Mirror Images

Christopher Andrew

  • World of Secrets: The Uses and Limits of Intelligence by Walter Laqueur
    Weidenfeld, 404 pp, £25.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 297 78745 4

While writing World of Secrets, Walter Laqueur had discussions with the present and all surviving past directors of the Central Intelligence Agency save one, as well as with other senior Intelligence official and their main customers. Such goings-on would be unthinkable, or at the very least unavowable, in Britain. At the height of the Westland saga the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, found time to denounce publicly those journalists who had dared to print the name of the head of MI6, Christopher Curwen. The heads of the CIA and the KGB, William Casey and Victor Chebrikov, are of course public figures. But that, as Mr Ingham would say, is not the point. What the point is remains obscure.

In 1932 the novelist Compton Mackenzie was tried for a number of breaches of the Official Secrets Act which included revealing the name of the first chief of MI6, Sir Mansfield Cumming. Mackenzie protested that Cumming had been dead for nine years, and the judge seems to have regarded that as a mitigating factor. But the prosecution explained that he had revealed details about Cumming of potential interest to an enemy, including the fact that he had a wooden leg and a chin like ‘the cutwater of a battleship’. Mackenzie was fined £100 with costs. Cumming’s diaries are by tradition kept in the office of the present chief at Century House, Lambeth. It may be that, like some of his predecessors, Mr Curwen (who can expect his knighthood within the year) uses the diaries to entertain visitors with their colourful details of Cumming’s pre-First World War disguises. These disguises, however, are not to be taken lightly. Members of Sir Mansfield’s family have for some time been seeking access to his diaries. The Foreign Office, which is responsible for MI6, has explained that the Cumming diaries remain so vital to national security that not a single sentence in them, even as far back as 1909, can be declassified. Indeed the Foreign Office goes further. It concludes that it may never be possible to reveal either details of Sir Mansfield’s pre-1914 disguises or any other part of his diaries.

At present therefore the ‘World of Secrets’ is better explored, as Mr Laqueur explores it, from Washington than from Whitehall. Even Washington, however, has been slow to come to terms with its intelligence community. Henry Stimson took office as US Secretary of State in 1929 in the firm belief that ‘gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,’ and closed down the State Department’s SIGINT (signals intelligence) agency. The success of the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbour in 1941 reflected the Administration’s continuing inability to make good use of the SIGINT it received. Even the Second World War left the Administration still confused about what the role of its intelligence community should be. Perhaps the oddest ceremony in the history of the post-war White House was that devised by President Truman to mark the founding in 1946 of the CIG (forerunner of the CIA established in the following year). The President presented his guests with black cloaks, black hats and wooden daggers, then called his chief of staff forward and stuck a large black moustache firmly on his upper lip.

Under its first three directors (DCIs) the CIA remained uninfluential. The DCI was not even invited to the first meeting of the National Security Council during the Korean War. It was nonetheless the Korean War which put the CIA firmly on the Washington map. In General Walter Bedell Smith, appointed DCI in October 1950, the Agency acquired its first influential chief. It was said of ‘Beetle’ that he was the most even-tempered man in the world: he was always angry. He raised the CIA budget from 4.7 million dollars in 1950 to 82 million in 1953, and secured a sevenfold increase in its foreign stations. The Cold and Korean Wars between them, however, drove the CIA to the neo-Marxist conclusion that its main purpose might be less to interpret the world than to change it. The comparatively painless removal of unfriendly regimes in Iran and Guatemala in 1953-4 confirmed the change of emphasis from the collection and collation of intelligence – the essential and primary function of all intelligence agencies – to ‘covert action’. By the end of Allen Dulles’s term as DCI (1953-61), the ascendancy of covert action over intelligence analysis was so great that the CIA’s own analysts were not consulted in planning the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Since Watergate, the emphasis has shifted firmly back to intelligence collection and analysis. President Reagan’s own liking for covert action seems to be at least partially restrained by the Congressional Select Committees on Intelligence which emerged from the post-Watergate investigations.

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[*] Secrecy and Democracy: The CIA in Transition by Stansfield Turner. Sidgwick, 304 pp., £12.95, 13 March, 0 283 99330 8.