Vol. 43 No. 16 · 12 August 2021
The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy in Three Acts
by Scott Anderson.
Picador, 576 pp., £20, February, 978 1 5290 4247 4
lexander Cockburn blamed Ian Fleming for the creation of the CIA. Without Fleming, Cockburn wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the first James Bond novel, ‘the Cold War would have ended in the early 1960s. We would have had no Vietnam, no Nixon, no Reagan and no Star Wars.’ As adjutant to Britain’s chief of naval intelligence, Lieutenant Commander Fleming undertook a secret mission to Washington in May 1941. He was ‘whisked off to a room in the new annexe of the embassy, locked in with a pen and paper and the necessities of life’, a colleague recalled, and there he wrote, ‘under armed guard around the clock, a document of some seventy pages covering every aspect of a giant secret intelligence and secret operational organisation’. This, the CIA’s official history reports, was the genesis of ‘the nation’s first peacetime, non-departmental intelligence organisation’.
Fleming delivered the report to William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, a much decorated First World War veteran who had been lobbying Roosevelt to establish an American spy agency separate from the Navy, War and State Departments. A month later Donovan submitted his ‘Memorandum of Establishment of Service of Strategic Information’ to the president. It recommended an organisation that would collect and analyse information and make it available to the president as commander-in-chief, and would also disseminate propaganda. It made no mention of covert operations. Donovan acknowledged his debt to Fleming by presenting him with a .38 Police Positive Colt revolver engraved ‘For Special Services’.
In July 1941, Roosevelt duly established the Office of Co-ordinator of Information (COI) and made Donovan its director. Donovan ensured that COI’s remit would encompass psychological warfare, sabotage, exposing fifth columnists and supporting resistance networks in enemy-occupied countries, combining the work done by two British clandestine agencies, the long established Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and the new Special Operations Executive (SOE), agencies which behaved more like rivals than partners. SOE, created by Churchill to carry out sabotage and aid resistance in Axis-occupied countries, launched ‘boom-boom’ attacks that SIS complained jeopardised its ‘hush-hush’ espionage. The chairman of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee told Donovan how to avoid similar friction in the US: ‘Have one organisation.’ Years later, he regretted giving the advice: ‘I didn’t know that I was acting as a midwife for that monster, the CIA.’
Fleming urged Donovan to employ agents between the ages of forty and fifty who possessed ‘absolute discretion, sobriety, devotion to duty, languages and wide experience’. Donovan ignored him. His operatives were young and anything but discreet, sober or, for the most part, fluent in languages other than English. Many came from America’s upper echelons: Mellon, Vanderbilt, du Pont, Morgan and other robber baron families. Some, to the dismay of J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, were trade unionists, socialists, Jews and veterans of the Lincoln Brigade. When Hoover complained that three COI employees were communists, Donovan said: ‘That’s why I hired them.’ Hoover referred to COI as ‘Roosevelt’s folly’, while the Goebbels propaganda machine derided Donovan’s ‘Jewish scribblers’.
Six months after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt dissolved the unwieldy COI. A new Office of War Information took over propaganda and everything else went to the new Office of Strategic Services (OSS), run by Donovan. With an unlimited, unaudited budget exempt from congressional scrutiny, Donovan’s imagination flourished. He pushed for a 15,000-man commando raid on the Japanese mainland (the US navy scotched it). Another wheeze involved restoring the Habsburgs to the imperial throne in Vienna. His most outlandish fantasy called for attacking Japan with bombs strapped to bats, on the false premise that the Japanese were terrified of bats. Fleming was no less fanciful: he sought to submerge sailors in a concrete shell to monitor the port at Dieppe. Despite the aborted projects, both Fleming and Donovan had good wars. Fleming’s 30 Assault Unit commandos captured intelligence documents from the Germans, and Donovan’s OSS armed and trained guerrilla bands everywhere from France to Indochina. SOE became OSS’s benefactor, training its agents at Camp X in Canada and working with them in the field, a legacy that would shift the focus of OSS’s successor agency, the CIA, away from the humdrum routine of intelligence-gathering towards action.
