BERKELEY — "Great secrecy was necessary," Winston Churchill told a cheering Parliament, as he revealed the first Nazi surrender at the close of World War II, capitulation in Italy. It followed months of top-secret talks between German commanders and Office of Strategic Services "spy master" Allen Dulles, later the celebrated director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Historians have suggested that Dulles' triumph, code-named Operation Sunrise, was diplomatically flawed, that excluding the Soviets from those meetings--for the sake of secrecy--triggered the initial distrust between Allies that led to Cold War. But in 1945, few Americans would have doubted that ending the fighting was worth a spat with "Uncle Joe" Stalin.
Sunrise was a milestone in the annals of U.S. secret intelligence, marking the start of that postwar crypto-diplomacy twilight zone where secret agents often supplant striped-pants ambassadors. And William J. Casey was there, privy to the secret as one of the best and brightest of young OSS executives. Now, 40 years later, he is the latest of Dulles' unenviable successors as head of the CIA. Though reportedly a reflective and politically astute public servant, Casey is very much an alumnus of the wartime "loose lips sink ships" school of intelligence. As such, he must find it baffling that the current brouhaha has reached political crisis proportions.
Other thoughtful men of both parties in four administrations have closed their eyes to the underlying reality: That the democratic foundations for the CIA's "secret war"--a once-unanimous national respect for a cult of secrecy during the Cold War--were knocked away by Watergate and never rebuilt. There is no longer any national consensus about those non-intelligence-gathering CIA operations lumped together under the euphemism, covert action.
All that followed Watergate and the congressional inquisition into CIA "horrors" was some patchwork lawmaking and the creation of a Capitol Hill bureaucracy for the caging of "rogue elephants." But principles of subtle covert action cannot be legislated like a compromise tax bill. Consider these ironies: Congress outlawed peacetime assassination, but U.S. bombers may scourge a foreign capital in the hope that the body of a deranged dictator will be in the debris. Congress frowns on promoting coups d'etat-- and CIA political projects seem at the mercy of the most junior congressional staffer with moral qualms and a friend at the Washington Post--but from our movie-conscious capital, we may launch a massive Clint Eastwood assault on a Caribbean mouse that roared, reminiscent of the worst days of Yankee gunboat diplomacy. And while the practice of "plausibly denying" official involvement in foreign hanky-panky has become a no-no, U.S. leaders hold press conferences to announce intentions to lend secret support to anti-communist insurgents on three continents. After the Contragate dust has settled and the blame-laying, breast-beating and ad hoc legislating is over, there ought to be a complete rewriting of the covert-action rule book. Unless the United States is resigned to take no further hand in Kipling's great game of world power, we must end four decades of confusion by clarifying the complex issues of CIA political intervention abroad.
Setting aside emotions and legalities to look analytically at just those events now making headlines, CIA involvement falls into four categories, each with a distinct operational means and ends.
There was the vital business of maintaining secret contact with political "outs" and potential "ins," with dissidents who could hardly be seen in the company of State Department attaches.
There was an anti-terrorist counterintelligence operation, requiring heavy expenditure of men and treasure in search of elusive facts about a small political underworld--the kind of laborious investigation more suited to police detectives than espionage agents.
There was the clandestine shipment of conventional weapons to a government in power, kept under wraps for diplomatic reasons. Since 1949, when the agency handled the first U.S. arms shipments to Yugoslavia, after Josip Broz Tito broke with Moscow, the CIA has been saddled with such tasks simply because it was there, with dummy corporations and money-laundering facilities, to do whatever dirty jobs the king's men wanted kept out of the papers.
Finally, there was, for at least the 40th time in as many years, agency support for an "underground resistance movement," a paramilitary insurgency against some unpalatable foreign government.