Intelligence Wars contains 24 reviews of books concerning U.S. intelligence matters that Thomas Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, published in the monthly New York Review of Books from 1980 through 2002. It is an engrossing trip down memory lane for junkies interested in U.S. national security scandals and triumphs. Starting with a sketch of Wild Bill Donovan, Director of Roosevelt’s Office of Security Services, Powers leads us through CIA’s history by the means of reviewing topical books and performing his own investigations of their content. He is an intelligent critic of the $30-billion-a-year secret enterprise and a smooth writer. This reviewer highly recommends the book.
The stories Powers tells remind one that modern scandals such as our surprise about Iraq’s lack of weapons of mass destruction and that triumphs like the CIA orchestration of victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan have progenitors. We have seen defeat and victory in intelligence matters before. We’ve “pre-empted” before, too, as at The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and as at the “war-ending” bombing of Hanoi, and seen national defeat follow bad intelligence estimates. The Bush strategic “innovation” is an old practice and fraught with problems. Our politicians should be forced to read this book before taking national security posts. They might become more humble.
From the very beginning, the Agency has been torn between two camps: the disciplined intelligence weenies who ran spies; and the covert operations cowboys who overthrew governments (or tried to), bribed foreign politicians, forged currency and documents, performed sabotage, and even attempted assassinations. Historically the operations staff dominated the Agency, although embarrassing failures have cyclically resulted in purges and congressional demands for prior clearance. But presidents consistently want to poke extra-constitutional fists abroad and new covert operators always appear. “The CIA just can’t say no.”
CIA failures are better known than successes, because they usually result in more public noise. On the intelligence side one can list our surprise at the first Soviet atomic bomb, the North Korean and then the Chinese invasions of South Korea, the Hungarian revolt, Khrushchev’s emplacement of missiles in Cuba, the 1973 Arab attack on Israel, the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and of Afghanistan, the Soviet rearmament in the '70s and '80s that was twice the CIA estimate, the collapse of Communism, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, and several strikes by Al-Qaeda.
On the other hand, we won the cold war without a nuclear exchange or the usual bloody collision of citizen armies. A lot of credit must go to the engagement ground rules that knowledge developed. Our spy satellites, our communications and signal intelligence, our massive computer systems let us parry every Soviet attempt at strategic superiority. Occasional CIA recruits such as Colonel Oleg Penkovsky of the Soviet General Staff gave us a view into Soviet top thinking.
Typically, our intelligence failures have been in the area of determining specific enemy intentions and predicting probable outcomes; we have usually discovered capability. Intentions and forecasts require humint -- human intelligence -- and analysis. To recruit a source in Saddam Hussein’s government was always difficult, perhaps impossible because of the agency’s preoccupation with the Soviets and electronic means. Re-directing and re-building the humint side of the agency will take time; the reviewer hopes it is underway.
Analysis has been a political problem, since presidents and their staffs feel that task is their job. Will the North Vietnamese give up after the U.S. starts bombing everything? Will Saddam deploy chemical weapons? Was the CIA even permitted to opine on those issues? We now know that the middle ranks of the CIA and the NSA stated they had no evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons. Was anyone brave enough to build that absence to a policy conclusion and bring it to the President? More importantly, did the CIA weigh in on whether occupation of Iraq would result in the democratization of Iraq and the Middle East, or instead create a hornets’ nest of Muslim anti-Americanism? Would deployment to Iraq become an American replay of the Soviet’s agonizing occupation of Afghanistan?
Covert operations has always been controversial. Teddy Roosevelt’s son, working for the CIA, almost single-handily in 1953 overthrew an elected moderate head of Iran (Mohammed Mossadegh) because of his oil policy and gave absolute power to the Shah. After twenty-five years, an anti-American religious revolt put in fanatical Shiite theologians. Would a middle-class secular Iran be our friend today if the Agency hadn’t interfered? Elsewhere, we’ve also generally supported “strong men” rather than socialists and liberals. We support feudal monarchies today in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Perhaps we’d be better off if we addressed the social, economic, and political causes of violence rather than trying to only control its expression.
Sometimes, covert operations are even illegal. The Iran-Contra scam defied the Congressional prohibition of aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. It probably involved the Reagan Administration from the president, through Vice President Bush, to the National Security Advisor, to Director Casey of the CIA, and to Deputy Director Gates, among others — although their knowledge was smoothly denied by all. In a more recent covert operation, the press has reported the CIA assassination in Yemen by an unmanned airplane of a Muslim group in which one probable Al-Qaeda member traveled. This of course violated a Congressional law and a Ford-era presidential instruction to the CIA that prohibited assassinations. Civil rights groups have not protested.
The CIA has run a few covert operations clearly to our benefit. The most recent was the defeat of the Taliban, where CIA operatives, familiar with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan because of their guerrilla covert war against the Soviets, paid $73 million (per Woodward in Bush at War) for the Tajiks to attack through to Kabul. Laser designation teams from Army Special Forces and Air Force precision bombing were the rest of the simple formula needed to defeat the Taliban government, although not to capture Al-Qaeda leaders. It was the Pentagon’s failure to place American troops in the south early that marred that victory. We must now address Afghanistan nation-building or face the probable return of religious extremism and duplicate the Iranian strategic failure.
Discussion of the CIA would be incomplete without reviewing their past mole problem. Powers discusses the Los Alamos spies, the Cambridge British ring, the CIA’s Ames, and the FBI’s Hanssen. He omitted others. The striking facts of these cases were the blindness of authority to obvious clues. A bureaucratic fear of what exposure might bring seemed to paralyze senior managements of intelligence agencies. Something similar seemed involved in central CIA’s stonewalling of pre-9/11 clues from field offices. One hopes that the answer of more bigness and bureaucracy in the form of a Homeland Security Agency won’t only exacerbate the problem.
In any event, Intelligence Wars raises fascinating questions in the process of reminding us of how previous administration handled present issues. It’s a great short survey of a history normally shrouded by secrecy and political egos.