Thursday, June 2, 2016

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (a book report)

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

—Inscription in central lobby of CIA headquarters (John 8:32)

I recently read a book called Liberation Theology, in which I learned a lot about the United States’ foreign policy in Latin America during the Cold War.  In the name of fighting the spread of communism, the U.S. government, mainly through the CIA, overthrew democratically elected leaders in places like Guatemala and Chile.  We also trained and sponsored terror and death squads in places like El Salvador and Brazil.  Basically, under the banner of freedom, we acted exactly like our supposed “enemies.”  In cases when the U.S. could not legally wage war (the Constitution and international law are specific about how wars may be legally waged), we waged covert wars through the Central Intelligence Agency, an agency originally conceived by president Harry Truman as basically a global news service for the president and congress, to keep them informed on what was happening in the world, so they could make informed policy decisions. 

How had this glorified news service transformed into a massive covert army, waging countless illegal wars across the globe?  And why isn’t this history better known by Americans?  Why aren’t the CIA’s illegal activities the cause of massive outrage?  As it turns out, they are, just not in America.  The covert, illegal wars of the CIA over the past 60 years have probably done more to fan the flames of anti-American feelings around the world than anything else.  And thus, the CIA leaves Americans today with, in the prophetic words of president Eisenhower, “a legacy of ashes.”

Determined to learn more about this disturbing but important aspect of modern American history, I was pleased to discover the book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner, a journalist for the New York Times, and author of an equally lengthy history of the FBI.  Weiner’s book aims to give a “record of the first sixty years of the Central Intelligence Agency.  It describes how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service.  That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States.”


Why does this stuff matter?  Why should we care?  These things are important to me largely because of the old truism: in order to understand the present, you must understand the past.  As it turns out, many of our present-day problems and conflicts have roots in the CIA’s activities in the past.  The Cold War is over, and yet we are not really safer.  We are still fighting a global, largely undeclared war: the Global War on Terror.  Terrorism has replaced communism as America’s feared and hated enemy.  If a lesson may be learned from the past, from our covert actions during the global war on communism it is this: If we abandon our values, the things that define us as Americans—a love of freedom, democracy, and human dignity—we have already lost.

Weiner describes the purpose of his book as follows: “I hope it may serve as a warning.  No republic in history has lasted longer than three hundred years, and this nation may not long endure as a great power unless it finds the eyes to see things as they are in the world.  That once was the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

The CIA Under Truman: 1945-1953

Reading this book, I was first struck by how recently the CIA was created.  I guess I’d assumed that it had always existed as part of America.  The truth is that, prior to World War II, there was no Central Intelligence Agency.  The CIA came into being after the war, under president Truman, who envisioned it as a kind of global news service  “It was not intended as a Cloak and Dagger Outfit!” Truman wrote, “It was intended merely as a center for keeping the President informed on what was going on in the world.”  Sadly, Truman’s original vision was almost immediately distorted into something else.

Americans often forget that, during World War II, the Soviet Union was our ally.  Were it not for Stalin’s Red Army, Hitler might never have been defeated.  Forty times more Russian soldiers died fighting the Nazis than American soldiers.  There were nearly 2 million casualties in the Battle of Stalingrad alone.  After the war, these facts were conveniently forgotten as tensions almost immediately arose between the Soviet Union and the United States.  Out of this fear arose the Truman Doctrine, which basically stated that the U.S. would counter Soviet advances into foreign nations, and laid the groundwork for the Cold War. 

The CIA was officially created by The National Security Act of 1947, and its first leaders were soon divided over what role the agency would play in the mounting crisis of the emerging cold war.  Basically, they were divided into two camps, as Weiner explains: “One believed in the slow and patient gathering of secret intelligence through espionage.  The other believed in secret warfare—taking the battle to the enemy through covert action.  Espionage seeks to know the world.  That was Richard Helms.  Covert action seeks to change the world.  That would be Frank Wisner.”  Ultimately, it was Wisner’s vision that seemed to win the day.

President Truman signing the National Security Act of 1947 which created the CIA.

