June 19, 2013
How the U.S. Intelligence Community Came Out of the Shadows
Posted on Dec 18, 2012
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
It is also ready to take public credit for its “successes” (or even a significant hand in shaping how they are viewed in the public arena). Once upon a time, a CIA agent who died in some covert operation would have gone unnamed and unacknowledged. By the 1970s, that agent would have had a star engraved on the wall of the lobby of CIA headquarters, but no one outside the Agency would have known about his or her fate.
Now, those who die in our “secret” operations or ones launched against our “invisible” agents can become public figures and celebrated “heroes.” This was the case, for instance, with Jennifer Matthews, a CIA agent who died in Afghanistan when an Agency double agent turned out to be a triple agent and suicide bomber. Or just last week, when a soldier from Seal Team Six died in an operation in Afghanistan to rescue a kidnapped doctor. The Navy released his photo and name, and he was widely hailed. This would certainly have been striking to Wise and Ross.
Then again, they would undoubtedly have been no less startled to discover that, from Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne to Syriana, the Mission Impossible films, and Taken, the CIA and other secret outfits (or their fantasy doppelgangers) have become staples of American multiplexes. Nor has the small screen, from 24 to Homeland, been immune to this invasion of visibility. Or consider this: just over a year and a half after Seal Team Six’s super-secret bin Laden operation ended, it has already been turned into Zero Dark Thirty, a highly pre-praised (and controversial) movie, a candidate for Oscars with a heroine patterned on an undercover CIA agent whose photo has made it into the public arena. Moreover, it was a film whose makers were reportedly aided or at least encouraged in their efforts by the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House, just as the SEALs aided this year’s high-grossing movie Act of Valor (“an elite team of Navy SEALs… embark on a covert mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent”) by lending the film actual SEALs as its (unnamed) actors and then staging a SEAL parachute drop onto a red carpet at its Hollywood premier.
True, at the time The Invisible Government was published, the first two James Bond films were already hits and the Mission Impossible TV show was only two years from launch, but the way the invisible world has since emerged from the shadows to become a fixture of pop culture remains stunning. And don’t think this was just some cultural quirk. After all, back in the 1960s, enterprising reporters had to pry open those invisible agencies to discover anything about what they were doing. In those years, for instance, the CIA ran a secret air and sizeable ground war in Laos that it tried desperately never to acknowledge despite its formidable size and scope.
In the past, American presidents pursued “plausible deniability” when it came to assassination plots like those against Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem. Now, assassination is clearly considered a semi-public part of the presidential job, codified, bureaucratized, and regulated (though only within the White House), and remarkably public. All of this has become part of the visible world (or at least a giant publicity operation in it). No need today for a Wise or Ross to tell us this. Ever since President Ronald Reagan’s CIA-run Central American Contra wars of the 1980s, the definition of “covert” has changed. It no longer means hidden from sight, but beyond accountability.
It is now a polite way of saying to the American people: not yours. Yes, you can know about it; you can feel free to praise it; but you have nothing to do with it, no say over it.
In the 48 years since their pioneering book was published, Wise and Ross’s invisible government has triumphed over the visible one. It has become the go-to option in this country. In certain ways, it is also becoming the most visible and important part of that government, a vast edifice of surveilling, storing, spying, and killing that gives us what we now call “security,” leaves us in terror of the world, never stops growing, and is ever freer to collect information on you to use as it wishes.
With the passage of 48 years, it’s so much clearer that, impressive as Wise and Ross were, their quest was quixotic. Bring the “secret power” under control? Make it accountable? Dream on—but be careful, one of these days even your dreams may be on file.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, his history of the Cold War, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. You can see his interview with Bill Moyers on supersized politics, drones, and other subjects by clicking here.
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Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt
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