The Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947 to help the White House keep tabs on foreign government threats. The CIA derived from the Nazi-hunting, paramilitary-oriented Office of Strategic Services, which, when it wasn’t blowing up bridges and supporting underground resistance movements, had kept itself busy with programs such as the Cross Project, which trained Nazi defectors to kidnap or assassinate Hitler and his high-level associates. The Cross Project never did go into operation because of worries that the US would irritate its allies, but the project is a case study of the tensions within the CIA. The postwar CIA was an espionage organization in principle, but that didn’t stop it from executing some programs that seemed to go beyond the scope of mere spying. The CIA has, at different times in its history, been happy to take on a paramilitary role as well as be a clearinghouse for assassinations. The CIA has sometimes worked at cross purposes with military intelligence, so much so that different espionage agencies sometimes acted as though they were jealous of each other.
In its history, the CIA has had two main focuses: neutralizing communism and fighting terrorism. The Clinton administration lost interest in the CIA in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War. After September 11, 2001, the public hungered for anti-terrorist activities, which led to a CIA reboot. Although the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre had been around since the 1980s, it languished until al-Qaeda became a household word.
The shifting scope of the CIA, as well as its interactions with other government agencies, in particular the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Council, has led to a large number of dubious and at times disgraceful projects; at least for those who take seriously the notion that the US is the world’s moral center. Some of the troubling programs were vast, while others were sideshows or lead ups to larger programs. Just don’t look here for stories of alien spacecraft or Lee Harvey Oswald’s “handlers.” After all, who needs goofy conspiracy theories when the real conspiracies are disturbing enough?
15. The Gehlen Organization
Before the Second World War, the United States used communists to fight the fascists. After the Second World War, the CIA used fascists to fight the communists. This shift of interest led to astonishing examples of cooperation. One early odd bedfellow was the Gehlen Organization. The Gehlen Organization derived from a Nazi intelligence office set up to keep an eye on Russia on Germany’s eastern front. The head of this Eastern Front Intelligence Office, General Reinhard Gehlen, foresaw Hitler’s defeat and stored secret documents that he could turn over to the Allies to gain amnesty once the Axis fell. This plot proved successful, and the Gehlen Organization was recruited by the CIA in 1949 to spy on the Soviet Union. By 1956, the Gehlen Organization had developed into West Germany’s foreign intelligence service. Among the Gehlen Organization were known members of the SS.
While the CIA considered the Gehlen Organization vital for its long-term interests, other former Nazi groups proved too embarrassing to keep close. One such group was Paul Lüth’s League of German Youth (BDJ, or Bund Deutscher Jugend), made up not just of former Hitler Youth but also of more seasoned members of the Nazi regime. In 1950, the CIA recruited a “Technical Service” section within the main group to function as a paramilitary that could harass the Red Army if it crossed into eastern Germany. The CIA’s recruitment philosophy was much like the one that created an alliance between the CIA and the Gehlen Organization. To this end, the CIA gave the league money, weapons, and espionage equipment.
The League had a slightly different understanding of its objectives than the CIA did. After an unrelated arrest of a Young German in 1952, the new Democratic Republic of western Germany learned that the group kept a list of West German politicians that it thought it might have to assassinate, including elected members of the opposition party. West Germany was not amused, and the CIA had to confess its connections to this group- a group which parts of West Germany subsequently banned.
13. Korean War
During the 1950-1953 Korean War, the CIA attempted to assist the US military in keeping communists out of Korea, or at least, preventing communism from spreading from the north into South Korea. Unaware or indifferent that Chinese and North Korean double agents were supplying fabricated information and reporting America’s plans to their handlers, the CIA sent newly graduated Ivy Leaguers to South Asia to train anti-Chinese locals in guerrilla warfare and intelligence gathering. The CIA then parachuted the brand-new agents into both North Korea and bordering China. Almost every time the parachuted agents were captured and killed.
In one of that gong show’s last escapades, in the summer of 1953, CIA trainees on Yong-Do island in South Korea saw a yacht sail by. The trainees shot at it. It turned out that on the yacht was the South Korean president and his guests. They were having a party. No one on the yacht was hurt, but President Syngman Rhee gave the CIA 72 hours to get out of South Korea.
