REVIEW: DISCIPLES. The World War II missions of the CIA directors who fought for Wild Bill Donovan

DISCIPLES-WALLERPerhaps it was appropriate that four of the Central Intelligence Agency’s more infamous directors learned their tradecraft from “Wild” Bill Donovan, the architect of the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA. The hard-charging Donovan a World War I Medal of Honor recipient, was notorious for tossing caution to the wind in order to get results he wanted.

If the presidents who appointed his protégés—Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey—to head the agency had taken heed of this, perhaps some of the United States’ more controversial counterespionage and covert actions of the late 20th century might not had taken place. Then again, the nation may have been much more in the dark on the intentions of its global adversaries.

Douglas Waller’s “Disciples” looks at the lives of these four bright, educated and motivated men who ambled into intelligence gathering and how this secretive world shaped their moral compasses. Each made stealth yet significant contributions to the Allied effort. Yet each was either fired or forced to resign as CIA chief, their reputations tarnished over operations tacitly approved on their watch.

Waller makes no apologies for the ethical ambiguity the dark, dirty work of intelligence gathering creates, nor does he sanction it. The author, who previously wrote a biography on Donovan, smartly refrains from critiquing Dulles, Helms, Colby and Casey. He simply lays out the amazing details he’s amassed about the quartet’s contributions to the OSS and leaves the judging to others.

Readers seeking Ian Fleming-like thrills will be disappointed. Outside of Colby’s daring parachute jumps behind enemy lines, the intelligence work the quartet conducted primarily involved recruiting agents, cultivating sources, gathering records, reporting findings to higher-ups, analyzing trends, waging bureaucratic turf squabbles—not quite the stuff that makes for a James Bond movie.

One who digests all the vivid details in Waller’s tale comes away more disturbed than awed. Does the nature of espionage work rot the judgements of the most principled of men, even later in life? The nation benefited from the efforts of these spies, but their work left a noticeable blotch on the country’s fabric that’s not so easily cleaned.