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Is the CIA a “Fifth Column”?

Why was the declassified summary of the latest Iran NIE drafted, as I believe it was, in such a way as to subvert U.S. policy toward Iran? Why do officials at the CIA regularly leak information that undermines the Bush administration? Why do left-wing journalists like Seymour Hersh and James Risen enjoy so much access to closely held intelligence information? Do the personnel who staff this vital intelligence bureaucracy see themselves as dispassionate civil servants dedicated to the craft of intelligence or something else?

It is of course difficult to generalize about the men and women of an institution as large and diverse as the CIA. But it is worth recalling something written by our current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his memoir, From the Shadows.

In 1969, when Gates was twenty-five, he found himself a junior analyst in the agency, working on Soviet policy toward Africa and the Middle East. The Vietnam war was raging, the country was bitterly divided, and attitudes inside the agency had already strongly tilted in one direction: “I and virtually all of my friends and acquaintances in CIA,” writes Gates,

were opposed to the war and to any prolonged strategy for extracting us. Feelings among my colleagues —  and nearly all of the men in those days were military veterans — were strong. Many from the CIA marched in antiwar demonstrations on the Mall and at the Pentagon. My one and only was the May 9, 1970 demonstration  after the U.S. military offensive in Cambodia.

Popular impressions then and now about CIA — especially as a conservative, cold-war bureaucratic monolith — have always been wrong. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s not only was antiwar sentiment strong at the Agency, we were also influenced by the counterculture. There is not a doubt in my mind that some of my older colleagues and supervisors, presumably influenced in some measure by their college-age children, experimented with marijuana and perhaps even other drugs. Antiwar and anti-Nixon posters and bumper stickers festooned CIA office walls.

Gates subsequently grew up and went on to a distinguished career, including a stint as director of the CIA and many other top-level jobs. Whatever he now thinks of Vietnam, he has clearly had a change of mind about the behavior of his colleagues in those years. Indeed, he goes so far as to speak of the agency of his youth as “a not inconsiderable Fifth Column” within the Nixon administration.

Today, like then, the country is deeply polarized by a controversial war. And today, like then, government bureaucracies, like so many sponges, absorb the attitudes and ideas circulating in the broader society. The CIA is no exception. Is it possible that our premier intelligence agency has become, once again, “a not inconsiderable Fifth Column”?

Connecting the Dots would welcome sightings from inside Langley. Are anti-Bush posters and bumper stickers festooning CIA office walls today? Are some CIA officers smoking marijuana in classified documents vaults, or are they just acting like it?



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