Allen Dulles, head of the CIA’s covert operations, admitted at a 1952 secret conference that, although the war had caused 100,000 casualties, he had no regrets. Dulles said, “Some people have to get killed.”
12. Project Bluebird/Project Artichoke/MKUltra/MKSearch
Almost as soon as the CIA formed, one portion of it began to do research on mind control. From 1948 through the 1950s, Project Bluebird and its later incarnations used human guinea pigs to test ways of keeping agents loyal and making double-agents and enemy spies talk. The goal was to develop “special” interrogation techniques that used drugs such as metamphetamines, heroin, and LSD as well as drugs of their own devising. Hypnosis was also tested as a possible mind-control method. Among the earliest subjects were two Russians transported from Germany to the CIA’s secret prison in Panama and four North Korean double-agents held in the CIA’s Japanese secret prison.
This venture into “scientific espionage” had hundreds of subprograms around the world. Not all subjects consented to their participation in the experiments, and some researchers did not know that their projects were funded by the CIA for mind-control purposes. One famous MKUltra project involved the injection of LSD into seven federal prison inmates for 77 consecutive days. CIA employee and scientist Frank Olson was injected with LSD without his knowledge, and several days later he jumped out of a window to his death. One San Francisco agent set up two fake whore houses and dosed unsuspecting johns, whom agents watched through two-way mirrors. The program officially closed down in 1977, but cynics say the mind-control project has simply changed its name again and gone further underground.
11. Operation Mockingbird
The CIA often adopted Soviet intelligence strategies. Even in the early years of the agency, the European office’s Frank Wisner noted with interest the ways in which Soviet agents had infiltrated European news organizations. In the 1950s, the CIA aimed to cultivate friendly U.S. and foreign journalists made friendlier by financial payments, flattery, and mutual hatred of communists. The CIA also enlisted journalists in the U.S. to act as spy handlers in foreign countries. At times, the CIA used its clout to influence American journalistic practices. CIA director Allen Dulles in particular used his family and social connections to shape domestic reporting about American’s enemies and to coerce high-level editors and publishers into altering news stories to make the CIA look good.
The CIA began to back off from journalists in the early 1970s, but in October 1977, Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, wrote an article for Rolling Stone about the relationship between American media and the CIA. Among these news agencies were CBS, Time, and the New York Times. A later book by Deborah Davis focused, albeit controversially, on the relationship between the CIA and The Washington Post’s owner Katharine Graham. Since then, complaints about CIA involvement with American media have continued to circulate.
10. Operation Ajax
Early in the 1950s, Britain began to worry that the leadership of Iran would insist that Britain handed over Iran’s fair share of the money Britain was making on Iraqi oil. The prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq, found out that the British were plotting to overthrow his government, and he expelled all of the UK’s government workers.
The CIA came to the rescue (the U.K.’s, that is). Never mind that officially the US supported the sitting Iranian parliamentary government, led by Mossadeq. He was the villain in the eyes of Winston Churchill and his foreign policy advisors. In March 1953, CIA Director Allen Dulles gave the go-ahead for Operation Ajax. Iranian bureau agents fed money to an armed opposition group and launched an anti-Mossadeq propaganda campaign that connected the leader to apostasy, political corruption, and treason. A coup attempt paid for by the CIA ensued. The nominal leader of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, at first refused to support the CIA-engineered coup and fled to Iraq.
In the meantime, the CIA manipulated Iranian media, paid off the military, and hired professional rioters to convince Iranians that Mossadeq himself had engineered the coup. By then, the CIA had managed to convince the Shah to cooperate, and the CIA installed Pahlavi as the new leader of Iran. Not much time passed before Iranians found out who had started the coup and who was really in charge: the CIA, which backed the Shah’s SAVAK intelligence group and the secret police. That resentment led to a deep-rooted suspicion towards the United States among many Iranians and arguably led to the Iranian revolution and Pahlavi’s ouster in 1979.
