Commentary Magazine


The Man Who Kept the Secrets, by Thomas Powers

The Agency

The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA.
by Thomas Powers.
Knopf. 393 pp. $12.95.

Thomas Powers has written a serious book about the CIA and one of its major figures, a book that is significant despite its author’s inability to overcome fully the accumulated prejudice of a decade of unrestrained accusation—now revealed as very largely unfounded. Unlike other celebrated “exposés” of the Agency in the recent past, The Man Who Kept the Secrets is a balanced work, written with care and maturity. If it is finally not successful, it nevertheless does get us halfway back to rationality on the subject of this country’s intelligence service. Would that halfway were far enough.

Powers tells us a great deal about the politics of the CIA, and he puts to rest one of the most widespread canards: that the Agency was for some time a “rogue elephant” out of control, creating its own foreign policy often contrary to the desires of the Presidents themselves. This is false. The CIA, in fact, has scrupulously carried out the wishes of the Presidents on all occasions. (Indeed, as Powers rightly stresses, one of the Agency’s most common sins has been that of failing to resist the executive branch’s worst instincts.) The point must be underlined because for many years some writers and critics have encouraged the belief that by its very nature a secret organization threatens “the system,” undermines democracy, and leads unerringly to evil. Powers effectively demolishes this demonology and focuses our attention where it belongs: on the ideology and conduct of the President and his colleagues in the executive branch.

As Powers acknowledges, the Agency is and must be a unique instrument, not only because of its relationship with the President, but because it is a secret organization. As such it gives—or used to give—the country the ability to exert power in cases where military force is too clumsy, too obvious, or inappropriate to the problem at hand (such as Iran after the taking of the hostages). In addition, the CIA enables the President to obtain information that might otherwise be unavailable, either because sources are unwilling to provide it openly or because the information in question is held by hostile powers who would never give it up voluntarily.

Although he grants the need for an intelligence service, Powers is nevertheless ambivalent about the CIA. His attitude is perhaps best illustrated by a long footnote in which he writes of his investigation of the widespread charge that the CIA assassinated American agents who caused trouble:

. . . I was at first inclined to accept the general wisdom that the CIA, like other intelligence services, occasionally kills people if they cause sufficient trouble, and if their murder can be carried out secretly. When I said as much in an earlier version of this manuscript, CIA people reacted so vigorously I had no choice but to reconsider the whole matter. In the end I accepted their denials of low-level agent killings for two reasons. First, I was unable to discover so much as a single example of the sort of murder referred to here. It hardly seemed fair to charge the CIA with routine homicide in the total absence of evidence. Second, I began to wonder about my own point of view. Was I so hostile toward the Agency that I actually preferred to believe the worst?

One is entitled to ask how such a claim crept into an earlier version of the manuscript when, by Powers’s own account, there was absolutely no evidence to substantiate it. Similar flaws abound in this book, showing how next-to-impossible it is for some people to approach the subject of the CIA with an open mind. Any money passed secretly from the CIA to individuals or groups overseas is invariably labeled “corrupting.” Aid to individuals is always a “bribe,” even though Powers rightly notes that a good deal of CIA money went to support democratic forces involved in a life-and-death struggle against totalitarianism.

This sort of distortion is the result of a fundamental shortcoming of The Man Who Kept the Secrets: the absence of a picture of international reality that could explain the motivation of Presidents who kept using the CIA in ways Powers finds dubious or objectionable. For although we hear about the Soviet Union and the KGB from time to time, there is never any account of what it was the Russians were doing that so alarmed successive administrations. Since he does not look at CIA actions in the context in which they belong, the context of the Soviet challenge to America, he cannot evaluate their effectiveness or their propriety.

To take only one case: at the end of World War II the American government learned that the Communist party of Italy was maintaining a clandestine army, trained by Soviet advisers. Italian officials ceaselessly warned that their country might fall victim to an armed coup d’état. What should the American response have been? Some Americans advocated the use of remnants of the U.S. army still stationed in Western Europe. Others urged a program of military aid, conducted under cover of the Marshall Plan. This was the plan eventually adopted. Could such a program be termed “the injection of corrupting sums of money into the political systems of other nations”? Powers’s analysis does not permit us to answer such a question meaningfully.

