Since the Central Intelligence Agency is so much in the news these days — what with the agency shakeup by the new CIA chief Porter Goss, his leaked “rules of the road” memo telling agency employees it’s their job to “support the administration and its policies,” and a possible compromise intelligence bill — my staff of thousands thought it useful to recall some of the CIA’s monumental gaffes and pranks of the past, which are either forgotten, little known, or just too weird to believe.
Let’s start with the weird. We’ve all heard about the CIA’s failed efforts to embarrass Fidel Castro by powdering his shoes with a depilatory so his beard would fall out. But you probably haven’t heard of this screwy propaganda stunt from the early days of the Cold War. One idea for the agency’s “psychological warfare” campaign was to drop “extra-large condoms — labeled ‘medium’ in English — on the Soviet Union in order to make Russian women think all American men were exceptionally virile.” So writes Evan Thomas in The Very Best Men, a terrifically entertaining history of the agency’s early years.
The condom drop wasn’t taken seriously. But how about this? To undermine the regime of Indonesian strongman Achmed Sukarno, a lascivious thug with an insatiable sexual appetite whose political “crime was neutralism,” the CIA “spread the rumor that [he] had been seduced by a good-looking blond airline stewardess who worked for the KGB.” Needing documentation, Thomas writes, the CIA “commissioned a blue movie to be made of a Sukarno look-alike in the amorous embrace of a porn actress posing as the Russian spy. To play Sukarno, the moviemakers (Bing Crosby and his brother) chose a bald Chicano wearing a latex face mask.” Why bald? Because “Sukarno was vain about his own baldness and always wore a skullcap, except, presumably, in bed.” (You read it right: Bing Crosby and his brother.)
And this: A CIA operative who ran guerrilla operations in Asia “sent back a film to Washington which, he claimed, showed his guerrillas clambering ashore behind enemy lines” in North Korea. Trouble was, when the film was screened for the Pentagon brass, to prove the value of the agency’s secret operations, a CIA officer noticed “the infiltration was taking place in broad daylight.” Oops. Turns out, the film showed “a training exercise, not a real operation.” Add this: “A secret CIA history of [actual] operations in Korea notes that [the] guerrillas were dressed in captured army uniforms and Korean civilian clothing, but unfortunately wore self-incriminating U.S. Army issue underwear.”
At one point, Thomas writes, a top agency officer dispatched to inspect the Psychological Warfare Workshop “reported back that he had found the merry pranksters shooting at balloons in their office with BB guns.” The pranksters were part of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), a purposely innocuous name for a branch of the CIA tasked in “the language of its secret charter” to counter “the vicious covert activities of the USSR, its satellite countries and Communist groups to discredit the aims and activities of the U.S. and other Western powers.”
Sometimes certifiable crazies joined the pranksers. According to Thomas, “when one OPCer was shipped off to St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital for demonstrating a passion for farm animals,”
Walter Bedell Smith, the CIA director at the time, demanded, “Can’t I get people who don’t hire people who bugger cows?”
Is it any wonder “the CIA failed to predict the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950,” just as it failed to anticipate the communist coup in Czechoslovakia two years earlier? And let’s not forget the Hungarian revolution in 1956, which cost 30,000 lives. The CIA was deeply involved in pushing for the uprising, but then failed to support it with weapons and ran for cover when the Soviets sent in tanks and troops to put it down. (“Sure, we never said rise up and revolt,” Thomas quotes a CIA official as saying, “but there was a lot of propaganda that led the Hungarians to believe that we would help.”)
Yes, we know: The Bay of Pigs notwithstanding, the CIA has worked wonders and always meant to do noble things, such as making the world safe for democracy. But its peculiar history underscores the realization that getting things wrong in Iraq was just par for the course. And the fact that Porter Goss is goosing his troops to “support the administration and its policies” instead of offering it a dose of reality doesn’t lend much hope that the agency will be getting things right in the future. (Also makes you wonder about Colin Powell’s as yet unverified farewell disclosure.)
It’s also no sign of hope that Goss was part of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and worked with Edward Lansdale, the model for the blundering CIA agent in Vietnam in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” It’s even more hopeless when you realize that Goss is a wealthy, patrician Yalie of the ol’ boy cloak-and-dagger network that set the agency on its merry way and that earlier in his career as a clandestine CIA agent he worked with Tracy Barnes, William Harvey and Ted Shackley, all of whom had key roles in one or the other of the agency’s most infamous “black ops.”
In case anyone needs reminding, these black operations included the coup d’état that overthrew the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 at the behest of the United Fruit Company, the military coup against South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 that ended in his assassination, the military coup that overthrew Salvadore Allende in Chile in 1973 that ended in his assassination, and attempted assassinations of the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, Iraq’s Abd al-Karim Kassem, and, of course, Cuba’s Fidel Castro.