Commentary Magazine

The Invisible Government, by David Wise and Thomas B. Ross

Cloaking the Dagger

The Invisible Government.
by David Wise and Thomas B. Ross.
Random House. 356 pp. $5.95.

Unloved by those it serves as much as by those it subverts, the CIA has entered the popular mythology as a composite demon: half-terrifying, half-ludicrous. Its smoke screen of mystery pierced only when it commits a major blunder, it alternately inspires inappropriate emotions of amusement and indignation. Attention, as Mrs. Loman used to say, must be paid this thing. But knowing what to do about it is something else again. Like our nuclear arsenal, it is one of those regrettable products of the cold war that nobody likes, yet nobody knows how to get rid of. It has lumbered on through four administrations; retained by necessity, it is nonetheless cursed for existing at all.

Any fair-minded account of the CIA and its operations almost inevitably seems to shuttle between distress and resignation, trying to balance the devious diplomacy of the cold war against the traditional methods of democratic government. It is no easy task. In The Invisible Government, two enterprising young journalists, David Wise, chief of the Washington bureau of the New York Herald Tribune, and Thomas B. Ross, of the Washington bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times, have not so much tried to resolve the dilemma as to tell us that it exists. In dramatizing the problem, they have chosen to write an expose of the CIA, presumably on the assumption that once we know what this thing is, we will then know what to do about it. The cure, unfortunately, doesn't necessarily follow from the diagnosis, but the description of the malady is fascinating—and slightly appalling.

Here, according to the authors, is a “massive, hidden apparatus, secretly employing about 200,000 persons, and spending several billion dollars a year,” which gives it, I should imagine, a payroll bigger than the population of Nevada and a budget greater than that of most countries in which it operates. Exact figures are unknown to all but the inner sanctum, since Congress exempts the CIA from such irritating bureaucratic requirements as stating whom it employs, how much it spends, and what it does. Its budget is concealed in those of other agencies, so that every year Congress votes funds “without knowing how much it has appropriated or how much will be spent.”

Like Hertz, the CIA has an office nearly everywhere: from Seattle (telephone MA 4-3288) to Ouagadougou (care of the U.S. Embassy). While analysts are sequestered in suburban Washington, coup-launchers, spies, and palm-greasers are scattered across the globe, formally touching base at U.S. consulates and embassies where, according to a Senate report, “espionage agents of the CIA are stationed masquerading as diplomatic and consular officials.” Such cloaks, however, tend to be even more transparent than the daggers, and any bar-tender can usually furnish an accurate run-down on the local CIA contingent. In Berlin, for example, where there is about a full division of CIA men, the Russians have found it practical to compile a special spy directory, complete with addresses and telephone numbers. Even though they operate from embassies, CIA agents are remarkably independent, frequently conducting operations without the knowledge and occasionally against the will of the ambassadors who house them. Despite efforts by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy to beef-up the ambassadors—the latter went so far as to write them individual letters of support—a Senate subcommittee reported in 1963 that “the primacy of the ambassador is a polite fiction.”

Detailing some of the CIA's more lurid activities—such as espionage and government-toppling—Wise and Ross go over fairly familiar ground, but it is not ground the CIA likes to have plowed up (Random House was reportedly urged to suppress the book), and they do it with a high sense of drama that makes engrossing reading. In addition, they throw some much-needed light on the CIA's domestic program. Many will be surprised to learn that right here at home the CIA runs insurance agencies and steamship lines as covers, supports a wide variety of university research programs, such as the Center for International Studies at MIT “which was set up with CIA money in 1950,” and subsidizes some excellent magazines and publishing ventures. Branching out into broadcasting, it is behind the scenes at Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty in Munich, and Radio SWAN in the Caribbean, “organizations that solicit funds from business organizations and the general public, but also receive secret funds . . . and take orders from the CIA.” However much it may irritate the invisible CIA officials in Langley, Virginia, these are things we have a right to know about, and we can be grateful to Wise and Ross for performing an important act of public service.


