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CIA for Dummies: An Ordinary Guy’s Take on a Spy Agency History
Chris Whipple’s highly regarded 'The SpyMasters' cracks the code for ‘Bob in the Basement,’ a Boston wit with a growing following. He found it both fascinating, but the facts, mind-numbing.
Editor’s Note: Bob Gaudet, a Ph.D-certified educator by trade, has been a professional photographer, political consultant, grants-giver, run a small advertising agency and done widely quoted research on criminal justice and the impact of demographic factors on standardized test outcomes. When the pandemic hit, Gaudet, now semi-retired in Boston, began scribbling as “Bob in the Basement” on a wide range of subjects, including books, for his local library board. It didn’t take long for his wit, wry humor and often pungent emails to gain a wide following, at least Down East.
Since SpyTalk often wonders what well educated outsiders think of our inside-the-Beltway, national security obsession, we decided to give Bob in the Basement a crack at The SpyMasters, journalist and documentary film producer Chris Whipple’s highly regarded account of the many men (and one woman) who have headed the CIA over the decades And here’s what he came up with. You’ll find it … different. And, we hope, refreshing.
Chris Whipple’s The SpyMasters came out to wide acclaim last year but deserves renewed attention with the appointment of a whole new cast of intelligence managers in the Joe Biden administration.
Subtitled How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, it’s a very detailed history that makes two essential points for this non-expert reader: First, developing accurate information about what our potential enemies are doing is really, really hard: Most of what gets reported turns out to be incomplete or just plain wrong. The second point is that presidents generally don’t want to hear intelligence that may require them to make tough decisions.
It’s a fascinating insider chronicle, especially for those of us old enough to have lived through the events from the outside, captured in lively fashion by Chris Whipple, the author of another highly regarded book on how Washington works ( or doesn’t), The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Determine Every Presidency.
It’s no surprise to us that over the years the CIA gotten a lot wrong—the Bay of Pigs invasion, the events leading up to the Iran hostage crisis; the Iran-Contra affair; how the spy agency missed the collapse of the Soviet Union; its role in the rise of Al Qaeda during the Bill Clinton administration; and, perhaps most damaging in the long run, misreading the Middle East, particularly concerning Iraq and its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. That last miss set up the world we have today, laced with terrorists and instability.
The agency got some things right, most notably identifying the threats to the United States from Osama Bin Laden that led to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That the intelligence was ignored was beyond the control of the CIA. While the agency was blasted in the 9/11 Commission report, you could make a pretty good argument that a major goal of the report was to whitewash the responsibility of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush to thwart Al Qaeda before the attacks.
The way Whipple and his many of the players in his book see it, our intelligence and policy-writing agencies are often a few years behind the curve in understanding current threats. They consistently use tools and strategies that might have worked five or ten years earlier, but aren't too effective in the moment. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations failed to understand that, in the 1990s and 2000s, the major threats to the United States came from ideologically and religiously driven terror groups, not Russia, China or other adversaries developing nuclear weapons.
Whipple also reveals a tension between getting something done and getting it done while coloring within the lines and not risking congressional opprobrium. Some CIA officials insisted that its so-called enhanced interrogation techniques (AKA torture), were effective and legal, but in the end Congress and the majority of the public decided they were not within the lines. Likewise, drones at first were just for surveillance. When their mission was broadened to include killing targets, critics pounced.
There’s no one kind of CIA director, Whipple shows, no mold like in the movies. Panetta was jovial and down to earth. George H. W. Bush was the adult in the room, who was kinda goofy but effective in resurrecting the agency during the Ronald Reagan administration. James Schlesinger, Richard Nixon’s CIA director for a few months, and William Casey, Reagan’s gung-ho CIA chief, were arrogant. Porter Goss, briefly a George W. Bush guy, was in over his head. The adulterous David Petraeus was a Caesar-like figure who thought that he could fix anything but was wrong. Gina Haspel, the first female director, started off well but soon faded to irrelevance when she fell under the sway of President Trump, who crapped on the CIA publicly and privately and called his own shots on everything.
The best of the bunch, ironically, was probably George Tenet, a consummate professional who did some things well, but some things not so well at all. He eventually got caught in the trap of Vice President Dick Cheney’s obsession with Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, which left an indelible stain on his reputation. He did last seven years in the job, a modern record.