Scott Anderson recounts the careers of four OSS agents whose underground war against the Axis turned into a crusade to ‘roll back’ communism in Eastern Europe and Asia. One was Frank Wisner, a corporate lawyer who enlisted to work in naval intelligence early in 1941. When the US entered the war he was consigned to the tedium of the navy’s cable and censorship office in New York. Donovan rescued him from that backwater at the end of 1943 and sent him to monitor OSS’s Balkan operations, which were directed from Istanbul. OSS Istanbul was running an apparently successful espionage network, Operation Dogwood, but its intelligence, especially about bombing targets, had become increasingly flawed. OSS had yet to discover that the Germans had captured, tortured and turned some of its agents. Wisner found a shambles in Istanbul, where everyone knew that the OSS chief, Lanning ‘Packy’ MacFarland, was an American spy. MacFarland’s two lovers were reporting to German and Soviet intelligence. At least eight of OSS Istanbul’s 67 agents worked for Germany, while one driver was reporting to the Soviets and another to the Turks. ‘For weeks,’ Anderson writes, ‘Wisner worked nearly around the clock to try to reorganise the OSS Istanbul office, and to salvage the Dogwood intelligence network.’ Nothing was worth saving, and Wisner began to build a new network. Then, on 23 August 1944, King Michael of Romania ended his alliance with Germany.
Wisner was ordered to Bucharest to ‘establish the intentions of the Soviet Union regarding Romania’. An advance party of nine agents had been sent ahead of him, including Beverly Bowie, who achieved the coup of attending Romanian cabinet meetings. ‘They pass all my laws unanimously,’ Bowie said. ‘I never thought running a country was so easy.’ On his arrival, Wisner, codenamed Typhoid, was tasked with organising the evacuation of 1400 Allied airmen, seizing German documents and spying on the occupying Red Army. The Soviets were looting Romania’s factories, refineries and grain warehouses, a policy they would soon pursue in the rest of Eastern Europe. In September 1944 King Michael signed an armistice with the USSR. Romanian officials, Wisner reported, felt that their country had been ‘abandoned by the US and Great Britain’. They were right. The Allies were ceding Eastern Europe to Stalin in order to keep Greece and Western Europe in the Anglo-American sphere. In any case, fifty American military and OSS personnel in Romania couldn’t compete with the Soviets’ half million troops and countless intelligence agents. This, Anderson suggests, sowed the seeds of Cold War before the hot war had ended.
At the beginning of 1945, Wisner witnessed the deportation of 60,000 Romanian citizens with German backgrounds from Bucharest’s main railway station. Red Army troops herded them into open boxcars and shipped them to slave labour camps in the USSR. ‘It was what probably affected his life more than any other single thing,’ Wisner’s wife said later. Donovan pulled him out of Romania, made him head of OSS’s secret intelligence operations and sent him to Berlin just as the war in Europe was ending. Wisner was already a fervent anti-communist, but his feelings were intensified by Soviet misbehaviour in Germany.
When he became president after Roosevelt’s death, Truman took Hoover’s side in the wrangling over control of counterintelligence. The new president, a failed haberdasher from Missouri, detested Donovan, with his Ivy League background. On 20 September 1945 Truman abolished OSS by executive order. Britain dissolved SOE four months later. The State Department took over OSS analysis and research, and intelligence collection went to the War Department. Covert operations were up for grabs. ‘Few were more shocked than the chief of Secret Intelligence-Germany, Frank Wisner,’ Anderson writes. ‘For six months he had worked himself to the point of exhaustion building an extensive intelligence network throughout the American occupation sector.’ Now superfluous to requirements, he returned to New York, where he resumed his lucrative law practice, an outcome that would have contented most war-battered veterans, ‘but not Frank Wisner’. His OSS colleague Michael Burke was equally discontented.
