the origins of blowback in Afghanistan
Source Charles Brown
Date 06/09/04/09:37


Abolish the CIA! ( Too late :)
Chalmers Johnson
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from
the Soviet Invasion to 10 September 2001 by Steve Coll * Penguin, 695 pp, US
London Review of Books | Vol. 26 No. 20 dated 21 October 2004 |

It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United
States. In his memoir published in 1996, the former CIA director Robert
Gates made it clear that the American intelligence services began to aid the
mujahidin guerrillas not after the Soviet invasion, but six months before
it. In an interview two years later with Le Nouvel Observateur, President
Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, proudly confirmed
Gates's assertion. 'According to the official version of history,'
Brzezinski said,

CIA aid to the mujahidin began during 1980, that's to say, after the Soviet
army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, kept secret until now, is
completely different: on 3 July 1979 President Carter signed the first
directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.
And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained
that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.

Asked whether he in any way regretted these actions, Brzezinski replied:
'Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the
Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that
the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter,
saying, in essence: "We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its
Vietnam War."'

Nouvel Observateur: 'And neither do you regret having supported Islamic
fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?'

Brzezinski: 'What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the
collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of
Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?'

Even though the demise of the Soviet Union owes more to Mikhail Gorbachev
than to Afghanistan's partisans, Brzezinski certainly helped produce
'agitated Muslims', and the consequences have been obvious. Carter,
Brzezinski and their successors in the Reagan and first Bush
administrations, including Gates, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz,
Armitage and Powell, all bear some responsibility for the 1.8 million Afghan
casualties, 2.6 million refugees and 10 million unexploded land-mines that
followed from their decisions. They must also share the blame for the
blowback that struck New York and Washington on 11 September 2001: al-Qaida
was an organisation they helped create and arm.

The term 'blowback' first appeared in a classified CIA post-action report on
the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, carried out in the
interests of BP. In 2000, James Risen of the New York Times explained:

When the Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Muhammad Mossadegh as
Iran's prime minister in 1953, ensuring another 25 years of rule for Shah
Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the CIA was already figuring that its first effort to
topple a foreign government would not be its last. The CIA, then just six
years old and deeply committed to winning the Cold War, viewed its covert
action in Iran as a blueprint for coup plots elsewhere around the world, and
so commissioned a secret history to detail for future generations of CIA
operatives how it had been done . . . Amid the sometimes curious argot of
the spy world - 'safebases' and 'assets' and the like - the CIA warns of the
possibilities of 'blowback'. The word . . . has since come into use as
shorthand for the unintended consequences of covert operations.

'Blowback' does not refer simply to reactions to historical events but more
specifically to reactions to operations carried out by the US government
that are kept secret from the American public and from most of their
representatives in Congress. This means that when civilians become victims
of a retaliatory strike, they are at first unable to put it in context or to
understand the sequence of events that led up to it. Even though the
American people may not know what has been done in their name, those on the
receiving end certainly do: they include the people of Iran (1953),
Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1959 to the present), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964),
Indonesia (1965), Vietnam (1961-73), Laos (1961-73), Cambodia (1961-73),
Greece (1967-73), Chile (1973), Afghanistan (1979 to the present), El
Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua (1980s), and Iraq (1991 to the present).
Not surprisingly, sometimes these victims try to get even.

There is a direct line between the attacks on 11 September 2001 - the most
significant instance of blowback in the history of the CIA - and the events
of 1979. In that year, revolutionaries threw both the shah and the Americans
out of Iran, and the CIA, with full presidential authority, began its
largest ever clandestine operation: the secret arming of Afghan freedom
fighters to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union, which involved the
recruitment and training of militants from all over the Islamic world. Steve
Coll's book is a classic study of blowback and is a better, fuller
reconstruction of this history than the Final Report of the National
Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the so-called '9/11
Commission Report').*

From 1989 to 1992, Coll was the Washington Post's South Asia bureau chief,
based in New Delhi. Given the CIA's paranoid and often self-defeating
secrecy, what makes his book especially interesting is how he came to know
what he claims to know. He has read everything on the Afghan insurgency and
the civil wars that followed, and has been given access to the original
manuscript of Robert Gates's memoir (Gates was director from 1991 to 1993),
but his main source is some two hundred interviews conducted between the
autumn of 2001 and the summer of 2003 with numerous CIA officials as well as
politicians, military officers and spies from all the countries involved
except Russia. He identifies CIA officials only if their names have already
been made public. Many of his most important interviews were on the record
and he quotes from them extensively.

