CIA Joins Trend of Openness

Six books chronicle CIA history -its triumphs, colorful characters, and fiascos


By Evan Thomas

Simon & Schuster, 427pp, $27.50


By Audrey Kahin

and George McT. Kahin

The New Press, 318 pp., $25


By Eric Chester

M.E. Sharpe, 265 pp., $55V cloth; $24.95 paper


Ed. Michael Warner

CIA History Staff

473 pp., $28.50


Ed. Scott Koch

CIA History Staff

297 pp., $28.50


Ed. Mary McAuliffe

CIA History Staff

376 pp., $28.50

It was in 1975 - with the Church Commission report, the naming of names, the revelations about assassination plots, LSD-experiments, and the like - that systematic study of the Central Intelligence Agency began.

That study continues in full force. Every category of book is represented: straightforward general histories; studies of secret wars, from Cuba to Laos; spies, counterspies, and Aldrich Ames; memoirs, biographies, and now a group biography; and relations with the president and Congress. Even the CIA itself has joined in. Its history staff has gone public, turning out collections of recently declassified documents that show the CIA in an attractive light.

Threaded through much of this writing, inevitably, are either apologetics or antagonism. For many writers, the CIA is seen as essentially iniquitous, a threat to the Constitution and American core values, no matter the importance of its intelligence gathering. But for others it represents a justifiable use of covert power in a dangerous world of malevolent forces.

This is of course the classic CIA self-image, and Evan Thomas portrays it brilliantly in ''The Very Best Men,'' an elegantly crafted group biography of four CIA senior officers during its glory days, from 1947 to its decline after the mid-1960s.

In Tracy Barnes, Desmond FitzGerald, Richard Bissell, and especially Frank Wisner, Thomas presents shrewd yet essentially innocent members of the old WASP establishment, men of Groton and Yale who had inherited British imperial visions, and who saw themselves as engineers on the great American locomotive that pulled the post-war world. Here was charm, energy, and a certainty bordering on arrogance; a sense that manipulating Cubans, or Guatemalans, or Iranians in the name of anticommunism is entirely justifiable.

The Bay of Pigs disaster ended all that. Ill-conceived, ill-planned, ill-organized - an operation doomed from the start - it was led astray by Richard Bissell, a brilliant, hard driver who incorrectly assumed not only that Castro was a pushover, but also that President Kennedy would throw in the American military if absolutely necessary.

It was downhill from there for the CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT: Former Iranian Premier Muhammad Mossadeq, 1951; Street fighting in Hungary after the Soviet invasion, 1956; CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.; Richard Bissell, former head of CIA's department of ''dirty tricks''; former CIA director Allen Dulles; Indonesian President Sukarno, flanked by Soviet leaders Nikita Kruschev (l.) and Leonid Brezhnev (r.) in 1961; Invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968; Cuban leader Fidel Castro; Soviet ships carrying bombers steam toward Cuba in 1962, sparking the Cuban missile crisis.

Yalies, as Thomas makes clear. Bissell and Barnes were eased out of the CIA, Wisner committed suicide in 1965, and FitzGerald died at a young age in 1967. All had become more or less disillusioned as their high expectations of rolling back communism, directing the third world, and achieving success across the board, gave way to grim, sad realities.

There is little new data in all this, no revelations or secrets uncovered. But the book rings with authority, for the CIA's history staff has opened various studies to Thomas. Think of it - the CIA's own take on the overthrow of former Iranian Premier Muhammad Mossadeq, the Hungarian Revolution, Guatemala in 1954, and so on. What prompted this remarkable decision? And what precedent does it create?

The absence of such access is painfully visible in Audrey and George McT. Kahin's ''Subversion as Foreign Policy,'' a scholarly, wordy and discursive account of a little- known episode in US policy toward Indonesia in the 1950s. In supporting a military rebellion in Sumatra and the Celebes in 1958, Washington had chosen ''to hold [President] Sukarno's feet to the fire,'' as Frank Wisner allegedly informed a CIA subordinate.

Sukarno had angered Secretary of State John Foster Dulles with a neutralism Dulles considered procommunist. Seeking a counter-force to such Communism, the brothers Dulles, John Foster and CIA Chief Allen, turned to the Indonesian Army, which had emerged a highly politicized force after the war of independence. Thereafter, it was not unusual for some colonel 1,000 miles from the central government in Java to proclaim the independence of ''his'' region as part of a bid for regional power.

What made the events of 1958 different was CIA intervention, in providing cash and smuggled weapons - frequently from American submarines - and, above all, in air raids by CIA aircraft and hirelings. The worst example was that of Allen Pope, who killed some 70 civilians in a bombing raid that went awry, before he was shot down and imprisoned for four years.

None of it worked. Sukarno had loyal and effective forces. They easily defeated the Sumatran rebels, who had underestimated their own power. So had the Americans, who backed off within months, eventually settling with Sukarno.

All this the Kahins present thoroughly, persuasively, but also drearily. They write as acknowledged experts on Indonesia, with a wealth of background that few readers will have, but with little dynamism or vision. For this sad incident demands not simply data, but insight. It was, after all, costly, with thousands of Indonesian casualties - though not a single American. And it was thoughtless and irresponsible.

That anticommunist obsessions should have spurred the CIA to conduct an undeclared war against a sovereign state: here was an arrogant forerunner to Vietnam, and an ominous indication that the young men at Langley were losing their touch.

While one side of the CIA was conducting such operations, another was deep into political warfare, creating what Eric Chester calls the ''Covert Network,'' an array of front groups, innocent in name, vague in description, sharing a generalized anticommunist mission - and costing the taxpayer plenty.

Drawing on three documentary collections from the CIA history staff (available from the National Technical Information Service for $28.50 each), Chester pinpoints these groups, from the American Committee for Liberation and the American Friends of Captive Nations, through the Asia Foundation and the Freedom Fund, to the International Rescue Committee.

As with so much in the early cold war, their specific purpose was obscure: the following may convey the flavor. Czech or Polish or Russian anticommunist emigres, formed by the CIA into paramilitary units, marking time in West Germany. With snippets of data from obscure archives, Chester is skilled at portraying a strange era of unexamined assumptions, lavish funding - and ultimate disappointment.

These collections from the CIA history staff offer us a highly selective peek into certain administrative and intelligence aspects of the years 1946-59, as well as a more comprehensive overview of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The agency has, of course, always manipulated the notion of secrecy, leaking information to its bureaucratic advantage from the very beginning. And Allen Dulles evolved, while director, into a superb public-relations impresario. Nevertheless, for the CIA to publish documents is unusual, part of the trend toward greater openness that began in 1992.

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