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Argo: With Apologies to Britain and Canada

Affleck’s Argo with its endnotes attempts to resuscitate the corpse of Jimmy Carter’s incompetent presidency. Carter has said that it was too bad he couldn’t tell the story of these events because if he had, he probably would have defeated Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential contest. This is simply another disingenuous statement from a man given to making them.

Anyone who has studied the relationship between the Carter administration and the CIA knows that Carter was averse to the entire notion of covert operations. Carter’s DCI, Stansfield Turner, is ignominiously remembered among those who served in the intelligence community in those years for what has become known as the Halloween Massacre. This was the wholesale evisceration of much of the covert branch of the agency, with the summary pink-slipping of some 800 to 2800 — depending on whose numbers one accepts — seasoned and well-trained operatives. Carter and his DCI believed that human intelligence (humint) was a remnant of the past.

The first thing that is wrong with this historical revision is the idea that Jimmy Carter’s bashed and crippled CIA could pull off this rescue. Moreover, Carter’s destruction of the effectiveness of the covert branch of the agency meant that with the termination of covert officers, their foreign networks went with them.

The real workings of intelligence are — with obvious exceptions — nothing remotely like what you see in the movies. Espionage is based on a long, slow, and patient process of establishing trust and creating networks among foreigners who will work for you at tremendous risk. Why people spy is a matter far beyond this writing, but suffice it to say that it takes a good intelligence officer, in a foreign post, years to build a reliable espionage network. Fire the officer and the entire network collapses with him. Fire a large number of intelligence officers and foreigners engaged in the game on our behalf will justifiably worry about being exposed and quit.