Revised Posting: The Secret History of the CIA by Joseph J. Trento

cia trentoI have no way of knowing how accurate Joseph J. Trento’s 2001 book, The Secret History of the CIA, is, given the nature of the subject. However, I’ve been fascinated (and yes, horrified at times) by some of the historical figures dating back to WW2 that the author describes.

For example: Laventia Beria, head of the NKVD under Stalin, who apparently recruited and then dispatched the Soviet spy known as “Sasha” to infiltrate the Nazi military command during the war. Sasha succeeded in convincing a high-ranking Nazi general, Reinhard Gehlen, that he was a Russian anti-Communist who supported the German cause. Gehlen went on to position himself, near the war’s end, as a candidate for recruitment by the American intelligence community, and when the U.S. did recruit him and a bunch of other Nazi war criminals to join in the American spying effort against the Soviets, Gehlen brought Sasha with him. Sasha’s Soviet bosses then gave Sasha new orders to spy on the American spies, which he proceeded to do.

Trento also describes how people like Allen Dulles and Jim Angleton worked to build a Cold War American espionage network, and how the British double agent, Kim Philby, entered into Angleton’s life.

There’s also a lot in this book about Frank Wisner, who was with both the OSS and later the CIA. Trento describes Wisner’s key roles in: (a) recruiting the Nazi general, Gehlen; (b) the CIA-backed coup d’etat in Iran in 1953 that installed the Shah; and (c) the 1954 overthrow of Guatemala’s government. He was also involved in a failed operation that sought to overthrow the Soviet-puppet government in Albania through a Bay of Pigs style scheme that was leaked to the Soviets by moles in the US intelligence community, resulting in the total capture or slaughter of the Albanian exiles who were trained up to invade the country. According to Trento, Wisner claimed that if the US took action to knock out the Communist regime in Albania, the rest of the Eastern European Soviet-controlled states would all overthrow their governments too, falling like dominoes.

To all of these schemes that Wisner was involved in, I can only say, “What could possibly go wrong?”

I don’t think Trento’s intention is to blame each of these moral / military / strategic catastrophes primarily on Wisner, but Wisner was a crucial leader in each of these fiascoes. And given that we’re still knee-deep in the long term blowback from our government’s involvement in overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 (if we hadn’t installed the Shah, there might never have been the Iran of the Ayatollahs), I find myself really just crazy angry right now as I think about this guy and those who worked with him. And that’s not even considering yet the bloody nightmare that gripped Guatemala repeatedly in the aftermath of our govt’s playing coup d’etat / let’s-install-a-friendly-dictator-there.

It’s funny how people who support hawkish foreign policy here in the U.S. sometimes argue that building a foreign policy around strategies that uphold our best values and ideals is “naive,” when books like Trento’s bring to light the bigger reality: that the belief that hostile, violent, covert, and unethical foreign policies will lead to greater security for us is actually quite naive.

* * *
Having read further, I’m struck by the rampant homophobic culture in the US in the post WW2 years, and the way Senator McCarthy’s hysteria merged with anti gay hysteria. As a result, many agents were forced out of the CIA, or demoted because their sexual behavior made them “security risks.” Yet at the same time, Alan Dulles and countless others in the CIA indulged in womanizing so much that extra measures were taken to try to shield those agents from being sexually set up and blackmailed. Wherever Dulles traveled, apparently the local CIA staff would prepare by pre-selecting women to set him up with for flings..They feared he would go out to pick up women and get himself into a compromising situation that could be exploited by the Rooskies. That was our tax dollars at work…


Yakerina Furtseva in 1964
Yakerina Furtseva in 1964

I finally finished Trento’s book, which takes us into the early to mid-1990s and then rapidly concludes. I learned a lot about influential people I hadn’t heard of, and I’m grateful for that. Perhaps the most fascinating figure for me was Yekaterina Furtseva, who served on the Soviet Politburo and as Minister of Culture.

There’s also much in there about the various CIA bungles in their efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro, including descriptions of the CIA’s Miami, Florida hub. According to Trento, the CIA sent agents to south Florida to lead a very large team in the effort to gather intel on Cuba and seek opportunities for Castro’s overthrow or killing. The thing is, the agents the CIA sent were old boys who didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t know Cuban (or any variety of Latin-American) culture, and most of the agents they supervised were just as culturally illiterate. Castro’s spy service, the DGI, penetrated the south Florida CIA team with impunity, leading to failure after failure on the part of CIA schemes to oust him that would be met with resistance that seemed very well informed about what was coming.

