Commentary Magazine

The 35-Year War on the CIA

When your own outfit is trying to put you in jail, it’s time to go.” Those are the words of Robert Baer, once a CIA operative in the Middle East, describing the days in 1995 when he found himself under investigation by the Clinton administration, the FBI, and the CIA’s own inspector general. Baer’s crime? Daring to talk to Iraqi dissidents who were plotting to assassinate Saddam Hussein.

CIA officers in 2009 who are living with a Sword of Damocles hovering over their heads—in the form of a special prosecutor appointed by Barack Obama’s attorney general in August to probe allegations of torture during interrogations of al-Qaeda members and other suspects—now know how Baer felt. In September, every living former director of Central Intelligence (except Robert Gates, the current defense secretary) signed a letter to President Obama asking him to halt the special-prosecutor proceedings for the sake of the future of the agency. The president did not respond.

Subsequent events have largely vindicated Baer. The charges against him were dismissed in 1997. Five years later a CIA director might have suggested pinning a medal on him rather than trying to throw him in jail. How posterity will view the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation tactics during the anxious years of 2002 and 2003, when the real possibility of another 9/11 attack loomed, may depend less on what we learn about the results of the interrogations themselves than on the Obama administration’s conduct in determining their appropriateness and legality.

The appointment of a special prosecutor is just one of a series of administration attacks on the CIA. Those attacks have included the release—over the objections of his own CIA head, Leon Panetta—of the classified 2004 CIA Inspector General Report revealing which enhanced interrogation methods were actually used on which suspects (including threatening to seize members of one suspect’s family and intimidating another suspect with a power drill). The administration has also created a new “High Value Detainee Interrogation Group,” effectively stripping the CIA of responsibility for interrogating important terrorist suspects and handing it over to the vastly more constrained FBI.

This assault on the CIA might seem strange considering that just two years ago, Democrats and the media were expressing outrage over the Bush administration’s alleged “outing” of a supposedly covert operative named Valerie Plame. A special prosecutor was then tasked with finding out who had been so “un-American” (as Senator John Kerry termed it) as to leak the name of a CIA employee. Now we have a special prosecutor who may not only “out” CIA interrogators but also work hard to throw them into prison.1

So what if the 2004 Inspector General’s Report explicitly states that the waterboarding and other fully authorized techniques used on al-Qaeda detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were effective and yielded valuable, actionable information that may have saved thousands of lives? Never mind that when Justice Department career lawyers scrutinized the Inspector General’s Report in 2006 looking for evidence of wrongdoing worthy of prosecution, they could find none. The argument that the United States and those in the government’s employ behaved in reprehensible ways in the aftermath of 9/11 deserving of legal sanction has become standard issue among Democrats and liberals, and when a Democratic liberal ascended to the White House, it was no longer an argument. It is now policy.

In all this, Obama and the Democrats are not just attempting to delegitimize the conduct of the past eight years. They are also reverting to type. For the past 35 years, American liberals have attacked and vilified the CIA with a fervency that borders on holy war. Their antipathy toward the CIA and its works has been reflected in Hollywood films from Three Days of the Condor in 1975 to Rendition in 2007; in popular thrillers like Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy published in the 1980s, as well as the Matt Damon movies based on the novels that came out in this decade; and in lengthy nonfiction exposes of CIA misdeeds by leftist critics like John Prados (Safe for Democracy: The CIA’s Secret Wars)and David Wise (The American Police State). In this view, the CIA has conducted itself around the world in monstrous fashion—sometimes in the service of a barbaric chief executive and sometimes to undermine a purer president—and in ways that merit and justify hatred of the United States outside our borders.

This war has also been enshrined in one disastrous liberal-led “reform” of the CIA after another. The wreckage reaches back to congressional hearings conducted in the 1970s, to the disastrous cutbacks in CIA activities under Jimmy Carter, and to the Clinton administration’s ban on sharing intelligence between the CIA and domestic law enforcement.

So what is it about the CIA that makes liberals and Democrats lose their common sense? The FBI’s record of abuse of American citizens’ civil liberties is far longer and more egregious, as its treatment of Martin Luther King suggests. During Vietnam and other contentious periods of the Cold War, the FBI opened far more secret files on Americans and conducted far more unauthorized break-ins and wiretaps than the CIA could ever have contemplated. Yet the FBI has never been subjected to quite the same relentless serial abuse on Capitol Hill or in the popular culture as the CIA. Indeed, the Obama administration is not the first to send in the FBI to rescue the CIA from itself.

One cannot deny that Republican administrations have made disastrous decisions regarding the CIA as well. And there is no covering over the fact that the CIA has sometimes been its own worst enemy—not least when it decides to act on the advice of its liberal critics. At any rate, a serious examination of this implacable hostility toward America’s leading spy agency on the part of the American Left over the course of the past 35 years reveals a great deal about the nature of modern liberalism itself and its often self-destructive course.


At first glance, the Left’s hostility to the CIA seems all the more puzzling because it was not only created by a Democrat, President Harry Truman, but began its existence in 1947 as a bastion of an Eastern liberal elite. The Ivy Leaguers who staffed and led much of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War effortlessly made the transition into the new CIA. Yale history professor Sherman Kent supplied the stock image of the tweed-clad, pipe-smoking CIA employee (he was certainly the model for the character of the Professor, the man who saves Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint from the bad guys in North by Northwest). Here, the image implied, were educated men with an enlightened approach to the Cold War—in contrast both to generals who could see the struggle only in conventional military terms and to opportunistic “primitives” in government like Senator Joseph McCarthy.

It was McCarthy, in fact, who launched the first serious congressional investigation into the CIA in 1953, accusing its director’s personal aide William Bundy of Communist associations, and it was liberals who rallied to the defense of both Bundy and the agency (the director, Allen Dulles, simply refused to let his employees testify).