Powers does know that the struggle against the Soviet Union is at the heart of presidential (and therefore Agency) policy, but almost every time he discusses the matter he leaves out the Soviet side of the story. Thus we are told that the extreme suspicion of the USSR evinced by former counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton was the result of “the fundamental error of thinking national governments have a capacity for extreme intrigue like that which in fact characterizes intelligence services.” Yet, as Angleton knew, the Russians had this capacity, for he could document many cases in which the Soviet government had acted with a cunning entirely ruthless, and had even sacrificed thousands of Soviet soldiers in wartime to advance an agent who had penetrated the military intelligence of the enemy country. Powers himself refers to a somewhat similar case in Poland shortly after the war, but does not draw the obvious conclusion that the Soviet Union is capable of carrying out extreme intrigue over a period of many years, and has a capacity for systematic deception that is remarkable both for its cleverness and for its thoroughness.

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Such failures to understand the world extend to the craft of intelligence as well. For despite the wealth of information, and the many pages of reflections on the nature of the CIA, Powers makes errors of fact, is a poor analyst of character, and simply cannot figure out the real motives of intelligence officials. The most obvious example concerns the book’s main figure, Richard Helms. Powers evidently began work on the book expecting to find in Helms one of the chief devils of the postwar era. Instead he found a gentleman, a patriot, and a professional in the best sense of the term. Powers is unable to reconcile the two impressions because he sees everything in terms of personality or of narrowly institutional interests and does not understand the nature of the tasks Helms was attempting to fulfill.

In dealing with the steadfast refusal of Helms to break his oath and reveal his secrets to Congress and the press, Powers offers three explanations: first, that Helms would have been personally damaged by such revelations (and might even have had to face criminal proceedings); second, that the revelations would have undermined the reputation of the CIA, and destroyed “the complacent trust in the Agency’s honor and good sense without which it could have no freedom of action”; finally, that the “dark” side of the CIA—that side of the Agency that actually “did things” as opposed to merely gathering information and analyzing problems—had to maintain its “secrets of methods and its secrets of essence.” These last, according to Powers, were initiatives that

had to be hidden so that their effect would appear genuine and spontaneous, rather than contrived. If a foreign leader is known to be on the CIA’s payroll he ceases to be a leader, but is discredited as a kept man. Who would be impressed by the anti-Communism of a newspaper which could not publish without CIA funds? If it was the CIA which ousted Arbenz, then it could not have been the doing of Guatemalans. Who was most opposed to the Communists in Italy—the Italians or the CIA?

Helms, however, knew more about the way the world works than does Thomas Powers. Helms knew, for example, that there were (and are) many countries in which anti-Communist newspapers could not publish without money from outside, and that such money meant only that the newspapers would appear, not that their editors were any less sincerely anti-Communist for accepting help. He also knew that countries like Italy and Guatemala were Soviet targets, where governments were being infiltrated by the KGB, anti-democratic insurrectionary forces were being trained by Soviet agents, and democratic leaders were threatened by Russian representatives. When the United States, the presumed protector of democratic forces, refuses to help such countries, the inevitable reaction is one of alarm, scorn, and finally resignation. The questions Powers asks in the passage quoted above are thus entirely the wrong ones, either for understanding the world or for comprehending the actions of Richard Helms.

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This does not mean that the CIA always showed good judgment, or that its attempts to shore up various forces abroad were always advisable. Undoubtedly there were moments of anti-Communist hysteria, and cases in which hasty decisions were reached. But these must be analyzed in context if one is to avoid the moralistic errors that have so long plagued our publicists, and that have now hamstrung and bamboozled the Carter administration for nearly three years.

For, as the case of Richard Helms eloquently demonstrates, the “cure” for the presumed disease of the CIA has proved worse than the malady itself. In their efforts to purge the American body politic of the imagined cancer the Agency was said to be, the critics and the purifiers have struck a terrible blow at the country itself. There was a rogue elephant on the loose, and it ran headlong through congressional committees and national newsrooms, wrecking operations, burning agents, exposing friendly sources, and ruining the careers of public servants.

A good deal of Helms’s rage at congressional committees was produced by his knowledge that every time another Agency secret was dragged before the public, it cost the United States dozens of potential sources throughout the world. Oddly, it never seems to occur to Powers that many of the Agency’s information sources had to be secret or they could not inform. This was as true of friendly government officials as it was of spies in the more literal sense. But it certainly occurred to Richard Helms, who rightly foresaw that men like Frank Church and Otis Pike would inevitably force foreigners to avoid all contact with the CIA for fear of seeing their names on the front pages of the American press. The American government and its representatives everywhere in the world are still living with the consequences.

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