John Helmer: CIA Bumbling, Then and Now

Yves here. This post presents some of the CIA’s less-than-proud moments, curiously omitted in a recently-published history of the CIA’s meddling in the Middle East, juxtaposed with some of its more recent miscues.

By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears

“The genius of you Americans is that you never made clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves.” That was Gamal Abdel Nasser addressing a CIA man he knew well, who’d been involved in a series of plots to assassinate Nasser, all hapless.

The year was 1957; that’s 57 years ago. If Nasser lived long enough to come across the Clinton family, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, Nasser was smart enough to have modified his observation to acknowledge that the genius of Americans is that they make clear-cut stupid moves, too.

In a recently published academic historian’s account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) failures in the Middle East (up to the year 1958), much is made of the following causes on the US side – sexual appetite, greed for money, personal vanity, adventurism, anti-semitism, anti-communism, naivety, bad luck.

american great game

Naivety is also the viewpoint and limitation of the historian, Hugh Wilford, a professor at a university in southern California. How else to account for the lack of evidence he thought to collect from the obvious sources – from the Arabs who were the targets of the CIA’s plots; and from the Big Power adversaries the US plotters thought they were rivalling – the Germans, French, British, Soviets, Russians.

The Russophobia gives itself away from the start – the “hatred of communism” reported from the US agents themselves; and from Wilford’s account of the only Soviet agent to make a direct appearance in the story, who was “a sensitive man underneath his pallid exterior”. Thus were spy covers blown by white skins in Baghdad during summer time. Had Wilford cross-checked the accessible Moscow archives for that year, 1945, he might have learned what Archibald Roosevelt, Wilford’s hero, had given away beneath his suntanned exterior.

WilfordHad Wilford looked at the German, French and Moroccan sources, he wouldn’t have missed what an undisciplined, sex-crazed fool William Eddy was. This lame-legged ex-Marine is reported by Wilford to have been one of the first and greatest of US agents in the Middle East – “impressive”, “triumphant”, and “with his Presbyterian missionary conscience [he] did not share relish for dirty tricks”. According to German reports to Berlin, Eddy blew his cover by handing out $65,000 in cash in the first eight weeks after arriving in Tangier. That is the equivalent of $894,000 today.

Missing too from Wilford’s history is what Eddy did with his second good leg in the afternoons with a Moroccan cleaning lady. After their idylls, she used to take the contents of Eddy’s waste-paper basket to the German consulate, which had already broken the code in which he was cabling his finished drafts to Washington. According to a German intelligence assessment of Eddy, preceding Operation Torch, the first US military intervention in the Arab world: “we can only congratulate ourselves on the selection of this group of enemy agents who will give us no trouble. In view of the fact that they are totally lacking in method, organization, and discipline, the danger presented by their arrival in North Africa may be considered as nil.”

Because this CIA history of Arab (and Iranian) operations is told without the recollection or record of a single local, Wilford has missed an even more famous piece of advice than Nasser’s. This came from Nuri al-Said, the prime minister of Iraq. Wilford tags him an old and good friend of Roosevelt’s, Eddy’s, and their successors in the CIA’s Baghdad station. “You can always rent an Arab,” Nuri Pasha said (in Arabic), “but you can’t buy him.” On July 14, 1958, Said was toppled by an Iraqi army brigade, and his corpse dragged naked through the streets. Several Americans were also murdered that day.

Had Wilford studied the papers of General Erwin Rommel, Admiral Kurt Assmann, and their staff officers from the first half of 1941, he might have understood how the Soviets then, and Russians today, view the strategy of attacking the Kremlin from the south, starting in Syria, proceeding into Iraq, then Iran, Azerbaijan and the Russian Caucasus. These German operations memoranda were all ignored by Adolph Hitler, whose anti-semitism was comprehensive, including Arabs no less than Jews. The outcome of Hitler’s subsequent decision to attack Russia from the west through Poland and Ukraine is well-known.

To understand how Russians interpret their own war history, and thus of American plots to change it, the one certain guide Wilford’s history offers is its conclusion – all US putsches and military plots fail, usually at great expense in US dollars, and in cost of local lives. But since Wilford’s book appeared for sale, the CIA itself has drafted a history of its own, which is more comprehensive, geographically speaking. The conclusion remains the same. A partially leaked version appeared in the New York Times on October 14.

