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The Making of the “Good CIA”

In history and pop culture, a wave of revisionism has subtly cleaned up the agency’s image.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, who architects an elaborate rescue mission in “Argo” (2012)

For decades, it’s been an article of faith among leftists that the CIA is fundamentally malign, and has been since its founding. Its purpose was to extend American hegemony; its method dirty tricks (not excluding murder) to undermine popular movements or governments and impose brutal right-wing authoritarian regimes in client states. We can recite the agency’s outrages as a shorthand litany: Mossadegh, Arbenz, Trujillo, Bay of Pigs, Diem, MK-ULTRA, Congress for Cultural Freedom, CHAOS, Allende, Mobutu, “Family Jewels,” Shah, Contras, Afghanistan, Curveball, “Slam Dunk.”

Yet in recent years, the CIA’s image has softened. Outrage against Obama’s CIA-led drone warfare program was relatively muted, and during his administration the agency experienced no Iraq-scale debacles. In academia, the “new Cold War studies” has in the last 20 years painted a more rounded picture of the CIA’s activities during the conflict. Soviet communism really was an aggressive threat in the 1940s and 1950s, and an intelligence service was genuinely necessary, even many leftists now grant. Such studies—by scholars like Hugh Wilford, Penny von Eschen, and myself—have also dialed back some of the conspiratorial froth typical of earlier exposés, arguing that just because the CIA tried to get involved and run things doesn’t mean that it succeeded, or that it held as much sway as people think. The agency was not ultimately and fully responsible for the Vietnam War, or the dirty wars in 1970s Latin America, or the dominance of Abstract Expressionism. Cultural and geopolitical history are just too complex for that.

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts
by Scott Anderson
Doubleday, 576 pp., $30.00

The effect, if not the intention, has been to cool the fury against the agency and subtly recast it in the public imagination. In the last 15 years or so, prestige pop culture has assisted in this image surgery, with sympathetic, textured depictions of the agency in films like Zero Dark Thirty and Argo and series like Homeland (often endorsed by or even concocted within the CIA itself). In these stories, CIA agents courageously put their safety and careers in jeopardy to protect the same people—ordinary citizens of Iran or Pakistan or Venezuela—whom the CIA’s actual plots have done so much to immiserate. The International Spy Museum, which could have been designed by the CIA’s public relations office, has become one of Washington, D.C.’s most popular tourist attractions. Last year, Reese Witherspoon’s book club, an influential force in American bookselling today, put Lara Prescott’s novel The Secrets We Kept—which revolves around the CIA’s championing of Dr. Zhivago and thus links the agency with artistic and personal freedom—on the bestseller list. In this year’s juiciest podcast, journalist Patrick Radden Keefe investigated the CIA’s possible involvement in writing the Scorpions’ 1990 monster ballad “Wind of Change.” Insipid as the song is, who could be against power chords reverberating freedom from the crumbled Wall all the way to the moribund Soviet Union? So what if the song lacked artistic integrity?

A new book on the prehistory of the agency, Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—a Tragedy in Three Acts, continues this project of showing a government agency both essential and partially cleansed of its notorious fiascos and excesses. Anderson sees the CIA’s worst actions as the products of outside decisions by arrogant and ignorant politicians and officials in the executive branch. But what situates his book in the wave of CIA revisionism is his contention that the agency’s operations branch was not full of cowboys and adventurers willing to throw any kind of spaghetti at the wall but was rather led by agents and administrators who were, for the most part, cautious and judicious, dubious about the cockamamie schemes proposed to them by people who would never have to get their own hands dirty.

In the aggregate, this wave of scholarly and popular revisionism about the agency is welcome, particularly in dispelling simplistic or conspiratorial thinking. But it may run the risk of glossing over the magnitude of the political, economic, and human tragedies the CIA caused or exacerbated. More importantly, this makeover leaves us vulnerable to future adventurism and blunders from an agency with an appalling track record, little meaningful public oversight, and a preoccupation with its own public image, and which has long been susceptible to misuse by the White House.

Unlike earlier defenders of the CIA, Anderson establishes his leftist sympathies immediately, recounting the discomfort he felt watching the “political theater” and celebrations of militarism put on by the South Korean, Indonesian, and Nationalist Chinese governments when he was growing up in East Asia as the son of a USAID administrator. Later, as a young reporter, he traveled to San Salvador during the height of the Central American conflicts and witnessed a death squad dump a woman’s body on the street and a military clean-up team retrieve the corpse for disposal. “The very phrase ‘anti-communist’ took on a squalid quality,” he remembers, “when I considered the crimes done in its name.”

