David Corn (photo from The Nation)
Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusades by David
412 pages, 1994, Simon and Schuster
Review score: *** out of *****
Blond Ghost is a biography of Ted Shackley, who in his twenty eight year career with the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be the Associate Deputy Director for Operations, one of the top positions at the CIA. Shackley was involved in many of the central events of the cold war and its aftermath. His intelligence career started in Berlin, at the beginning of the cold war, before the Berlin wall went up. Shackley later served as CIA station chief in Miami, Laos and Saigon. In the 1970s he was the head of the CIA's Western Hemisphere Division during the CIA's campaign to over throw Allende in Argentina. After Shackley left the CIA in 1979, he became associated with the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. Shackley's connection to so many important events in the history of the CIA and the United States makes him an interesting figure. His career also reflects, to a remarkable degree, the fortunes and nature of the CIA itself.
I read Blond Ghost because Ted Shackley was the CIA station chief in Laos during a critical period, when the secret war (secret from the American people, that is) was escalated. After reading David Warner's book Back Fire, I became curious about the accuracy of his reporting. Warner believes that the CIA men were "honorable men", fighting the good fight, but somehow it went horribly wrong. Given Warner's amazingly brief biography on the book jacket, and his views on the virtues of the CIA's employees, I came to wonder if Warner himself actually had CIA connections. David Corn, the author of Blond Ghost, is the Washington editor of The Nation, which is famous for its leftist views. I thought that Blond Ghost might provide another perspective on the events in Laos. In Blond Ghost, David Corn has written an extremely well researched and balanced account of Ted Shackley's career and the history of the CIA (much more balanced than many articles I have read in The Nation).
In the epilogue of Blonde Ghost, David Corn quotes a CIA officer who was responsible for one of the provincial regions in Vietnam and who was later operations chief of the CIA's Western Hemisphere Division.
It's hard for people to understand who have not been there. Its easy for people -- especially people of another generation -- to view what we did with their own perspective. I fought the communists for twenty-eight years. I did a lot of bad things for my country. But I loved my country and did what I thought best.
The world of this cold warrior is indeed gone. The cold war was born out of the rubble of the Second World War, when the United States was the only industrial economy that had not been ravaged by war. As soon as the war in Europe ended, the cold war against the Soviet Union began. Having defeated the fascists in Europe and Asia, the US was confident in its self appointed role as the leader of the free world.
When Ted Shackley joined the Army, in October 1945, the Allies had triumphed in Europe, but the cold war was starting to get under way. The Army sent him to occupied Germany, to work with the counter Intelligence Corps. At the time, Army Intelligence needed people who could speak Slavic languages and Shackley was fluent in Polish. (Ted Shackley's mother was a Polish immigrant, who left her husband, Theodore Shackley, when Ted was two and a half. Ted went to live with a Polish woman, who may have been his grandmother, until he was in his early teens. From her he learned Polish.) The Intelligence bureaucracy seemed to agree with Shackley and after his Army enlistment, rather than pursuing a law degree, as he had planned, he joined the CIA.
The CIA assigned Shackley first to Nuremberg and later to Berlin in the 1950s. This was a time of growth for the CIA and Shackley's career prospered with that growth. Shackley was the perfect organizational man. He had a "can do" attitude and was adept at self promotion. Shackley was also a part of a "new breed" of manager at the CIA, that was replacing the OSS "old guard" as the CIA grew. He did not have an Ivy League degree and was not part of the east coast intellectual elite, personified by intelligence mandarins like Allen Dulles (an early director of the CIA). Shackley did not think deeply on the issues he was confronted with. His rise in the agency was aided by his ability to give slick presentations with charts and graphs that reduced the complexities of the world to the simple abstractions that his bosses felt comfortable with. Although those above him thought of Shackley as someone who "got things done", to some of his colleagues he became known as a self promoter, whose accomplishments were more on paper than in reality (of course this could be said for the CIA as a whole).
