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John Chuckman: Hall Of Mirrors

Hall Of Mirrors

By John Chuckman
June 17, 2003

Perhaps you remember the "fun houses" that were once part of old big-city amusement parks? They were filled with mazes, frights, and surprises. Often, these included a hall of mirrors, a maze of rooms walled with mirrored doors. The confusion of reflections made the maze seem infinitely more complex than it actually was.

The relationship between political leaders and intelligence institutions is a great deal like a hall of mirrors. Looked at from a perspective above, a perspective not permitted most people, the maze may be fairly simple, but it is designed so that any individual trying to make his or her way through it is confused and set off balance.

It is unsettling, though not unexpected, to see the press in America and in the UK lost in the maze, looking for the failures of intelligence that gave us a needless war over non-existent weapons. One has no certain way of knowing whether reporters are just playing a game that continues supporting what their publications supported before the war or whether they are honestly lost, but a reasonable working assumption in all such matters is that they are playing a game.

This business is not limited to the mainstream press. There are scores of articles on the Internet's alternative-news sites covering the same subject. In this case, one feels inclined to believe that much of it reflects real bafflement, since it so difficult to understand why they, too, should play the game.

These articles are dangerous to people's understanding of how government at the highest level actually works, and they effectively relieve the responsible parties, President Bush and Tony Blair, of their responsibility.

There is always a pretense about intelligence agencies being independent sources of information, high-court judges, incorruptible priests, cloistered academics dedicated to a country's interests, influenced only by the reliability of the information they gather, sift, and sort. The CIA was baptized under President Truman with buckets of such swill.

My favorite historical example of how silly this view is concerns the famous Cambridge spies. The Soviets were amazingly successful in the 1930s in recruiting highly-intelligent, idealistic, and well-connected young Englishmen who would one day rise to positions of authority in the British establishment. Perhaps no more complete penetration of an opponent's intelligence service ever took place.

Stalin, with the purges of the 1930s, was convinced that there was a vast Western conspiracy against the Soviet Union, and Soviet intelligence made great efforts trying to support his notion. The precious time and effort of the Cambridge spies was wasted looking for what did not exist, they themselves came under suspicion as plants, and their talented handlers in some cases lost their lives at least in part for not finding evidence of the plot. Later, under the pressure of war with Germany, the situation changed and information provided by these spies was immensely helpful on the Russian front.

The whim of a leader had for a time intimidated many very clever and experienced people in Soviet intelligence from defending what they knew was the truth of their success - that is, that they had placed almost a set of high-resolution cameras well positioned in important offices of the British government.

Power is power, regardless of how it is conferred, whether elected or not. When an American President wants something produced or an attitude assumed by the intelligence services, intellectual integrity and notions of independence soon melt in the furnace of his wishes. After all, he appoints senior intelligence officials. He can decide to a considerable extent whether their day-to-day work is even regarded as worthwhile and useful. He also has a great deal to say about funding. It is impossible for a director of intelligence to long resist a President's demands without being put in an untenable position: the appointed official of a secretive organization unresponsive to the elected President of a democratic society.

Of course, these demands generally are not given as direct orders. They are communicated in intricate and subtle ways. After all, when the CIA assassinates or attempts to assassinate foreign leaders or attempts to destabilize foreign governments, it cannot do this without approval at the highest level, yet no President wants letters on White House stationery directing such unethical activities to end up on display at the national archives.

We can assume, always, with events holding the world's attention, as with the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, that the White House orders support for the arguments it wants to make. Of course, generally, a President will not demand nor will the intelligence people produce material that is immediately absurd or embarrassingly inaccurate. It's up to all those clever people with unlimited resources to provide something suitable, something that only detailed study might reveal as faulty.

After all, intelligence is an assembly of many bits of information, and these always necessarily contain ambiguities and gray areas. Sifting and weighting raw information to present a coherent picture is a prime responsibility for an agency like the CIA, since trainloads of raw intelligence from many sources is useless to decision-makers - that's part of what the "central" in the agency's name implies. So one only has to give some bits a new emphasis or weight to make a case that would not otherwise have been made. Such adjusting of weights later can be defended as resembling one alternate scenario of a corporate plan (e.g., the unexpectedly high or low cases for oil prices). The dishonesty will be clear only to those who understand that the official view already has alternate scenarios, but with the sacred robe of national security casting its long shadow, few close questions can be expected. The pure collection of information is often an inseparable part of other clandestine activities in an intelligence agency anyway, including misleading or destroying those regarded as opponents. Creating information for domestic consumption is an easy, perhaps almost unavoidable at times, part of this work. Despite the solemn atmosphere of honorable service cultivated at CIA headquarters, great energy and resources have always gone into nasty and brutish work - everything from paying off favored foreign leaders, counterfeiting currencies, and secretly supplying weapons to corrupting foreign elections and planting false information abroad.

The agency grew out of America's OSS of World War Two whose leaders and activities were free-wheeling, manic, often comically adventurous, and even absurd. Read the part of Gordon Liddy's book that has Liddy and ex-CIA agent Howard Hunt (members of Nixon's "plumbers") hiding for hours in a bar, peeing into partly-empty liquor bottles, amusing themselves with thoughts of patrons next day drinking the stuff. The book is valuable only for revealing more about the psychology of such people than the author may have intended. An older man I knew in Chicago, dead now, a former submariner, once described the people they sometimes had to deliver to places like Cuba - they were, he said, not the kind of people he would even want aboard his boat if it were up to him.

I mention these anecdotes only because it is important to appreciate the nature of much of the work of an agency like the CIA, work that unquestionably colors its ethics and thinking. It is not the cool, cerebral, above-the-fray campus of academics portrayed in Washington. I think Americans should never forget that it was a former CIA Director, William Colby, in striped school tie with crisp, educated voice, who tattled about a program for the organized murder of twenty thousand civilians in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix, and he knew what he was talking about because he was the one who ran the program.

But as certain people in America are so fond of saying, you don't blame the gun, you blame the shooter.


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