November 21, 2021
Since its creation in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency has proven an elusive symbol of the nation’s identity: by turns monstrous, foolhardy, and heroic. A recent sentencing hearing reminded Americans that its post-9/11 missteps still painfully reverberate. Majid Khan, a Guantanamo Bay detainee who has pleaded guilty to terrorism charges, described his treatment under the CIA in stomach-turning detail, prompting all but one of his military jurors to sign a letter urging clemency. What happened to Khan, they wrote, was “a stain on the moral fiber of America.”
At such moments it can be hard to recall that the agency sprang from a blend of hard-headed pragmatism and high-minded idealism. In “The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War — A Tragedy in Three Acts,” Scott Anderson burrows into the heart of this ambiguity, tracing the CIA’s origins through a quartet of key players.
Although many early hires were driven by a fervent belief in their country’s power to do good, moral compromises began almost immediately. As World War II ended, Peter Sichel, then just 23, took over US clandestine operations in Berlin. He told Anderson he never knowingly helped any Nazi war criminals, yet several wound up in the agency’s employ, among them Otto von Bolschwing, who had been instrumental in furthering the Final Solution.
The son of a wealthy Jewish family, Sichel had managed (barely) to escape Germany as a youth. He enlisted in the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, and rose to become one of the nation’s most highly regarded Cold War spymasters. Ultimately disillusioned, he resigned in 1959, during a posting to Hong Kong. Sichel went on to make Blue Nun one of the best-selling wines in the United States.
Especially moving is Anderson’s portrait of Frank Wisner, whose espionage career, like Sichel’s, began with the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s forerunner agency. In 1948, Wisner was chosen to lead the Office of Policy Coordination, a secretive covert-action unit housed within the CIA. Stationed in Romania during the war, he had watched as the Soviets rounded up thousands of ethnic Germans and shipped them to their deaths. He evidently never got over it, forcefully arguing that Soviet empire building should become the main focus of US intelligence.
Wisner believed in engaging the enemy in multiple ways, calling on actors as diverse as blues musicians and Ukrainian guerrillas to promote American values. Daring efforts to stir organized resistance within Soviet territories failed dismally, however. Wisner viewed the US refusal to support the Hungarian uprising of 1956 as a shocking betrayal, and afterward grew increasingly unstable.
(For a superb account of the ideas that shaped the CIA, and Wisner’s role, readers should not miss Louis Menand’s “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.”)
Following multiple intelligence failures in Eastern Europe, the United States shifted its focus to other continents. In “White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa,” Susan Williams attempts to show how American intrusions in the 1950s and ‘60s undermined African independence movements rather than supporting them. Her thesis threatens to disappear amid a forest of historical detail, but readers interested, especially, in Ghana and Congo will find her book absorbing.
Others might be intrigued by investigative reporter Tom O’Neill’s excavations closer to home. In “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” he speculates that Manson might have had dealings with agency operatives. Around the time of the cult slayings, US intelligence services were looking into mind-control techniques and the effects of drugs such as LSD, which Manson’s followers were required to ingest.
Despite having unearthed tantalizing leads, however, O’Neill lacks definitive proof of a connection. “Chaos” might easily be subtitled “Just Saying.”
Not saying, if he knows more, is Douglas London. A career CIA officer who held several high-level posts, London describes life as an agency insider in “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” Submitted to the CIA for prepublication review, his story naturally suffers from a degree of vagueness. (I wish his redactors had taken a blue pencil to some of London’s sentences while they were at it.)
Nevertheless, “Recruiter” offers plenty of anecdotes that drive home the extraordinary dangers of intelligence work. Like Anderson’s early idealists, London believes spying is vital to US security. But he decries the politics that he says now dominate the agency, and which he blames for bruising failures after the 9/11 attacks, among them the use of “black sites” and torture.
At some point, London writes, most case officers reach a crisis of conscience. His own involved bowing to a higher-up’s insistence on sending an agent into what London saw as unacceptable peril. Yet even amid self-defeating policy dictates and careerist backbiting, many of these officers stay on — in London’s case, clearly, because spying was an inordinate amount of fun.