While not denying that a little of this might be true — this ideal view is certainly the perception they want you to have — I want to make the case, firstly, that the nearly wholesale unsuccessfulness of the CIA has been consistent since its birth, secondly, that its many failures have been outstanding whoppers, thirdly, the agency has disregarded the human and legal rights of many hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – in the process during its history, and fourthly, that the CIA has helped overthrow numerous democratically elected governments whose only crime was to sway left in the Cold War era, and sometimes not even that far to the left.
In some real sense, the CIA was given birth as a response to the surprise attack America received at Pearl Harbor from the Japanese Imperial Navy on December 7th 1941. It was created in the hopes that the US government would never again get caught without at least some intelligence on its enemies’ intentions. The standard we want to use judging the CIA after the thousands of billions of dollars spent in the more than 75 years since that fateful event, therefore, is that its main purpose is to guard America against military surprise like the Pearl Harbor attack.
For instance, in the beginning of the North Koran war, President Truman was informed through the CIA that Chinese troops on its border were volunteers with numbers below 100,000 and that the likelihood that Mao’s government would directly intercept was low. Days later, 300,000 Chinese troops nearly pushed MacArthur and the Eighth Army and its allies into the sea. To cite Tim Weiner from Legacy of Ashes, “The agency failed on all fronts in Korea. It failed in providing warning, in providing analysis, and in its headlong deployment of recruited agents. Thousands of deaths of Americans and their Asian allies were the consequence.”
Spying on the Soviet Union
One of the most colossal intelligent deficits was the campaign, lasting over four decades, of gathering intelligence on the Russian Communists. The amount of money and human sacrifice to collect almost no information on the Kremlin or the Soviet Union’s satellite governments was embarrassing by any standard. For the communists in a closed system to manipulate and bribe their way into information on the open society was sometimes as easy as reading trade magazines. On their side of the Iron Curtain, human life was cheap and Western technology essential. They got busy and stole it, much as China does today. For the West, there was no competing with them. To get any respectable information the CIA had to behave like fascists, and still, after all their sins against freedom, they failed to find out the intention of the politburo or the real economic conditions inside the Soviet Union. The political system of the West, especially the American Government, and in particularly, their intelligence community, is credited with bringing an end to the Soviet system and the Cold War. I want to call this, the Ronald Reagan argument. I think it’s specious. It uses intellectual arbitrage, a sort of political smoke and mirrors, where the end result, “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall!” is a romantic myth sold to the public as an end in itself whereas the real story is what I call the Bertrand Russell Thesis. It is what I think actually happened over time. An evil Platonic philosophy, Marxism, was defeated in fits and starts with works like The Exploitation Theory, Boehm-Bawerk; Planned Chaos, Mises, The Counter Revolution of Science, Hayek; Atlas Shrugged, Rand; The Red Prussian, Schwartzchild; The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn; Land Without Justice, Djilas; The Open Society, Popper and many other works which revealed the egregious faults with Marxism, communism and totalitarian economies. What happened in Russia was an economic and intellectual collapse which with a small political shove, fell over. It had nothing to do, or at least, little to do, with the CIA. Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin were never the moral and intellectual leaders of Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Djilas and other dissidents held that job from inside the gulag system, labor camps or state prisons.
Spying on Mao
Just as the CIA had few agents who spoke Farsi, Arabic, Urdu or any of the multiple languages and dialects of the Middle East before 9/11, so they had fewer agents who spoke the languages of China during Mao Zedong’s rule. But rather than make up for this deficit to infiltrate Communist China and train and enroll Chinese Americans, they used covert paramilitary operations by recruiting hapless Chinese agents by the hundreds from Nationalist groups overseas, training and dropping them into Mainland China from Taiwan or other outlying areas where they were apprehended by the communists and killed or used as double agents. The CIA apologists in response to Legacy of Ashes, say nobody put a gun to their heads, see Review. How shameless. Nothing was gained either from their ultimate sacrifice or the amount of money spent. The agency behaved as a racist regime, yellow didn’t equal white, non-American didn’t equal the status given an American citizen. Mao’s closed system, more so than even that of the Soviet one, was immune to the spying techniques of a free society. The Bolsheviks killed tens of millions to create their Platonic paradise, Mao murdered hundreds of millions. The callous slaughter of Chinese agents by the CIA; however, only convinced the Chinese Communists that the West practiced a sort of fascist racist democracy, as the Marxists had always claimed. The CIA helped them believe their own propaganda. The moral toll was unacceptable for what they attained in information on the ruthless dictatorship of the Peoples' Republic of China. Amazingly, it was almost no intelligence at all.
