With all the stories and commentary about the Obama/Holder “attack” on the CIA, I thought it was time to resume my conversation with the late James Jesus Angleton, the former chief of CIA counterintelligence. The untrusty ouija board needed a recharge, and that takes several hours, so it wasn’t until late Sunday afternoon that I finally made contact. The familiar high-pitched but gravelly voice came through loud and clear.
JJA: There you are! I thought something bad had happened to you.
ML: Well I was in the hospital for a while, and then the rehab wing, and they don’t permit ouija boards…
JJA: What about cigars? That must have been a bit of a strain (coughs and chuckles, simultaneously).
ML: Well, there were signs up all over the place, “smoke free campus,” but I found a little garden between two wings where I could smoke.
JJA: Good for you! It’s getting harder and harder to find a suitable place here (NB: I have never been able to figure out precisely where “here” is; and I don’t want to ask him whether it’s “up here” or “down here” if you see what I mean…). But so far I manage.
ML: Have you been following the big CIA story? Holder appointed a special prosecutor to decide if anyone should be prosecuted for torture.
JJA: Yes, I’ve seen them (cough, no chuckle).
ML: And so?
JJA: And I’ve seen lots of commentary about how “nobody at Langley will risk doing anything the slightest bit out of line,” and how morale is awful. That sort of thing.
ML: Seems logical doesn’t it? I thought you’d be sympathetic to them.
JJA: Well obviously I’m sympathetic to the poor bastards who are going to be dragged in front of the usual grand jury. That really stinks. Especially because, as usual in Langley, everything is always in the hands of the effing lawyers, one way or the other.
ML: Right you are. First they get told by the lawyers that they can do it–from blowing cigar smoke at the terrorists to waterboarding them–and then a new batch of lawyers comes along and prosecutes them.
JJA: You don’t know the half of it.
ML: Do tell…
JJA: For decades now–DECADES–you had to get approval from some lawyer before you could do anything. Lawyers signed off on wartime targets (really! you couldn’t drop a bomb with a lawyer’s approval). And during the war in Iraq, if somebody shot at the Marines, they had to call their base and get an ok to shoot back, unless it was really hot and heavy. The rules can change any time. I mean, I know a lot about that. We’d been opening the mail for a very long time…
ML: But you weren’t prosecuted.
JJA: No, I was purged. That’s probably better, it saves you the grand jury and maybe your own trial later on. But it’s the same concept, isn’t it? You do what everybody thought was normal, ok, and routine, and then somebody comes along and decides it was wrong, and you get your head chopped off (he actually referred to a different part of the anatomy, or better different PARTS of the male anatomy, but this is a family publication).
ML: Don’t you think it’s legitimate to go after malefactors?
JJA: Of course I do. And I even think it’s fine to change the rules. You know, Hegel and all that…ideas change and we have to change too. But what is NOT fine is to change the rules, and then go after your predecessors, who were playing by an entirely different set of rules. That’s immoral. But…
ML: But what? That seems pretty clear.
JJA: Well nothing in this game is clear, you know, it’s different shades of gray, not sharp lines and colors.
ML: Ok, but what?
JJA: But everybody knows that it’s all political now. And CIA has been all about politics for, uh, decades. Since they’ve shown themselves to be utterly pathetic about doing intel, they do the political thing, they leak stuff (sometimes accurate, sometimes not), they sabotage folks they don’t like…you know all this. It’s really hilarious to see Cheney, of all people, out front defending them. He was their favorite target for eight years, after all.
ML: Yes, it is pretty funny, isn’t it? But apparently the interrogations went well, and we got some really good information that way, and lives were saved. Full marks to the interrogators.
JJA: Right. At least somebody knew what he was doing. And full marks to the lawyers who approved the methods, which don’t seem to have been particularly grisly.
ML: Well, there’s the horror of blowing cigar smoke…
ML: So what’s happening here? It seemed pretty clear during the Bush years that CIA was in opposition, trying to sabotage the war policy against Saddam, and then very violently tried to prevent us from doing anything mean to the Iranian regime.
JJA: Yes, no doubt that is correct. Look at that blatantly phony NIE on the Iranian nuclear weapons program, in which CIA claimed that the program had been “suspended” and never resumed. It’s preposterous to believe that they were sufficiently informed to know that.
ML: In fact, you’d probably think that any “source” who said such a thing was odds-on to be spreading disinformation, wouldn’t you?
JJA: Certainly, any sensible person would. Just a few weeks ago, the German Intelligence Agency, the BND, presented information in open court to show that the Iranian nuclear weapons program is going full steam ahead. And if I remember rightly, most every service in the Western world thought the NIE was trash.
ML: OK, we agree. So CIA was acting as an ally of the Democrats. Thwarting Bush’s aggressive tendencies. Accusing Cheney of “politicizing intelligence,” when they were the ones doing it. Now, all of a sudden, they’re getting slammed by the Democrats and defended by Cheney. Wazzup?
JJA: It’s the Divine wit at work.
ML: How’s that?
JJA: If you were here with me you’d understand it better. But you left out something, namely that although CIA opposed a big Middle East war–they were not alone in that, and it’s not irrational at all–they certainly don’t want to have their own country blown up by al Qaeda and its friends.
ML: If you say so, but I have to wonder a bit. If they were so gung-ho to get al Qaeda why did they put a flickering bulb like Michael Scheuer in charge of the special unit?
JJA: That was before 9/11, when that job was akin to tracking polar bears. It was a big nothingburger. Once things got serious, he left, you might notice. They wouldn’t let him do anything that mattered. His main role was to spread anti-Israel propaganda, anyway.
ML: More politics. Very well, they wanted to fight al Qaeda. And then?
JJA: So they went all out to get to the bottom of the plot against us. They played Jack Bauer for once. And it worked. They were proud, they felt they’d done a really good thing, which they had.
ML: Haha, I get it…
JJA: Yes, I see that you do. So they were punished for the one thing they did well, the interrogations. And they got slammed by the very people they were avidly helping.
ML: It’s the same politics as before, actually. Because the “blame Bushitlercheney” theme is very important to the new administration…
JJA: Exactly, and the new crowd couldn’t accept the notion that one aspect of the war was done well, and did good. They had to demonize somebody, that somebody was of course Bush, and the CIA got trapped in the middle, despite its hatred of Bush and fondness for the Democrats.
ML: And the ultimate irony is that Cheney, their bete noire, is now their most effective defender.
JJA: Yes, lots of laughter on Cloud Nine.
ML: Where’s Tenet in all this?
JJA: Good question.
ML: And do you agree that CIA people will run away if anybody asks them to do anything controversial?
JJA: No, not at all. There will always be somebody who will insist on doing something, if he sees that it just has to be done.
ML: Even if he knows he’s going to get an appearance in front of the grand jury?
JJA: You can tell him that, but he won’t KNOW it. He’ll believe that things will be different this time around. And he will find evidence for that, too. Nobody is in danger of being dragged in front of the grand jury for those renditions, so far as I know.
ML: It’s like the people who keep talking on the telephone about secret things, even though they know that their calls are likely intercepted…
JJA: Yeah, especially in the Middle East. Isn’t it astonishing how many Arab terrorists get blown up in their cars or at their mistress’s house? That happens because the Israelis have located their cell phone. But no matter how many times it happens, the next generation does the same stupid thing.
ML: And the spooks are like that?
JJA: You bet. Everyone thinks he’s different, special, and called upon to do a great thing.
At which point there was a very loud noise, rather like a thunderclap, and he was gone.