Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Essential CIA

Published in American Legion Magazine on January 10, 2003


Since Sept. 11, Americans have grown more aware of the Central Intelligence Agency’s singular contribution to our war against terrorism. In Afghanistan the CIA has provided vital strategic and tactical information for U.S. and allied troops in their efforts to destroy the elusive and dug-in Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. These fanatical terrorists insist that the deadly assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are just punishment for the Great Satan.

Over the years, most Americans have quietly accepted the need for foreign intelligence activities by our government, including spying and covert action. Such activities, in their view, are essential to defend our national security and are compatible with democracy and the American ethic. This view is especially strong among our fighting men and women who know firsthand the importance of tactical intelligence.

Among intellectuals and media elites, however, the CIA has all too often been a target of unjustified criticism, even derision. To be sure, covert action abroad and intelligence gathering at home pose serious problems for an open society.

In a real sense, espionage, which T.S. Eliot aptly called “a wilderness of mirrors,” is a necessary evil. But it is more. Properly conducted, spying and covert action are necessary and good in a just struggle. And who doubts that American’s war against terror is just?

Espionage is as old as history. In the Old Testament we read that Moses sent spies into the land of Canaan to see whether “the cities they dwell in are camps or strongholds.” (Numbers: 13:17-19)

Cold War Dilemmas

The Cold War was unique because one adversary was fueled by a crusading ideology while the other was constrained by its democratic policy and humane ethic. Yet, Moscow and Washington both employed similar means to advance their interest abroad—persuasion, economic and military aid, espionage, and covert action. Both were engaged in covert activities in the Third World.

Chile is a case in point. The Marxist takeover in Santiago in 1970 by Salvador Allende became a flashpoint in the Cold War. American critics of the CIA seized upon events there to denounce the agency’s involvement before and after the September 1973 coup that overthrew the Marxist regime. Specifically, they charged the agency with complicity in an assassination to prevent Allende from becoming president after he had won one-third of the vote.

The events surrounding the coup which made General Augusto Pinochet leader of the post-Allende junta sparked my interest. So, along with two academic colleagues, I spent ten days in Santiago in July 1974 to examine the situation. The Nixon administration was seeking to mitigate the junta’s human rights abuses without reviving the Marxist threat. As realists, we assumed that the CIA and KGB were involved in Chilean affairs and that the CIA made mistakes.

Focusing on events surrounding the coup, we interviewed all sides: American, Chilean, Red Cross, and UN officials; former president Eduardo Frei; the wife of Ambassador Orlando Letelier, who had served in Washington; junta general Gustavo Leigh Guzman; Raul Cardinal Silva Henrequez, and many others. The Marxists we talked with claimed that Allende was killed by the plotters, but his personal physician told us exactly how Allende had died. Minutes before the soldiers reached the president’s second-story palace office, Allende shot himself in the head.

After spending hours with the U.S. ambassador David Popper and other embassy officials, I concluded that whatever the CIA may have done to scuttle Allende’s election in 1970, it was not involved in the coup that deposed him. I reported my findings at a House subcommittee hearing to the consternation of several members who saw the agency as a “rogue elephant.”

Seizing on Chile as a prime example of the CIA’s perfidy, critics quickly organized a high-powered “anti-intelligence lobby,” which, according to ambassador Charles M. Lichenstein, openly sought to “diminish if not abolish existing U.S. capabilities in clandestine collection, counterintelligence, and particularly covert operations.” This effort eventually included ACLU activists, renegade CIA officer Philip Agee, and former Pentagon consultant Morton Halperin, who provided Agee with classified information for his KBG-assisted book attacking the CIA.

These CIA critics sought to discredit and dismantle what they called “the nation’s vast surveillance network” at home and abroad. They supported the 1974 Hughes-Ryan Amendment requiring the president to inform in advance eight different congressional committees of CIA plans for covert operations. This seriously curtailed sensitive activities aboard. Senator Patrick Moynihan said Hughes-Ryan reflected the bizarre view that America was more threated by the “activities of the U.S. Government” than by those of Moscow. In 1980, it was replaced by the Intelligence Accountability Act, which required that only two committees be informed.

TV Networks vs. the CIA

The elite media also had a field day trouncing the CIA. In an intensive content analysis of the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening TV news from January 1974 through October 1978, I found that only five per cent of their reporting on intelligence was devoted to Soviet-bloc agencies; 95 per cent dealt with the CIA. More disturbing, the networks portrayed the CIA as operating in a political and moral vacuum devoid of threats and adversaries, like some villainous Don Quixote tilting at vaporous windmills. Further, the networks cast the CIA in an overwhelmingly negative light—68.2 per cent of the stories were unfavorable; only 13.9 were favorable. (See my book, The CIA and the American Ethic, 1979.)

Is Covert Action Just?

