A Look at The Spymasters by Chris Whipple

The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future by Chris Whipple

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Chris Whipple has come up with a fine book giving us a look at CIA Directors, starting in the Kennedy/Johnson era. I read Whipple’s “The Gatekeepers” which was a very insightful book about White House Chief of Staffs. He has used the same techniques here, gathering the thoughts of CIA Directors still alive through interviews which offered some excellent commentary.
Whipple gives us a look at the Directors, and how they interacted with the Presidents they served, starting with the most fascinating of spies, Richard Helms. Helms was a career man at the agency, and was in a position of authority, but not director, during the Bay of Pigs fiasco that caused so much turmoil at the Agency. Whipple shows us Helms, the expert bureaucratic infighter, not being “in the loop” on the Bay of Pigs planning. He was in a position of authority when the CIA, under orders, embarked upon Operation Mongoose, a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro with the help of U.S. organized crime figures. The Helms material is augmented by interviews with his widow Cynthia, and Whipple’s treatment of Helms, in certain instances, may be considered overly generous. Whipple reports Helms statement that when he took over as DDP in 1962 he “shut down” the CIA assassination plot against Castro. Whipple acknowledges that the evidence does not support Helms on that score. Helms took over as Director after appointment by LBJ, and as Director was charged with providing intelligence on North Vietnam. In this, the first Director covered, we see the constant theme of the Whipple effort. Helms provided intelligence on the Vietnam War that was not to LBJ’s liking, with LBJ simply ignoring the analysis that he disagreed with. (The CIA provided a 250 page analysis “The Vietnamese Communists Will to Persist” that was pessimistic about the U.S. ability to achieve its war aims) Helms in this instance did his job but determined that pushing LBJ on that score was not prudent for the agency.

“Helms reached a point where, in the morning briefings and the President’s daily brief, we just slacked off on providing information on Vietnam, said analyst Kerr. We did not do the aggressive pieces that were negative because they were counterproductive.”

The Spymasters Whipple Chris p 37.

Despite the recognition that LBJ was not receptive to this line of analysis Helms CIA took on the so called “domino theory” which argued that a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam would lead to a communist wave of takeovers in Southeast Asia by producing “Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam” which diplomatically called into question the domino theory. Helms may have not pushed LBJ too hard but he kept producing analysis that was honest, and not what the President wanted. He walked a tightrope, including having to deal with demands by LBJ for domestic surveillance of the anti-war movement, a violation of the CIA Charter.

The Helms portion of the book, as mentioned, in some fashion sets the stage for the rest of the Whipple effort. How does the CIA Director maintain relevancy, and access to the President, if the intelligence being provided does not dovetail with what the Presidents desires? We get to examine the George Tenet “slam dunk” to George W. Bush on Iraqi WMD. A great section on the time of George H.W. Bush as CIA Director, considered by most observers to be a successful tenure. (Bush felt, with some justification, that he had been maneuvered into the slot by rival Donald Rumsfeld, who was looking to isolate Bush into what he believed to be a dead end job politically) Ronald Reagan’s Director, William Casey, led him into what became the Iran-Contra scandal, which wounded the Reagan presidency.

The book, from my perspective, gets high marks, giving us an overview of the Agency, and how it operates. Enhanced interrogation techniques? Yes we get a pretty good back and forth on that, and so many of the issues that have dogged the agency over the years. One theme referenced by Whipple is the Washington cliche that “there are only policy successes-and intelligence failures.” With the recognition, articulated by former Director Bob Gates, that “the CIA has one protector, and one customer, and if you can’t get that relationship right then the agency is screwed” the Agency has unfortunately molded intelligence to that reality. Whipple has given us the good, the bad, and the ugly in this book. We even get a quick look at James Jesus Angelton, likely the most impactful non-director to ever work at the Agency. More on Angelton in the fine book “Wilderness of Mirrors.” Pick this one up!

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