Spies and Secret Agents

Ken Follett

  • Conspiracy by Anthony Summers
    Gollancz, 639 pp, £9.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 575 02846 7
  • The Man Who Kept the Secrets by Thomas Powers
    Weidenfeld, 393 pp, £10.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 297 77738 6

Anthony Summers’s argument is remarkably simple. There is a tape-recording of the gunfire which killed President Kennedy. The third and fourth shots are too close together to have come from a single gun. Two guns means two gunmen, and two gunmen make a conspiracy.

But who was in the conspiracy? Well, Lee Harvey Oswald was. It is now fairly clear that he did not shoot the President, but it is equally clear that he was set up – probably willingly – to take the blame. He had played the role of patsy twice before. Summers argues convincingly that Oswald’s ‘defection’ to Moscow was part of a CIA project to gather intelligence from inside the Soviet Union; and that Oswald’s appearance in a radio programme, when he posed as a pro-Castro agitator only to be ‘unmasked’ as a former defector, was part of an FBI campaign called COINTELPRO to smear the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and other liberal groups as Communist fronts.

So who framed Oswald? Who wanted Kennedy dead? There are four main candidates. Cuban exiles hated Kennedy because he was going soft on Castro. The Mafia hated Kennedy because he was supporting his brother Bobby in a relentless war against organised crime. The CIA hated Kennedy (although this is controversial) because he was closing down their two big projects, the wars against Cuba and in Vietnam. The FBI hated Kennedy because he fought the Mafia – whose existence Hoover wanted to deny – while encouraging the liberals Hoover loathed.

Which of these groups was in touch with Oswald? All four. Oswald worked with anti-Castro Cubans in New Orleans. Oswald’s uncle and surrogate father was in the Mafia. Shortly before the assassination Oswald was seen with a CIA agent code-named Bishop. When he was arrested Oswald had in his address book the name and phone number of an FBI agent.

Which of these groups contributed to the Oswald frame-up? Again, all four. The Cubans planted press stories that Oswald was working for Castro. Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald, was in the Mafia. The CIA concealed the fact that the man who applied for a Cuban visa in Mexico City before the assassination was not Oswald but an impostor. The FBI took over Oswald’s possessions and tried to conceal the fact that he owned hundreds of dollars’ worth of espionage equipment including a Minox ‘spy camera’.

Summers’s book is full of this kind of heavily suggestive but not-quite-conclusive information. His clear, readable prose and restrained judgment provide an ideal guide through the jungle of names, places and dates, and the undergrowth of interconnections. His main achievement – and in this he has gone farther than any previous investigator – is to show that Oswald met people connected with the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia and the Cubans all in one place – at a building in New Orleans in the summer of 1963.

At this point the reasonable man says: ‘Okay, perhaps a few low-level spies conspired with Mafiosi and Cubans to kill the President – but don’t tell me the CIA did it.’ Roughly this attitude is expressed by Hugh Trevor-Roper, in an endorsement of Conspiracy, when he speaks of ‘uncontrolled US intelligence agents’. But are any of them controlled?

I approached The Man Who Kept the Secrets with eagerness after an American friend who writes rather thoughtful spy stories told me it was the best book about espionage he had ever read. It is a history of the CIA through the life of Richard Helms, who was director from 1966 to 1973. Much of Powers’s information comes from the spies themselves, and while it is a great achievement to persuade such men to speak, they are masters of what they call ‘disinformation’, and it seems to me that Powers has adopted their line on all major questions. Anyway, the book is a defence of the CIA, and as such I think it fails.

Powers thinks the CIA is controlled. The debate focuses on the Kennedy era – because it is assumed that if any American president genuinely wanted to control the CIA it was Kennedy – and the test case is the CIA’s five-year effort to assassinate Fidel Castro. Many Americans have a horrible suspicion that the CIA did this on their own initiative. Powers believes Kennedy ordered it.

He admits the evidence is inconclusive, and he realises that his own conversations with the accused men don’t count as evidence, so he falls back on an a priori argument. In one of its forms it goes like this: ‘Well, who do you think ordered Castro’s assassination – the office boy? It was John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby.’ The CIA has no will of its own, and merely serves the President, so if it was trying to kill Castro then Kennedy must have ordered it. More generally, the evil that the CIA does is no more than the evil of presidents.

The argument begs the question, but it also depends upon an unsophisticated approach to the behaviour of large organisations. A body like the CIA, or the BBC, or Shell Oil, is not commanded by its boss the way a car is steered by its driver. It responds to a plurality of influences, not least of which is the influence exercised by the staff of the organisation.

