Friday, July 6, 2007

Family Jewels and Harlot’s Ghost

States are dark, ominous creations. ‘A state,’ says Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ‘is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”’ Thus, from this glacial physiognomy come crimes and abuses.

Nietzsche does, however, ignore the human operatives behind the state. The state is, after all, an enlarged version of the human self. The intelligence service is one of these manifestations. We have intelligence services to police us against our indiscretions, our disloyal tendencies. They also, so we are told, protect us against nefarious outsiders. These protectors may be flesh and blood zealots, or introspective moralists, deskwork operatives of raw ‘intelligence’ or ‘espionage’ agents in the field. They fall in love, they believe, they deceive, they betray. Some see all of this as, in the words of the Central Intelligence Agency motto, ‘working for the nation’. Some do so with enthusiasm beyond the call of office, authorising transactions that go beyond their scope. Others take the opposite view: they bat for the other side when the stakes become too high.

The CIA is no different, born in the tumultuous sea of an America newly ascendant after the Second World War. Moral categories are simple: the CIA comes across as brute torturer. Its exploits reveal an archive of victims, the corpses of history strewn over several continents. Its apologists, on the other hand, see a moral imperative: to kill in the name of promoting the faith; to torture in the name of protecting the people. Unsurprisingly, W. F. Buckley, both as messianic conservative and former CIA man, promotes the latter view. He even claims that he wrote novels in order to ‘demonstrate that we are the good guys and they’re the bad guys.’

Buckley’s infantile adoration for the agency he promoted and loved is one side of the grim story; a blanket condemnation of the agency on the other hand, would serve little purpose. The CIA is no more a violator of laws than the policy makers who gave them the green light to do so. They do kill in your name, Mr. President. Or so the story goes. Contain the Soviet Union, and so it did. Overthrow governments, and so it did. Norman Mailer, never a fan of American institutions, found room to see into a heart of an institution half-noble and half-savage. Harlot’s Ghost (1991) uses a huge scale plot to chart the rise and fall of lives with the agency. The CIA, in short, is merely the sum of its human components.

What are we to then make of the recent round of declassification from that fallen agency of men and women? They are named the ‘Family Jewels’, the bitter fruit of James Schlesinger’s efforts in 1973 to identify activities of the agency that contravened the provisions of the National Security Act. Director Schlesinger was fully aware that his murderous, adolescent employees might still be living in 1973. As he wrote in a memorandum on the jewels, ‘through their knowledge of the activity [they] represent a potential threat or embarrassment to the Agency.’ (16 May 1973)

The report reveals ‘transgressions’. Declassify or be damned, suggests its current Director, General Michael V. Hayden. To not do so encourages speculation, such as the European Parliament’s report of 1,245 CIA flights over Europe, many seen as a case of ‘extraordinary rendition’ dealing with terrorist suspects. But that, counters Hayden, was a half-truth: the sin was limited to 100 suspects since the attacks of September 2001.

Espionage becomes a habit, itself a machine work of half-truths. Conspiracies, suspicions, are its by-products. In a field where trust must be won in order to be destroyed, illegality is hardly a far step away. The CIA remains mired in a profession that simultaneously protects and corrupts. Hardly surprising is its inability to distinguish between a project involving the assassination of a communist leader and the use of the underworld to do so. It is perhaps expecting too much of it to document activities that ‘conflict with the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947’ precisely because its modus operandi is extra-legal to begin with.

Results? Assassination, surveillance, abduction. It surveyed newspaper men involved in ‘leaks’ to public sources; it detained a KGB defector in a manner that reminds one of Gitmo-styled luxury – ‘with nothing but a cot in it for this period [between August 13, 1965 and October 27, 1967].’

Most prominently, it sought to assassinate Fidel Castro with the help of America’s underworld. CIA operative Richard Bissell is unabashed in seeking the means to facilitate a ‘gangster-type action.’ Then director of the agency, Allen W. Dulles, ‘was briefed and gave his approval.’ Colourful characters are farmed for the operation. Johnny Roselli in Las Vegas, a ‘syndicate’ member involved with Cuban ‘gambling interests’ is retained.

Others on this list were the Premier of the Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. Both were successful efforts, though the CIA could hardly claim credit for the former, keen as the Belgians were in getting there first. Again, Bissell leaves his marks on such operations like bad cologne.

But such operations are childish – the CIA comes across as ineffectual, incompetent. Methods such as poisoning are recommended – no firearms, suggests Sam Gold (documented as ‘the successor of Al Capone’), one who ‘knew the Cuban crowd’. Gold’s recommendations were unsurprising, given that he was none other than the mafia strongman Momo Salvatore Giancaca.

Bureaucratic stasis seems rife in this agency, though no more than any other organisation narcotised on half-truths: ignorance of various organisational duties reigned under Director Richard Helms. In a memorandum by James A. Wilderotter, Associate Deputy Attorney General (January 3, 1975), Helm’s successor Colby makes observations on certain ‘legal’ matters. Helms was the ‘hub’ of an organisation where ‘compartmentalized units constitution the “spokes”.’ Thus, one “spoke” would not know what the others were doing.

The result was fracture and eventually, implosion. As far as the Castro programme was concerned, members of the agency began to deceive colleagues and other members of government. Only Dulles and a handful knew about the Castro operation. In 1972, the CIA would lend operatives E. Howard Hunt and James McCord to the ignominious task of the Watergate break-in. But again, the CIA was merely the projection of a paranoid administration, a gun for hire that was turned on its owners.

And so, we are left pondering as we wade through these documents whether the current CIA director Hayden is correct to assume that such documents ‘do provide a glimpse of a very different era and a very different agency.’ An era where terrorism promises to strike at any given opportunity would suggest that things are hardly different. Given the Bush Administration’s penchant for being economical, even inventive, with evidence on a state’s threat to global security, Hayden has already been proven wrong.

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