REVIEW: Spymasters. Ten CIA Officers in Their Own Words



Edited by Ralph E. Weber. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1999. 355 pages


In one of the ten long interviews that make up Ralph Weber's Spymasters, distinguished intelligence officer Sam Halpern underscores the importance of knowing what has gone before: "I found a bookmark about the second page of the first chapter [of an after-action review of the failed 1958 Indonesia covert action program],” he remarks. “This indicated to me that no one had read beyond that point, and so we made some of the same mistakes [in the Bay of Pigs] we made in Indonesia. No one is interested in history! They ignore history…so no one learns what happened before." Halpin's lament is reason enough to read this book.

Weber, a professor of history at Marquette University and a former Scholar-In-Residence at the CIA, introduces Spymasters with a brief, well-researched history of intelligence in the United States up to the formation of the CIA. The interviews pick up the subsequent story. While they lack the clear narrative line of a history, they offer recollections—some rough, some polished—that combine the essence of our past with important lessons for the present. Rear Adm. Sidney Souers, the first DCI, wrestles with what powers the DCI ought to have and to what extent the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of Defense should control national intelligence resources.

Of special relevance during the current global campaign against terrorism, Richard Bissel, former Deputy Director of Plans, looks back at the Bay of Pigs and ponders whether the CIA should get out of the paramilitary business because it is beyond its competence. William Colby, DCI from 1973-1976, makes the countervailing case that the Agency's contributions in Vietnam and Laos argue for retaining a robust paramilitary capability. Several interviews remind us that the differences between the military intelligence world and the CIA can lead to heated debates—especially over force estimates—that can spill over into both the presidential and congressional arenas. Former DCI Richard Helms talks about the interagency disagreements over Soviet missile strength, and both Colby and former Deputy Director for Intelligence (DDI) Ray Cline rehash the validity of force estimates in Vietnam and whether there was an intelligence failure surrounding the Tet offensive.

Weber's selection of interviews gives the reader the opportunity to look at politically charged issues from the inside, from assassination plots to bungled clandestine operations. Former DDI Robert Amory recalls his unsuccessful efforts to change the focus of Cuban policy from direct attacks against Castro to a broad political program throughout Latin America to..

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