Secret Agent Men
The history of American intelligence is a history of malfeasance, scandal, hyperbole, and self-promotion. It’s been that way for 150 years, argues Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a professor of American history at the University of Edinburgh. The author of numerous books, including three earlier volumes on the subject of American espionage, Jeffreys-Jones’s newest book offers some badly needed historical perspective to current debates about the uses and non-uses of secret intelligence in the United States. Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Intelligence begins with George Washington and ends with George Bush, arguing that “failures” in American intelligence repeat themselves like history, as do public and official debates and uproars about the practices and credibility of intelligence. In the final paragraphs Jeffreys-Jones discusses the role of intelligence in the wake of the attacks of 9-11. As if that epilogue didn’t make his sobering and insightful history timely enough, the revelations in recent weeks of the existence of advance intelligence prior to the September 2001 attacks should make his book required reading.
Jeffreys-Jones is a historian, not a political scientist, and one of the book’s strengths is that it tells a good story. Because his historical perspective locates secret intelligence agents and agencies within broad cultural movements, it’s possible to see, for example, how the ascendancy of the Pinkerton agency in the intelligence game is very much a function of the temper of the times (e.g. fear of assassination, distrust of labor). Jeffreys-Jones argues, moreover, that as much as the culture of secret intelligence has changed along with the larger culture, there are some enduring characteristics of those who work in secret intelligence that can be traced from Allen Pinkerton to Oliver North. These are the characteristics which, clustered together, form the trope of the Confidence Man, the craven, prevaricating, self-promoting huckster portrayed in American literature in such works as Melville’s darkest novel, The Confidence Man, and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The emergence and persistence of confidence man culture is “a special reason why secret intelligence [in the United States] has tended to run amok with the taxpayers’ money,” writes Jeffreys-Jones. The ways that the confidence man ethos manifests itself on the institutional level, he argues, is in the tendency in American secret intelligence practice toward “indiscriminate gathering of too much information and the neglect of analysis, subordination of national security to bureaucratic ambition,” and the insistence of an American “intelligence monopoly,” which feeds distrust among allies and keeps the American people “in the dark about alternative viewpoints.”
The long view of secret intelligence in America reveals a series of episodes in which ambitious intelligence men “painted the menace” of their day and reaped the rewards in the form of power, money, and prestige. “American espionage,” Jeffreys-Jones explains, “has since the 1850s become progressively more commercial, more bureaucratic, and more populist. The wiles of the intelligence confidence man have been directed not just at foreign foes but at American citizens as well. The American public has been importuned to believe in a variety of menaces and crises that were by no means always what they seemed to be. They have ranged from Confederate assassination plots to Western land fraud, from white slavery to communism, from German sabotage to Chinese espionage, from crack cocaine scares to digital encryption.” To some degree all of these menaces were real, just as we must acknowledge today the legitimacy of warnings about shoe bombs and mysterious white powders, but intelligence men have always found it advantageous to exaggerate the severity or imminence of the threats.
Although the early history of secret intelligence is no doubt important, especially because of its roots in private investigation and security, Cloak and Dollar hits its stride in the chapter on Pearl Harbor. Jeffreys-Jones argues that “by means of energetic propaganda, a version of the Pearl Harbor story convenient to the Roosevelt administration and to CIA expansionists has been woven into intelligence history.” The story of Pearl Harbor goes like this: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor succeeded because American intelligence failed; for reasons of national security and to protect intelligence sources, investigations into the causes of failure were veiled and hampered; failure was rewarded with increased budgets, personnel, and power; and the CIA was created by the National Security Act of 1947. The success of this account of intelligence’s role in the attack contributed to a “conspiracy of silence,” an obsession with prediction as the primary function of intelligence, and a bureaucratic practice of rewarding failure. “For this reason,” he writes, “the myth of Pearl Harbor as the epitome of lack of preparedness in peacetime has distorted perceptions of America’s post-World War II intelligence mission.” Arguably, Pearl Harbor has now been displaced as the epitome of unreadiness in peacetime, but the lessons of its aftermath should be–but sadly, usually are not–at the center of current debates about the role of intelligence in the “war” against terrorism.