Throughout the Cold War, I insisted that the just war doctrine is an appropriate guide for assessing CIA activities. Responsible covert operations are essential to our security and freedom because they provide a range of policy options short of open war. Clandestine action inside another state requires secrecy and deception, is usually illegal, and sometimes lethal. Yet such activities are morally admissible if they meet the basic just war criteria: just intention, just and proportional means, and a probable just outcome. Who doubts that an Allied victory in World War II—with countless covert operations and massive deception—served a just cause and was morally superior to permitting an Axis victory?

“In wartime,” wrote Churchill, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Varieties of Covert Action

The just war argument and common sense did little to convince critics like Senator Frank Church, who, in the name of congressional oversight, severely restricted covert operations. The emasculation of agency activities reached its apogee under President Carter’s CIA Director, Stansfield Turner. In 1977, Turner fired 400 of his experts that kept an eye on Soviet behavior abroad. His excessive reliance on technical intelligence at the expense of human assets (i.e., real people risking their lives for freedom) demoralized the staff and made it virtually impossible to respond effectively to the Iran hostage crisis the following year. These self-inflicted wounds also contributed to serious U.S. reverses in Angola, Ethiopia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Congress and the Carter White House must share the blame for these disasters.

Back in 1953 when the CIA had a freer hand, it supported a coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mossadegh in Iran and restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne. For the small cost of hiring several hundred Iranians to demonstrate against Mossadegh’s Soviet-backed regime, Washington helped restore a friendly one that helped provide twenty-five years of stability in the Persian Gulf.

Covert action takes many forms, from the CIA’s provision of newsprint to the only opposition newspaper during Allende’s regime, to assisting the Contras to unseat the Soviet-backed Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The most controversial action, the assassination of a national leader, was banned by President Gerald Ford in a mid-1970’s Executive Order which is still in force.

Can Tyrannicide Be Justified?

The moral and practical arguments against tyrannicide, which George Bernard Shaw once called “the extreme form of censorship,” are strong, but not absolute. Iraq provides an example. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threated the oil fields in Saudi Arabia, I argued that he was an appropriate candidate for justifiable tyrannicide. Such an extreme act was not American’s responsibility, but that of the Iraqi people. I cited Abraham Lincoln, who asserted the right of any people to overthrow a tyrant by violent means, including, by inference, assassination. Such a drastic act, said Lincoln, can be justified when the tyrant has been in power a long time, when all legal and peaceable means for ousting him have been exhausted, and when the prospects for his early departure are dim. Then, his long-suffering people have a right to strike. At the same time, Lincoln warned that “it is the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments.” Under certain circumstances, I argued, Washington would be morally justified in providing technical assistance to citizens seeking to remove their own tyrant. But I did not rule out more direct means.

Berlin, Stasi, and the KGB

In September 1991, two years after the Berlin Wall had fallen and exactly forty-four years after my first visit, I was again in the city. In 1947, I had seen Hitler’s empty chancellery office and the spot where his and Eva Braun’s bodies had been dowsed with gasoline and burned. Now Berlin, soon to be the capital of a reunited Germany, was again a major actor in world politics.

A staunch anti-Nazi and anti-communist German friend and I visited the former Gestapo and Stasi headquarters. Stasi, the East German State Security Service, was run by the KGB. Its senior KGB advisor was Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s president.

Inside the large brick Stasi complex, now a ghoulish museum, we saw numerous portraits and busts of Marx and Lenin, but only a few of Stalin. The rows of empty files bore silent witness to the brutality and paranoia that had reigned there. As we left, I noticed four spray-painted words on the wall in English: “Piss off, Nazi Pigs!”

This cryptic, if inelegant, slogan symbolized the demonic kinship of the two totalitarian systems, each hell-bent on making the world over in its own image. The Gestapo and the KGB were sinister soul brothers. Established by Lenin as the “sword and shield” of the Communist Party, the KGB (originally called the OGPU) did battle against its perceived internal and external enemies. Given the KGB’s sweeping powers of investigation, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, and punishment, the Soviet judicial system was little more than an adjunct. A state within a state, the KGB rivaled the power of the Communist Party and the Red Army.

Out of deep moral and political confusion, some American liberals equated the CIA with the KGB, which is like equating Lincoln and Lenin. In his lofty ideological symmetry, British spy novelist John Le Carré was fond of putting the CIA and the KGB in the same moral pod. Of course, both used deception and occasionally violence, but there is a profound difference in intent and consequences. At root, the CIA fought for freedom and democracy and the KGB fought to uphold Soviet tyranny and expansion. The CIA is constrained by the rule of law, while the KGB was often a law unto itself.

Now the Soviet Union and its KGB are gone, but the need for a vigilant CIA remains. Russia still has 6,000 nuclear warheads. Tyrants still brutalize their people and the totalitarian temptation has not been exorcised. The Axis of Evil is a dangerous reality.

Technology has changed, but evil still threatens. The enduring need for espionage was acknowledged in a parable of Jesus (Luke 14:31-32): “What king will march to battle against another king, without first sitting down to consider whether with ten thousand men he can face an enemy coming to meet him with twenty thousand?”

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