The one you wanted to have a beer with was Leon Panetta, who seemed more down-to-earth than the rest. He comes off as well in Whipple’s telling as he did when Tony Soprano—excuse me, James Gandolfini— played him in Zero Dark Thirty, the fictional portrayal of the CIA’s hunt for Bin Laden.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from The SpyMasters is that when the agency got it right, presidents often didn’t want to hear it. Prominent examples are Richard Helms telling Nixon that the “domino theory,” the strategic basis for the Vietnam War, “was half-baked nonsense”; Bush’s team brushing off advance warning on 9/11; and, of course, Trump trashing CIA findings on Russian interference in the 2016 election and beyond. You couldn’t tell him anything. Same for the staff bubble around him and so many of his predecessors.
“For the past 50 years, they’re the ones telling presidents things they don’t want to hear,” Whipple told the Los Angeles Times last year. “It’s not their job to advocate policy. They’re the honest brokers of intelligence.”
All in all, you have to say hats off to the spooks and spies and analysts and directors of the CIA who do get it right. It’s damn hard to gather accurate information on our enemies and get it to the people who need to hear it.
The book is organized by CIA directors and the presidents they worked for.
Lyndon Johnson and CIA Director RichardHelms: The Vietnam War was raging when Helms took over the CIA in June of 1966. The CIA analysts—the dots gatherers and synthesizers—had figured out that the war wasn’t going well, despite the assurances of the military that we were winning by body counts. CIA officials on the ground in Vietnam, including future CIA Director William Colby, thought that we were doing great and that the war was winnable.
There were some basic differences of opinion: The Pentagon estimated communist forces at 250,000. The top CIA analyst and his team said it was twice that, 500,000, if you rightly counted all the local guerrillas and underground operatives supporting North Vietnamese forces.
That’s a big difference. Initially Helms was brutally frank in confronting LBJ with the facts, but eventually he started to shape his reports to fit the president’s delusions about how well the war was going. It was no good telling presidents what they didn’t want to hear.
“It’s not enough to ring the bell,” Helms like to say, referring to foreign threats. “You have to make sure the president hears it.”
Whipple tells how in September of 1967, Helms gave Johnson a detailed report on the war that basically said that we were in trouble and that it wasn’t worth the cost of continuing to fight in Vietnam. LBJ didn’t read it. Twenty years later, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara saw the memo for the first time as he was going through Vietnam reports in a library, Whipple relates. LBJ never distributed it to senior staff as he was supposed to do.
This is a common pattern in The SpyMasters: Even when the CIA has accurate information, most of the time the president doesn’t want to hear it, especially if it means that some action has to be taken.
Helms stayed on whenNixon took office in 1969. The president was concerned that Salvador Allende, a socialist who he feared was going communist, would be elected president of Chile. In 1970 Nixon ordered Helms to prevent Allende from winning the election, but he won anyway, demonstrating the CIA’s limits in upending the free election of a popular figure. Eventually, Allende was deposed in a 1973 coup that had the CIA’s fingerprints all over it.
The Watergate scandal, of course, preoccupied Nixon from June 1972 onward. Once his goons’ connection to the break-in of the Democratic National Committee at the hotel was discovered, Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, called Helms in to discuss damage control. Since two of the burglars, James McCord and Howard Hunt, were former CIA operatives, Haldeman told Helms to tell the FBI that it was a CIA operation and to stay away from it.
Helms resisted. Haldeman then threatened to expose a supposed CIA connections to the Kennedy assassination. “What connection?” Helms snapped back, refusing to cooperate. As the scandal mushroomed in 1973, Nixon relieved Helms of command and sent him packing to Iran as the U.S. ambassador.
Years later, Whipple recounts, Helms said that what struck him about Nixon was his arrogance and contempt for the government he led. Nixon “constantly disparaged everyone … He would describe the State Department people as a bunch of pin-striped cookie-pushers who really didn’t have America’s interest at heart…the implication being that the only smart fellow in town was Nixon…. But along comes Watergate, where he uses the most terrible judgment in the world and this to me is the crowning irony of his administration. That here he thought he was such a bright guy and he pulls the dumbest trick that anybody could pull and loses the presidency.”
