Exclusive to Sri Lanka Guardian
by Our Diplomatic Affairs Editor
In his most recent book, A Question of Standing, historian and former political candidate Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones takes a close look at the first 75 years of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the recognizable events that have shaped its history. In a recent interview with our diplomatic affairs editor, Jeffreys-Jones discussed the ongoing relevance of the CIA and the vital intelligence function it continues to perform in a wide variety of situations.
Born in Wales in 1942, Jeffreys-Jones boasts an impressive academic background, including a B.A. from UCW Aberystwyth and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. He has held numerous postdoctoral fellowships and research awards, including from the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, and the Fulbright Programme. For many years, Jeffreys-Jones was a Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh and the chair of its Department of History, the largest department of any description in a non-collegiate UK university.
Jeffreys-Jones is the author of five edited books and twelve more books as the sole author, including The American Left: Its Impact on Politics and Society since 1900 and The Nazi Spy Ring in America: Hitler’s Agents, the FBI, and the Case that Stirred the Nation. He is also the founder and former chair of the Scottish Association for the Study of America, where he currently serves as honorary president.
Read on for Jeffreys-Jones’s insights into the CIA’s past, present, and future
Sri Lanka Guardian (SLG): What inspired you to write A Question of Standing, and what do you hope readers will take away from it?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones (RJJ): My interest in espionage arose from an earlier concern with labour spies. One day, my friend Draguliub Zivojinovic suggested, in the light of that concern, that I look at the papers of English novelist Somerset Maugham, who, it transpired, spied on the Bolsheviks in St Petersburg on behalf of the UK and USA. It sparked my long-term interest in intelligence history. More recently, with the approach of the 75th anniversary of the CIA, I noticed there was no up to date survey of the agency’s history. I thought there was an opportunity to meet that need and at the same time to correct what in my view seemed to be certain misconceptions. The book is organized chronologically and around particular themes that most readers will recognize, such as Cuba, Iran, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. I hope readers will take away a better understanding of topics in which they are already interested, and take the opportunity to develop a broader view, too.
SLG: The CIA has been a controversial agency throughout its history. What, in your opinion, are some of the key moments or decisions that have shaped its reputation?
RJJ: There has been a tendency to take a US-centered view of this matter. According to this perspective, the CIA’s reputation for anticipating events had proceeded from one trough to another. Failure to predict when the Soviets would achieve atomic capability, to anticipate the Yom Kippur War, and to forestall 9/11, are legendary. The assumption is that between these events the agency has registered a stream of unknown triumphs, unknown because of the secret nature of the business. On the operational front, too, visible disasters have affected perceptions. The failure of the Bay of Pigs operation to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba is an example. There have also been perceived operational triumphs, such as the killing of Bin Laden, an event that inspired a spontaneous gathering of people outside the White House chanting ‘CIA! CIA!’
A main argument on my book is that the reputation of the CIA outside America is a different story. The CIA’s overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s produced an adverse reaction in non-aligned nations and contributed to the USA’s loss of a majority in the UN General Assembly. They were disasters masquerading – in the USA – as successes. Outside the USA the Bay of Pigs was a culmination of woes, not (as perceived in the USA) a first-time occurrence.
SLG: Your book takes a balanced approach to the CIA, neither celebrating nor condemning its actions. Can you talk more about this approach and how you arrived at it?
RJJ: US and other reviewers of the book comment on my objectivity. My non-partisanship can be explained by the fact that I am neither a US citizen who has grown up unconsciously supportive of American perspectives, nor a citizen of a victim country that has been adversely affected by the CIA’s actions, and thus takes an instinctively critical stance.
The point could be made that I am not quite so objective as reviewers say, as I am British, and the UK is a loyal supporter to the USA in international affairs. However, there is a further gloss here. I grew up in a small Celtic country. My native language is Welsh, not English. When kids of my generation went to the cinema in Wales and saw ‘Western’ movies, we cheered the ‘Indians’ and booed the US cavalry. Long ago, the Celts were victims of Roman, then Norman, then English imperialism. Even if that is a fading memory, resistance to external domination remains in the blood.
SLG: In your view, what is the most important contribution that the CIA has made to US foreign relations over the past 75 years?
RJJ: Restraint. The sober intelligence estimates supplied by civilian analysts in the CIA have helped more than once to enable the USA to step back from the brink of disaster. In the 1950s, the CIA discredited a distorted view of Soviet intentions and capabilities promoted by the military. In the 1970s the agency supplied intelligence that led to a limitation of the nuclear arms race. In the 1980s its reports facilitated the end of the Cold War. In 2007, a famous intelligence finding discredited claims that Iran was constructing nuclear weapons. In all these cases, bloodthirsty militaristic hawks were kept at bay.
SLG: How has the role and standing of the CIA changed over time, and what factors have contributed to these changes?
RJJ: One factor is that in times of international tension American citizens rallied to support the CIA, seeing it as a patriotic institution. Conversely, in periods of detente, such as in the 1970s and 1990s, there were press criticisms and congressional investigations. Since 9/11, the picture has changed, and people have post-Cold War priorities. For example, the CIA plunged in Republican voters’ esteem when the agency confronted President Trump over the Russian attempt to manipulate the 2016 presidential election. Outside the USA, the drivers of standing have been different. For example, I have never met an American who did not approve of President Obama’s decision to kill Bin Laden instead of bringing him to trial. Outside the USA, there are questions about the wisdom and justice of that act, and of the wider policy of assassination by drone.
