Nov
01
1997

Happy Birthday, CIA

The press celebrates 50 years of spying and covert action

When the Central Intelligence Agency celebrated its 50th anniversary in September, press coverage spoke of the uncertainty of the spy agency's mission in the post Cold War world. Apparently the press finds itself equally confused; how else to explain the litany of stories venerating the highly controversial CIA as if it were no more than a bumbling ex-president?

Over the years, the CIA has amassed a horrific record of fomenting bloodbaths and coups (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, etc.); rigging or subverting elections (e.g., Italy, Australia, Central America, etc.); and plotting to assassinate foreign leaders (Sihanouk, Lumumba, Castro, etc.). But little of this well-documented history (see William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II) made it into mainstream media's CIA retrospectives.

Typical was the report from CNN's Ralph Begleiter (9/18/97), who, while admitting that "the CIA's past is not entirely glorious," pointed to the "triumph of high-altitude spy pictures and technology breakthroughs hatched at the CIA," and played a clip of a former agent lamenting that moles such as Aldrich Ames had besmirched the character of the organization.

In its story (9/17/97), the slavishly official Reuters news agency didn't even consider the notion that anyone might dislike the CIA; reporter Laurence McQuillan quotes only President Clinton and CIA director George Tenet, as well as an anonymous White House aide warning reporters not to snap pictures of the assembled agents and retirees.

Nor did USA Today's lengthy story (9/18/97) quote any sources critical of the CIA. In the absence of balancing sources, its quotes from CIA boosters amount to disinformation, as in this description of the CIA-orchestrated coup in Chile in 1973: "Ray Warren, 76, from Maryland's Eastern Shore, also didn't lack for excitement. He headed operations in Chile when leftist Salvador Allende was elected president. Warren says the CIA 'helped keep the democratic opposition alive.' Allende was overthrown by the Chilean military in 1973, a coup that ushered in 16 years of right-wing dictatorship." If you didn't know the history of Chile (or the CIA's politics), you might conclude from this passage that the CIA was defending the elected government and fighting the dictatorship.

USA Today's piece was accompanied by a "CIA Chronology." While finding space to mention the CIA's "first recovery of a manmade object from space" (1961), the paper couldn't squeeze in such milestones as Operation Phoenix, a CIA assassination program during the Vietnam War that claimed some 20,000 victims, or the recruitment of Nazi war criminals to spy on the Soviet Union after World War II. (See Martin A. Lee op-ed, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 9/8/97.)

Friend of the Agency

The Washington Post's coverage was particularly unbalanced. In addition to a by-the-book story (similar to the Reuters piece) on Clinton's speech (9/17/97), the Post allowed staff writer Walter Pincus, long a friend of the Agency (see Extra!, 1-2/97), to produce a lengthy news piece (9/14/97) that was clearly intended to rehabilitate the CIA's troubled reputation. "CIA-run agents who had infiltrated terrorist groups in recent years aided in intelligence gathering that helped prevent two attacks in the past seven months against U.S. embassies abroad, new CIA Director George J. Tenet told Congress earlier this year," Pincus wrote. Of course, he added, "Tenet declined to provide details of the operations, including where they occurred."

Pincus was the reporter who penned the Washington Post's tendentious attack (10/4/96) on the San Jose Mercury News' 1996 expose of links between CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras and the spread of crack. Pincus was virtually the only reporter to allude to the Contra/crack scandal in his anniversary article, and he seemed to attach more credence to the subject than he had when savaging the Mercury News' Gary Webb--though Pincus' focus was still more on the CIA's reputation than on its responsibility for its lethal policies:

In addition, new CIA and Justice Department investigations into past agency operations in Central America are expected to be released shortly, guaranteeing more criticism for the agency's cooperation with drug dealers who were also aiding Nicaraguan Contra operations and for training Honduran special forces that later committed human rights violations.

Of course, when you train special forces using tools like torture manuals (Covert Action, Summer/97), it shouldn't be surprising when they later commit human rights violations. Perhaps this aspect of CIA operations eluded the otherwise in-the-know Pincus.

Pincus also touches on the CIA's 1996 coup attempt against Saddam Hussein, a catastrophe which journalist Patrick Cockburn (Sacramento Bee, 4/15/97) has called "one of the greatest failures of the CIA since it was set up 50 years ago." Pincus' take? "The agency has been sharply criticized for its operations against Iraq leader Saddam Hussein by Iraqi exiles and former agency operatives disappointed in how things turned out." The many Iraqi CIA agents who were executed as a result of the botched action were probably beyond "disappointment."

Blunders and screw-ups

The Los Angeles Times at least had the good sense to bill its predictable CIA puff piece by Thomas Powers (9/14/97) as an opinion piece rather than a news story. Powers, like Pincus, portrays CIA wrongdoing as an occasional mistake rather than a conscious, ongoing policy: "Blunders and screw-ups, painful as they may be, are all part of the great game; and a just verdict on the CIA's way of doing business, after 50 years and 10 American presidents, is something better than a passing grade."

Powers does make a valid point in his column when he argues that the CIA is not a rogue agency but one that answers to the president. He derides as "child's history" the notion that Kennedy did not know of the agency's bungled assassination attempts against Castro or that Reagan and Bush were out of the loop during Iran-Contra. Syndicated columnist and frequent CIA critic Alexander Cockburn, also writing in the L.A. Times (9/18/97), used the anniversary to underscore this point: "Maybe the simple function of this 50th anniversary should be to lay forever to rest the notion of a rogue CIA." The press routinely forgets this lesson when it becomes inconvenient, as they did during Bush's presidential campaigns in failing to press the twin issues of Iran-Contra and Bush's tenure as director of central intelligence.

Powers' L.A. Times piece concludes that all is well in spyland. "The big question was always whether the peace could be preserved, and that the CIA helped do. The lesson for lawmakers: Tinker with the CIA all you like, but keep it." The irony of calling decades of violent covert actions "preserving the peace" remains unexamined.

When the CIA was founded in the aftermath of World War II, one might have expected the kind of blind nationalism that fosters such uncritical coverage. After 50 years of documented abuses, it is an affront not only to news consumers but also to the investigative reporters who helped expose the CIA's unwholesome record in the first place.

The press did take the time to explore one heretofore hidden aspect of CIA history: the recipes of former agents and their wives. The release of a commemorative cookbook to coincide with the agency's golden anniversary earned widespread coverage.

Matthew Amster-Burton, a former FAIR intern, is a freelance journalist living in Seattle.

SIDEBAR:

CIA: Caught in the Web

One of the most evenhanded examples of mainstream coverage of the CIA's anniversary was on ABC News' website, where the report opens on a note of caution: "No doubt the nation's leading band of spies prefers to forget about the disastrous Bay of Pigs, bumbling plots to knock off political leaders and an abject failure to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall," writes ABC's David Phinney. "During the 1960s, the CIA experimented with LSD on unsuspecting subjects and spied on citizens protesting the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, it associated with groups found to be involved in torture and executions, and became mixed up in trading drugs for arms during the Iran/Contra era." Unlike most features on the CIA's anniversary, Phinney's story includes a quote from a CIA critic, a representative of Human Rights Watch.

But few members of ABC's audience reaped the benefits of this independent reporting: Phinney's story appeared only on the website, and never aired on ABC TV. --M.A.-B.