The problem with the intelligence failure of Pearl Harbor was not that information wasn’t gathered, but that there was no mechanism for coordinating all the bits of intelligence from all the various sources. The new CIA would prevent future failures on the scale of Pearl Harbor by coordinating and analyzing information collected by its own staff and by operatives in all the other intelligence agencies. There are unique attributes of the CIA compared to other American intelligence agencies (National Security Agency, Office of Strategic Services, Office of Naval Intelligence, for example), Jeffreys-Jones concedes, such as its legislative genesis and its independence from the military. But in too many ways, the new organization repeated and even amplified the features of the intelligence agencies that preceded and became enfolded into it: a culture of hyperbole, self-promotion, and deception. And because the CIA came into its own during the Cold War and benefited both from the “blinding hyperbole of single-issue anti-communism” and from the resource building of policies of rewarding failure, new professional employees of the CIA “competed with one another to dream up schemes that would justify their salaries.” The creation of the CIA doesn’t end the tradition of the confidence man in American secret intelligence, he contends, it extends and institutionalizes it.
The rest of Cloak and Dollar recounts the successes (there are some–the Cuban missile crisis, for example) and failures of the CIA from the 1950s to the present. Jeffreys-Jones charges that as CIA operatives meddled in Guatemala and Iran, among other places, the habit of hyperbole “became part of a culture of mendacity, fusing seamlessly with disinformation campaigns at first aimed at foreigners but increasingly contaminating U.S. institutions and citizens.” The decades of the sixties and seventies form a “meaningful rhetorical interlude between the tenancies of those two great exponents of the mythology of espionage, Allen Dulles (Director of Central Intelligence, 1953-1961) and William Casey (1981-1987).” The most significant event of this interlude was the investigation led by Senator Frank Church in the 1975. Jeffreys-Jones devotes an entire chapter to the Church hearings and concludes that the investigation yielded mixed results. The Church hearings reminded the public of the need for Congressional oversight of intelligence activities and inspired some specific reforms, but more important, Jeffreys-Jones argues, the hearings “educated the public about both the problems that can stem from a secret state and the need for an efficient foreign intelligence service” (lessons we should review today). The Church committee, however, did nothing to “dispel that great and abiding illusion, the belief in the confidence man as intelligence leader.” For proof of this assertion, one need only “review the stewardship of Ronald Reagan and William Casey in the 1980s.”
The era of the confidence man achieves frightening new heights with the election of the supreme confidence man himself, Ronald Reagan, in 1980. Under the stewardship of Casey and Reagan, the CIA was “unleashed,” which meant “attacks on open government, a renewed surge in covert operations, and a larger budget.” Jeffreys-Jones’s criticism of this era of intelligence is particularly harsh: “Casey’s two-pronged, if inconsistent, strategy became an inheritance–according to the hype, he had battled the beast of communism and defeated it, conferring everlasting glory and appropriations-worthiness on the intelligence community. Yet, he had retasked the CIA and its intelligence siblings to combat drugs, nuclear proliferation, and alternative ‘menaces’ lying conveniently at hand. Victory and diversification would be potent companions in the great rhetorical carpetbag of the post-Cold War intelligence confidence man.”
Of course we now live in an era of a new menace, terrorism, though some of the old ones still apparently stalk us as well. The attempts to marry drugs to terrorism in the public imagination, which already seemed shameful and pandering, now seem especially insidious in light of the author’s argument that the practice of secret intelligence in America has always used the confidence man’s strategy of painting the menace. This doesn’t suggest that terrorism isn’t a real threat and that secret intelligence isn’t a vital and necessary tool to protect American citizens and interests, but it’s critically important at this juncture to use history to frame debates about the menace of terrorism and the role of intelligence in combating it.
Writing about the attacks on the World Trade Center in the last paragraph of Cloak and Dollar, Jeffreys-Jones warns: “The situation was custom-made for the intelligence confidence man and his political allies. Once again, the cries were heard: give them more money, unleash the CIA. Once again it was tempting to reward failure, and to resort to expensive, static, and home-based solutions.” Everyone agrees that the government should use all its intelligence resources to prevent another terrorist attack on the United States. But the proposed solution to the perceived failure in intelligence, as it has been for a century and a half, is to centralize and expand the bureaucracy, throw money at the new agency, and unfetter its operations from as many legal and ethical constraints as possible. Creating a cabinet-level post in charge of homeland security funded by $34.7 billion, suspending civil liberties in the name of national security, and charging the FBI and the CIA to play nice with each other are not novel solutions to an unprecedented menace. In Jeffreys-Jones’s view, what we’re witnessing is just the latest instance of the confidence man’s game: While we bend in close to hear his urgent whispers in our ears, he pulls wallets out of our pockets and then convinces us that only he can protect us from dangers real and imagined.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton is a writer who lives in Austin and an assistant professor of English at Southwestern University.