The CIA is a master at distorting history - even creating its own version of history to suit its institutional and operational purposes. It can do this largely because of two great advantages it possesses. One is the excessively secret environment in which it operates, and the other is that it is essentially a private instrument of the presidency.
The real reason for the official secrecy, in most instances, is not to keep the opposition (the CIA's euphemistic term for the enemy) from knowing what is going on; the enemy usually does know. The basic reason for governmental secrecy is to keep you, the American public, from knowing - for you, too, are considered the opposition, or enemy - so that you cannot interfere. When the public does not know what the government or the CIA is doing, it cannot voice its approval or disapproval of their actions. In fact, they can even lie to your about what they are doing or have done, and you will not know it.
As for the second advantage, despite frequent suggestion that the CIA is a rogue elephant, the truth is that the agency functions at the direction of and in response to the office of the president. All of its major clandestine operations are carried out with the direct approval of or on direct orders from the White House. The CIA is a secret tool of the president - every president. And every president since Truman has lied to the American people in order to protect the agency. When lies have failed, it has been the duty of the CIA to take the blame for the president, thus protecting him. This is known in the business as "plausible denial"...
The big lie, however, is that the Soviet Union came into Cuba to protect the Cubans. That was a secondary, or bonus, consideration. The primary reason for the build-up was that the Soviets at the time were so far behind us in nuclear strike capability that Khruschev figured he could make a quantum leap by suddenly putting in 48 missiles that could strike every city in America except Seattle, Washington.
Nor did we come as close to war as many think, because Khruschev knew he was caught. His missiles weren't armed, and he hadn't the troops to protect them. Kennedy knew this, so he was able to say: "take them out." And Khruschev had to say yes...
Any historian who relies on what he reads in the newspapers, on the statements from McNamara and the Russians and the Cubans will not be learning the truth. The CIA has manufactured history in a number of ways over the years not only through its propaganda and disinformation but through the cover stories it uses for their operations, and the cover-ups when an operation falls through. Then there is "plausible deniability," which protects the president.
All these techniques have one thing in common, and depend on one thing: secrecy. Secrecy is maintained not to keep the opposition - the CIA's euphemistic term for the enemy - from knowing what's going on, because the enemy usually does know. Secrecy exists to keep you, the American public, from knowing what is going on, because in many ways you are the real enemy...
If the public were aware of what the CIA is doing, it might say: "We don't like what you're doing - stop it!," or "You're not doing a good job - stop it!" The public might ask for an accounting for the money being spent and the risks being taken.
Thus secrecy is absolutely vital to the CIA. Secrecy covers not only operations in progress, but continues after the operations, particularly if the operations have been botched. Then they have to be covered up with more lies, which the public, of course, can't recognize as lies, allowing the CIA to tell the public whatever it wishes.
Presidents love this. Every president, no matter what he has said before getting into office, has been delighted to learn that the CIA is his own private tool. The presidents have leapt at the opportunity to keep Congress and the public in the dark about their employment of the agency.
This is what was at the basis of my book, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. I had come to the conclusion, as a member of the CIA, that many of our policies and practices were not in the best interests of the United States, but were in fact counterproductive, and that if the American people were aware of this they would not tolerate it.
I resigned from the CIA in 1969, at a time when we were deeply involved in Vietnam. And how did we get into Vietnam on a large scale? How did President Lyndon Johnson get a blank check from Congress? It was through the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The American people were told by President Johnson that North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats had come after two American destroyers on the night of August 4, 1964. This was confirmed by the intelligence community.
The fact of the matter is that while torpedo boats came out and looked at the U.S. destroyers, which were well out in international waters, they never fired on them. They made threatening maneuvers, they snarled a bit, but they never fired. It was dark and getting darker. Our sailors thought they might have seen something, but there were no hits, no reports of anything whizzing by.
That was the way it was reported back: a bit of a scrape, but no weapons fire and no attempt to fire. Our ships had not been in danger. But with the help of the intelligence community President Johnson took that report and announced that we had been attacked. He went to Congress and asked for and received his blank check, and Congress went along. Everyone knows the rest of the story: we got into Vietnam up to our eyeballs...
All this was done to help the CIA suppress and distort history, and to enable presidents to do the same. Presidents like Harry Truman, who claimed falsely that "I never had any thought when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak-and-dagger operations," but who willingly employed the agency to carry out clandestine espionage and covert intervention in the affairs of other countries. Or Dwight Eisenhower, who denied that we were attempting to overthrow Sukarno in Indonesia, when we were, and was embarrassed when he tried to deny the CIA's U-2 overflights and was shown up by Khruschev at Paris in 1960. John F. Kennedy, as everyone knows by now, employed the CIA in several attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. We used everyone from Mafia hoods to Castro's mistress, Marita Lorenz (who was supposed to poison the dictator with pills concealed in her cold cream - the pills melted). I have no doubt that if we could have killed Castro, the U.S. would have gone in.