How, Anderson asks, did the United States go from being “a beacon of hope and a source of deliverance” to joining the same side as dictators and death squads? The answer can be found, he argues, in the period between the end of World War II and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, which featured several chances for the Cold War to thaw or even evaporate, instead of freezing into an almost half-century-long standoff. And fundamentally, his answer lies with spies, who were the “animating force” of the Cold War, a conflict that could not be allowed to break into the open combat of a third World War.

For Anderson, four particular men embody this transformation: Michael Burke, Peter Sichel, Edward Lansdale, and, above all, Frank Wisner. All served in the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor agency, during World War II—Wisner, Sichel, and Burke in Europe and Lansdale stateside—and were clever, courageous, and comfortable with deception. They slipped into their CIA roles easily. From his cover as a freelance Hollywood producer in Dolce Vita–era Rome, Burke organized “Operation Fiend,” a shambolic attempt to use Albanian tribesmen to detach that nation from Stalin’s orbit. (After his time at the CIA, Burke became executive director of the Ringling Brothers circus—the jokes write themselves.) Lansdale, an adman before the war, was the original “quiet American” of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, pulling strings first in the Philippines and then in a collapsing South Vietnam. Peter Sichel’s German-Jewish family escaped Nazi Germany in 1938, only to end up in Vichy France before fleeing to Manhattan. Sichel joined up the day after Pearl Harbor, worked with Burke in North Africa during the war, and then ran agents in Berlin and East Germany in the early Cold War. His role in Anderson’s narrative of the early CIA is perhaps more central than actual fact merits, as much of the book relies on Anderson’s interviews with Sichel, the only surviving one of his key players.

In Anderson’s account, Burke, Lansdale, and Sichel embody the “good CIA”—the agency that tries to keep casualties and deceptions to a minimum, that doesn’t stab its assets in the back, and that doesn’t get in bed with fascists and tyrants. If there is an original sin of the CIA, Anderson suggests, it was 1948’s Operation RUSTY, the project to help Hitler’s former spy chief, Reinhard Gehlen, maintain his espionage network along the Iron Curtain. “The proposal was soundly rejected by all the CIA officers present” at the meeting to assess it, and “none were more vehement than Peter Sichel.” But, Anderson asks, “what was the alternative?” In the end, the CIA decided to work with the unreconstructed Nazis, much to Sichel’s disgust. The agency skulked away from Eden.

The book’s unlikely hero is the CIA’s second director of intelligence, Frank Wisner. (He turns up in The Secrets We Kept as well.) A Mississippi native and bon vivant, Wisner served the OSS in liberated Romania, where he picked up an aristocratic girlfriend who would eventually cause him security problems, then was named head of the “Office of Policy Coordination” in 1948. Despite its deliberately beige name, OPC was the operations center for the postwar intelligence service, and from there, Wisner oversaw most of the CIA’s more egregious 1950s undertakings. Wisner, in fact, had pushed the CIA to assume Operation RUSTY.

Often seen as a sinister monkey wrencher, Wisner may be best known to the public for dosing unwitting human subjects with LSD as part of Project MK-ULTRA’s research into mind control (depicted in one of the few anti-CIA stories of the last few years, Errol Morris’s 2017 Netflix docudrama, Wormwood). He was also behind the CIA’s infiltration or creation of groups such as the National Student Association and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, whose exposure in 1967 fueled the anti-CIA rage-storm among leftists and intellectuals. And while the CIA was forbidden to act domestically, Wisner also oversaw the wiretapping of American reporters (Project Mockingbird) and a disinformation campaign aimed at American citizens, through which friendly journalists ran CIA-planted stories.

He was no Boy Scout. Yet Anderson stresses Wisner’s cautiousness, characterizing him as “a killjoy … when it came to pursuing adventures abroad.” He was the only administration official to oppose the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh; he preferred “soft power” efforts like Voice of America to “hard power” initiatives; and, when massive East German demonstrations called for free elections after Stalin’s death in 1953, he insisted to the Berlin station chief that distributing weapons to those demonstrators would lead to a massacre.

If Wisner is the hero, the Dulles brothers are the villains of Anderson’s book. Alan Dulles, the agency’s first director and Wisner’s boss for much of the 1950s, loved cloak-and-dagger schemes, the more implausible the better, and particularly relished plots to assassinate foreign leaders. John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, was a dour, dogmatic anti-Communist who preferred dictators and former Nazis to any even faintly pink democratically elected leader. And President Eisenhower saw covert ops as an “inexpensive alternative to military action.” Under their leadership, and (at least in Anderson’s telling) against the advice of the spies themselves, the CIA became the agency so reviled by generations of American leftists, not to mention the foreign populations who were its collateral damage: cowboy-cocky, a friend to despots, heedless of potential blowback, feckless and smug.