Far from drawing ire or criticism, the CIA’s soon-to-be-controversial covert operations, like toppling Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and training the paramilitary guerrillas who removed Guatemala’s Marxist-leaning President Jacobo Arbenz from power in 1954, came with full congressional knowledge and approval. As the historian David Barrett has recently shown in his book The CIA and Congress, until the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 there was hardly any covert action abroad that Congress did not approve on a bipartisan basis. Congress also resisted efforts to go public with details after it happened. In at least “a couple of dozen cases,” Barrett found congressional leaders actually urging the use of covert action as the “quiet option” the United States needed to confront the Soviet Union and its allies with a force short of conventional war.

The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 did damage to the CIA’s reputation for infallibility and sent the fabled Dulles into retirement in disgrace. But it did nothing to change the overall pattern. If anything, the disaster only led to more direct White House oversight, giving full scope to John F. Kennedy’s own fascination with spies and covert operations. One result was Operation Mongoose, the elaborate CIA program for assassinating Fidel Castro. Another was support for Colonel Edward Lansdale’s efforts at counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia. The Kennedy White House was so enamored of figures like Lansdale that, as Richard H. Schultz Jr. demonstrated in his 2000 history, The Secret War on Hanoi, it seriously believed covert action alone could win the war in Vietnam with no need for conventional American forces at all.

The liberal love affair with the CIA was made manifest during the Kennedy and Johnson years by the social popularity of Richard Helms, then the chief of the agency’s clandestine services; no Georgetown dinner party was complete without him at the table. Helms was the archetypal CIA officer in the age of Camelot: slim and darkly handsome, a cool, low-key professional whose reputation rested on his ability to gather reliable and objective information regarding the plans of America’s enemies by any means necessary, and, when necessary, disposing of those enemies with quiet efficiency.

Then, all of a sudden, the love affair went terribly wrong.

Liberalism and the CIA went through a bitter break, one that opened a political and cultural breach that has never been healed. This was partially the result of the war in Vietnam, which led the sons of the liberal elite who had directed the war to begin questioning each and every manifestation of American power abroad. Under the tutelage of revisionist historians like William Appleman Williams, those elites were prepared to see their fathers’ CIA as another coven of American mandarins (in Noam Chomsky’s famous phrase) who were transforming the U.S. into a malign imperial power.

However, there was an even more important new variable in the equation. That was the arrival of Richard Nixon at the White House in 1969. It was one thing to have a secret agency carrying out covert operations without the supervision of Congress or the American people when it was under the control of Democrats. It was quite another when it worked at the behest of the likes of Nixon and Henry Kissinger—or in retrospect, of Republicans like Dwight David Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles (brother of Allen), the men responsible for the Arbenz coup in Guatemala in 1954.

There was a strange irony here. Nixon himself harbored a deep distrust of the CIA, which he saw as a conspiracy of Ivy League liberals second only to those in the State Department. In fact, one of his first acts in trying to reshape America’s national-security apparatus was to try to force Richard Helms out (it was Henry Kissinger who forced Nixon to reconsider). Nixon chose instead to strengthen the role of the National Security Council in assessing and controlling access to intelligence provided by the CIA; indeed, according to Kissinger’s White House Years, Nixon originally wanted the director of the CIA excluded from the National Security Council altogether. Indeed, under Nixon, a long-term process began in which presidents would treat the Central Intelligence Agency as only one of a number of sources available for gathering and analyzing intelligence in order to determine policy. In time, the agency’s rivals, including the FBI and the Defense Department’s National Security Agency, would take full advantage of the shift in emphasis.

Old-line CIA employees like Helms and the head of the Office of National Estimates Ray Cline bitterly resented what they saw as the misuse of their agency as an arm of the White House, even as their own analyses were often set aside or ignored. On the other side, the intense opposition Nixon faced from both the media and Democrats in Congress compelled him to rely on the CIA to carry out national-security policy. Whatever his misgivings about the liberals in the agency, Nixon came to use the CIA as Kennedy had, not merely as an intelligence–collection outfit but also as an instrument of executive power that could act without being exposed to public criticism or obstruction—or so he imagined.

Indeed, the opposite happened, first to Nixon and then to the CIA.


As early as 1964, journalists David Wise and Thomas Ross had published The Invisible Government, which argued that CIA director John McCone and others were secretly guiding American foreign policy toward a more militant Cold War stance. As the shadow of Vietnam grew over first Laos and then Cambodia, Wise and Ross found themselves with a host of imitators. The Left discovered that recounting horror stories about the CIA was a useful way to discredit the Nixon administration. At first the goal was to persuade the public that unilateral withdrawal was the “safe” mainstream American policy in Vietnam and that Nixon’s policy of staying the course (with the help of CIA covert action) was the extreme and dangerous one.

However, over time, criticizing the CIA became an obsession all its own. Quite in spite of itself, the CIA became identified with the darkest side of recent American history and the American character. The radical Ramparts magazine opened the battle with an article in 1967 charging that the CIA was recruiting agents on college campuses to spy on the antiwar movement. In the same year, journalist Tom Braden revealed that in the 1950s the CIA had covertly funded a liberal anti-Communist organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which was intended to offer an explicit comparison of anti-Communist intellectuals who accepted support from the CCF (almost all of whom were unaware of the funding) with fellow-traveling intellectuals who supported Stalin in the 1930s.

Then, once Nixon was elected in 1968, came the cascade—one CIA exposé in the media after another, each aimed at the heart of the Nixon administration. There was a major flap over the agency’s role in the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, which targeted rural Vietcong cadres, including via assassination—a Johnson-era initiative, begun in 1967, that the CIA was conducting half-heartedly and wanted to abandon but that the U.S. military insisted it continue because it was so effective. There was its role in combating a Communist takeover in Laos, about which allegations flew that the CIA’s “secret army” operating in Laos and its clandestine airlift service, Air America, were actually part of a full-scale drug-running operation conducted with the knowledge and approval of senior officials.

Perhaps most appalling to the critics on the Left was the supposed CIA role in toppling the elected minority Communist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. Even though CIA manipulation of Chilean politics, in and behind the scenes, had dated back to Kennedy and Johnson, it was Nixon and Kissinger who bore the blame for “intervention” in Chilean politics. Kissinger was singled out as the particular heavy in this episode; the pseudo-muckraker Seymour Hersh all but accused him of ordering Allende’s murder.

