In thirty seconds, name the current director of the C.I.A.
If you answered "Morgan Freeman", youve made Paramount Pictures happy, for you have seen "The Sum of All Fears." (And you have forgotten that Morgan Freeman "died" therein.)
If you said "Beau Bridges", youve made me happy, for you have seen"The Agency" (on CBS) and thus have contributed to my job security as an actor.
If you couldnt come up with the correct (George Tenet) answer, youve made Americas powerful and wealthy folks happy, for your ignorance is their bliss. And their ultimate security.
George Tenet -- a Clinton appointee -- is of historical interest for two reasons:
(1) George W. Bush did not fire him for failing to predict or prevent 9/11.
(2) Tenet was the first C.I.A. director to open up communications with Hollywood and to encourage movies and TV shows that promise to make the Agency look good.
Tenet was smart enough to know that the C.I.A. was in bad need of an image make-over.
The C.I.A. has a nasty reputation. And the C.I.A. has done more than enough to deserve its nasty reputation.
The list of known C.I.A. crimes is mind-numbing.
A short list of, say, the 25 most notable C.I.A. crimes is profoundly depressing and/or enraging (if you think that America should stand for democracy, justice and just plain decency).
So let me offer just a taste , a whiff of the history of the institution Mr. Tenet took over five short years ago.
--In the late 40s and the 50s, the C.I.A. interfered in national elections and corrupted political parties in Western Europe.
--In 1953, the C.I.A. engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected, moderate government in Iran. It then organized and trained the SAVAK, the infamously cruel secret police who kept the Shah in power, inspiring anti-American sentiment that erupted a generation later in the embassy takeover that made Ted Koppels career.
--In 1954 the C.I.A. planned and executed the overthrow of another democratically elected, moderate government, this one in Guatemala. They installed an exceptionally vicious military dictatorship which murdered or "disappeared" well over 100,000 of its people, mostly from the indigenous majority.
--In 1965 the C.I.A. helped to overthrow the neutralist leader of Indonesia and install the dictator Suharto; in the immediate aftermath at least 500,000 Indonesians, mostly peasants, were slaughtered; this was celebrated in Washington (some of the horror is conveyed in "The Year of Living Dangerously").
--In 1973 in Chile, the C.I.A. assisted general Augusto Pinochet in destroying the elected government of Salvador Allende(see "Missing"); many years later, the British government held Pinochet under house arrest while it debated charges against him for a few of the more than 3,000 political murders attributed to his regime.
--In the early 80s, the C.I.A. organized, trained and equipped a little army in Honduras; the army was known as the contras (Spanish, short for "counter-revolutionaries"). The C.I.A. wanted the contras to harass and cripple the Sandanista government in neighboring Nicaragua. The Sandanistas had offended U.S. government and business leaders by defeating the Somoza family dictatorship. The C.I.A./contra tactics involved straightforward terrorism; the World Court found the U.S. guilty of "the unlawful use of force" against Nicaragua; the U.S. ignored the Courts judgment. The civilian death toll in this C.I.A. escapade -- roughly 10,000 souls.
In the documentary film, "Secrets of the C.I.A.", a former Agency officer sums it up pretty well:
"The C.I.A. is a state-sponsored terrorist association."
(A personal appeal: dont take my word for it. Borrow "Killing Hope" by William Blum from your library. Look at the table of contents -- 55 short chapters, country by country. Pick three or four countries; find out what your government did there. Dont take my word for it. Read the books by former Agency officers: Philip Agee, John Stockwell, Ralph McGehee. Look at a copy of Covert Action Quarterly at your newsstand; in the back theres a list of 25 years worth of back issues -- all available. Dont take my word for it.)
But. But hasn't the C.I.A. stopped? Stopped aiding and abetting torture, assassination and slaughter?
Its hard to know. The Agency has never, to my knowledge, publicized its misdeeds. We can hope that some enterprising reporters will uncover something interesting in, say, Columbia, or... Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, it is not my place to pass judgment on any officer in the rank of file of the C.I.A. I dont think that officers in the lower and middle echelons make policy. They take orders and they are accountable to their own consciences. I believe that most people who join the Agency are convinced that they will be doing good in service to their fellow citizens and the people of the world.
Its troubling to read of the dark nights of the soul experienced by former C.I.A. officers. They faced agonizing moral dilemmas, impossible choices. Their ideals were shattered as they faced the implications of their missions. They came to that point where they could no longer persuade themselves that they were engendering atrocities in the hope of preventing even greater crimes. I doubt that I cold bear such strain.
But I think we do have the right, and the obligation, to judge the work of the Agency as a whole. It acts in our name and, in my opinion, to our detriment.
And we do have the right to demand of the top C.I.A. leadership a far higher standard of morality and of honesty than they have shown so far.
So, in fact, image may be the least of George Tenet's problems. He needs to acknowledge publicly the Agency's sordid past. He needs to set a tone of moral leadership, as fictional DCI Tom Gage (Beau Bridges) has done.
And, finally, it is not enough for us to point the finger at the C.I.A. It is only a secret and corrupted instrument of American foreign policy. And we the people are the ultimate makers of our foreign policy -- through our President, our Congress and our courts.
Its time for us to hold them accountable.