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The agency: the rise and decline of the CIA.

The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA.

The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA. John Ranelagh. Simon and Schuster, $22.95. In this oddly mistitled survey of that most controversial of all arms of the American government, the Central Intelligence Agency, William Colby is a "boy scout' because he told the truth to Congress when the CIA's malfeasances began to unravel in public, and Richard Helms is a hero because he did not. Moreover, Stansfield Turner and Jimmy Carter were naive, if not downright dangerous, because they sought to run an intelligence agency within the moral context of a democracy, and failed. William J. Casey, on the other hand, is "dynamic, risk-taking and successful.'

Just so we know where we are.

At the core of this study of the CIA by John Ranelagh, a British television producer, is the firmly-held belief that intelligence agencies should not be accountable. Thus, the problem is not the abuses committed by the CIA but the fact that they became public knowledge. It is a debate that is still going on, of course, and those who hold to the quaint, somewhat fusty belief that no agency should be above the law and the Constitution are probably losing in Ronald Reagan's Washington.

The Agency is an ambitious undertaking, nothing less than an attempt to capture the entire history of the CIA since its creation in 1947. The work is mistitled because the CIA, far from being in decline, has blossomed in the nurturing soil of the Reagan administration. Its budget has increased dramatically, its covert operations reach from Nicaragua to Afghanistan, and its contempt for Congress is scarcely concealed. William Casey is a tough customer, the first Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) to hold cabinet rank, and a man who enjoys instant access to the president. Casey got him elected, after all. No other DCI managed the political campaign of the president who appointed him.

The Agency, it should be said, is a serious, nonsensational work-- massive, bulging with footnotes and original interviews, falling somewhere into the maw between history and journalism.

The difficulty is that there are limits to what the CIA or any other secret agency will release under the Freedom of Information Act, which Ranelagh has plumbed. He was obliged, therefore, to rely heavily on interviews with former CIA officials. And there's the rub. Talk to the Old Boys and you get Old-Boy talk.

Defenders of the agency, stalwarts of the Clandestine Services, True Believers, all. Pensioners who grow misty at the mere mention of names like Allen Dulles and Frank Wisner, aging spooks who long for the bad old days when covert operations were what counted before the place was taken over by the damned high-tech gadgeteers who think a satellite in outer space is worth more than an agent in place.

Some of them are identified, some not. Ranelagh has talked at length with Lawrence Houston, long the agency's general counsel, who was present at the creation and a shrewd mechanic for Allen Dulles, John McCone, and Richard Helms. Houston is quoted at length as are men like Richard Bissell, architect of the U-2 spy flight program and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Helms, John Maury, and R. Jack Smith, former chief of the agency's analytical branch.

By and large, Ranelagh likes what he has seen and heard. Considering the agency's track record, the book is remarkably free of critical judgments. There is only the skimpiest rendition of the CIA's nefarious MK/ULTRA decadelong drug testing project, under which unsuspecting Americans were given LSD. Many of them were harmed and at least one died. The project, we are told, was prompted by the confession of Hungary's Cardinal Mindszenty; the CIA wanted to know "how he had been briken.' Testing drugs, says Ranelagh, "showed the CIA to be in the context of time, sharing the concerns of society, not removed from them.' Frankenstein was a scientist too.

During Watergate, we are told, "CIA officials were the only people in town who, when asked, said "No' to the Nixon White House.' Some misconceptions gain a life of their own. The CIA did indeed say no--but not until early July, almost three weeks after the break-in when things were getting too hot to handle. Earlier, CIA director Richard Helms wrote a complaisant memo instructing his agency to tell the FBI not to dig beyond the burglars arrested in the Watergate, "to confine themselves to the personalities already arrested . . . and . . . desist from expanding this investigation into other areas which may well, eventually, run afoul of our operations.' That is exactly the coverup Richard Nixon ordered. He instructed that the CIA be used to stop the FBI investigation, and that, ultimately, is what forced him to resign.

Ranelagh is particularly harsh on Stansfield Turner. When Turner found additional evidence about CIA safehouses in New York and San Francisco where the agency's LSD victims were photographed through two-way mirrors, he "immediately reported it to the newlyformed Senate Committee on Intelligence, and predictably, publicity ensued.' Turner was actually telling Congress what the CIA had done.

Moreover, Turner fired the Old Boys--he eliminated 820 jobs in the Directorate of Operations, for which he will never be forgiven by the inner club. Turner even had the temerity to suggest that American intelligence, confident "that it would not be held accountable, committed errors that both disgraced our nation and, in the longer run, imperiled our very intelligence capabilities.' Turner, in short, is dismissed as a soft-headed idealist who dared to criticize his own agency.

There are errors, some perhaps inevitable in a book of such impressive length. The CIA did attempt to suppress The Invisible Government, of which I was coauthor, and did indeed explore the possibility of buying up all the copies, but Cord Meyer of the CIA, while no admirer of the book, did not visit Random House for that purpose. The error is not wholly Ranelagh's fault; Meyer's role was erroneously reported in The New York Times a decade ago, and will, presumably, be wrongly repeated forever.

The Agency is a significant addition to the literature of intelligence, but it fails as history because in crucial areas it either is free of value judgments or reaches patently wrong ones. The point of view, where it is discernable, is paternalistic and favors security over liberty.

When the author admiringly quotes former CIA executive R. Jack Smith, he gives the game away. Smith says the British understand "the business of the Crown.' For "the Crown has its rights, and people in Britain know that it needs to do certain things in certain ways, and they do not question it. You've got to have some sort of sanctuary in a society's set of values in which secret things take place.'

We do not have a Crown. We fought a revolution about that. They lost.
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Author:Wise, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1986
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