Yet if anything, Chile demonstrated the CIA’s ineffectiveness in influencing the political trends of other nations, rather than otherwise. It was the CIA’s failure to persuade anti-Marxist forces in Chile to come up with a viable presidential candidate that led to Allende’s election in 1970 and that set the stage for an anti-Allende coup three years later. It was a coup the CIA knew about and did not stop but, as subsequent investigations showed, did not cause or trigger.

Finally, in 1972, there was the alleged role of the CIA in the Watergate break-in. No one paid any attention to the fact that Richard Helms, by this point the agency’s director, had pointedly refused to give Nixon help in diverting or blocking the FBI’s probe into the break-ins: indeed, Helms’s refusal ultimately cost him his job. No actual evidence of CIA involvement in Watergate surfaced then or later. However, that the mastermind of the break-in was E. Howard Hunt, a one-time CIA employee and organizer of the Bay of Pigs incursion, and that two other burglars had ties to the Bay of Pigs and CIA anti-Castro efforts, fed a rumor mill that, with regard to Nixon and the CIA, was beginning to run overtime.2

However, the real sea change in the public perception of the CIA came after Nixon left office. It arrived on a Sunday morning in December 1974 when Seymour Hersh published a front-page story in the New York Times with the headline: “Huge CIA Operation Reported in U.S. Against Anti-War Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years.” The allegation was that the CIA had run a “massive” domestic-intelligence program that had generated surveillance files on more than 10,000 American citizens. Later some charged that the number ran to 300,000. In addition, the CIA would also admit that it had engaged in a letter-opening campaign of mail sent between the United States and sensitive countries like Russia and East Germany; opening mail sent by American citizens was and is illegal.

Suddenly all the strands of the past half decade came together. Resistance to the Vietnam War and being an innocent victim of Nixon’s “imperial presidency” turned out to be one and the same thing. So was being a target of the CIA. Those on the Left who had been steadily critical of the CIA had evidently been proved prescient. Those in the Center and on the Right who had defended its actions during the Nixon years had been exposed as apologists for a corrupt and dangerous “rogue elephant” agency. Two weeks after the Times’s revelation, President Gerald Ford announced a major commission to investigate the charges.

In truth, as an executive-branch commission hostile to the CIA later found out, the “massive and illegal domestic spying” turned out to be far smaller than Hersh’s headline had promised. The key number turned out to be not 300,000 or 10,000, but 7,200. That was the number of files the CIA had kept on certain antiwar protesters, and many of those files consisted of a single slip of paper representing an FBI request for information on American radicals suspected of being involved in illegal overseas activities. The “militants” or “subversives” the CIA had actually investigated were all known to be involved with, or had ties to, radical groups overseas, some of which were Soviet-funded. In the end, no agent had been recruited to spy on campus dissidents, as Ramparts had alleged. The agency had engaged in actual domestic surveillance of radical figures, a clear violation of the CIA charter, exactly three times.

Embarrassing, but hardly the actions of an American KGB. In fact, the CIA had shut down the program in March 1974. More than a year before that, its director, James Schlesinger, had passed news of the existence of “Operation Chaos,” as it was called, to the House Intelligence Committee (indeed, the report Schlesinger drew up had been the original source of Hersh’s article). Even more sobering, it turned out that Operation Chaos had begun not with Nixon at all but rather under the Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who suspected that antiwar sentiments were being whipped up by foreign agents of influence and wanted both the FBI and CIA to investigate.

Still, the damage was done. The image of the CIA as a potential Gestapo in the hands of a paranoid president, ready and able to pry into the lives of ordinary Americans with the same impunity with which it carried out covert action abroad, was taking root. Even the name Operation Chaos became emblematic: although it had been generated randomly as a code name for the program, it seemed to suggest a deliberate effort to disrupt the antiwar movement—or even sow civil disorder.

Some of the damage to the CIA’s image at the time came from inside. First was ex–CIA agent Victor Marchetti’s memoirs of disillusionment with a life spent in covert operations in Latin America, published in 1973 and entitled The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. The CIA tried unsuccessfully to block publication, since Marchetti had violated his signed statement not to publish without the agency’s permission; when the agency lost the suit, it nevertheless forced major redactions of all classified material. The publicity only served to increase Marchetti’s sales and to encourage the public to believe that Marchetti’s account of a bumbling, self-interested, and corrupt spy agency must be largely true.

More damaging was the publication of Philip Agee’s Inside the Company: CIA Diary. A former CIA Latin America operative and public convert to Communism, Agee wrote, “I have decided to seek ways of getting useful information on the CIA to revolutionary organizations that could use it to defend themselves better.” Agee not only painted a picture of the CIA as a principal instrument of American imperialism. He also began publishing the names of active CIA case officers and heads of stations in order to blow their cover.

Realizing the peril to the lives of Americans working in service to their country abroad, the agency tried desperately to halt the publication of Agee’s book. However, because he had found a British publisher who was indifferent to any consequences for publicly outing a CIA employee, there was nothing Langley could do. CIA Athens station chief Richard Welch was murdered soon after, and almost certainly as a result of, Agee’s monstrous revelations.

Welch’s murder was barely covered in the evening news. Marchetti’s book became a bestseller, as did Agee’s; the latter even inspired an amusing movie starring Walter Matthau called Hopscotch. In the post–Watergate mood, all the focus was on CIA misdeeds, both past and present—a mood that extends to the present day. (In New York Times reporter Tim Weiner’s recent and supposedly exhaustive history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, Agee’s name does not even appear in the index.)

The anti-CIA narrative was so insular that it seemed entirely to neglect the existence of the Soviet KGB, with its vicious record of human-rights abuses. That many of the CIA’s secret programs were direct responses to the KGB’s far more extensive covert actions, including those against the United States, was entirely forgotten. Instead, the masochistic desire to see in the CIA a symbol of all that was wrong with America—which once had been limited to Vietnam and the Nixon administration but was now generalized to include all of American culture—reached its culmination in 1975 in Washington, with the convening of two Star Chambers—the executive branch’s Rockefeller Commission on the CIA, and the Church-Pike hearings in Congress.