9. Attempted Assassination Of The Congo’s First Elected President
Belgium had been one of the many European nations who divvied up Africa in order to take advantage of rich natural resources. In June 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo became one of many African nations that threw out their European colonial governments in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, for newly elected President Patrice Lumumba, his participation in the decolonialization trend occurred during the Cold War. Lumumba asked the United Nations for help in beating back the Belgian Army, which was helping his rivals with a coup. The UN, on which the U.S. had major influence, had no interest. Lumumba found a more willing partner in the Soviet Union, which sent arms and personnel to help. Once the USSR became involved, President Dwight G. Eisenhower decided that the best thing for the Congo now was to assassinate its communist collaborator of a prime minister.
CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb came to the president’s aid. Well-practiced in the art of secret potions from his involvement in Project Artichoke and its successor programs, Gottlieb flew to the Congo with a carry-on bag full of syringes and poisons, which he handed over to the CIA’s Congo chief agent Larry Devlin on September 10. Devlin was ordered to insert the poison somehow into Lumumba’s food, drink, or even toothpaste. Devlin ignored the order and buried the poisons in the ground. No matter; the CIA gave money and arms to rival Joseph Mobutu, who captured Lumumba and eventually handed him over to his enemies, who machine-gunned Lumumba to death. In the next few years, the U.S. helped Mobutu gain control of Congo himself, and Mobutu Sese Seko’s bloody dictatorship in the renamed Zaire served as a useful CIA ally in Africa throughout the Cold War.
8. Bay Of Pigs
No one was more surprised or horrified than the cold-warriors in the United States when in 1959 Fidel Castro’s leftist commandos succeeded in overthrowing Cuban president Fulgencio Batista. Batista, despite having declared himself dictator several years before, was an ally of the United States and friend to the American businesses who invested heavily on the island. Early in 1960, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower began to direct the CIA in a plan to invade Cuba, and when John F. Kennedy was elected in November 1960, he continued this plan. The idea was to land an elite fighting force in Cuba and start a ground invasion supported by air troops. The CIA trained anti-Castro exiles in camps in Guatemala under the leadership of José Miró Cardona, who was slated to be the provisional leader once Castro was deposed.
Unfortunately, the first stage of the plan, bombing Cuban airfields with a flight of aircraft originating in Nicaragua, failed miserably. Castro, who already knew about the supposedly secret invasion, was more than ready for any future stages. Two days later, when Brigade 2506, the 1,400-man force of trained Cuban exiles, clambered onto the swampy beach at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, the Cuban military was waiting. In two days, 100 brigade members died and 1200 others surrendered. The Cuban government eventually returned the captured exiles to the U.S. in exchange for baby food and medicine.
7. Operation Mongoose
When Fidel Castro overthrew America’s man in Havana and then outsmarted the U.S. in the Bay of Pigs misadventure, John F. Kennedy wanted a solution to what he considered a major problem. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had a specific solution in mind; he wanted Castro out of power. Formed late in 1961, Operation Mongoose was the CIA’s response to pressure to remove Castro from power without sending in troops. Eventually the implied goal of Mongoose became the assassination of Fidel Castro.
To accomplish this, the United States needed to contact agents already in Cuba or transport agents secretly into Cuba. After that, the assassin would have to get close enough to Castro to kill him. At the time, the CIA had little intelligence information on the Communist island nation. Allen Dulles, CIA chief, was fascinated by Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and he routinely asked his staff to design the spy gear that Fleming invented for his fictional character. Later, the CIA’s lead Cuba agent William (Bill) Harvey had some ideas. One of the earliest attempts was to hire a Mafia hit man, John Rosselli, who waited in Miami while Harvey drove a trailer full of weapons to him (he also seems to have handed over some poison pills that Roselli could arrange to have dropped in Castro’s coffee). His successor Desmond FitzGerald took over the fanciful project management by looking at things like placing exploding seashells in the bay where Castro liked to go scuba diving, turning Cuban cigars into bombs, and sprinkling Tallium salt in Castro’s shoes to make his beard fall out and humiliate him, if not actually kill him. FitzGerald planned the final assassination attempt by arranging for a European hitman to shoot Castro with a rifle. Needless to say, the CIA did not successfully kill Castro.
