Fans of James Bond and other American spy flicks were in for an hour of disappointment as experts came together at the Jaipur Literature Festival to deconstruct the CIA and its many failures.
It was quite clear from the word go that the session titled 'The CIA and the Wilderness of Mirrors' was going to be a no-holds-barred one as moderator Jonathan Shainin, an American journalist, began with sarcastic references to the spy agency.
He said that though popular representation of these agents was that of "sinister spies who secretly pull the strings all over the world, who topple the government, who pay off politicians, who fund tomorrow’s terrorists today," their work mostly came back to haunt the United States.
American author and journalist Charles Glass joined Shainin with anecdotal references where he first talked about the origins of the CIA and the failures from its very conception. He said that from its very formation in 1947, the agency had agents in the field "torturing people or bribing foreign officials". He talked about CIA’s role in overthrowing an elected parliamentary government in Syria in 1949, on behalf of an Arabian oil company "to have a dictator who would then allow an oil line to go through Syria." The country never really had a democracy again, the effects of which can be seen today.
Veteran American war correspondent Scott Anderson added that early on virtually every CIA operation was an "utter disaster" and got "hundreds and hundreds of people killed".
When asked about the role of CIA in the middle-east specifically and if it "screwed up there a little more", author of the book The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames Kai Bird said, "as a rule it screwed up everywhere". "The history of CIA is a history of failures, one after another," he said adding that even the agency’s so called successes like the coup in Iran or in Guatemala "years later resulted in terrible blowback".
Talking about its current operations, especially post 9/11, Bird said that the agency’s drone program is essentially an assassination program. Quoting from his research work for his books, Bird added that retired CIA operatives believe that "their mission has been corrupted" and the agency was no longer doing what it was originally supposed to do which was essentially the "covert collection of human intelligence to build where diplomats can’t go."
Glass explained that in the 1950s and 60s, the agency rigged the Lebanese elections with "suitcases full of money", organised a coup in Syria and from Beirut they even tried to arrange coups in Iraq. "They ran the region from there (Beirut) as their personal fiefdom," he said adding that the damage they did was "horrible".
The rigging of the 1957 elections in Lebanon led to the 1958 civil war in the country. In Glass’ words "they (CIA) were having the time of their lives" and "couldn’t see" the damage they were inflicting.
As for the Israel-Palestine conflict, Glass believes that "the CIA never did anything good for Palestinians because American policy did not allow anything good for Palestinians".
In another example, Glass talked about how in Vietnam the agency worked underground with people from all levels of the society for the ‘Phoenix’ program meant to identify and "neutralize" suspected members of "Vietnam infrastructure". When they couldn’t find them, they’d look for their families, friends or people who "put them up" and "blow their brains out". According to Glass, 30,000 people were effectively assassinated in the program.
So who’s to blame?
According to Anderson, "almost every operation the CIA took from its inception, they are following the policy of whatever (American) administration that’s in power". He said that with a change in administration in late the 1950s, during the presidency of Dwight D Eisenhower, the American policy changed from being an "agent of democratic change" to "overthrowing democratic governments".
Shainin explained it as "the era of the ‘he may be a bastard but he’s our bastard’".
Anderson went on to explain though the CIA was always criticised for things they never saw coming, the root of the problem laid in the administration which forced the agency to "tell the guy at the top what he wanted to hear".
As discussed by the panel, an example of this was the Iraq War. According to Glass the agency planned to go into Iraq even before they wanted to go into Afghanistan. Any evidence that supported their case for going in became part of the ‘dossier’ and any contradictory evidence was "simply rejected".
"Agents were told not to supply anything else," he said adding that some of the evidence was even fabricated. Anderson also stressed on the lack of intelligence gathering due to which the agency handlers "end up getting blinded and don’t really see what’s happening in the country". Stressing on CIA’s inability to carry out covert operations successfully, he said, "these guys can’t pull off a surprise birthday party."
According Bird another problem is how the agency has become a "bureaucracy" with almost 30 to 40 thousand members, effectively losing its mission. "If you want real intelligence you should probably read The New York Times or (watch) YouTube."
Anderson and Glass seemed to agree with Bird and said the only way to make the agency more effective was to considerably cut down its force.
Another concern voiced by the panel was the secrecy the enabled CIA or NSA to torture or illegally snoop on people. Anderson stressed on how since 9/11 getting any information about CIA’s operations was almost impossible often because they were "simply saving their own asses".
As the discussion reached its end, Glass took a moment to commend Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden for taking a stand against this secrecy and the audience joined in applauding each name.
Busting common myths about the life of secret agents, Kai Bird said that in reality they were no James Bond. Their day-to-day work is actually quite "mundane" and involves a "lot of listening to people and a lot of writing about what was said," said Kai, adding that "it’s hard mundane reporting—Journalistic reporting".
Charles Glass said that he was most certain that the agency had assets in the ISIS and other extremist groups. He went on to explain that many of the rebels in Syria were trained and armed by the CIA in Turkey and these went on to join the ISIS. He explained, for example, that the main Chechen leader was trained by them in Georgia to fight in Russia and is now in Syria. "Of course they know these people, but whether they can rely on them is another matter."