It’s a toss-up, really, whether to go with Project Bluebird or Project Artichoke. Either one could be the real-life model for Treadstone, the fictional secret CIA program at the black heart of Robert Ludlum’s books and the hit movies they spawned featuring Matt Damon as a trained assassin with dicey memory issues. I just love these films. “The Bourne Identity,’’ “The Bourne Supremacy,’’ and “The Bourne Ultimatum’’: all that brute suspense, those international switchbacks, their moral murk. Today, in fact, brings the worldwide premiere of the latest in the series, “The Bourne Legacy.” It opens in Manila, where much of it was shot, and debuts here Friday.
By the way, the “Legacy” in the title is a loophole: It seems that Bourne himself isn’t in this one. (Damon wouldn’t sign on without director Paul Greengrass). Costars Joan Allen and Albert Finney do reprise their roles, though, and Treadstone still darkens the plot. But I suspect “The Bourne Legacy’’ will be a lesser animal than the others.
Thus, to fill the void, I have recruited my own assets, a bunch of books on the CIA itself. So here’s another legacy: “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” (Doubleday, 2007) is a barn-burner by New York Times reporter Tim Weiner. (Note: The CIA website actually runs book reviews, and they don’t like it one bit.) I read about Project Artichoke here, and about Bluebird in the sadly out-of-print (but still gettable) “The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA From Wild Bill Donovan to William Casey” (Simon & Schuster, 1986) by British writer John Ranelagh. Both programs, which unfolded around the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, and mutated into something called MK-Ultra, used hypnosis, forced drug addiction, and other goodies to produce amnesia and develop “what was in effect a human robot,” to quote Ranelagh. Is that what Bourne was? Kinda. As one CIA guy tells him in one movie: “You’re US Government property. You’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon.”
Before you get justifiably appalled, know that when these projects were cooked up, Western intelligence agencies were in deep panic over a rash of Cold War failures — various skunked missions, the betrayal of the Rosenbergs, the defection of agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, the realization there was a mole ruining untold operations who a decade hence would turn out to be Kim Philby — and were desperate to turn the tide.
And know that this desperation has its roots in the trauma of Pearl Harbor. That attack was a direct consequence of American squeamishness about espionage; we should have seen it coming but had too few spies. Indeed, Henry Stimson, Hoover’s secretary of state, famously explained why he decided to shut down Black Chamber, the outfit that then deciphered foreign secret messages: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”
As such, when World War II broke out, we had to scramble. The British helped us set up our wartime precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). For its twee, Ivy League, left-leaning culture, the OSS was jokingly called Oh So Social or Oh So Socialist. And that origin story — an early CIA full of rich boys and academics — gets crackling treatment in “The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA”(Simon & Schuster, 1995) by Newsweek bureau chief Evan Thomas. One of those men, CIA deputy director Desmond FitzGerald, said his perfect spy would be “a Harvard PhD who could handle himself in a bar fight.”
“Legacy of Ashes” goes on to tally an infinite set of missteps, to the point where you wonder whether the agency did anything right — it did call the Six-Day War accurately, it seems. But he’s not raising questions about the CIA’s sense of morality so much as its lack of effectiveness. Indeed, he thinks the flatfootedness that resulted in Pearl Harbor is the same flatfootedness that resulted in 9/11. President Clinton is especially slapped for being “content to get his intelligence from CNN” and paring back the agency to where there were more FBI agents in New York just before 9/11 than CIA agents in the whole world.
Another indispensible commentator is Thomas Powers. A generation ago, he published the best book about a director and his times: “The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA” (Knopf, 1979); John Le Carré himself called it a “splendid spy story.” And more recently, Powers poured decades of essays and reviews into “Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al-Qaeda” (New York Review Collection, 2002). This is a work of painful revisionism. Powers challenges those who dismiss the Red Scare as overblown to admit there were bona fide threats, as CIA intercepts of Soviet intelligence now prove. He also wants us to reckon with the likelihood that Kennedy approved the CIA’s Three Stooges-esque attempts to take out Castro (exploding seashells, anyone?). Finally, he is adamant that we need good intelligence today — more spies, not fewer — as much as we ever did in World War II and the Cold War.
There’s yet another way to tunnel into the CIA: through its workforce. Director books, agent books, all showcase a sort of kabuki dance of selective truth-telling. Directors such as Allen Dulles, William Colby, and George Tenet have each turned out memoirs. But I think the sharpest-written is by Richard Helms, perhaps because he started out as a journalist (who once landed an interview with Hitler). His “A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency” (Presidio, 2003) has many scores to settle. The biggest is with Nixon, who tried to pin the Watergate break-in on the CIA, and when Helms wouldn’t play along — the CIA would never have done such a slipshod burglary he said, which proves they weren’t involved — Nixon had him canned in an act of “surpassing pettiness,” according to Kissinger, who writes the book’s foreward.
As for the agent books, two recent ones nicely scratch my Bourne itch. “The Craft We Chose: My Life in the CIA” (Mountain Lake, 2011) is by Richard L. Holm, our man in Hong Kong, Brussels, Kuala Lumpur, and Paris. Whether he’s keeping an eye on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, getting airlifted out of the Belgian Congo with massive burns, or taking part in the CIA’s counterterrorism group, where he helped nab Carlos the Jackal, the man is blunt and colorful.
This next one is getting some real buzz. “The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service” (Penguin, 2012) is deftly done by Henry A. Crumpton, a spook for 24 years mostly in Africa (he doesn’t say which countries) who later directed CIA operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. Here are some of his choicer tidbits: President Obama actually calls to congratulate agents after a successful mission. And the new world of intelligence, in which the CIA is but one of many players, is an “orgy of growth, replication, and confusion.” Crumpton’s strong suit was recruiting agents, and the book’s juiciest stuff lays out this delicate art, via an acronym: MICE, which stands for “money, ideology, compromise, ego,” as the various motivations for why someone turns spy. Unless, of course, they’re Bourne that way.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at email@example.com.