Spying on Ho Chin Min
The worst nightmare in intelligence occurred in the decade of the war in Vietnam. The CIA failures were colossal, and it wasn’t just that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were lying to the people, it was that the CIA misrepresentations floated up, and like a cancer, spread to even the press and legislature, so that a whole generation mistrusted everything the government said; its consequence still lives today. For ten years the Agency completely failed to penetrate the North Vietnamese government and its frustration lead it to further exacerbate the war by dragging in Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia with its distorted logic that Asia was a domino game and if Vietnam fell they would all fall. Much as a result of the CIA’s behavior, this would indeed happen. Eventually it would lead to the Killing Fields, a genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge communists. CIA interference in Cambodia destabilized the country to where the xenophobic Pot Pol was able to gain power. The cost in human lives, has been estimated at two million, (a quarter of their population). Once again, few at the agency spoke Vietnamese, Burmese, Lao, Thai, or Khmer. The core to understanding the CIA’s failure of intelligence here as elsewhere is always the same: good old white boys who think they know more than they know. In the Vietnam War era there was a total lack of knowledge of Vietnamese language, culture, society and history, let alone what the North Vietnamese were up to. After the war, for the CIA, it was business as usual in some other place. They have never once learned from their horrible mistakes.
Spying on Iran
In January 1977, the agency delivered a report that under Shah Mohammad Reza, the Pahlavi dynasty’s chances for political survival in Iran were good: “Iran is likely to remain stable under the Shah’s leadership over the next several years. The prospects are good that Iran will have relatively clear sailing until at least the mid-1980s.” (The Twilight War, D Crist). In December 1977, President Carter was able to call Iran an island of stability in the Middle East. The Regime fell January 16, 1979, but the demonstrations leading up to it started in October, 1977, eight months after the above assessment. The Iran revolution and the hostage crisis were the awful result of that sheer negligence for which the CIA was by then becoming famous; that would be like looking at Iran today and calling it a secure regime. Even the mullahs realize they are sitting on a boiling cauldron; the CIA may have overthrown the democratically elected Mosaddegh government in 1953, but in Iranian’s 2005 election, the current supreme leader, Ali Khemenei had to disqualify over two hundred liberal candidates to reinstall a conservative regime. The intelligence community should be spreading the word of Ibn Warraq, the author of The Origins of the Koran and Why I am Not a Muslim and other important works like Infidel, Radical, Heretic, Prey, Crisis of Islam, The Girl Who Escaped ISIS or Marked for Death. They should be intellectually challenging this atrocious political misogynous ideology which cloaks itself inside religion. But no, instead they pretend Islam is not political phenomena at all but a spiritual one with a few free radicals. Christopher Hitchens did all their work for them. Let's be clear: as surely as Marxism is a religion hiding as a political philosophy, Islam is a political philosophy hiding as a religion or as Maajid Nawaz has coined it: "That’s crucial [the politics] to understanding what Islamism is all about: it isn’t a religious movement with political consequences, it is a political movement with religious consequences."
Spying on the Middle East
One of the worst disasters in American history was the murder of 240 American servicemen of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Beirut Barracks Bombing, October 23, 1983 during the Lebanese Civil War under Reagan’s watch. (Another 54 non Americans were killed as well, most of them French servicemen). This was because the agency did not know of Imad Mughniyah, a Hezbollah — the Party of God — leader who was the bin Laden of the 1980s. He was garnering cash, guns, and explosives all over Beirut, training his terrorists for a series of bombings and taking orders directly from the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; all of which the CIA knew nothing about. Worst still, the CIA agents on the ground were overly influenced by the Christian Maronites and the US intelligence may have helped sway the Multinational Force in Lebanon to intercede in the civil war on their side thus causing the violent retaliation. (Not a single reprisal was ever made for this attack against Iran who had ordered it or Hezbollah who had carried it out).