For nearly a year beginning in May 1975, select committees of Congress, in the Senate headed by Frank Church of Idaho and in the House by Representative Otis Pike of New York, aired mountains of dirty CIA laundry before the American public and the world. Much was made of the agency’s violations of law and human decency, some of it real and some of it imagined.3

In June 1975, the Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States, led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, released its report. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan sardonically put it, the commission spared the agency nothing save the conclusion that there was no credible evidenceit had been involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. The report made the KGB look positively benign by comparison. It even began its history of CIA misdeeds by referring to the “so-called Cold War,” as if the American-Soviet rivalry had been a figment of a warped CIA imagination.

The most galvanizing moments of the Church Committee hearings came from the horror stories involving Project Artichoke (later reorganized and renamed Project MK Ultra). Set up in 1951, the project experimented with using drugs for interrogation, including LSD, as well as various physically coercive techniques. The revelation that one LSD volunteer, Dr. Frank Olson, had jumped to his death from a window proved to be the sensation of the Church hearings (it also led to a lawsuit by Olson’s family, which had never been informed of the true cause of his death). Stories also circulated about Artichoke’s “secret prisons” in Germany, Japan, and Panama, where suspected double agents were held and interrogated with techniques that, according to Tim Weiner, verged “on the edge of torture.”

Artichoke and MK Ultra had grown out of a deep concern about mind-control and brainwashing techniques being used by the Soviets and the Chinese, including the possibility that such techniques could have been used to turn the CIA’s own agents. Intelligence agents had seen American POWs return from Chinese prisons in Korea who seemed, in a few months’ captivity, to have turned into pro-Communist automatons. How had the Chinese done it? Artichoke and its successor programs were set up to find out.

Needless to say, a program that seemed urgent in the iciest days of the Cold War appeared far less palatable in retrospect. Indeed, the entire program had been canceled in 1965, when its director, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, decided that the utility of these mind-control techniques was limited, “as was,” Gottlieb noted, “the inclination of American intelligence officers to use them.” However, the thrust of Gottlieb’s observation that CIA employees—unlike their Soviet counterparts—were not inclined to act as torturers was lost on critics. Instead, the myth of the CIA as a secret brotherhood of torturers took root and would bear full fruit during the Reagan years, and then under George W. Bush.

As a result of the Rockefeller Commission, massive changes were made to the CIA’s mode of operations. Covert action was out, as was counterintelligence. President Ford signed an executive order that banned all planning of the assassination of foreign leaders (another myth had been generated that JFK’s assassination was somehow payback for the CIA’s plots to kill Castro). Indeed, any covert operation now required a signed presidential finding stating that it was in the “national security interest.”

Agents and operatives who weren’t dismissed quit by the dozens. Reams of files based on decades of intelligence work were destroyed. Human-intelligence assets and long-standing networks belonging to the CIA were dumped or abandoned. Richard Helms, once the darling of Camelot, was convicted of lying to Congress and nearly went to jail. By 1976, more than one-third of CIA employees had left the agency.

Then, as now, liberals applauded this systematic neutering of America’s leading spy agency, hailing the changes as a major step forward in resuscitating America’s image abroad. When Jimmy Carter became president in 1976, a new, cleaner, more accountable, and human-rights-conscious CIA seemed to be in the offing.

The problem was, once the process of blame and suspicion got underway, it was impossible to stop. If the CIA had killed Vietnamese citizens with impunity and without leaving a trace, then perhaps it had done the same to American citizens. If the CIA had been willing to plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, then why not JFK? And if the CIA had been able to evade responsibility for its “crimes” before the Church hearings and the Rockefeller Commission, then why assume it wasn’t evading again afterward?

And so the image of the American National Security State was developed. Books like Wise’s The American Police State (1976) insinuated that every branch of government had been “penetrated” by the CIA and the FBI as part of a massive conspiracy to suppress any serious dissent or opposition. If the executive branch was the beating heart of the American empire, the CIA was its Praetorian Guard. For the New Left culture at its most feverish, there was no crime too heinous, no bugging too minor, no assassination too unjust, no Spanish Inquisition–style interrogation of some hapless prisoner too appalling that the CIA wasn’t prepared to carry out at the behest of its corporatist masters. Likewise, there was no place on earth that the CIA’s power did not reach and no scandal or outrage anywhere in the United States or indeed the world that did not involve one or the other of its tentacles.

In fact, the CIA had become the evil twin of liberalism itself. Its history could be replayed from the beginning (most recently in the film The Good Shepherd and Weiner’s jaundiced Legacy of Ashes) with this terrible revelation in mind. Here was a professional intelligentsia, largely white and Eastern-educated; just as urbane and well-traveled to the point of cosmopolitanism; just as contemptuous of traditional conservatives; and just as defiant of conventional moral and constitutional safeguards. Here also was an institution founded on the belief in the power of the federal government to deal with any problem, except in the foreign rather than domestic sphere.

And here was an institution with its own version of liberal self-righteousness. Just as liberals prided themselves in having fought “the good fight” against segregation, so the men and women of the CIA, including the most despised, like Helms and the legendary counterspy James Jesus Angleton, had earned their spurs waging “the good war” against fascism in the OSS before deploying their skills against the Soviet target.

But with the advent of the Cold War (so ran the new fable), the true face of anti-Communist liberalism had been exposed. It had made innocents in the Third World its target instead of Nazis; it had willingly served the commands of figures like Nixon and Kissinger instead of FDR and Truman; it had become buddies with Asian and Latin American dictators instead of allying with “true” revolutionary nationalist movements like the Sandinistas and the Viet Minh. (Archimedes Patti, the OSS man who briefly hailed Ho Chi Minh’s emergence as a guerrilla leader in 1945, became the New Left’s favorite intelligence operative.)