Burke had climbed the Irish American social ladder via a Wasp prep school and a football scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and was working as an insurance investigator on the New York docks. In the serendipitous way of Anglo-American spy recruitment, his moment came at a dinner party in Washington. ‘Didn’t you play half-back at University of Pennsylvania?’ Donovan asked, immediately enlisting him in COI. Commissioned as a navy ensign, Burke was dispatched to Italy to persuade an admiral to scuttle his fleet before the Germans commandeered it. That didn’t work out, but he later spirited the Italian inventor of an advanced torpedo away from the Germans in Tunis.
In June 1944, Burke was in London having Bourbon and pancake breakfasts at the Dorchester with his new best friend, Ernest Hemingway, and lobbying to be sent to France. A few weeks after D-Day, his three-man OSS team reached the hamlet of Confracourt in Haute-Saône just as the Germans were pulling out. The villagers hoisted their supposed liberators onto their shoulders to the inevitable strains of ‘La Marseillaise’. The US 7th Army arrived soon after, and Burke, ignoring orders to return to London, made himself its reconnaissance officer behind German lines. He and a band of French maquisards roamed the country for six weeks, marking German positions and losing several men in close combat. He got to Paris in October, making for the bar at the Ritz, where he was spotted by a ‘stunned’ Hemingway. ‘Christ, kid,’ Hemingway said. ‘They told me you were dead!’ Burke had just turned 28. After OSS was abolished, he was picked up as a technical adviser on Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger and lingered in Hollywood as a screenwriter, socialising with Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner. This sybaritic idyll ended with the expiration of his studio contract, and he returned to New York divorced, unemployed and broke. Then came the call from Wisner.
Wisner had left the law to become deputy assistant secretary of state for occupied areas, a post that put him back in touch with anti-Soviet refugees. After Truman founded the CIA, Wisner thought up a plan to encourage Soviet officials to defect and to use exiles in ‘politico-psychological operations’. George Kennan, the State Department official whose famous ‘long telegram’ of February 1946 kick-started the Cold War, liked the idea and moved Wisner to the CIA’s new Office of Policy Co-ordination to oversee a ‘guerrilla warfare corps’. One of the challenges the OPC faced was the situation in Albania, now under the communist leadership of Enver Hoxha. Wisner sent a representative to meet Burke at the Algonquin Hotel to find out whether he knew anything about the place. Burke didn’t, but said he did – so he was sent to organise opposition to Hoxha’s rule among the many Albanian exiles in Rome. Thus began Operation Fiend, which Anderson calls ‘the largest and most expensive covert action undertaken by the United States in the 1950s’ – large, expensive and disastrous. Burke’s cover as producer for a fictitious American film company afforded him a lavish expense account that made Rome even more agreeable than Hollywood. The Albanian monarchists, tribal chieftains and brigands he hosted there had served the Third Reich during the war, sometimes torturing or murdering their fellow countrymen. They despised one another as much as they did Hoxha, but Burke took to them with the enthusiasm his successors would lavish on the Afghan mujahedin.
The British were running a parallel operation in Malta, where they taught parachutage and small boat handling to Albanian insurgents, whom they called ‘pixies’. The Royal Navy landed them on the Albanian coast, while Burke’s rebels were parachuted deep inside Albania or travelled overland from Greece. But the Hoxha regime had long since penetrated the exile movements and nearly all the arriving insurgents were captured, turned or killed. British and American spymasters pursued a similar strategy in Romania and Ukraine, with similar results. The experience of befriending and sending so many men to their deaths led to Burke’s resignation in 1955. He returned to New York, where – thanks to the good offices of a former OSS colleague whose family was in the business – he landed a job as manager of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. ‘The Circus’, it’s worth recalling, is what John Le Carré called his fictional spy headquarters.
nd then there was Peter Sichel, a German Jew from a family who had lost their wine business to the Nazis. He had escaped to Bordeaux and, after France fell, to the US via Spain. Aged nineteen, he enlisted in the army the day after Pearl Harbor. Two years later, his fluency in German, French and English brought him to the attention of OSS. He managed its accounts in Algiers, making enough money for himself on the black market to buy a well-provisioned wine cellar and a luxury sedan. When American forces disembarked in the South of France in August 1944 and advanced up the Rhone Valley, OSS sent him to Alsace to interrogate and suborn German prisoners of war. Of the thirty Germans he entrusted with reconnaissance missions, only two did not return.
