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Fighting the Cold War, CIA Avoided a Hot One

September 14, 1997|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA."

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — The history of the Central Intelligence Agency is not complicated. Among the dozen or so perfectly sound reasons for its establishment by Congress 50 years ago this week, only one mattered: the belief, supported by an overwhelming preponderance of the evidence, that if somebody had been minding the intelligence store in the first week of December 1941, the U.S. Navy would have been ready and waiting when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

In recent years, a series of embarrassing failures by the CIA--penetration of the agency by Russian spies, gross exaggeration of the economic power of the Soviet Union, failure to foresee its collapse--have created a revolving door for directors and prompted critics in the Senate to propose pruning the agency back severely or perhaps even breaking it in two, following, at long last, the British example. The Brits, as they are universally called by the CIA's working intelligence officers, warned that nothing but trouble would come from housing the collection

and analysis of intelligence with a covert-action arm under a single roof.

The CIA tried to keep the two jobs separate, but quarreling in the field soon prompted an early director, Walter Bedell Smith, to put everybody within a single chain of command. Blunders and screw-ups, painful as they may be, are all part of the great game; and a just verdict on the CIA's way of doing business, after 50 years and 10 American presidents, is something better than a passing grade.

Among the many missions assigned to the CIA at the outset, along with others added over the years, again one was paramount--to ensure that U.S. military forces were never again caught napping for want of a central repository of intelligence and a staff competent to analyze the take. With such an agency, it was hoped, the U.S. government might secure its position as leader of the free world, hold the line in Europe, block communist takeovers in Third World countries emerging from colonialism, fight a propaganda war for the allegiance of world opinion, keep track of Russian arms programs, ensure the U.S. was always one jump ahead in the development of new weapons and prevent the outbreak of a third world war. The amazing thing is that all worked out pretty much as planned.

But along with these bold hopes for what a secret intelligence organization could contribute to U.S. security, there was one that proved preposterous--that with the exception of the director, who was confirmed by the Senate, the rest of the staff, the marching orders and the operations of the CIA could remain secret.

The first major crack in the wall of silence came in 1965, with publication of a book much feared by the agency--"The Invisible Government" by Thomas B. Ross and David Wise. Till then, the CIA's first line of defense had been the implication that the republic would fall if anyone whispered the agency's name without a top-secret clearance.

"The Invisible Government" changed all that. Everyone who paid attention to Cold War geopolitics now knew that the CIA had been behind the overthrow of left-leaning governments in Iran in 1953 and in Guatemala the following year, and it was an open secret in Washington in the spring of 1961 that the new President John F. Kennedy was so angry about the CIA's bungled invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, he was almost ready to scatter the agency to the winds. But the book went a giant step farther, dropping the obsession with "red subversion" of the '50s to focus critically, for the first time, on the role of intelligence in the U.S. government.

The first reaction of the American public to the realities of the secret world was one of pure horror--our government? meddling in foreign countries? training secret armies? In the great game, according to American rules, playing fair meant playing in the open, declaring your aims, abiding by the rules of the United Nations. For years, almost every story about the CIA was a "revelation"--something hidden for good reason, a cause for alarm and censure. Assassination plots, domestic spying, secret drug experiments. When all the awful secrets were gathered in one folder during the Watergate investigation by then-Director of Central Intelligence William E. Colby, they were referred to as "the family jewels" and kept under lock and key until, one by one, each made its headline and faded away.

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