Among the notable figures who agreed to be interviewed are Benazir Bhutto,
who is candid about having lied to American officials for two years about
Pakistan's aid to the Taliban, and Anthony Lake, the US national security
adviser from 1993 to 1997, who lets it be known that he thought the CIA
director James Woolsey was 'arrogant, tin-eared and brittle'. Woolsey was so
disliked by Clinton that when an apparent suicide pilot crashed a
single-engined Cessna airplane on the south lawn of the White House in 1994,
jokers suggested it might be the CIA director trying to get an appointment
with the president.

The anti-Communist revolt that began at Herat in western Afghanistan in
March 1979 originated in a government initiative to teach girls to read. The
fundamentalist Afghans opposed to this were supported by a triumvirate of
nations, the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with quite diverse motives, but
the US didn't take these differences seriously until it was too late. By the
time the Americans woke up, at the end of the 1990s, the radical Islamist
Taliban had established their government in Kabul. Recognised only by
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it granted Osama bin
Laden freedom of action and offered him protection from American efforts to
capture or kill him. Coll concludes:

The Afghan government that the United States eventually chose to support
beginning in the late autumn of 2001 - a federation of Massoud's
organisation [the Northern warlords], exiled intellectuals and royalist
Pashtuns - was available for sponsorship a decade before, but the United
States could not see a reason then to challenge the alternative, radical
Islamist vision promoted by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence . . .
Indifference, lassitude, blindness, paralysis and commercial greed too often
shaped American foreign policy in Afghanistan and South Asia during the

The motives of the White House and the CIA were shaped by the Cold War: a
determination to kill as many Soviet soldiers as possible, and the desire to
restore some aura of rugged machismo and credibility that US leaders feared
they had lost when the Shah was overthrown. The CIA had no intricate
strategy for the war it was unleashing in Afghanistan. Howard Hart, the
agency's representative in the Pakistani capital, told Coll that he
understood his orders as: 'You're a young man; here's your bag of money, go
raise hell. Don't fuck it up, just go out there and kill Soviets.' These
orders came from a most peculiar American. William Casey, the CIA's director
from January 1981 to January 1987, was a Catholic Knight of Malta educated
by Jesuits. Statues of the Virgin Mary filled his mansion, called
'Maryknoll', on Long Island. He attended mass daily and urged Christianity
on anyone who asked his advice. Once settled as CIA director under Reagan,
he began to funnel covert action funds through the Catholic Church to
anti-Communists in Poland and Central America, sometimes in violation of
American law. He believed fervently that by increasing the Catholic Church's
reach and power he could contain Communism's advance, or reverse it. From
Casey's convictions grew the most important US foreign policies of the
1980s - support for an international anti-Soviet crusade in Afghanistan and
sponsorship of state terrorism in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Casey knew next to nothing about Islamic fundamentalism or the grievances of
Middle Eastern nations against Western imperialism. He saw political Islam
and the Catholic Church as natural allies in the counter-strategy of covert
action to thwart Soviet imperialism. He believed that the USSR was trying to
strike at the US in Central America and in the oil-producing states of the
Middle East. He supported Islam as a counter to the Soviet Union's atheism,
and Coll suggests that he sometimes conflated lay Catholic organisations
such as Opus Dei with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian extremist
organisation, of which Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief
lieutenant, was a passionate member. The Muslim Brotherhood's branch in
Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami, was strongly backed by the Pakistani army,
and Coll writes that Casey, more than any other American, was responsible
for welding the alliance of the CIA, Saudi intelligence and the army of
General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's military dictator from 1977 to 1988.
On the suggestion of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Casey
went so far as to print thousands of copies of the Koran, which he shipped
to the Afghan frontier for distribution in Afghanistan and Soviet
Uzbekistan. He also fomented, without presidential authority, Muslim attacks
inside the USSR and always held that the CIA's clandestine officers were too
timid. He preferred the type represented by his friend Oliver North.