After the war ended, Sichel went to Berlin to police black market activities of the sort he had practised in Algiers, the classic poacher turned gamekeeper. Transferred to the War Department’s Strategic Services Unit, he replaced corrupt personnel with agents he trusted. ‘In Berlin in October 1945,’ Anderson writes, ‘Sichel stood at the very epicentre of history, the roving ground where the future arrangement of the postwar world, of whether the United States and the Soviet Union were to remain allies or become foes, was likely to be revealed.’ In a city divided into American, British, French and Soviet zones, Sichel’s nine SSU agents spied on hundreds of Soviet operatives. He worked with the ‘crown jewels’, anti-Nazi Germans who had survived the executions that followed the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1940. Like most of his SSU colleagues, Sichel was absorbed into the CIA in 1947. But to his distaste the CIA required him to employ Nazis who should have been hanged for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Sichel is the only one of Anderson’s four subjects who is still living, and Anderson asked him about his recruitment of men and women who had participated in the murder of Jews. ‘I never told them I was Jewish, of course, but even so, they all wanted to tell me: “I was one of the good Germans. I hid Jews in my basement and – .”’ ‘Stop. Stop,’ Sichel said to them. ‘I don’t want to hear it. I’m not interested. That is between you and your own conscience. You either were a good guy or a bad guy, but be sure to be a good guy from now on.’
The CIA believed it had struck gold when Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler’s former spy chief for the Soviet Union, offered the Americans his files in exchange for immunity from prosecution for him and his colleagues. It was too good to be true. Gehlen refused to name his agents and Sichel doubted he had any Soviet assets at all. Even so, after taking over as director of the CIA, Allen Dulles concluded that ‘he’s on our side and that’s all that matters. Besides, one needn’t ask him to one’s club.’ The CIA shielded Gehlen and his collaborators from prosecution and gave them refuge in the United States even though Gehlen provided little of value in return.
One of the groups Sichel had to work with was the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists: they were ‘Nazis, pure and simple’, he told Anderson. The CIA persuaded them that their armed bands should lead an uprising in Ukraine – but, Sichel said, ‘we were getting them to risk their lives for a lie.’ With similar false promises, the CIA dispatched Romanian, Polish, Latvian and Estonian exiles back home, where most of them disappeared, and many of their family members were executed. The ‘underground’ movements they belonged to turned out to be Soviet creations designed to smoke out exiled dissidents. The Soviets were running their version of Germany’s wartime Funkspiel, ‘radio game’: the Germans had used captured SOE radios to request three thousand Bren guns and dozens of agents for fake resistance networks in Holland and northern France. The CIA might have avoided SOE’s disastrous errors if it had read London Calling North Pole by the Abwehr’s Major Hermann Giskes, who had run that operation.
In 1956 Sichel moved to Hong Kong, where the agency had its eyes on China and Indonesia. When Richard Bissell, the CIA’s deputy director of plans, proposed sending commandos into China to raise an insurrection against Mao, Sichel told him: ‘Dick, we’d save an awful lot of time and money if we just killed them ourselves.’ He resigned and returned to the family business, resurrecting the label Blue Nun, which became for a time the biggest selling wine in the United States.
he CIA may have failed in Eastern Europe, but it made headway in the Philippines courtesy of the unorthodox methods of Anderson’s fourth subject, Edward Geary Lansdale. Born in Detroit in 1908, Lansdale was working in Los Angeles as an advertising copywriter when he too enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor. Thanks to a thyroid condition he wasn’t sent into combat, so he applied to OSS in the hope of seeing action. OSS disappointed him by posting him to San Francisco, where he carried out extensive research on guerrilla warfare and cultivated Asian Americans.