“The continuing C.I.A. effort to train Syrian rebels,” the leak reports, “is just the latest example of an American president becoming enticed by the prospect of using the spy agency to covertly arm and train rebel groups. An internal C.I.A. study has found that it rarely works. The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.”

“The findings of the study, described in recent weeks by current and former American government officials, were presented in the White House Situation Room and led to deep skepticism among some senior Obama administration officials about the wisdom of arming and training members of a fractured Syrian opposition.”

The timing and wording of this CIA leak comprise a warning — an emphatic “We-told-you-so” from the CIA to other US Government officials. Who they are the CIA doesn’t exactly say. Except that President Obama is off the hook, cited as having considered the CIA history this way: “Very early in this process, I [Obama] actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much.”

The apparent target of the CIA leak, however, appears to be Hillary Clinton and her staff at the State Department. But nothing in the leaked materials refers to the State Department operations in Ukraine or Russia. The putsch that took place in Kiev on February 21, 2014, is too recent to have been covered by the new CIA history. There are clues that these too are Mrs Clinton’s doing, along with a group of her associates including Victoria Nuland (Nudelman); Jen Psaki, White House and State Department spokesman; Christine Fox, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Melanne Verveer, advisor to Hillary Clinton on Ukraine; Susan Rice, National Security Advisor; Sarah Mendelson, Deputy Assistant Administrator of US Agency for International Development for Democracy; and Gayle Smith, senior director, National Security Council.

It has generally been assumed in Washington, and no less in Moscow, that CIA Director John Brennan was one of the proponents of the Kiev putsch and the subsequent war against Russia. However, one clue that the CIA opposes the Clinton politburo has come from Senator Dianne Feinstein. Speaking as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee – and notwithstanding the conflicts she and her staff have had with Brennan – Feinstein has declared that escalating the Ukraine conflict into a war for regime change in Russia is going to fail.

“I think there ought to be direct discussions with Vladimir Putin. I think he is the singular figure in Russia. The Crimea is gone. I think there ought to be steps taken to send people, to talk with him, to have our Secretary of State talk with him personally. I think this is deeply personal with him. I really do. And he’s enjoying intensely high favourability in his country. People say, ‘Well, just wait till the sanctions bite and the economy slips.’ I don’t think so. I think if Russians follow him, and up to date, they are following him, the Russians are very brave and very long-suffering. And they will tough out any economic difficulty.”

From the CIA history books it’s easier to gather the evidence for Feinstein’s assessment than the evidence persuading the Clinton politburo that theirs will be the only putsch in US intelligence history, and the only invasion of Russia from the west, to succeed. Money can’t explain it, though the Clinton family has been on the take from Kiev for at least $13 million. The Biden family is also on the take; that’s operation code-named Burisma.

Sex wasn’t exactly what Nuland had in mind when she used the F-word on the telephone with US Ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt. She meant to say she knows warfighting against Russia better than the Germans.

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  1. John

    As the saying goes, you become a product of your environment. Following RT news and events from local sources and then writing about such things can lead to reporting that is myopic — one dimensional. Kinda like being fed FoxNews adnauseum.

    1. YankeeFrank

      Right. The CIA is an effective and honorable tool of US foreign policy that has a track record of briliant success in most of its endeavors. From the arming and training of al Qaeda in the 1980’s to have them fight the Soviets for us in their Afghan war, to the overthrow of the Iranian and Chilean governments, to the endless pain and misery brought to Central America over many decades, to the intense and thorough destabilization of the Middle East, the CIA’s successes are legendary. Isis is the direct creation of the CIA’s destabilization tactics coupled with its funding and training of fundamentalist Muslim sects. Through its entire bumbling history the CIA is the embodiment of winning the battle only to lose the war. Any time a foothold of decency and democracy is established anywhere on earth the CIA is there to destroy it and replace it with violent dictatorship and oppression. All to protect the “interests” of the “USA” of course.

