CIA critic John Prados argues that over the decades, the agency has largely escaped accountability for its operations, thus sowing the “seeds of its coming failure.” (Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse/GETTY IMAGES)

Adam Zagorin is a writer on national security and former senior correspondent at Time magazine.

The CIA has long tried to recruit young people by offering them career opportunities with the promise of excitement, intrigue and patriotism. “Be accountable to the President, Congress, and the American public,” reads one recent announcement directed at students at Brigham Young University. “Strengthen national security and foreign policy objectives through the clandestine collection of human intelligence . . . and by conducting Covert Action . . . this is what you’ll do in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations.”

It’s nice to know that graduates can work off their college debt as spies, but as the CIA marks its 70th birthday this year, its help-wanted ads extol an accountability more imagined than real. Just a few months ago, two psychologists whom the CIA had paid more than $80 million to develop “enhanced interrogation” techniques settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of three victims of the alleged torture. After the CIA failed to sanction those involved in the case or, with few exceptions, others similarly accused, it took the threat of civil litigation to finally obtain some measure of justice on the eve of a trial likely to have embarrassed the two defendants and the agency that enriched them. How’s that for CIA accountability?

Or what about the official CIA Accountability Board that overruled the agency’s inspector general? The inspector general had determined that five employees were improperly involved in breaking into computers used by Senate staffers investigating allegations of CIA torture. Three of them displayed a “lack of candor” in response to the probe, the inspector general found. But the Accountability Board recommended that no one be punished, declaring that all had told the truth and their lapses did not involve bad faith.

“The Ghosts of Langley,” by John Prados (The New Press)

It may be all too easy to second-guess much of what the CIA does. As former director Michael Hayden argued this year when explaining his decision not to discipline a subordinate, “The one message I could not afford to send . . . was ‘Take hard jobs and make tough choices, but if you f--- up, we’re coming after you.’ ”

During his confirmation as director in 2006, Hayden claimed that “the best way to strengthen the trust of the American people [in the CIA] is to earn it by obeying the law and showing what is best about America.” Other CIA directors have expressed equally noble sentiments, only to be undercut when the agency’s actions were later exposed.

In “The Ghosts of Langley: Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness,” longtime agency critic John Prados, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, explores this terrain across decades of the institution’s history. The ghosts of Prados’s title form the undead legacy of a succession of CIA directors, managers and legal counselors whose “operations, especially the failed ones, have driven the spies to contrive arguments and explanations they have relied upon — repeatedly — to escape from criticism and accountability.”

It never seems to end. Prados’s conclusion is that, after decades of skirmishing with Congress, the courts and the media, the CIA has “finally decoupled itself — from government accountability.” This, he argues, is not just bad for America but also gravely undermines the interests of the CIA itself, where zealotry and concealment trump the need to anchor its legitimacy in American democracy. As a result, he contends, the CIA is sowing the “seeds of its coming failure.”

Given that the phenomenon Prados describes has been going on for years, it’s unclear why continuing on the same path is now any more likely to trigger a grand reckoning than before. That said, the appearance of an accountability deficit at the CIA and elsewhere in the intelligence community has contributed to a proliferation of leaks, whistleblower claims, aggressive press coverage and efforts to obtain CIA documents under the Freedom of Information Act (a specialty of Prados and the National Security Archive that employs him). The spectacle of CIA directors testifying before Congress to explain away intelligence failures and deny facts about torture, renditions and other unsavory practices has fueled calls for more oversight.

“The Ghosts of Langley” offers a detail-rich, often relentless litany of CIA scandals and mini-scandals, with a focus on operations. Along the way, Prados features the agency’s heroes, patriots and schemers, including legendary early directors Walter Bedell Smith and Allen Dulles. It is an account that relies notably on documents including those released by the CIA itself, as detailed in 22 pages of endnotes.

While acknowledging CIA successes such as the U2 and subsequent spy plane programs, Prados’s principal theme is the recurring refusal to publicly acknowledge error or penalize those responsible. At one point he resurrects a quote from Iran-contra-era director William Casey’s top legal adviser, Stanley Sporkin, who recalls how his boss would demand: “Don’t tell me it can’t be done legally. Find me a legal way to do it.” Prados notes that more recently, as CIA leadership passed from George Tenet to Porter Goss, Hayden, David Petraeus, Leon Panetta and then John Brennan, successive directors found reasons to continue the obfuscation.

Enter Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director. Purportedly a favorite of President Trump’s, the former tea party congressman from Kansas arrived in office too late for more than a mention in the “The Ghosts of Langley.” But given Trump’s penchant for rough tactics and willingness to bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse,” as candidate Trump declared, Pompeo must hope that the president will have the agency’s back in the event of renewed scandal.

In the end, “The Ghosts of Langley” can be read as a tartly worded, at times garrulous prayer that the CIA learn from and publicly admit its mistakes, rather than perpetuate them in an atmosphere of denial and impunity. To do so would properly pay tribute to the sacrifices of CIA employees and their families and begin to expel malevolent spirits from the agency’s haunted mansion. It is not a prayer likely to be answered anytime soon.

The Ghosts of Langley
Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness

By John Prados

New Press. 446 pp. $28.95