Lansdale finally went into the field in the spring of 1946. As army deputy chief of staff in the Philippines, he advised the Filipino military as it prepared for independence from the US. Three years of Japanese occupation had produced up to a million casualties and the near destruction of Manila by rampaging Japanese troops as the Americans approached early in 1945. Parliamentary elections were scheduled for 23 April 1946, the prelude to independence on 4 July. The People’s Anti-Japanese Army, popularly known as the Huks, a peasant resistance movement against the Japanese and their Filipino collaborators, had disbanded to participate in the election. The Huks won several seats but were soon expelled from Congress by the new president, Manuel Acuña Roxas. In response they rearmed and attacked government forces. Lansdale led the campaign to defeat them and maintain American tutelage of the islands. Although his only language was English, he charmed Filipinos during expeditions in an open jeep through the most remote regions. They told him of landowners who exploited them, soldiers who stole their food and government officials who demanded bribes.
In Anderson’s telling, Lansdale employed ‘a multilayered carrot-and-stick approach’ to defeating the rebels. He told soldiers to ingratiate themselves with the peasantry by digging wells, rebuilding schools and harvesting crops. Under his guidance the government promised an amnesty, money and land to rebels who surrendered. The sticks were less conventional and often brutal. Lansdale exploited the Filipino fear of the asuang, a vampire that kills by night, to terrify the superstitious Huks. His forces ambushed Huk patrols, capturing one fighter whose neck they punctured ‘with two holes, vampire-fashion’. They ‘held the body up by the heels, drained it of blood and put the corpse back on the trail’. Lansdale’s methods would become a model for counterinsurgency warfare across Asia.
But his efforts to win hearts and minds were hindered by the corruption of the Filipino elite and the blatantly rigged presidential elections of 1949. His solution was to persuade wary citizens that their votes counted. During the Senate elections of November 1951, he ensured that civil society organisations and soldiers kept a close watch on the voting and tricked the Huks into boycotting the polls. As a result the Huk party failed to win a seat and Lansdale’s friend and ally Ramon Magsaysay was installed as president. Lansdale encouraged Magsaysay to earn the loyalty of landless farmers by redistributing thousands of acres from the owners of large haciendas and providing agricultural credits. For Lansdale this was a triumph.
His reward came in 1954, when Allen Dulles sent him to Vietnam to repeat his counterinsurgency methods. France was losing the war to prolong colonial rule and the US was making preparations to assume the white man’s burden. Lansdale’s influence over the government in Saigon and his forays into rural backwaters made him a legendary figure: he is said to be the model for the idealistic if naive spy in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and in William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American. But this time his magic didn’t work. Unlike the Huks, the Vietcong could rely on weapons from China and the USSR, and the Vietnamese didn’t accept the legitimacy of politicians and generals imposed on them by the US. Lethal experiments by CIA experts and the US military failed to sustain South Vietnam’s corrupt and unpopular regimes. Lansdale retired in 1968. By 1975, the death toll in Vietnam had climbed to more than two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.
ike Sichel , Frank Wisner wearied of covert operations that cost lives and achieved nothing. His metamorphosis from prime advocate of armed subversion to one of its biggest internal critics didn’t prevent the agency from moving him up the ladder in 1952 to head the Directorate of Plans. His caution that year extended to the conspiracy to overthrow Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who had sponsored a bill to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Britain, which had taken the lion’s share of Iranian oil revenues since 1908, was further enraged by Mossadegh’s agrarian and economic reforms, and asked the US to help dispose of him.
