James Carroll

CIA’s poisonous legacy starts with who we are

CIA Director John Brennan defended his agency from accusations in a Senate report on its tactics.
CIA Director John Brennan defended his agency from accusations in a Senate report on its tactics. AP

Senator John McCain spoke the truth on the Senate floor this month, in response to the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: “. . . this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be.” Many voices insisted that the revelations contained in the report — savage, even murderous treatment of prisoners; illegal renditions; black sites — were not true to the American character. The CIA — having carried out torture; having lied about it at the time; and having lied about it this month in response to the report — was discussed as if it were “not who we are.” But is that true?

American officials, and the American people, know very well what the CIA is, and what it does. It was McCain who, when CIA waterboarding of terror suspects first surfaced as an issue some years ago, recalled that, after World War II, Japanese waterboarding of POW’s — what McCain calls “mock execution” — was one of the war crimes for which Japanese prisoners were hanged. But on the Sunday talk shows after the Senate report’s release, various CIA defenders, including Dick Cheney, talked of such tactics with stoic pride. President Obama decried torture and swore never again, but simultaneously defended the honor of the CIA, and declined to prosecute its war criminals. It comes as no surprise then, that in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week, a majority of Americans found that “the harsh interrogation practices” laid out in the report were “acceptable under the circumstances.” Really?


There is always something surreal about these periodic reckonings — we are “shocked, shocked, shocked!” — with the blatantly criminal activities of the agency’s not-so-covert operations. The lost decade of the American war in Iraq, with all of its attendant and ongoing blood, anguish, and destruction, was sparked by the CIA’s big lie — director George Tenant’s “slam dunk” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. No intelligence failure, that was a pure act of willful self-deception, designed to further the CIA’s own off-the-books mayhem, which enhances the agency’s budget and power.

Because of paranoia in post-9/11 America, half a trillion dollars have been spent on a myriad of intelligence operations, involving 16 distinct agencies with more than a hundred thousand employees. And for what? Last spring, so-called intelligence briefings underwrote President Obama’s wildly mistaken dismissal of the Islamic State as the junior varsity. With the CIA there’s one sure bet: that it will miss what truly threatens.


In the proper happiness about last week’s overdue reconciliation with Cuba, Americans should not forget where the long and sorry saga began — with monumental CIA blunders and crimes, from the Bay of Pigs to the abhorrent plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. Indeed, assassination can be understood as the distilled essence of the poisonous legacy the CIA has bequeathed the present generation. Americans know from their own experience how the political murder of leaders inflicts a permanent wound on the soul of a people. That the United States emerged, through the CIA, as a primal sponsor of assassination remains a shame and a curse.

But Cuba’s is not the longest and sorriest saga of the Cold War. That distinction belongs to North Korea, whose 1950 aggression across the 38th parallel was entirely unforeseen by the CIA. Yet the US intervention in the Korean civil war was a foundational mistake (a dress rehearsal for Vietnam), haunting the world to this day. Can there be a surprise that, competing with the story of peace with Cuba last week, was a story about rage ignited by a comic Hollywood depiction of, yes, a fictional CIA assassination plot aimed at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un? Having had its computers hacked and threats against them made general, Sony canceled the release of the film in dispute,“The Interview,” which the Wall Street Journal had called “comedy gold.” In truth, we Americans love our CIA caper films and cliffhanger TV shows, but might one ask a dumb question? Who thinks a movie about the CIA-sponsored assassination of a named and sitting leader of another nation could possibly be funny?


America is better than this. That refrain, heard from right to left in the aftermath of the torture report, should not be repeated without a question mark. CIA defenders are correct to insist that the agency is not a rogue, un-American enterprise off on its own. Alas, the CIA has shown itself, across generations, to spring from the dark heart not just of this nation’s government, but of its people. McCain was right. It’s about us.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe. Read an excerpt from his upcoming book, “Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age,” on cruxnow.com.