The first major covert operation of the CIA was subverting the 1948 Italian elections.  The communist party in Italy enjoyed popular support after World War II.  To counter the possibility of a freely-elected communist president, the CIA bribed Italian politicians, organized anti-communist demonstrations, and threw their support behind the Christian Democrat Party, who won those elections and created a government that excluded communists.  The CIA station chief in Italy at the time, F. Mark Wyatt, estimated that the agency spent $10 million on that election.  “Passing black bags to affect a political election is not really a terribly attractive thing,” Wyatt later recalled.  Weiner writes: “The CIA’s practice of purchasing elections and politicians with bags of cash was repeated in Italy—and in many other nations—for the next twenty-five years.”  This subversion of democracy was justified as part of the global war against communism.

Communist Party rally in Rome, 1948.

Other early actions of the CIA involved The Marshall Plan, the U.S. government’s program to help re-build Europe after the War.  This plan was sold to the American people as pure altruism, but it was not.  Weiner explains that “Five percent of those funds [from the Marshall Plan]—$685 million all told—was made available to the CIA through the plan’s overseas offices.  Some of these funds were used by the CIA to create Radio Free Europe, an anti-communist radio station broadcast behind the “Iron Curtain.”

There was also good, old-fashioned espionage going on in these early years, in which American agents were sent behind “the iron curtain.”  They were largely unsuccessful.  Weiner explains: “All told, hundreds of the CIA foreign agents were sent to their deaths in Russia, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and the Baltic States during the 1950s.”

Perhaps the first great test for the CIA was the Korean War, a largely forgotten war in the American consciousness.  It was basically a preamble to the Vietnam War—a proxy war between the capitalist West and the communist East played out in a small, poor country.   During the Korean War, the CIA conducted both paramilitary and espionage operations, nearly all of which were failures.  Weiner explains: “The agency’s paramilitary operations were ‘not only ineffective but probably morally reprehensible in the number of lives lost.’  Thousands of recruited Korean and Chinese agents were dropped into North Korea during the war, never to return.”  He continues, “The agency failed on all fronts in Korea.  It failed in providing warning, in providing analysis, and in its headlong deployment of recruited agents.  Thousands of deaths of Americans and their Asian allies were the consequence…The inability to penetrate North Korea remains the longest-running failure in the CIA’s history.”

The Korean War further cemented the division between North and South Korea created after WWII.

In those wild and freewheeling early days, the CIA also experimented with mind control, like Project Artichoke, “a small but significant part of a fifteen-year search by the CIA for ways to control the human mind,’ and Project MKUltra: “Under its auspices, seven prisoners at a federal penitentiary in Kentucky were kept high on LSD for seventy-seven consecutive days.  When the CIA slipped the same drug to an army civilian employee, Frank Olson, he leaped out of the window of a New York hotel.”

Dr. Sidney Gottlieb headed up Project MKULTRA.

Also, on the eve of the Korean War, as a direct result of the covert actions of Russian spy William Wolf Weisband, the National Security Agency was created, originally as a signals-intelligence service, which ultimately grew to dwarf the CIA in its size and power.  See Edward Snowden.

The CIA Under Eisenhower (1953-1961)

Under president Dwight D. Eisenhower, the CIA greatly expanded its global covert operations: “170 new major covert actions in 48 nations—political, psychological, and paramilitary warfare missions in countries where American spies knew little of the culture or the language or the history of the people.”  Here are a few of these notable covert operations:

The overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq (codename: Operation Ajax).  This operation began as a kind of favor to Great Britain and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which “systematically cheated their government of billions…While British oil executives and technicians played in private clubs and swimming pools, Iranian oil workers lived in shanties without running water, electricity, or sewers.”  The great “mistake” of Mossadeq was trying to change things so that his country, not foreign companies, would reap the benefits of its own natural resources, particularly oil.  This could not stand.

