The Central Intelligence Agency used to be the “bad guy.” After the coup in Chile and Operation Phoenix in Vietnam; after spying on and repressing the antiwar movement; after secret mind-control experiments and bizarre assassination plots, the agency became liberals’ ultimate bogeyman.
Since then, the CIA has rebranded: now home to nerdy liberals like Edward Snowden or true-hearted defenders of democracy like Joe Wilson, the liberal public sees it as an important balance to war-mongers from Dick Cheney to Donald Trump. The revelation that Russian operatives apparently provided Wikileaks with the Podesta e-mails cemented the CIA’s new image. Langley valiantly tried to warn voters that the election had been hijacked, but petty politics got in the way. Now some liberals are pinning their hopes for an electoral mulligan on the intelligence community’s ability to discredit Trump.
This fantasy comes from liberals’ desire to ostentatiously distance themselves from Russia’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy and to displace the blame for Clinton’s surprising, but deserved, loss. But make no mistake, liberals: despite its new image, the CIA is not your friend.
A Rogue Elephant
Take a look at films from the early seventies, like Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor. In this classic potboiler, Robert Redford plays a liberal literary type who takes a job “reading” for the CIA, combing through foreign novels to spot ciphers of one sort or another. It seems like a pretty good gig to our Redford, but he soon finds himself ensnared in domestic covert actions, oil-company intrigues, and Faye Dunaway.
To a certain degree, Three Days of the Condor just dramatized what previous generations of liberals had already learned — don’t trust “the Company.” Much of the cinema of the time, as well as the spy novels of John le Carré, plays on many of the same themes: the CIA was unaccountable, undemocratic, evil.
Admittedly, this helped replace structural analysis with conspiracy theory, but it was worth pointing out that these boosters for the Shah and Pinochet were no friends of the liberal intelligentsia. They belonged to the George Herbert Walker Bush set, the country-club Yalies, the Skull and Bonesmen.
The Church Committee’s revelations spread this idea to the public in the years following Watergate and the coup in Chile. Bringing liberal stalwarts like Idaho senator Frank Church and old-school conservatives like Barry Goldwater together, the committee investigated the CIA’s successful assassinations — Patrice Lumumba, Rafael Trujillo, and the Diems — as well as failed or only alleged plots — including hiring the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro and its role in Salvador Allende’s death. In response, President Gerald Ford had to issue an executive order banning the assassination of foreign leaders. His adviser Donald Rumsfeld protested, and Bing Crosby called the president a traitor.
The committee also produced tantalizing hints of domestic espionage. It didn’t reveal the still-classified NSA, but it did show that the agency regularly spied on Americans at home and abroad.
The Church committee’s report came on the heels of a decade of revelations about CIA malfeasance, from Ramparts magazine’s 1967 article on the agency funding pro-war student associations (featuring a young agent named Gloria Steinem) to Seymour Hersh’s expose on Cointelpro and the New York Times’s story on MKUltra. The CIA had clearly become, in Senator Church’s own words, a “rogue elephant.”
And so it stayed in the public mind, often at odds with Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, only to land in more tranquil waters in the years of Ronald Reagan, Bush Sr, and Bill Clinton. The CIA may have been a bad guy in public consciousness, but it still enjoyed the support of those up top.
In fact, what the political class called Vietnam Syndrome — the public’s rejection of international military involvement — increased the government’s use of covert actions in Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. They positioned cutouts — agents who knew neither the source nor the destination of the intelligence they handled — to silo knowledge and build greater plausible deniability.
Simultaneously, the CIA’s electoral meddling — the classic case being Italy in 1948, when they got Sophia Loren and the Vatican to warn of the dark night of communism that would be a literal boot on the neck of the Italian people — was operationalized by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It probably wouldn’t be difficult to find valuable work funded by these grants, say by Paul Farmer’s group in Haiti or among activists in Palestine — work that put the NED at the center of some pretty wacky far right, George Soros-obsessed conspiracy theories. Regardless, all the NED did was take over work classically carried out by the CIA.
And then September 11, 2001 happened. Following the growth of responsibility-to-protect (R2P) humanitarian imperialism in the 1990s, the CIA could use 9/11 to complete its rebranding. No longer was the agency a rogue elephant: they had become the liberal cadre working within George W. Bush’s reactionary government.
Nerdy tech dudes like Edward Snowden had no issue taking a job there — after all, they probably have good health insurance. Before Anonymous became synonymous with Guy Fawkes masks, a CIA operative used it to claim that the Iraq invasion distracted from the good war, that is, the fight against al-Qaeda. Indeed the CIA was seen — somewhat justifiably — as dovish. All the while, it pioneered “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that is to say, torture.
