"On Company Business," a three-part, critical history of the CIA and the world, begins tonight at 10 on Channel 26 with an overview of the agency from its post World War II beginnings and on through such debacles as the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
The film, by Howard Dratch and Allan Francovich, CIA defector Philip Agee as a "special consultant," and he is extensively interviewed on camera. Grateful acknowledgement is made to something called The Foundation for Open Company Inc. Hence there is little pretense of this being an objective report. Anyone approaching it without realization is in for a sleigh ride.
That it lacks neutrality does not automatically mean it lacks value, however, and the filmmakers manage to raise disturbing questions about the CIA and how it grew and grew and grew, not so much like Topsy as The Blob. Born in the midst of Cold-War anti-Communist fervor, the agency was charged with increased global housecleaning chores until, says former CIA officer David Atlee Phillips, it reached a state in which "intelligence was asked to do what armies should have done."
The history is told, semi-chronologically, without narration but with the running commentary of old newsreels setting the scenes for various CIA intrigues and adventures. Apart from the central intelligence of the film, the newsreel announces come booming back from yesteryear with an almost halcyon simplistic interpretation of world events. This was a time when it was us against them and there was no doubt about us.
Thus a 1948 Movietone newsreel about elections in Italy speaks of "Italian Reds" and a "Communist peril." A later newsreel conjures a Commie takeover of an American town; "First, the mayor is hustled off to jail." Even the Bay of Pigs goes through the laundry, as charges that the United States was involved are "quickly, forcefull" denied by Adlai E. Stevenson at the United Nations.
And the aftermath of this botched mission, unequalled in our history until Jimmy Carter's abortive Iranian rescue mission, is polished into the "tragic epilog to a gallant venture."
The figure of history repeating itself does haunt the program, which includes early footage of the shah of Iran being miraculously reposed after being briefly deposed, a CIA outing more cogently documented in an NBC News report on the Mideast last year.
President Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagerty, also sounds eerily contemporary when in newsreel footage he declares, "There is a limit to what the United States can, in selfrespect, endure." Alas, that limit seems to have been raised in direct proportion to the degree to which the CIA has been exposed and restrained in recent years.
The documentary is more impressionistic than methodical, and its view of the CIA as a runaway train, or at least a runaway caboose, does not seem tempered by world realities. A recitation of American espionage disgraces at this precise moment is certainly discomforting, though not necessarily in a very useful way.
There is also the disturbing prospect that some of the Cold-War tirades against the Soviet Union and its plans for world domination may have been hysterically stated in their time but seem not entirely funny or preposterous today. "On Company Business" may be as much a tunnel-vision documentary as a television documentary, but it deserves to be shown.