Non-Fiction: Three Digs into the CIA’s Dark Side

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. The youngest child of crime novelist Robert Terrall, aka Robert Kyle [1914-2009], Ben Terrall has contributed two previous reviews to January Magazine: one of John Goins’ The Coptic Cross, and the other of Sin Soracco’s Come to Me.)

As Donald Trump positioned himself at odds with the Central Intelligence Agency in the early months of his presidency, many people wishing for an end to Trumpist madness may have wound up rooting for the creepy forces of the CIA. Whether or not the tension between Trump and the agency continues, it’s wise to look beyond the headlines to see the reality of the CIA. That reality is laid bare in three recently published books examining some dark truths about this American spy agency, which remain still largely unknown to most of the everyday people the CIA theoretically protects.

Steeped in Crime

The most broadly focused of these books is Douglas Valentine’s The CIA As Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World (Clarity Press). Valentine, the author previously of a seminal history of the CIA’s Vietnam War-era Phoenix Program and books about the Drug Enforcement Agency and its precursor, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, has been researching the CIA and its involvement in drug-running, torture, and murder for decades. His specialty is interviewing actual agency employees and digging up salient documents through Freedom of Information Act requests and other means. As a result, The CIA As Organized Crime is packed with jaw-dropping details about the agency’s ugly history.

Valentine’s main contribution to exposing the CIA is his painstaking research into the labyrinthine workings of the scorched-earth Phoenix Program and related CIA operations. Valentine argues throughout his book that Phoenix was significant because it developed as a model apparatus of repression that has been duplicated by the U.S. government in Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—including within the United States. In his view, the Province Interrogation Centers (PICs) used to terrorize and extract information from Vietnamese identified as Viet Cong were models for post-9/11 CIA “black sites” scattered throughout the world. The author describes Phoenix as a two-pronged program that manipulates the powerful people in a foreign government by corrupting them, while terrorizing the less powerful into submission. It became such an attractive model for the military that in 2004, after Phoenix-like operations were employed to remove the Iraqi government, a top terrorism advisor to George W. Bush’s administration called for “a global Phoenix program.”

Valentine documents the CIA’s methods of murder and torture going back to 1971, when Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-California) conducted a fact-finding trip to a PIC in Vietnam. McCloskey described “instruments of torture in the interrogation room—whips and manacles, things of that nature,” and he and some congressional colleagues concluded that “torture is a regularly accepted part of interrogation … U.S. civilians and military personnel have participated for over three years in the deliberate denial of due process of law to thousands of people held in secret interrogation centers built with U.S. dollars.”

The model the United States has been exporting all over the world now seems to be coming home. Valentine points out that since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has mimicked the model of social control pioneered in South Vietnam by creating “fusion centers,” and the FBI has established Joint Terrorism Task Forces to coordinate representatives from police, security, military, and civic organizations in every state and major city.

In Valentine’s view, and also documented in the other two books under review here, mass-media complicity is a key element in making CIA abuses of power possible. Reporters desiring to gather information from agency sources wind up develop symbiotic relationships with them; in order to avoid alienating their sources, they end up recycling disinformation while also routinely engaging in self-censorship.

Overall, The CIA As Organized Crime is a bit of a hodgepodge and could use more editing. The book’s chapters are adapted from Valentine’s past interviews and articles. Their contents sometimes resemble schematics, given the number of connections between players and chains of command he lays out. The flurries of initialisms used in intelligence circles can also be confusing, leaving the reader repeatedly flipping to the appendix which informs us that, for instance, DEASOG stands for Drug Enforcement Administration Special Operations Group.

Furthermore, in Valentine’s condemnation of journalists and media people who acquiesce to and collaborate with the CIA, he sometimes overdoes the attack mode. There are enough battles for dissidents in the U.S. without taking petty sideswipes at hard-working progressive journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Amy Goodman.

Mass Media Mind Games

Nicholas Schou’s Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood is an accessible, well-researched look at the ways canny CIA operators keep the agency’s image as rosy as possible in newspapers and movies, and on television. Spooked was published last year by the new “investigative book imprint” Hot Books, whose mission is to publish works “that passionately address the most burning issues of our day.” The line’s founder and editorial director is David Talbot, former editor-in-chief of the online mag Salon and the author of one of the best CIA histories, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (2015). Talbot made a wise choice in hiring Schou, who also wrote the excellent Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (2014). Schou’s years as an alternative-weekly newspaper reporter clearly made him a dogged investigator with an effective bullshit detector.