The CIA  undertook political warfare, “aiming to undermine support for Mossadeq inside Iran’s mainstream political and religious parties…The agency’s officers and their Iranian agents rented the allegiances of political hacks, holy men, and thugs.  They bought the services of street gangs who broke up Tudeh rallies with their bare knuckles and mullahs who denounced Mossadeq from the mosques….the CIA drew up pamphlets and posters as part of a $150,000 propaganda campaign to control Iran’s press and public…By renting the allegiances of soldiers and street mobs, the CIA had created a degree of violence sufficient to stage a coup.  Money changed hands, and those hands changed a regime.”  All of this was done in the name of fighting “communism.”

Mohammad Mossadeq.

Ironically (or, rather, hypocritically) right around this time, President Eisenhower made a speech called ‘The Chance for Peace,’ in which he declared that ‘any nation’s right to form a government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable,’ and, ‘any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.” 

With the backing of the CIA, president Mossadeq was overthrown and the Shah was installed, who would be much friendlier than Mossadeq to British and American oil interests.  Also, “the shah wanted a secret police to protect his power.  SAVAK, trained and equipped by the CIA, enforced his rule for more than twenty years.”

The Shah of Iran.

The legacy of the U.S. involvement in this overthrow would be disastrous: “A generation of Iranians grew up knowing that the CIA had installed the shah.  In time, the chaos that the agency had created in the streets of Tehran would return to haunt the United States.  The illusion that the CIA could overthrow a nation by sleight of hand was alluring.  It led the agency into a battle in Central America that went on for the next forty years.”

Which brings us to Operation Success—the CIA’s successful 1954 plot to overthrow the democratically-elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz.  To do this, “the CIA subsidized an anticommunist student movement in Guatemala City, several hundred strong, created a five-page roster of fifty-eight Guatemalans marked for assassination… blew up a radio station run by American Christian missionaries and sank a British freighter docked on the Pacific coast.  According to E. Howard Hunt, who worked for the CIA and later for the Nixon administration, “What we wanted to do was to have a terror campaign.”

 Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the advocate of the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état that installed the right-wing dictatorship.

After the overthrow of Arbenz, the CIA selected a Guatemalan colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas to assume the presidency.  Guatemala was at the beginning of forty years of military rulers, death squads, and armed repression.  All of this was, again, done in the name of fighting “communism.”

After the coup, Castillo Armas was invited to Washington, where he was greeted by vice president Nixon, who said: “We in the United States have watched the people of Guatemala record an episode in their history deeply significant to all peoples.  Led by the courageous soldier who is our guest this evening, the Guatemalan people revolted against communist rule, which in collapsing bore graphic witness to its own shallowness, falsity, and corruption.”

Carlos Castillo Armas and Richard Nixon.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the country was occupied by the United States military for eight years, until 1952.  After this, the CIA took over.   “We ran Japan during the occupation, and we ran it a different way in these years after the occupation,” said the CIA’s Horace Feldman, who served as station chief in Tokyo.  “General MacArthur had his ways.  We had ours.”

Weiner explains: “With the CIA’s help, Nobusuke Kishi became Japan’s prime minister and the chief of its ruling party.  Yoshio Kodama secured his freedom and his position as the nation’s number-one gangster by helping American intelligence.  Together they shaped the politics of postwar Japan.  In the war against fascism, they had represented everything America hated.  In the war against communism, they were just what America needed...Kishi told the Americans that his strategy was to wreck the ruling Liberal Party, rename it, rebuild it, and run it.  The new Liberal Democratic Party under his command would be neither liberal nor democratic, but a right-wing club of feudal leaders rising from the ashes of imperial Japan.”

Yoshio Kodama

The CIA under Eisenhower was involved in all kinds of shenanigans in the Middle East: Eisenhower said that he wanted to promote the idea of an Islamic jihad against godless communism: “We should do everything possible to stress the ‘holy war’ aspect,” he said in 1957.  To aid in this “holy war,” the CIA delivered American guns, money, and intelligence to King Saud of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan, President Camille Chamoun of Lebanon, and President Nuri Said of Iraq.