In addition to cultural arrogance, Trento lays out a very convincing case that careerism and egomania frequently distorted the interpretation of intelligence and the decisions about what covert ops to undertake. So, for instance, when one stream of information points to a truth that would be crucial to discover for the sake of national security, but which would also potentially come across as a terrible failure of intelligence on the part of those in charge of the CIA or the FBI, Trento shows how time and time again different top level agents would disparage that stream of information and instead opt for a different narrative supported by other bits and pieces of intel. CYA becomes a factor in skewing the accuracy of intelligence and the ability to discover and reverse mistakes after the fact.

In this way, men like J. Edgar Hoover suppressed and avoided intel that pointed to two major Soviet moles operating as agents for the CIA following their defections – Igor Orlov (a.k.a. Sasha) and Anatoly Golitsyn. A third Soviet agent posing as a turncoat was the aforementioned Yekaterina Furtseva’s son-in-law, Igor Kozlov.orlov

There’s interesting stuff about the possibility of an anti-Khrushchev group of Soviet elites, interested in replacing Khrushchev with Brezhnev, having been the main actors responsible for the JFK assassination, though the book is not a wacky JFK conspiracy theory kind of book. Trento simply follows the internal documents he gained access to and the many, many interviews we had. He shows that there’s evidence, though not proof, of an assassination plot developed by this pro-Brezhnev faction whose primary interests included (a) preventing Khrushchev from plans he’d been developing for detente with the US, including discussing Germany’s status; (b) removing the last piece of political leverage Khrushchev had among Soviet elites – his relationship with JFK; and (c) the opportunity to have an embittered Castro use his agents in the DGI to carry out the murder, thus providing deniability that the KGB had any involvement. Trento then fills in the rest of the pieces of the story as it would have needed to unfold, and to this reader it seems plausible, though I remain skeptical of conspiracy theories.

What I did come away convinced of is that quite a few people at the highest levels of the CIA, the Johnson Administration, and members of Congress believe that there was a Soviet involvement in the assassination. One reason I’m more open to Trento’s depiction of a possible (or for him, I’d say, probable) assassination plot along these lines is that, unlike many other JFK conspiracy theorists, Trento does not lionize JFK, nor does he depict him as a progressive saint who was just on the verge of preventing the Vietnam War, ridding the world of nuclear weapons, and dismantling the military-industrial complex (and therefore had to be silenced by a conspiracy involving cover-ups and secret-keeping by hundreds if not thousands of people in the know).

On the contrary, Trento treats JFK (and RFK) pretty much the same way he discusses every other president. He tends to give credit where it’s due, and to bluntly expose each of their failures, whether moral, political, or otherwise. For him, JFK and his brother were simultaneously able to be sharp thinkers and make huge mistakes out of hubris. They were smart enough to distrust the value of the intelligence they were received from the CIA, as they seemed to understand the flaws in the agency that Trento outlines in the book; and yet, they were attracted to covert ops, including assassination attempts, and in the desperate desire to get rid of Castro they allowed the US to hire mobsters to try to kill Fidel.

At the end of the day, the JFK we see in Trento’s book is someone who genuinely believes in racial equality for all Americans and who sincerely articulates a hopeful moral vision for international relations in a nuclear age. Trento’s JFK is also deeply compromised, from a national security standpoint, by his frequent sexual affairs (including one with a woman whose lover is a mob boss), and he is at times willing to throw his human rights ideals out the window in service of an opportune seeming covert op that might just involve killing people. (This goes for RFK too.)

The possible assassination plot Trento describes is something much less dramatic than what most JFK conspiracies posit. It kind of boils down to two different interests coming together out of coincidental timing and opportunity and then taking action. The first of these interests was the pro-Brezhnev faction in the Kremlin, and the second was Castro himself, who was basically trying to kill the man who had already repeatedly tried to kill him. To some extent, Trento implies that one of the Kennedy brothers’ most shortsighted thought processes had to have been their repeated attempts to kill Castro. On some level, you’d think after the first or second attempt, they’d start thinking, “Hmm, he’s probably freaking out and is probably going to try to kill us. Maybe we should call off the murder contracts on him and have a secret meet-up with his people, so this thing doesn’t end up getting us killed.”

I’ll close with Trento’s own words:

“These men and women of the CIA were trusted to do their work without any real accountability or oversight. This book is about how, left on their own, they broke the rules again and again. It is about mistakes the U.S. intelligence services consistently made and the damage that resulted. . . .

The Secret History of the CIA is not about America conquering godless Communism and winning the Cold War. It is more about ambition and betrayal than about patriotic achievement. It is about what happened when an age of fear caused us to turn extraordinary power over to a government agency run by human beings with weaknesses that we all share. It is about careerism, callousness, self-interest, and hubris.” p. xi

And my favorite quote in the book:

The Secret History of the CIA is the record of what happens when a free society engages in an activity that is totally alien to its character.” p. xii

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