There is a rumor that one time the CIA got things right in the Middle East. They were able to call attention to the American President that the Six Day War was about to start. The kicker? The Israelis Mossad had told them about it, but all the other wars — The Suez Crisis, The Iran-Iraq War, The Palestinian Uprisings, the Arab Spring, all of it — a complete unmitigated surprise to the agency. But it wasn’t all harmless delight either, as the death toll in the Beirut Bombing shows. I mean to say, they’re not just wrong, “too bad, so sad” but many other people died and were injured for their incompetence and outright belligerent attitude.
One of the biggest calamities in the chronicle of American intelligence was the Tug Agent Debacle where tens of dozens of Iranian American spies working inside the regime for the CIA were arrested and many of them killed when the agency inadvertently revealed them to the Iranian regime by unbelievable procedural sloppiness. Not a single reprimand was issued over this, and as always, no one was held accountable; in fact, many involved with that horrible affair were promoted. CIA intelligence today inside Iran is negligible. In the 1980s, Israel was predicting they would have nuclear weapons by 1999, here it is two decades later and no one still knows. Like the Indian revelation of nuclear capabilities, and the Pakistani one after it, (and the recent North Korean one), when it comes, if it does, it will be a complete surprise, as almost all things are to the CIA.
The Iran Contra Controversy
The case of fighting the Marxist-lead Sandinista government to force them to hold democratic elections after the 1979 Sandinista revolution was a strategy that the Reagan administration supported through Contra Aid. When this aid was cut off by congress, the CIA working with the NSC, (United States National Security Council) and with the blessing of the President, arranged funding and military supplies by illegal means. Lt. Col. Oliver North was in charge of the operation and it culminated in the Iran-Contra Affair of 1986–1987. The agency help North raise Contra funding by selling arms to Iran in exchange for hostages. The American hostages, though held in Lebanon, were controlled by Iran. As Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer puts it in See No Evil, “I’ve often thought about how the Reagan people got sucked into Iran-contra. It’s clear now that the Iranians were playing the White House for suckers. As soon as Iran received its first planeload of arms in exchange for a hostage, it went into the hostage business full-time, kidnapping dozens more. But it was more than that. When the White House employed Ghorbanifar, a known swindler, to handle one of the most sensitive diplomatic channels in American history, it ensured the channel would fail. It was sort of like using the local paperboy to do your investing in the stock market. No, it was a lot worse. I think there were two things at play. First of all, after the 1983 bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut, the option of a military rescue operation was off the table. There was no way the Pentagon was going to commit troops short of a full-scale invasion. It wouldn't even agree to send a Delta Force team, the army's elite counterterrorism unit, unless a Delta member had ‘eyes on’ the hostages at least 24 hours in advance — a condition that could never be met.”
There was another side to this scandal. The CIA turned a blind eye to a Contra drug trafficking scheme. The Contra’s were the first to introduce crack-cocaine to Los Angelus. Truth was they’d introduced it first to Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica to raise money for their counter insurgency much like Al-Qaeda does today. Oliver North had been in touch with Manuel Noriega of Panama and the Contras were funded by drug trafficking. Those are the facts but the CIA has always denied any involvement. There is little doubt in my mind however that they understood well enough that cocaine funds were an ideal answer to the cash strapped Contras. I believe the Contras got the nod or else would have demurred.
The Fiasco in Afghanistan
One of the biggest intelligence failures of the CIA was in Afghanistan. It is estimated that the Mujahideen received up to $20 billion in aide from the Reagan Administration mostly as cash and weapons, including over 2000 FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles. The Mujahideen also received immense amounts of aid from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. All US support to Afghanistan stopped after the Soviets pulled out in 1989. During this whole decade, the CIA supported the bin Laden, Taliban and Islamic extremists to defeat the Soviets. Blinded by their anticommunism, they helped create the next global terror threat when they had a clear alternative in the Northern Alliance led by the heroic Ahmad Shah Massoud. His success against the Soviets was legendary and he had the support of the Sunni moderates who were the vast majority of the population of Afghanistan. I mean, I realized that he was a ham and probably wanted to be Feudal Overlord and even King, but still, compared to the Taliban . . .