In 1962, almost a year after the Bay of Pigs debacle, Bill Harvey the head of the Berlin station brought Shackley to Miami, first as deputy chief of station and later as station chief. Shackley was thirty four at the time and was heading the largest CIA operation in the world.
Although the Bay of Pigs invasion was a failure, the Kennedy administration was determined to overthrow Castro by any means short of invasion. Various schemes were undertaken to assassinate Castro. The CIA plotted to poison his food in a Havana restaurant and schemed to slip him poisoned cigars. There was even a plan to give Castro LSD before one of his speeches, in an attempt to discredit him (given the long and rambling nature of Castro's speeches, his listeners might not have noticed that he was on acid).
As the Miami station chief, Shackley was responsible for a large paramilitary operation that was infiltrating agents and arms caches into Cuba. He was also responsible for gathering intelligence and recruiting spies in the Cuba communist party. Although they occasionally blew up a Cuban factory, the CIA's paramilitary efforts had little success and probably succeeded in maintaining popular support for the Castro regime they were attempting to undermine. Most of the anti-Castro Cubans that the CIA managed to infiltrate into Cuba were captured and either imprisoned or executed. Although the CIA had little success against Castro, they trained and paid thousand anti-Castro Cubans in secret bases throughout Florida. When the anti-Castro campaign finally shut down, some of these out of work "freedom fighters" found employment as drug smugglers in south Florida.
The Miami station under Shackley had no more success gathering intelligence and running spies, than it did in its paramilitary campaign. Despite later claims to the contrary, the Miami station did not warn Washington about the missiles that the Russians were basing in Cuba (this intelligence was gathered by U2 spy planes) and they had few recruits who provided useful information about the Cuban communist party. This might suggest that Shackley was an incompetent station chief. In fact, this was not true. The demands made on him were impossible to fulfill. The Kennedy administration wanted to overthrow Castro without having any publicly traceable trail leading back to the United States. They wanted high level spies, and they wanted them fast. But developing spies is something that happens over many years and in many cases is a matter of luck. No matter how "can do" a spy master is, the process cannot be hurried. Given the impatience of US politicians and the inability of the CIA to undertake long term intelligence campaigns (except, perhaps, against the Soviet Union), it is not surprising that US intelligence has come to rely heavily on intelligence gathering by "technical" means (satellites and communications interception). The CIA is also hobbled by the fact that it is a bureaucratic organization, viewing the world through its own political biases. The CIA rarely reports information that reflects badly on itself, its mission or on the views of the politician it serves. For example, CIA did not predict the collapse of the Soviet Union and as an organization would be unlikely to do so, since this would conflict with its mission of opposing the Soviets. The CIA has been equally poor at reporting other political developments, like the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the invasion of Kuwait.
Perhaps because many of the tasks the CIA undertook were impossible to achieve, how a CIA employee did his job became more important than what was accomplished. And Ted Shackley did his job well. He regularly went to Langley to report on the activities of the Miami station and was adept at portraying these efforts in the best possible light. Under Shackley, a CIA station produced reams of reports, even though much of the information reported was of little value.
When John Kennedy was assassinated, the driving force behind the build-up of the Miami station and its campaign against Castro disappeared. After winding down the secret war in Miami, Shackley was appointed station chief in Laos, in 1966. The CIA had been involved in Laos for over ten years, since 1954, when the French withdrew. The USAID organization helped to build schools and advised farmers on better agricultural techniques and soil management. The CIA provided World War II vintage arms to the Hmong tribesmen, who waged a guerrilla war against Vietnamese who encroached on their territory. The CIA personnel of this era spoke the local languages and understood the local culture. They served US interests, but they also believed that they were helping the local people. The sleepy "country store" nature of the CIA operations in Laos came to an end with the arrival of Ted Shackley. The war in Vietnam was staring to heat up. Soon after Shackley became station chief, vast amounts of money became available, and Shackley was not shy about using it to build an empire and escalate the war in Laos.