In 1949, the CIA installed a pro-American colonel, Adib Shishakli, as the Syrian leader.  He lasted four years, then was overthrown.  After this “Syria had to be ‘made to appear as the sponsor of plots, sabotage and violence directed against neighboring governments.'  CIA and SIS would manufacture ‘national conspiracies and various strong-arm activities in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, and blame them on Syria.”  The CIA also backed a successful coup in Iraq.  “We came to power on a CIA train,” said Ali Saleh Sa’adi, the Ba’ath Party interior minister in the 1960s.  One of the passengers on that train was an up-and-coming assassin named Saddam Hussein.

And then there was the strange case of Indonesia.  Weiner explains: “Indonesia had fought for freedom from Dutch colonial rule after World War II and won it at the end of 1949.  The United States supported Indonesia’s independence under its new leader, President Sukarno.  The nation came into the CIA’s focus after the Korean War, when the agency realized that Indonesia had perhaps twenty billion barrels of untapped oil, a leader unwilling to align himself with the United States, and a rising communist movement.”  More on Indonesia later.

Meanwhile in Africa, “the president ordered the director of CIA to eliminate the man the CIA saw as the Castro of Africa—Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of the Congo…The agency had already selected the Congo’s next leader: Joseph Mobutu…the CIA delivered $250,000 to him in early October, followed by shipments of arms and ammunition in November.”  Lumumba was executed.  “With the unwavering support of the CIA, Mobutu finally gained full control of the Congo after a five-year power struggle.  He was the agency’s favorite ally in Africa and the clearinghouse for American covert action throughout the continent during the cold war.  He ruled for three decades as one of the worlds most brutal and corrupt dictators, stealing billions of dollars in revenues from the nation’s enormous deposits of diamonds, minerals, and strategic metals, slaughtering multitudes to preserve his power.”

Joseph Mobutu

How was it that Eisenhower remained popular throughout all these illegal covert, and profoundly un-American activities?  Well, of course, they were covert, classified for decades, some of them still classified.  But there was also the CIA’s involvement in spinning foreign affairs to give them a pro-US message.  CIA head Allen Dulles “kept in close touch with the men who ran The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the nation’s leading weekly magazines.  He could pick up the phone and edit a breaking story…The men who responded to the CIA’s call included Henry Luce and his editors at Time, Life, and Fortune; popular magazines such as Parade, the Saturday Review, and Reader’s Digest; and the most powerful executives at CBS News. Dulles built a public-relations and propaganda machine that came to include more than fifty news organizations, a dozen publishing houses, and personal pledges of support from men such as Alex Springer, West Germany’s most powerful press baron.”

Before leaving office, Eisenhower reflecting on the long-term repercussions of the CIA, said he would “leave a legacy of ashes” to his successor.

The CIA Under Kennedy and Johnson (1961-1968)

Reading the chapter on the CIA under John F. Kennedy was more than a little disillusioning for me.  All things considered, I’ve held a rather positive impression of JFK and his brother Bobby Kennedy as promoters of civil rights in America.  So, imagine my disappointment when I read this:

“On Monday, July 30, 1962, John F. Kennedy walked into the Oval Office and switched on the brand-new state-of-the-art taping system he had ordered installed over the weekend.  The very first conversation he recorded was a plot to subvert the government of Brazil and oust its president, Joao Goulart.”

The unpleasant truth about John and Bobby Kennedy is that they used the CIA just as much as their predecessors.  Eisenhower had undertaken 170 major CIA covert operations in eight years.  The Kennedys launched 163 major covert operations in less than three.  Here are some of the highlights.

There was, of course, the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster, a failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba which created a public relations disaster for JFK.  In fact, the Bay of Pigs was just the most public CIA failure in Cuba.  The overthrow of Castro was “the top priority of the United States Government,” Bobby Kennedy said in 1962.  There was Operation Mongoose, the U.S. spy network inside Cuba, which yielded little results.  In a November 1961 interview, JFK proclaimed that "the United States supports the idea that every people shall have the right to make a free choice as to the kind of government they want.”


