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17 September 2001

The end of the open society?

Terror in America - Frances Stonor Saunders on how the CIA stands to gain from its own inco

By Frances Stonor Saunders

The attack was unannounced, brutally swift, and it “startled us like some gigantic, dissonant fireball in the night of our false security”. So wrote the American diplomatist David Bruce, as he recalled the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Its ghastly memory was revived this week as the towers of the World Trade Center exploded into flames.

The comparison drawn by commentators between the two events achieved an immediate and obvious impact: both aggressions were of such magnitude to engrave themselves into the national consciousness, and to shock the country out of its cultural innocence (in America, cultural innocence can be lost, then retrieved, then lost again).

But Pearl Harbor has another startling lesson to impart. Just months before the Japanese aerial attack, President Roosevelt had complained “that the scattered [intelligence] reports which come to his desk were hopelessly confusing”. Pearl Harbor was to make the costs of this confusion painfully evident.

During the previous two decades of isolationism, America’s facilities for collecting and analysing information about other countries’ governments and armies had languished. “Intelligence”, as such, was handled by the military services, which had their own narrow fields of interest. Within the State Department’s Foreign Service, the diplomats had long since reverted to form, chatting up foreign ministers and other ambassadors for information.

It was as a direct result of Pearl Harbor that a central intelligence agency was created. Called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), its architect and chief was William “Wild Bill” Donovan. Donovan stressed that America’s first concern should be defence against foreign enemies. The mandate, declared his deputy (and future CIA director) Allen Dulles, was “to rid the world of bandits”.

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In wartime, the Office of Strategic Services performed well, and in late 1944 William Donovan, at the request of President Roosevelt, submitted a secret memo outlining the creation of a permanent intelligence service. The memo was leaked to the press by the perennial enemy of the OSS, the FBI director J Edgar Hoover. His ploy was successful. A Congressional uproar followed, and the White House ordered the whole matter tabled. But by April 1945, Roosevelt had revived Donovan’s proposal. A week later, the president was dead. His successor, Harry Truman, wanted no part of a “peacetime Gestapo”, and issued an order for disbanding the OSS.

After intense lobbying from William Donovan, Truman finally caved in and created the Central Intelligence Group on 22 January 1946 – reconstituted as the Central Intelligence Agency in July 1947. As its name suggests, “intelligence” was meant to be the basic function of the agency. The Intelligence Division was, and still is, responsible for assembling, analysing and evaluating information from all sources, and for producing intelligence reports on any country, person or situation for the president and the National Security Council, the president’s top advisory group on defence and foreign policy. All information – military, political, economic, scientific, industrial – is grist for this division’s mill. It is organised by geographical sections that are served by resident specialists from almost every profession and discipline.

But what intelligence has this uber campus produced over the years? In June 1950, communist forces from the North invaded South Korea. The CIA failed to acquire any advance notice of this aggression. More recently, it failed to warn of the hijacking and destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, or the attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Perhaps it has been too busy installing a succession of repressive military regimes led by neo-Nazis (Greece, 1949), ultra-right monarchists (Iran, 1953), death-squad dictators (Guatemala, 1954), and pro-Falangists (Lebanon, 1959), while also substantially aiding such regimes as the government of South Africa (recent disclosures prove that it was the CIA that first turned Nelson Mandela over to the police force in South Africa for incarceration). Additionally, and in breach of its own charter which forbids activity on domestic soil, it spied on and harassed tens of thousands of American citizens.

Bruised by successive exposes of its spectacular failures, and disorientated by the end of the cold war it was initially created to fight – and whose denouement it also failed to predict – the CIA has struggled to maintain its credibility and budget with Congress. “Like Dorothy Parker and the things she said, the CIA gets credit or blame both for what it does and for many things it has not even thought of doing,” a CIA officer once complained. For what it failed to think of, heads will now certainly roll at the highest levels of America’s incompetent intelligence establishment (and this includes the CIA’s jealous older sibling, the FBI).

But it would be a mistake to believe that the future of America’s intelligence services now lies buried in the rubble of the World Trade Center. After the recriminations, the CIA’s bona fides will be enhanced, rather than diminished, by this event. It’s possible to imagine the private optimism of many of its embattled officials: for if ever there was a case for renewed political and financial investment in this institution, it will find vigorous advocacy now.

Asked during a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday afternoon whether the government had any inkling that such an attack on American targets might occur, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, replied tersely: “We do not discuss intelligence.” Exactly. “Secrecy,” wrote Malcolm Muggeridge in The Infernal Grove, “is as essential to Intelligence as vestments and incense to a Mass . . . and must at all costs be maintained, quite irrespective of whether or not it serves any purpose.” American civilians have paid a very heavy price for the secrecy bankrolled by their pay cheques. If the shutters are to fall on the open society, it had better be worth it.

Frances Stonor Saunders is author of Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the cultural cold war (Granta, £9.99)

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