Having been such excellent guides, it is unfortunate that they do not take us one step further, moving from indignation over what the CIA does, to suggestions as to what we are supposed to do about it. While they criticize the vast sums spent on coups and espionage, they don't say that such activities are wrong or that the money is badly spent. Although they seem to disapprove of the CIA's ill-concealed finger in every pot of discord, they never question the need for a secret organization of spies. Warning of the “natural human tendency of the leaders of the invisible government to embark upon ventures which might prove their toughness, demonstrate their vision or expand their power,” they fail to point out which of the ventures they recount, if any, fall into that category. What they appear to want, as we all do, is a “massive, hidden apparatus” that never gets caught telling a lie or greasing a palm, that never backs the wrong man in a palace coup, that both remains shrouded in mystery and is open to public scrutiny.

This is perfectly understandable, but even if our wish were granted, there would still be a problem. The question is not simply how the CIA is to be made efficient and responsible, but how democratic government is to be made responsible to the electorate when an increasing proportion of its activities are deliberately concealed. To single out the CIA as the villain may thus be to bark up the wrong tree. With all its excesses of zeal and inadequacies of vision, it is nonetheless an instrument of the President and submissive to his direction—when it gets direction. If the CIA sometimes becomes a thief of power, it is usually because others are unwilling to make decisions or lay down policy. It is not, after all, entirely the CIA's fault if ambassadors refuse to assert the authority they are given, or if a vacuum of policy results from the State Department's inability to evolve a coherent line of diplomacy. There are means at hand—if anybody wants to use them—for keeping tabs on the CIA and calling it to task. But so far the Congress—despite prodding by Senator Mansfield and Representative Lindsay, among others—has refused to set up a watchdog committee to oversee CIA expenditures, while the executive branch has been content to live with the situation as it is.

The problem, then, of reforming the CIA, while an important one, is not crucial; more basic is the use made of the CIA by the Presidency. Rather than a sinister, self-seeking monster, is not this “massive, hidden apparatus” more realistically a tool of the President by which he is able to do with his left hand that which the right hand would never dare try on its own? Is this not the real moral of the Bay of Pigs, planned, financed, and conducted by the CIA at the instigation of President Eisenhower and with the approval of President Kennedy? Is this not the meaning of our role in the current slaughter in the Congo where the United States, by means of the CIA, is reportedly not only supplying Tshombe with planes and bombs to fight the rebels, but is also paying Cuban exiles to do the bombing? The CIA in such cases becomes a pair of rubber gloves by which the President keeps his hands clean; Congress in turn disavows all knowledge of what it would rather not know; and the voters remain in ignorance of the activities conducted in their name and with their cash. This may be the price of endurance in the cold war, which has swept a good deal of conventional diplomacy off the board, but we should at least know that we are paying it.


Wise and Ross touch upon this basic question when they observe that the cold war has made our leaders feel that “certain decisions must be made by them alone without popular consent, and in secret, if the nation is to survive,” but they neglect to spell out the consequences of such a radical modification of our traditional democratic system. If the critical decisions of government are to be abdicated to a small group of officials who are beyond legislative responsibility or electoral accountability, then the cold war has taken an even greater toll than we have realized. It is cold comfort to learn that “there are procedures which call for the approval of any major special operation at a high level in the executive branch of government”; cold comfort and not totally convincing, since a good deal of the book is devoted to showing how such procedures broke down in places like Laos, Vietnam, and Costa Rica, where the CIA appeared to be acting on its own. But even assuming that the procedures do work, or can be made to work, is this not to dodge the central issue—that a green light from the White House has not, at least until now, been considered sufficient justification in itself for military interventions which could involve the nation in a state of war? Something has been left out of the question, and that something is the approval of Congress and the knowledge of the electorate.


But that, we are told, is the price of involvement in a cold war we did not choose but cannot avoid. Perhaps it is, yet it is well to get priorities straight and to recognize that the real problem is not the existence of a CIA, but the increasing replacement of visible government by an invisible government which cannot be held responsible for its activities because they are conducted under a cloak of secrecy. The days when we could do without a CIA have unfortunately passed, but the way in which its secret operations can be made consistent with government based upon popular consent has yet to be resolved, or even honestly faced. Wise and Ross do not attempt to solve that problem, but in making us aware of our invisible government, they raise some disturbing questions.

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