IF Ted Shackley had worked for the Department of Agriculture he might have been one of the most effective government officials in United States history. Ambitious, driven, wise to wiles of the bureaucracy, Shackley could have been the man who tamed the crop price-support system, or made kiwi fruit more popular than pears.
But Shackley earned his nickname ``Blonde Ghost,'' during a long and eventful career at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he rose from eager recruit to the near-heights of assistant deputy director for operations in the mid-1970s. Ironically, as journalist David Corn's thorough and absorbing book, ``Blonde Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusades,'' makes clear, the nation's intelligence agency shares more traits with the US corn-promoting arm than it might like to admit. Shackley rose and fell because he was a near-perfect bureaucrat, attentive to superiors, demanding of subordinates, and always conscious of the numbers - numbers of reports produced, covert operations launched, spies recruited.
Whether those numbers bore directly on US national security seemed less important. The job, not the big picture, was the thing. ``To the artisans of intelligence, execution mattered as much as results,'' notes Corn, apropos of a particularly bold CIA wiretap pulled off in Berlin in the 1960s.
As a vehicle for studying the CIA as an organization, Shackley's life has much to recommend it. Recruited as the cold war began to crystallize, the young Polish-speaking Army vet trolled the streets of Berlin trying to land Soviet-bloc spies. By the early '60s he was promoted to head of a secret Miami base where he ran espionage operations against Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Later, in Laos, he ran a secret war against communism waged by the Hmong tribal army. He rose to become the CIA's top official in Vietnam, leaving early enough to avoid being tarred by presiding over the last days of the Saigon debacle.
Back in the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters, he was eventually appointed No. 2 in the agency's clandestine-operations division. Ties with then-CIA director George Bush made it seem he might one day lead the agency; instead, a long association with the rogue CIA man Edwin Wilson and the enmity of Carter-era director Stansfield Turner brought him down. Along the way, Corn claims, Shackley came to symbolize the covert action side of US intelligence operations. Instead of merely collecting intelligence, he was involved in such acts as the arming of Cuban dissidents and Laotian military men.
Was it worth it? In his post-agency years, Shackley has become something of a publicist for what he dubs ``The Third Way,'' covert measures that go farther than mere diplomacy but stop well short of the scope and intensity of all-out war. To an occupant of the Oval Office facing a foreign-policy problem as tough as, say, Bosnia, this Third Way must look awfully attractive, promising as it does a painless use of muscle.
``Blond Ghost,'' in its accumulation of detail about operations, implies that they are a false comfort for policymakers. The book notes that the CIA often defends itself by saying its failures are known to all, while its successes remain secret. Perhaps so. But Castro is still in power in Cuba, and the US lost the Vietnam War. ``[M]uch of what is known of Shackley's career,'' Corn concludes, ``are programs that did not work or went awry.''