Wisner didn’t believe Mossadegh was a threat to the US, and argued that an alliance with the dying colonialism of Britain and France would alienate the Middle Eastern peoples that the US was cultivating. British propaganda portrayed him as a Soviet stooge but, as Wisner pointed out, he had often denounced communism and denied the Soviets access to oilfields in northern Iran. Even so, in May 1952, Anderson writes, ‘the CIA station in Tehran began a “black propaganda” operation against Mossadegh, spreading rumours through media backchannels and the bazaari gossip mill that he was in the pocket of the communists and planning to take Iran into the Soviet orbit.’ Operation Ajax, a joint programme run by the CIA and SIS, suborned senior Iranian military officers and paid for anti-Mossadegh street demonstrations. The shah got cold feet and fled to Rome, but the CIA and SIS persisted without him. When the protests escalated, Iranian army units arrested Mossadegh and the shah returned. Operation Ajax was judged a great success. Wisner, it seemed, had been wrong. ‘After that,’ one senior CIA officer recalled, ‘we felt we could do anything.’
And they did. The next democratically elected government they targeted was Guatemala’s, where the new president, Jacobo Árbenz, was redistributing land to farmers and nationalising the fallow acreage of the American United Fruit Company. Anderson doesn’t mention that United Fruit’s shareholders included John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen. The Dulles brothers decided to replicate Operation Ajax in Central America, and the task fell to Wisner, though the CIA documents about Operation Success were so heavily redacted that Anderson hasn’t been able to find out whether he volunteered or had it forced on him. Under Wisner’s direction, American psyops went into overdrive to persuade both Americans and Guatemalans that Árbenz, who had appointed a few communists to his government but had no diplomatic relations with the USSR, was a Soviet agent. The CIA’s full panoply of subversion, including a rebel army trained in Honduras, encouraged Guatemala’s generals to depose Árbenz and impose a military dictatorship resembling the other US-backed regimes in Latin America. Wisner had redeemed himself.
When he flew to Europe in October 1956 for a tour of agency stations Wisner was no longer the jovial raconteur who had delighted Washington dinner parties. It was a critical time in Eastern Europe, whose peoples had taken heart from Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. Protesters in Budapest were demanding free elections and the expulsion of Soviet troops. On 24 October, Wisner’s first day in London, Hungary’s Politburo accepted the demonstrators’ demands and reinstated the popular Imre Nagy as prime minister. Chaos ensued as Red Army troops attacked the Hungarians, and the Hungarians fought back. Wisner’s hope of co-ordinating a policy with SIS was dashed when Patrick Dean, head of the CIA/MI6 Joint Intelligence Committee, failed to appear at a meeting and sent no explanation. Only later did Wisner learn that Dean was in France laying plans to invade Egypt, depose President Nasser and return the Suez Canal to Anglo-French control.
Wisner went on to Paris for a gathering of station chiefs, who discussed options for Hungary. The consensus was that the US should support Nagy, who as a communist could placate the Soviets and as a reformer could win the support of the street. Having already told Dulles that ‘to do less would be to sacrifice the moral basis for US leadership of free peoples,’ Wisner unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Eisenhower administration to back him. The balloon burst when Israeli forces invaded Egypt and made a dash to the Suez Canal. Realising that the simultaneous loss of Hungary and Nasser would expose Soviet weakness, Khrushchev decided to confront Hungary.
Many Hungarians believed that the US would defend them, encouraged by broadcasts by Hungarian exiles on the CIA’s Radio Free Europe calling on them to resist. But the Red Army crushed the revolution with much bloodshed and Nagy was executed. Travelling from one European capital to another, Wisner ranted about Hungary to every station chief he met. William Colby recalled seeing him in Rome: ‘He kept saying, all these people are getting killed and we weren’t doing anything, we were ignoring it.’ He sent endless appeals to Washington demanding a change of policy. To save his career, his deputy, Richard Helms, destroyed the cables before Dulles saw them. ‘Not only had the US held out false hope to those who were willing to risk their lives in a desperate crusade,’ Wisner’s daughter, the historian Elizabeth Hazard, would write, ‘but its policies had subverted the possibility of an early detente with the Soviet Union.’
