Company Confessions: Secrets, Memoirs, And The CIA

Stone Island BlackI. If Walls Could Talk

The secret of our success is the secret of our success.

CIA Proverb.

In autumn 1973, the Central Intelligence Agency approached a man named Harold Vogel for a special assignment. Vogel was not a spy, but possessed a specific set of skills required by the Agency. Born in Detroit, Michigan, he had been raised in the Bavarian town of Ansbach through the period of the good Depression, where his grandfather, a restoration sculptor, taught him everything he knew about a hammer and chisel. Inspired by his elder’s teachings, Vogel studied for a stone carving apprenticeship in Nuremberg, before eventually returning to the United States, settling in Northern Virginia, as a Master Carver, where he found his talents in high demand. His various projects included restoring the Senate Chamber in the US Capitol, engaged on the National Cathedral, and fashioning a brand new wooden frame for the Declaration of Independence on the National Archives. Alerted to his craftsmanship by the US Commission of Fine Arts, the CIA asked him to construct a wall, a memorial wall to be more precise, only ever to be seen by CIA employees and approved visitors.

Earlier that year, several CIA officers had recommended that a plaque of remembrance be installed at CIA headquarters at Langley to honour comrades who had died in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos. It was subsequently suggested that the Board be a tribute to all CIA women and men who had fallen in the line of duty, provided they satisfied Agency-defined criteria of a ‘heroic’ death. Inspired by an aesthetic of elegant minimalism and simple geometric forms, Vogel’s concept was a memorial wall designed to evoke a way of pride and loss in everyone walking by it. This was approved by Director William Colby in November 1973.

Unveiled without ceremony in July 1974, Vogel’s design is one of the first things visitors to Langley will see, located on the north wall within the grand foyer of the original Headquarters Building. Made out of smooth, white, Vermont marble, and flanked by ‘Old Glory’ on the left and a flag with the CIA’s seal on the suitable, it currently bears 111 stars, each signifying a fallen hero, a solemn constellation that has increased from thirty-one for the reason that wall was erected. Measuring precisely 2.25 inches tall by 2.25 inches wide and half an inch deep, each star is painstakingly produced, first drawn by hand, following a stencil, before a pneumatic air hammer and chisel are used to carve out the traced pattern. The star is then cleaned and sprayed black, which, with age, fades to grey.

Above the stars is an inscription that reads: ‘In honor of those members of the Central Intelligence Agency who gave their lives in the service of their country’. Below them on a marble shelf is a Book of Honor, made from Moroccan Levant leather, locked in a stainless-steel and inch-thick bulletproof glass case. Inside, a number of the names of the fallen are neatly inscribed, penned by an expert calligrapher, using a dip pen and black sumi ink for a lustrous finish. Next to these names is the year they died and a hand-etched, 23-carat gold-leaf star, no bigger than the size of an asterisk. In recent years, the job of making new stars for the wall has passed to Tim Johnston, a bit-known tradesman out of Manassas, Virginia, who ordinarily makes bespoke bathrooms and kitchen surfaces. Like Vogel, his mentor, he derives no pleasure in carving new stars, but recognises that it must be done and is thankful that he is the one entrusted with the responsibility.

The CIA prides itself on quiet patriotism. A CIA officer, it is claimed, puts his country first, the Agency second, after which himself. The Memorial Wall is a silent and lasting reminder of the men and women who paid the best price for this pledge. It’s a poignant symbol of the dangers related to intelligence work dangers that most people, thankfully, will never experience. Yearly, since 1987, the CIA holds a commemoration ceremony by which the names of the fallen are read aloud by representatives of every of the four directorates. Members of the family of the deceased are invited to attend and, since 2009, are given a keepsake replica of their loved one’s star. The National Anthem is observed, prayers are read, and an all-white floral wreath is placed before the wall. Finally, a trumpeter concludes the occasion with a playing of ‘Taps’, the bugle call sounded at US flag ceremonies and funerals.

What are the stories that lie behind the Memorial Wall? Ironically, more is understood concerning the building of this edifice, due to a glossy 23-page brochure produced by the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs, than lots of the people it venerates. As much as it’s a shrine to the CIA’s heroes, additionally it is a testament to what’s arguably the Agency’s operative virtue secrecy. The Book of Honor is basically censored. One hundred and eleven stars are inscribed on its pages, but only eighty have names next to them. For security reasons, the identities of thirty-one employees honoured on the wall usually are not contained within the book. Nor are the omitted thirty-one known to the men who carved their stars. Anonymity even in death. The book contains no details about what position any of the officers held, what missions they were on, or how or where their lives were tragically cut short. The year of death is recorded, but not the day or month. Because of compartmentalisation inside the organisation, the stories behind the wall are just as much of a mystery to most CIA officers as they’re to the public. Retired CIA field operative Melissa Boyle Mahle has written that, ‘The identity of most were clouded in secrecy even to me, and I didn’t dare inquire because I did not have the need to know.’ Remarkably, Richard Helms, whose career in US intelligence spanned more than three decades, including over seven years as CIA Director, has said that: ‘Many of the names didn’t have any resonance with me … I didn’t know who they were.’

