There’s a sort of grim poetry in the timing of today’s news about the burning of two major CIA intelligence networks by Iran and Hezbollah. It was almost exactly 70 years ago, with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that the creation of the CIA was set in motion with the birth of the wartime spy agency OSS (Office of Strategic Services), as historian Chalmers Johnson wrote in a devastating 2007 review-essay about the agency and its failures. Johnson claimed that agency “functionally came to an end” with another surprise attack on September 11, 2001. I think he called it prematurely at the time, but this time might be the real thing.
Hezbollah, it must be remembered, was responsible for one of the most devastating of the CIA’s previous counter-intelligence failures, the 1984 kidnapping and slow, horrific 15-month torture-murder of Beirut station chief William Buckley, grippingly recounted in this 2006 profile by British author Gordon Thomas.
There’s a telling hint at how a disciplined, well-run spy agency can be managed in another fresh headline , namely the Sunday night meeting where Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly patched up a ludicrous but potentially dangerous clash, apparently of his own creation, between his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.
Lieberman had publicly ordered a Foreign Ministry “boycott” of the Mossad a week earlier. He complained that the agency was invading his turf, maintaining its own direct channels to foreign governments that have relations with Israel and are therefore the ministry’s bailiwick (the ministry is in charge of dealing with countries that recognize Israel, the Mossad with countries that don’t). From the list of countries in dispute, including Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, it appears that Netanyahu was using his old army pal Pardo and the agency to clean up the messes created by his phenomenally undiplomatic chief diplomat. The big mystery here is how Netanyahu can justify, even to himself, keeping Lieberman in that job.
Gordon Thomas’s piece on Buckley (whom he knew and liked) is, besides a great read, a particularly useful reminder that Buckley’s murder created a sense of urgency in the Reagan administration to get American hostages out of Iran and Lebanon in a hurry. This led to the arms-for-hostages trade that quickly became the Iran-contra scandal. It’s especially worth recalling right now as a reminder of the hypocrisy of right-wing attacks ( here, for example ) on the Obama administration for its consideration of far milder stabs at engagement with Iran and Hezbollah.
Chalmers Johnson’s piece is particularly compelling as a reminder of the CIA’s amazingly long record of ugly failures, like the failed Cuba invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the calamitous 2002 Iraq weapons-of-mass destruction report, and even uglier successes, like the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.
The Buckley profile is also an important reminder of the CIA’s origins in the World War II-era OSS as a swashbuckling band of mostly upper-class and mostly liberal idealists who signed up to fight fascism. Several recent magazine-length articles shed some fascinating new light on that period. One is this March 2011 Vanity Fair profile of the OSS founder, General “Wild Bill” Donovan, which spotlights the agency’s enduring legacy of amateurish bumbling. The other is this November 3 profile at ForeignPolicy.com of the mysterious Jim Thompson, a CIA stalwart who operated in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and is portrayed as one of the last of the old-school, World War II-era idealists. Thompson, the article says, “fought to stop the CIA’s progression from a small spy ring to a large paramilitary agency—and was never seen again.”
My own favorite portrait of that transition is the unjustly overlooked 1973 spy flick “Scorpio,” which stars Burt Lancaster as an aging OSS veteran who is slated for termination, possibly with extreme prejudice, because he’s resisting the agency’s transition (now I wonder if the character was based on Thompson). His co-star is Paul Scofield, who plays (brilliantly) an aging Jewish KGB agent, apparently an ex-Bundist, who was the Lancaster character’s comrade-in-arms in Spain in the 1930s and during the big war, his deadly sparring partner during the Cold War and finally the only one he can turn to for help when he needs to disappear.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).