Few Americans know that we have an intelligence community, run by the CIA, which basically doesn’t work: you have only to look at our many intelligence failures along the way to appreciate that the CIA does not do intelligence gathering very effectively. Why? Because, in its early days, it was founded on ideological principals and felt the need to indoctrinate the American public, to persuade them that an ally during WW II (Russia), wherein FDR had referred to Joseph Stalin as “Uncle Joe,” had, in just a few years, become a mortal enemy, whose Communist system of government needed to be wiped off the map. As a consequence, the CIA has not been able to shake itself free of the bogyman stories that it perpetrated to indoctrinate the U.S. public at the dawn of the CIA’s creation. In essence, the CIA had become, at its inception, just another propaganda tool in the “US-first” propaganda machine.That and the fact that the CIA operates on black budget, hidden from public view, means that its activities, many of which would be a national embarrassment, never become public. And, everyone seems to know this except the American public, who are transfixed by fear and the threat of future attacks such that they have a kind of enforced ignorance about the operations of their own government. The CIA was formed as a secretive organization, whose merits were not even debated during passage of the bill which created the CIA in 1947.
To name just two of our big intelligence failures over the past twenty years, we could cite the CIA’s failure to predict the fall of the Soviet Union or the absurdity of the “slam dunk” argument given by a CIA Chief George Tenet when talking about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (George Tenet in his book “At the Center of the Storm” claimed that his “slam dunk” statement was taken out of context in an effort to put the blame on the CIA rather than the White House; he claims that on the day after 9/11, he was entering the White House and ran into Richard Perle, who told him “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility:” the NYT review of his book can be viewed here). But these few errors in assessing our intelligence capability don’t even begin tell the whole story. Time after time, again and again, the intelligence failures of the CIA damaged the country and did irreparable harm to the reputation of America as a shining democracy. By the end of the 1950s, America had become one of the most hated countries on the planet, primarily because of the CIA’s actions around the globe had by then become well known. Well known that is except to the American public.
Every country needs good intelligence and the United States probably needs it more than most countries, as we seem to be on the target list of many different countries and terrorist groups. Right now there is an ocean between us and them, but it is just a matter of time before we see suicide vests within our cities. Our needs for generating good intelligence are many and vitally important to boot. We have to assess things that could be trouble in the future and sort of stay ahead of the curve if at all possible. This is now more important than ever because things like cyberwarfare and intelligence about stray nuclear devices are vital to the health of our nation. In case you think our nuclear arsenal is under tight security, read Seaman William McNeilly‘s chilling assertions which describe very relaxed security restrictions surrounding Britain’s nuclear arsenal. The article revealing this story was first released by Wikileaks. You can also read about our own lost nuclear weapons in 2007 here.
We almost surely went down the wrong road when we started an arms race with the Soviet Union (keep in mind that when we had the bomb all to ourselves, administrative suggestions, including those from Truman himself, said that the Russians were never going to have one of their own or in the words of Leslie Groves who was in charge of the Manhattan project which built the bomb “the Russians couldn’t even build a decent jeep, let alone an atom bomb.” We now have thousands of thermonuclear (hydrogen bombs detonated by an atomic bomb) devices around the globe and some of them are in the hands of unstable governments. My own guess is that if a thermonuclear bomb ever goes off in an American city, God forbid, it is more likely to be one of our own. We still have too many of them and we seem to have very lax standards for security.
Chalmers Johnson, in his book The Sorrows of Empire writes (p291 of the hardback book) “The United States worries that terrorists might acquire or be given fissionable material by a “rogue state,” but the much more likely sources is via theft from the huge nuclear stockpiles of the United States or the far less well guarded ones Russia inherited from the USSR. The weapons-grade anthrax used in the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States almost certainly came from the Pentagon’s own biological stockpile, not from some poverty-stricken Third World country.”
In addition we face uncertainties about the future of our engagement in the Middle East, involving ISIS/ISIL/Daesh: will our true allies in this sordid mess please raise their hands? Why for instance didn’t we see the dangers of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, in fomenting sectarian violence in Iraq, until it was too late? This intelligence failure led directly to the formation of ISIS (despite what Jeb Bush contends based on some of his recent statements).
Of course, the biggest intelligence failure of all time was the disaster of 9/11. Domestically it was the responsibility of the FBI, and they couldn’t make sense out of “Arabs in America that wanted to learn to fly, but didn’t want to learn how to land.” International intelligence is the responsibility of the CIA and though CIA director George Tenet was “running around with his hair on fire” (according to Richard Clark) he was unable to arouse the new administration into action. Tenet received a briefing paper entitled “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly” in August 2001, but there was no specific intelligence indicating that an attack was imminent. In that case however it might have been government failure at the top, as Richard Clark, NSC Counterterrorism Chief pressed top administration officials, including Cheney, Rice and Powell that an attack was imminent. He pleaded with with Rice to call an urgent cabinet-level meeting to discuss the threat on January 25; he finally got his meeting September 4th, a week before the tragic event.
