The short-range vision of the CIA

Robert Littell, who paints a realistic picture of one of the worlds most powerful intelligence services in his historic book "The Company" about espionage before and after 9/11

Do you suffer paranoia? Most of the characters in your novel do.
Littell: Like almost everyone on the planet earth, I am slightly paranoid but I don't suffer from it. I would probably suffer more without it for one must remember the old truism: Even paranoids have real enemies.
After reading your book, one easily gets the impression that intelligence services and especially the CIA and the KGB have their fingers in simply everything. They spend some dollars here and some euros there to help to decide political affairs and shape policies. Do we have to consider this a reality or was this a Cold-War game only?
Littell: Certainly during the long Cold War the two major espionage players -- the CIA and the KGB -- as well as the minor players had their fingers in everything. This was especially true for the CIA, which saw everything that happened anywhere in terms of the Cold War and the relationship to the Soviet Union. And we made the enormous mistake of thinking that anyone who was anti Soviet -- no matter that he was a brutal South American dictator or a corrupt South Vietnamese despot -- wound up getting our support. It's almost as if the Americans were so obsessed with the Communists that they couldn't weigh the long-term disadvantages of supporting such people.
How did you keep track in your labyrinth of the espionage world with all its mirrors, its counterespionage and spy-vs.-spy games during the complete 50 years or so of the Cold War?
Littell: It's no more difficult that keeping track of the cards in a game of bridge or the infinite number of possibilities that open up in a game of chess. You just have to like this sort of thing.
How did you get the inside views into the normally closed world of "the Company" and into world politics?
Littell: Before I sat down to write the first words of THE COMPANY I spent a year reading and studying and taking notes; also traveling to many of the places -- Berlin, Budapest, Moscow, Peshawar in Pakistan -- I was going to write about. I relied mostly on books -- former CIA and former KGB officers have written dozens of books on their respective services. There is a god mine of information in print for anyone interested in the subject. There are also countless articles and documents -- for instance you can download from the internet the CIA's own in-house investigation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. What I didn't do was interview former or current CIA officers (though a number of CIA people have said that the book is so accurate they assume I must have my sources inside the CIA). This was because CIA officers are contractually bound not to reveal secrets during their time in the CIA or afterward. And since what I was after was secrets, I decided to go to the literature.
Do we still need intelligence services after the Cold War has ended?
Littell: Definitely, yes. Look at September 11. If the CIA had been working properly -- if it had had people on the ground, if it had had Pashto linguists capable of translating Taliban intercepts -- things might have turned out differently. Another big if is the CIA's failure to exchange information with the FBI and other intelligence collection agencies (and the FBI's utter failure to collaborate with the CIA). Looking back, one can see that there was enough information available -- enough pieces of the intelligence jigsaw puzzle -- to prompt some analyst somewhere to ask the single question: Why would would-be hijackers be interested in flying the planes they hijack when there is a perfectly qualified pilot already in the cockpit. If only this question had been asked -- after the FBI notices that there were quite a few Islamic fundamentalists taking flying lessons in America; after the FBI arrested the so-called twentieth hijacker the month before September 11 when he aroused suspicion because he was interested in flying heavy planes but not in landing them -- we might have avoided the tragic attack on the World Trade Center.
The CIA has come under heavy fire after September 11. What's your take on the story why one of the worlds biggest and best funded intelligence services missed the terror attacks?
Littell: The CIA started going down hill when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold War ended. Without an enemy, the CIA was a rudderless ship. It didn't know in which direction to head. When it lost its enemy the adrenaline stopped flowing. It essentially got out of the business of spying. It retired out field hands in droves and closed stations around the world and began playing it safe, which is to say began relying on SIGINT (Signal intelligence from satellites and intercepts) instead of the more risky HUMINT (Human intelligence). It got out of the business of telling people in Washington things they didn't want to hear. It became a timid bureaucratic organization. Today, in the wake of September 11 and the terrorist threat, the CIA is scrambling to get back on the ground; to return to where it was in the very early 90s when the Soviet Union was still the principal adversary.
Is the CIA ill-equipped for the new world after the end of the Cold War and after 9/11?