What makes an intelligence department different is that everything it does is secret (at least until years later). In the case of Shell or the BBC, we can consume the product, read the balance sheet, tour the premises, send reporters to ask awkward questions, and ultimately appoint a committee of inquiry with powers to subpoena and take evidence under oath. You can’t tour MI6, you don’t know what they’re producing, and the accounts are just another secret. When I was a reporter on the Scotland Yard beat we used to get a stock answer to questions about Special Branch: ‘We do not talk about security: that is why it is called security.’ Committees of inquiry are no good either, for the spies just tell them lies or refuse to answer on grounds of national security.

They even keep secrets from one another. Powers tells how a senior CIA officer, William Harvey, gave a Mafia hoodlum called John Roselli four poison pills for Castro. ‘He [Harvey] had run the operation with extreme security: none of the men who even worked for him on Task Force W [the Castro assassination department] knew what he was up to …’ This tale is even more alarming in the light of Harvey’s personality. He drank heavily at lunchtime and fell asleep during afternoon meetings; he liked to play with guns; after Robert Kennedy ordered a halt to all operations against Cuba during the missile crisis Harvey sent in teams of agents; once in an office discussion he pulled a 45, pointed it at someone who disagreed with him, and released the safety catch. This nutcase held responsible jobs in the CIA for at least 15 years.

And the lying spreads. This point has been made by Peter Dale Scott in a contribution to the Pelican Assassinations (1978): ‘The Watergate investigations revealed that many men in government will conspire against the law when two justifications are offered – whether or not these justifications are credible or are actually believed. The first is the possibility of a national security threat (as when Ellsberg’s revelation of the Pentagon Papers was alleged to have threatened current truce negotiations, or to have involved a leak to the Soviet Embassy). The second is the alleged involvement of a government intelligence network or operation (as when on 22 May 1973, Nixon justified his participation in the cover-up by explaining that he had believed, erroneously, that the CIA was implicated).’

Spies deceive each other, the public, committees of inquiry, and finally the man from whom they claim to take their orders. Richard Helms told the Church Committee: ‘I think any of us would have found it very difficult to discuss assassinations with a President of the US … We’re hired to keep these things out of the Oval Office … Nobody wants to embarrass a President of the United States by discussing the assassination of foreign leaders in his presence …’

The CIA cannot be controlled, because what they do is secret and you can’t control people if you don’t know what they are doing. But can a modern nation do without an intelligence service? The answer is yes and no.

In peace and in wartime the important sources of intelligence in this century are: aerial reconnaissance (now done by satellites), wireless interception (along with code-breaking); and information published in books and journals. (In wartime there is one more – ground-level observation on the battlefield.) Actual spies are not an important source. Many of them are dishonest or stupid. Good ones who get good information are often disbelieved because they cannot be distinguished from the bad ones until it is too late. More importantly, spies are often captured by the enemy and used to authenticate disinformation. The British did this in 1944, and there is no question that Germany would have been better off with no spies at all.

Something similar is true of secret agents. (A spy just looks, a secret agent also acts.) In wartime secret agents go behind enemy lines and blow up their railway tracks. Even then their value is doubtful: they are not cost-efficient, and the reprisals which the local population suffers after acts of sabotage create a moral dilemma, to say the least. Secret agents in peacetime are a positive menace. Specifically, the CIA damages the prospects of democracy in emerging nations. Third World leaders know the CIA has an ‘executive action capability’, which means a murder squad, and common sense tells us that a frightened head of state is more intolerant than a secure one. When Castro got wind of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs plan he arrested 100,000 suspects. A handful of CIA ‘assets’ were included in the round-up, but what about all the innocent people who were imprisoned in camps and interrogated? In Cuba the CIA failed, but in Chile it succeeded, and as a result many people have be unspeakably tortured. There is damage at home, too. Three of the Watergate burglars were ex-CIA secret agents, and while it seems they were not working for the Agency at the time, nevertheless they had been trained by the CIA, they used CIA equipment, and one of them was still on the payroll. In peacetime the work of secret agents is secret simply because it is shameful – but now we’re getting into what Richard Helms would call ‘the soggy mass of morality’.

Yes, a modern nation needs intelligence; but it does not need spies and secret agents, and it would be better off without them.

I lost count, reading Conspiracy, of the number of times the CIA obstructed the investigation of the Kennedy assassination. No reasonable man could doubt that they have something nasty to hide in that area. It is by no means unusual in this century for agents to kill their leaders: the Czar’s Ochrana killed a Grand Duke and a Minister of the Interior, the Abwehr tried to kill Hitler, and the Korean CIA murdered President Park. Nevertheless, in the Kennedy case, I suspect that the nastiness will turn out to be something quite simple, rather than a global plot. If the assassins were Cubans, they were probably taught to shoot straight by the CIA. If they were Mafia, they may have been under CIA protection on account of their help with the Cuba campaign. They might even have been CIA men conducting an operation with ‘extreme security’. Whatever the truth is, it seems to me that if we did not have secret agents we might still have Kennedy.