James Schlesinger replaced Helms in February, 1972. The new sheriff in town thought that the agency was bloated with too many Vietnam War holdovers so he fired a lot of people. He also thought that the agency had done a lot of shady things. (It had; it was an intelligence agency, the tip of the spear in a ruthless struggle against the Soviet KGB. You did what you had to do.)
Schlesinger sent out a memo asking employees to report activities outside of the scope of the CIA charter. He ticked off so many people that he was booted after only five months and replaced by William Colby, a decorated World War Two OSS veteran and CIA insider.
William Colby. Early in his tenure, the report ordered up by Schlesinger, all 693-pages of it, landed on Colby’s desk. “The family jewels,” as it would become known, detailed decades of suspect CIA activities and overreach. Colby eventually gave the report to the Department of Justice and to Congress, where it leaked like a bombshell. The subsequent hearings on it opened up lots of ugly CIA secrets, shocking the public. In 1975, a Senate investigation chaired by Idaho Democrat Frank Church examined evidence of CIA involvement in the murders or overthrows of prominent leaders around the world, from the Congo to Cuba and spots in between.
It turned out that the CIA was trying to kill various people but failed. “In short,” Whipple writes, “Congress ruled that the CIA hadn’t succeeded in killing anyone, though it had repeatedly tried.” Colby had to fall on his sword.
George H. W. Bush and President Ford. In November of 1975, George H. W. Bush was the U.S. envoy to China when he got a call offering him the job of CIA director. Bush, no dummy, saw the chaos the agency was in and figured that he was being set up to take the fall. When Bush, Connecticut gentry via Texas, took over, he made a lot of personnel changes, but did them in person, as opposed to standard operating procedure of firing people by cable, winning a popular following. He also kept a lot of the staff and promoted from within, unlike some previous directors who brought in their buddies.
Bush knew that the agency was in bad odor. The Church Committee Report had devastated whatever remained of its good reputation from the early days of the Cold War. He set out to change that, making countless appearances before congressional oversight committees, giving speeches and countless press interviews—things CIA directors had not done much before—in an effort to redeem the CIA. It worked.
Despite Bush’s wanting to stay on the job (which was the norm in presidential transitions, at least for a while), Jimmy Carter moved on when he took office in 1977. (Whipple says that had Carter kept Bush on, H. W. would never have been elected president. A Republican who worked for a Democrat was not going to win the party’s nomination for president.)
Stansfield Turner. He was in Jimmy Carter’s class at Annapolis. He was a retired four-star admiral who was probably smarter than Carter, who was a nuclear engineer, and is regarded by many as the brightest U.S. president (not that it matters all that much, as it turns out). Unfortunately, Turner wasn’t very good on the people stuff. He abruptly and precipitously fired 820 CIA officers as soon as he got to Langley.
Turner thought that the CIA could replace human intelligence—spies on the ground—with technology. And he had a brittle personality—Carter didn’t even like him very much—causing him to be frozen out of many White House meetings.
One of Carter’s big problems was the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The CIA had put the timorous young man on the throne in 1953, but by 1978, after a quarter century of corruption, savagery by SAVAK, his CIA-trained secret police, and modernization programs unpopular with religious fundamentalists, the wheels were coming off the monarchy. Iran was changing fast but the CIA was slow to catch on: It was plugged into SAVAK and the Shah’s happy talk, but it had few sources among radicalized youth and the clerical opposition. Much to its surprise, in February, 1979, Iranian student revolutionaries overran the American embassy in Tehran, precipitating the hostage crisis that would plague Carter to the very last day of his short-circuited presidency.
“We were caught flat-footed,” Turner admitted. A botched U.S. special forces rescue mission in April of 1980 cost eight American lives and effectively sealed his election loss to Ronald Reagan the following November.
Whipple pauses here to consider if better CIA intelligence would have prevented the crisis. It might have, he concludes, but things were moving so fast in Iran in 1979 that its established sources weren’t plugged in to the brewing revolution. It had gotten comfortable and lazy. It failed to realize its longtime sources were way past their sell-by date. Then again, Carter, like his predecessors, was wedded to the myth of an unbreakable shah. Like them, he didn’t like to hear bad news, Even if the CIA had known what was really going on, Whipple writes, there was no guarantee that Carter would have listened.