Break the power of the CIA Frankenstein, the New Left believed, and you will destroy the secret servant of the American empire. Let it roam unrestrained, and the darkest days of the Cold War and Nixon years will return.


When Ronald Reagan assumed office in January 1981 and appointed lawyer and OSS veteran William Casey as his director of Central Intelligence, both men found a CIA in shambles. Casey’s predecessor, Admiral Stansfield Turner, had been tasked by Jimmy Carter, in effect, to wage war on his own agency.

Turner thought that the CIA’s operational side was overemphasized and overstaffed. He was convinced that satellite imagery and other technology had rendered the old reliance on human sources obsolete. And so Turner’s firings of operational staff (usually done with a two-paragraph letter, beginning with the sentence “It has been decided that your services are no longer required”) would have a deleterious impact on the CIA’s ability to figure out what foreign leaders were thinking for decades to come.

The cuts were stunning. More than 200 clandestine staff officers were dismissed or pushed into early retirement, according to former official Ray Cline, and 600 jobs in the covert-action and espionage field were shut down. President Carter issued a punitive new executive order further reining in the CIA’s role in the American intelligence system. Eight out of the order’s 26 pages detailed activities forbidden to the spy agency. Oversight of the agency passed to no fewer than eight congressional committees. In 1978, Congress also passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required a court order for the electronic monitoring of electronic signals within the United States, even in declared national-security cases or when the target was a foreign national. The FISA rules would seriously hamper efforts to learn the degree to which foreign espionage services, including the KGB—or later, groups like al–Qaeda—were operating within American borders. It would remain unamended until after 9/11.

Turner was unconcerned. Secrecy as well as human intelligence was passé; openness was the new catchphrase. “We should have the courage to lead the world,” Turner later wrote in his memoirs, Secrecy and Democracy, “into an era in which international peace and prosperity are fostered by international openness.” Turner even proposed breaking off part of the CIA to be reconstructed into an Open Skies Agency, or OSA, which would provide general-intelligence data, such as satellite imagery, to the world at large—including Cuba and the Soviet Union. Turner was also keen on getting the CIA to shift its attention away from “out-of-date” concerns like the Cold War, to new, more humanitarian activities like predicting crop failures in the Third World.

In the Turner years, the CIA all but gave up actively gathering operational intelligence. Covert operations involving foreign sources, which had numbered in the hundreds in the 1950s and 60s, shrank to fewer than a dozen a year. On the analysis side, things were hardly better. Analysts managed to miss the impending overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the growing links between Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and Fidel Castro, the implications of Soviet troops arriving as “trainers” in Castro’s Cuba, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iranian hostage crisis.

According to intelligence historian Thomas Powers, “for ten years, ending in the late 1970’s, CIA analysts were amazingly slow to see a pattern in what amounted to a Russian military buildup on a massive scale.” The one CIA analyst who tried to demonstrate that the agency might be systematically understating Soviet military spending was forced out in 1964, and so the errors continued, even after the creation of so-called Team B, which provided an alternate argument about Soviet military intentions and spending.

William Casey came into office determined to set things right. He had been part of the group that built up the wartime OSS and believed that the CIA needed to regain its confidence and sense of mission. He injected himself directly into the analysis process and did not hesitate to throw aside National Intelligence Estimates he felt did not fit with the facts (or, liberal critics claimed, with his own prejudices). This included the CIA’s assessment of the condition of the Soviet economy.

The last was highly instructive of the gap at Carter-era Langley between the consensus among intellectual analysts and reality. On October 27, 1980, Soviet émigré economist Igor Birman published a piece in the Washington Post stating that the CIA’s current picture of the Soviet economy was far too optimistic. The Soviet economy was in a state of “crisis,” Birman declared, while Russian living standards were “a fourth or even a fifth the American level.” The CIA’s standard view was that Soviet per capita GNP was roughly half that of the U.S.

Outside critics had often attacked the CIA’s operational side but never its analysis, and certainly not from the political Right. However, Birman was joined by other experts—including Henry Rowen, the chair of the National Intelligence Council—and soon became Casey’s favorite economist. In 1986, Casey sent President Reagan a memo stating that the Soviet economy was in far worse shape than his own agency was saying. That dovetailed with a growing consensus inside the Reagan administration that the Soviet economy was headed for collapse and that the CIA had gotten it wrong for years. Reagan felt confident he could now reset the tempo of the Cold War. The heritage of flawed CIA analysis had been to encourage previous administrations to handle the Soviets as our virtual superpower equal while seeing its military spending as geared to largely keeping up with ours. In fact, Soviet spending had been aimed at achieving military supremacy on land and increasingly at sea.

Reagan realized that by rearming America at a faster pace, he could force the Soviet military to spend the country into economic collapse. Yet that same year, the CIA’s analysts insisted that the Soviet economy was about to expand and the following year stated that “the Soviet economy has made solid gains since 1960.” Three years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.

In addition to challenging the analysts, Casey also took an unashamed interest in reviving the covert-action side of the CIA. As the Kennedys had, he saw the agency as an instrument of American power for turning back the recent pro-Soviet trend of the Cold War in places like Afghanistan and Central America. This too led to conflict with the analysts at Langley. They argued that U.S. action against Marxist and Cuban-led movements in Latin America was automatically counterproductive and that the anti-Sandinista Contrarebels could never win in Nicaragua, because the Sandinistas enjoyed broad public support. Casey took the opposite view. The time had come for the CIA to once again become a tool for undermining the Soviet Union, Casey believed, not just observing it.

Casey’s decision to mine Nicaraguan waters in order to prevent arms shipments to its Marxist government (after warning the countries involved), provoked his predecessor Admiral Turner to compare Casey to Islamic terrorists who hijacked airplanes. Others claimed that Reagan was hoping to trigger “another Vietnam” with the CIA’s operations against Cuban- and Soviet-backed guerrillas in Central America. Likewise, covert support of anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan drew steady criticism (including from some within the agency) for intruding into a legitimate Soviet sphere of concern and for being futile and counterproductive.

