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The enemy of our enemy

Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, George Crile, Atlantic Monthly Press: 550 pp., $26

May 25, 2003|Chalmers Johnson | Chalmers Johnson is the author of "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire" and "The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic," to be published in January by Metropolitan Books.

The Central Intelligence Agency has an almost unblemished record of screwing up every "secret" armed intervention it ever undertook. From the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953 through the Bay of Pigs, the failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba and Patrice Lumumba of the Republic of Congo, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, the "secret war" in Laos, aid to the Greek colonels who seized power in 1967, the 1973 killing of Salvador Allende in Chile and Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra war against Nicaragua, there is not a single instance in which the agency's activities did not prove acutely embarrassing to the United States. The CIA continues to get away with this primarily because its budget and operations have always been secret and Congress is normally too indifferent to its constitutional functions to rein in a rogue bureaucracy. Therefore the tale of a purported CIA success story should be of some interest.

According to the author of "Charlie Wilson's War," the exception to CIA incompetence was the arming between 1979 and 1988 of thousands of Afghan moujahedeen ("freedom fighters"). The agency flooded Afghanistan with an astonishing array of extremely dangerous weapons and "unapologetically mov[ed] to equip and train cadres of high tech holy warriors in the art of waging a war of urban terror against a modern superpower," in this case, the USSR.

The author of this glowing account, George Crile, is a veteran producer for the CBS television news show "60 Minutes" and an exuberant Tom Clancy-type enthusiast for the Afghan caper. He argues that the U.S. clandestine involvement in Afghanistan was "the largest and most successful CIA operation in history" and "the one morally unambiguous crusade of our time." He adds that "there was nothing so romantic and exciting as this war against the Evil Empire." Crile's sole measure of success is the number of Soviet soldiers killed (about 15,000), which undermined Soviet morale and contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the period from 1989 to 1991. That's the successful part.

However, he never mentions that the "tens of thousands of fanatical Muslim fundamentalists" the CIA armed are some of the same people who in 1996 killed 19 American airmen at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; blew a hole in the side of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Aden harbor in 2000; and on Sept. 11, 2001, flew hijacked airliners into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Today, the world awaits what is almost certain to happen soon at some airport -- a terrorist firing a U.S. Stinger low-level surface-to-air missile (manufactured at one time by General Dynamics in Rancho Cucamonga) into an American jumbo jet. The CIA supplied thousands of them to the moujahedeen and trained them to be experts in their use. If the CIA's activities in Afghanistan are a "success story," then Enron should be considered a model of corporate behavior.

Nonetheless, Crile's account is important, if appalling, precisely because it details how a ruthless ignoramus congressman and a high-ranking CIA thug managed to hijack American foreign policy. From 1973 to 1996, Charlie Wilson represented the 2nd District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives. His constituency was in the heart of the East Texas Bible Belt and was the long-held fiefdom of his fellow Democrat, Martin Dies, the first chairman of the House Un-American Affairs Committee. Wilson is 6 feet, 4 inches tall and "handsome, with one of those classic outdoor faces that tobacco companies bet millions on." He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1956, eighth from the bottom of his class and with more demerits than any other cadet in Annapolis history.

After serving in the Texas Legislature, he arrived in Washington in 1973 and quickly became known as "Good Time Charlie," "the biggest playboy in Congress." He hired only good-looking women for his staff and escorted "a parade of beauty queens ... to White House parties." Even Crile, who featured Wilson many times on "60 Minutes" and obviously admires him, describes him as "a seemingly corrupt, cocaine snorting, scandal prone womanizer who the CIA was convinced could only get the Agency into terrible trouble if it permitted him to become involved in any way in its operations."

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