There was a fairly widespread belief that one reason Kennedy was assassinated was because he was going to get us out of Vietnam. Don't you believe it. He was the CIA's kind of president, rough, tough, and gung-ho. Under Kennedy we became involved in Vietnam in a serious way, not so much militarily as through covert action. It is a fact that the United States engineered the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnams premier, and Ngo Dinh Nhu, his powerful brother. A cable was sent out to the ambassador which said, "If Lou Conein goofs up (Lucien Conein was a key CIA operative in Saigon), it's his responsibility." So when E. Howard Hunt faked these memos and cables when he was working for the "plumbers" on behalf of President Nixon (and against the Democrats), he knew what he was doing. That was his defense, that he wasn't really forging or inventing anything. "Stuff like that really existed, but I couldn't find it," he said. Of course Hunt couldn't find it by that time the original documents were gone. But Hunt knew what he was doing.
President Nixon's obsession with secrecy led to the end of his presidency, of course. As indicated earlier, Nixon was determined to suppress my book. On several occasions after his resignation, Nixon has been asked what he meant when he said that the CIA would help him cover up the Watergate tapes, because "they owed him one." He has responded, "I was talking about Marchetti," in other words the efforts (still secret) to prevent The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence from being published.
The CIA has distorted history in other ways than by outright coverups and suppression of the truth. One method was to produce its own books. For instance, one of its top agents in the Soviet Union was Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. Penkovsky was eventually captured and executed. But the CIA was unwilling to let it go at that. The agency decided to write a book, which it published in 1965, called The Penkovsky Papers. This was purported to be drawn from a diary that Penkovsky had kept, a diary in which Penkovsky revealed numerous espionage coups calculated to embarrass the Soviets and build up the CIA.
Spies do not keep diaries, of course, and the Soviets were not likely to believe the exaggerated claims made for Penkovsky and the CIA in The Penkovsky Papers. Who was taken in? The American public, of course. More than once people have come up to me after a lecture and shown me the book as if it were gospel. I've told them, "I know the man who wrote it." "You knew Penkovsky?" they invariably ask, and I tell them, "No, I didn't know Penkovsky but I know the man who wrote the book."
Not just ordinary citizens were taken in by the Penkovsky deception, either. Senator Milton Young of North Dakota, who served on the CIA oversight subcommittee, said in a 1971 Senate debate on cutting the inteligence budget:
And if you want to read something very interesting and authoritative where intelligence is concerned, read The Penkovsky Papers . . . this is a very interesting story, on why the intelligence we had in Cuba was so important to us, and on what the Russians were thinking and just how far they would go.
Perhaps the most startling example ot the ClAs manipulation of the publishing world is the case of Khrushchev Remembers. Khrushchev is still widely believed to have been the author. He is supposed to have dashed it off one summer and then said to himself, "Where will I get this published? Ah! Time-Life!" The tapes reached Time-Life, we all read it, and we told ourselves, "Isn't that interesting."
A little thought should be sufficient to dispel the notion that the KGB would allow Khrushchev to sit in his dacha dictating tape after tape with no interference. He certainly dictated tapes, but the tapes were censored and edited by the KGB, and then a deal was struck between the U.S. and the USSR, after it was decided, at the highest level, that such a book would be mutually beneficial. Brezhnev could use against some of the resistance he was encountering from Stalinist hardliners, and Nixon could use it to increase support for detente.
The CIA and the KGB cooperated in carrying out the operation. The tapes were given to the Time bureau in Moscow. Strobe Talbot, who appears on television frequently today and is Time's bureau chief in Washington, brought the tapes back with him. I was present in an apartment in which he hid them for a couple of days. The tapes were then translated and a manuscript developed. During this period Time refused to let people who had known Khrushchev personally, including White House staff members, listen to the tapes.
Knowledgeable people began to tell me. "I don't believe this." "There's something mighty fishy here." When they read what Khrushchev was supposedly saying, they were even more incredulous. But the book came out, Khrushchev Remembers, accompanied by a massive publicity campaign. It was a great propaganda accomplishment for the CIA and the KGB.
I touched on Khrushchev Remembers in my book. I did not go into any great detail, merely devoting several tentative paragraphs to the affair. Just before my book was published Time was considering doing a two-page spread on me until they learned of my expressed reservations on the trustworthiness of Khrushchev Remembers. I began to get phone calls from Talbot and Jerry Schaechter, then Time's bureau chief in Washington, telling me I should take out the offending passages.
I had written, correctly, that before publication Strobe Talbot had taken the bound transcripts of the Khruschhev tapes back to Moscow, via Helsinki, so that the KGB could make one final review of them. I told Schaechter and Talbot that if they came to me, looked me in the eye, and told me I had the facts wrong, I would take out the section on Khruschhev Remembers. Neither of them ever came by, the paragraphs stayed in my book, and in any event Time went ahead with the two-page spread anyway.
As I pointed out in the preface to The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence in 1974, democratic governments fighting totalitarian enemies run the risk of imitating their methods and thereby destroying democracy. By suppressing historical fact, and by manufacturing historical fiction, the CIA, with its obsessive secrecy and its vast resources, has posed a particular threat to the right of Americans to be informed for the present and future by an objective knowledge of the past. As long as the CIA continues to manipulate history, historians of its activities must be Revisionist if we are to know the truth about the agencys activities, past and present.