      1. Yata

        A better way of understanding the shortcomings in foreign policy is to understand the CIA was essentially a tool to bring about the needed change in directives.
        The director of the CIA is an appointed position, and serves at the pleasure of the administration.
        The real power during the 50’s and 60’s lay in the Rand Corporation headed by Albert Wohlstetter and his band of virulent anti-communist, pro-Israeli acolytes.
        These men more or less dictated policy to administrations, national security, and the Pentagon.
        It was the Vietnam war that probably first showed diverging policy opinions in meetings, that occasionally erupted into physical altercations, and most notably brought about Daniel Elsberg and the Pentagon Papers.
        You could say the Rand corporation was the genesis of today’s foreign policy. Those who mentored under Albert Wohlstetter, and acolytes, went on to hold prominent positions in successive administrations.

        CIA case officers don’t make policy.

      2. Paul Tioxon

        YankeeFrank, Go Home!

        By their own admission regarding the Middle East, the CIA is a sewer of perfidy, coups, bribery, assassinations and installation of brutal strong man military police states, without any honor, in the service of no god and counterproductive to any rational national interests or long term productive policy.

        Miles Copeland, one of the founding members of the CIA, writes in, “THE GAME OF NATIONS: The Amorality of Power Politics”, a detailed account of his political manipulations of Egypt as part of the larger Cold War battles of The Grand Strategy of Containment against the USSR. First supporting the Egyptian military coup and installing Gamal Nasser as the leader along with supporting their true national interests in control over the Suez Canal, to the detriment of Britain, France and Israel and then, plotting to have the very same man killed off when it was decided to take things in another direction. As if there was a CIA led direction to head towards that resulted in some, any, satisfactory geopolitical state of affairs.

        If there is any measure of success to compare against the current state of affairs across North Africa into the Middle East, a rebuilt Europe and Japan is the place to start. How could the same nation, that lifted out the rubble of war and atomic bombing the G-7 alliance, have plunged so many people into desperation, unending bloodshed and poverty when they have had the injection of $Trillions of Petro-dollars?
        Partly deliberate and partly blind incompetence, but always guided by the sword and the shield of the dullards of the CIA. Obviously, the smart ones did not have as much political clout at decision making time.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I gather you did not bother reading past Helmer’s bio. This post is almost entirely about the Great Game pre 1958. Helmer critiqued the book based on references to archival documents that are in the public domain but Wiford didn’t bother to consult. And as to his brief discussion at the end of US policy in the Ukraine, his links are to US sources.

      Better trolls, please.

  2. Ben Johannson

    Helmer would, I think, benefit from an editor While the subject is of interest the organization is just terrible, unless this is intended to be stream of consciousness. Bouncing from topic to topic without ensuring smooth transitions had me repeatedly looking further up into the article to figure out why he was now talking about X and wondering what I’d missed. Frustrating to read.

    1. FunknJunk

      Agreed. This was very unfocused and the narrative style does not lend itself to solid comprehension in minimal time which Is what I look for in blog posts. A book? That’d be different :—)

    2. scraping_by

      Editor, yes. Experts tend toward a kind of shorthand where a quick mention is connected to large amounts of already known information. Already known to other experts, of course.

      But even at that, we visitors can connect the references to publicly known information. For example, Ms. Clinton’s public persona as the Girly Warhog could be seen as a branding exercise to protect her from the scorn of right-wing chickenhawks. It’s clear from the people around her the neoliberal crusade is her real home.

      As opposed to the grab bag of claims you see supporting right wing fantasies, I think our author is trying to say more than the format allows. A matter of the mechanics of writing rather than any desire to confuse.

  3. Working Class Nero

    The goal Great Powers is to have loyal satraps in power in any of their client states. But there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in this article between the labelling as failure the fact that US-led coup d’états need to be constantly renewed and the idea that “You can always rent an Arab, but you can’t buy him.” This is kind of like criticizing a man for never marrying any of the prostitutes he uses. Or saying a woman who leases cars is a failure for never getting to 100,000 miles on a car. It seems if an Arab satrap’s loyalty is limited in time, and this does indeed seem to be proven many times in practice, then it is normal that a Great Power would be constantly instigating regime change in order to come up with some new satrap that will be loyal at least for a little while.

    I suppose the other choice is for the Great Power to stay at home and just mind his own business, which I would be all for. But the only difference from the point of the weak countries is that it would then be the vice-Great Power (the second strongest nation) who would just start running around installing satraps that would be loyal to her.

