Joseph J. Trento's The Secret History of the CIA builds a detailed, 500-page case that this country's most famous intelligence agency leaks like a sieve.
Drawing on investigative journalism plus the testimony of intelligence insiders, Trento argues that "moles" (hostile penetration agents) have always been present within the CIA — to sow disinformation and to spirit away the crown jewels of U.S. intelligence. For Trento, recent cases like Soviet-controlled CIA mole Aldrich Ames and his FBI counterpart Robert Hanssen aren't anomalies. If "intelligence" were as important as the CIA claims, the Soviets would have won the Cold War.
Trento supports his thesis with some surprising testimonials. Many writers about the CIA are sour malcontents or outsider journalists. Trento began as an outsider, but his scoops of the '70s attracted the attention of intelligence insiders with stories to tell and axes to grind. Trento's informants here include the late William R. Corson, war hero and JFK intimate, and the late James Jesus Angleton, the spectral faux-Englishman who ran the CIA's most grandiose "mole hunts." Trento may well have gotten too close to these sources, but their commentary adds a spooky edge to his argument.
Readers not immersed in intelligence literature may have trouble sorting out the various elements in Trento's dense narrative: Trento's indubitable discoveries; his more dubious speculations; and matters that may not be common knowledge, but nevertheless form part of the public record.
As an example of the latter, take the CIA-Nazi connection. Foreseeing trouble with the Soviets after the Second World War, U.S. wartime intelligence cut a deal with unrepentant Nazi general Reinhard Gehlen, head of Hitler's anti-Soviet intelligence operation. Rather than winding up in jail, Gehlen and his cronies were installed at the heart of what was to become the CIA. Supposedly, Gehlen was to be to U.S. intelligence what Wernher von Braun, another Nazi, became to American rocket science.
Morality aside, Trento argues, this ploy undermined the CIA at its birth by allowing Gehlen's Nazi clique to inflate the Soviet threat — and so their own value and importance. This was a fatal precedent: For decades, the CIA suppressed analysis that revealed that the Soviet economy was a hollow shell.
Furthermore, Gehlen's Nazi team was mole-infested. Gehlen's fair-haired boy was a Russian named Orlov, a supposed anti-Soviet defector. Trento argues persuasively that Orlov was really a KGB mole who had started his intelligence career by betraying his own father to Stalin's NKVD. Orlov went on to a career in U.S. intelligence, as did George Weisz, a Hungarian whom Trento also identifies as a KGB mole. Weisz wound up working at the White House. Their stories count as Trento discoveries.
Orlov had plenty of KGB company at the famous CIA tunnel that tapped into East Berlin's phone system in the early '50s. Largely forgotten today, this tunnel made the reputations of William Harvey and others at the CIA's Berlin base, men who later helped run the CIA. Yet the "intelligence" this tunnel yielded was entirely Soviet disinformation. Orlov aside, English techie George Blake, who worked on the tunnel, was eventually exposed as a Soviet mole. Nevertheless, recent books about the CIA still hail this tunnel's supposed success.
Harvey also labored to "entrap" Soviet intelligence officers into encounters with German prostitutes — although the Soviets didn't care whether their men visited prostitutes or not. Meanwhile, nobody at Berlin base could be bothered to walk over into East Berlin to check the price of bread.
In 1953, when East Germans staged a heroic, spontaneous revolt against the Soviets, the CIA got caught flatfooted and did nothing as the tanks rolled in. Harvey, like so many CIA officers, didn't even know the language of the country he was stationed in. In 1961, the CIA never grasped that the Soviets were about to seal off East Berlin with the Wall.
Trento uses Berlin as the prototype for other case histories, tangled tales of CIA sins of omission and commission. Trento revisits many CIA horror stories that emerged in the '70s — the assassination plots, the Mafia connections, CIA "contract cowboys" flying opium out of Laos — but his book also contains much new material. One of his informants is Edward Korry, U.S. ambassador at the time of the corporate-funded CIA coup against elected Chilean president Salvador Allende. Korry felt badly undermined by CIA covert ops. Although Trento doesn't systematically pursue this theme, his portrait of the CIA often resembles that of a clandestine pirate state operating within the larger U.S. polity.
Where Trento overreaches is in his attempt to rehabilitate Angleton, the CIA's longtime molecatcher-in-chief and a Trento informant. Early on, Angleton was an intimate of British intelligence superstar Kim Philby, a real-life version of the English gentleman Angleton pretended to be. (Angleton, notoriously, was ashamed that his mother was Mexican.) But in 1954 Philby disappeared, then resurfaced in Moscow to become the most famous double agent of the 20th century.
The shock -deranged Angleton launched a long-running series of mole hunts that trashed CIA morale, ruined the lives of patriotic intelligence officers, and threw away actual Soviet defectors whom Angleton mistook for KGB provocateurs. After 1963, Angleton became convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald had been a KGB tool. Eventually, Angleton was fired by CIA head William Colby, who considered him lost in "the wilderness of mirrors," the impenetrable funhouse of counterspy paranoia.
Trento uses the later discovery of real Soviet moles to suggest that Angleton was right, at least about Oswald. Here Trento seems, if anything, insufficiently paranoid. Once one acknowledges that the Warren Commission was a cover-up, anything might follow. Perhaps JFK was waxed by the Mafia, or by a rogue vest-pocket operation of CIA-trained Cubans angry about JFK's backing away from their invasion. Who knows? As Trento implies here and there, the CIA tail may sometimes have wagged the dog of U.S. history.
But the real moral of Trento's book seems to belong to intelligence veteran Corson, who attributes the CIA's egregious failures to its overestimation of exotic, hard-to-come-by "intelligence" and its denigration of humble "information," the kind of thing you can learn by talking to people and by reading newspapers, provided you speak the language. Streetcorner logic like this, admittedly, has always been too simple for the nation's $30-billion-a-year intelligence apparatus.