Stone Island Shadow Project Fall 2013 Video Lookbook ...The annual commemoration ceremony sheds no extra light on the careers of any of the 111 heroes. Indeed, it too is a monument to the culture of secrecy. Guests, who are instructed to go away cameras, video recorders and mobile phones at home, arrive at the visitor’s centre from Route 123, where they’re greeted by guards carrying pistols or, in times of high alert, assault rifles. After presenting their ID and Social Security Number, they are issued with a badge and directed to the compound proper, where there’s a VIP parking lot. Lots of the grieving parents, widows and widowers arriving that day have no clue about the circumstances by which their spouses or children died; some may have even been fed falsehoods. Entering into the cavernous lobby through a set of turnstiles, visitors might take a moment to step on the granite inlaid CIA seal, sixteen feet across, made famous by countless Hollywood movies, or observe, even genuflect, on the statue of William Donovan, Director of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Undercover CIA officers are told long in advance to remain away. Eventually, everyone takes his or her assigned seat, arranged in a horseshoe pattern, looking directly on the Memorial Wall. There isn’t any press. The incumbent CIA Director says a few words about sacrifice, but that’s it. This contrasts starkly with Medal of Honor ceremonies, where a citation is given outlining an individual’s achievements. If they’re lucky, guests might receive a vetted transcript of the proceedings, containing only the sparse remarks made about their loved ones.

Ever because it was created in 1947, the CIA has worried about people wanting to tell its stories not just the stories that lie behind each of the 111 stars, but many more besides. An oft-quoted CIA proverb is: ‘The key of our success is the secret of our success.’ In common with all intelligence services worldwide the CIA is keen to guard stories that, if disclosed, would endanger the lives of sources, jeopardise operations or expose to the nation’s enemies the methods by which vital information is collected and analysed. President Gerald Ford once said that he would gladly share all the CIA’s secrets to every American, at the time estimated to be 214 million people, if he could guarantee that Moscow wasn’t listening. The CIA’s anxiety concerning the revelation of sources and methods is long ingrained in American history, dating to the foundation of the Republic. George Washington was adamant that such information was sacrosanct. On 26 July 1777, at the height of the American Revolutionary War, he wrote to Colonel Elias Dayton, who ran a spy ring in Staten Island, urging secrecy: ‘The necessity of procuring good Intelligence, is apparent and need not be further urged. All that is still for me so as to add is, that you retain the entire matter as secret as possible. For upon secrecy, success depends in most Enterprises of this kind.’ So apposite were these words that, some 200 years later, the CIA hung a framed reproduction of Washington’s letter on a wall at Langley for employees to see. At the very least one CIA Director has taken it with him when testifying on the Hill.

The CIA has a justifiable argument that it needs to prevent the disclosure of stories that will undermine its ability to carry out its mission. Even in a free democratic society, there may be a necessity for intelligence secrets, just as there’s a necessity to guard the secrets exchanged between doctor and patient, or attorney and client.

The danger of not having a veil of secrecy for sources and methods shouldn’t be underestimated. The CIA’s effectiveness hinges to a large degree on whether it will possibly protect this body of information. Foreign intelligence services, whose cooperation is often crucial, will not enter into liaison relationships if they can’t trust the CIA to protect basic secrets. When secrecy about unique and sometimes fragile techniques is compromised, enemies will develop countermeasures, potentially denying policymakers with intelligence essential to national security. CIA Director Admiral Stansfield Turner (19771) was committed to opening up the CIA, but remained acutely aware that transparency about methods was a line he could not cross. ‘If we tip the other side off to simply how we’re collecting our data’, he said sternly at a meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California in August 1977, ‘the flow of knowledge will end and cost money, men and time to turn it on again in some way.’

The CIA will struggle to recruit personnel and sources if it cannot guarantee that their identity will remain secret. In some cases, the life of an intelligence officer or source hinges on that guarantee being preserved. Indeed, not less than one of many stars on the Memorial Wall that of Richard Welch (more about him later) is there because someone told a story the CIA did not stop.

