In the spook business, what comes in is every bit as important – sometimes more so – than what goes out. Spies, since the Washington administration, have always shaped political behavior. One of the reasons Washington was able to prevail over the British was that New York spy John Honeyman was a loyal and accomplished spook. The danger is that the bad spies (theirs) are able to manipulate the good spies(ours) if one of the good guys, for whatever reason, jumps the fence and joins the bad guys.
In the spy business, you are what you know. And what you know, and don’t know, is furnished by intelligence gatherers that are, or are not, trustworthy.
You may think you’ve got it. Perhaps you have been attentive over the years to the thrilling spy novels of the post Cold War period. But you have not got it unless you have read “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” by Tim Weiner, a real-world account of how the Soviets for eight years manipulated U.S. intelligence -- surely an oxymoron.
For eight years, from 1986 to 1994, every U.S. agent in the CIA and the FBI was compromised because, Aldrich Ames, chief of counterintelligence for the CIA’s Soviet/East Europe division, possibly the most destructive spy in U.S. history, had supplied the Soviets with covert U.S. intelligence. The Soviets, in possession of strategic intelligence, were therefore able to make accommodations in their own strategy and flood the incoming intelligence pipeline with disinformation, in effect controlling the entire U.S. agent network in the Soviet Union and Russia. Moreover, the CIA, throughout the administrations of Reagan, Bush and Clinton, knew that their intelligence pipeline had been hopelessly corrupted and they told neither presidents nor their secretaries of state nor any other administrative official in the executive department. They did not even spill the beans to the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Rockville Reminder.
Because keeping secrets is what spies do best. And had this secret gotten out, heads would have been struck from necks.
Weiner, a reporter for The New York Times who has written on American intelligence for twenty years and won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on secret national security programs, is no stranger to spookdom. “Legacy of Ashes” relies on first hand sources, named and cited, such as Fred Hitz, the CIA’s inspector General who investigated the Aldrich Ames leak.
The corrupted “blue border” reports, Weiner writes in his book, “were signed by the director of central intelligence and sent to the director of central intelligence, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of State. ‘That’s what intelligence communities exist to do,’ Hitz said. The senior CIA officers responsible for these reports had for eight years known that some of their sources were controlled by Russian intelligence. The agency gave the White House information manipulated by Moscow – and deliberately concealed the fact. To reveal that it has been delivering misinformation and disinformation would have been too embarrassing. Ninety-five of these tainted reports warped American perceptions of the major military and political developments in Moscow… distorted America’s ability to understand what was going on in Moscow… The most senior CIA official responsible for these reports insisted – as Ames had done – that he knew best. He knew what was real and what was not. The fact that the reporting had come from agents of deception meant nothing. ‘He made that decision himself,’ Hitz said.”
The CIA, Weiner tells us, began as a spy agency; its mandate was to spy on the Soviets. But the agency’s mandate mutated soon after it was formed, and president after president used the agency for covert action. A 1945 report commissioned by Franklin Roosevelt, released only in the 1990’s, discloses that British intelligence regarded American spies as “putty in their hands”; that Chiang Kai-shek easily manipulated the OSS; that Japanese embassy personnel in Lisbon discovered OSS plans to steal its code books and changed the codes, resulting, according to the report “in a complete blackout of vital military information… The almost hopeless compromise of OSS personnel makes their use as a secret intelligence agency in the postwar world inconceivable.”
The OSS was the spy nursery from which the founders of the CIA were drawn, and the transplantation did not improve the product.
There are two serious problems with secret intelligence. The first – that the mission of the CIA changed from intelligence gathering to covert action -- forms the thesis of “Legacy of Ashes.” If covert action now is driving the CIA, then intelligence gathering will be subordinated to the agency’s prime directive. That subordination necessarily affects the character and reliability of the intelligence.
The second problem, discussed most ably by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his testimony before congress in a Committee on Governmental Affairs hearing on Government secrecy in 1997, is more subtle. “Secrecy,” Moynihan said, “is the ultimate mode of regulation; the citizen does not even know that he or she is being regulated! It is a parallel regulatory regime with a far greater potential for damage if it malfunctions.” The custodian of the secrets has a power over other governmental agencies that is determinative, and the custodian alone can vouch for the truthfulness of the intelligence.
“Legacy of Ashes” is a brief history of sixty years of – mostly – failure in the U.S. intelligence community, which ought to remind us that not only pride but stupidity, in the precise sense of the word, goeth before a fall.