Over time, Casey's position hardened into CIA dogma, which its agents,
protected by secrecy from ever having their ignorance exposed, enforced in
every way they could. The agency resolutely refused to help choose winners
and losers among the Afghan jihad's guerrilla leaders. The result, according
to Coll, was that 'Zia-ul-Haq's political and religious agenda in
Afghanistan gradually became the CIA's own.' In the era after Casey, some
scholars, journalists and members of Congress questioned the agency's lavish
support of the Pakistan-backed Islamist general Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,
especially after he refused to shake hands with Reagan because he was an
infidel. But Milton Bearden, the Islamabad station chief from 1986 to 1989,
and Frank Anderson, chief of the Afghan task force at Langley, vehemently
defended Hekmatyar on the grounds that 'he fielded the most effective
anti-Soviet fighters.'

Even after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, the CIA
continued to follow Pakistani initiatives, such as aiding Hekmatyar's
successor, Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban. When Edmund McWilliams, the
State Department's special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1988-89, wrote
that 'American authority and billions of dollars in taxpayer funding had
been hijacked at the war's end by a ruthless anti-American cabal of
Islamists and Pakistani intelligence officers determined to impose their
will on Afghanistan,' Bearden denounced him and planted stories in the
embassy that he might be homosexual or an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Afghanistan
descended into one of the most horrific civil wars of the 20th century. The
CIA never fully corrected its naive and ill-informed reading of Afghan
politics until after bin Laden bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es
Salaam on 7 August 1998.

A co-operative agreement between the US and Pakistan was anything but
natural or based on mutual interests. Only two weeks after radical students
seized the American Embassy in Tehran on 5 November 1979, a similar group of
Islamic radicals burned to the ground the American Embassy in Islamabad as
Zia's troops stood idly by. But the US was willing to overlook almost
anything the Pakistani dictator did in order to keep him committed to the
anti-Soviet jihad. After the Soviet invasion, Brzezinski wrote to Carter:
'This will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees
to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward
Pakistan cannot be dictated by our non-proliferation policy.' History will
record whether Brzezinski made an intelligent decision in giving a green
light to Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons in return for assisting
the anti-Soviet insurgency.

Pakistan's motives in Afghanistan were very different from those of the US.
Zia was a devout Muslim and a passionate supporter of Islamist groups in his
own country, in Afghanistan and throughout the world. But he was not a
fanatic and had some quite practical reasons for supporting Islamic radicals
in Afghanistan. He probably would not have been included in the US Embassy's
annual 'beard census' of Pakistani military officers, which recorded the
number of officer graduates and serving generals who kept their beards in
accordance with Islamic traditions as an unobtrusive measure of increasing
or declining radicalism - Zia had only a moustache.

From the beginning, Zia demanded that all weapons and aid for the Afghans
from whatever source pass through ISI hands. The CIA was delighted to agree.
Zia feared above all that Pakistan would be squeezed between a
Soviet-dominated Afghanistan and a hostile India. He also had to guard
against a Pashtun independence movement that, if successful, would break up
Pakistan. In other words, he backed the Islamic militants in Afghanistan and
Pakistan on religious grounds but was quite prepared to use them
strategically. In doing so, he laid the foundations for Pakistan's
anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir.

Zia died in a mysterious plane crash on 17 August 1988, four months after
the signing of the Geneva Accords on 14 April 1988, which ratified the
formal terms of the Soviet withdrawal. As the Soviet troops departed,
Hekmatyar embarked on a clandestine plan to eliminate his rivals and
establish his Islamic party, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, as the
most powerful national force in Afghanistan. The US scarcely paid attention,
but continued to support Pakistan. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
and the implosion of the USSR in 1991, the US lost virtually all interest in
Afghanistan. Hekmatyar was never as good as the CIA thought he was, and with
the creation in 1994 of the Taliban, both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia
transferred their secret support. This new group of jihadis proved to be the
most militarily effective of the warring groups. On 26 September 1996, the
Taliban conquered Kabul. The next day they killed the formerly Soviet-backed
President Najibullah, expelled 8000 female undergraduate students from Kabul
University, and fired a similar number of women schoolteachers. As the
mujahidin closed in on his palace, Najibullah told reporters: 'If
fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years.
Afghanistan will turn into a centre of world smuggling for narcotic drugs.
Afghanistan will be turned into a centre for terrorism.' His proclamations
were accurate.

