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The Agency THE RISE AND DECLINE OF THE CIAby John Ranelagh (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 846 pp., illustrated)

August 17, 1986|Donald Freed | Freed is a playwright and historian. and

John Ranelagh's study of the Central Intelligence Agency is the latest revision in the history of the problematic and secret mechanism that is once again looming behind the rhetoric of America's foreign policy and its war on terrorism.

In its way, the work by London author Ranelagh is meticulous in research, detail and chronology. The documentation and range of interviews, together with a huge bibliography, appear to be exhaustive. Critics and apologists are given ample if not equal scope, and distinctions of personality are drawn in the profile and studies of the succession of directors of Central Intelligence that make up the spine of this work. And yet . . . in the end, a question remains: Has Mr. Ranelagh got it right?

The Ranelagh book correctly informs us that, after the war, from Sept. 20, 1945, until Jan. 22, 1946--"one of the fiercest bureaucratic battles Washington has ever known raged. . . ." At issue was the future of U.S. intelligence, and, more profoundly, the future of the United States' self-concept of its power and its responsibility.

The author provides a wealth of detail as he charts the struggle that blazed around President Truman over who would have the secret control of America's new and far-flung influence and technical assets in the postwar world. What is less clear is whether the conflicting values underlying this struggle were ever resolved. There is much evidence that they were not. Curiously, this study contains vital clues as to the ongoing secret war within the CIA, but the author fails to draw the conclusions of his own research.

The 1970s generation of CIA critics--John Stockwell, Frank Snepp, Victor Marchetti and others--stunned thoughtful Americans. The big books were all written by former agency officers. Ranelagh spends some time on these revelations, as well as those of the Church Committee mid-1970 hearings. However, he does not seem to respond to their profound and ominous implications of a hidden split of American identity at the highest reaches of power, choosing instead to answer the exposes with the agency's authorized version.

The official line, and Ranelagh's, emerge like boilerplate:

1) The Kennedy brothers are responsible, totally, for a scheming series of assassination attempts and further contemptible geopolitical dirty tricks.

2) The CIA cooperated with the Warren Commission after the murder of President Kennedy.

3) The agency was technically free of involvement in the murder of General Schneider and the destruction of the democratically elected Allende Government in Chile.

4) The CIA actually tried to "protect" the anti-Vietnam War movement.

5) The Shah of Iran was overthrown because of his attempt "to propel Iran into modern times," and not because of the excesses of his CIA-trained secret police.

Myths carry the day despite Ranelagh's own impressive evidence to the contrary.

The author quotes agency planners to the effect that in the future more and more CIA projects will have to do with "public education." That is to say, with propaganda. If this is the case, then, with this book, the future is already upon us.

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