William Casey was Ronald Reagan’s CIA director. Casey was a larger-than-life personality who occasionally yelled for martinis at a meeting. He made his own rules. Congressional oversight was an annoyance. He didn’t coordinate activities or information-sharing with the National Security Council or anyone else. He met with Reagan alone. He wanted to beef up covert operations that had taken a hit when its sins had been revealed by the Church Committee. Casey looked to fringe sources to convince him that the Soviet Union was behind much of the terrorism in the world. It wasn’t.
But it did still have an iron grip on Eastern Europe. In 1983, Casey began directing covert aid to the surging Solidarity trade union in Poland, which would turn out to play a major role over time in bringing down the Soviet-backed dictatorship. At only $20 million, the covert action effort was a steal.
It was a busy year for the CIA. In April 1983 Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorists bombed the American embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans, eight of them CIA officers. Six months later, they struck again, at the Beirut airport, killing 241 Marines. Hezbollah also repeatedly kidnapped Americans in Lebanon, including Casey’s new Beirut CIA station chief, William Buckley, who was tortured to death.
Things were getting sticky. On top of that, it would turn out that Casey, with Reagan’s approval, was selling arms to Iranian “moderates” in an effort to have them intercede with Hezbollah to free American hostages. The only problem was that there were no Iranian moderates left in power. They had all been killed by the regime.
Casey also wanted to get rid of the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua that had to come to power in 1979 after ousting the longtime U.S.-backed military dictator, General Anastasio Somoza DeBayle. His backing of the sputtering Contra counter revolutionary guerrilla army was an open secret, and was supposed to end after Congress passed legislation specifically prohibiting the CIA from using funds to topple the regime. When it was revealed that the White House was vectoring funds from the secret Iran weapons sale to the Contras, the whole scheme exploded in scandal, forever haunting Reagan and marring his legacy.
Meanwhile, Americans were still being killed in Lebanon, so Casey plotted the assassination of Sheikh Fadlallah, the leader of Hezbollah. In March of 1985, a CIA agent parked a car loaded with bombs near Fadlallah’s residence and set it off as his SUV passed by. Big problem: Eighty people were killed—but not the sheikh, who wasn’t in the car.
In early 1987, Casey was felled by a stroke. Famed Watergate journalist Bob Woodward slipped into his hospital room and asked him why he had pushed the illegal arms-for-hostages deal with the hated Iranian clerics. “Because I believed,” Casey whispered.
FBI Director William Webster replaced Casey. A former federal judge who had previously run the FBI, Webster was a buttoned-down lawyer who liked to float above the fray, a sharp contrast to his predecessor.
Under Casey, the CIA had been supplying Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan rebels who were fighting the Russians. Webster kept it up. The missiles made the difference as they took away Russia’s air superiority and made the fight a ground game that the Soviets could not win. Its retreat from a bloody loss in Afghanistan would accelerate the collapse of the Soviet Union on President George H. W. Bush’s watch.
Webster had led a scandal-free CIA, and G.H.W. Bush had kept him on when he took office in January 1989. A year later, CIA analysts warned that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was likely to invade Kuwait over an oil dispute. As Whipple tells it, Egypt and Jordan assured Bush that there would be no invasion, so he ignored the CIA’s warnings. In the end, it would cost the U.S. about $30 billion to deploy 650,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to oust the Iraqis from Kuwait, but the “Hundred Hour War” was a military and diplomatic triumph.
Robert Gates. In late 1991, Webster retired and Robert Gates, a career CIA analyst whose previous nomination by Reagan in 1987 to be CIA director had failed over his involvement in Iran-Contra, finally acceded to the top job—not, however, before he faced serious charges in his confirmation hearing that he had slanted intelligence on Russia as Casey’s deputy. The SpyMasters recounts how he worked to change the culture of the agency which, since its inception, had been focused on combating the Soviet Union. By the time he arrived in Langley, however, the USSR had ceased to exist. And then Bush lost his bid for reelection. Gates was gone.
James Woolsey, Bill Clinton’s pick as director. Clinton had never met Woolsey, an arms control specialist and former secretary of the Navy, but he nominated him to run the CIA anyway. The casual selection, based on the recommendation of Vice President-elect Al Gore, reflected Clinton’s slim interest in foreign policy. But on February 26, 1993, he got more interested when a car bomb exploded in the basement of the World Trade Center. The CIA had no advance warning of the attack, Whipple recounts, although the FBI did have files on the terrorists, information they would not share with the CIA.
