February 08, 2012
Some Things Never Change

Googling myself just now, as who hasn’t, I came across this 1982 meditation in The Nation on the worthlessness of the CIA. Nothing has happened in the 30 years since to change my opinion that we would be better off if the agency had never been spawned. The only change I’d make today is to reveal the identity of Mr. D____. He was the late Larry Devlin, who was to reveal in his 2007 memoirs that he was once ordered to kill Congo’s prime minister Patrice Lumumba with poisoned toothpaste, but dragged his feet until Belgian spooks murdered the man instead.

Most of the piece is after the jump. Here goes:

Years ago there was a really good murder in the upstate New York town where I was a cub reporter. The newsmagazines, the wire services and the seven New York City dailies all sent reporters. But the little Middletown Times-Herald managed to stay out in front of these out-of-town hit-and-run artists, because we knew the territory. So when an eyewitness to the killing turned up, we got the tip.

The managing editor sent me to interview the man, an unemployed laborer with kids to feed. When he seemed reluctant to talk, I encouraged him with $25 of the paper’s money. Not only did we beat the competition with his dramatic eyewitness account, we beat them again the following day with the story of how he flunked a lie detector test on it, up in Albany. I listed the $25 on my expense account as “Bribe,” but the managing editor made me change it to “Miscellaneous Expenses.” I never paid for information again, on that newspaper or any of the others I worked for, even if it did seem like a good way to get imaginative stories.

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The C.I.A. man gave me a holler as I walked by his office in our Casablanca consulate. Since I knew lots of people from my job with the U.S. Information Agency, he thought I might be able to identify some faces in a pile of photos he had. They had been taken at a party the Russians had given to mark the opening of their new consulate in town. (We had all been invited, but the American ambassador didn’t want us to go. He was frightened of the Russians, poor little man; maybe he thought they would infect us.)

I identified a dozen or so of the guests, but I didn’t know one particular man who was in so many of the photos that the C.I.A. officer thought he must be important. “Bill,” I said — that’s not his real name, naturally, since Reagan might jail me for ten years under the naming-of-agents act if I used it —“Bill,” I said, “all you had to do was go to the party and you could have been introduced to him.” It would have been a break for the taxpayers, too, not having to pay for an extra set of prints from the society photographers every time the Communists threw a party.

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A Moroccan came to my office one afternoon to ask if I had seen that month’s copy of the magazine he published. It had a picture of dead Vietnamese on the cover, identified as victims of American bombing. The U.S.Information Agency had sent him the picture a long time ago; it showed civilian victims of a Vietcong rocket attack.

“In Arabic we have a saying,” this poisonous little toad told me. “‘A man can bite, or a man can kiss.”’ Now that he had shown America his teeth, he was ready to kiss her. He would print anything we wanted in his magazine. We could even plant somebody in his office, if we liked, to watch over our interests.

I told him he would just have to keep on biting, since the U.S.I.A. didn’t have funds for that kind of thing. “Well, there are some Americans in your embassy who do,” he said, and he was right. The C.I.A. pays to place garbage in rags like his. Of course I didn’t say that, because I was a diplomat, then.

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One day I went out to the labor office in Khouribga, a Moroccan mining town, with our labor attaché Jim Mattson. (I can reveal his name because he was a State Department officer, not an intelligence op.) He was the only one of us in the consulate who spoke Arabic.

Afterward he told me what he had asked the labor officials: Did a man fill out a card when he registered for work? Where do you put the card then? Do you mind if I look? Where do you put his card after you find him a job? How long does the card stay in that file before you throw it out? How many are still in the file? And so on…

By the end he had learned plenty of things about the labor situation in Morocco’s biggest phosphate mining center. One of them was that the office provided jobs and benefits for practically nobody except the functionaries who worked there. Over the months and years, Jim had gotten to know more about Morocco than any of us, and that’s the way he did it. He just walked in and asked polite questions.

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In my first week as the press attaché at our embassy in Laos, the C.I.A. station chief briefed me on what he thought I should know about his operation. (I won’t reveal his name, either, although it was spelled out on his parking bay in the embassy lot. The signs went like this: “Ambassador,” “Deputy Chief of Mission,” “USAID Director,” “Mr. D_____.”) Mr. D____ told me many secret things, and I learned more elsewhere as time went on. I never leaked them, but every one of them got out somehow and appeared in the papers sooner or later. It didn’t make any difference, though. We kept on doing them anyway, because Nixon and Kissinger felt they were things we ought to be doing. They kept on not working, too, and now Laos is a colony of Vietnam.

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Reagan has fired William Kennedy, his U.S. Attorney in San Diego, for telling the newspapers that the Justice Department was blocking the indictment of a car thief named Miguel Nassar Haro. Nassar used to sunlight as chief of Mexico’s Directorate of Federal Security. He moonlighted not only as the head of a ring that stole cars in the United States for sale in Mexico but as a C.I.A. source on the rebels in El Salvador and Guatemala.

The incident raises disturbing moral and legal questions, unless you are as hard to disturb as the President and his Attorney General. It also raises two questions that are neither moral nor legal but just common-sensical.

This: if Reagan/Haig/Casey/Weinberger had known everything there was to know about the rebels in Central America — not just what a Mexican car thief could tell them, but absolutely everything — what would they have done about it? Anything different? And this: if you pay a car thief to steal you a Chrysler, he will steal you a Chrysler; if you let him know you’re interested in Sandinista support of the Salvadoran rebels, what will turn up in your driveway?

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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at February 08, 2012 06:09 PM
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