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Secret contenders: the myth of cold war counterintelligence.

Secret Contenders: The Myth of Cold War Counterintelligence.

Secret Contenders: The Myth of Cold War Counterintelligence. Melvin Beck. Sheridan Square Publications, $7.95. If the tawdry, nickel and dime affairs of the Navy spies haven't done enough to demolish the James Bond image of spying, perhaps Melvin Beck's book will give it the coup de grace. Beck, a counterintelligence agent with the CIA for 27 years, has chronicled his experiences as a case officer in Cuba and Mexico in the early sixties, and the picture is not glamorous.

Secret Contenders doesn't aim at blowing the cover off the agency's dealings in the manner of Philip Agee. Instead, Beck gives an account of his growing disenchantiment with the myopic anti-communism that pervades the CIA, and he describes at length the thick tangle of bureaucracy that obstructs all agency efforts. In numerous stories which sound like they've been lifted from Get Smart scripts, Beck depicts a CIA more obsessed with secrecy and "proper procedure' than with with efficient gathering of intelligence.

Beck's conclusions are not especially novel, but his anecdotes make for good reading. In one case a psychiatrist is flown to Mexico City to test the loyalty of a double agent by inducing a state of instant hypnosis. Clouseau himself could not have failed more spectacularly. In another, CIA agents go to great trouble to bug the apartment of a KGB agent only to be treated to a tape recording of small talk and sex. These, Beck says, are "operations for operations' sake'; they're done because the spooks think that's what spooks should do, whether they're useful or not.

Even putting aside such follies, the CIA doesn't make life easy for itself. By obsessively compartmentalizing activities and information, the agency exacerbates the turf wars which naturally arise in large organizations. If this is the price of secrecy, it may sometimes be unaffordable. A case officer on the Cuba detail during the Bay of Pigs, Beck claims to have had data indicating Cuban and Russian foreknowledge of the invasion. But, he says, he couldn't alert the appropriate people because they were in a separate division.

Intelligence work, as Beck doesn't hesitate to say, is a lot of drudgery most of the time. Mountains of paper have to be digested, and endless hours are spent writing reports. And, as Beck shows, much of this elaborate ritual does little more than keep the perception of the menacing adversary potent for the folks at home.
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Author:Schapiro, Mark
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1985
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