In early 1993, the war in Bosnia marked the introduction of drones as a new weapon in the CIA’s spying arsenal. Woolsey was a techie at heart and worked with former MIT professor John Deutch, a future CIA director himself but then a top Pentagon weapons official, to fly reconnaissance drones over the battlefields. These became a real resource for spycraft and later, of course, became efficient killing machines.
Woolsey had a famously poor relationship with Clinton. When an amateur pilot stole a Cessna and crashed it on the south lawn of the White House in 1994, wags joked that it was Woolsey trying to get a meeting with the president. He didn’t last much longer.
Woolsey was done in by the discovery of a Russian spy in the agency’s ranks, something that Richard Helms had suspected 20 years earlier. In 1994, the CIA finally tracked him down It was Aldrich Ames, who began working for Moscow in 1985. Ames, who had risen to a top counterintelligence job in the Soviet section despite a notorious drinking problem, had been living way above his salary for years, and yet no one took serious notice. Woolsey had to take the fall. He resigned on December 28, 1994.
John Deutch. When Deutch, a physical chemistry scholar who’d held high posts at the Pentagon and Energy Department, became director he promptly announced that he was going to change the culture of the CIA. He began by massive firings of operations personnel, which did not endear him to the troops. But he also didn’t do much to improve the agency’s intelligence collection either, by Whipple’s telling, beyond ramping up its drone capacity. He also oversaw a ridiculous attempt to kill Saddam Hussein, which prompted a serious-funny FBI investigation. The CIA’s plan was to surround Hussein at one of his palaces, demand his surrender, and then when he refused, blow him up. Saddam penetrated the plot and rolled up the traitors.
The plan was never formally approved, but that did not stop Bob Baer, a colorful CIA Middle East operative, from running the op. In Whipple’s account, Baer was famous for a stunt as a student at Georgetown, when he drove his motorcycle into the university library with his girlfriend on the back, popped a wheelie and went on his way. George Tenet, a future CIA director, was there and never forgot it. (He liked it.)
Baer went a bit rogue and implemented the plan to get Saddam. It failed miserably, with 1,000 Kurds being killed in the attempted uprising. A few months later, there was another botched plot to eliminate Saddam, who used the failed efforts to strengthen his grip.
Deutch followed Woolsey out the door in 1996, when It turned out he had 31 highly classified files on a home computer that was connected to the Internet with absolutely no security. He faced a potential 10-year prison sentence for the flagrant security lapse, but the charge was knocked down to a misdemeanor. President Clinton pardoned him but he did lose his security clearances. He returned to MIT, where he remains an emeritus professor and sits on the boards of several defense contractors.
George Tenet. At the beginning of his second term in 1997, Clinton picked George Tenet, a highly respected member of his White House National Security Council, who had also been staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to run the CIA.
It would be quite a ride. During Tenet’s seven-year watch, we had the attacks of 9/11; the uproar over enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs—known as torture to some); and the CIA’s botched intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Tenet survived all of those for several reasons, according to Whipple’s reporting. First, he was an accessible, popular, rumpled boss who often took lunch in the agency cafeteria with the rankl and file. That bought him a lot of good will when CIA morale was once again in free fall. Second, he rebuilt the agency, improving and modernizing training and stopping the erosion of talent.
Under Tenet’s watch, the agency’s terrorism experts were zeroing in on Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. CIA counterterrorism director Cofer Black was seeing an increasing volume of chatter from Al Qaeda. He knew something big was in the works. He drafted a comprehensive report, Blue Sky, and gave it to Tenet to take to the president, recommending eliminating Bin Laden. Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno were reluctant to do that. But after August 1998, when Al Qaeda agents bombed two American embassies in East Africa, and two years later, when it was the primary suspect in an assault on the USS Cole, a Navy ship docked in Yemen, attitudes changed.
Still, Bin Laden was roaming free. The 9/11 Commission found that our lack of response to these attacks helped convince him that attacking the U.S. was risk-free.