Hot Books titles do not run longer than 40,000 words, so Spooked does not pretend to be an exhaustive look at the CIA’s manipulation of the mass media. What it does do is show how effective the agency can be at keeping reporters, directors, screenwriters, and producers from straying too far from officially sanctioned scenarios. Frank Snepp, who briefed reporters for the CIA in Vietnam, tells Schou, “In the last days of the Vietnam War, we had the press in a box. So journalists couldn’t know the truth except as the CIA shaped it.” Snepp left that job after becoming fed up with the lies his employer was feeding to reporters and Congress about Vietnam, going on to write Decent Interval, a 1977 memoir about the truth of what he saw. The CIA sued Snepp for violating a nondisclosure agreement and seized $300,000 in royalties.

The CIA has also gone after its own when a little damning information has been revealed to the press. Although no agency employee involved with its post-9/11 torture program has ever been charged with a crime, former CIA officer John Kiriakou did spend two years in a federal prison for leaking classified information to a reporter. Kiriakou told Schou, “I didn’t think I was saying anything particularly controversial, but it turned out I was the first CIA official to ever acknowledge the fact that we were torturing prisoners.”

Investigative reporter Robert Parry discovered first-hand another way the CIA stifles dissent when he was working for the Associated Press in the 1980s. Parry repeatedly turned down story ideas from a smooth press handler with the National Security Council’s Office of Public Diplomacy, which was controlled by the CIA, and the OPD officer eventually said, “If you keep this up, we’re going to have to controversialize you.” After Parry and his writing partner Brian Barger broke the story of Reagan handyman Colonel Oliver North being linked to the “Contra” killers attacking the leftist government of Nicaragua, the two journalists were bashed repeatedly by the pro-CIA Washington Times. Fed up with the AP’s lack of support, Perry left for Newsweek but, he told Schou, “I didn’t know how corrupt the organization was … Basically, their editors were very much on the side of the Reagan people.” Perry’s experiences writing about CIA links to Contra drug- and gun-running enterprises led him to conclude that the level of scrutiny given his sources was far greater than that applied to reporters not at odds with the agency would encounter.

Parry quit Newsweek in 1990 to make documentaries for PBS-TV’s Frontline. Six years later, he was contacted by enterprising San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb. Impressed by Webb’s findings about Contra-linked Nicaraguans selling cocaine to Ricky Ross, one of the top crack distributors in Los Angeles, California, Parry warned Webb that he would “be facing a serious counter attack.”

The following months proved this prediction to sadly accurate. By November 1996, millions of people had read Webb’s carefully reported stories online, sparking an outraged response to the CIA from Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters and other African-American political leaders. The CIA hit back by pulling strings with the major metropolitan papers, which they had assiduously cultivated for decades. The Los Angeles Times was especially vindictive, running a three-day series that, in word count, was longer than all of Webb’s original pieces combined. In Schou’s description, the “Times’ revisionist follow-up profile of Ross was so obviously disingenuous that it only served to lay bare the depths to which the newspaper was willing to go in trying to protect its relationship with the CIA.”

Webb was soon consigned to lousy assignments and eventually quit the Mercury News. His career in shambles, he took his own life in 2004. He left behind his magnum opus, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (1998), one of the most damning indictments of CIA lawlessness ever committed to paper. Webb’s words from a 1998 talk show still hold up as a wake-up call for “America First” warmongers: “When we intervene in the affairs of other countries and we shoot at people, and people get shot with American guns and American bullets, we create enemies.”

In addition to schmoozing with reporters worried too much about losing their sources to step out of line, the CIA has proven itself adept at creating ties within the worlds of film and television. Schou demonstrates that while an occasional movie critical of the CIA—such as Three Days of the Condor, Missing, and Salvador—does get released, the vast majority of big box-office pictures with CIA characters in them have been exercises in gung-ho flag waving. Part of that image enhancement came about as a result of veteran CIA case officer Chase Brandon being enlisted to work directly with studios and production companies. Among the films he helped with access to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, were the Tom Clancy vehicles Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and The Sum of All Fears.

Brandon also made his presence known on the sets of various TV productions, and was so effective at his work on the 2001-2006 ABC espionage series, Alias, that the show’s star, Jennifer Garner, was enlisted to shoot a CIA recruiting video. An agency press release gushed, “Ms. Garner was excited to participate in the video after being asked by the Office of Public Affairs. The CIA’s Film Industry Liaison worked with the writers of Alias during the first season to educate them on traditional tradecraft.” After 9/11, John Kiriakou saw more and more Hollywood types receiving guided tours of CIA headquarters.

The producers of the 2012 Ben Affleck vehicle, Argo, a fictionalized story about a CIA hostage rescue operation, even received permission to film inside CIA headquarters. The movie’s depiction of CIA operatives pretending to be filmmakers in Iran bent the truth and succeeded in making the professionals in both Langley and Hollywood look heroic.