The recent Showtime documentary The Spymasters, which includes interviews with all of the living former CIA chiefs, reveals a minor internal feud: The defenders of torture claim that at least they didn’t kill hundreds of people by remote control, and those who self-righteously disavowed torture celebrate the CIA’s newest innovation, using drones for the assassinations that Gerald Ford thought he’d banned. At least they all agree on the need for violence.
At the time, however, CIA agents began presenting themselves as liberals trapped within an ideological nightmare. Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos — who left his CIA training to go help Big Pharma lobbyist Howard Dean sing the antiwar gospel in preparation for John Kerry’s inspiring candidacy — now effuses about the liberal and techy kind of culture at CIA. (No one uses “the CIA” anymore, it’s become singular honorific. You wouldn’t be caught dead saying The Radiohead, would you?) Kos, always a charmer, recently published a gleeful piece of schadenfreude, telling the people whose AFCA premiums have gone up that they only have themselves to blame.
Central to this public-relations effort was the Joseph Wilson–Valerie Plame affair, designed by intelligence professionals to put egg on the neocons’ faces. In fact, the story created a disturbing sense of admiration for the CIA among liberals. This wasn’t the old, Cold War CIA. Now, the smart kids who opposed the Iraq War worked there. No doubt bright millennials with masters’ degrees in foreign service and an air of cynicism and self-grandiosity now define company culture.
To be sure, parts of this milieu, sidelined by the Cheney crowd, used Wilson — ostensibly an American diplomat — to undermine the war’s credibility. I can’t complain about that, to be honest. Due to their mischief, reactionary reporter Robert Novak outed Valerie Plame as a CIA agent in retribution for Joe Wilson’s rejection of the weapons of mass destruction narrative.
The CIA as an institution came out on the winning side of that one, regardless of their involvement in mass torture. It was easier to blame Cheney’s Vader-esque qualities, Wolfowitz’s comb-licking, and Rumsfeld’s strange patter than it was to re-examine an institution. Even following Snowden’s revelations, liberals seemed to focus on the practice of meta-data gathering and surveillance, not the structure of the institution.
In fact, l’affaire Wilson—Plame doesn’t reveal many progressive motives on close inspection. At most, it signals that elements within the deep state, perhaps those with international business ties, thought that the Bush crowd was going a bit too far. Its victims — Wilson and Plame — look more like archetypal preppies than the virtuous hackers we now imagine run the CIA.
Wilson, in fact, was the last American diplomat to talk to Saddam Hussein, the kind of guy who could be counted on to embark on a secret mission for the adventure of it all. Granted, his article “What I Didn’t Find in Africa” set off a shit show in the deep state by revealing the Bush administration’s “manipulation of intelligence” about yellowcake uranium sold by Niger to Iraqi businessmen in the late 1990s.
This was the era of “you’re either with us or against us,” of telling the Dixie Chicks to “shut up and sing,” of even Norman Geras and Dissent editors turning right and supporting the war effort. Publicly expressing antiwar sentiment simply was not done. So it was a pretty big deal for Joe Wilson — the jocular friend of Bush Sr and Jim Baker — to publish this sort of thing. He was Brent Scowcroft with a beer gut and an SUV, preppy enough for the old-schoolers but with enough of Joe Biden’s cool-dad style to appeal to the millennials. Real company type, that Joe Wilson.
Some people in Bush’s camp didn’t like this, in particular Wilson’s insistence that Cheney’s office had sent him. The memorably named Scooter Libby gossiped that Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent, and suddenly and inexorably, “Plamegate” became a cause celebre. Nation reporter and decent-left critic of the antiwar movement David Corn broke the story, using a “national security” argument to warn against leaking CIAs agents’ names and framing the story as if Libby was following in Aldrich Ames’s footsteps. This was a far cry from when the Nation celebrated Philip Agee.
To be sure, the leak likely did damage the work Plame had been doing, probably screwing some people over and maybe even worse. But during all the hours Amy Goodman spent on it on Democracy Now, discrediting the war and heightening the contradictions within the state, the CIA was also doing their Abu Ghraib thing. Liberal and even left-wing media and CIA agents teamed up against Cheney/Bush’s JV squad.
The L’Affaire Wilson–Plame, however, didn’t really discredit the war. History took care of that. Instead, it allowed the CIA to cultivate an image of itself as a liberal and rational technocracy. Films like Syriana and shows like Homeland featured this new take on Rambo, now a cool, liberal, and marginalized CIA operative who works against the grain of a conservative culture.
Plame became our real-life Dana Scully in the high-stakes world of international intrigue. She and her CIA comrades were scheming to prevent, and then discredit, this “war of choice.” She became the model for characters like Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty and Claire Danes’s Carrie Matheson in Homeland.