George Tenet and W. When George W. Bush took office in January, 2001, he decided to keep Tenet on as director. The administration’s counterterrorism team, led by White House National Security Council counterterror chief Richard A. Clarke, and the CIA’s Cofer Black, resurrected their Blue Sky paper on the danger of Al Qaeda and gave it to Bush’s national security team—which promptly rejected it as had Clinton. That turned out to be a mistake. “They were in a time warp,” one CIA principal told Whipple. Another opined that they were “eight years behind” what was going on in the Middle East.
The story’s been told many times by now, though it retains its fateful drama in Whipple’s hands: How Condoleezza Rice brushed off Clarke’s urgency, how he and Black got Tenet’s attention, who then took their frantic warning back to Rice, who again was focused more on Iraq and Saddam.
(Remember Helms? “It’s not enough to ring the bell,” he said. “You have to make sure the president hears it.”)
Between the FBI and the CIA, there was solid knowledge that several suspicious men from the Middle East had entered the country and had taken flying lessons. And there were plenty of other red flags popping up. Rice could, and should have, called a principals’ meeting at the White House to lay all the dots on the table, but she didn’t, and the warnings fell by the wayside.
Then came 9/11. The CIA and U.S. Special Forces went to war in Afghanistan, quickly routing the Taliban and chasing Bin Laden and his gang into the Hindu Kush, from where they escaped into Pakistan.
It was a false dawn. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, based on shoddy CIA intelligence, not only drew needed resources away from Afghanistan at a crucial moment but created a regional, unending calamity whose byproduct was the birth of the Islamic State.
Enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, came into disfavor around 2005 when they were prohibited by Congress. It isn’t clear that these techniques actually worked, but they were outlawed.
Whipple cites several sources who say that even accurate intelligence would not have prevented the invasion. From his first days in office Bush was persuaded by so-called experts that Saddam had something to do with 9/11. He didn’t. Ths secular, whiskey guzzling Hussein and the ascetic Bin Laden were like oil and water. Then there was Saddam’s blunted plot to assassinate his father during a victory tour in Kuwait, another motivation to attack. Assured by Tenet that the intelligence on Saddam’s WMD was rock solid—the infamous “slam dunk”—and surrounded by neo-conservatives who believed the United States could export democracy to the Middle East, Bush made the fatal plunge.
By the spring of 2004, George Tenet had been CIA director for seven years. A year into the spiralling Iraq civil war, it was past time to go.
John McLaughlin, a CIA careerist, was named acting director in June 2004. It was his second spin in the chair, having held the acting title briefly in the Clinton administration, and after 32 years in the spy agency, it was basically a farewell tour. Professorial and low-key, McLaughlin was a very different personality from the gregarious, basketball-loving, cigar aficionado Tenet. He was also an amateur magician, but he couldn't make the CIA’s problems disappear in an instant, and certainly not as a temp. After four months as a place-holder, he retired.
Bush had turned to Rep.Porter Goss, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to straighten out the CIA. A one time case officer himself,the right-wing Goss came in determined to save the CIA by purging it of bad apples. Instead, he arrived with his own, a gaggle of committee aides who soon rubbed the senior staff raw with their inexperience and obvious disdain for career CIA professionals. Derisively dubbed the Gosslings for their strutting ways, they quickly drove out the agency’s top managers, obliterating decades of institutional memory, and plunged the agency into chaos. Goss’s executive director also had to resign because he was caught shoplifting. His replacement, Kyle Foggo, had a history of “alcohol abuse, physical violence, philandering, and corruption,” Whipple notes. What could go wrong?
Meanwhile, a post-9/11 reorganization had created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which relieved the CIA of its half-century long responsibility for managing the entire 16-agency U.S. intelligence community. The lines of authority were blurred in the birth of the ODNI, and Goss, for one, never quite figured out the power dynamic. Amid all his other troubles at CIA, he was let go in early 2006. In Whipple’s telling, he was relieved.
Postscript: Kyle Foggo, Goss’s hard-drinking executive director, ended up serving 37 months in prison for fraud, conspiracy, and money-laundering. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
Next up, Michael Hayden. The retired Air Force Generalhad extensive national intelligence experience, having helmed the NSA at the turn of the century and been principal deputy director of the new ODNI. His first challenge at the CIA was simply to restore morale. To much acclaim (and relief) he brought back the senior executives who had quit under Porter Goss. But then came the New York Times asking about the tapes of torture at a CIA black site in Thailand.