“The perpetrators of 9/11 were harbored by a fiercely anti-Shia, anti-Iranian Afghan tribal alliance, the Taliban. Iran supported the main opposition group, the Northern Alliance, with close ties to the legendary Afghan resistance fighter who opposed both the Soviets and the Taliban, Ahmad Massoud.” (The Twilight War, D Crist). Osama bin Laden had Massoud assassinated. In Ghost Wars, S Coll describes the events leading up to this and to 9/11 in great detail. The Massoud/bin Laden story is important. Afghanistan, and even the world, would be a different place if Massoud had triumphed over bin Laden.
In the period after the 1998 United States embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya where 223 people were killed but before the bombing of the USS Cole in October, 2000 when 17 US servicemen were killed the CIA approached Ahmad Massoud to deal with bin Laden and to help CIA officers put boots on the ground inside Afghanistan. “The goal was to link up with the Afghan warrior Ahmed Shah Massoud at the redoubt he had held for nearly twenty years, since the early days of the Soviet occupation, deep in a mountain valley northeast of Kabul,” Weiner says in Legacy of Ashes, “Massoud, a noble and courageous fighter who wanted to be the king of Afghanistan, proposed a grand alliance to his old contacts from the agency. He offered to attack bin Laden's strongholds – and, with the help of the CIA and American arms, to overthrow the Taliban, the rabble of peasants, mullahs, and jihad veterans that ruled in Kabul. He could help the agency establish a base that would let it get bin Laden on its own. Cofer Black was all for it. His deputies were ready to go. But the chances of failure were too high for Tenet. Once again, he said no – getting in and out was too risky. Reporters and foreign aid workers took those risks all the time in Afghanistan. The CIA at headquarters would not. Massoud laughed when he heard that. ‘You Americans are crazy,’ he said. ‘You guys never change.’ ”
In 2005 came the CIA's Iraq War debacle; where the vaulted stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, the so-called WMDs, didn't exist despite the assessment of their intelligence analysis.
Then came the Arab Spring: "Like a desert sandstorm, the popular revolts spreading across the states of North Africa were in the process of burying decades of authoritarian rule. But they had also caught the CIA flat-footed, and White House officials were aware that for all of the billions of dollars that the United States spends each year to collect intelligence and forecast the world’s cataclysmic events, American spy agencies were several steps behind the popular uprisings. 'The CIA missed Tunisia. They missed Egypt. They missed Libya. They missed them individually, and they missed them collectively,' said one senior member of the Obama administration. In the frantic weeks after the Arab revolts began, hundreds of intelligence analysts at the CIA and other American spy agencies were reassigned to divine meaning from the turmoil."
The Absolute Failure of the CIA
Fifty-five years ago in 1953, the CIA overthrew its first democratically-elected government: the Mossadaq presidency had nationalized the oil industry in Iran. The Guatemalan democratically-elected leader Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was removed with USA backing in 1954; the democratically-elected Chilean President, Salvador Allende was killed in a CIA coup d’etat in 1973; the democratically-elected civilian government of Ali Bhutto of Pakistan was overthrown in 1977; the CIA ousted democratically-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti in 1991, but there was also US sponsored coups in Venezuela in 1958, Brazil in 1964, and Bolivia in 1970, see also Operation Condor. But it doesn’t end here, they interfered in Brazil, Malaysia, the Congo, Lebanon, and so many others. The list is too long to name here, in fact, it includes almost the whole world. They allied with anticommunists no matter how anti-democratic they were, until the CIA itself became the world’s most anti-democratic force only next to Marxism and Islam.
If you watch America’s Third World War with former CIA officer John Stockwell or read his work, In Search of Enemies, he explains succinctly how six million people were killed in CIA secret wars against third world countries during its existence in thousands of covert actions in every corner of this planet. In the Web of Deceit, Barry Lando, a former 60 Minutes producer, exposes decades of American carelessness in Iraq. The CIA created Saddam Hussein like they did Osama bin Laden. “Many of the things that were done were in violation of the acts of Congress and U.S. arms export laws. They [the CIA] were aware of the law, and they skirted it. It was an effort to arm Iraq, and then, when things got out of hand, they didn’t want that information to come out.” They fashioned the Somoza family in Nicaragua and supported the death squads in Central America. In the case of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, everyone understands they fudged the facts; what people don’t realize is that they’ve been doing so since the beginning of their existence. When it comes to solid intelligence they have utterly failed and when it comes to covert actions they were murderous and beyond illegal: they were morally bankrupt.
