CIA Breaks its Code of Silence

Noam Scheiber has an engaging piece at TNR today looking at how the organizational culture of the CIA has evolved over recent years to the point where ex-employees are now constantly speaking out against administration policies. He points to the cases of retired analyst Ray McGovern, head of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, who famously got into a shouting match with confronted Don Rumsfeld at a lecture recently and Michael Scheuer, who has made a second career as an author and talking head with Through Our Enemies’ Eyes and, especially, Imperial Hubris.

There was a time when seeing a former CIA man publicly dress down a top administration official would have caused jaws to drop. In an earlier era, the spook-turned-gadfly would have been declared persona non grata by his erstwhile colleagues and expelled from the brotherhood of spies. But, in a stark break with tradition, today’s CIA officials are seamlessly moving on to second careers as authors of polemics, crusading pundits–even bona fide activists.

[…]

As Evan Thomas writes in The Very Best Men, his account of the CIA’s early postwar years, spymasters like Frank Wisner focused their recruiting efforts on Ivy League colleges to find men pre-equipped with an “old-school” ethos. And, of course, the virtue the old CIA hands prized above all else was discretion. True to their Skull and Bones pedigree, most CIA men were loath to acknowledge they even worked for the Agency, much less disclose what they did there. Perhaps the most vivid personification of this code was Richard Helms, a longtime Wisner deputy who became CIA director in the mid-’60s. While testifying before a Senate panel a decade later, Helms refused to come clean about the CIA’s role in undermining the Chilean government–and was eventually prosecuted for withholding information from Congress. But, following his sentencing, Helms returned to the CIA fold a hero. A roomful of retired operatives greeted him with a standing ovation–and even passed around a basket to pay his $2,000 fine.

The flip side of this mentality was swift punishment for anyone who aired the Agency’s dirty laundry. In 1978, a former Angola station chief named John Stockwell published a book flaying the CIA for its brutal tactics against the country’s rebel groups. Stockwell tried to distinguish between the hardworking rank and file, whom he respected, and the Agency as a whole, which he deemed out of control. But former colleagues ostracized him nonetheless. “He was perceived as an acidic critic,” recalls former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro. “People thought it was in poor form.”

[…]

The end of the cold war eroded the CIA’s code of silence in two important ways. First, it dampened some of the urgency CIA hands felt in their workaday lives. During the cold war, “the danger to agents and people operating overseas was clear,” says Dick Kerr, the CIA’s deputy director in the early ’90s. “Today’s world is more cloudy, ambiguous.” Second, the aftermath of the cold war brought political considerations closer to the CIA’s doorstep. The embarrassment of the Aldrich Ames espionage scandal, congressional scrutiny of the Agency’s shady friends, and a general impatience with government secrecy all nudged the CIA toward greater transparency.

[…]

[W]hile the early, Ivy-dominated CIA really was a bastion of liberalism (albeit one tempered by devout anti-communism), the demographics of the Agency shifted dramatically between the late ’60s and the late ’70s. The churning over Vietnam made cold war liberals a dying breed; in their place came a generation of New Left types skeptical of the CIA’s shadowy m.o. “For my generation, the last thing in the world you would do … is join the CIA,” says Bob Baer, who arrived at the Agency from Berkeley in 1976. “The view was that it was out assassinating people. … I wouldn’t dare tell some of my liberal friends.”

Increasingly, the CIA has been populated by a kind of nonideological moderate–a figure too square to be caught up in any countercultural zeitgeist, and not so ambitious as to frown on a government payscale. “I was raised by a Marine, educated by Jesuits all my life,” says Scheuer. Probably the easiest way to summarize the reigning worldview within the CIA these days is pragmatic, heavily empirical, and tending toward foreign policy realism.

Theoretically, of course, professional bureaucracies are not supposed to have agendas; in reality, though, they all do. A strong preference for pragmatism and foreign policy realism, while quite mainstream for highly educated foreign affairs experts, is hardly a non-ideology.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    James, then by your definition, there is no such thing as non-ideology since we all have some kind of core beliefs.

  2. James Joyner says:

    DCL: To some extent, that’s true. But I’m talking about a pervasive organizational culture rather than individual beliefs. Ideally, professional analysts would have a variety of political perspectives and avoid groupthink.

  3. RA says:

    These are people who believe they should be running the CIA, not elected officials who are held to be responsible to the voting public. The left likes the fiction of a democracy but practices totalitarianism eveery chance they get.

  4. DC Loser says:

    James, all bureaucracies tend to have some element of groupthink, especially one which is very hierarchical. I think there are enough intellectually honest people in all agencies who can view any issue dispassionately without ideological bias, based solely on the information at hand, or lack thereof. Isn’t that what realism is about?

  5. legion says:

    The story here is not that more ex-spooks are speaking out. The story is that this administration has so demoralized the intel community that the people who are speaking out aren’t being turned into personas non grata by everyone else.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Legion: Not so. Basically, they were ecstatic with Bush 41, demoralized under Clinton, ecstatic with another Bush until post 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq War. (That’s a synopsis of the piece, not just my own view.) Basically, they’re acting like professionals when the administration’s policy preferences align with theirs and when not, not. That’s not a good thing.

