It sounds odd to talk of sympathy for the CIA. But that is what Thomas Powers obviously feels towards the main spying agency of the United States, and it makes for a remarkable, mind-clearing book. Intelligence-gathering and secret operations are such an irresistible source for conspiracy theories, sermonising and demonology generally, that most ordinary books on espionage are too crude even to be called disinformation.
The worst offenders tend to be ex-spies, and authors who mistake them for reliable informants. One example, cited by Powers, is Pavel Sudoplatov, a rambling and addle-headed former Soviet spook. In the early 1990s, his son persuaded two American journalists to ghost an overstuffed volume peddling the fantasy that most of the top Los Alamos A-bomb scientists, including Robert Oppenheimer, were Russian spies. An even starker case is the late James Jesus Angleton, who for years ran American counterintelligence. He liked fly-fishing, orchid-growing and webs of deceit so complex that colleagues at Langley, the CIA headquarters, eventually concluded he was mad. Angleton was the chief source for a 1989 daydream about cold-war spying called Deception, a book suggesting that western intelligence, as a whole, was no more than a Soviet plaything.
Those writing about the CIA, you would think, ought to be able to avoid this sort of mystification. Almost alone among the world's larger intelligence services, it is subject to unremitting, often hostile, public scrutiny. Yet partly because of the crimes and blunders that Congress and the press have dragged out of it over the years, the agency remains politically larger than life. It was founded in 1947 to gather foreign intelligence and report directly to the president. It was a successor to the wartime Office of Strategic Services, which itself was established after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor exposed the fragmentation and weakness of American intelligence. With its large and undisclosed budget, the CIA quickly involved itself in covert interventions abroad. Both the wisdom of its secret operations and the quality of its intelligence-gathering were controversial almost from the start. To the conservative paranoia that the CIA was subverted by America's enemies, destroyed by Congress or enfeebled from within by Ivy League appeasers, there corresponds a conspiratorialism of the left, with its own lurid menu of CIA meta-narratives. According to these, the agency is, au choix, an invisible government, a nest of ideological crusaders, a lobbyist for the arms industry or a purveyor of imaginary threats to a nation that cannot live without mortal foes. Somewhere between these extremes come more fair-minded critics. While not treating it in such Manichaean terms, they see the CIA nevertheless as having acted too often as a mirror - and moral equivalent - of a lawless and brutal KGB.
Although he does not say so as such, Powers belongs in this last group. He recognises the difference between criticising American intelligence for doing its job badly and for doing it at all. Ideally, he would like it to behave decently - and legally. But he knows there are bastards out there who wish to hurt his country, and he is not inclined, not now at least, to preach too hard at those trying to stop them. By nature a dove, he does not treat all hawks as fools or scoundrels, and is prepared to change his mind when faced with new arguments. His essay-review on the US-Soviet arms race is particularly interesting in this regard. Powers knows how Washington works and fits the CIA into the larger context of American foreign policy, apportioning responsibility, for good or ill, where it normally belongs, at the White House. He is familiar with the world of spies, understands how they think, and is not easily taken in.
Intelligence Wars collects 24 review-essays Powers has written over the past three decades, in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. The formula sounds weak, but works surprisingly well. Read end to end, the articles make an impressively coherent story of American spying from 1945 to al-Qaeda and George Bush's war on terror. The profiles of the main personalities are strong. Powers investigates the bigger scandals and dwells in detail on some of the CIA's most notorious operations, such as the overthrow of Muhammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953. One chapter is on balancing human intelligence (the kind the CIA does) against the electronic sort (jealously handled by the independent National Security Agency). Another asks whether the CIA needs to exist in its present form at all (it has already lost counter-intelligence to the FBI). And all these chapters read freshly, even if the issues are not new.
The theme that stands out most strongly is that the CIA rarely writes the script on its own. As Powers tells it, America's spies mostly struggle to do what they think their masters in the White House want of them. Politically, this feels right, even allowing for the degree of leniency that Powers's sympathy and familiarity bring to his judgements of the agency. Were they only passive and loyal scapegoats? Certainly the men he portrays seem as much victim as villain. Spymasters in fiction may be all-seeing and untouchable. The post of director of central intelligence sounds, by contrast, more like a James Bond ejector seat, ending careers in professional disgrace, plea bargains or murderous friendly fire from ex-colleagues.
A short list of how DCIs have departed makes a sobering read: Allen Dulles, sacked after the Bay of Pigs invasion, which John Kennedy had approved; Richard Helms, who pleaded no contest to the charge of lying to the Senate about CIA involvement in Chile; William Colby, pilloried by colleagues as a Soviet plant after publicly confessing to CIA illegalities; William Casey, who went to his grave denying, unbelievably, that he or Ronald Reagan knew of Iran-Contra; James Woolsey, who departed "like a whipped dog", in Powers's phrase, after a Russian spy was exposed high up at Langley; and John Deutch, who resigned, and took a presidential pardon, for using his office laptop at home, a basic security no-no, never mind the Russian porn they said they found on his hard drive.
George Tenet, the current director, is a canny Clinton holdover who ran the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He survived the dawn of the Bush era, the disaster of 11 September 2001 and the congressional inquiry last summer into whether the agency was napping when al-Qaeda struck. Many Republicans think Bush should have fired him there and then, blaming the Clinton years for the CIA's supposed passivity in the face of world terror. The snag with this is that the agency did not perform badly. It failed, as they say, to "connect the dots", ignoring tips about flight schools and other suspicious activities by some of the hijackers. But no intelligence service could have accurately predicted the attacks on New York and Washington. What Tenet did do was brief Bush beforehand, early in August 2001, on the ambition, capabilities and ruthlessness of al-Qaeda. The where and when was a surprise, not the what. Powers raises, but does not settle, the question as to whether that August briefing was what prompted Bush to speak so readily of a war on terror. Was the president talking, not in panic or ignorance, but from knowledge of America's adversary? Whatever the truth on that score, there is also a less elevated reason why Tenet kept his job. The Bush people wasted the better part of their first year arguing with each other about how to reinvent the counter-terrorism wheel. Tenet knows this, and Bush knows he knows. For now, Tenet's seat looks safe.
There are times in Intelligence Wars when you feel that the world outside Washington is there only at one remove, as if injuries done, say, in Chile, Guatemala or Iran, were first of all to America's high ideals and to its sense of justice, and only then to the peoples of those countries themselves. On the other hand, Powers never lets us forget that critics of what he calls the "salty, try-anything" CIA, buccaneering its way across the world, have always existed in the United States. Almost 50 years ago, David Bruce and Robert Lovett, cold warriors both, were asked to look into the CIA's contentious record of secret operations. As establishment men, their conclusion was obliquely phrased, but their point was unmistakable: they questioned "the long-range wisdom of activities which have entailed our virtual abandonment of the 'international golden rule' . . ." Bruce and Lovett may not have seemed it at the time, but from the perspective of George Bush's unilateralism and his doctrine of pre-emption, they sound like good guys.
Edmund Fawcett was the Economist's Washington correspondent