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Cloak & Dollar

Cloak and Dollar: A History of US Secret Intelligence

By Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones

Yale University Press, 2002, £22.50 hbk

Reviewed by

Mark Wainwright

THIS BOOK is very good for telling us a few whats, but appallingly bad on the whys. The whats, for instance, include the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), William Casey, singing the praises of the newly-trained Afghanistan mujaheddin in 1986. Then there is the CIA manual for the Nicaraguan Contras, covering issues such as how to murder people on your own side while blaming the opposition. A great moment comes in 1984 when assassination is ruled out as an intelligence agency policy!

Explanation, however, is the weak point. Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones’ argument is that, ever since George Washington, the first US president, spent 12% of the federal budget on intelligence for ‘defensive purposes’, "there has been a long-standing conspiracy of spies, a great confidence trick designed to boost the fortunes of the spy rather than protect the security of the American people", with the neat twist of self-promotion.

This, however, is going a bit far. The numerous intelligence failures Jeffreys-Jones points to are, of course, very real, the biggest one being the failure to foresee the collapse of the Stalinist states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Ex-president Gerald Ford said in 1997 that the CIA had been ‘180 degrees wrong’ in the 1960s when it thought that the USSR economy would overtake the US within ten years. But this is quite simply an attempt to rewrite the memories: the challenge to the US was real.

When Ronald Reagan (himself an old FBI supergrass – number T-10) was elected president in 1980, he promised to ‘unleash the CIA’. The popular myth is that this played a role in the collapse of Stalinism. In fact, it turns out that the USSR knew what the CIA was doing anyway, as CIA man, Aldrich Ames, was telling them everything. As a Soviet spy, Ames was hidden in plain view of the CIA. He was on a $70,000 salary from the US government, yet spent $50,000 on credit card bills every year and bought his house for $540,000 cash. The economic burden and dislocation resulting from the arms race with the US was a contributory factor, but the Soviet Union collapsed mainly because of the suffocating role of the bureaucratic elite, choking the life out of the entire economic and social system.

Similarly, Jeffreys-Jones suggests that there was never a threat of revolution in the US and this threat was the exaggerated self-justification of every spymaster, including Allan Pinkerton (who organised the US federal intelligence system in 1861) and John Edgar Hoover (director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972). When the CIA was set up in 1947, it was an ‘analytical and predictive secret intelligence capability’. Its stated aim was to prevent any more Pearl Harbours, but not to create, as one senator put it, a new Gestapo. In 1978, the CIA’s cutting-edge intelligence led it to predict that the Shah of Iran was good for another ten years, only to see him overthrown four months later.

Jeffreys-Jones comes closest to the real issue when he mentions the great tussles between the US Congress and the presidency in the 1970s and early 1980s, most notably around Watergate but also over the intelligence agencies. The truth is that, although spies may be self-publicists, the real drive comes from their bosses – governments – who imagine that not only can they collate information but also that they will reap rich rewards as a result.

There is a tendency, however, for the agencies to get out of control, especially in the US. This can threaten capitalism itself. And this is one of the reasons for the passing of the US Freedom of Information Act, and the wonderfully named ‘Government in the Sunshine Act’ of 1976. Spying is not just the bad habit of a few people. It is the hubris of rulers throughout history who imagine they are invincible but are, in fact, just vicious.


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