  4. Banger

    I guess I’d have to say that the CIA has had many failures and some very notable success in its terms. On balance it has done rather well for itself as can be seen from its continued status as being unaccountable to anyone. It has become part of deep network of contractors elements of other spy agencies with close ties to organized crime. A good deal of the bumbling involves corruption, elaborate con games and so on. The CIA as a whole is not corrupt merely compartamentalized because everything operates on a “need to know” basis. I would note that there are elements or have been elements within the Agency that are liberal and/or patriotic in the non-psychotic way unlike the crazed attitudes of most of it’s founders.

    I would take any CIA report about itself with many grains of salt but clearly this one indicates some of the inner political conflicts within the National Security State/Deep State I’ve been talking about for some time.

  5. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    Great piece. As a fake German war hero, I’d quibble with Victoria Noodleman: the only successful invasion of Russia from the west was after the Russian Army collapsed due to the 1917 revolution. And even that was on the back of a diplomatic deal.

    One could say that The Clinton Clique is waging a wholly unnecessary struggle. Russia is a market oriented society that apes the that of the US. I guess they don’t just automatically defer to the US and Israel in world affairs so that means they must be properly brought to heel? And then at long last, China?

    1. susan the other

      A lot of the propaganda about the (former) “Great Game” (c. WWI) concerning the strategic location of the Middle East, including many of Russia’s former USSR colleagues, was less obsessive over oil than we are today. But throughout history the Silk Road has been considered a serious asset. And it is now, even with air travel and humongous ocean traders; so times change in weird ways. The weirdest point made here is that some people (presumable the CIA among other goofballs) is thinking about attacking Russia from the south. Which makes sense by history because Napoleon was indeed hapless; followed not too much later by Hitler. And the Europeans had the hubris to look at us and conclude that we didn’t win many?? Right. But why attack Russia at all? The CIA isn’t a bunch of nitwits. It is an information gathering organization. Period. I’m confident that the CIA and the Deep State are dedicated to the idea of globalization. I think they will stay in that mindset and use whatever tactics they need. Because nobody wants to avoid serious war more than the US. They/we are so dedicated to the idea they/we don’t care how dysfunctional globalism really is. TPP, TAFTA, etc… Didn’t I just read that the Saudis recently bought into Canada’s tar sands?

      1. Chauncey Gardiner

        Re: … “I’m confident that the CIA and the Deep State are dedicated to the idea of globalization. I think they will stay in that mindset and use whatever tactics they need. Because nobody wants to avoid serious war more than the US. They/we are so dedicated to the idea they/we don’t care how dysfunctional globalism really is. TPP, TAFTA, etc.”

        Thank you for a thought-provoking comment, STO. Presuming your comment is not intended as satire, I too have been looking for a silver lining in the very dark cloud of willfully surrendering sovereignty, including indirectly monetary sovereignty, to the Transnational Banks and Corporations and those who control them. If these so called “trade agreements” (ISDS, TPP, TAFTA, TTIP) negated any possibility of war, and particularly thermonuclear war, that would be a goal I could get behind. But, that it is not the intent nor the structure of these agreements. That dog won’t hunt… You can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ears (nor other parts of pigs).

  6. afisher

    The CIA has a history and it has been well documented via Tim Weiner: Legacy of Ashes. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what the CIA discovers if the POTUS, et al won’t listen to what the agency is reporting.

    1. Nathanael

      Why would any President listen to an agency which didn’t notice the fall of the Soviet Union?

      The Central Stupidity Agency should simply have been liquidated; its organizational culture is a failure. At the moment it’s just a wasteful collection of sinecures, such as noblemen got in the Middle Ages.

  7. seal

    USA’s horoscope has this aspect STRONGLY marked.

    “Mars/Neptune people have a well-deserved reputation in the deceit/deception
    department, generally because they’re never sure of the ramifications of their
    actions. They lead others down the “garden path” in unproductive, unsatisfactory
    endeavors, yet they are relatively unconscious of their misrepresentation.
    Charles Jayne tells a story about Neptune and the quicksand at the end of the
    garden path. You are walking through a garden with Neptune, who has no idea
    about the quicksand. Neptune is pointing out the beautiful flowers and telling you
    about all the problems he’s having. As you get toward the end of the garden, there
    is a log lying across the path. Neptune falls over the log and into the quicksand. You
    reach for the log and pull Neptune out, but in the process you fall into the
    quicksand. Now Neptune, who has, in his unconscious way, inadvertently tossed the
    log into a tree, is looking around in panic for something to get you out, which he
    can’t find, of course. So you drown.
    Inadvertent disasters through incompetence tend to occur with Mars/Neptune.
    It’s like shooting an arrow into the ocean. That’s what happens to your intentions,
    your drive and initiative. This incompetence can also invite disasters in personal
    relationships and business ventures.
    Despite positive intentions, Neptunians need to
    more accurately define and to focus their energy, while looking ahead to the
    consequences of their actions.” Doris Hebel, Celestial Psychology, Aurora Press