Littell: The CIA, among other things, had retired out its linguists to the point where there was nobody in the CIA who spoke Pashto. As a result they had to farm out the Taliban intercepts to, of all people, the Pakistani secret service, which is incredibly ironic, since it was the Pakistanis who created the Taliban in the first place as part of a strategic move to ring India with Islamic states.
In your chronice of "the Company" you describe the arming of rebels in Afghanistan to repel the encroaching Soviet forces in the 1980s. Does this lead to the conclusion that the CIA nurtured the beast who stroke at the USA last fall?
Littell: The CIA in particular, and the United States in general, was extremely short sighted when it set out to arm and support the Islamic fundamentalists then fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The theory, as usual was: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But the fundamentalists made no bones about the fact that when they had defeated the Russians they would turn on the West; on America, the "Great Satan."
There is even the appearence of one bearded character in your book that reminds on no one else than Osama bin Laden.
Littell: It is true that bin Laden turns up as a character in my novel. But you must remember that I handed the manuscript in to Peter Mayer, my editor at Overlook Press in New York, one year and one week BEFORE September 11. Bin Laden was in Afghanistan; he was doing precisely what I say he was doing in my novel, which is acting as a sort of banker for the fundamentalists fighting the Soviets. The CIA new he (and many like him) were there but their vision was short-range.
Do you believe in conspiracy theories?
Littell: It depends on the episode. I don't think there was a conspiracy behind Oswald's assassination of John Kennedy; nor of Ruby's murder of Oswald. On the other hand the coup von Staufenberg mounted against Hitler was clearly a conspiracy, and a rather large scale one at that. So it is difficult to generalize.
There is one conspiracy theory unfolding after 9/11 that goes like: al-Quaida terrorist would never have been able to carry out such a big attack on their own -- and it least not without undergoing the radar screens of the major intelligence services. The whole story, people say, was made up by the CIA and other agencies, which want to keep their budgets after the fall of the Berlin wall. In Germany, for example, the secret-service expert Andreas von Bülow somehow contributes to this theory. Do you see any meat in this stuff?
Littell: This question is hardly worth answering. It is pure rubbish. One of the problems for those who wish to create conspiracy theories behind events in the United States is that you must deal with the fact that there is a free and inquisitive press that will expose any conspiracy if it can; that large scale conspiracies, such as the one you suggest in this question, are impossible because you can't get five thousand or one thousand or five hundred people to keep a secret like this.
In Germany, there are left-wing voices in the Bundestag that call for the abolishment of the German intelligence services. Maybe that wouldn't be a big loss - since you almost never mention them in your book?
Littell: All countries need intelligence services capable of identifying potential threats to the country and estimating their capacity to inflict damage, and ultimately heading off the threat. I should think that this is especially true for Germany, situated as it is in the heart of Europe and facing all the former Soviet client states, not to mention Russia itself. A country without an intelligence service would be something like a knight going into battle without armor.
There is the trend that spy agencies rely more and more on technology. In your book you mention the year 1951, when a new Univac computer was installed in "the Company" and hailed as the beginning of a revolution in information gathering. Since then, data mining has become a trend sport in the spying game. Do you think that stronger and bigger computers and better analysis software can be a fix for intelligence and reconaissance?
Littell: No. There is no substitute for human intelligence. For having officers on the ground who are familiar with the terrain and the country and the language and the culture; for recruiting and running agents who are able to penetrate to the heart of a potential enemy and report on their intentions as well as their capabilities. You can only learn so much from picking voices out of the air or from satellite photographs.
There's a quote in the book reading that "espionage is the attempt to find windows to the human soul." Will computers ever be able to help achieve that goal?
Littell: Definitely not. Computers are limited -- it is the human element in intelligence and counterintelligence that stands a chance of finding "windows to the human soul," i.e. figuring out what motivates people.
Western politicians drafted so-called security acts after 9/11, which were rushed through the parliaments. In Germany, home secretary Otto Schily passed a "packet" through the Bundestag, that blurs that gives the intelligence services sweeping new powers and lets them gather more and more information from companies and government agencies. How do you see that trend of blurring the bounderies between espionage and law enforcement? Do our democracies have to bury their civil liberties to fight terrorism?
