“There is something about a secret which makes people believe…perhaps a relic of magic.” Dr. Hasselbacher from Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana”
Does anybody still remember The Good Shepherd? The flick was supposed to gut the CIA like a mackerel on a pier. Instead, lame lines drag down a plot that reels like a drunkard. It should be forced on the blunderkind at Langley anyway. Twenty minutes into the snoozer and the company’s second blindest spot comes to mind—exit strategy. People who clung miserly to their ticket price were stuck for another 147. In his review, “Secrets without mysteries,” Jim Emerson pegs it: “The story, and the history, are fascinating — or ought to have been.”
There is a lot more about the CIA that we don’t know than we do. Langley thinks even that’s too much for their supposed client, Joe Six-Pack. Hollywood must too; they’ve been keeping the lid on the farce of American “tradecraft” since at least 1958. That’s when screenwriters, at the behest of CIA operative Edward Lansdale, flipped the plot 180 degrees in the film The Quiet American. Its namesake novel was about CIA skullduggery and cutthroat tactics in French Indochina before US “involvement.” The Company improved version turns the book’s villains into the victims. To his credit Lansdale generally opposed the US strong-arming foreign countries — that didn’t include Tinsel Town — however foreign the place might look these days.
Screenplay writers keep recycling asinine plots like hamsters on tread wheels …while they constantly pass on true content more lurid than pulp fiction. The era covered in The Good Shepherd has enough arrogance, treachery, incompetence, conflict-of-interest, slapstick diplomacy, senseless carnage, institutional redundancy and flat-on-your-face comedy to occupy major studios for years. It’s exactly the kind of material that might put people in line at the box office too. Why do we call it the “entertainment industry”? In most years, films that only masochists want to watch sweep the Oscars.
Nobody left The Good Shepherd spoiling to go delving into CIA annals. Company men looked about as intriguing as DMV bureaucrats.
The CIA can find its way to coffee table conversations. Turning a few pages of background material makes the discussion worthwhile. The amount of attention given it by people who don’t is a scandal of American literacy. You can hit every java joint inside the beltway — of all places — and go for days before finding anyone who’s ever heard of James Jesus Angleton. The numbers of those who have — and still see the man as an espionage “success” — tells us that uncanny regard for creepy authority figures remains at pathological levels. Here was a guy appointed chief of counterintelligence, with a staff of 200, after exposing hundreds, more likely thousands, of Western operatives to the Soviet’s best mole of the 20th century. Few of the victims, if any, came to an end very far removed from anyone’s worst nightmare.
Hollywood delivered a stereotypically oblivious melodrama. They gave us Matt Damon moping around in stylishly cut 1950s couture wearing a vacantly pensive look on his face. Through what glass darkly does that resemble CIA highflyers of the Cold War era? Lalaland was above stealing their international men of mystery profiles from Graham Greene. He gave us self-righteous schmucks who saw mass bloodletting as a cost of doing business. They fought fires with arson and moved on as what they kindled raged beyond control.
Here are some scenes, straight out of reality, that would have punched up the movie:
Angleton, or the film’s transmogrified composite Edward Wilson, meets for lunch at Harvey’s with double-agent Arch Dunning — a springtime-for-Hitler excuse for Kim Philby.
Martinis or scotch get the bro-hug rolling. High-brow literary witticisms flow as their camaraderie warms up in early day alcohol. Chesapeake Bay oysters followed by lobsters or Dover Sole bonny up all those mots. Lavish fare was the least an ungrateful nation could do for jetsetters fighting commies in the trenches. Philby, once safe behind the Iron Curtain, famously said of Angleton: “”he was one of the thinnest men I have ever met and one of the biggest eaters.” Wine and Western operatives get spilled as the feast lasts into late afternoon. 3 P.M. is closing in as The Company double-nought spy finally glances at his watch. Wow, was it already time to return to the office and boozily bully subordinates about keeping mum? Once they part ways Arch Dunning heads to a shady dive. Waiting there is a KGB relay hungry for that day’s hot dope.
