The CIA’s Constant Battle Between Secrecy and Effectiveness


Christopher Moran, Company Confessions: Revealing CIA Secrets (London: Biteback Publishing, 2015)


In his masterwork, On War, Carl von Clausewitz discussed the inner logic of war. He maintained that it is a logic of maximum violence without pause, violence that ceased only with the utter and permanent subjugation of the adversary. However, he also noted that war is the continuation of policy through other means. These two notions combine to form a paradox: Though war is inherently violent, political purposes are seldom, if ever, served by the senseless violence of absolute war. Therefore, if it is to be useful, war must be restrained by policy and policy leaders from fulfilling its brutal inner logic.

Christopher Moran addresses an analogous issue in his book Company Confessions: Revealing CIA Secrets, which was published late last year in the United Kingdom (though, oddly it will not be out in the United States until August of this year and then under the title Company Confessions: Secrets, Memoirs and the CIA). The book is a vastly entertaining, though ultimately depressing, discussion of the inner logic of intelligence, at least as it is interpreted by the Central Intelligence Agency. Moran, a professor at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, whose previous book dealt with secrecy in the British government, admits in Company Confessions that “the danger of not having a veil of secrecy for sources and methods should not be underestimated.” Nevertheless, he describes an agency whose devotion to secrecy is so extreme that it comes at the cost of its effectiveness within the American policy and political systems.

If one believes (as I firmly do) that intelligence agencies are necessary to the security and prosperity of a democratic country, then there are two main measures of merit for those agencies. One is whether they are efficient and effective at carrying out their core missions. For the CIA, these missions are collecting human intelligence, doing all-source intelligence analysis and conducting covert actions abroad as directed by the president. The other is whether the agency maintains a level of public and congressional support that allows it to continue to perform those core missions.

Like any government agency, the CIA has had its ups and downs in carrying out its core missions. For the last 45 years or so, however, the agency has, at best, muddled through in maintaining support and even at fending off misconceptions — such as the claim (engineered behind the scenes by the KGB) that the CIA was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Moran’s book suggests that the agency itself is to blame for many of these problems. It has been insistent on secrecy, but then when a scandal or crisis occurs it complains that it is misunderstood.

The CIA was a creation of the National Security Act of 1947. While its existence was never a classified fact per se, Moran writes that “in the two decades or so following its establishment … the CIA was passionately, some might say obsessively, secretive.” While the FBI was building a near-cult following in large part by cozying up to the media, the CIA worked hard to squelch even the friendliest references to itself in television, film, newspapers, books and even on the floor of Congress. For its first 20 years of existence, it placed virtually insurmountable obstacles in the way of current and former officers who wished to write books about their experiences or about intelligence more generally. Ian Fleming, the British author of the James Bond novels, was one of the CIA’s few defenders in print. As a friend of Allen Dulles, he made a point of inserting several favorable references to the agency and even to Dulles personally in his post-Bay of Pigs novels.

The result of this silence was that when the scandals and allegations about assassination plots, domestic surveillance and other real and alleged malfeasance by the intelligence community started to hit the media in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were no credible voices who could put these allegations in context. It was perfectly reasonable for the general public or members of Congress to believe that the CIA was a rogue agency whose main business was assassination, domestic letter-opening and mounting coups d’état because nobody in a position to know ever told them what the CIA really did. As a result, the CIA was crippled and badly demoralized.

The 1970s saw a number of efforts to lift the veil of secrecy just a little bit. Facing congressional investigations and public protests, CIA Director William Colby made a few halting steps to educate the public about intelligence. He was pilloried inside the agency for it. One officer called Colby’s efforts to keep the CIA ship upright in some very stormy waters “the functional equivalent of giving the KGB a guided tour.” A few years later, President Jimmy Carter’s director of central intelligence, Adm. Stansfield Turner, had views similar to Colby’s. Moran writes that “the recent exposures and investigations had confirmed to him that public trust in the Agency could not be taken for granted; it had to be earned.” Turner even went so far as to create a public affairs office headed by a former naval officer named Herbert Hetu. Turner’s initiatives were so unpopular that one officer accused Hetu of risking the lives of agents. Moran tells us that Hetu himself later joked to the Washington Post that he was obliged to check under his car each morning for explosives before driving to work.