And then there was the domestic spying, which was directly forbidden by the CIA’s charter.  JFK approved it anyway.  This surveillance had actually begun much earlier. Weiner explains: “From 1952 onward, working at the main postal facility at the international airport in New York City, the CIA’s security officers opened letters and…counterintelligence staff sifted the information…By ordering the director of central intelligence to conduct a program of domestic surveillance, Kennedy set a precedent that Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and George W. Bush would follow.”  I would add Barack Obama to that list.

In Southeast Asia, there was the conspiracy to assassinate South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.  In Laos “the CIA forced out a freely elected coalition government and installed a new prime minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma.”  In Thailand, the CIA delivered weapons and training to the Hmong counterinsurgency forces.

After the assassination of JFK in 1963, Lyndon Johnson took power.  The following year, after a failure of intelligence, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution began the full-on War in Vietnam.  “In the summer of 1965, as Lyndon Johnson sent tens of thousands of American troops to Vietnam, the war in Laos was being run by about thirty CIA officers.  Backed by military supplies flown in by agency pilots, they armed the Hmong tribesmen who served as guerrilla fighters, traveled to the edges of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and oversaw Thai commandos trained by the CIA’s Bill Lair."

In Indonesia, the CIA provided secret support for leaders who massacred countless “communists” under the brutal regime of Suharto.  I recently learned about the genocide in Indonesia from the eye-opening film The Act of Killing, and its companion film The Look of Silence.  Both films are streaming on Netflix.  Watch them.


Reflecting on the failure of the CIA in Vietnam, Weiner writes: “Never had so much intelligence meant so little.  The conduct of the war had been set by a series of lies that the leaders of the United States told one another and the American people.  The White House and the Pentagon kept trying to convince the people that the war was going well.  In time, the facts on the ground would prevail.”

Meanwhile, in Latin America, “The CIA was backing the leaders of eleven nations—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela….Latin American military juntas were seen as good for the United States…Law and order were better than the messy struggle for democracy and freedom.”  One particularly painful aspect of the CIA under Johnson was its involvement in tracking down and killing Che Guevara, whose last words to his CIA-backed executioner were: “Tell my wife to remarry and tell Fidel Castro that the Revolution will rise again in the Americas.”  To his executioner he said, “Remember, you are killing a man.”

Che Guevara shortly after his murder.

As the civil rights and black power movements arose in the 1960s, president Johnson approved Operation Chaos—an illegal domestic surveillance program: “The agency compiled a computer index of 300,000 name of American people and organizations, and extensive files on 7,200 citizens.  It began working in secret with police departments all over America.  Unable to draw a clear distinction between the far left and the mainstream opposition to the war, it spied on every major organization in the peace movement.”

But the CIA never found evidence that linked the leaders of the American left or the black-power movement to foreign governments.  Johnson ordered Helms to continue the search: “It produced nothing beyond a continuing violation of the CIA’s charter.”

The CIA Under Nixon and Ford (1968-1976)

In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States, and took a rather unique view of both presidential power and covert actions: “Nixon believed that all presidential action is legal in the realm of national security.  If the president does it, he said, it is not illegal.  Among his successors, only George W. Bush fully embraced this interpretation of presidential power, rooted in the divine right of kings.”

Richard Nixon

Nixon inherited the wars in southeast Asia from his predecessor, and ramped up both overt and covert action: “Throughout 1969 and 1970, Nixon and Henry Kissinger focused the CIA on the secret expansion of the war in Southeast Asia.  They ordered the agency to make $725,000 in political payoffs to President Thieu of South Vietnam, manipulate the media in Saigon, fix an election in Thailand (Operation Lotus), and step up covert commando raids in North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.”

Under Nixon, the CIA supported Cambodian dictator Lon Nol (who, amazingly, is buried in Fullerton!). Nixon “told (Richard)  Helms to ship thousands of AK-47 automatic rifles to Lon Nol, to print a million propaganda leaflets, and to spread the word throughout the world that the United States was ready to invade.  Then he ordered the CIA to deliver $10 million to the new Cambodian leader.  ‘Get the money to Lon Nol,’ he said.”

Nixon also continued the tradition of fixing elections in Italy: “Beginning in 1970, after receiving formal approval from the Nixon White House, (Graham) Martin oversaw the distribution of $25 million to both Christian Democrats and Italian neofascists.”

One of the most tragic utilizations of the CIA under Nixon was the overthrow of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile:  “The coup came on September 11, 1973.  It was swift and terrible.  Facing capture at the presidential palace, Allende killed himself with an automatic rifle, a gift from Fidel Castro.  The military dictatorship of General Augosto Pinochet took power that afternoon, and the CIA quickly forged a liaison with the general’s junta.  Pinochet reigned with cruelty, murdering more than 3,200 people, jailing and torturing tens of thousands in the repression called the Caravan of Death.”

This is a great film dealing with the 1973 Chilean coup.

Under Nixon, the CIA also supported the Greek military junta: “On March 7, 1973, President Nixon met in the Oval Office with Tom Pappas, a Greek American business magnate, political fixer, and friend of the CIA.  Pappas had delivered $549,000 in cash to the 1968 Nixon campaign as a gift from the leaders of the Greek military junta.  The money had been laundered through the KYP, the Greek intelligence service.  It was one of the darker secrets of the Nixon White House.”

Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal, and Gerald Ford assumed the presidency.  Under Ford, future president George H.W. Bush became head of the CIA.  One of the most tragic deployments of the CIA under Ford was supporting anticommunist guerillas in Angola: “Two months after the fall of Saigon, President Ford approved a big new operation to secure Angola against communism…The CIA shipped $32 million in cash and $16 million worth of weapons to Angola through the agency’s great ally, President Mobutu of the Congo.”  This contributed to the brutal Angolan Civil War, which lasted from 1975-2002, with over 500,000 civilian casualties.

This is a good movie about the aftermath of the Angolan Civil War.

In the 1976 Presidential debate, candidate Jimmy Carter said, with irony: “Our system of government—in spite of Vietnam, Cambodia, CIA, Watergate—is still the best system of government on Earth.”

The CIA Under Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush (1977-1993)

“Running for president, Jimmy Carter had condemned the CIA as a national disgrace," Weiner explains, "Once in power, he wound up signing almost as many covert-actions orders as Nixon and Ford.  The difference was that he did it in the name of human rights.  The problem was harnessing the agency’s atrophied powers to that new mission.”

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, “President Carter signed a covert-action order for the CIA to provide the Afghan rebels with medical aid, money, and propaganda.” Later, he “signed a covert-action order for the CIA to begin arming the Afghan resistance.”  This support of Afghan rebels would return to haunt the U.S. years later.

After the Iranian Revolution, several American hostages were taken at the American embassy, some of whom were saved though a clever operation, which is depicted in the film ARGO, starring Ben Affleck. “The taking of the hostages was an ‘an act of vengeance’ for the CIA’s 1953 coup in Iran, wrote Ken Pollack, a veteran CIA analyst of the Middle East.”


Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election and chose as director of the CIA “his brilliant and devious campaign manager, William J. Casey…Casey was a charming scoundrel, an old-time Wall Street operator whose fortune came from selling tax-shelter strategies.  His talent lay in bending rules to the breaking point.”

Ronald Reagan continued to support brutal regimes in Central and South America, like his infamous support for the Contras in Nicaragua, whom he funded with illegal arms sales to Iran.  This was known as the Iran-Contra scandal.  Under Reagan, the CIA helped a brutal dictator Hissene Habre take over Chad in 1982: “throughout the 1980s, the CIA’s ally Habre received direct support from Saddam Hussein.”

As the Soviet-Afghan War continued, Reagan continued to support Afghan rebels, some of whom later became "terrorists": “The Pakistani intelligence chiefs who doled out the CIA’s guns and money favored the Afghan factions who proved themselves most capable in battle.  Those factions also happened to be the most committed Islamists.  No one ever dreamed that the holy warriors could ever turn their jihad against the United States.”

Under Reagan, the CIA supported Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel, a Christian of the Maronite sect: “On September 14, 1982, President Gemayel was assassinated when a bomb destroyed his headquarters.  In revenge, the CIA’s Maronite allies, abetted by Israel’s troops, slaughtered some seven hundred Palestinian refugees stranded in the slums of Beirut.  Women and children were buried under rough stones.”  See the movie Waltz With Bashir.


There was also a failed CIA attempt to overthrow the government of Ethiopia: “Timothy Wells, a thirty-four-year-old combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, had been sent to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in 1983.  The nation was controlled by the Marxist dictator Haile Mengistu, whose palace guard, provided by Moscow, was led by East German intelligence officers.  Wells was on his second tour of duty with the CIA.  His orders were to create a political uprising.  'There was a presidential finding signed by Ronald Reagan,’ Wells said, ‘it was a mandate.  I was there to overthrow the goddamn government.”  Wells was captured, the plot foiled.

During the horrific Iran-Iraq War, The CIA provided intelligence for Iraq to use against Iran, and had provided weapons to Iran via the Iran-Contra deal.  In a senate committee, CIA director William Casey was asked if the CIA had been shipping secret support to both Iran and Iraq as the two nations slaughtered each other.  "Yeah," Casey said, "we’ve been aiding Iraq for three years.”  It turned out that Casey had a brain tumor affecting his behavior, which killed him: “After he died on May 6, at age seventy-four, his own bishop denounced him from the pulpit at his funeral, as presidents Reagan and Nixon listened in silence.”

Hundreds of thousands of people died in the Iran-Iraq War.

After the Soviet troops left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989,  The CIA’s weapons kept flowing.  "None of us really foresaw the major consequence," ambassador Oaklet said.  "Within a year," Weiner writes, "white-robed Saudis began to appear in the provincial capitals and ruined villages of Afghanistan.  They proclaimed themselves emirs.  They bought the loyalties of village leaders and they began to build little empires.  They were emissaries of a new force abroad in the world that came to be called al Qaeda"

George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan in 1988.  One of the darker aspects of Bush's presidency was Panama: the CIA had long supported Manuel Norriega, dictator/cocaine kingpin.  "On the campaign trail in 1988, Bush denied that he had ever met Norriega, that nation's notorious dictator.  But there were pictures that proved it.  Noriega had been on the CIA payroll for many years.  Bill Casey had welcomed the general at headquarters annually and had flown down to Panama at least once to see him.  'Casey saw him as a protege,' said Arthur H. Davis, Jr., the American ambassador to Panama under Reagan and Bush."

After failed political warfare--backing opposition candidates--Bush determined that a full-scale invasion was needed: "the president made plans to topple Noriega in concert with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney...During Christmas week of 1989, smart bombs blasted Panama City slums into rubble while Special Forces soldiers fought their way through the capital."  Noriega had once been "a loyal ally in the war against communism."  See the documentary The Panama Deception.


In 1990, another dictator challenged the United Stats: Saddam Hussein.  "During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war," Weiner explains, "President Reagan had dispatched Don Rumsfeld as his personal envoy to Baghdad to shake Saddam's hand and offer him American support.  The agency had given Saddam military intelligence, including battlefield data from spy satellites, and the United States granted him high technology export licenses, which Iraq used to try to build weapons of mass destruction."

"In the weeks before the seven-week air war on Iraq began on January 17, 1991," Weiner continues, "the Pentagon invited the CIA to pick bombing targets.  The agency selected, among other sites, an underground military bunker in Baghdad.  On February 13, the air force blew it up, but the bunker was being used as a civilian air raid shelter.  Hundreds of women and children died.  The agency was not called upon to pick targets after that."

The first Gulf War ended with Saddam still in power but the CIA weakened.

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 took the CIA by surprise.  "The loss of the Soviets tore out the CIA's heart," Weiner writes, "How could the agency live without its enemy?"  New enemies would emerge in time.