  7. A strong preference for pragmatism and foreign policy realism, while quite mainstream for highly educated foreign affairs experts, is hardly a non-ideology.

    pragmatism: A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems.

    realism: An inclination toward literal truth and pragmatism.

    Sounds like the antithesis of ideology (a set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system) to me. But then, seeing things the way they really are and dealing with problems practically with a consideration of the ramifications of any action is so out-of-the-mainstream today, what with everyone filtering everything through their own personal bias and belief system, that I can understand how shocking and even frightening the practice might seem to those on both sides of the political divide. Better to label it an ideology (or “hardly a non-ideology,” which is the same thing) so it’s more easily dismissed.

  8. Sed says:

    VIPS and MoveOn.org are political groups founded by CIA operatons officers with a domestic agenda. We trained these people to perform coups, etc. They are using their training on us and most Americans are too stupid to see this. The retired and retiring operations officers are the worst investment we have ever made. Congress tried to disband CIA and, now, with some deals at DIA, the analysts are going to NSA.

    CIA is a complete loss. The retirees know this and are trying to avoid ending the agency.

    Yes, we all studied groupthink that started at the CIa and, no, I don’t think it is okay CIA accessed everbody’s phone records through NSA/DIA.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Charlie: Those words are terms of art in politics, especially the foreign policy community. For more, see Pragmatism and Realism

  10. legion says:

    James,
    But that still doesn’t explain the lack of isolation current critics are getting vs. the ostracism of the earlier generations Scheiber describes. While there have always been some dissatisfied folk who leave the fold, the ones who are critical now don’t seem to be out of sync with the poeple still working.

    And on a side note, I’ve seen a number of people deride the CIA for being ‘too liberal’ due largely to their lack of 100% support for action against Iraq (I’m sorry James, I can’t remember your own position on this). But the timeline you present – Bush Sr good! Clinton bad! Bush Jr good (until Iraq)! – doesn’t match up with a CIA ‘swinging left’.

  11. Bhoe says:

    who famously got into a shouting match with Don Rumsfled

    I am not sure how you can characterize McGovern’s questioning of Rumsfeld as a “shouting match.” He asked very reasonable questions without raising his voice during the scheduled Q&A. Rummy didn’t “shout” either. Rummy’s henchmen, however, did surround McGovern and were about to kick him out of the lecture hall before Rummy called them off.

  12. James Joyner says:

    legion: From Scheiber, as quoted above:

    The end of the cold war eroded the CIA�s code of silence in two important ways. First, it dampened some of the urgency CIA hands felt in their workaday lives. During the cold war, �the danger to agents and people operating overseas was clear,� says Dick Kerr, the CIA�s deputy director in the early �90s. �Today�s world is more cloudy, ambiguous.� Second, the aftermath of the cold war brought political considerations closer to the CIA�s doorstep. The embarrassment of the Aldrich Ames espionage scandal, congressional scrutiny of the Agency�s shady friends, and a general impatience with government secrecy all nudged the CIA toward greater transparency.

    [�]

    [W]hile the early, Ivy-dominated CIA really was a bastion of liberalism (albeit one tempered by devout anti-communism), the demographics of the Agency shifted dramatically between the late �60s and the late �70s. The churning over Vietnam made cold war liberals a dying breed; in their place came a generation of New Left types skeptical of the CIA�s shadowy m.o.

    Basically, just a radical shift in org culture aided by a sense that the old cloak and dagger routine didn’t matter as much anymore.

    Bhoe: Fair enough on the “shouting match” description. “Heated discussion” perhaps? And it’s the natural response of security agents to get people perceived as threats to the boss out of range; that Rummy stopped them indicates that they weren’t his “henchmen” and that nothing sinister was involved.

  13. LaurenceB says:

    James, as Bhoe stated, there was no “shouting match”. IMHO, you should probably correct this.

  14. LaurenceB says:

    Thanks James!

    I’m more of a lurker than a commenter, and I lean more left (lately) than I do right, but I generally enjoy your blog. Good stuff.

  15. Bhoe says:

    And it�s the natural response of security agents to get people perceived as threats

    I don’t know if you have actually seen/heard the exchange. You can find it here: http://www.crooksandliars.com/2006/05/04.html#a8164

    But if we have reached a point in this country when a citizen is “perceived as a security threat” simply for respectfully and rationally trying to get an honest answer from a shamelessly prevaricating public servant, then we are in a pretty sad state as a country. This is especially the case when the “preceived security threat” is a harmless old man like McGovern.

  16. Herb says:

    It seems that there are those who do not have any sense of ethics or decency in their bodies. These CIA bureaucrats remind me of a bunch of spoiled brats who can’t have their way, so they take their marbles and go home.

    I have never met or known a bureaucrat who did not think they were the foundation of government and knew more that of the common folks who paid the bills for their misdeeds and screw-ups.

    For all practical and fiscal purposes, Bureaucrats are no more than “Wards of the State”.

  17. lily says:

    Fact-based, pragmatic and realistic sounds good to me. I can see why people like that would not get along with the Bush admin. but my take is that the fact-impaired, idealistic, reality-avoidant administration is at fault and needs to change.