Nevertheless, Turner was far from an openness radical. He expanded the authority of the CIA’s Publication Review Board (PRB) — originally established by Director George H.W. Bush in 1976 to review anything written by agency officers — to cover the writings of former officers as well. Turner also took CIA whistleblower Frank Snepp to court for publishing a book about the agency’s alleged betrayal of its South Vietnamese allies without clearing it with the PRB. The court awarded all royalties on Snepps’ book to the CIA and put Snepp under what amounted to a lifetime gag order.

When the Reagan administration came along, William Casey took over the helm of the CIA and he clamped down again. He cut the size of the public affairs office, moved it farther down in the organization chart and told its chief on his first day “Billy, we’re going to be a no-profile agency.” On Casey’s watch, the CIA also took its revenge on Turner. Moran reports that when the former director wrote his memoirs he was forced to delete passages from public speeches he had given while in office and had to take out a reference to the color of someone’s hair.

In Moran’s telling, this pattern — a brief period of openness followed by harsh crackdown — recurred multiple times at the agency. That said, Moran notes that in the last couple of decades the CIA has endeavored to create public support by relaxing (waiving might be a better word) its emphasis on secrecy for a small number of carefully selected officers who have good news stories to tell. Argo hero Tony Mendez, former Director Richard Helms and former head of the National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez are all examples.

Though Moran does not make this point, the problem with allowing favored authors to be forthcoming is that even though the individual works that come out of this process tend to be of high quality taken individually, they are misleading when taken collectively. They present a picture of a CIA that is uniformly successful. While I have very high regard for the CIA (and would like to believe that I did some good work while there), it does not bat 1.000 any more than the Department of Agriculture or NASA does. Also, these memoirs give, again in aggregate, a distorted view of what the CIA does and the degree of drama associated with it. Making allowances for the change in technology, the words quoted by Moran of a CIA officer of the 1970s still ring true today: “The truth would be better served if the CIA symbol were … a stack of three by five cards and a typewriter.”

Meanwhile, non-favored authors can face a very tough road, even when they are writing books friendly to the CIA. Not surprisingly, authors who are critical of the CIA can expect an extraordinarily long period of back and forth with the agency before their watered-down books are ever published. Moran tells some horrifying tales, particularly of the period after Porter Goss became director. Goss’ executive director, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, allegedly even said that Goss had given an order for no more books to be published. Clandestine Service officer Gary Berntsen tried to publish during this difficult time. He found himself forbidden to include the distance between cities in Afghanistan or mention the name of former CIA Station Chief in Lebanon William Buckley, who had been killed by terrorists in the 1980s — even though Buckley was later laid to rest by the agency in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and elevated into the pantheon of CIA heroes. In another case, the PRB required an author to remove fictional pseudonyms he had invented to hide the identities of real people. In still another case, the PRB redacted quotations from T.S. Eliot and Rudyard Kipling.

The problem is that while secrecy is necessary for collecting human intelligence and conducting covert actions, and is helpful to all-source intelligence analysis, it is contrary to the imperative of maintaining public support. Because of the nature of the intelligence business, the balance must be skewed heavily in favor of secrecy over openness. However, that does not mean that secrecy should trump everything.

This sort of tradeoff is well understood in war. In a firefight it is always better to have more and bigger guns and fewer compunctions about how to use them. However, strategically the maximum application of violence at all times is almost never the best way to achieve the policy ends for which the war is being fought. The issue is not so well understood in the intelligence world. In an immediate tactical sense, secrecy is almost always a defensible (and easy) route to take. Nevertheless, there comes a point at which too much secrecy becomes destructive instead of protective. Unfortunately, the costs come later, so they are easy to ignore — in essence, let future directors and presidents deal with the problems created by the lower-level secrecy mavens today.

Moran sums it up when he says that:

Lack of public trust in the CIA is a problem that cannot be ignored. Without public support, the CIA will struggle to recruit the most talented people or obtain the resources necessary to keep the country safe, while the policymaking community it is designed to serve will question its judgments. Moreover, as CIA Director William Casey explained … in January 1981, poor public perception and understanding of the value of the CIA reduces the self-worth of intelligence officers and generates institutional self-doubt.

Everyone who loathes the CIA will find many of their prejudices confirmed. But those who love the CIA, or at least who value it, should also read this book. Like me, they will be saddened by what they read, but perhaps they will also find in it motivation to push for reforms that will better serve the CIA and the country.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.