Double agents, covert operations, moles, dead drops, deep-sixed tapes, election meddling, secret identities, enhanced interrogation, brush passes, assassinations — when it comes to spy work, there is no shortage of bizarre and misshapen determinants that capture one’s imagination. And if these things are happening, what else is going on? The possibilities seem endless, especially in Chris Whipple’s The Spymasters.
If you’re an American, The Spymasters is required reading. Chris Whipple’s book provides a chronological report (although, with plenty of intrigues) of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) history, providing an insider look at how the agency has operated and shaped events since its founding. Through interviews with key contributors, Whipple showcases the humans which make up the agency — sometimes overly ambitious or biased, sometimes brave and highly principled these individuals emerge flawed yet, also, merely people trying to work hard at their jobs. The picture crafted is hardly one of a deep state, which is a narrative peddled by the forty-fifth president. What the reader comes away with is a clear understanding of how the agency works and the important role that the CIA director (DCIA, formerly DCI) and the president have in utilizing its functions. In its simplest end, Whipple’s book is a lesson in understanding an arm of the U.S. government, providing an additional lens for the electorate to be informed.
While the introduction states that a formal history is not his goal, and that the judgments of the book are his own, Whipple uses unprecedented primary sources — including nearly every living CIA director, other CIA employees, presidents, and directors of national intelligence — to patch together a narrative that is both colorful and comprehensive. He details each president and all of their CIA directors since the inception of the agency in 1947. Through his telling, he hopes to answer specific questions, such as “what is the proper relationship between the director and the president?” As a result, at its most complex, the book is an examination of why intelligence fails and succeeds, and the type of leaders that are necessary for the job, as well as what might befall the nation if they are not up to the task.
Whipple demonstrates that when it comes to people of power, few have been more impactful on United States history than DCIs. Part of what makes this true is how closely the director works with the president. The director of the agency is appointed by the president and is nearly always involved in briefing the president on intelligence matters, as well as deploying covert missions that range from developing assets in foreign governments to spreading propaganda and anti-communism/anti-terrorism campaigns. The DCIs’ inextricable linkage to the White House is precisely what puts them at the center of large-scale historical events such as arming the mujahideen rebels who would become Al Qaeda.
The CIA’s wide-reaching influence and unassailable partnership with the White House are masked by the politics of Washington, where “there are only two things…policy successes and intelligence failures.” The truth is that there remains a blurry line between the CIA’s charter and the policies (which is a nice all-encompassing word for vendettas, biases, dogma, self-preservation, or partisan maneuvers) that the president implements. What that means is that the agency is subject to an interminable ethical puzzle, where the conflict of interest between political and intelligence-driven decisions are under the discretion of whoever is director but most often completely decided by the president. Here lies a paradox, which runs through the chapters of Whipple’s book — how can the leader of an organization whose modus operandi is to keep secrets, lie, deceive, and sometimes kill (it’s now technically illegal to kill a foreign leader since the 1981 Executive Order 12333, which didn’t stop Trump’s authorized killing of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani) at the request of the president, also be a defender of morality and truth? In a long history of presidential folly, the director has had to sustain honest and ethical stands that run counter to the orders of their superior — the commander in chief. Whipple’s book outlines many of these situations including, ignoring (sometimes) John F. Kennedy’s consistent demands to assassinate Fidel Castro, conducting a report for Lyndon Johnson that called “the domino theory” unfounded, or refusing to prevent the investigation into Watergate. However, in other circumstances, directors failed to speak truth to the power of the Oval Office, lying for the president’s interests, such as when director George Tenet fabricated weapons of mass destruction. Whipple makes it obvious to the reader, that is, the stakes for navigating this puzzle couldn’t be higher.
There is no end to the insight that Whipple’s book provides about the history and workings of American policy. Amongst the most enlightening bits in The Spymasters is the mention of the assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush in 1993, during a visit to Kuwait. The plot was none other than Sadam Hussein’s, and it adds another layer to George Jr.’s fixation on war with Iraq. Equally revelatory was the fact that the United States’ drone program is not operated by the military. It is the CIA who is positioned to operate covertly outside of war zones, and the DCIA gives the go-ahead seconds before a Predator unleashes a Hellfire missile toward a target.
The reader of this book grasps how much power and responsibility the CIA directors have. After all, they fight terrorism, conduct covert operations, influence policy and interests around the globe, have piles of information at their disposal — including what motivates the President — and have killing machines at their fingertips. All of this is to ask, what happens when career CIA analysts believe that the president is an asset to Putin, who has tried to influence American elections and undermine democracy? What happens when the CIA has to remove their mole inside the Kremlin, with access to Putin, for fear that the president will, inadvertently or not, get him executed? What happens if the DCIA is loyal to the president, regardless of what the intelligence says? Frightening? Wait until you read The Spymasters.
By Chris Whipple
Scribner Book Company
Published September 15, 2020
Keith Contorno is a Chicago-based writer and educator.