Later, after Casey’s strategy proved successful and forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan, those same critics retaliated by accusing the CIA of “arming the Taliban” and other radical Islamicists, including Osama bin Laden, and sowing the seeds of 9/11 (even though the Taliban were latecomers to the war against the Soviets, and it was weapons captured from the departing Russians, not CIA-supplied Stinger missiles, that kept the Taliban in power).

However, the real focus of left-wing outrage in the 1980s was the CIA’s supposed role in promoting “torture” by Central American dictatorships, especially in Guatemala and El Salvador. The oft-repeated allegation was that at the School of the Americas (the Defense Department’s facility offering training courses for Latin American military personnel), CIA trainers taught horrific methods of extracting information and confessions from imprisoned innocents. A stream of books and pamphlets issued by groups like the Committee for Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), School of the Americas Watch, and the National Security Archive provided lurid details of what Guatemalan and Salvadoran “death squads” were doing to brave Marxist resisters and clearly planted the blame for the crimes on their American handlers.

American denials counted for nothing. Critics pointed to CIA interrogation manuals used at SOA that, it was claimed, “advocated torture, extortion, blackmail, and the targeting of civilian populations.” The truth was entirely different. The School of the Americas concentrated on interrogation techniques in order to teach its pupils how to replace torture as a standard procedure for interrogation with more humane and (it was strongly stressed) more effective methods. Far from churning out classes of sadists, the School of the Americas was working to rein the sadists in and eventually force them out.

That difference was reflected in the CIA’s own interrogation manual, which warned that the use of torture was morally demeaning to its practitioners and prefaced its discussion of coercive techniques with the words “While we do not endorse the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them.” The discovery of this passage set off an explosion among liberal critics. If the CIA didn’t endorse these techniques, why was the CIA showing trainees how to use them (as if Salvadoran or Guatemalan soldiers needed advice on how to torment prisoners)? In response, the passage was amended to “While we deplore the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them, so that you may avoid them.

This was still not enough for critics, so a new preface was added stating that the use of “force, mental torture, threats, [or] insults” was prohibited by law. However, some of the old manuals with the old language continued to circulate until 1992, when then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney ordered them collected and destroyed. Even this became a source of scandal (why destroy them unless the government knows they’re being abused?) and continued to provide material for left-wing attacks.

The CIA was in a position in which it could not prevail. When there were abuses of its standards of interrogation, as in the 2004 case in which a CIA contractor was sent to prison for causing the death of a detainee, the standards themselves were to blame. If those standards were amended to answer the critics, that too was proof that the abuse was widespread and systemic.

The crescendo came with the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Reagan policy of trading arms for hostages, and then secretly funneling the money from the arms sales to help the Nicaraguan anti-Communist rebels fighting to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista dictatorship, it represented for liberal CIA critics the greatest target of opportunity since the Church hearings. News reports, exposé volumes, congressional hearings, and Lawrence Walsh’s independent-counsel investigation kept their focus on the secret CIA support of the Contras rather than the “trading arms for hostages” aspect. The latter did not fit the usual liberal stereotypes of CIA covert action. The former encapsulated them.

The best known of the books to come out of the Iran-Contra affair, Bob Woodward’s Veil, all but accused CIA director Casey (who died before its release) of establishing a shadow government. The most important liberal lesson from Iran-Contra was that “men of zeal” (the title of another popular expose of the scandal)—meaning, conservative Republicans like Casey and National Security aide Oliver North—had to be kept away from the CIA and other instruments of national security. Moreover, it was again time to use congressional oversight to rein in the agency.

This was exactly what America got when a new Democrat president, Bill Clinton, assumed office in 1993. One of the end results was an agency rendered helpless to detect or predict the attack that occurred on 9/11.


William Casey was succeeded as director of Central Intelligence by William Webster, a former federal judge who had served previously as the director of the FBI. He was conscientious and hard-working and, in contrast to Stansfield Turner, grew to be widely liked and respected within the agency. His goal was to reverse the image of a “runaway” CIA that had developed during the Casey years and point it in new directions in the wake of the end of the Cold War, such as nuclear proliferation, the war on drugs, and counterterrorism.

What happened during the Webster years and afterward was what might be called the “FBI-ification” of the CIA. He wanted a CIA that was as shipshape, buttoned-down, and as aware of legal niceties as the FBI had become during his years there. The problem was that the tasks carried out by the CIA were ill-suited to such an approach. The clash between the two intelligence cultures would become more and more evident during the Clinton years, with Congress and the Clinton Justice Department exacerbating the problem.

Thus, a Reagan-era executive order forbidding any government employee from participating in the assassination of foreign leaders was reinterpreted to mean that CIA field officers could not have contact with groups or individuals advocating or proposing to kill a foreign leader or politician. It was precisely this view that got Robert Baer in trouble with his superiors and ended his career. By the 1990s, CIA lawyers even argued that the agency had “a duty to warn” foreign leaders who might be the target of assassination, even when that foreign leader was, say, Saddam Hussein.

Then it was Congress’s turn to force more reform. In 1995, after learning that a CIA asset in Guatemala had once been involved in the murder of an American citizen, Congress imposed tight new rules on the types of persons the CIA would be allowed to recruit as agents in foreign lands, meaning anyone carrying out orders or gathering information at a CIA handler’s behest. Those with any criminal record were excluded; even those already working for the CIA were ordered to be dropped.

The problem with such an “asset scrub,” as former CIA case officer Melissa Boyle Mahle pointed out, was that these were precisely the people most susceptible to recruitment for espionage. Murderers, wife beaters, alcoholics, swindlers, embezzlers—“the bottom feeders of the world” who had already broken their country’s laws—are the raw material out of which spy networks have been historically been built. By imposing its new rules, Congress was in effect hobbling the CIA’s ability to gather any effective human intelligence, even in hostile countries. By 2000 the United States would not have a single human asset operating in the two most dangerous powers in the Middle East, Iraq and Iran.

