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Old Dog, Same Tricks? The CIA Then and Now
Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2004

by Mark Engler and Jeremy Varon

Fifty years ago, in June 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency committed one of the cardinal sins of US foreign policy. That month, the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, was deposed in a coup planned and coordinated by CIA operatives. Arbenz, a moderate, had proposed that uncultivated plots held by large landholders like the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) be distributed among poor farmers. Documents declassified in 1997 show that in response to this proposed reform the CIA, acting with the approval of President Eisenhower, led a propaganda campaign against Arbenz, sowed disloyalty in the Guatemalan military, and armed a rebel insurgency.

For Guatemala, the coup would end a democratic "decade of spring," inaugurate 40 years of despotism and civil war, and pave the way for a genocidal assault on the country's indigenous Mayan populations in the1980s. It would have lasting consequences for the United States as well. Although the CIA was only 6 years old, the coup in Guatemala, coming on the heels of the agency's successful installation of the Shah in Iran in 1953, established a pattern of US support for anti-democratic governments during the Cold War. Not only did this support lead to countless violations of human rights, it also bred anti-Americanism and produced, in cases, disastrous long-term consequences for US policy-what the intelligence community calls "blowback." For decades, such misdeeds drew condemnation from human rights and solidarity activists, some of whom argued that the CIA should be abolished altogether.

The fiftieth anniversary of the coup provides an important opportunity both to look back at the CIA's record and to ask, in a world of new and very real dangers, if anything has changed in the agency's behavior. Revelations about the CIA role both in the recent prisoner abuse scandal and in approving the case for war in Iraq raise important questions about the agency's activity in the post-9/11 era. In the wake of Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet's recent resignation and the release of the 9/11 Commission report, a new round of discussions about possible reforms of the agency has commenced, making ever more urgent a consideration of what it would take to truly change US intelligence operations for the better.

Cheering US Spies

Several developments regarding the CIA in the past two years have tempted us to applaud the agency. The CIA-famously called a "rogue elephant" by congressional investigators in the 1970s-has often seemed conspicuously absent from the gallery of roguish operatives responsible for the reckless "war on terror" and the deepening catastrophe in Iraq. Indeed, as the Bush administration's case about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction has unraveled, many progressives-ourselves included-have found themselves acting as unexpected champions of American spies.

We cheered the mid-level intelligence officers who spoke out against the faulty and misrepresented information that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, much of which came out of special offices in the Department of Defense. We denounced the criminal outing of CIA-officer Valerie Plame by two "senior administration officials," a cold act of political revenge for her husband's criticism of the President's lies and a stern message to other dissenters. ("Naming names" can severely cripple Agency functions. CIA dissident Philip Agee, doing just that in the early 1970s, forced the entire reorganization of Latin American operations.) And we reacted with appreciative surprise when the CIA's Richard Kay, in an admirable fit of candor, told Congress that the hunt for WMD was fruitless. (Who among reasoned skeptics-given the CIA's history of forging documents and planting weapons-hadn't feared that the US would fabricate the existence of banned weapons in Iraq?) Finally, even leftists might wish that the CIA was better at its tasks, including covert operations, when wondering if a successful, clandestine "hit" on Osama Bin Laden wouldn't have spared the sorrows of 9/11 and have been ultimately preferable to the troublesome US invasion of Afghanistan.

Based on our reaction to the Plame outing alone, concerned friends and political opponents have been asking, "Since when have you been such big fans of the CIA?" It is a good question. However, qualified support for select agency staff and the recognition of post-9/11 dangers should not obscure other, damning ways in which old patterns of CIA behavior remain unbroken.

Mission Creep

It is important, before filling in the bigger picture with regard to Iraq, to clarify the distinction between proper and improper use of US intelligence agencies. The CIA was created in 1947 by the National Security Act. Its original charge was to gather and analyze information about America's foreign enemies and thus enable the president, the Pentagon, and Congress to respond to existing and potential threats. Among its founding premises is that it is advantageous for elected officials-whatever their party or ideology-to make decisions based on solid facts and informed speculations rather than on misconceptions or recklessly false alarms. To this extent, information gathering is theoretically an apolitical endeavor. It is why intelligence agencies are staffed with career civil servants, not rotating appointees loyal to a particular administration.

