Critiquing the CIA: Flawed spying, or bureaucratic turf wars?
It is ironic. The flaws that spoil Tim Weiner’s passionate, malevolent and often misguided history of the Central Intelligence Agency are precisely the same flaws for which he damns CIA: Preconceived conclusions, lack of insight about the target and sloppy reporting. From the book’s second sentence, Mr. Weiner tells you where he’s going to end up: “Legacy of Ashes,” he announces, “describes how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service.”
Like most polemicists, Mr. Weiner tends to favor sources who buttress his case and disregard those who don’t. Thomas Polgar, the CIA alumnus whose particular weltanschauung often mirrors Mr. Weiner’s, turns up Zelig-like throughout the book, providing just the right quote or anecdote when it’s needed.
Jimmy Carter’s almost universally detested director of central intelligence, Adm. Stansfield Turner, receives respectful treatment too. Hardliners like CIA’s legendary deputy director for plans, Frank Wisner, DCIs William J. Casey and Allen Dulles, and counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton are vilified.
Mr. Angleton is introduced to readers thusly: “Drunk after lunch, his mind an impenetrable maze, his in-box a black hole, he passed judgment on every operation and every officer that the CIA aimed at the Soviets. He came to believe that a Soviet master plot controlled American perceptions of the world, and that he and he alone understood the depths of the deception.
He took the CIA’s missions against Moscow down into a dark labyrinth.” Not until 200-plus pages later do we learn from Mr. Weiner that “CIA was never penetrated by a traitor or a Soviet spy during the twenty years that Angleton ran counterintelligence.”
Nor is Mr. Weiner above skewing the evidence to support his case — another of CIA’s nasty flaws. In 1956, Frank Wisner watched helplessly from Austria as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to suppress Hungary’s democratic rebellion.
Mr. Wisner, Mr. Weiner writes, “fled Vienna and flew to Rome. There, he dined with the American spies of CIA’s Rome station, among them William Colby, the future director of central intelligence. Wisner raged that people were dying as the agency dithered. He wanted to ‘come to the aid of the freedom fighters,’ Colby recorded. ‘This was exactly the end for which the agency’s paramilitary capability was designed. And a case can be made that they could have done so without involving the United States in a world war with the Soviets.’ But Wisner could not make a coherent case. ‘It was clear he was near a nervous breakdown,’ Colby recorded.”
Mr. Weiner wants us to believe Colby thought CIA wasn’t allowed to act in Hungary because Mr. Wisner was so close to a breakdown he couldn’t make a coherent case for doing so. But that’s not the truth. Colby’s quotes are cherry-picked out of several paragraphs describing the Hungarian revolt in Colby’s autobiography, “Honorable Men.”
What Mr. Weiner chooses not to include is Mr. Colby’s categorical assertion that no matter what Mr. Wisner and his staff might have done, “President Eisenhower overruled them . . . It was established once and for all, that the United States . . . was not going to attempt to liberate within that sphere, even if the provocation was as dramatic as that in the Hungarian situation.”
Like CIA, Mr. Weiner is also guilty of sloppy reporting. His book is filled with factual errors. Some are careless, like getting the capital of Switzerland wrong. (Hint, Tim: It’s not Geneva.) And the Israeli hit on Ali Hassan Salameh took place in 1979, not 1978.
Mr. Weiner’s coverage of the execution of Che Guevara has CubanAmerican CIA agent Felix Rodriguez debriefing Che for two days. Mr. Rodriguez actually flew to the village of La Higuera (Mr. Weiner incorrectly refers to it as Higuras) on the morning of October 9, 1967, and returned to Vallegrande with Che’s body the same day.
Others are more dangerous. Books like “Legacy” are often cited in footnotes, so Mr. Weiner’s distortions may become part of conventional wisdom. For example, Mr. Weiner claims Felix Rodriguez was on the agency’s payroll when he worked to support the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. Mr. Rodriguez was not.
Mr. Weiner also regurgitates the legend that CIA is responsible for Saddam Hussein because the agency contrived a February 1963 coup in Iraq that brought the Baath Party to power. Mr. Weiner’s money quote is from Ali Saleh Sa’adi, a Baath Party interior minister in the 1960s, that Mr. Weiner found in a book published in 2001. Says Mr. Sa’adi: “We came to power on a CIA train.”
But Horace J. BARBER (a CIAstyle pseudonym), the Headquarters Near East Division Iraq Desk Officer on duty in February 1963, who had a long and distinguished career in CIA’s Clandestine Service, objects.