In that same year, a final blow came to the American intelligence community. Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno grew worried that the sharing of information between the FBI’s criminal and investigative divisions might contaminate certain prosecutions, so she ordered the practice stopped. While not specifically aimed at the CIA, the ruling reflected the prevailing attitude in the Clinton years about the collection and use of intelligence information, including foreign intelligence. The goal was getting what was needed for prosecutions and convictions, meaning that the procedures for obtaining it, including from the CIA, had to meet legal scrutiny. Absent official sanction, the gatherers themselves might face prosecution.

This point was rammed home in the Robert Baer case and in the aftermath of the case that prompted Reno’s ruling in the first place. This was the unmasking in February 1994 of Aldrich Ames, who had divulged to the Russians every name, technology, and aspect of tradecraft they wanted to know—all while heading the CIA’s own Soviet counterintelligence desk. The CIA had known cases of employees going over to the Russians before but none so senior and so blatant about his unreliability (Ames was a relentless alcoholic and spendthrift) or so eager in his desire to see his own agency lose to its Soviet antagonist.

The Ames case was a stunning development and deeply demoralizing to the CIA, not least because it was the FBI’s rather than the CIA’s counterintelligence staff that had uncovered Ames. However, that staff had been effectively neutered during the “reforms” of the 1970s, and after Ames, this entire aspect of CIA operations was effectively handed over to the FBI.

Nor did the trouble stop there. The Ames scandal prompted a wave of paranoia about other possible Soviet “moles,” which expanded to include nearly 300 people on the agency’s operational staff. Polygraphs became all the rage (Baer, although totally unconnected with the Soviet target, underwent one). An atmosphere of suspicion hung heavy over the agency, while new rules meant that administrative staff were to be promoted at the same rate as field operatives. From being an agency that once boasted of its lack of bureaucracy, the CIA now had one of the largest in the intelligence industry. And instead of worrying about how to generate new intelligence, the new managerial class within the CIA was primarily concerned with creating “information management systems” for dealing with the intelligence they did have, no matter how meager.

By the mid-90s, very little was happening in the field. As Baer recounts, “there wasn’t a single agent in any of the eight posts I supervised in central Asia and the Caucuses. No one was meeting anyone.” One station chief told Baer point blank that she didn’t bother to recruit agents: “That’s not my job,” she said.

The chief reason was not lack of funds or opportunities but fear that if a mistake were made, heads would roll. As Melissa Boyle Mahle noted, “We understood that if things went wrong, we were on our own. We had to decide whether or not to take a risk.?.?.?.?Inspector general investigations after a flap became the norm, and finger-pointing was a defensive survival tactic.”

In the Clinton years, Thomas Powers later noted, the CIA had become a “risk averse” culture. It was summed up by a sign someone spotted sitting over the desk of the CIA’s case officer in Rome:


The stage was set for the missed opportunities that led to 9/11. In 1996 the Pasdaran, Iran’s intelligence service, helped to blow up the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans. Yet the previous year, the CIA had not published a single report on the Pasdaran. Increasingly, the agency was relying on other intelligence services, like the British MI6, the Israeli Mossad, and the French DST, that hadn’t been neutered by liberal “reforms” for vital human intelligence—even though those countries had priorities very different from those of the United States. Even its new Counterterrorist Center, created in 1986, couldn’t kill Osama bin Laden but only keep track of his whereabouts and forbid people from doing business with him or handling his bank accounts.

All the same, liberal suspicions of the CIA remained. This was especially true when it came to the highly sensitive issue of terror-suspect interrogations—even when the suspects were among the most fanatical and brutal the modern world has ever known. In 1996 the New York Times ran an article leaking information that Counterterrorist Center trainers were secretly instructing Palestinian Authority police on how to interrogate terror suspects. The words secret and interrogations were enough to trigger a negative reaction from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups.

It made no difference that, as in the 1980s and the School of the Americas case, the CIA’s work with the Palestinian police was designed to replace torture with more humane and effective ways of gaining intelligence, or that revelations in Congress that year about the old interrogation manual had made the CIA more sensitive to charges of torture than ever. By common admission, CIA interrogators were some of the best and most professional in the intelligence business. Moreover, the Counterterrorist Center, like every other part of the CIA, reflected the new legalism of the 1990s. Adhering to procedure was as important, sometimes more important, as results.

Because of the ineffective nature of the CIA’s information-gathering, the U.S. government was compelled to innovate. This led to the invention of the strategy of “extraordinary rendition” in 1995, so that the CIA could hand off its most high-value terror suspects to foreign intelligence agencies in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia in order to extract information by means those agencies deemed fit. All those who knew about rendition—its progenitor, Michael Scheuer; Deputy National Security Adviser Richard Clarke; White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta; as well as Clinton and Vice President Gore—were well aware that those “means” were often unspeakably brutal. However, rendition kept American hands clean—although many missed the irony that the very same liberal reforms that had been instituted to prevent torture and human-rights abuses had ended up promoting torture and human-rights abuses on an appalling scale.

By the 1990s, virtually everything at which the CIA had once excelled had passed to other hands. Counterintelligence was now the FBI’s bailiwick; the collection of electronic intelligence belonged to the National Security Agency, while covert action had become the responsibility of the United States Special Operations Command. The CIA enjoyed barely a one-ninth share of a $28 billion intelligence budget (the Department of Defense, by contrast, devoured nearly 70 percent). And that share was subject to so much congressional scrutiny that leaks of any controversial secret operation were inevitable.

One could argue that the Counterterrorist Center and its interrogation of terror suspects was the best thing the CIA still had going for it. Those who violated stated rules—like CIA agent Keith Hall, who once dared to strike a Lebanese terrorist in order to discover the mastermind behind the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut—were quickly and severely disciplined. Those who remained knew they had to adhere to the rules or face endless legal hassles.

This was precisely why, in 2002, the CIA sought out and obtained detailed instructions from the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on how to revise interrogation rules in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Little did they know that they were about to bring a firestorm down on their heads and revive the liberal war against the CIA.


