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Last Updated:5/22/03

Book review by James M. Wall.

Christianity & Crisis.

National Insecurity: U.S. Intelligence After the Cold War, edited by Craig Eisendrath (Temple University Press, 2000)

Veteran diplomats, former congressional staff members and journalists who specialize in intelligence coverage, join forces in this collection of essays to call for a total overall of U.S. intelligence strategy. The Cold War has been over for almost a decade, enough time for these writers to view the past with a sober and critical eye and anticipate a future for intelligence gathering that respects human rights and international law without giving up the important assignment of information gathering for the protection of U.S. security.

Craig Eisendrath, the book's editor, writes in a concluding chapter that the essays were motivated by a desire to find the best possible intelligence system, one that serves the national interest and does the least possible harm here and abroad. The ten authors assembled for the book by the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based research organization, examine the failures and successes of the various intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and conclude that there is no present moral or practical justification for the extremity of illegal and nondemocratic actions that the United States practiced during the Cold War.

The authors are especially harsh on covert action which Melvin A. Goodman, former CIA operative, defines as a secret operation to influence governments, events, organizations, or persons in support of a foreign policy in a manner that is not attributable to the United States. Destabilizing foreign governments, influencing elections, and fermenting civil unrest are all practices which were never included in the National Security Act of 1947 which created three U.S. agencies, the CIA, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, but which were practiced throughout the Cold War era.

Following the end of World War II, CIA operatives provided undercover support for democratic forces in elections in Italy, France and Japan, usually without the knowledge of the resident U.S. ambassador. Those early covert successes helped prevent the election of communist governments, but they also set a bad example and encouraged subsequent failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and make illegal use of federal funds in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. And more recently, with an intelligence budget (estimated at 60%) designed to gather information on activities in the Soviet Union, no intelligence agency predicted the 1991 sudden collapse of the communist empire.

Nor has the end of the Cold War ended U.S. intelligence failures. With its budget still at a high Cold War level, the U.S. still failed to detect the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, allowed U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq to be compromised as intelligence agents, bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in error because of an outdated city map, and conveniently destroyed historical records about CIA activities in Iran in the 1950s.

Goodman points out that while defenders of covert action justify the practice as essential to U.S. security, he quotes a cogent comment from Hodding Carter III, a former State Department official: covert action is by definition outside the ambit of democracy. A series of case studies in this book acknowledges occasional successes of the intelligence services, but the overall impression is clear: Our government played secrecy games with U.S. tax dollars that too often read like a poor espionage novel in actions that encouraged dictators, drug dealers, and oppressive governments over the legitimate voices in the local populations.

Robert E. White, former ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador, writes in a chapter entitled Too Many Spies, Too Little Intelligence that from the overthrow of the government of Guatemala to the Iran-Contra fiasco of the 1980s, the CIA not only violated solemn treaties but allied us with the most violent, reactionary elements of Latin American society. This perversion of American values led the CIA to suppress democracy, free speech, and human rights in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Panama. The torture and assassination of democratic leaders, including presidential candidates journalists, priests and union officials, became commonplace.

That the security forces worked at odds with the U.S. foreign service is a constant theme in the chapters that reexamine the past. Ambassador White, who arrived at his post in El Salvador a few months before the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, is especially critical of the arrogance of CIA officials who had aligned the U.S. with forces of the extreme right in El Salvador. With the support of President Jimmy Carter, White denounced the killing of Romero and in a burst of rare diplomatic candor, openly accused right-wing military leaders of conspiring in Romero's murder. White was forced to fire his CIA station chief when he refused to carry out the ambassador's instructions to gather information on violent right-wing officials, many of whom were actually on the U.S. payroll.

Until he was replaced by the Reagan administration, White continued to veto all lethal military assistance until the Salvadorian army's human-rights record improved in the government's dealing with leftist rebels. Reagan's election halted Carter's human rights strategy, and in El Salvador led to an all-out effort to defeat the rebels. White adds that it took ten years, 75,000 murdered civilians and a million Salvadorian immigrants to pry U.S. policy loose from the misguided attempt to put down what proved to be one of the strongest, most resourceful guerrilla movements ever seen in Latin America.

Tragic and costly mistakes came about because the CIA from the start went beyond its assignment to gather information for the president and the Congress. Instead, the agency has sought to shape U.S. foreign policy by covert action in what Eisendrath summarizes as paramilitary operations, election rigging, misinformation, massive electronic eavesdropping, and aiding and abetting a host of the world's most undesirable characters.

President Clinton's 1996 Intelligence Oversight Board, asked to investigate the CIA station's role in Guatemala, found, according to Ambassador White, that the Agency had been working at cross-purposes with the Ambassador and that CIA officers had lied to Congress about their activities. White asks: What possible defense could be made for the CIA's backing of a campaign of torture and terror that ended up killing an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans? There was nothing at stake in Guatemala that could have possibly justified support for barbarism.

One of the recommendations made by Eisendrath is to ask Congress to make it illegal for the CIA to utilize journalists, clergy and Peace Corps volunteers for intelligence gathering purposes. These U.S. citizens on foreign soil need to be free of a suspicion that undermines their relationship with the people with whom they work. Still other foreign alliances must be curtailed. One of the book's authors, Alfred W. McCoy, documents the Agency's support of drug traffickers from Laos to Central America; he calls for the end of the CIA's protection of foreign agents from U.S. Drug Enforcement officials. President Clinton has ordered the CIA to protect American citizens from drug traffickers, but as several authors in this book point out, the CIA is hopelessly compromised by past alliances.

The book concludes with the reminder that there is no need to embrace childish optimism in dealing with future threats to national security; the U.S. must continue to watch its flanks and backside. There will continue to be powerful and unstable countries that must be watched, international terrorists who need to be stalked; nuclear materials that need to be tracked; and chemical and biological weapons that need to be monitored. But these tasks must be carried out in full compliance with the laws of a free and open society.

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