It is na´ve, however, to think that real-world intelligence has worked this way. Virtually since its inception, the CIA strayed beyond its mandate and began to clandestinely manipulate the domestic politics of foreign countries. The earliest such operations were to ensure the electoral defeat of communists in France and Italy in 1948. Decades of far dirtier political work followed. The CIA overthrew democratically elected leaders not just in Guatemala, but in the Congo (1960), Chile (1973), and elsewhere. It launched protracted and bloody counter-insurgency operations in places like Vietnam and El Salvador. And, in pursuit of short-term goals, it made monsters over which it ultimately lost control, such as the Muhajadeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, which included the likes of Osama bin Laden. In each case, the agency acted with little public awareness or congressional oversight.

Inappropriate CIA spying, in a story now clouded in the US media by amnesia and self-censorship, also contributed mightily to the current mess in Iraq. Throughout 1998, international arms inspectors met with stonewalling on the part of Saddam Hussein. Hussein refused to cooperate with UN teams, charging that these teams were filled with "American spies and agents." Whatever his ulterior motives for making such claims, it turns out that Hussein was right. On February 2, 1999, the Washington Post reported that the US had "infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years into United Nations arms control teams in Iraq to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the UN agency." Similar reports appeared in The New York Times and The Boston Globe. Remarkably, these papers backed away from their own stories during the recent build-up to war, characterizing as "allegations" what they once reported as fact.

One can despise Hussein and still recognize that, like all rulers, he had an interest in sustaining his power. Thus, it was entirely predictable that he would not react kindly to covert efforts at his undoing. UNSCOM dissident Scott Ritter, for one, appreciated this simple logic. He noted that CIA spying violated the letter and spirit of the inspections. He walked away from UNSCOM and cried foul. The US and not Hussein, he insisted, had broken the deal. For saying this, he was savaged by the Bush administration and ridiculed by the media.

The removal of the inspectors proved disastrous. With them gone, the world had only a murky picture of the status of Iraqi WMD, paving the way for the Bush administration's vaporous, bellicose, and ultimately fatuous claims of the "grave and gathering" Iraqi threat.

Approving the Case for War

The CIA, on closer inspection, also played a vital role in making the phony case for war. Whatever the probity of lower-level analysts, recently resigned Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet-the CIA official who ultimately calls the shots-backed the administration on claims about Iraqi WMD when it mattered most. Tenet admits to signing off on Bush's infamous statement in the January 2002 State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to purchase yellow cake uranium from the African nation of Niger. Weeks later, Tenet sat at Colin Powell's side as the Secretary made his case before the UN. Most damning, Bob Woodward now reports that Tenet told Bush he had a "slam dunk" case on WMD, despite the President's alleged skepticism when hearing that case in the Oval Office from senior CIA analysts. Bush finalized the decision to go to war just days later.

Such callow subservience from the Director of Central Intelligence is, unfortunately, nothing new. The mostly costly-and painfully relevant-past case is Vietnam. As early as 1965, the mid-level analyst Sam Adams systematically showed that America's main foe, the Viet Cong, had far greater numbers and popular support in South Vietnam than President Johnson, his war planners, or even CIA Director Richard Helms had cared to appreciate. The dire implication was that proposed troop escalations would provide only more cannon fodder for an enemy too big and determined to defeat. Intelligence Officer Ralph McGehee similarly found communists everywhere in the border states of Laos and Thailand.

These honorable and almost quaintly patriotic men, rather than being listened to and rewarded by their superiors, were ignored and demoted. McGehee, after being canned from his post in Thailand, attended a briefing by William Colby, the head of the CIA's euphemistically titled Civilian Operations and Rural Development Support Team in Vietnam (and Helms's successor as CIA Director), in Saigon in 1968. McGehee witnessed a nightmarish scene in which the CIA's top men, trading figures about "VC Kills" and meaningless intelligence reports, appeared unwilling or unable to stop fighting a fruitless and immoral war. At his most anguished, McGehee writes in his 1983 memoir Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA, he contemplated hanging a banner reading "Fuck the CIA" or "the CIA lies" from the roof of the agency's Saigon headquarters and throwing himself off.

We can only guess if the deceptive case for war in Iraq has led to similar despair within the CIA's lower ranks. Whatever the case, the agency appears to be implicated in the most recent and most ugly scandal to emerge from the US occupation. Photos of abuses at Iraq's Abu Graib prison recall other nefarious aspects of the CIA's conduct in Vietnam. In a counter-insurgency effort named "Operation Phoenix" the CIA for years oversaw the systematic imprisonment, abuse, and killing of Viet Cong suspects. Rife with arbitrary detentions of innocents and score-settling by unscrupulous South Vietnamese operatives, the Operation degenerated into what one observer called a "counter-productive bloodbath" that claimed as many as 40,000 lives.