Pakistan's military intelligence officers hated Benazir Bhutto, Zia's
elected successor, but she, like all post-Zia heads of state, including
General Pervez Musharraf, supported the Taliban in pursuit of Zia's
'dream' - a loyal, Pashtun-led Islamist government in Kabul. Coll explains:

Every Pakistani general, liberal or religious, believed in the jihadists by
1999, not from personal Islamic conviction, in most cases, but because the
jihadists had proved themselves over many years as the one force able to
frighten, flummox and bog down the Hindu-dominated Indian army. About a
dozen Indian divisions had been tied up in Kashmir during the late 1990s to
suppress a few thousand well-trained, paradise-seeking Islamist guerrillas.
What more could Pakistan ask? The jihadist guerrillas were a more practical
day-to-day strategic defence against Indian hegemony than even a nuclear
bomb. To the west, in Afghanistan, the Taliban provided geopolitical
'strategic depth' against India and protection from rebellion by Pakistan's
own restive Pashtun population. For Musharraf, as for many other liberal
Pakistani generals, jihad was not a calling, it was a professional
imperative. It was something he did at the office. At quitting time he
packed up his briefcase, straightened the braid on his uniform, and went
home to his normal life.

If the CIA understood any of this, it never let on to its superiors in
Washington, and Charlie Wilson, a highly paid Pakistani lobbyist and former
congressman for East Texas, was anything but forthcoming with Congress about
what was really going on. (During the 1980s, Wilson had used his power on
the Appropriations Committee to supply all the advanced weapons the CIA
might want in Afghanistan. Coll remarks that Wilson 'saw the mujahidin
through the prism of his own whisky-soaked romanticism, as noble savages
fighting for freedom, as almost biblical figures'. Hollywood is now making a
movie, based on Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile,? glorifying the
congressman who 'used his trips to the Afghan frontier in part to impress
upon a succession of girlfriends how powerful he was'. Tom Hanks has signed
on to play him.)

Saudi Arabian motives were different from those of both the US and Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia is, after all, the only modern nation-state created by jihad.
The Saudi royal family, which came to power at the head of a movement of
Wahhabi religious fundamentalists, espoused Islamic radicalism in order to
keep it under their control, at least domestically. 'Middle-class, pious
Saudis flush with oil wealth,' Coll writes, 'embraced the Afghan cause as
American churchgoers might respond to an African famine or a Turkish

The money flowing from the kingdom arrived at the Afghan frontier in all
shapes and sizes: gold jewellery dropped on offering plates by merchants'
wives in Jedda mosques; bags of cash delivered by businessmen to Riyadh
charities as zakat, an annual Islamic tithe; fat cheques written from
semi-official government accounts by minor Saudi princes; bountiful proceeds
raised in annual telethons led by Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh.

Richest of all were the annual transfers from the Saudi General Intelligence
Department, or Istakhbarat, to the CIA's Swiss bank accounts.

From the moment agency money and weapons started to flow to the mujahidin
in late 1979, Saudi Arabia matched the US payments dollar for dollar. They also
bypassed the ISI and supplied funds directly to the groups in Afghanistan
they favoured, including the one led by their own pious young millionaire,
Osama bin Laden. According to Milton Bearden, private Saudi and Arab funding
of up to $25 million a month flowed to Afghan Islamist armies. Equally
important, Pakistan trained between 16,000 and 18,000 fresh Muslim recruits
on the Afghan frontier every year, and another 6500 or so were instructed by
Afghans inside the country beyond ISI control. Most of these eventually
joined bin Laden's private army of 35,000 'Arab Afghans'.