It is generally accepted or at the least it needs to be that there is a public interest within the CIA protecting stories that impinge directly on sources and methods, even if the most compelling evidence to demonstrate the actual harm caused by disclosure is simply available in the classified domain. The true controversy starts when the CIA is perceived as eager to withhold stories where it is not obviously apparent that national security concerns are at stake. In the United States, where the political health of the nation stems from the ability of citizens to know and criticise policies carried out of their name, people have a right to be angry when it appears that the CIA is suppressing stories which may cause embarrassment, because they contain evidence of failure, ineptitude, wrongdoing or violations of law. That anger is intensified if the CIA is seen to be seizing upon the leverage of ‘national security’ traditionally a sure-fire method to strike fear into individuals who have no idea any better to throw indiscriminately a blanket over a large number of sins. It has long been claimed by critics that secrecy is a largely mindless reflex at the CIA, with the Agency keeping secrets for secrecy’s sake, no matter whether there’s a legitimate national security reason for doing so. Steven Aftergood, a political activist who directs the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, has argued that the bureaucratic instinct to avoid embarrassment is so powerful at Langley that the guiding mantra will not be simply ‘If in doubt, classify,’ it is just ‘classify’.

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Every story requires a storyteller. This book examines how the CIA, with varying degrees of success, has attempted to manage one particular type of storyteller. Investigating what tales this breed of storyteller wants to inform, and why, and exploring how much or how little the CIA has allowed them to say, provides an interesting vantage point from which to assess the depth of secrecy at Langley (the secrets of secrecy, so to speak), and for interested by whether the Agency has struck a good and appropriate balance between its need to guard sources and methods and the core American value of openness.

Meet the intelligence-officer-turned-memoir-writer.

II. What Would Walter Say?

Exposed intelligence agents are either dead, ‘turned’, or retired and writing their memoirs.

Warren F. Kimball, historian and former Chair of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee.10

Walter Pforzheimer owned two apartments at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. Purchased in 1966, six years before a ‘third-rate burglary’ made the site infamous, the two apartments served different purposes. One was Pforzheimer’s living quarters. The other, overlooking the Potomac River, and fortified by a locked steel gate, was home to the largest private collection of intelligence books in the world. The son of a rare book dealer, Pforzheimer was a bibliophile all his life, but his particular love for spy stories began in 1942 when he joined the OSS and wanted to read all about his new trade, the so-called ‘second-oldest profession’. That passion grew in 1956 when he was asked by CIA Director Allen Dulles to found and curate the Historical Intelligence Collection on the CIA, intended to assist the Agency keep on top of what had been published and what was still secret. Acquiring the title of ‘Dean of Intelligence Literature’, Pforzheimer purchased two copies of each book one for the CIA, and one for himself. As his obituaries noted, he was the custodian and keeper of the CIA’s institutional memory. Those lucky to have seen his private library with their own eyes will remember books in every room, even the lavatory, spilling off ceiling-high shelves, tables and chairs, and out of liquor boxes and fruit crates cannibalised for storage. As a personal touch, tacked onto one shelf was a bumper sticker with the words: ‘The world is at peace, ’cause the CIA is at war’.

A lifelong bachelor, known by his friends as a loveable curmudgeon, outspoken to a fault, Pforzheimer was never happier than when he was at home, surrounded by his literary possessions, with a bottle of whisky and a fellow ‘old boy’ for company, musing about Yale, his beloved alma mater, his days at the CIA or the most recent spy book. Were he alive today, he would need a third apartment to accommodate the staggering volume of books now being written about US intelligence, especially by CIA veterans. In recent times, it has become almost obligatory for senior retirees of the CIA to publish a memoir. Within the words of 1 journalist, ‘The spies are coming in from the cold and heading straight to’ Within the words of another, ‘At retired spooks’ conventions, the card tables within the lobbies must be creaking under the weight of them all.’ In 1998, the Chairman of the Publications Review Board (PRB), the body at the CIA liable for vetting and clearing publications by CIA personnel, reported that the Board was being called into action greater than 300 times a year. This was just the beginning of it. In 2004, the PRB reviewed no fewer than 30,000 pages. By 2007, some 100 prospective authors were contacting the Board every month. In 2010, it reviewed greater than 1,800 manuscripts. In March 2011, the Board set a new one-month record by reviewing more than 300 manuscripts the equivalent of what was reviewed in an entire year only a decade earlier.

Memoir writing by ex-CIA officers is big business. Six-figure advances are relatively common, while intelligence officers of the primary rank, such as former Directors, can command much more. Published in 2014, Worthy Fights, the memoir of CIA chief Leon Panetta, reportedly earned its author a lofty $3 million. Memoirs by particularly controversial or high-profile individuals will often become bestsellers, in some cases overnight, and draw the eye of a broad range of national and international presses. Published in 2007, the memoir of George Tenet, CIA Director at the time of 9/11, climbed as high as No. 2 on the Amazon bestseller list, beaten to the top spot only by the seventh and final Harry Potter novel.

