Dec 11, 2013
How the U.S. Intelligence Community Came Out of the Shadows
Posted on Dec 18, 2012
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.
Weren’t those the greatest of days if you were in the American spy game? Governments went down in Guatemala and Iran thanks to you. In distant Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam, what a role you played! And even that botch-up of an invasion in Cuba was nothing to sneeze at. In those days, unfortunately, you—particularly those of you in the CIA— didn’t get the credit you deserved.
You had to live privately with your successes. Sometimes, as with the Bay of Pigs, the failures came back to haunt you (so, in the case of Iran, would your “success,” though so many years later), but you couldn’t with pride talk publicly about what you, in your secret world, had done, or see instant movies and TV shows about your triumphs. You couldn’t launch a “covert” air war that was reported on, generally positively, almost every week, or bask in the pleasure of having your director claim publicly that it was “the only game in town.” You couldn’t, that is, come out of what were then called “the shadows,” and soak up the glow of attention, be hailed as a hero, join Americans in watching some (fantasy) version of your efforts weekly on television, or get the credit for anything.
Nothing like that was possible—not at least until well after two journalists, David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, shined a bright light into those shadows, called you part of an “invisible government,” and outed you in ways that you found deeply discomforting.
I mean, what did Americans know at the time about an invisible government even the president didn’t control that was lodged deep inside the government they had elected?
Wise and Ross continued: “The first is the government that citizens read about in their newspapers and children study about in their civics books. The second is the interlocking, hidden machinery that carries out the policies of the United States in the Cold War. This second, invisible government gathers intelligence, conducts espionage, and plans and executes secret operations all over the globe.”
The Invisible Government came out just as what became known as “the Sixties” really began, a moment when lights were suddenly being shone into many previously shadowy American corners. I was then 20 years old and sometime in those years I read their book with a suitable sense of dread, just as I had read those civics books in high school in which Martians landed on Main Street in some “typical” American town to be lectured on our way of life and amazed by our Constitution, not to speak of those fabulous governmental checks and balances instituted by the Founding Fathers, and other glories of democracy.
I wasn’t alone reading The Invisible Government either. It was a bestseller and CIA Director John McCone reportedly read the manuscript, which he had secretly obtained from publisher Random House. He demanded deletions. When the publisher refused, he considered buying up the full first printing. In the end, he evidently tried to arrange for some bad reviews instead.
Time Machines and Shadow Worlds
By 1964, the “U.S. Intelligence Community,” or IC, had nine members, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA). As Wise and Ross portrayed it, the IC was already a labyrinthine set of secret outfits with growing power. It was capable of launching covert actions worldwide, with a “broad spectrum of domestic operations,” the ability to overthrow foreign governments, some involvement in shaping presidential campaigns, and the capacity to plan operations without the knowledge of Congress or full presidential control. “No outsider,” they concluded, “can tell whether this activity is necessary or even legal. No outsider is in a position to determine whether or not, in time, these activities might become an internal danger to a free society.” Modestly enough, they called for Americans to face the problem and bring “secret power” under control. (“If we err as a society, let it be on the side of control.”)
Now, imagine that H.G. Wells’s time machine had been available in that year of publication. Imagine that it whisked those journalists, then in their mid-thirties, and the young Tom Engelhardt instantly some 48 years into the future to survey just how their cautionary tale about a great democratic and republican nation running off the tracks and out of control had played out.
The first thing they might notice is that the Intelligence Community of 2012 with 17 official outfits has, by the simplest of calculations, almost doubled. The real size and power of that secret world, however, has in every imaginable way grown staggeringly larger than that. Take one outfit, now part of the IC, that didn’t exist back in 1964, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. With an annual budget of close to $5 billion, it recently built a gigantic $1.8 billion headquarters—“the third-largest structure in the Washington area, nearly rivaling the Pentagon in size”—for its 16,000 employees. It literally has its “eye” on the globe in a way that would have been left to sci-fi novels almost half a century ago and is tasked as “the nation’s primary source of geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT.” (Don’t ask me what that means exactly, though it has to do with quite literally imaging the planet and all its parts—or perhaps less politely, turning every inch of Earth into a potential shooting range.)
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