Going back a little further, what would have happened if our intelligence gathering told us that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist and that he fought to unify his country rather than play second fiddle to the Soviet Union? Or was the war in Vietnam fought because we were more interested in Vietnam’s natural resources?
By the way, who fed us all the bad intelligence that related to the Soviet Union: we were falsely told at the end of WW II that the Soviet Union was out to conquer the world and spread Communism until it became the only universal system of governance. That too was completely false: although Trotsky was an international revolutionist (and quite harmless), Stalin was not; he wanted to get along with the West, especially since Roosevelt had promised to assist the Soviets in rebuilding Russia, devastated from the ravages of WW II; after all, they earned it the hard way, with 27 million dead. If the Russians had not been in the war D-Day would never have been possible. Of course in America, we congratulate ourselves thinking that, from the moment our troops landed in France on D-Day, it served as the key that eventually won the war. The truth is that the German surrender at Stalingrad had already taken place before D-Day and the mighty Russian army was picking up steam and advancing towards Germany. Stalin ceased giving support to the Greek Communists after WW II because he had signed an agreement with Churchill. Once Stalin died in 1953, his immediate replacement, Georgi Malekov, wanted improve relations with the West, but the Dulles brothers interpreted his attempts to make peace as a Communist trick, made to give the appearance that the Soviets wanted peace, while they continued to plot the end of capitalism. Stalin once said that bringing Communism to Poland was like putting a saddle on a cow. It was the Dulles brothers that didn’t want to make peace.
Then too there is the question of the legality of the CIA’s torture techniques after 9/11. The CIA developed “enhanced interrogation” techniques that included water boarding. When the movie Zero Dark Thirty, which depicted the events leading up to knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts was made, Director Kathryn Bigelow was co-opted by the CIA who fed her information that water boarding provided the key intelligence that led to the location and assassination of Osama bin Laden. But the recent Senate report on the CIA challenges that assertion. Frontline has an excellent, recent documentary on this issue which can be viewed here. Senator Dianne Feinstein, then the chair of the intelligence committee, was so incensed by “Zero Dark Thirty’s” depiction of torture’s effectiveness that she walked out of an advance screening of the movie after only 15 to 20 minutes. “I couldn’t handle it because it’s so false,” she told “Frontline.” Thus Zero Dark Thirty is a CIA propaganda film and the director of the film was seduced by the CIA who found her to be an easy target.
Going back a little further, we have examples from the Korean War. Under Douglas MacArthur’s leadership, during one phase of the war, our troops got close to the Yalu river and the North Korean border with China. The CIA concluded that Chinese troops would not enter the war and that American soldiers had nothing to fear from the Chinese. Two days later 300,000 Chinese troops came across the border and nearly drove the Americans into the sea.
But, what I am really taking about are the early days of the CIA, right after it was formed. The CIA was established on July 26, when President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 into law. The National Security Act said nothing about secret operations overseas, but eleven words embedded in that act—“other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security”—was all it took to provide authority for the vast array of covert operations that remain with us today. Initially the CIA had an uncertain budget, but a clever solution was found within the Marshall Plan: a secret codicil, devised by James Forestall (first Secretary of Defense under Truman) and George Kennan (ambassador), with Allen Dulles as a consultant, provided huge resources derived from the Marshall Plan. After Congress approved and funded the Marshall Plan, it appropriated $13.7 billion over five years. Any nation that received funds from the Marshall Plan had to set aside an equivalent sum in their own currency; 5% of those funds, $685 million were made available to the CIA through their overseas offices. According to Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes The history of the CIA. “This was an international money-laundering scheme that stayed a secret until well after the Cold War had ended.” This is an astounding level of funding that allowed the CIA to expand and lavishly support a huge range of operations and in that sense the CIA did not disappoint: it was capable of meddling in the affairs of any nation of its choosing. The Dulles brothers under Eisenhower, felt that any nation not in the camp of the United States, was viewed with suspicion and open for espionage. The CIA has never faced any accountability for these funds.
The creation of the CIA was a strange situation to be in for a nation that prided itself on being an open society. This led to a natural tension between the CIA and public information. The CIA insisted that its clandestine operations must remain a secret; if the American public ever knew about the covert operations of the CIA, it would surely condemn them and insist on more openness. But, from the moment of its inception, operational secrecy was essential for the CIA if for no other reason than to shield itself from embarrassing and seemingly stupid bag of tricks. The CIA felt that it was responsible for educating the American public on the evils of Communism (in cooperation with the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover), but did so with such excessive zeal that it poisoned the organization and prevented it from presenting a more rational view of the world created by gathering the kind of intelligence that the United States really needed. Freed up from any sense of accountability, the CIA was controlled by ideology through the prism of rabid anticommunism.