The methods offered up in Mongoose to accomplish this assassination seemed more in keeping with parodies of a spy agency than the work of an actual spy agency. What if, though, the CIA has started becoming a parody of itself? Read on and find out.
6. Phoenix Program
The way the Vietnam war worked was that the U.S. military wanted to believe that the U.S. and South Vietnam were winning while the CIA knew that the U.S. and South Vietnam were losing. The CIA operated hand in hand with the military, however, and those embedded CIA agents knew that the military did not want to reveal evidence of military and intelligence-gathering incompetence.
Part of the waste of that undeclared war is represented in the Phoenix Program, a counter-insurgency program established under General William Westmoreland and managed by old-time CIA operative Robert “Blowtorch Bob” Komer. In 1967, the Phoenix Program established a secret interrogation center where the U.S. held and tortured captured communist sympathizers. Komer complained about CIA Director Richard Helms’s preference for accurate calculations on the number of communist Vietcong sympathizers instead of deliberate underestimates as the military preferred. In the end, Helms caved into the military publicly, but privately he warned President Lyndon Johnson of the reality that the U.S. could not win.
By the war’s end in 1975, control of the White House and of the Phoenix Program had changed hands, and the Phoenix program had killed at least 20,000 Vietnamese. The last people to leave Saigon were some of the CIA’s Vietnamese operatives and their families, who climbed up a stepladder to a helicopter on the roof of a CIA safe house.
5. The Iran-Contra Affair
In 1979, the leftist Sandinistas took control over Nicaragua. President Ronald Reagan did not like the idea of communism spreading from Nicaragua. The president wanted to help the anti-government Contras overthrow the government. CIA director William Casey brokered a deal with Argentina to help organize the Contras. The CIA directed the rebellion from Costa Rica in the south and Honduras in the North. Early in 1982, U.S. journalists began reporting on White House involvement in the region. Congress passed laws in 1982 and 1984 whose aim was to prevent the White House from helping the Contras. Enough loopholes existed, however, for some eager beavers, particularly the marine Oliver North of the White House’s National Security Council, to carry on.
North continued to use CIA agents and contacts to support the rebels. In 1985 and 1986 he famously arranged to sell US missiles to Iran through Israel and a privately held company to free U.S. hostages held by pro-Iranian forces in Beirut. Much of the money that went to the so-called Enterprise company, however, was diverted to bank accounts set up by North and his agents. In short, the missile sale was really a fundraiser for the Contras.
This outrageous plot did not stay secret for long- by November 1986, the world knew. In March 1987, the Iran-Contra hearings began, and North spent a great deal of time under the eyes of Congress and American TV viewers. He received the brunt of the blame, despite all of the White House and CIA employees who helped him along the way.
4. Predator Drone Switcheroo
After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to use the CIA to do more than collect intelligence. He liked the good old days of the Cold War when covert operations had greater importance than data gathering. Rumsfeld wanted the Pentagon to throw some physical weight around, but until that happened, he had to rely on the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC). After September 2001, the CTC received a massive injection of personnel and money. In short order the CIA was active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, helping the military chase down the Taliban. Unfortunately, many times the CIA and the military worked with different goals in mind.
One example of the effects of these cross-purposes involves a February 2002 incident on the borders of Afghanistan. The CIA and the Pakistani intelligence service hoped to convince Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, the Taliban interior minister, to become one of its agents. In the meantime, though, Khairkhwa was being hunted by the military’s special operations unit working out of Kandahar airfield. The CIA had a Predator drone track Khairkwa’s white truck, and the CIA allowed the special ops troops to view the video feed in real time so that helicopters could trace the truck and intercept Khairkhwa.
At one point during the operation, the video feed dropped. After some anguished minutes, the video link returned. However, what the Kandahar unit didn’t know was that the restored video feed was coming from a different drone tracking a different white truck.