Before Shackley arrived, the CIA operation in Laos was run by Bill Lair and Pat Landry, who worked for Douglas Blaufarb, the CIA station chief in Laos during the early 1960s. Unlike Lair and Landry, Shackley knew nothing of the Laoatian language and culture. Shackley was in Laos to support US interests, regardless of the local impact. At the time, US interests in Laos involved stopping the North Vietnamese from using the section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that went through Laos. Shackley started a program that formed Laotian tribesman into watch teams that kept an eye on the supply convoys that moved down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When a convoy was spotted, air strikes would be called in. Shackley also provided modern arms, including artillery and a few propeller driven bombers to Vang Pao, a Hmong warlord. Vang Pao's military ambitions were encouraged and the CIA moved the Laotian tribesmen from an irregular guerrilla force to a force that attempted to directly confront the North Vietnamese. The tribal forces were decimated as a result and, in the end, Hmong tribal culture was largely destroyed. At the present time, many of the Hmong tribes people are refugees in Thailand and some, including Vang Pao, have immigrated to the United States.
Once again Shackley's performance as station chief in Laos impressed his superiors at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Although the Hmong tribes people would eventually pay a terrible price for allying themselves with the United States, they had tied up the North Vietnamese military forces needed to protect the Ho Chi Minh trail and made supply of the Viet Cong forces in South Vietnam more difficult. This saved American lives, which was Washington's objective. In October of 1968, Shackley left Laos to become the station chief in Saigon, South Vietnam. Although Shackley had overseen a large scale escalation of the war in Laos, Vietnam was where the real action was.
In theory, the primary mission of the Central Intelligence Agency is the collection and analysis of information to aid American policy and decision making. Like the OSS before it, the CIA has, to various degrees, also become involved in covert actions that attempt to change events, not just gather information about them. In Vietnam the CIA moved away from intelligence gathering and toward covert action aimed at helping the Saigon government and defeating the North Vietnamese. Although some intelligence was gathered, any analysis that contradicted the view that the United States would prevail was ignored. During the early 1960's William Colby, who later became director of the CIA, was the Saigon station chief. Under Colby the CIA became involved in "pacification" programs, that attempted to track down the Viet Cong and their sympathizers in South Vietnam. In 1968, when Shackley became station chief, Colby was on leave from the CIA to head "operation phoenix", which became infamous as an assassination program responsible for killing those suspected of aiding the Viet Cong. The CIA also established Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU) and Provincial Interrogation Centers (PIC), all staffed by South Vietnamese, who became known for their brutality.
Under Shackley, the Saigon station churned out intelligence reports. These were all reviewed by Shackley, who rejected any report without the proper positive "can do" tone. Although the United States had been involved in Vietnam since the mid-1950s, few agents had been developed and little real intelligence was reported. Much of the information that was forwarded to Langley came from interrogations from the PRUs. Most of this information was useless and the CIA failed to report the major build-up of North Vietnamese forces in preparation for the Tet offensive in 1968. One intelligence analyst, commenting on the intelligence from Operation Phoenix stated:
I got disgusted when I tried to find out how they authenticated their information. They captured people. And how did they determine what kind of enemy they were? The provincial police would say so-and-so is a secret Viet Cong and we have to neutralize. Well, how did they know? We couldn't get authentication. It was a rampant problem throughout the war. By mid-1969, a lot of innocent people were being captured by South Vietnamese security and disposed of.
On one occasion, while visiting a police station, Orrin DeForest, who was chief of interrogation for a Vietnamese province, saw four Vietnamese Special Branch officers torturing a young girl. DeForest later wrote that he did not think that the "brass" in Saigon had any idea of what went on the field. Whether this ignorance of the brutal details of the United States' allies was a result of studied ignorance or the bureaucratic nature of the CIA, is unclear. However, it was quite clear to DeForest and his colleagues that the "brass" did not appreciate reports that did not square with the official view of events. Despite this, not all of the CIA's intelligence was inaccurate. Officers like Frank Snepp, who later wrote Decent Interval, were bitter that their reports were buried by their superiors.