The chumps who stuck their necks out for the free world reaped what company suits sowed. Whole families were captured, tortured and slaughtered in Albania. Similar scenarios played out elsewhere. Western contacts were pulled off the streets in Berlin, Belgrade, Paris, Ankara, Rome and around the globe. Some ended up drugged to be shipped in cargo crates back to the USSR. Once in Moscow there was music to be faced in the bowels of Lubayanka. Then there were those inside the Iron Curtain facing the dire peril of exposure to the secret police. Extra special attention awaited them. A massive human tragedy was engineered by the very entity invented to stand in its way.
Here’s a famous quote from Miles Copeland junior, a CIA agent who died in 1991:
“What it comes to is that when you look at the whole period from 1944 to 1951, the entire Western intelligence effort, which was pretty big, was what you might call minus advantage, we’d have been better off doing nothing.”
That estimate is about 70 years short and counting. Simply relying on what is public information–dumbfounding tales of The Company in its own way could go on at encyclopedia length. Copeland gave an astoundingly candid interview to Robert Eringer for Rolling Stone in 1986.
No shortage of reliable sources credit Copeland with an active role in the in the coup d’etat that installed Army Chief of Staff Husni al Zaim dictator of Syria in 1949. It lasted 137 days. His execution came less than 2 months later. Many coups followed in that country which, according to whose word you accept, played out with and without CIA assistance. The last one — presumably sans Company participation — came in 1970 when Hafez Assad took power. The same family has held sway there since.
Wikipedia’s article on the original coup of 1949 tells us:
“Available evidence, however, suggests that Za’im was in little need of prodding from the U.S. According to the British military attaché in Syria, Za’im had been contemplating a coup since March 1947—over a year before he was introduced to Meade [US operative] on 30 November 1948.”
So, you might ask, why did a man who lasted so short a time succeed in the first place? Is it possible he was advised and aided by foreigners in well over their heads? The CIA, with its characteristic stealth, has been caught editing Wikipedia from Langley itself. They may have slickened up enough to use private internet connections since getting caught. Someone should check on edits coming out of the Greenberry’s coffee shop in Mclean, Va.
The National Interest — decidedly in the neoconservative camp and hardly anti-CIA — however, puts it another way:
“Truman consequently authorized the CIA’s very first coup, which was to be led by Syrian army chief of staff General Husni al-Za’im.”
Whatever anyone chooses to believe there’s no doubt about one thing. Deane Hinton — a junior State Department official in Syria at the time, later affirmed under Reagan as a “career ambassador” — said in 1949:
“I want to go on record as saying that this is the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.”
The man was soon relieved of his post. He was 3 years short of 30 making this observation. Roscoe J. Hillencoetter — CIA Director in 49’ — was 52. Truman was about 65 — and later did a volte face on CIA covert operations — unfortunately he was no longer president. Everyone from the NSA, State, elder states[persons] and media potentiaries has demanded US further intervention in Syria for over a decade. Who can say if they’ve paid any attention to how that has worked out in the past?
Everyday people must rely on publicly available information. We have no evidence that eminences in charge of producing it bother digging that deeply. Foreign policy visionaries look in hindsight like Nelson at semaphore in Copenhagen — with the spyglass to a blind eye.
A minimum of a full volume — more often several tomes — could go on about what the CIA was up to in nearly every country due south of USA borders. What was gained for anyone — excluding short term interests of Wall Street players — wouldn’t fill a chapter in one book. The news media is on it with tepidly more fervor than the film industry.
Five years after 9-11 we got Charlie Wilson’s War. Did any film “based on true events” ever get the point quite as backwards? It was the story of a good-time-Charlie drunkenly whoring his way to the rescue of the Afghans. Supposedly, the USSR was there to add another SSR to its portfolio. The real story oozed out murkily between the lines on back pages in major dailies post 9-11. This time most readers got it but didn’t pipe it out loud. The CIA — high on its own legend — armed and helped stabilize the foundation for our attackers in 2001. The movie simply humored conscious double-think delusions. Any culpability laid at the feet of US policy was browbeaten down by Bill O’Reilly and other newsmouths far left of him. Tom Hanks couldn’t muster the stones to cross them.
When it comes to 9-11 a tacit enlightenment prevails. Everybody who has bothered looking knows the CIA made it possible…but Hollywood couldn’t bring itself to say so.
