A Question of Permanent Review: How the CIA Undermined American Authority | Books
This concise history of the Central Intelligence Agency (235 pages before notes) manages to include nearly all of the agency’s greatest successes and disasters, from the coups it sponsored in Iran and Guatemala, to her huge covert cultural and political campaigns to defeat communism in Western Europe in the 1950s, to her role in the weapons of mass destruction that never existed in Iraq and the torture she carried out during George W Bush’s War on Terror.
The author is Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, professor emeritus of American history at the University of Edinburgh who has written three other histories of the intelligence world. He brings deep knowledge that provides countless fascinating anecdotes – and supports his stark conclusions about the net effects of America’s hugely expensive intelligence apparatus.
It turns out that America’s infatuation with expensive espionage dates back to George Washington, who in 1790 persuaded Congress to create an “Emergency Fund for Foreign Relations” so that he could pay US spies $40,000. Just three years later, this secret fund had exploded to $1 million, or 12% of the federal budget.
The first attempt at foreign regime change came two presidents later, when Thomas Jefferson confronted the Barbary Pirates who were threatening American shipping off the coast of North Africa.
Jefferson financed an attempt to overthrow the ruling pasha in Tripoli, whom he had “identified as a major instigator of maritime crime”. With the State Department keeping a careful distance from the operation, 10 marines led an army of 400 “insurgents” who “marched 500 miles across the Libyan desert”. Their approach had the desired effect, persuading the pasha to make overtures for peace.
The author traces the bureaucratic origins of the modern CIA to the Secret Service, created in one of Abraham Lincoln’s last official acts in 1865, through the U1 unit created at the State Department to gather intelligence in peacetime after World War I, and J Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, which Franklin Roosevelt appointed to coordinate intelligence in Latin America. “At the peak of its business, the FBI was running 360 agents in the area,” Jeffreys-Jones writes.
America’s modern love affair with the world of cloak and dagger really took off when Joint Chiefs of Staff created the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to coordinate espionage behind enemy lines of Bulgaria to Scandinavia during World War II.
In April 1945, a future CIA director, William Colby, led an OSS team that blew up a crucial Norwegian bridge. Hollywood celebrated the exploits of the OSS in films like Rue Madeleine, starring James Cagney in a heroic role, supporting the French resistance.
The OSS was an “important classroom for a good number of post-war American spies”. But Jeffreys-Jones points out that there was a significant downside to such wartime success: It “gave some of these spies false memories of infallibility, entitlement, and omnipotence that didn’t fit the bill.” “calmer and more thoughtful approach required of the modern intelligence agency”. .
These feelings of entitlement and omnipotence led directly to the two most disastrous CIA operations of the 1950s. The first was the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which enraged Winston Churchill when he announced his intention to nationalize the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
The British recruited President Eisenhower as a partner and Mosaddegh was quickly deposed, even though he had “no trucks with Soviet openings”. When the British and Americans installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the new absolute monarch, “it was like a reverse movie of the American Revolution, with George III back in control.”
Then the CIA targeted Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala’s first democratically elected president. Arbenz announced that he was nationalizing ownership of the United Fruit Company so that it could be distributed to peasant families. It was a disastrous idea, as US Secretary of State John Dulles and his brother Allen, the CIA Director, were former United Fruit law firm graduates.
The president’s fate was sealed after the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, when Arbenz organized a memorial. The United States has earmarked $2.7 million for regime change. As Jeffreys-Jones puts it: “President Eisenhower’s CIA thus engineered what may be America’s first-ever murder program as an official instrument of foreign policy.
The US-installed dictator Carlos Castillo Armas murdered all his enemies, and by 1957 Guatemala was completely destabilized, as it has been for most since.
The role of the CIA in these two events remained hidden from the public for many years, and in the late 1950s they were still considered great successes – so much so, according to the author, that they can -to be given to the CIA a false confidence in it. the prospects for its next great debacle, the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
In 1973, when the CIA participated in the coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvadore Allende, it was the last iteration of America’s unspoken worldwide post-World War II policy: “The non- Europeans weren’t allowed to choose what so many of them wanted, a little socialism and a little capitalism, as well as democracy.
Jeffreys-Jones points out the irony that this trifecta was actually what America itself had embraced.
There’s a lot more to these pages, from the CIA’s role in the Vietnam catastrophe to its reluctance to stand up to Dick Cheney and his warmongering allies when they peddled their fake evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
But this is the author’s most important conclusion: the CIA “embarked on a covert action program that turned out to be a gradually evolving disaster. It would alienate the majority of the nations of the world and destroy America’s claim to moral leadership.”
International political disasters don’t get any bigger than this.