Exploring some 70 years of covert action in “Shadow Wars” has definitely given me a broader view of the extent to which “rogue action” can happen within organizations. One of the things that surprised me a good bit is the extent to which it happens at multiple levels and with fairly limited consequences. In the beginning I had the impression that it was probably only a problem within the CIA because, well because things are covert there and “denial” can get you out of lots of problems. In particular when you are working with surrogates it’s always easy to take the position that they went off and did something on their own – a response repeatedly given during the Church Committee investigations. No doubt that is true on occasion, but even when its not it seems to work pretty well with Congressional committees.
And when it doesn’t there are some interesting options. During the second phase of the Contra support operations in Nicaragua, after Congress had banned “lethal” support and pulled the CIA out of the project, the Reagan Administration, with much personal advice, consultation and direction from the Director of the CIA, came up with a fascinating work around involving the staff of the National Security Counsel. But as it turned out several of the CIA officers who had been involved in the effort were emotionally committed to the extent of continuing personal support for the activities of Oliver North’s new phase of the effort – and did so at their own initiative, regardless of any policy guidelines from CIA headquarters. In the end, when the Iran-Contra scandal blew it all apart, several individuals (not all CIA) did receive legal sentences – and several of the CIA officers involved either took early retirement or were reassigned. At least one of those reassigned went on to become a major counter insurgency figure in a following administration. And speaking of following administrations, in one of those administration a new president set aside several of the earlier Iran Contra convictions with pardons.
So, going rogue against Congress and public American policy may not be the end of the world even if you got caught. Not only that, you could go rogue against Administration policy and other government agencies and not suffer too much. There are a number of instances of that, one of the most dramatic occurred when a number of CIA officers in Laos became active in projects diametrically opposed to State Department (and official U.S. government) positions. State was officially the lead player in Laos and was quite unhappy with the CIA, so unhappy that the U.S. Ambassador requested the Chief of Station to be removed and relocated. The CIA Director denied the request, left that officer and others in place and at the end of his assignment just moved the officer in question next door to Thailand. Then there’s the story of the CIA project head who kept involving the Angola team with the South African intelligence and military – much to the embarrassment of Washington who couldn’t figure out what was going on….then again since the head of the task group had ordered his team not to document those contacts – well as I said, rogue action can occur at pretty much any level of the chain of command.
But then the State Department had its own rogues, during the Kennedy Administration, JFK was surprised to read that a small American naval task force had just shown up in western Africa, with the apparent mission of some sort of intervention in the Congo. After some inquiry, it turned out the U.S. Ambassador had gone to the Navy and requested the ships, and the Navy had dispatched them. It seemed that the Ambassador, the State Department, the Navy and the Joint Chiefs had neglected to notify the Commander in Chief. JFK handled it in a low key fashion but obviously not at all happen with the incident. As a corollary I was also surprised at how many times over the decades, the push for covert action came out of the State Department – against advise from the CIA and often warnings from the entire national intelligence community. If you think its always the CIA that was getting us in over our heads, the tally sheet may surprise you.
All of which brings me back to a particular operation during the Kennedy administration, one which was initiated by a former U.S. Ambassador and which gained authorization at high, if not ultimate levels, at CIA headquarters. For those of you who have read SWHT, you no doubt realize I’m once again talking about TILT. What always puzzles me is now that we know so much about TILT and the huge political exposure it posed for JFK, it gets nowhere the same level of discussion as Watergate. I guess the thing is, Watergate failed and still brought down a president. TILT failed and somehow didn’t even get to the attention of JFK or RFK – you can bet if it had there would have been consequences. But then JFK was murdered only a few months later…