Should We Abolish the CIA?

At the Congress for Cultural Freedom's second Berlin conference, June 1960* (Wikimedia Commons)

In April, the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti reported an apprehension within the CIA that paramilitary operations, drone strikes, abductions, and killings have diverted the Agency from the purpose for which it was originally founded in 1947. It was supposed to give the government and the nation authoritative analyses of long-term trends in the world—and to get backstage to identify the important actors in the many political dramas enthralling us. The reporter said an effort at returning to the Agency’s earlier mission was imminent.

That is likely to be a case of love’s labor lost. The CIA’s record of prophecy is convincingly unimpressive. It failed to anticipate, among other events, Khruschev’s repudiation of Stalinism, the Hungarian rising of 1956, Castro’s triumph, the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Czech experiment in socialism with a human face, the Sino-Soviet conflict, the democratic revolution in Portugal in 1974, the strength of Vietnamese resistance to the US, and the western European movements against nuclear weaponry, not to mention the opening of the Berlin Wall and all that followed.

I am reminded of visiting Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the Kennedy White House in the summer of 1961. He showed me an article on the Sino-Soviet rupture in the old Washington Star, written by Isaac Deutscher, the Polish Marxist in British exile. I was living in the UK then, and Schlesinger knew that I knew Deutscher. “Are his sources good?” he asked. I assured him that they were excellent: he had old comrades in the highest reaches of the Polish Communist regime. I confessed surprise at Schlesinger’s recourse to Deutscher. “After all, you have the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department.” “Yes,” Schlesinger replied, “and that is why I need Deutscher.”

That was over a half century ago, but then as now the case for transferring the CIA’s analytical functions to another government agency remains strong. Perhaps the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research could be expanded: it was alone in the government in refusing to subscribe to absurd predictions of the imminent collapse of the Vietnamese Communists. More recently, it was correctly reticent when the CIA legitimated the charlatans who fabricated evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, there were and are plenty of truth tellers at the CIA—often ignored or silenced. During the 1970s and ‘80s, I visited Italy frequently. Both in Rome and Washington, I encountered CIA officers with long experience of the country. One of them told me he was glad that I wrote in the Nation of the close personal, political, and spiritual relationships between the Italian Communists and the Italian Catholic Church and the Vatican. “That is matter,” he said, “we find convenient not to emphasize.”

In fact, the global forecasts published by the CIA through the National Intelligence Council are frequently quite telling in their implicit repudiation of the self-deceptions of our foreign policy elite. Upon examination, the forecasts are often written by scholars, not all of them in American universities, distant from the production of those daily briefings that presidents are served at breakfast. One way for citizens to profit from the huge sums invested in the CIA (the exact amounts are secret) is to read what honest retired officers like Melvin Goodman, Ray McGovern or Paul Pillar have written.

Perhaps, however, there is another way we can profit from the agency, with its huge staff and limitless budgets. On the same front page as the inspired leak to the Times, there was an obituary of Peter Matthiessen, recalling that his residence in Paris as an unknown young writer in 1953 was subsidized, covertly, by the CIA. He joined George Plimpton and others in founding the Paris Review, but kept his connection to the Agency secret.

Was that ornament of American cosmopolitanism and cultural criticism also financed by the CIA? The Agency certainly has a striking record of cultural entrepreneurship. It paid for the European exhibition of the New York School of abstract expressionist artists, for example, and printed editions of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago for underground distribution behind what was then the Iron Curtain.

By engaging scholars as consultants and subsidizing university centers of research, it had no small amount of academic talent on payroll. As a senator with a large interest in foreign policy, John F. Kennedy asked the MIT Center for International Studies for a report on Communist China: he was distrustful of the official briefings he was getting from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department. As president, however, he learned that the Center itself was subsidized by the CIA.

Someone could have told him that much earlier. The Center was housed in a building also used by the MIT Faculty Club, much favored for lunch and dinner by Harvard professors since their own faculty club for a long while had rather restrictive policies on serving spirits. On entering the building, one had to be cleared by security guards, making it surely the only place in the entire Boston area where getting a drink required pre-screening.

By engaging scholars as consultants and subsidizing university centers of research, the CIA had no small amount of academic talent on payroll.

The CIA’s most notable intellectual venture was, of course, the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It sponsored conferences, gave stipends to scholars and writers, and published a remarkable series of journals such as Encounter in London, Der Monat in Berlin, Preuves in Paris and Tempi Presenti in Rome. These were entirely dedicated to prosecuting the Cold War, and western critics of the policies of the United States and its allies were unwelcome as contributors. Indeed, some figures—Deutscher, Eric Hobsbawm, C. Wright Mills, Jean-Paul Sartre—were systematically attacked, even slandered, in their pages.

Looking back, one could say that these monthlies were indispensable reading for those who wished to learn about Washington’s party line. Fairness also compels the recognition that they were very well edited, had a good deal of serious matter—and were often, if unintentionally, amusing. In particular, the Encounter editor from Brooklyn, the late Irving Kristol, had the wit to see that its British readers were already convinced that the Soviet Union was not utopia incarnate and would respond to less tedious matter. He provided it by publishing, in 1954, a widely read discussion by Nancy Mitford of the distinction between upper-class and middle-class manners and speech in England, which she termed “U” and “non U.” Those were the years of Stalin’s death, the many signs of popular resistance in eastern Europe, the debate in the West on the new prosperity and its consequences for the politics of class. The British were not only war weary, they were Cold War weary, and Kristol provided a journal for all, or nearly all, tastes.

But controversy often swirled around these subsidized magazines.  In 1959, Dwight Macdonald, who had been in London as acting editor of Encounter, returned to the United States and expressed his cultural and political distaste for Eisenhower’s politics in an essay he sought to publish in the magazine. The Paris office of the Congress for Cultural Freedom thought publication inadvisable: Macdonald was overly critical. Macdonald then published the article, with a disgusted note on censorship, in both Dissent and the British journal The Twentieth Century. There then ensued a rather loud international discussion about the financing of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Frances Stonor Saunders told this story well in her 1999 book, Who Pays the Piper: The CIA and The Cultural Cold War.

We are far removed from the intensity of those years. Norman Mailer, after publishing his CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost in 1991, was promptly invited to visit the CIA for a discussion he described as cordial and illuminating. Mailer, like his senior interlocutors at the CIA, had been a supporter of the New Deal and then met history head on as an infantryman in the Second World War. Those were the excitements of years past.

Are we now obliged to pay for the ineffective and swollen CIA into perpetuity? Let us terminate with extreme prejudice its foreign policy functions. At the entrance to the CIA building in Langley, Virginia a very large seal proclaims: “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.” The CIA’s assumptions of national truth have been ventures in ethnocentrism, which have led us into disaster upon disaster. It is time to ask how we can end our pathological dependence on it.


Norman Birnbaum is the author, most recently, of After Progress: American Social Reform And European Socialism In The Twentieth Century. In 1976, he sued the CIA for violating his Fourth Amendment rights by opening a letter and subsequently won an apology and a symbolic payment.

*Pictured left to right: George F. Kennan, Raja Rao, Willy Brandt, Jacques Maritain, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and William Phillips