Much to the confusion of the Americans, moderate Saudi leaders, such as
Prince Turki, the intelligence chief, supported the Saudi backing of
fundamentalists so long as they were in Afghanistan and not in Saudi Arabia.
A graduate of a New Jersey prep school and a member of Bill Clinton's class
of 1964 at Georgetown University, Turki belongs to the pro-Western,
modernising wing of the Saudi royal family. (He is the current Saudi
ambassador to Great Britain and Ireland.) But that did not make him
pro-American. Turki saw Saudi Arabia in continual competition with its
powerful Shia neighbour, Iran. He needed credible Sunni, pro-Saudi Islamist
clients to compete with Iran's clients, especially in countries like
Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have sizeable Shia populations.

Prince Turki was also irritated by the US loss of interest in Afghanistan
after its Cold War skirmish with the Soviet Union. He understood that the US
would ignore Saudi aid to Islamists so long as his country kept oil prices
under control and co-operated with the Pentagon on the building of military
bases. Like many Saudi leaders, Turki probably underestimated the longer
term threat of Islamic militancy to the Saudi royal house, but, as Coll
observes, 'Prince Turki and other liberal princes found it easier to appease
their domestic Islamist rivals by allowing them to proselytise and make
mischief abroad than to confront and resolve these tensions at home.' In
Riyadh, the CIA made almost no effort to recruit paid agents or collect
intelligence. The result was that Saudi Arabia worked continuously to
enlarge the ISI's proxy jihad forces in both Afghanistan and Kashmir, and
the Saudi Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,
the kingdom's religious police, tutored and supported the Taliban's own
Islamic police force.

By the late 1990s, after the embassy bombings in East Africa, the CIA and
the White House awoke to the Islamist threat, but they defined it almost
exclusively in terms of Osama bin Laden's leadership of al-Qaida and failed
to see the larger context. They did not target the Taliban, Pakistani
military intelligence or the funds flowing to the Taliban and al-Qaida from
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Instead, they devoted themselves
to trying to capture or kill bin Laden. Coll's chapters on the hunt for the
al-Qaida leader are entitled 'You Are to Capture Him Alive', 'We Are at War'
and 'Is There Any Policy?' but he might more accurately have called them
'Keystone Kops' or 'The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight'.

On 23 February 1998, bin Laden summoned newspaper and TV reporters to the
camp at Khost that the CIA had built for him at the height of the
anti-Soviet jihad. He announced the creation of a new organisation - the
International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders - and
issued a manifesto saying that 'to kill and fight Americans and their
allies, whether civilian or military, is an obligation for every Muslim who
is able to do so in any country.' On 7 August, he and his associates put
this manifesto into effect with devastating truck bombings of the US
Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The CIA had already identified bin Laden's family compound in the open
desert near Kandahar Airport, a collection of buildings called Tarnak Farm.
It's possible that more satellite footage has been taken of this site than
of any other place on earth; one famous picture seems to show bin Laden
standing outside one of his wives' homes. The agency conceived an elaborate
plot to kidnap bin Laden from Tarnak Farm with the help of Afghan operatives
and spirit him out of the country but the CIA director, George Tenet,
cancelled the project because of the high risk of civilian casualties; he
was resented within the agency for his timidity. Meanwhile, the White House
stationed submarines in the northern Arabian Sea with the map co-ordinates
of Tarnak Farm preloaded into their missile guidance systems. They were
waiting for hard evidence from the CIA that bin Laden was in residence.

Within days of the East Africa bombings, Clinton signed a top secret
Memorandum of Notification authorising the CIA to use lethal force against
bin Laden. On 20 August 1998, he ordered 75 cruise missiles, costing
$750,000 each, to be fired at the Zawhar Kili camp (about seven miles south
of Khost), the site of a major al-Qaida meeting. The attack killed 21
Pakistanis but bin Laden was forewarned, perhaps by Saudi intelligence. Two
of the missiles fell short into Pakistan, causing Islamabad to denounce the
US action. At the same time, the US fired 13 cruise missiles into a chemical
plant in Khartoum: the CIA claimed that the plant was partly owned by bin
Laden and that it was manufacturing nerve gas. They knew none of this was