What we sometimes see in the democracies is a failure to ever end a government sector that fails. I have coined this growing tendency, Bureausclerosis. It’s the propensity of bureaucracy to standardize over time. The state experiences a hardening of rules and the inability to change. It becomes impassive to people’s needs and generally melds with those enterprises they are suppose to monitor. Bureausclerosis produces high taxes, uncompetitive labor costs, an anti-capitalist mentality among the populace, disregard for individual freedom, a burdensome, even bellicose public labor force and bureaucratic clog where everything in government takes and costs too much to effect any worthwhile results. It causes stagnation, dissolution and eventually death of the open societies. The CIA is the perfect such candidate for elimination. While it is true, a government needs to attain intelligence and have fact-gatherers on the ground, the state department of any democratic country could gather those particulars with hard diligent drudge work not covert action.
For instance, let’s say the US government had sat down with Japan in 1940 after the American oil embargo – I mean using back channels – and had come to realize in their negotiations that the Japanese considered it an act of war and were going to do something about it. That might have changed everything in WWII. After reading David Crist’s The Twilight War, what you come to realize is that Iran and America have been at war for three and half decades. The CIA overthrew the democratically elected government in 1953. This lead to the Shah. The CIA trained the SAVAK, his vicious secret service. This in turn morphed into the 1979 Islamic Revolution. After that, the fight was on. If Iran could kill 241 American servicemen in Beirut, mine the harbors of Kuwait, fund Hezbollah, it did, and much more. As far as it’s concerned, it is at war with the Great Satan. How do you think they got that impression? It isn’t to excuse any of their acts of terrorism, indeed, under the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran became one of the biggest human rights abusers in the world, but during the CIA’s existence, the agency has also competed for that ignominious title.
We started this article with a standard of success or failure for the agency. The CIA’s main purpose is to guard America against military surprise like the Pearl Harbor attack. Has it ever done that even once in its seven decades of existence? The answer is resounding. No! Not even close. The CIA’s elimination would be like the fall of the wall, exhilarating, a shot of adrenaline to democracy and human rights all over the globe, to quote Christopher Hitchens “The CIA got everything wrong before 9/11, and thereafter. It was conditioned by its own culture to see no evil.” "Rove Rage,” Slate, 7/18/05.
And, mid August 2021, the Taliban stroll into Kabul; and presto: there’s Deja-vu April 30, 1970 Saigon. The CIA has become an absolute joke. Two weeks before the fall, Biden, (sounding like Bush junior on the same subject 20 years ago) lies to the world like Colin Powell did about WMDs in Iraq. He tells us such an event as the fall of Kabul to the extremists is “unlikely” -- two weeks before it happened; wow! I wonder where he got that impression. And the two decades in between the Bushes and the Bidens: over 2500 American soldiers—gone—along with many US contractors, Allied and Afghan soldiers, civilians and Taliban warriors. What the hell for? And now Massoud's son, Ahmad Massoud arises from the ruble as the only remaining opposition to the Taliban. Will America and the West, after creating this whole terrible debacle in Afghanistan, at least give him the means to have a fighting chance to resist these seventh century militants? I won't suffer you with a guess.
For more amazing ways the CIA, NFS and the others spy agencies in American have embarrassed themselves over the years, see, Talking to Strangers the Russian and Cuban spy sections. The thesis here is that by our ingrained and evolved nature we are defaulted to believing that when listening to strangers they are being truthful. It is yet another reason why free democratic nations do so poor at spying, and always, almost always, lose to the autocratic systems of state at this exercise.
From anthrologist A Ahmed, On marginalizing the peripheral peoples in many Muslem countries for the sake of centralization while using the blunt tool of America"s War on Terror for political cover, (2013): The Thistle and the Drone.
© 2021 - E. A. St. Amant