Albion Monitor /Commentary

The CIA at 50

by Alexander Cockburn

Look history in the face and discover the CIA was no rogue agency, but only the enforcer of U.S. policy
The National Security Act of 1947, written by a young highflyer called Clark Clifford, gave the world the U.S. Air Force and the National Security Council, changed the name of the Department of War to the Department of Defense and, almost as an afterthought, created the Central Intelligence Agency. "Nobody paid much attention to the intelligence part of this bill," Clark said later.

Lies were the new outfit's swaddling clothes from the start. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal had testified before Congress that the CIA's intelligence function would be entirely analytic. The act passed in July. By September, Forrestal was ordering the agency's first director, Rear Adm. Roscoe Hillenkoeter, to commence covert operations in Europe. At first, Hillenkoeter declined, after the CIA's legal counsel, Lawrence Houston, advised that this would overstep the agency's mandate. Forrestal forced Houston to revise his opinion.

The rituals of deniability in 1947 were the same as they were 40 years later with Reagan and the Contra war. Harry Truman wanted covert intervention in Italy to sabotage the possibility of the Communists winning through the ballot box in 1948. But he was loath to put his name to any document explicitly requiring such action. The enabling mechanism was that other infant in the Cold War cradle, the National Security Council. Funding for the CIA's activities in Italy came from private sources inside the United States, through a network of proprietary front organizations, millionaires and criminal enterprises.

The agency back then was certainly no rogue outfit. When Sicilian mafiosi, armed and urged forward by U.S. intelligence officers, attacked a May Day parade in Palermo in 1947, killing 11 and wounding 57, the attack was a consequence of policies approved in the White House. Whether the target was Cho Lai, Fidel Castro, Rafael Trujillo, Patrice Lumumba or Muammar Qaddafi, the CIA was tasked to kill leaders the U.S. government wanted out of the way.

Liberals are fond of denouncing "secret government," or even "the secret government" (Oliver Stone's thesis) -- an entity that does all the bad things, overruling the intentions of good presidents and "good government." In fact, to write about 50 years of the CIA is to write about 50 years of what the actual, elected U.S. government deemed appropriate at the time.

Take the CIA's Phoenix program in Vietnam, aimed at "neutralizing" Viet Cong political leaders and organizers. The program was run by William Colby, later director of the agency. Colby testified before Congress in 1972 that 20,587 Vietnamese were killed (the Vietnamese said the true figure was nearer 41,000). A U.S. intelligence officer in the Phoenix program, Barton Osborne, stated later that "Quite often, it was a matter of expediency just to eliminate a person in the field rather than deal with the paperwork."

In 1972, a parade of witnesses told Congress stories of the techniques of the Phoenix interrogators, how they interviewed suspects and then pushed them out of planes, how they cut off fingers, ears and testicles, how they used electroshock, shoved wooden dowels into the brains of some prisoners, rammed electric prods into the rectums of others. After the My Lai massacre, there was a move to reduce the funding for these civilian killing programs. Richard Nixon, according to an account by Seymour Hersh, strongly demurred, "No, We've got to have more of this. Assassinations. Killings."

Despite his bloodthirsty exuberance, Nixon was no worse than Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted similar results in Guatemala and Iran; than John F. Kennedy, sponsor of CIA-supervised holocausts in South East Asia and Latin America; than Lyndon B. Johnson, happy that Indonesia had been secured for the Free World at a cost of a million Communists dead (many of them on hit lists supplied by the CIA); than Jimmy Carter, who had the CIA whistle up Argentinian torturers to train the first Contras; than Ronald Reagan, whose executive agent, CIA Chief William Casey, sponsored assassination manuals in Central America and bombs that killed schoolgirls in Beirut; than George Bush, who continued the policies of Reagan and Carter in actively supporting the Khmer Rouge; than Bill Clinton, whose OK has sent CIA agents to plant bombs in cinemas in Baghdad and CIA support to the Taliban in Kabul.

So maybe the simple function of this 50th anniversary should be to lay forever to rest the notion of a "rogue" CIA. When the CIA's Dr. Sidney Gottlieb traveled to the Congo to give the CIA head of the station a bio-poison to put on Patrice Lumumba's toothpaste and food, he was no "rogue." A "secret" government, like a "secret" war is almost always something easily discovered by people, unless they are eager to shirk the task of looking their history and their government square in the face.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor September 29, 1997 (

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