The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future by Chris Whipple

The grinding, mind-numbing chaos of recent years has distorted our memory of what Washington was like in the Before Trump era. As we try to survive the maelstrom, we forget that government dysfunction and tribal bureaucratic warfare existed long before Donald Trump became president.

Take Trump’s obsession that the rank and file of the Central Intelligence Agency are an invisible army bent on destroying his presidency. He is hardly the first president to believe that. In 1973, Richard Nixon installed a tweedy budget hawk named James Schlesinger to run the spy agency after firing Richard Helms over his refusal to go along with the Watergate cover-up. The president and his advisers were convinced that the C.I.A. was filled with anti-war activists and Nixon-haters. Schlesinger saw the place as a bloated bureaucracy and a secret cult, and it bothered him that there was no sign on the George Washington Parkway announcing which exit to take to get to the spy agency.

The president’s new man at Langley made his agenda clear on his very first day. “The agency,” Schlesinger told a room of senior analysts, “is going to stop fucking Richard Nixon.”

The Many Faces of Langley

This anecdote arrives early in The Spymasters, a readable, above-the-wavetops examination of C.I.A. directors. It is a study of how the C.I.A. has at different times over the decades been both a target of presidential animus and a clandestine presidential plaything. Author Chris Whipple is particularly focused on the strange, usually strained dynamic between presidents and the C.I.A. directors they choose—sometimes with little thought—to carry out the types of operations that the White House generally wants to keep at arm’s length.

Unless the operations are particularly successful, at which point presidents find a way to take public credit for them. It is a symbiosis captured by the author Thomas Powers, whom Whipple paraphrases: “If you know what the C.I.A. is doing you know what the president wants; and if you know what the president wants you know what the C.I.A. is doing.”

All of this can make for some great reading. (Disclosure: Whipple interviewed me for his book, and we spoke about the trouble Congress has in conducting oversight of American intelligence agencies.) Some of the earlier parts of the narrative are the most compelling, including the chapter on Helms and Nixon. Helms, a lifetime spy who got his start in the O.S.S., came to see the perils of American presidents being seduced by C.I.A. covert action, especially after the Bay of Pigs. Helms had his own covert debacles to account for, and was eventually charged for misleading Congress about C.I.A. covert operations in Chile. Covert action, he wrote in his memoir, should not be “wielded about like an all-purpose chainsaw. It should be used like a well-honed scalpel, infrequently, and with discretion lest the blade lose its edge.”

In the end, it was Helms who got the knife—plunged into his back in part by Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, who was convinced that the C.I.A. director wasn’t sufficiently with the program on Watergate. Helms ended up becoming U.S. ambassador to Iran, where he developed a cozy relationship with the Shah. Of course, that also didn’t go particularly well for the C.I.A., and Whipple writes a cracking narrative about how the agency was blind about the coming revolution in Iran in 1979. I was disappointed by the book’s next chapter, on William Casey and Ronald Reagan, which felt like a rehashing without a great deal of new research or reporting.

The C.I.A. has over the decades been both a target of presidential animus and a clandestine presidential plaything.

Here’s the point where I’ll admit there were times when I wanted to hurl Whipple’s book across the room. The Spymasters was born from a series of interviews with recent C.I.A. directors and other former spies that Whipple conducted for a Showtime documentary by the same name. (I reviewed it for The New York Times.) These interviews form the backbone of the book’s second half, and Whipple has built context that the film was lacking around the words of the directors. But the weakness is that Whipple at times allows the former spy chiefs to hijack the narrative, and later parts of the book can read like C.I.A. talking points.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when Whipple writes about the agency’s program to detain and interrogate terror suspects in the years after the September 11 attacks. Whipple gives ample space for the spy chiefs to make their case for the program but largely ignores the voluminous documentation that the program was not only brutal but largely ineffective. He adopts the C.I.A.’s Orwellian euphemisms about the program—including calling methods that involved torture “enhanced interrogation techniques”—and he never interrogates the assertions made by architects of the program such as George Tenet and Jose Rodriguez. Whipple dismisses a voluminous and withering report by the Senate Intelligence Committee as “riddled with inaccuracies” and vaguely writes about “critics” of the program without any serious examination of the merits of their arguments. He quotes Rodriguez calling one of these “critics”—former F.B.I agent Ali Soufan, who led the initial interrogation of terror suspect Abu Zubaydah and has been vocal about how the C.I.A.’s methods were not only un-American but counterproductive—“the world’s biggest dick.” Surely Whipple also interviewed Soufan to get his view of the detention program? According to the source list at the back of the book, he did not.

That said, Whipple’s interviews give plenty of rope for some of the former spy chiefs to hang themselves. Particularly excruciating is George Tenet’s explanations for the intelligence fiasco that helped lead the United States to war with Iraq. At different times he begins walking a path toward contrition, only to stop in his tracks and find others—policymakers, allied intelligence services—with whom to share the blame. “We were wrong,” Tenet tells Whipple, before adding: “The British were wrong. The Germans were wrong. Everybody else was wrong. Everybody believed this. Saddam’s deception was mind-boggling in terms of how Machiavellian it was.”

We forget that government dysfunction and tribal bureaucratic warfare existed long before Donald Trump became president.

The C.I.A. is as much a combatant in Washington’s turf wars as it is a foreign espionage service, and Whipple rightly explores how the agency throughout the decades has thirsted for leaders who can navigate the shoals of bureaucratic politics both to protect the agency’s interests in Congress and give it an influential voice at the White House. As Michael Sulick, a former C.I.A. deputy, puts it: “We can overthrow foreign governments, but we have a more difficult time dealing with our own.”

Which brings us back to Trump, and to what seem like four years of semi-open warfare between a sitting American president and his intelligence services. During this time, a proxy army of former spies have filled cable-news shows and written books and op-eds defending their former colleagues at the C.I.A. and warning of the dangers posed by a president who seems more eager to placate Vladimir Putin than American intelligence and law-enforcement officials. John O. Brennan, who served as President Obama’s C.I.A. director, called Trump’s performance at the 2018 Helsinki summit with Putin “treasonous.”

How comfortable should we be with the idea of ex-spymasters participating in a public campaign against an elected president? It’s a question that Whipple raises at the beginning of his book and doesn’t really get around to answering—but maybe we won’t really know the answer for some time. I’ve spoken to plenty of former intelligence officers uncomfortable with the idea that those who once oversaw sabotage and disinformation operations in foreign countries now have a role in influencing the American political discourse. And, they argue, the open hostility between Trump and former spy chiefs such as Brennan only feeds the president’s narrative that there is a “deep state” with a secret communication channel between the cubicles at Langley and the greenroom at MSNBC.

Perhaps secret institutions do need public offerings of support. Perhaps the current president is sui generis, and much of this type of antagonism will disappear whenever Trump leaves the Oval Office. But it’s a question all Americans should think about for the future: in a public battle between a president and his spies, who do we want to win?

Mark Mazzetti is the Washington investigative correspondent for The New York Times and author of The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth