Legacy of Ashes, the History of the CIA, Tim Weiner, 2007
A 500 page history using recently released documents and extensive interviews, Weiner concludes that the gross incompetence of the current American intelligence community is not new, they have been incompetent since their beginning in WWII. Our impressions have until now been based on rumor, speculation, and revealed screwups. With this book we have the full history in agonizing, painful detail.
Americans are incurious people, terrible at languages and ignorant of other cultures. For most of our history, America has been staunchly isolationist, wanting nothing to do with foreign intrigues. During WWII America relied heavily on British intelligence. The wartime OSS was largely an adjunct of British intelligence. After the war, a small cadre of mostly Ivy League OSS officers tried to build an American intelligence service. Throughout the CIA’s history they have never been able to find or attract talented agents and the history of intelligence gathering is almost non existent. America had no idea what was happening in the Soviet Union or Communist China. The Russian atomic bomb, the first space rocket, the Chinese invasion of Korea were all total surprises to our intelligence gatherers. When Stalin died in 1953 the CIA was clueless what might happen. On the other hand, foreign powers found easy access to American intelligence, infiltration our service freely and feeding false information at will.
Weiner focuses the early history on three cowboys not much interested in intelligence gathering but keenly interested in covert operations, Frank Wisner, Allen Dulles, and Richard Helms. Their approach was to spend money to buy people and elections, to arm badly trained insurgents and then send them to their deaths in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China. One operative, nationalist general Li Mi, stranded in northern Burma was given money and guns. Li Mi refused to fight the Chinese communists and instead built a heroin drug empire in the area known as the Golden Triangle. The CIA had to start another war twenty years later to wipe out his drug empire.
In 1950, the CIA launched a fifteen year research program originally code named artichoke and later ultra to test heroin, amphetamines, sleeping pills, LSD, and “special interrogation techniques” for mind control. Some subjects were kept in Panama. One army employee test subject jumped out a hotel window in New York. Richard Helms later destroyed all record of these programs.
An early story of the Berlin tunnel reveals the pattern. The CIA committed 350 agents to dig a 1467 foot tunnel from American Berlin into East Berlin and to tap into a cable communications link. The tunnel was completed in 1955 and an army of translators decoded the tens of thousands of voice and telex messages. After 11 months, the tunnel was uncovered and an international uproar ensued. From documents released in 2007 we discovered that the Soviets had learned from a mole about the tunnel before it was even dug and were systematically feeding bad information to the CIA until they decided to create an incident over the tunnel itself. The Americans’ big coup was a disaster from the start.
During WWII the British SOE operations returned three out of four agents sent behind enemy lines to conduct covert operations see. The CIA has lost virtually every agent ever dropped into covert operations. Of these deaths the cavalier, urbane, Allen Dulles said;
Allen W Dulles
You have got to have a few martyrs. Some people have to get killed.
The agencies first “success“, was the overthrow of the elected Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadeq to preserve British oil rights in Iran. The CIA planned to return the weak willed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to power but he kept disappearing. In one bizarre coincidence. Allen Dulles ran into Pahlavi checking into the same luxury hotel in Rome. The CIA had lost track of him. The coup that restored the Shah was almost an accident. For the twenty years of Pahlavi’s reign in Iran, he was known throughout the country as the CIA’s Shah.
The CIA’s next “successes“, was the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala. Cowboy diplomat and CIA associate Jack Peuifoy said of his visit to Guatemala City;
I have come to Guatemala to use the big stick. I am definitely convinced that if the President (Arbenz) is not a communist, he will certainly do until one comes along.
The coup was again almost accidental but the result was forty years of military rule, death squads, and repression. The CIA was also responsible for the assassination of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1961, personally sanctioned by JFK.
Following WWII the CIA was willing to work with anyone anti-Communist. This included former Nazis and Hitler youth throughout Germany and Eastern Europe. These efforts were largely futile as the Nazis were widely hated by everyone.
More successful were the recruitment and support of two Japanese war criminals. Nobusuke Kishi signed the declaration of war against the US in 1941. After his release from prison Kishi masterminded the conservative misnamed Liberal Democratic party that dominated Japanese politics for fifty years. Kishi’s prison cellmate was Yoshio Kodama was a gangster who amassed a personal fortune of $1,750,000 running black markets in occupied China during the war. Together, the war criminal cell mates ran crime and politics in post war Japan. All with the support and financial assistance from the CIA.
The CIA’s record of total failure in intelligence gathering was finally broken when Allen Dulles succeeded in infiltrating, bugging, and planting false information in the offices of Senator Joseph McCarthy who was upset that communists had been so successful in planting spies within the CIA. Dulles succeeded in discrediting McCarthy. Dulles said of his operative, James Angleton, in the McCarthy case; “You have saved the republic.”