As it turns out, the tapes had been destroyed, supposedly to protect the identity of interrogators. After a lot of congressional hearings and hoopla and an extensive investigation by Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats (the Republicans refused to cooperate), nobody was punished for destroying the tapes—least of all Gina Haspel, the future CIA director who had a hand in the affair. But the era of enhanced interrogations was over. Hayden shut them down and went on to embrace the weaponized drone program to blow people up.
Under Hayden, the CIA also worked closely with Israel on some spectacular operations. In 2007 the agency supplied Israel with intelligence to help its warplanes destroy a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria. In 2008 they worked together in Damascus to assassinate Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniya, who had quarterbacked the bombings of American marines and the U.S. embassy in Beirut. They also worked together on operations to cripple Tehran’s nuclear weapons development program, with the CIA supplying intelligence for Mossad’s motorcycle-riding agents to take out Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran. That modus operandi has continued right through 2020.
With the election of Barack Obama came Leon Panetta. A former congressman, Office of Management and Budget boss and White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, Panetta knew where the bones were buried. (As well he might: As a kid, he washed dishes in his father’s Italian restaurant in Carmel Valley, California, noble work that prepared him well for the CIA.)
Panetta was garrulous, swore a lot, knew everybody and brought his dog, Bravo, to work. The laid back Californian even included his dog in high-level meetings on the CIA’s seventh floor. Whipple relates how, when the conversation got tense, Panetta would stop and ask Bravo what he thought, give him a pat, then send him around the table where everyone else petted him and calmed down. “He was a therapy dog,” a participant said.
Likewise, Panetta did a good job of asserting turf control over the director of national intelligence. It didn’t hurt that Obama really liked him.
Panetta oversaw an increase in drone warfare, which had become an acceptable way to take out terrorists, no matter the collateral damage and deaths. As a Catholic, he says he thought a lot about killing people with machines from afar, but he believed that the evil these people did, and could do, justified it. During Obama’s first nine months in office, there were as many drone strikes as during George W. Bush’s last three years.
Panetta was also the latest in a long string of CIA chiefs charged with finding and taking out Osama bin Laden. He got a break when a source in Pakistan came through with a tip on Bin Laden’s whereabouts. In Whipple’s dramatic narrative, confirmed by other reportage over the years , the final intelligence was thin, relying greatly on satellite photos of his suspected hideout at a compound in Abbottabad showing a tall man with a beard wandering around the courtyard.
There was only a 70 to 80 percent chance that it was the terrorist mastermind. But Panetta had confidence in his team. He advised Obama to go. The president agreed, The mission was on. After some breathtaking moments, it succeeded. The CIA was back.
Obama was so enamored of Panetta that he chose him to replace Robert Gates (yes, that Gates) as defense secretary in his second administration. Amid the continuing Middle East turmoil, he turned to a charismatic general who had fine-tuned the U.S. counterinsurgency program in Iraq, Army General David Petraeus.
He was a great soldier—and an egomaniac, in Whipple’s take. He demanded creature comforts, something he was used to in the army’s food chain of rank-and-privilege. But he had trouble adjusting to running a much smaller agency, with different habits and customs, than the sprawling U.S. Army deployment he had presided over in Iraq. He also yearned to make policy, a no-no since the CIA’s charter limits it to gathering and analyzing intelligence. It put him on a collision course with Obama.
Under Petraeus’ watch, drone killings continued, along with taking out civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The casualty figures ballooned into a public controversy. But it was nothing compared to the one following Benghazi. After Islamic militants attacked a State Department facility there, killing four Americans, including two CIA officers and Ambassador Chris Stevens, administration critics pounced. Exploiting conflicting accounts from intelligence operatives and Obama officials, congressional Republicans turned the tragedy into a political circus with endless investigations and hearings targeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. They also went after Petraeus.
The general had a girlfriend, Paula Broadwell, who was writing a book about him. In a messy chain of events, the FBI would discover that he’d shared classified information with her. He was forced to resign and only dodged prison time by pleading out to a lesser charge and paying a hefty fine. Boom, gone.