Moral dilemmas do not involve having to choose between doing right and doing wrong. They arise from having to choose between two ethically distressing alternatives. It is self-evidently wrong to inflict pain and distress, no matter how temporary, on another human being, especially a helpless one. However, it is also evidently wrong to permit a terrorist plot that would kill thousands of other human beings to reach fruition. How does one decide at what point inflicting one wrong serves to preclude the other? How does one balance the certainty of one wrong against the possibility of preventing a far greater one?

It is precisely making decisions of this sort that makes prisoner interrogation, like espionage itself, not a science or a procedure to be carried out by a set of legal rules but a moral craft. It involves a series of discreet moral judgments, judgments that cannot be reduced to a simple formula—even though the CIA’s critics, and even its current masters, all too often assume they can be.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, what the Bush Justice Department lawyer John Yoo and his colleagues in the Office of Legal Counsel did was try to define the boundaries—historical, cultural, and constitutional, as well as legal—within which CIA interrogators could practice their moral craft. Like the rules drawn up to govern the interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, these were not “torture memos,” as critics allege. These were anti-torture memos, in that they set the lines a CIA officer’s professional experience and judgment—no matter how justified—could not legally or ethically cross, that is, inflicting bodily pain that approximates that which accompanies serious physical injury, or mental suffering that results “in significant psychological harm of significant duration.”

With one single exception, the agency’s interrogators observed those limits faithfully. That exception is now in jail. When career Justice Department lawyers scrutinized the Inspector General’s Report in 2006 looking for evidence of wrongdoing that demanded prosecution, they could find none. If ever there was an example of a successful secret interrogation program that managed to avoid using unethical methods in a time of high stress and uncertainty, this was it.

However, the approach now taken by Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama White House poses an ethical dilemma of its own. It doesn’t just throw out the judgment of Justice Department professionals on the Bush CIA. It throws out the entire concept of moral judgment altogether. Decades of leftist criticism of the CIA have inculcated the notion that Americans working abroad on a secret basis automatically commit immoral actions and are thus incapable of deciding what is right and what is wrong, especially when conducting prisoner interrogations. Instead, the only policy left is one built on rigid legal formulae, like the reading of Miranda rights (which, according to some reports, the FBI has begun doing with Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan) and vague references to upholding practices “consistent with our values.”

But isn’t preventing a terrorist plot to murder thousands also “consistent with our values”? Indeed, this is precisely what distinguishes the CIA’s interrogations and those at Gitmo from the undeniable abuses committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. It could be argued that the Abu Ghraib jailers, who forced prisoners to pose for degrading photos and terrified them with barking dogs, did less physical harm to their captives than waterboarding does, and for a shorter period of time. However, the treatment they meted out served no larger moral purpose. It was not done to find more terrorists or deter future attacks but was simply a way to humiliate the prisoners for the guards’ own amusement. The American public has largely understood that, and therefore has set Abu Ghraib apart from questions about how to fight the war on terror. However, leftist critics and Democrats in Congress have not; instead, they have sought to conflate the two. The only way to do this was to isolate both sets of actions from their moral intentions as well as their practical outcomes. Thus the only approach critics can devise to prevent more “abuses” is to impose more rules.

This has become a major stumbling block in our thinking, and not just in the war on terror. On one side, we have moral emotivism run amok, which insists that anything that makes us squeamish, for example, depriving prisoners of sleep or threatening to do them bodily harm, must be ethically wrong. On the other, we also have the insistence that all enhanced interrogation techniques must be banned, not because they are torture per se but because they are “tantamount to torture” and therefore lower us to the level of the terrorists.

In fact, they do just the opposite. Separating out the different ways that a prisoner can be coerced in order to elicit information, and deciding which constitute torture and which do not, and excluding the first while carefully deciding which of the other can be applied under certain circumstances—including the famous “ticking time bomb” scenario—is a profound exercise of the rational moral sense that terrorists themselves manifestly lack.

Conversely, the inability to distinguish between the “torture” of former CIA field officer William Francis Buckley—who was kidnapped by Islamic terrorists in 1983, chained to an apartment radiator, and tortured and beaten over 15 months until he died of a heart attack—and the “torture” of a terrorist suspect who has been threatened with a power drill; or between a man like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who boasts of beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and those who waterboarded Mohammed in order to prevent the deaths of thousands of other Daniel Pearls, bespeaks a dangerous form of moral preening.

One could argue that the information inside Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s brain was itself a deadly weapon, a gun waiting to be fired, a missile waiting to be launched. The way to prevent a weapon’s use is to locate and disarm it. The war on the CIA has been, for 35 years, an effort by Americans to make the disarming and unmasking of America’s enemies a more difficult if not an impossible challenge.

The aims of that war have advanced or retreated over those years, depending on the seriousness with which the party in power in Washington has taken the threats to America’s interests and to the safety and security of Americans. Certainly the party now in power in the White House and on Capitol Hill is more determined to malign those Americans who tried to protect this country from a repetition of the horrors of 9/11 than to punish those who masterminded those horrors, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or to thwart their would-be imitators.

The 35-year war on the CIA still rages. The particular shame of it is that it’s beginning to look a lot like a suicide mission.


1On July 22, 2008, the New York Times started things off by releasing the name of a CIA interrogator who had questioned al-Qaeda kingpin Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The name was disclosed despite the explicit request of the CIA and the Bush White House that it be kept confidential for the safety of the agent and his family.

2?The White House also ordered the CIA to provide Hunt with a disguise and to develop pictures he had taken in connection with his planned theft of files belonging to the psychiatrist of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. This was certainly improper but hardly evidence that this or the Watergate break-in was ordered or controlled by the CIA.

3?Very real was the mail-interception campaign for randomly opening letters to and from the USSR and other Iron Curtain countries, which began in 1952 and ended in 1973. Very much imagined was the dreaded CIA “assassination pistol” that Senator Church held aloft during the hearing as cameras clicked and rolled. In fact, it was the CIA, not Church’s committee or staff, that unearthed the covert device—which was never used.

About the Author

Arthur Herman, who has taught history at George Mason University and Georgetown University, is the author most recently of “Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age” (Bantam Books). His essay “Who Owns the Vietnam War?” appeared in the December 2007 COMMENTARY.

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