On May 11, Maj. General Taguba confirmed in testimony before the Senate that CIA officers were involved in controversial interrogations at Abu Graib. Taguba did not elaborate, however, on their conduct. On the one hand it appears that the agency, in Iraq and elsewhere, may have been less reckless and abusive than teams operating under Donald Rumsfeld. Taguba's testimony came just days before Seymour Hersh's story that the Secretary of Defense had set up a Special Access Program (SAP) to handle, among other things, sensitive interrogations in Iraq. Compounding the raging internal conflict between the Department of Defense and the CIA (which may well have contributed to Tenet's resignation), the SAP was composed of teams which operated outside the CIA and which ultimately earned the agency's stern objections. On the other hand, it is clear that the CIA bears significant culpability in the international scandal. On May 12 The New York Times reported the claims of an Afghani man who said he was subject to physical abuse and sexual sadism at the hands of CIA officials while imprisoned last June. The Washington Post confirmed the same week the existence of a CIA-run global gulag in which hundreds of suspects in the "war on terror" are held in far-flung ultra-secret locations beyond the bounds of oversight and, one may fear, any credible standard of humane conduct. A full account of the CIA's role in the torture scandal awaits further journalistic and congressional investigations.

Abolishing the CIA?

While the CIA has yet to take heat for these abuses, intelligence failures about the 9/11 plot and WMDs in Iraq have produced some discussion about how US intelligence agencies might be reformed. The release of two reports about the CIA, as well as the report from the 9-11 Commission report, further ratcheted up such talk. The resignation of George Tenet also amplified mainstream calls for reform. But current prescriptions tend to call only for the reshuffling of certain administrative responsibilities and for bureaucratic shifts to allow for greater coordination between agencies like the CIA, the FBI and the military intelligence bureaus. Such changes will not deal with the core, historic problems: lack of oversight, the politicization of intelligence, and the use of covert operations by the executive for immoral purposes.

These problems create the need for critical reexamination of the CIA's original mission. Observers have expressed the concern that the CIA, in effect, makes foreign policy immune to external checks, or at the very least serves as a tool of presidential discretion. For years, the CIA's sense of the holiness of its mission and attending obsession with secrecy muted these concerns. During the Cold War, when anti-communism had the status of a crusade, the CIA saw itself as a super-patriotic elect, vested with the solemn duty of protecting the republic. Their message was essentially, "If you knew what we know about the dangers of the world, you would act as we do. For reasons of national security, however, you can know neither what we know nor what we do. You'll have to trust us." By and large, the public did, and the CIA's doctrine of "plausible deniability" successfully parried periodic allegations of wrongdoing.

It took a litany of grim revelations in the 1970s about the CIA's conduct-from assassination attempts, to illegal domestic spying, to the training of death squads-to shatter this trust and force serious reconsideration of the CIA's functioning. McGehee concluded from his years of service, "the CIA is not now nor has ever been a central intelligence agency. It is the covert action arm of the President's foreign policy advisers. In this capacity it supports or overthrows foreign governments while reporting 'intelligence' justifying those activities." Moderate critics worked to make the approval of covert operations and oversight process more rigorous-reforms largely undone under President Ronald Reagan, again plunging the agency into scandal.

September 11, 2001, in a tragic flash, gave the CIA a new over-arching purpose-to defend the US against a global terrorist enemy-and restored its bruised reputation. Once again, the CIA posed as the vanguard force in protecting the American way of life. An attitude of blind trust in the agency and the President's use of it again became the norm.

Bush and the CIA itself have begun to undermine that trust. In this context progressives, surveying the agency's grim past and fearing the worst for the future, may again simply advocate the abolition of the CIA. But since this demand is very unlikely to be met in the current political climate, it should not substitute for more immediate short-term calls to ensure, at a minimum, that US intelligence agencies offer credible information immune to political manipulation, respect human rights, and avoid alienating the international community. On the intelligence side, the US needs a process for the neutral assessment of national security risks-a screen or buffer between the CIA and the executive to prevent more deadly deceits. Even mainstream lawmakers acknowledge that the current stakes are simply too high to have intelligence manipulated for private agendas or partisan aims. (False claims of threats, for example, may lead the world to accuse the US of crying wolf when real ones emerge.) With regard to covert operations, Congress must withdraw the blank check it gave the President after 9/11 to make war how, where, and when he sees fit, with virtually no accountability.

Explicit awareness of the CIA's shameful human rights record must be a central part of evaluating the agency's operations. In the post-9/11 era, we have painfully relearned that blind trust and the pernicious idea that the imperative of national security justifies anything done in its name is a recipe for political and moral disaster.

-- Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site Jeremy Varon is the author of "Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies." Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe. This articles was reproduced to this site from, by consent of the author.

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