Bad Intelligence

George J. Tenet with President Bush at the Central Intelligence Agency in 2001
George J. Tenet with President Bush at the Central Intelligence Agency in 2001 (Larry Downing/reuters)
Reviewed by Michael F. Scheuer
Sunday, November 27, 2005

THE CIA AND CONGRESS

The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy

By David M. Barrett

Univ. of Kansas. 542 pp. $39.95

BURN BEFORE READING

Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence

By Stansfield Turner

Hyperion. 308 pp. $23.95

These fine new books should be read by all those stalwart investigators who found no one responsible for two recent intelligence disasters: 9/11 and Iraq's nonexistent WMD programs. Instead of pointing fingers and punishing personal negligence, these would-be reformers pushed for an unfocused and reckless reorganization of the intelligence community. But David M. Barrett and Adm. Stansfield Turner show that the activities of the CIA are determined not by organizational charts, however they're redrawn, but by human relationships, personal integrity -- or lack thereof -- and the rapport between the president and the director of central intelligence. Barrett and Turner (himself a former director) also make clear that the late Pope John Paul II was right: Men should be judged not only for what they do but also for what they fail to do -- for doing their duty or ignoring it. This is true for presidents, directors and their senior advisers, all of whom are pledged to protect American lives even if they have to break some bureaucratic eggs to do so.

Barrett's The CIA and Congress is a triumph of research. Writing any history of the CIA is problematic because the documentation will never be close to complete; some official and private papers have been destroyed or "misplaced," others remain classified 50 years or more after being written, and many important discussions and decisions were never committed to paper. Faced with such endemic incompleteness, Barrett, a political scientist at Villanova University, persevered, found widely dispersed research materials and displayed sound analytic sense and balance in their use. Having done so much fine detective work, Barrett can present not only a gripping review of leadership dynamics among the CIA, the White House and Congress but also a coherent view of the development and oversight of the CIA's budgets (a notoriously hard target) from 1947 to 1961. His research is made more impressive by his frankness in admitting on several occasions that he cannot tell the whole story because the documents are not available.

Barrett's analysis of the relationship between the long-established Congress and the infant CIA (founded only in 1947) turns not only on documents but also on his superb portraits and assessments of the key players: The thoughts, actions and characters of senators, congressmen, presidents and CIA officials are front and center in the book. The human pageant Barrett presents is not all that different from that which exists today. At the CIA's birth, he writes, senior legislators sought to limit knowledge of the agency's activities to a select few in Congress, fearing leaks and damage to national security, while other legislators simply did not want to know what the CIA was up to. Meanwhile, a third category of legislators embraced public discussions of CIA activities either to make political hay (Sen. Joseph McCarthy) or to inform the public about what America's spies were doing (Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield).


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