The nadir of this revisionist popularization came with Argo, which treats espionage like a heist film, with only passing reference to the context of the Iranian Revolution. Considering how many pro-CIA films they’ve made, it would not be surprising to hear conspiracy theorists outing George Clooney, Ben Affleck, and Tom Hanks as operatives. But the fact is, this crowd doesn’t need CIA funding: It has become common sense that CIA agents are cool, liberal, and cautious, but ready to fight the terrorists to the last drop.
This pop-cultural reassessment of the CIA let Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton pose for their album cover while watching a live-feed of Osama bin Laden’s assassination. Even Bernie Sanders paid lip service to Obama “getting bin Laden.” What’s disturbing isn’t that the United States killed Osama bin Laden, but that liberals applauded this new brand of covert warfare and special ops. Rambo and GI Joe returned, altered a little, just in time for Barack Obama.
Now some liberal pundits are — either flippantly or sincerely — hoping that the CIA will find a smoking gun to definitively prove that Russian intelligence helped elect Donald Trump. Others, notably Glenn Greenwald, have pointed out this fantasy’s disturbing implications insofar as it goes against what we know about how the hack took place and what its purpose was. More importantly, as Juan Cole noted, Trump didn’t need any Russian help to win the election.
Liberal pundits went off the rails on this one. Before the election, they huffed and puffed over Donald Trump blowing the house down by threatening to reject the election’s legitimacy. Yet last Friday, Barack Obama himself implicitly questioned the president-elect’s legitimacy, warning of dark conspiracies and foreign powers.
Readers would side-eye any news story describing the president of a country outside the advanced capitalist west questioning his successor’s legitimacy. Perhaps they’d mutter “banana republic” or snicker about dumb Latin Americans or stupid Africans or crazy Slavs or corrupt Asians. But now Barack Obama, drone-master, Mr. Likeable, Mr. Too-little Too-late even by his limited “fired up and ready to go” promises, essentially asked the CIA to do whatever it takes to get rid of that scoundrel Trump. What makes this so appealing to liberals?
It does have some plausibility: the Russians, after all, have always tried to influence public opinion in the United States. But let’s say everything is true — that Trump received not only ideological but also material support from Russia. And let’s say that Trump won because of Russia, and Russia’s goal was to have him win.
These revelations would depend on the United States having a mole in Russia’s own intelligence services, no revelation in itself. We don’t need to rehearse how the State Department does things like this all the time, nor do we need to think very hard to rattle off other situations when outside powers have meddled in domestic politics. One doesn’t have to be a Mearshieimer–Walt acolyte to recognize that Israel has used their intelligence services to impact American politics, as have likely the Saudis, China, Pakistan, and India. One nation trying to sway politics in another is, simply put, a nonstory.
What binds this CIA-as-hero fantasy together — aside from the Alex Jones–surpassing allegations that Glenn Greenwald is a Russian agent and even Bernie Sanders unwittingly helped Russia’s efforts — is that Trump’s alt-right politics look less like liberal America and more like Putin’s Russia. This is the rational kernel at the heart of the liberal conspiracy theory: they can disavow the United States’s own foreign policy and their role in losing the election in one fell swoop.
We must grant the first point. Russia’s role in the ongoing war crimes in Syria is undeniable. Without Russian air support and cover, Assad’s thugs likely wouldn’t have been able to take Aleppo, Grozny-style. Putin has made friends all over Europe’s far right, while, at home, he functions effectively as a dictator, repressing workers’ movements, journalists, and Muslims.
The Russian-hack conspiracy theory lets liberals put the United States’s intrigue and violence in the past. Sure, we’ve done bad stuff in the past — like Obama once said, “we tortured some folks.” But right now, as bad as we may be, as many atrocities as we may commit, we are not as bad as Russia. I mean in America, at least the police don’t shoot you — unless, of course, they do.
But this liberal dream requires not just backing, but elevating, the CIA. They want the CIA to keep putting out damaging information about Trump to force him to resign or tow their line. First, they swooned over the possibility that Romney would step in as a sober, Mormon voice to counteract Bannon’s Russia connections. Then they hoped that the Electoral College could be “swayed.” Maybe Barack Obama will declare himself an emergency ruler pending new elections. I can almost hear Obama saying it: The 2016 election was “compromised. So Michelle and I are gonna have to stick around awhile.” Liberals and perhaps even the detritus of the old “decent left” would cheer this, just as they cheered the war on Iraq.
Those who hope the CIA will substitute for democratic legitimacy may well argue that Trump has no democratic legitimacy. Well and good. Within the current American system, no one can lay claim to substantive democratic legitimacy. Regardless, Donald Trump won the election.
Fighting back against Trump means fighting against the liberals who invented him — in some cases literally, as the DNC leak showed that Clinton’s campaign wanted him to be the candidate. It means fighting back against the very foundations of a society that would produce him. It doesn’t mean desperately tailing the headless chicken of the liberal intelligentsia as it dances at some place on the highway near Langley.