If large promotional tours, television appearances and the sound of ringing cash registers will not be enough, some authors have even seen their memoirs become major motion pictures. Ben Affleck’s film adaptation of Argo, the true story of how CIA disguise and exfiltration expert Tony Mendez rescued six American diplomats from post-revolutionary Iran under the guise of being a Canadian film crew, pulled in a cool $136 million in domestic box office receipts and won Best Picture at the Oscars. The one down side, Mendez has joked, was not being played by George Clooney.

The recognition of CIA memoirs mustn’t come as an excellent surprise. They provide a special window right into a realm of human activity that has long attracted public curiosity and concern, but which has also been obscured by secrecy and contorted by fantasy. While often eliciting hostility for what critics perceive as dubious literary quality, in lots of cases they supply the first draft of history, containing insights that one simply cannot get from other sources and which could otherwise remain hidden from the scrutiny of posterity. Indeed, for the reason that CIA’s approach to declassification can at times leave loads to be desired, memoirs may be the only place that certain information will ever be found.

Authors and publishers are keen to entice readers with the promise of a privileged and expert peek inside the key world. Dust-jacket hyperbole will give the impression of an all-knowing spy, within the autumn of their life, making one final dead drop that can leave the reader infinitely better informed. In 1976, Ballantine Books raised reader expectations by claiming that Joseph Burkholder Smith’s Portrait of a Cold Warrior was ‘one of the crucial vivid, honest and revealing looks ever at the CIA by a man who was inside during the hottest decades of the Cold War.’ In 1989, Berkeley Books boasted: ‘Former CIA Deputy Director Russell Jack Smith takes you on a thrilling behind-the-scenes tour of the intelligence community for a rare glimpse of the everyday inner working of the real CIA.’ Eye-catching titles just like the Unknown CIA, Need to Know and Blowing My Cover are cleverly designed to ask the reader to pick at forbidden fruit. Moreover, publishers sometimes cannot resist giving a book a more titillating title than it deserves, or its content can actually sustain. For example, Praeger insisted that CIA veteran Arthur Hulnick call his book Fixing the Spy Machine, against his better judgement. Consequently, Hulnick spent a large part of the book explaining that intelligence shouldn’t be a machine, just isn’t in reality broken, and, ergo, would not must be fixed.

Given the abundance and recognition of CIA memoirs, it is surprising that scant effort has been made to study them or explore their historical development. Naturally, whenever a new title is released, journalists are quick to pen reviews. The CIA also provides engaging and informed critiques of recent memoirs in its in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, written by the heir to Pforzheimer’s bibliographic throne, Hayden Peake. Yet, the frame of investigation for book reviews is understandably narrow, focused on whether the work in question constitutes ‘good history’. The absence of any serious or book-length enquiry into this body of literature may be traced to a broader reluctance among historians to review ‘official memoirs’ of any kind. The acid of envy has played its part. As George Egerton explained in a perceptive article in 1988, many historians are uncomfortable with the harsh reality that their painstakingly researched monographs seldom match the excitement and earnings generated by an official memoir promising secrets, scabrous details and high-class gossip. Jealousy, however, tells only half the story. Historians have long been sceptical about official memoirs, which they regard as self-serving and selective, regardless of claims by the author to ‘tell it the way it was’. Every memoirist, they believe, to justify and vindicate their actions, will resort to suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. Indeed, as Egerton remarks, ‘Will not be [officials] uniquely disqualified, by years of habit-forming professional obfuscation, from telling the reality about what they’ve done and why they did it?’ With good reason, concerns about factual contamination and mendacity are increased in the case of spy memoirs. Why, in spite of everything, should anyone believe a word of what a spy has to say? They are trained to lie, deceive and dissemble; that is their business. The historian’s frustration is compounded by the fact that it is often impossible to verify the author’s version of events because the documents necessary to do so will not be available in the general public domain.

Moreover, the older the memoirist, and the further the distance from the events described, the greater the likelihood of memory being eroded by the encrustations of time. At Langley, there is an old story about two elderly spies, a husband and wife. One evening, the wife announces that she would like a giant fat sundae before going to bed, with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a cherry on top. She asks her husband to write the order down, knowing he would forget, but he repeats the ingredients verbatim and leaves the house. Sometime later, he returns with a brown paper bag and a satisfied grin on his face. After opening the bag and pulling out a ham sandwich, his wife says to him: ‘See. I told you to jot down it down. You forgot the mustard.’

…S. national security on the University of Warwick in England. He is the award-winning author of Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain and has held fellowships on the British Academy, the Library of Congress, and Oxford University.

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