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One of the Most Perilous Jobs in Government

The anxiety of exclusion — how can they speak truth to power if they’re not invited to the meeting? — can push directors toward a related risk: Isn’t it worth massaging truth, just a bit, to make it more palatable to power if that means staying relevant? So goes the slippery slope to “politicization” that most have found themselves on at one point or another. One of Whipple’s more damning depictions is of George Tenet, the director during the run-up to the Iraq war, and of his notorious “slam dunk” line regarding the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. It remains a matter of debate whether the error was the result of politicization or of sincere, if equally damaging, misjudgment. At any rate, Tenet “didn’t always challenge the administration’s lies,” Whipple writes mildly. (Other assessments have been harsher.)

Yet Tenet was hardly the first C.I.A. director to grapple with such tensions and slink into such compromises. During the Vietnam War, Richard Helms grew more and more skeptical about the prospects of American success even as President Lyndon Johnson grew more and more desperate for good news. Caught between his own pessimism and his boss’s hectoring, Helms “just slacked off on providing information on Vietnam,” one of his staffers tells Whipple.

Covert action has offered another means of ensuring relevance. The C.I.A. has always had a dual mission, using secret tools both to understand the world (recruiting spies, assessing intelligence) and to change it. Directors have balanced these sometimes opposing endeavors in different ways. But for policymakers outside of the intelligence community, covert action holds a unique and often irresistible allure. As Gates explains it: “The State Department would recommend the use of military force. The Defense Department would recommend diplomacy. And when they couldn’t agree, everyone would decide, ‘Let C.I.A. do a covert action.’” For ambitious directors, the “myth of covert action as a panacea” presents an opportunity. By taking up Ronald Reagan’s charge “to fight Communism around the world,” for example, William Casey became, by Whipple’s estimation, one of the most powerful leaders in the history of the agency, spearheading operations everywhere from Poland and Lebanon to Angola and Chad. Casey got regular one-on-one meetings in the Oval Office.

The aftermath of 9/11 saw another surge in covert operations. The C.I.A. took a leading role in toppling the Taliban and hunting, interrogating and killing terrorists, especially as the use of drones expanded. “The C.I.A. was no longer just a gatherer of intelligence,” Whipple writes, neglecting plenty of other such departures. “It was becoming a killing machine.” (One notable exception to Whipple’s Washington focus is a richly textured account of the operation targeting the Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah.) Some of Whipple’s interlocutors complain that the embrace of this role as “a paramilitary army” came “at the expense of the agency’s core mission, intelligence-gathering.”

For policymakers, the lure of the covert lies in the promise of power without publicity, of risks that can be more easily wished away because they are classified. But even the most “successful” instances of its use across the history that Whipple covers have had at best mixed effects over time. Was C.I.A. support of the mujahedeen fighting Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s “the most successful covert operation in history,” as Whipple puts it, or the start of a series of events that would lead to a huge terrorist attack on United States soil and a historic foreign policy blunder? Have drone strikes kept Americans safe or created dangerous blowback? Defenders can always resort to scary counterfactuals. “Without this program, Heathrow Airport would have been bombed,” Tenet says in defense of the post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation program,” taking issue with other assessments that have concluded otherwise. Whipple throws up his hands: “It’s impossible to know.”

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