Clinton had publicly confessed to his sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky on
17 August, and many critics around the world conjectured that both attacks
were diversionary measures. (The film Wag the Dog had just come out, in
which a president in the middle of an election campaign is charged with
molesting a Girl Scout and makes it seem as if he's gone to war against
Albania to distract people's attention.) As a result Clinton became more
cautious, and he and his aides began seriously to question the quality of
CIA information. The US bombing in May 1999 of the Chinese Embassy in
Belgrade, allegedly because of faulty intelligence, further discredited the
agency. A year later, Tenet fired one intelligence officer and reprimanded
six managers, including a senior official, for their bungling of that

The Clinton administration made two more attempts to get bin Laden. During
the winter of 1998-99, the CIA confirmed that a large party of Persian Gulf
dignitaries had flown into the Afghan desert for a falcon-hunting party, and
that bin Laden had joined them. The CIA called for an attack on their
encampment until Richard Clarke, Clinton's counter-terrorism aide,
discovered that among the hosts of the gathering was royalty from the United
Arab Emirates. Clarke had been instrumental in a 1998 deal to sell 80 F-16
military jets to the UAE, which was also a crucial supplier of oil and gas
to America and its allies. The strike was called off.

Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration devoted major resources to
the development of a long-distance drone aircraft called Predator, invented
by the former chief designer of the Israeli air force, who had emigrated to
America. In its nose was mounted a Sony digital TV camera, similar to the
ones used by news helicopters reporting on freeway traffic or on O.J.
Simpson's fevered ride through Los Angeles. By the turn of the century,
Agency experts had also added a Hellfire anti-tank missile to the Predator
and tested it on a mock-up of Tarnak Farm in the Nevada desert. This new
weapons system made it possible instantly to kill bin Laden if the camera
spotted him. Unfortunately for the CIA, on one of its flights from
Uzbekistan over Tarnak Farm the Predator photographed as a target a child's
wooden swing. To his credit, Clinton held back on using the Hellfire because
of the virtual certainty of killing bystanders, and Tenet, scared of being
blamed for another failure, suggested that responsibility for the armed
Predator's use be transferred to the air force.

When the new Republican administration came into office, it was deeply
uninterested in bin Laden and terrorism even though the outgoing national
security adviser, Sandy Berger, warned Condoleezza Rice that it would be
George W. Bush's most serious foreign policy problem. On 6 August 2001, the
CIA delivered its daily briefing to Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas,
with the headline 'Bin Laden determined to strike in US,' but the president
seemed not to notice. Slightly more than a month later, Osama bin Laden
successfully brought off perhaps the most significant example of asymmetric
warfare in the history of international relations.

Coll has written a powerful indictment of the CIA's myopia and incompetence,
but he seems to be in two minds. He occasionally indulges in flights of
pro-CIA rhetoric, describing it, for example, as a 'vast, pulsing,
self-perpetuating, highly sensitive network on continuous alert' whose
'listening posts were attuned to even the most isolated and dubious evidence
of pending attacks' and whose analysts were continually encouraged to share
information as widely as possible among those with appropriate security
clearances'. This is nonsense: the early-warning functions of the CIA were
upstaged decades ago by covert operations. Coll acknowledges that every
president since Truman, once he discovered that he had a totally secret,
financially unaccountable private army at his personal disposal, found its
deployment irresistible. But covert operations usually became entangled in
hopeless webs of secrecy, and invariably led to more blowback. Richard
Clarke argues that 'the CIA used its classification rules not only to
protect its agents but also to deflect outside scrutiny of its covert
operations,' and Peter Tomsen, the former US ambassador to the Afghan
resistance during the late 1980s, concludes that 'America's failed policies
in Afghanistan flowed in part from the compartmented, top secret isolation
in which the CIA always sought to work.' Excessive, bureaucratic secrecy
lies at the heart of the Agency's failures.
In my view it has outlived any Cold War justification it once might have had
and should simply be abolished.


* Norton, 567 pp., 6.99, July, 0 393 32671 3.
* Grove, 560 pp., $14, May, 0 8021 4124 2.

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