In Feb 1956 Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech to the 20th Congress denouncing Stalin. It took Angleton three months to get a copy of the speech from the Israelis who provided almost all intelligence, however biased, on the Middle East. The CIA immediately began broadcasting the speech via Radio Free Europe but were oblivious and ignorant of the ensuing political crisis in Poland, Hungary, and Egypt. When finally informed, Dulles and the CIA totally misrepresented these events to the President. The CIA knew nothing of Israel’s plan for war against Egypt and of Britain’s plan to use the war as a excuse to seize the Suez canal. Dulles advised the President that the Hungarian uprising meant that Khrushchev’s days were numbered. The CIA had one person in Hungary, Frank Wisner, who had no agents, no Hungarian speakers, no contacts with the rebels, no weapons, no plans, nothing except Radio Free Europe which they used to give the appearance of a full scale revolution. Wisner left Budapest for Vienna. Dulles reported to the President that 80% of the Hungarian army had joined the rebels. He was wrong, the rebels had no arms and the Russians crushed them.
By 1957, the Middle East and it oil became the front line in the cold war. Eisenhower did not believe that those in the Middle East would be able to successfully run free governments. He decided that the best course was to promote the idea of an Islamic Jihad against communism. “We should be everything possible to stress the holy war aspect” (Eisenhower). The CIA would deliver guns, money, and intelligence to King Saud of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan, President Chamoun of Lebanon, and President Said of Iraq; “These four mongrels were supposed to be our defense and communism and the extremes of Arab nationalism in the Middle East”. The CIA spent the next decade trying unsuccessfully to overthrow the government of Syria. When the CIA ran into trouble in Iraq they eventually threw support behind the emerging Ba’ath Party where Saddam Hussein would rise to the top.
In 1957, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to overthrow the non aligned Sukarno regime in Indonesia where oil had been discovered, and where the communist party was gaining strenth. The resulting attempt was a total failure with an American bomber pilot captured with full identification and records of his missions. The CIA backed off and Sukarno stayed in power for seven more years while the communist party gained strength. Indonesia, following Hungary drove covert operator Frank Wisner over the edge into insanity and he was committed and subjected to shock treatment.
The CIA’s best analyst, Abbott Smith,wrote in 1958:
We had constructed for ourselves a picture of the USSR, and whatever happened had to be made to fit into that picture. Intelligence estimators can hardly commit a more abominable sin.
The CIA, defense department, and military contractors convinced Eisenhower that the USSR had over five hundred ICBMs pointed at the West. In reality they had four.
Frank Wisner was replaced as head of clandestine operations by Richard Bissell on Jan 1 1959, the same day Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. In December Bissell was ordered to remove Castro from Cuba. Bissell and his second in command Richard Helms hated one another. The players from the successful Guatemala coup were brought together and the invasion group of chatty Cubans was sent to Guatemala for training. Nixon, facing a touch presidential race, asked them to hold off an invasion until after the election. In the meantime, the CIA backed the overthrow of Patrice Lumemba in the Congo by Joseph Mobutu. He ruled for thirty years, stealing billions and slaughtering thousands to preserve power.
Kennedy won a tight election and was told by his father Joe to retain J Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles because they knew Kennedy family secrets including a wartime affair of John with a Nazi spy. Kennedy assumed that Eisenhower had approved the Bay of Pigs invasion and Bissel did not tell him otherwise nor that Bissel believed the invasion would fail. The invasion without proper air support was a disaster.
An autopsy of the Bay of Pigs, the Tailor Board heard the following testimony from CIA pioneer General Walter Bedell Smith:
A Democracy cannot wage war. When you go to war, you pass a law giving extraordinary powers to the President. The people … assume when the emergency is over, the rights and powers that were temporarily delegated to the Chief Executive will be returned… When you are at war, cold war if you like, you must have an amoral agency which can operate secretly…
JFK, after the debacle at the Bay of Pigs, moved covert operations to the control of brother Bobby who launched almost as many covert operations in three years as Eisenhower launched in eight years.
When JFK was killed, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, and others including the CIA worried that Fidel Castro was behind the murder. LBJ once said “Kennedy was trying to get Castro, but Castro got to him first.” The Warren Commission that included Gerald Ford was never told that RFK had ordered the assassination of Castro and had made several attempts including poison and a mafia hit man. Castro had a mole in the CIA and presumably knew of all these attempts.
Spy Kim Philby
James Angleton’s old friend and tutor in counterintelligence, Kim Philby, defected to Moscow in 1963. The paranoid Angeton, seeking redemption after Philby, believed that KGB defector Yuri Nosenko knew something about JFK’s murder. Nosenko was imprisoned and tortured for five years until the CIA finally decided he was telling the truth and knew nothing.