John Brennan. A career CIA official who’d been a senior national security adviser to Obama, Brennan arrived back at Langley with Syria at a boil, the agency backing rebel groups with dubious histories and personalities, and his reputation under a cloud. In 2012, he had been the first Obama official to publicly acknowledge—and passionately defend— the CIA’s drone kills, which he had helped coordinate at the White House, He had also been knocked for his earlier advocacy of transferring terror suspects to countries where they almost certainly would be tortured.
The Middle East would continue to vex the CIA on Brennan’s watch, but then came the Russians. The Kremlin had targeted the U.S. with disinformation campaigns for many a decade, but its agents and cyber warriors put the effort in overdrive for the 2016 election. The Obama administration wanted to retaliate by cyber-mucking up Russian commerce, in Whipple’s account, but officials were afraid that the Russians would retaliate and whack our own economy worse.
The sorry tale of the Obama administration’s fitful response to the Russians—along with its alarm that Moscow had penetrated Trump’s camp—has been told many times. But Whipple breezes through it again with brio. Four years later this month, the now famous January 2017 trip to Trump Tower by Brennan, FBI DirectorJ ames Comey, DNI James Clapper and NSA Director Mike Rogers, where they laid out Russia’s campaign interference and the alleged sexual kompromat on him in the notorious so-called Steele Dossier, remains stunning. Trump, already stewing about tbe “Deep State,” was fired up even more to tame the CIA. He would start with Mike Pompeo.
Donald Trump came into office having little use for any governmental entities including the CIA. He, like Richard Nixon, saw the agency as populated by clueless elites. Trump chose former Tea Party Congressman Mike Pompeo, a loud voice in the Benghazi hearings, to get control of the place. Trump celebrated by making a tasteless visit to CIA headquarters, where he made a self-congratulatory speech punctuated by whiny complaints about media reports on the relatively small size of his inauguration audience, in front of the somber wall that honors the agency’s dead.
Whipple relates how Trump disdained briefings and believed that he knew more than anyone else. That was fine with Pompeo, who shared Trump’s brash, bullying style and told the president what he wanted to hear. It was not the first time, of course, that a CIA director shaped intelligence to please the boss. Likewise, Vladimir Putin, Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un praised Trump and told him things he liked to hear. The president usually responded in kind, as at the 2018 Helsinki Summit, when he said he accepted Putin’s denials about election interference over his own intelligence community’s evidence.
By then, Trump had run out of patience with his secretary of state, former Exxon chairman Rex Tillerson, who had called the president a “moron” after a meeting in 2017. He replaced him with Pompeo and elevated his deputy Gina Haspel, a career CIA operations official, to take his place. Trump, a fan of torture, had no doubt found Haspel’s role in CIA black sites, including helping get rid of the so-called torture tapes, an asset. She came under serious attack for that in her confirmation hearings and won approval on a largely partisan vote.
Meanwhile, as Whipple recounts, Trump continued to belittle and ignore our intelligence work. On October 2, 2018, Washington Post columnist and Saudi exile Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis at their consulate in Istanbul. The murder was denied by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, but a CIAinvestigation led by Gina Haspel confirmed the Saudis executed the journalist. Trump, who frequently crowed about selling weapons to the Saudis, rejected Haspel’s finding. How did she respond? As Whipple recounts, she caved in, refusing to show up at a congressional hearing in which she would have had to publicly contradict the president—a surefire formula for getting fired. Instead, she later testified behind closed doors and confirmed the murder. In Whipple’s telling, Haspel was a good operative who, like so many in the administration, lost her way with Trump and became a cheerleader.
The epilogue of The SpyMasters, which Whipple constructed on the foundation of his 2015 Showtime documentary by the same name, takes Trump to task for essentially eviscerating American intelligence, which turned out to be just one chapter in his constant dismissals of science and expertise. Ironically, he was done in by the virus that he ignored.
So what’s this interested outsider’s bottom line? The SpyMasters is a really challenging book to read. It is very detailed, with lots of characters and moving parts to keep track of. Bob in the Basement got confused a lot, frankly. I underlined half of some pages, and I am not a big underliner. Still, if you’re even only half interested, you’re going to learn a lot, and be glad you did. After all, it’s about the frontline defenders of our country. The stories about them in here are just amazing, and very well told.