The conduct of foreign policy has traditionally been the constitutional right of the president. While the houses of Congress have committees on foreign affairs or foreign relations, they make little policy. They don’t even automatically receive information on what the president knows or what he does.
Until the end of the World War II, President Roosevelt had to rely for foreign intelligence on a small agency called the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services). But it had little authority and a limited budget. Its only function was to collect what information it could and inform the president. It had no “spies,” performed no actions and seldom interfered in the affairs of other nations. Until his inauguration, President Truman never even knew about Soviet a-bomb research.
All that changed in 1947 with the National Security Act, which created the CIA. Now America had its own clandestine spy network. The historian Tim Weiner has spent the last 20 years tracing the history and activities of the Central Intelligence Agency. His basic sources have been the declassified documents of that body as well as interviews with its major actors. And what he paints in his book "Legacy of Ashes" is not a pretty picture!
The information supplied to the president by the CIA has often been scandalously wrong. When George Tenet, the then CIA director, said that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and called that conclusion a slam-dunk, it helped suck us into a disastrous and foolish war. Colin Powell was set up by CIA’s bad information, and came across as a fool before the United Nations. According to Weiner, that deadly episode is typical of the way the agency has acted in its 55 years of existence. It has regularly supplied bad information that helped to form much of America’s foreign policy.
Weiner claims that the CIA has not only failed in its information-gathering function, but what is worse, it has directly involved itself in clandestine operations aimed at helping to depose the leaders of other nations, including their assassinations. We will leave that matter for another column. For now let’s look at specific examples that have landed us in a series of impossible quagmires.
IRAN. Following World War II, Iran was ruled by the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The U.S. took a dim view of his leftist leanings, including his friendship with the Soviets, and a CIA-backed coup d'état deposed Mosaddegh and put in his place the former Shah, Mohammad Rezā Pahlavī, a leftover from the ousted monarchy. But we forgot to consult with the Iranian people, and after a time the Shah was exiled and a much more unfriendly group came to power in his place. Iran decreed itself to be an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini. He was not our friend, and in 1979 his supporters managed to seize the American embassy, resulting in the embarrassing capture of 57 Americans who were held for 444 days. Hostility between the U.S. and Iran has continued unabated until last week when there arose the possibility of a thaw.
IRAQ. During Iran’s political and social crisis, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein attempted to take advantage of the disorder generated by the Iranian revolution, the weakness of the Iranian military and the revolution's antagonism toward Western governments. So we, through the CIA, sided with Saddam against Iran, including assisting Saddam in his use of chemical weapons. But we subsequently became afraid that Iraqi oil would get away from us, so with the excuse that Saddam had WMDs, we got into an eight-year war, the devastating results of which are still being felt.
AFGHANISTAN. At the same time the Afghans were fighting off an invasion by the Soviets and we, through the CIA, sided with the Mujahideen, precursors of the Taliban. For the last 10 years we have been in an unwinnable war with those same Afghans we once supported.
And now we are tempted to be involved in a civil war in Syria, where our “allies” include the very al-Qaida enemies we have been fighting around the world.
And all of this under the watchful eye of the CIA, which has been involved in the planning and execution of these disasters every step of the way.