The fight against communism was used to justify terrible atrocities and the United States government and the CIA lost its moral compass in Vietnam. The CIA in Vietnam naturally selected for people who would pursue the cold war fight without question. It is not surprising that the same people went on to do terrible things in South America during the 1970s and during the "Contra war" in the 1980s.
Shackley arrived in Vietnam after the Tet offensive, when the pace of the war had slowed down. He increased the number of reports generated by the station and damped down the chaos that reined at the Saigon station during the war. When he left Vietnam in early 1972, it was a good time to leave. In Washington they still believed that the United States would be able to preserve South Vietnam and extricate itself "with honor".
When Shackley was recalled to Langley, in February of 1972, he was put in charge of the CIA's Western Hemisphere Division. One of Shackley's most important projects was to stop Philip Agee, an ex-CIA officer who was writing a book on the CIA. Ironically, to get close to Agee, who was living in Paris and was broke, a CIA agent gave Agee money. Although this allowed the CIA to see parts of the manuscript before it was printed, Agee later said that without the money he might not have been able to finish Inside the Company, his expose on the CIA. In addition to the covert operation against Agee, Shackley also inherited an operation that was funneling money to right wing opponents of Salvador Allende, in Chile. Eventually Allende was overthrown.
Salvador Allende died during the coup. When the smoke cleared, General Augusto Pinochet, the head of a military junta, was in dictatorial control. Political parties, including Langley's favored Christian Democrats, were banned. [The Chilean] Congress was closed. Elections were suspended. The press was censored. Allende supporters and opponents of the junta were jailed. Torture centers were established. Executions replaced soccer matches in Santiago's stadiums. Bodies floated down the Mapocho river. Due in part to the hard work of Shackley and dozens of other Agency bureaucrats and operatives, Chile was free of the socialists.
After serving as director of the Western Hemisphere Division, Shackley was promoted to the position of Associate Deputy Director for Operations, the number three position at the CIA. This was to be his last promotion. Shackley was a friend of Edwin Wilson, an ex-CIA contractor, who became an arms dealer. Wilson was jailed for shipping plastic explosive (C4) and detonators to Libya. Admiral Stansfield Turner, who was head of the CIA during the Carter administration, never forgave Shackley for his association with Wilson. He transferred Shackley to the bureaucratic equivalent of Siberia and Shackley left the Agency in 1979.
After leaving the CIA Shackley worked briefly for Thomas Clines, who had worked for Shackley in Laos and Vietnam. Clines had left the CIA before Shackley, in 1978. Using money loaded to him by Edwin Wilson, Clines incorporated International Research and Trade, which became involved in shipping arms purchased in the United States to Egypt. The cost of shipping the arms was billed to the Defense Department, which later claimed that Clines and his associates had illegally inflated their billings. Shackley later left Clines' firm and formed his own company, Research Associates International, which specialized in providing intelligence to business. The loose fraternity of ex-CIA employees kept in touch with each other and with the United States government. During the Reagan administration, both Shackley and Clines became involved in the Iran-Contra affair, along with an associate from their days in Laos, Richard Secord. Clines was later convicted of under reporting income from his Iran-Contra dealings by at least $260,000 and served several months in a prison as a result. Shackley's involvement in the Iran-Contra affair is more difficult to discern.
In writing Blond Ghost, David Corn interviewed many of those involved with the CIA, including Shackley. David Corn also did extensive research (the book includes sixty nine pages of notes on sources). The Vietnam war and the activities of the CIA in South America are starting to fade from popular memory in the United States. Blond Ghost serves as a reminder of these dark times and is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to study them in the future. Blond Ghost would have been improved by an appendix listing the acronym's used in the book and a thumbnail sketch of the various divisions of the CIA and their responsibilities.
Ian Kaplan - 5/96
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