A myth of rare and irreplaceable anchor men in pivotal positions buoyed elite egos in the post-war era. Major media functionaries were mostly in their thrall while enjoying the same kind of Walter Mittyesque fantasies. They were unwilling, or more likely incapable, of going by results. The constantly recurring failures of hubristic high-ranking officials always struck them then — like it does the literary watchdogs of our day — as baffling unforeseeable developments.
The semi-sober congressional reckoning of the mid-1970s worked about as well as detox would have on WC Fields. Any record of our covert operatives getting the story straight, thwarting evil plots, replacing bad governments with good or improving the US image is blurry if there at all.
People who believe they occupy the upper reaches of our culture constantly see a society in dire need of saving — by themselves. Their solutions always rely on schemes that shake down the lowly ingrates and find new ways to boss them around. It often starts in places vaguely alluded to in grade school geography. When it doesn’t work over there they try it on us over here.
Scrutiny of higher tiers is not unknown but it seldom gathers any traction. Negative attention makes them more careful about getting caught but they still do anyway. Media saves its worst rhetorical lashes for the hide of average Joe. Why won’t he face what a cluelessly, incompetent bastard he is?
After WWII oligarchs invented an “intelligence” product and forced us all to buy. The guy who tried to tell us something about what it is was duly rewarded. He had to lam it to Russia. Media would have it that Snowden is an ideological kin of Philby.
Any effort to measure what the cloak and dagger industry actually produced is obstructed by ruses the Cosa Nostra never stooped to. People struggling with real needs in spite of their toil are called conspiratorial for making any connection to what is sucked from the economy with unqualified force. An accounting of the cost of information amassed by intelligence organizations for the last 75 years — most of it never used for any purpose — might be justifiably resented by people who ate from cans to make rent in that era. That’s before we count the all the costs — blood, material, reputation — of covert action. Only mediums who channel the dead can remember public servants serving the public before themselves…when they ever bothered with the former.
It isn’t just the “intelligence” industry, of course, but the ride they got — and still do — doing more harm than good is not a bad place to start. Our top heavy world is crushing that part of the economy that keeps roofs overhead and food on plates. Things may have some ways to go before closely resembling a Soviet workers paradise but trends are clear. Management is insatiable and far from self-sustaining. Ultra-secret government led the way. Academia followed hot on their heels. Administration siphons off revenue from tuition increases with lackadaisical pretension about education. Wall Street was in on all of it. Does anyone imagine the oh-so-social OSS without Wall Street lawyers? If so, they haven’t bothered to look.
The secrecy of those who should be held accountable keeps chains in place. No government —municipal, state or federal — owns themselves. No matter what disasters lead back to powers that be, the ones with the reins violently resist any careful examination of their records. Where does mass media stand against this unbreachable omerta? Government hoarding of information gathered by citizen largesse requires constant pelting from responsible media. The best one at it, Glenn Greenwald, has left, or possibly fled, the country. He remains a rare beast in our era of unfake news gathering.
Is anyone who can reach a mass audience still asking why the files on Stephen Craig Paddock’s mass murder in Las Vegas remain under wraps? Similar cases of calamities “investigated” that never reach any resolution in the news cycle abound. What does get through the mesh of secrecy frequently has a shady trail that leads back to the government in one way or another.
How can a news audience believe we have anything close to self government when city councils for populations of a few thousand continually declare rights to conceal information vital to public understanding? The federal government warehouses secrets like Pharaoh storing grain for the coming famine.
We have it better than most, for the time being, but it is a damn sight off from honest citizen participation. Getting that backwards began in Washington, D.C., once the people were called on to fight for so-called “democracy.” It’s a grip they’ve never given up at the Potomac’s fall line.
“War is the health of the state,” Randolph Bourne told us 100 years ago. Who can deny it? World wars I and II impacted perception of what the US is in ways we are never likely to recover from. What is healthy for the vitality of the state can be toxic to the culture and the individual. The notion of freedom from the grid or the exactions of the federal government began to wane when the tax code went from the top fifth, who were mostly in on the idea in 1913, to everybody once WWI began in 1917. What else — other than seizing private property — does the government ever accomplish at such a pace?
Originally the top rate was 7% only for the highest earners. The revenuers stooped to grasping jack from ordinary tradesmen in four years. And where did that money go? Mostly to merchants profiting on Wall Street — they did better once the US joined The Great War than they ever had before. The next step, federal withholding, happened in WWII. That’s what gave guys like Angleton license and unlimited funding.