Schou goes on in his latest book to describe the agency’s involvement with the TV programs 24 (in which CIA torture carried out by allegedly liberal actor Kiefer Sutherland yields positive results in every episode) and Homeland, and the ultra-patriotic movie Zero Dark Thirty. He writes: “The partnership between Langley and the Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers proved so tight that national security reporters felt slighted.” After walking out early on the finished product, which celebrated torture, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) commented, “I couldn’t handle it because it’s so false.”

Shou also describes attacks on the independent-minded journalist Seymour Hersh by his colleagues, then closes with an account of The New York Times’ censorship of a National Security Agency exposé by one of its own reporters, James Risen. Schou concludes that “In the end, the spooking of the news works, because the news media allows it to work. The strongest deterrent to independent reporting is not the CIA or NSA, but the relentless will of the corporate media to conform to official government policy.”

Compromising Literary Elites

Joel Whitney’s Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, from the scrappy independent press OR Books, covers another area of CIA manipulation: its sponsorship and co-optation of some of the world’s most famous literary writers.

Whitney builds on the pioneering work of Frances Stonor Saunders, who in her more detailed, 1999 history The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, examined CIA front groups which corrupted U.S. intellectual life in the mid-20th century. Saunders wrote that “At its peak, [front group] The Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in thirty-five countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over twenty prestige magazines, held art exhibitions, owned a news and features service, organized high-profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances.”

Finks complements Saunders’ book nicely and provides plenty of new fodder for anyone who appreciates the exposure of stooges and pompous hypocrites. This book’s subtitle is a bit misleading: Whitney shows that some well-known writers were unwittingly pulled into the agency’s orbit because of how well-disguised CIA support for literary projects often was, but his thorough documentation also makes clear that many writers knew exactly where their financial backing was coming from.

Whitney highlights the CIA’s support for The Paris Review to exemplify the co-optation of mid-20th century western intellectuals. As Whitney pointed out in a recent interview, the CIA’s goals were “to tout and brag about our high culture” while also “[discrediting] the Soviet Union.” Paris Review writer/editors Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton both had CIA ties when their influential literary magazine was founded in the early 1950s, and knowingly maintained them throughout the 1960s. Those two men of letters rationalized their CIA connections by implying that their funding came from a relatively benign wing of the agency. Matthiessen argued that he became a covert counter-intelligence agent in the “good CIA” before its operatives began engaging in “ugly stuff.” But in fact, “ugly stuff”—such as the recruitment of Nazis by the CIA—went on throughout the time of Matthiessen’s collusion with the agency. Operating from its Deputy Director of Operations Allen Dulles’ concept of the “moderate Nazi,” the CIA began recruiting German war criminals in the immediate post-World War II period. Doctors responsible for committing medical atrocities and heads of slave-labor factories were among the more than 1,600 Nazis brought to the United States by U.S. intelligence operatives.

Finks argues that The Paris Review became adept at “appearing apolitical while making a political case,” both in the choices of which authors to publish and what they would write about in the magazine. Whitney notes that The Paris Review “was part of a social and editorial nexus of organizations interested in the success of the covert state in a way that was undeniably political, and that bound these instruments together with militant, often violent and illegal operations.”

Whitney goes on to contend that when the CIA chose to court writers, it offered enticements such as trips to countries all over the world, additional sources of income, and publication in CIA-backed magazines. The experiences of writers more critical of the agency were quite different—censorship through being marginalized, blacklisted, or having works banned or profits seized.

The CIA had staggering amounts of money to spread around on activities it engaged in and to individuals and institutions it supported. How much money is unknown; the agency’s budget remains secret. Whitney quotes former CIA officer Thomas Braden, who told a journalist, “There was simply no limit to the money [the CIA] could spend and no limit to the people it could hire … to conduct the war—the secret war …” Large amounts of cash for cultural projects passed through foundations created by the CIA, a number of which didn’t appear on the IRS’ list of tax-exempt foundations.

Whitney effectively documents some of the criminal activities the CIA engaged in while it was laundering large sums to magazines such as The Paris Review and Encounter. Among them were the bloody destruction of the Arbenz government in Guatemala, the 1953 ouster of Iran’s democratically elected government, General Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Chilean democrat Salvador Allende, and the disinformation campaign against the anti-Vietnam War U.S. underground press. Whitney cites the research of journalist Angus Mackenzie, who in his 1997 book, Secrets: The CIA’s War at Home, showed the agency violated its own charter to engage in extensive domestic spying.

In a time when America’s mass media and the leadership of both major political parties remain in lockstep with the dictates of the National Security State, the dissident voices of writers such as Valentine, Schou, and Whitney add an important dimension to our understanding of how the U.S. government operates. Our hope as a citizenry lies first in knowing the truth of our history; books like these three, which challenge received wisdom about our most infamous intelligence agency, are an essential part of that process. ◊

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