Among covert CIA operations, Vietnam stands out. The CIA created a government under Catholic Diem who started oppressing the Buddhists more than he fought the communists. The embarrassed CIA, tired of watching images of burning Buddhist monks and nuns on TV and newspapers, arranged for his removal, starting a long succession of CIA puppet governments set up and removed one after the other.
A supposed incident in the Gulf of Tonkin where two American destroyers were attacked was used by LBJ to push through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 7, 1964 authorizing war in Vietnam. The incident never happened but the lie only came fully to light in 2005. Intelligence about Hanoi during the war was non existent. The CIA estimated enemy troop levels at 500,000 in 1966 but this was reduced under military and diplomatic pressure to 299,000. At 500,000, the actual number, the Americans would never win the war. While pretending to negotiate an end to the war Nixon and Kissinger simply stalled until Americans were forced out in 1975. Neither ever intended to end the war despite Nixon’s campaign promises in 1968 and 1972 to end the war if elected.
Covert operations were taking place in Thailand, where a CIA backed political party, elections, and military government was created in 1965.
The CIA paid an annual subsidy of $180,000 directly to the Dalai Lama and established Tibet Houses in New York and Geneva. Their attempts over twenty years at a cost of millions of dollars to train insurgents to harass the Chinese in Tibet killed numerous insurgence and resulted in capture of a single satchel of Chinese military documents. See the CIA’s secret war.
Covert operations continued in Indonesia, where attempts to overthrow Sukarno were given a boost as the aging Sukarno joined forces with the communists to remove key military leaders in 1965. Five generals were assassinated, The CIA recruited and funded Indonesian diplomat Adam Malik who together with a central Java sultan and army general Suharto and a political movement the Kap-Gestapu, launched a civil war in which 500,000 Indonesians were killed and 1 million arrested, Suharto began his long standing military dictatorship and Malik became foreign minister and eventually President of the UN General Assembly. For forty years the CIA denied involvement in this massacre.
Tony Poe’s Troops
Covert operations in Laos focused on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the country, where the CIA coordinated American bombing and headed geurilla forces involving tribal Hmong fighters. Notorious CIA operator Anthony Poshepny known as Tony Poe, was the probable model for Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in the movie Apocalypse Now. Like Kurtz, the CIA believed Poe mad. Like Kurtz, Poe had his fighters cut off the ears of dead enemy combatants. Unlike Kurtz, Poe was left alone to fight as he saw fit.
In Latin America the CIA was backing the leaders of eleven nations, providing money, weapons, and military training. The CIA sent agents in the hunt for Che Guevara and in 1967 he was found and killed in Bolivia.
Helms and LBJ
LBJ finally appointed Richard Helms as Director of the CIA. James Angleton, who the Israelis had given the 1956 Khrushchev speech, now received complete details of the upcoming 6 day war of 1967 when the Israeli military overran the entire area. This intelligence coup was the high point of CIA prestige. They totally missed the 1973 Yom Kipper war because no one told them about it before hand. On balance, Angleton’s paranoia concerning Soviet infiltration of the CIA meant that the CIA remained almost totally blind to Soviet events throughout his tenure at the agency. If Angleton ever learned anything, he often kept it to himself telling no one else.
Helms and Nixon
When Nixon came to power Richard Helms formed the Covert Operations Study Group in 1968. Among their findings (secret of course);
Covert operations can rarely achieve an important objective alone…At best, a covert operation can win time, forestall a coup, or otherwise create favorable conditions which will make it possible to use overt means to finally achieve an important objective.
On balance, exposure of clandestine operations costs the U.S. in terms of world opinion. To some, exposure demonstrates the disregard of the U.S. for national rights and human rights; to others it demonstrates only our impotence and ineptness in getting caught…Our credibility and our effectiveness in this role (expanding the international rule of law) is necessarily damaged to the extent that it becomes known that we are secretly intervening in what may be (or appear to be) the internal affairs of others.
The only recommendation of the group adopted by Nixon was to appoint Henry Kissinger to direct covert operations. One of Kissinger’s covert successes was the overthrow of democratically elected Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 after three years of effort. Chile, which had been a democracy since the 1930s was thrown into a violent repressive military dictatorship under Pinochet. In 1976 Pinochet arranged to blow up a car with some enemies only forteen blocks from the White House. Pinochet’s reign of terror lasted seventeen years. Today survivors of Pinochet’s Caravan of Death are pursuing Kissinger in the courts of Chile, Argentina, Spain, and France.
The CIA backed a rogue Greek general Ioannidis who started a Greek Turkish war over Cyprus. The intense Watergate investigation brought light and heat on CIA operations greatly weakening the agency. During this time, the extent of CIA domestic surveillance came out. Seymour Hersh of the New York Times broke the story of CIA domestic spying on anti Vietnam war forces in 1974. During the investigations that followed Angleton said:
It is inconceivable that a secret arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government.