The CIA Under Clinton and George W. Bush (1993-2007)

Under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the CIA's previous activities in the Middle East came back to haunt us: "On February 26, 1993, one month after the shooting at the CIA agency's gates, a bomb went off in the subterranean parking garage of the World Trade Center.  Six people were killed and more than a thousand injured...the bombers were the acolytes of a blind Egyptian sheik who lived in Brooklyn--Omar Abdel Rahman.  His name rang a very loud bell at CIA headquarters.  The blind sheik had recruited many hundreds of Arab fighters for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan under the banner of Al Gama'a al Islamiyya, the Islamic group."

The 1993 World Trade Center Bombing.

And then there was 9/11, which was also a failure of intelligence: "September 11th was...a systemic failure of American government--the White House, the National Security Council, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the congressional intelligence committees.  It was a failure of policy and diplomacy.  It was a failure of the reporters who covered the government to understand and convey its disarray to its readers.  But above all it was a failure to know the enemy.  It was the Pearl Harbor that the CIA had been created to prevent."

9/11

After 9/11, president Bush expanded the role of the CIA: "On Monday, September 17th, President Bush issued a fourteen-page top secret directive to the CIA, ordering the agency to hunt, capture, imprison, and interrogate suspects around the world.  It set no limits on what the agency could do.  It was the foundation for a system of secret prisons where CIA officers and contractors used techniques that included torture.  One CIA contractor was convicted of beating an Afghan prisoner to death.  This was not the role of a civilian intelligence service in a democratic society.  But it is clearly what the White House wanted the CIA to do."

Weiner continues: "Bush gave the agency a new and extraordinary authority: to turn kidnapped suspects over to foreign security services for interrogation and torture, and to rely on the confessions they extracted...Under Bush's order, the CIA began to function as a global military police, throwing hundreds of suspects into secret jails in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, and inside the American military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba...CIA officers snatched and grabbed more than three thousand people in more than one hundred countries in the year after 9/11."

And then there was the failure of intelligence that led to the Iraq War: "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Vice President Dick Cheney said on August 26, 2002, "There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."  Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld said the same: "We know they have weapons of mass destruction," he said, "There isn't any debate about it."  This turned out to be wrong.

In 2003, "an Iraqi prisoner named Manadal al-Jamadi was tortured to death at the Abu Ghraib prison while in the custody of a CIA officer.  The brutal interrogations were part of what the White House had called upon the agency to do when the gloves came off."  See Errol Morris' film Standard Operating Procedure.


Rather than deterring terrorism, "the American occupation of Iraq became the cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."

Also, under Bush, there arose a new intelligence for-profit industry: "A huge homeland security agency was growing at the outer edges of the beltway, selling its services to a government outsourcing intelligence."  The booming intelligence-industrial complex, under companies like Booz Allen Hamilton and Total Intelligence Solutions, is rivalling the military industrial complex in cost and impact.  By 2007, "patriotism for profit became a $50 billion a year business."

Reflecting on the legacy of the Iraq War, Weiner writes: "The United States has squandered thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars on its misadventures in Iraq.  This is part of the price we pay in blood and treasure when the CIA gets it wrong.  To project force without good intelligence is folly: leaders mislead, generals blunder, soldiers die.  Great powers lose force, flounder, and start to fall."

Closing Thoughts

I'll conclude this admittedly depressing and scary post with a quote from the author and one from Colin Powell:

"Do Americans deserve an intelligence service that misreads existential threats of terror, relies on information wrung from torture in secret prisons, and derives unchecked power through secret presidential orders?  Is our political culture comfortable with that?"

"What is the greatest threat facing us now?" Colin Powell asked recently, "People will say it's terrorism.  But are there any terrorists in the world who can change the American way of life or our political system?  No.  Can they knock down a building?  Yes.  Can they kill somebody?  Yes.  But can they change us?  No.  Only we can change ourselves...The only thing that can really destroy us is us.  We shouldn't do it to ourselves, and we shouldn't use fear for political purposes--scaring people to death so they will vote for you, or scaring people to death so that we create a terror-industrial complex."

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