It would be an exaggeration to say that media, academia, Wall Street and deep state prerogatives work in complete concert. But they have an eerie habit of dovetailing eventually. The new improved obsessions, moralities and coercive policies are never grassroots developments. They seem to come out of nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. But you’d have to be a toxic “paranoid” to ask what goes on at secret conclaves where they convene together.
Brainstorming sessions where blueprints for CIA structure were sketched in the late forties frequently took place at tables set by media figures, most notably Washington Post owner Philip Graham’s, where nearly every early Company notable was known to dine. The rowdy feasts of the Georgetown Set could easily make the grade as material for a top-notch comic series — and all true.
Journalism was a common cover for agents in the field. The news industry has been entrenched in international intrigue and national propaganda since Walter Lippmann headed The Inquiry for Woodrow Wilson in 1917.
For all their intellectual bluster The Inquiry is largely remembered today for two misleading clichés. They insisted Americans must fight “to make the world safe for democracy” as we defended European monarchy, colonialism and oligarchy. Anyone questioning that priority got falsely labeled an “isolationist.” Their heirs follow this manipulative tradition calling all accusers “conspiracy theorists.” The actual crackpots, who are always at the top of Google hits, leave fact based observers buried like needles in haystacks. Would it be conspiratorial to find a pattern here? Search engine algorithmists circulate a lot more fluently with Langley than the general public.
The most radical postwar rendition of the ”national security” scheme, known as “Central Intelligence,” quickly began jumping all cultural bounds. Its influence was felt in art, literature, filmmaking, academia and — many have posited — the counterculture of the 1960’s.
That kind of impact and influence didn’t come cheap. The costs weren’t only paid in upheaval abroad wherever Washington’s improvement projects were active and intense. It is revealed in the demographics of US geography. The greater DC area has grown in population at a rate more than doubling the US population increase since 1950. Out 3481 counties in the US seven of the richest 20 lie less than 50 miles from Washington, DC. This is an area that comprises less one third of one per cent of the US population. Wikipedia’s article on the greater DC area lists 25 municipalities. Obviously agencies like the CIA only account for a fraction of this expansion. But, like scores of other government entities, squaring what they produce with what they consume is an empirical impossibility. They are held in reverence by much of media and academia on faith alone.
Meanwhile, many of the once most measurably productive towns and regions across the land have been laid to waste. Edward Snowden was employed by Booz, Allen Hamilton at a salary of $200,000 a year. There are many thousands of others in similar positions today. Googling “CIA quotes” hits on a deluge of ecstatically self-congratulatory comments from the likes of Gina Haspel, John Brennan, George Tenet, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta and others. Lloyd Blankfein feels the same way about Goldman Sachs. So does Larry Fink about Blackrock. The difference is that the latter two don’t exercise nearly as much control over what reaches the public about their activities – although Hollywood seems equally unwilling to come across with graphic depictions of their controversial deeds.
A treasure trove of dramatic and comic narrative lies dormant and unexploited by the film and television industries. Power-crazed narcissism with catastrophic results is raging throughout the American establishment. This goes far beyond the so-called “national security” industry. We can see it in media, academia, Wall Street, medicine and tragically rife in the proliferation of “experts.” Cloak and dagger practitioners have been creeping in the background of it all for decades.
Vince Flynn, Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, Ken Follett, Ian McEwan and their imitators fuel a fantasy industry the suits at Central Intelligence can rely on for free PR. The national security racket depends on a healthy supply of saps in the hinterlands. It took 25 secret agent men and women crossing the Atlantic getting one Abu Omar shoved into a van on a Milan street. They all got made pulling it off too. These are the guys and gals we working stiffs are supposed to confuse with superheroes, ubermenschen and knights in the service of freedom and democracy. Untrained psychotics manage such feats alone every week or more in the US without getting caught. That fact doesn’t really occur to our professional informers.
Does Netflix hope to recover from trying to bore and creep out viewers simultaneously? There is juicier, lower hanging fruit than shows about pregnant men. The American hierarchy is a plague. Rather than continuing to glorify it – writers should be putting it in its literal place. They’d be doing themselves and the rest of us an entertaining service.