Worse, Anderson argues, the agency’s bosses in the White House and Foggy Bottom ultimately lacked the courage of their convictions, wasting two opportunities to end the Cold War early and prevent millions of deaths. They fundamentally misread the meaning of the death of Stalin, Anderson claims, and when a conciliatory outreach could have significantly ratcheted down tensions between the two nations, Foster Dulles rewrote Eisenhower’s April 1953 “Chance for Peace” speech to add “a whole series of hoops the Soviets first had to jump through” before negotiations could begin. (They refused.) Worse, the U.S. played bait-and-switch with Hungarian insurgents in 1956, suggesting via Radio Free Europe that political and even military assistance would be forthcoming but then abandoning them to Soviet tanks and firing squads when the uprising actually materialized.

Anderson draws an implicit distinction between those CIA covert actions that ended in innocent blood (bad!) and those that were just dirty tricks or psy-ops (part of the game). The first, he suggests, almost never originated within the agency, and thus, to some degree, he absolves the CIA of responsibility for them. The others, he suggests, are ultimately or at least largely harmless, and inherent to great-power relations. And Wisner was a master of these, a creative thinker and irresistible charmer who didn’t instinctively reach for kinetic operations to achieve his goals. These shenanigans make for good stories, and if Wisner had had final say, the CIA’s sordid history of destruction likely would have been less stomach-turning. I’m with Anderson to this point.

But for Wisner and his agency, duplicity and disinformation weren’t just tools to be used abroad. When the CIA needed it—and they came to need it quite often—they manipulated Americans, too. And this is unacceptable in a democracy, where, if citizens aren’t entitled to know everything about how their nation’s foreign relations are conducted, they do have a right not to be deceived.

Anderson calls his book a tragedy in three acts, and it gets positively cinematic near the end, as the scenes get shorter, turning into jump cuts. It’s undeniably well-told and vivid, and the personal reflections of people like Sichel give it a granular, first-person quality lacking in other critical histories of the agency, without turning it into a pro-CIA screed like agent Tom Braden’s famous 1967 article “I’m Glad the CIA is ‘Immoral’.” Anderson’s heavy reliance on Sichel’s recollections certainly colors the story in favor of the agency. But in a larger sense, Anderson seems willing to countenance many of the CIA’s hijinks as, essentially, capers, while ignoring the secondary and tertiary effects of those operations.

He breezily depicts the 1953 Iranian coup, for instance, as an unexpectedly bloodless win, and then barely returns to it. But a more responsible book would give more attention to the enduring consequences of that little operation: a quarter-century of despotism, repression, and torture of dissidents; the chaos of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis; the Iran-Iraq War; the standoff with Khomeini and the proxy conflicts in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere (including the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut); the endless face-off with the mullahs and Ahmadinejad; and the ill-fated Iran nuclear treaty. If Iran gets the Bomb, we can trace this directly back to 1953. Great job, everyone.

In this, Anderson’s book differs radically from Tim Weiner’s influential 2007 National Book Award–winning Legacy of Ashes, which has become the definitive pre-Trump leftist take on the CIA: that the agency was misbegotten from the start, and the evils it committed are a feature, not a bug, of its mission. Weiner comes to this conclusion by focusing on the agency as an institution, understanding figures like Wisner as functionaries in a structure that both constrained what they could do and encouraged their worst instincts.

The CIA is no less tragic, no less infuriating, no less destructive in Anderson’s more personalized telling than in the standard leftist one. In his account, the flaws were imposed on the CIA by Cold War ideology; they were not present from the creation. Yet we know now that these evils were not just a by-product of the Cold War: They persisted through the disaster of the Iraq War, through Somalia and Afghanistan and an ongoing drone war. What was once a moral crusade against the Evil Empire became Manuel Noriega, the CIA asset who had to be removed when his anti-communism was no longer needed and his keys of coke moving into Miami became a problem. It became the debacle in Iraq, the failures in Afghanistan, the black sites and the waterboarding and the drones and the assassinations. To this hammer, the CIA, every problem is a nail.

Trump’s retreat from alliances, and embrace of authoritarians, make an active and competent foreign-intelligence service more necessary than ever, to help understand how Russia is meddling in our elections, or what Kim Jong Un is up to, or whatever the hell is going on with TikTok. And that Trump is so gullible, so gormless, so solicitous of foreign adversaries, may make some of us on the left more open to a new understanding of the CIA, if only as a counterweight to the dupe in charge. But one day he will be gone, and the CIA will still be there, with the same mission and character that it has always had.