  8. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

    There’s a very interesting dynamic in play with Hilary the First and the sisterhood surrounding her at State and elsewhere. They seem to be motivated by a starry-eyed Berkeley-ite view of the world that I am ready to condone because it seems well-meaning, we can change the world, we can make 12 century societies accept democracy and force them to teach women about birth control etc. But then it turns into something quite nasty and unpredictable indeed. We get Susan Rice coining the term “humanitarian bombing” (Orwell would be so proud) to describe the very quizzical case for killing Gaddafi and installing radical Islam, and then of course Ms. Nuland’s wonderful turn of phrase in the Kiev coup. We get the daily newspeak by the well-coiffed dames at the press conferences (“yes but America does not just invade other countries!” um er aww). These sisters are not at all what they seem methinks, there’s a reason Rupert Murdoch is such a huge Hilary fan (when he’s not orchestrating Fox News fascism) and it’s not just because he thinks she’s just “controllable opposition”…Obomba will always be “the first black president” so his legacy is secure, but I think “the first woman president” will be a much larger disaster than even the one-term junior state senator has proven to be.

    1. James

      LOL! My feelings as well. As anyone who’s observed office politics for long surely knows, women play it just as willingly and more often than not even more ruthlessly than their male counterparts. Hillary’s increasingly likely future coronation and rule should be very interesting indeed, as she struggles to be “just as tough” as the little man in her head tells her she needs to be, while all the while FOX News and right wing radio has a grand old time pulling her strings to serve their interests. As many have observed recently, with Dem stooges like this, who even wants to elect an honest to goodness Republican nutjob to take the heat? Neolib Dems, especially those pushing faux social agendas (and truthfully, are there any other kind?), are pure upside for the right. All of the benefits with none of the guilt and blame. What’s not to love?

    2. John Zelnicker

      (“yes but America does not just invade other countries!” um er aww)

      Of course we don’t. We’re always invited in. :-/

  9. Patrick Donnelly

    The Company is more than the CIA. It is designed to make business profitable for those who own it. America is many things and for most of them, the Company cares nothing. It uses the CIA etc. as they have access and are paid for by those who are kept in fear. The model was laid down elsewhere long ago. The natural leaders know how to breed thoroughbreds. They accept new blood, but only if it is strong enough.

    The Company is very successful. Globalization is a project that it and others have been working on for two centuries. It has chosen several methods to obtain that new blood. One of the main tasks is to remove those with “Bad Blood”. Those whose violence was made manifest in Paris, before the Tyrant took power as the Emperor of Europe. The world has benefitted enormously from this work and it will continue.

    Japan has yet to establish that it can safely play with others and is the ally that disappointed the USA. The walk-out from the League of Nations was strike one. Fukushima was strike two. Russia is positive at last and so is China.

    The next step is to dismantle empires: China, India, Indonesia. The current project is redrawing the boundaries so that countries in the “middle east” and Africa are more homogenous and eventually peaceful. The USA is pretending to be weak. This usually entices a predator to attack it and not the real weak spot. Pearl Harbor was planned after the Japanese walked out of the League. The only real potential enemy left is from EastAsia…. Oceania is close to achieving the United Nations.

    I thank them!

  10. James

    The world has benefitted enormously from this work and it will continue.

    That’s the theory anyway. The facts on the ground, silly things, unfortunately say otherwise. And The Company, like all other grand Empire projects before it, will be defunct soon enough.

  11. Rosario

    The CIA was created to fight the “Commies” and that is all. It does not make this country safer nor does it serve any useful purpose beyond our cycling military endeavors. The world the CIA has watched over has become less safe by their design or folly and little else.

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