Littell: Definitely not. International terrorism is a challenge -- perhaps the greatest ever -- to our societies and the civil liberties on which they are based. If we were to curtail civil liberties it would mean that we have lost the war against terrorism; that the terrorists have won. The United States curtailed civil liberties in the early days of the struggle against Communism -- I'm thinking here of the McCarthy period and the Congressional abuses of the fifties. Everyone today recognizes that this was a big mistake. We must not repeat it now.
What were the biggest mistakes in the history of the CIA?
Littell: The great intelligence failures of American history were Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs and now September 11. Of course Pearl Harbor was before the CIA was created but it rates as an American intelligence failure. Interestingly, there were high-powered independent commissions that looked into both Pearl Harbor and the Bay of Pigs to see where we had gone wrong in the hope of not going wrong again in the same way. As of today there is no independent high-powered commission looking in to the CIA (and FBI) failures that led to September 11. Only the congressional committees are investigating but these are necessarily political, and as such not well equipped to get to the hard truths.
In the book, your fictional characters are all equipped with a sense of integrity. They are painted with love for them and their mission. But on the other hand, you draw a dark picture of many of the failed historic CIA missions. It's painful to see for the example, how the US first strengthens the anti-communist freedom fighter movement in Budapest and then doesn't support their revolution with official help. Also, you describe very clearly the Bay of Pics fiasco in Cuba and the general mess of the anti-Castro mission. How do these two sides go together?
Littell: My vision in writing THE COMPANY is one of the moral ambiguity of these events and these organizations. The West was clearly the good guy and Communism was clearly the bad guy in the long Cold War. But having said this, it must be added that on the side of the good guys there were many who performed poorly (see the Bay of Pigs) or led East Europeans to hope for more than America was ready or willing to deliver (see the Hungarian uprising of 1956). And on the side of the bad guys there were many idealists who were not fighting for Stalinism but for a greater good called Socialism. So as I said my vision is one that embraces moral ambiguity.
Is there really such a hard line between the battles between the counterintelligence agents in Washington, like the utterly obsessive real-life mole hunter James Angleton, and the covert-action boys in the field?
Littell: During the long Cold War the counterintelligence people were forever walking on the toes of the covert-action boys in the field. It is the nature of their two cultures that one is essentially paranoid and defends paranoia on the grounds that even paranoids have real enemies (the counterintelligence culture); the other side is essentially gung-ho to bring in the bacon, the defector, the information gathered by a mole, that sort of thing, and isn't comfortable with the notion that the bacon they are bringing home has been planted on them for reasons they can't immediately discern.
You also bring up the point of morality. The small, mostly foreign aids of the CIA are painted as mere canon fodder and you also touch the topic of the killing of dictators. The CIA, for example, tries to get rid of an Albanian premier minister as well as Cuba's Fidel Castro in your book. Do you consider it a viable and legitimate way to kill leading terrorists and tyrants trough covered actions?
Littell: I think it is a mistake to go down this path for the simple reason that you may kill one terrorist or one tyrant but how can you be sure the one behind him will not be worse. Better to deal with the underlying problems -- the poverty and closed societies and lack of education and opportunities -- that give birth to terrorism; this is the long term solution.
"The pure, simple truth is always strong", you let one of your main characters, the heavy-drinking "Sorcerer" Harvey Torriti, say. But you also mention Oscar Wilde, who states that truth is seldom pure and never simple. Which side are you on?
Littell: The great fun of putting words into the mouths of characters is that the author can take both sides of the argument. Like many arguments, both sides are credible and depending on the circumstance, both can be true statements.
How do you see the complex relationship between the news media and intelligence in the age of CNN and the Internet?
Littell: Simple. The media must always maintain its independence from the intelligence community. It must go forward -- report the news accurately and quickly -- with the conviction that this best serves society. Let the intelligence cultures fend for themselves. If the media can uncover an intelligence plot (to overthrow such and such a leader, for instance) it must report it -- for if the media found it out surely the enemy will find it out too. Do you know the story of JFK and the Bay of Pigs and the New York Times? The Times uncovered the story of what was going to happen and prepared a story for the paper. Kennedy personally phoned the editor of the Times and asked him not to run the story on the grounds it would endanger national security. The Times backed down and spiked the story. When the Bay of Pigs turned into a fiasco, Kennedy was heard to say, "If only the Times had run that story this never would have happened." The answer to your question is in this anecdote. (Stefan Krempl)