In March 1957, back in Washington, Wisner offered to direct an operation to overthrow President Sukarno of Indonesia. It ended, Anderson writes, ‘in an embarrassing muddle, with Sukarno emerging unscathed’. The following year Wisner was briefly admitted to a mental hospital with ‘psychotic mania’. The CIA posted him to London, where he had electroshock therapy on eleven occasions. He resigned from the agency in 1962. On the ninth anniversary of the day the Hungarians thought their revolution had succeeded, 29 October 1965, he committed suicide with his son’s shotgun. A brief obituary on page 35 of the next day’s New York Times commented: ‘The State Department’s biographic register for 1964 lists him only as “gov-serv” (government servant), and officials of the agency would not go beyond that today.’
n 1991, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced the End of the Cold War Bill to dismantle the CIA. ‘The time has come to ask, with the Cold War over, can we purge the vestiges of this struggle from our laws, our bureaucracy, and most importantly from our way of thinking? Can we muster the will to redefine ourselves?’ The Senate’s answer was no. In 1995 Moynihan tried again and again he failed. Since then, the CIA has waged secret wars whenever a president has asked for them. Covert action is the compromise between invasion and inaction. It entails raising an insurgent army of indigenous fighters, training them in nearby countries, providing weapons, supplies and communications, overseeing their military campaign and spreading disinformation to justify the operation. It is high risk for the locals, casualty-free for Americans.
In 2011, as Obama was considering what action to take in Syria, some of his advisers urged him to support the rebels. Before making up his mind, Obama commissioned a report on the history of US covert operations. Robert Malley, then Obama’s Middle East adviser and now President Biden’s negotiator with Iran, read the CIA’s classified report. It was, he told me in 2019, a litany of failure. ‘I think there were one or two, out of I don’t know how many tens of cases, where you could, at a limit, say that there was a success by working through opposition proxies.’ The vast majority of the CIA’s secret wars had backfired, from Albania in the late 1940s through Angola in the 1980s to Afghanistan in the 1990s. Despite this, Obama ordered the CIA to arm and instruct militants in Turkey and Jordan under a programme that permits such activities in defence of American national security. The outcome was both predictable and tragic: the insurgents failed to overthrow Assad and Islamic State emerged.
Anderson makes the case that the CIA’s obsession with covert operations, which when successful (as in Iran and Guatemala) garnered both kudos and bigger budgets, coincided with the neglect of intelligence-gathering. The CIA failed to foresee the Soviet atom bomb in 1949, North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950, China’s crossing of the Yalu River later that year, the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, popular support in Cuba for Fidel Castro on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks in 1968, Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran, Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1990. This is not to mention the 9/11 attacks, which had the perverse effect of revitalising the CIA while it was floundering without a credible enemy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Many of those involved in the founding of the CIA rued what they had done. ‘Now, as nearly as I can make out, those fellows in the CIA don’t report on wars and the like,’ Truman said, ‘they go out and make their own, and there’s nobody to keep track of what they’re up to. They spend billions of dollars on stirring up trouble so they’ll have something to report on.’ Scores of former agents have exposed CIA crimes and defeats in books, films and articles. In the wake of American humiliation in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, Senate and House investigations documented CIA malfeasance at home and overseas that involved both violations of federal law and the agency’s own charter. Yet no matter how outlandish its schemes and plots, the CIA goes on and on and on, just like Fleming’s 007 franchise.
Charles Glass is writing a history of the Craiglockhart War Hospital.
Vol. 43 No. 18 · 23 September 2021
As Charles Glass mentions, Edward Lansdale is often said to be the model for Alden Pyle, the ‘idealistic if naive’ American spy in The Quiet American (LRB, 12 August). So when I was carrying out research on the CIA in Vietnam for a film in the BBC’s documentary series The Agency in 1990, I decided to write to Graham Greene. To my surprise I received a reply; half a dozen lines, almost brusque. No, he said, he had never met Lansdale. I felt a bit chastened. Suggesting he had based a character on a real person might have implied his imagination wasn’t up to it. In fact, Greene’s vision of the US in Vietnam in that book charted with uncanny accuracy the moral and political course of the war, years before US troops arrived. Next to that, whom he might have had in mind when inventing Pyle doesn’t seem to matter.