the C.I.A.’s more basic intelligence mission. In fact, the party most distracted by such activities—and by the military role it has taken on—seems to be the agency itself. ♦