From Nixon’s time forward, CIA intelligence was generated (made up) for political purposes and had little to do with reality. This continued into the ridiculous claims about Soviet military power to support the Reagan star wars initiatives. An assessment by John Huizenga in 1971 sums up;
I really do not believe that an intelligence organization in this government is able to deliver an honest analytical product…and have it taken at face value… I think that intelligence has had relatively little impact on the policies that we’ve made over the years. Relatively none. ..The intelligence effort did not alter the premises with which political leadership came to office. They brought their baggage and they more or less carried it along.
Under Carter, the CIA missed the overthrow of the shah of Iran by a fanatic ayatollah and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They not only missed them, they were in denial that these things could happen. The CIA didn’t even know who Khomeini was. In 1979 a group of Iran students and followers of Khomeini stormed the American embassy. CIA agent Daugherty, captured in the raid remembers;
It had been difficult enough for them to accept that the CIA would post an inexperienced officer in their country. But it was beyond insult for that officer not to speak the language or know the customs, culture, and history of their country.
The hostages in Iran were released when Carter left the White House in 1981. Iranians seized other hostages and Reagan indicated his willingness to sell arms to Iran for hostage release. Delirious, Iran seized more hostages. In the most boneheaded scheme in CIA history, the agency spun off money from arms sold to Iran to give to the Nicaragua contras. The complex scheme leaked and the ensuing scandal did more to damage the CIA than Nixon’s Watergate.
Carrying on the grand tradition, the clueless CIA watched the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 live on CNN along with the rest of us. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CIA all but ceased to exist. The fall of the Soviet Union had an impact “analogous to the effect of the meteor strikes on the dinosaurs.” Well said!
Aldrich Hazen Ames
In 1994 Aldrich Hazen Ames, CIA agent since 1967 was arrested. Ames was a Soviet mole since 1985, giving up virtually all agents operating behind the iron curtain. Most were executed. No wonder the CIA had no intelligence on the Eastern Block.
The CIA went on to miss the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan in 1998; and the bombings of three embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole by Al Qaeda. They then provided bad actionable intelligence leading Clinton to bomb a Pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, the Chinese embassy in Serbia, and an empty Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. The CIA became so gun shy after these debacles that they passed up numerous opportunities to send agents to assassinate Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.
The CIA failures to uncover the 9/11 attacks and the false intelligence generated to support war with Iraq were the final straws. Bush sent conservative political hack Porter Goss to dismantle the service. All senior and liberal agents were sacked and replaced by fellow conservative political hacks. Intelligence and covert operations moved to the Defense Dept. and State Dept. and to private beltway bandits who have built a $50 billion intelligence industry out of the ashes.
Eisenhower warned Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson that war cannot be won without good intelligence. In Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we did not and do not have good intelligence. Maybe it is time to admit certain truths. We can start with an admonishment from Richard Helms;
The only remaining superpower doesn’t have enough interest in what’s going on in the world to organize and run an espionage service.
The following are my personal conclusions after reading this well researched book and should not be confused with Weiner’s own conclusions.
First, democracy and war are incompatible and a President should only be given war powers under very extreme circumstances such as those that existed in WWII and have not existed in the cold war or since. Having war every few years to enhance executive power is dangerous and perhaps fatal to our democracy. All other conflicts should be handled through diplomacy and international organizations.
Second, espionage requires deception and amoral judgments, in addition to language and cultural skills that are basically and perhaps fortunately rare skills hard for Americans to acquire. Those capable of deception are equally capable of deceiving themselves, the American people and the President. Judging from the CIA, they tend to be rogue characters impossible to harness. If possible, Americans should devise ways of acquiring intelligence without relying on espionage.
Third, covert operations should be banned altogether. Most of todays international conflicts find their origins in our own past covert actions and many of the weapons used and trained personnel involved in today’s conflicts were provided and trained under cover of American covert activity. This continues to be true throughout the world including Afghanistan and Iraq. Covert actions during the cold war invariably supported fascist right wing extremists all over the world and the repercussions of their repressions are still felt today and will be felt for some time. Covert operations did more to encourage Islamist Jihadist radical extremists than Middle East oil money supporting extremist madrasas. What goes around comes around.
In summary, An open democratic society is incompatible with a government that operates, even in part, in secret. The government must remain completely transparent throughout all its parts and to its people. A government with secrets is a danger both to itself and to everyone else.
As an aside, some of Barack Obama’s recent remarks about actionable intelligence to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden brings back nightmare images from Clinton’s mis targeted bombings. I hope Obama takes the time to carefully study this book before making further foreign policy pronouncements.