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Aug 15, 2007 3:48 pm

What does this sound like?

Secret prisons. Torture. Lying. And incompetence. But I'm not talking about the Bush administration. This is the incredible story told by Tim Weiner in Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA about the agency under both Truman and Eisenhower.

Under these two presidents the CIA sent thousands of foreign agents to their deaths in both Eastern Europe and Asia and then lied to Congress about what had happened, telling senators that the agents dropped into North Korea were not agents at all. Word had leaked out that some of the agents had been captured and tortured and the source of misinformation sent back to the states and that others had turned out to be spies for the other side. Rather than admit to what happened CIA officials either said that the agents were casualties of war or that they'd known all along that the agents were spies and used them to gain information about the espionage work of North Korea and China.

The lesson of the book is that officials running a secret government will make mistakes over and over again because they can without fear of penalty.

A good example is Project Artichoke, which was personally overseen by Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, and Frank Wisner. For years the CIA ran a secret prison in Panama where it tortured foreign agents and subjected them to drug experiments including heroin and LSD. Many died or lost their minds. The experiments continued even though there was no evidence we could control the minds of the prisoners, which was the goal of the operation. The immorality of the operation seems barely to have been considered.

It was a scary time. After the Soviets got the atomic bomb Ike worried that we might face a choice between democracy or survival. He told a meeting of the National Security Council that we had to consider the possibility that the Cold War might end in the destruction of our way of life.

My sympathy for Eisenhower is enormous. He's my favorite president of the second half of the 20th century. Few other presidents have approached national security problems with the same seriousness of purpose and cogency of thought. When he realized the limits of intelligence from human sources he began the intense search for technology that could be used to ferret out the secrets of the Soviet state, culminating in the development of the U2 spy plane, which helped reassure the US government that the Soviets were not planning a surprise attack.

But the history Tim Weiner so ably relates points out the great difficulty of assuring competence in an organization based on secrecy. Time and again the CIA failed and was never held to account.

In one twelve month period during the Truman administration the agency made three enormous blunders in a row. (1) Three days before the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb the agency confidently predicted the USSR wouldn't be able to do so for years. (2) The agency was taken by surprise when the North Koreans invaded South Korea in 1950. (3) The agency told Truman there was no chance the Chinese would cross the Yalu during the war just a few days before they did. Secrecy protected the agency from public retribution. In subsequent years more blunders followed. To be sure, there were also successes--or operations like the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran which seemed at the time like successes. But the agency never lived up to its reputation.

The Bush administration celebrates secrecy. One wonders what we'll discover later about the operations that failed that we knew nothing about. I would guess there are more than a few.

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