Saturday, October 06, 2007

Spy stories

Jeff Stein of CQ has a noteworthy article about an under-reported scandal involving the CIA and Congress.

Not too long ago, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, and it was no secret that he did not like former CIA Director George Tenet. In his recent autobiography, Tenet explains the origin of the feud: December 1996, shortly after President Bill Clinton nominated his national security advisor Anthony Lake to be CIA director, Shelby approached him after a committee briefing. (Tenet was then deputy director.)

“George, he drawled,” according to Tenet, “if you have any dirt on Tony Lake, I sure would like to have it.”

Tenet was taken aback, he wrote, because he and Lake were friends.

Tenet also wrote that, “National Security Agency officials told us that Shelby staffers had been asking whether there was derogatory information in their communications intercepts on Lake.”

But the NSA refused Shelby’s entreaties, two sources said, and there was no derogatory information in the FBI’s files.

Shelby also demanded, and got, the FBI’s raw files on Lake.
Marcy Wheeler adds this observation:
Two sources say the NSA refused to give Shelby what he wanted. But we know that the NSA did give John Bolton what he wanted. Who is getting info like this from NSA? High ranking executive branch officials? Congressmen? Who else?
Obviously, things changed at NSA. I would note that Michael Hayden became the Director of No Such Agency in 1999, after the Shelby incident and before the Bolton incident.

As you know, Hayden now runs the CIA.

On another topic...
There's some talk of deleting Wikipedia's article on Operation Mockingbird, the CIA's notorious effort to manipulate the press. Apparently, some folks argue that we have insufficient evidence for the existence of that operation.

The behind-the-scenes wiki discussion is revealing. These "experts" focus only on the easily-obtained online sourcing -- which, as several commentators note, includes articles printed in the less-reputable, more paranoid sectors of the web. But just because a CIA endeavor has attracted the attention of conspiracy buffs does not mean that the endeavor is fictional.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The silliness one encounters in the conspiracy buff subculture provides cover for real-world covert operations.

If Wikipedia's "experts" would take the trouble to visit a library, they would learn that pretty much everything in the Mockingbird article is verifiable in a number of thick, scholarly, well-reviewed and footnote-filled books published by reputable firms. Anyone willing to fire up the microfilm spools can search out original news articles conveying much of this data. There are also quite a few periodical articles written to a high standard by non-crankish authors.

Of course, a hard-core skeptic willing to engage in epistemological gamesmanship can still dispute the reality of Mockingbird. Nothing is provably real to someone willing to move the proverbial goalposts, because the standards of evidence can never be met.

This sort of nonsense happens a lot when the topic turns to the CIA. I distinctly recall a New York Times article published in the late 1980s which derided as laughably paranoid the accusation that the CIA had once tried to assassinate Castro. If memory serves, the NYT broke that very story.

By the way, the Wikipedia piece makes an interesting point concerning nomenclature:
The word Mockingbird was first used by Deborah Davis in Katharine the Great (1979). There is no evidence that the CIA called it this. Cord Meyer said that when he joined the operation in 1951 it was so secret that it did not have a name.
While researching another of the CIA's more noteworthy undertakings, I was struck by the confusing use of the terms "Project" and "Operation" to describe the same thing. Eventually, I figured out what was going on (at least, I think I did): "Project" cryptonyms are in-house designators used within the CIA's filing system. "Operations" are informal terms used in the field. For reasons of security, field operatives -- who might be captured by an enemy service, or who might get blabby while drinking -- often were not told the official names of the Projects on which they toiled.

Occasionally, one runs into "sources" who tell exciting stories in which field agents make repeated, mixed-company references to Project SOMETHINGOROTHER. Be suspicious. Such "sources" may well be fantasists who have read too many books about spies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The silliness one encounters in the conspiracy buff subculture provides cover for real-world covert operations.

The best way to cover up the truth is to mix it with lies. The conspiracy websites provide a perfect venue for this.

On to other matters...

I wonder how Shelby ever got the position as Chair of of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Do you suppose that his appointment was related to the fact that Barksdale AFB is in Alabama?