“I was summoned to Headquarters by the watch officer and informed that the ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim Arab nationalist regime in Baghdad had been overthrown by the Ba’th party,” BARBER e-mailed me. “This coup came as a complete surprise to the U.S. Intelligence Community. . . . There is absolutely NO possibility that the USG or, specifically, the CIA could have been involved in plotting a Ba’th coup in Iraq WITHOUT the HQS Iraq Desk Officer being fully involved in, or at least cognizant of, this activity.”
In discussing CIA’s successful covert action program directed at eradicating the Abu Nidal terrorist organization, Mr. Weiner says the program began only after former president Jimmy Carter “delivered a package of intelligence to the president of Syria, Hafiz al-Asad, in a March, 1987 meeting. Asad expelled the terrorist.”
Not quite. According to Patrick Seale’s “Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire,” the terrorist left Syria on his own on March 28, more than two months before the June 1 official expulsion order. And while Mr. Weiner claims CIA acted in concert with Jordanian, Israeli and PLO intelligence services to bring down the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), CIA CounterTerrorist Center creator and thenchief Duane “Dewey” Clarridge says “the operation had nothing to do with the Jordanians, PLO, or Israelis. Zero.”
What did the trick, Mr. Clarridge insists, were a series of demarches sent (with the strong support of the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer) to the governments of East Germany, Greece, Poland, Cyprus and Switzerland. The demarches, coupled with the wide dissemination of CIA’s “Abu Nidal Handbook,” which laid out in chapter and verse facts about Abu Nidal’s organization, its financing, and its crimes, eliminated support, logistics and money for the terrorists.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of “Legacy” is the fact that Mr. Weiner has a tin ear when it comes to the gestalt of intelligence. He tries to apply the same metrics to CIA as one would use on GM or Starbucks. Yet B-school criteria don’t work when it comes to the “wilderness of mirrors.” Are there huge problems at CIA? Yup. Has the agency become dysfunctional because of bad leadership and misdirection? Absolutely. Should there be a book about those problems? Yes — but Mr. Weiner’s isn’t it.
Because Mr. Weiner just doesn’t get it. He wants a zero-defect CIA. He frowns on the amoral aspects of human intelligence gathering. And yet HUMINT is built around the holy trinity of Spot, Assess, Recruit — the art of one person convincing another person to become a traitor.
“If I’m not breaking the laws of the country to which I’ve been assigned, I’m not earning my salary,” is the way one long-time covert op- erative put it to me some years ago. Mr. Weiner would no doubt disapprove.
Did a cabal of liberal CIA insiders run a covert action program against the White House in order to undermine the Bush administration’s war against terrorism? That’s the thesis of former Washington Times reporter Rowan Scarborough’s “Sabotage.”
The premise holds promise. Since 2001 there have been repeated leaks detailing sensitive intelligence information and embarrassing the administration. Add to that the chorus of CIA alumni Jeremiahs who make themselves available to bash Bush at the drop of a sound-bite, op-ed or book jacket. So Mr. Scarborough has potentially rich ground to mine.
Problem is, he just scratches the surface. There are lots of accusations about “CIA bureaucrats,” but Mr. Scarborough doesn’t name very many of them or pin down who leaked what and to whom.
He goes over a lot of old ground — the Valerie Plame leak, the accusations of former CIA officer Tyler Drumheller and the anti-Bush writings of Michael Scheuer are all recounted. Mr. Scarborough does a good job of reconstructing the UAE Ports deal fiasco and includes, as few have, the fact that the UAE agreed to allow our intelligence community to use Dubai Ports World as cover for its personnel.
But Mr. Scarborough is so deficient in specifics about CIA’s antiBush sabotage program that he digresses to pad his book with some of the successes in America’s war against terrorism.
He recounts operations staged by Task Force Orange, the elite group of cutting-edge intelligence gatherers and Delta/SEAL/Ranger shooters that targeted, pinpointed and killed Abu Musab Zarqawi. He describes many of the ways in which NSA has increased its ability to scoop signals intelligence out of the ether. And he relates the 2003 operation that identified and snatched up an Indonesian terrorist named Riduan Isamuddin, a.k.a. Hambali, “the only non-Arab to sit on al Qaeda’s leadership council.”
It’s a nice story with a happy ending. But it is still maddening to read a passage that goes, “In my own investigation for this book, I counted at least eight occasions on which current or former intelligence officials made serious allegations of wrongdoing against the president’s men that turned out to be untrue,” only to have Mr. Scarborough list none of them.
“America,” Mr. Scarborough says in conclusion, “cannot afford an intelligence agency more devoted to bureaucratic turf battles than to defending the homeland.” How absolutely true. And how disappointing that “Sabotage” offers so few solutions to this long-running Washington problem.
John Weisman’s most recent CIA novel, “Direct Action,” was released in paperback by Avon Books in the spring of 2006. He can be reached at email@example.com.