Nowhere was this cavalier attitude within the CIA more prevalent than their recruitment and training of young CIA officers, often fresh out of college, to be trained and transported behind “enemy lines,” to foment revolution in the hopes of overthrowing Communist governments in China, Russia and the Balkan states under Russian control. These agents, many of whom did not know the language of the country they were sent to, were either killed or never heard from again. At one point, Beijing broadcast a score card for the CIA’s operations in Manchuria: the CIA has dropped 212 foreign agents in: 101 were killed and 111 were captured. Allen Dulles’ reaction to this sad tally was “that’s the cost of doing war.” The CIA did the same thing to Russian states, with a similar result.
General Reinhard Gehlen was a former Nazi intelligence officer. At the close of the war he sold his services initially to the U.S. Army and received lavish funding for his “spying operations.” He claimed to have spied on the Soviets from the eastern front while in Hitler’s army. But the army was unable to control Gehlen and tried several times to pass him off to the CIA which eventually hired him, despite reservations of several CIA officers who were reluctant to work with a network of “SS personnel with known Nazi records.” Gehlen hired dozens of prominent Nazi war criminals. But the East German and Soviet intelligence services had penetrated the Gehlen group at the highest levels. Gehlen promised to run missions aimed at the heart of Soviet power and because the CIA had many problems getting intelligence information inside Russia, Gehlen was hired to do the dirty work of the CIA. Though the country was different, the outcome was the same. After a long series of interviews, the CIA believed that it had a force of Ukrainians capable of entering Ukraine. This group called itself the Supreme Council for the liberation of Ukraine: they were flown into the Soviet Union in September, 1949. America at last had penetrated the Soviet Union. The CIA history was of this period was declassified in 2005 giving us the first hint at what happened to these newly recruited CIA spies: “the Soviets quickly eliminated them.” Instead of approaching this outcome with caution, the CIA was enthusiastic to recruit more agents and fly them into Russia, but almost all of them were captured. The Soviets used their prisoners to feedback disinformation—-all’s well, send more guns, more money and more men. Then the captured CIA recruits were killed. The history of the CIA’s attempt to recruit, train and send into agents into Ukraine was a tragic outcome, because most if not all of them were captured and killed. The Soviets had known every aspect of the CIA’s plan from the very beginning. The training camps in Germany were infiltrated. The source of Soviet knowledge came from Soviet spy Kim Philby, who had carnal knowledge of the CIA’s entire operation. Philby worked for Moscow out of a secure room in the Pentagon. Philby had precise knowledge of the coordinates for the drop zones of the new CIA recruits. Over and over again, the CIA recruited and sent in their new recruits, sometimes to the outskirts of Moscow, but the result was always the same: one by one they were hunted down, captured and killed. All told hundreds of CIA agents were sent to their death trying to penetrate into Russia, Poland, Romania, Ukraine and the Baltic States under Russian control during the 1950s. There deaths were never recorded, no accounts were kept and no penalties were given out for these failures.
Tim Weiner in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Legacy of Ashes The History of the CIA describes in the Author’s Note “Legacy of Ashes is the record of the first sixty years of the Central Intelligence Agency. It describes how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first rate spy service. That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States. Intelligence is secret action aimed at understanding or changing what goes on abroad. President Dwight D. Eisenhower called it “a distasteful but vital necessity.” A nation wants to project its power beyond its borders and needs to see over the horizon, to know what is coming, to prevent attacks against its people. It must anticipate surprise. Without a strong , smart, sharp intelligence service, presidents and generals alike can become blind and crippled. But throughout its history as a superpower, the United States has not had such a service.”
America, buoyed by having sole possession of the atom bomb at the close of the war, had developed such hubris and swagger that is hard for any of us to imagine their mindset today. But it was during this heady period that produced the CIA, which was in effect a very un-American organization, primarily because it unleashed upon the world a behavior that violated our democratic principals. America wound up presenting two different faces to the world, one of which was advocating democracy, while the other, run through the CIA was overthrowing democracies and installing dictatorships. Time and time again the philosophy of the CIA, through the covert actions approved by the President of the United States, was guided by the principal of insuring that American investment in a country was best protected by an installed dictator who would be beholding to the United States and thus serve the business interests of our country. Along the way the American government created a dysfunctional unit that, to this day, does not serve the interests of the American public and has produced numerous cases of “Blowback,” defined in this case as “secret operations gone sour that impacts directly on the American public.”
A.J. Muste, the pacifist and peace activist once remarked “The problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?”
To me it is astounding how America fails to learn from its mistakes.
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