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.