Intelligence Wars (2004), by Thomas Powers


I’ve been reading Thomas Powers’s reviews of books on intelligence and his opinion pieces on intelligence in The New York Review of Books since they began appearing in the 1980s. Here, further edited and augmented, is a published collection of them.

Powers begins with the OSS and ends with unofficial intelligencer Richard Perle’s influence on President G. W. Bush. Perhaps the old and middle-aged news Powers brings is more reflective and reliable than the late-breaking commentary, if only because trying to make sense of secret history in even near-real time seems often very risky for all the obvious reasons, most of them demonstrated by Powers’s advantage in the older pieces of deepening them through accumulated hindsight and long-term dawning of a panorama.

Powers would surely say that “making sense” is here best construed as understanding various generic forms of modus operandi in different intelligence missions–how intelligence people think and how they proceed–rather than piling on titillating detail, and he would be wise to do so. Here is one of the handful of Grand Summaries in Intelligence Wars:

“When the files eventually are available, and when professional historians overcome their fear of intelligence history, they are probably going to find that the happy outcome of the cold war depended heavily on the CIA’s spies, the NRO’s satellites, and the NSA’s monitoring of communications. But the edge was not the information we needed to win in the sense that code-breaking in World War II allowed the US Navy to defeat the Japanese in the Battle of Midway. Many small victories and defeats in the cold war have explanations of that sort. But what American intelligence contributed to the outcome was something quite different–the confidence that we knew what the Soviets were up to, and could afford to contain their forays while waiting for the deep change in attitude which George Kennan had predicted back in 1947. There was an element of luck of the kind sometimes called Divine Providence in the world’s close scrape with catastrophe during the cold war, but official policy also had a part in getting us through.

“Intelligence on the grand scale was necessary to the policy of deterrence–the belief, often derided, by me among others, that nuclear weapons could keep the peace. But it wasn’t free-floating fear of nuclear weapons that made war too scary to contemplate; it was the hard-won, detailed knowledge, held by both sides, of what nuclear weapons could do, how many there were, what they were pointed at, and the certainty that they would penetrate any defense. From the emerging history of intelligence in the cold war we learn that an arms race can be stable, and Great Powers can struggle vigorously for decades without precipitating a global bloodbath, so long as both sides are good at discovering, but not too good at hiding, the secrets that really count.”

Accordingly, Powers stresses the failure of the Soviet economy to sustain the Cold War; emphasizes the carelessness of the Soviet recruitment of US agents in the 1940s and 1950s which made rolling up those networks easier than it might have been and, with very (and terribly) notable exceptions, curtailed later KGB recruitment efforts in the US; excoriates McCarthy as a remarkably wrongheaded but almost disastrous lives-wrecking character in the drama of US Cold War security–a sort of Huey Long transported to, and turned loose in, the early years of the conflict with the Soviets; says something superficially different but fundamentally the same of CI Chief James Jesus Angleton but doesn’t resolve the chord by drawing the ironic, fundamental analogy of these barbarians one to the other; appropriately ridicules and dismisses the never-ending tabloid conspiracy industry about intelligence and National Security thriving on such as the massive concoctions in book after book of high-level plotting of the assassination of JFK (the latest such book, JFK and the Unspeakable, a whack-job written by a university classmate of mine, Jim Douglass, who founded “Ground Zero” to demonstrate against the Trident facility in Washington state [I guess the crucial deterrent value of the Triad was lost] and got nice words from Oliver Stone about Unspeakable since Hollywood has made a business out of high-level political conspiracy dramas and, as said on Day One of Screenwriting 101, is inimical to muddling through); muses not nearly enough on the utter foolishness and historical, anthropological and Romantic naivete of the True Believers in Soviet Communism, a fatuousness widely and depressingly invincible for many decades after The Great Terror and its even more dreadful aftermath well into the twentieth century; criticizes covert operators on both sides as often caught up in, and perhaps addicted to, and certainly often inflating in importance, the Greatest Game; and himself struggles in these pieces with the paradox that in a literary sense vital technical intelligence just doesn’t generally compete dramatically with the sound and fury of The Little Pictures staged by the Kim Philby’s of the world, and yet just what else do editors and readers want?

One of the great values of Intelligence Wars is Powers’s deep knowledge of the details of twentieth century intelligence. (A novel of mine about security and intelligence matters, obscure and published over two decades ago, sold its first copy by mail order, said my editor, and long before Amazon was other than a river and a legendary woman, to Thomas Powers.)

As valuable as it is, Intelligence Wars should have stressed reconnaissance technology a bit more than it does; and it might have credited the most important people in intelligence collection and analysis more than it does.

In the matter of the latter, I offer two anecdotes.

For over a quarter of a century I was close friends with Russell Jack Smith, Richard Helms’s Deputy Director for Intelligence during parts of the 1960s and 1970s. Our friendship had almost nothing to do with his career and everything to do with jazz and literature, and we, nearly twenty-five years apart in age, and having met socially virtually by accident, exchanged over two hundred letters on those rewarding preoccupations, visited each other with family, went to 49ers-Redskins games on both coasts, and dined often at a Turkish restaurant in McLean where the owner seemed very respectful of Jack and where, one evening, Jack was most pointedly and sneeringly insulted by three former colleagues. It was painful, and I never asked him who exactly they were and why they had been so boorish. I didn’t have to, I am sure, and I am sure as well that you will envision for yourselves the lingering, still-festering “in-house politics” that identifies them and their behavior: Though wearing our uniforms, they were not on our team. I guess the quieter heroes were often looked down upon.

Here’s the second, which comes in two parts. The second link is a confrontation between Jack and Thomas Powers in The New York Review of Books. Note the subject of some of the novels Jack wrote after he had retired. Irony prevails for us all.

Click to access ADA504947.pdf