The domestic standing of the CIA — in the White House, Congress, and public opinion — governs the degree to which it can influence policy. Infractions of civil liberties at home, for example spying on student protesting the Vietnam War, are a sure stimulus to discontent with the CIA. It should be added that the position changed in 2004, when an intelligence reform act reduced the standing of the CIA. After that date, the director of the CIA no longer had the additional job of coordinating the entire intelligence community. That change reflected two events that damaged the standing of the CIA — its failure to anticipate the 9/11 attack, and its erroneous endorsement of the view that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — a finding that led to the disastrous US invasion of Iraq that destabilized the Middle East.
SLG: One of the chapters in your book focuses on the CIA’s involvement in the War on Terror. How do you evaluate the agency’s performance in this conflict?
RJJ: Not highly. On the tactical level, the CIA can be superficially effective. For example, it can use technology and sometimes information from informers to identify suspects and to kill them, or to ‘render’ (i.e. kidnap and deliver) them to interrogation centers. This kind of operation comes at a cost in terms of ‘soft diplomacy’ as it alienates many who might otherwise by sympathetic with what the US is trying to accomplish. The US projects an image of a country devoted to the rule of law, but certain actions of the CIA make that seem like hypocrisy.
A more fundamental flaw stems from the foreign policy objectives that underpin the CIA’s choice of actions. One person’s terrorist is another person’s patriot, saint, or martyr. Those whom the CIA targets often seem, to the target’s sympathizers, to have right on their side. The classic example, one that evokes strong reactions in the overlapping Moslem and Arab worlds, is the Palestinian resistance movement. America’s one-sided support of the Israeli government’s disregard for Palestinian rights and aspirations has for decades been the single greatest fomenter of international terrorism. To deal with that type of terrorism, policy change is more important than any action the CIA may undertake.
SLG: The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 is seen as having diminished the CIA’s role. Can you talk about the reasons for this and whether you think it was the right decision?
RJJ: The Act seemed to diminish the CIA’s role because it implied that the agency had been incompetent in regard to 9/11, and then to weapons of mass destruction. These verdicts diminished faith in the agency and caused demoralization within it. In administrative terms, management of the wider intelligence community (including the FBI, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, etc.) passed from the office of the director of the CIA to the office of the newly created Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Important analytical responsibilities shifted to the Council for National Security, which reported in turn to the DNI. It remains to be seen whether the DNI coordinates intelligence better than the CIA. My view is that the arrangement will remain in place until the next intelligence disaster.No-one can convincingly argue that a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 will never again happen. To return to a subtlety in your question, ‘seen as having diminished the CIA’s role’, all is indeed not as it seems. The CIA is still a powerful and essential tool in the USA’s national security kit. It has an espionage and analytical capacity that remains indispensable.
SLG: Your book defends the CIA’s exposure of foreign meddling in US elections. What do you think are the key challenges facing the agency in this area, and how can they be addressed?
RJJ: The CIA’s John Brennan warned the Russians in advance that any attempt to meddle in internal US affairs would backfire. Consciously or unconsciously, he may have been thinking of the CIA’s own experiences — for examples, the agency’s participation in a plot to overthrow the democratic government of Iran in 1953 created a backlash that continues to the present day.
When President Vladimir Putin’s surrogates ignored Brennan’s advice and secretly tried to discredit Hilary Clinton’s bid for the US presidency in 2016, it was with the intention of strengthening the chances of Donald Trump, a declared friend of Russia. But when the CIA exposed the plot, it made it impossible for President Trump, once elected, to enact his dream of more harmonious Russo-American relations. Arguably, Russian enactment of distrust of NATO via the invasion of Ukraine would not have taken place, had Trump succeeded in his foreign policy goal. A cynic might push the argument further and argue that the CIA should have let matter lie.
As things stand, the key challenges now facing the CIA are how to expedite Ukrainian resistance while, at the same time, facilitating a ‘back channel’ approach to Moscow to try to bring about a return to peace.
SLG: Looking to the future, what role do you think the CIA will play in US foreign relations, and what challenges will it face?
RJJ: The CIA will continue to perform a vital intelligence function in a wide variety of situations we can only guess at today. Under the current leadership of President Joe Biden and CIA director William Burns, it would seem that (except for operations no doubt currently underway in Ukraine) the agency has turned a corner and is running fewer undercover action programs. It remains to be seen whether future presidents will have the strength of character to resist taking the apparently easy option of covert action when faced with difficult foreign policy issues.
In intelligence terms, the challenge is to know how and when to change. America was taken by surprise at the time of 9/11 partly because the CIA did not have sufficient foreign-language capacity quickly to translate digital messages emanating from Afghanistan that would have given clues about the attack. But such crises are difficult to foresee. Which languages should CIA specialists learn for the future?
I concur with the warning given by many specialists, that digital threats to national security will become more and more serious. Countering them will take a great deal of technical skill and — a CIA responsibility — counterintelligence. Proportionality needs to be kept in mind. Do you exclude Chinese chip technology at a cost to your communications systems? Would it be better to trade, bearing in mind the economist Adam Smith’s axiom that world trade equals world peace? Does trade-dependency always carry an unacceptable risk of blackmail?
SLG: Finally, what are you working on next, and what can readers expect from your future writing?
RJJ: I have now returned to my earlier interest in labour espionage. Spying on workers was the economic mainstay of America’s ground-breaking Pinkerton National Detective Agency. My near-complete book, Allan Pinkerton: His Life and Legacies, opens with chapters about the agency’s founder, who was born in Scotland, where I now reside. The book goes on to discuss the origins of modern surveillance, and the respective merits of public and private police services. Once Georgetown University Press have published that book, my plan is to write a number of shorter pieces on subjects ranging from the origins of US central intelligence to the politics of preserving non-English languages, especially Welsh.