The CIA had found a similar truck and tracked it for the Kandahar forces, while the first Predator drone still tracked Khairkwa’s white truck. Special operations used the second drone’s information to send its helicopters to intercept the (wrong) truck, while the CIA made sure that Khairkwa made it safely across the Pakistan border.
The saps in the decoy truck were captured, brought to Kandahar, and then, upon the project commanders finally learning they had captured the wrong people (three men and a young boy), were released and given food rations for their troubles. The CIA eventually captured Khairkwa, and when he refused to cooperate, he was sent to the new Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba.
3. Strawberry Fields And Penny Lane
Early in the new “War on Terror,” the CIA recommended that the U.S. find a secret prison to send its terrorist detainees to so as to avoid legal wranglings about detention without charge or trial, practices that contravene the U.S. constitution. The CIA could also provide a cover for the military. Since the CIA engaged in espionage, they had an extra level of secrecy that the military itself did not have and that could be invoked to hide the identities and status of detainees.
The Guantánamo Bay prison is mainly a military prison, but inside that prison is another prison. This is the CIA’s secret prison, nicknamed “Strawberry Fields.” The name comes from a Beatles song whose refrain ends ‘Strawberry Fields forever.’ That is, the detainees at the CIA prison were expected to stay there “forever.” As in other CIA prisons around the world, activities at the center focused on extracting information from detainees using “special interrogation” techniques- waterboarding, for example.
The CIA built a separate facility at Guantánamo Bay to house detainees whom the CIA trained to become double agents. That facility, a quaint set of eight cottages in one corner of the detention camp, is called “Penny Lane,” named after yet another Beatles song.
2. Immunization Clinics In Abbottabad
After the election of Barack Obama, the CIA and military intelligence went on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. To make sure they found the right compound, the CIA engaged in a rather ingenious plan. They hired Dr. Shakil Afridi, already a CIA informant, in January 2011, to set up hepatitis-B immunization clinics near the suspected bin Laden compound in Abbottabad. When people were immunized, their blood could be retained and tested to see if it matched known DNA from bin Laden and his inner circle. The clinics were set up far away from the compound and then were moved closer to where the US thought bin Laden’s compound was. Afridi was also supposed to try to get into the compound somehow and see who was in there. Afridi was unable to enter the compound. His task otherwise completed, he gave his vaccination kit to his CIA handler and received 5.3 million rupees.
A few months later, Navy Team SEAL 6, with the help of the CIA, stormed the compound. A few hours later, Obama did his famous walk down the red carpet to announce the al-Qaeda’s leader’s death.
The Taliban had actually banned vaccinations in regions under their control, claiming that vaccinations were really sterility programs organized by the CIA. Unfortunately, now the people of this former Taliban-held region have solid evidence to support the claim that immunization clinics in their neighborhoods may be a CIA cover. Some people have stopped immunizing their children, and some medical personal have been attacked and killed. Since 2012, Afridi has been held in a Pakistani prison on what he considers trumped-up charges.
1. Death Of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki
Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1995. His father Abdul, born in New Mexico, was an imam who had become increasingly upset with the treatment of Muslims in America and with the covert operations in the Middle East and Africa against suspected Islamic terrorists. His disappointment had something to do with his personal habits. The FBI had been gathering intelligence on every prominent Muslim American after 2001, and the FBI even raided his home. They also followed him and documented Abdul’s enthusiastic use of prostitutes. When Abdul found out that the FBI had a file on him, he decided to leave the U.S. and go to Yemen.
He moved his family, including 7-year-old Abdulrahman, to Yemen, where Abdulrahman’s grandfather, Nasser, worked as the minister of agriculture. Nasser had moved to the United States as a Fulbright scholar, and after obtaining his doctorate, worked in Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Mexico before returning to his home country to work in government.
Abdul’s increasing involvement in social media and increasingly violent anti-American sentiment led the U.S. to put him on their “kill list.” The fact that he was a U.S. citizen was a troublesome detail, since the U.S. constitution guarantees U.S. citizens the right to a trial if accused of a crime. The U.S. had decided that Abdul was not going to get a trial. Nasser tried to sue the U.S. government for putting Abdul on that list, but the lawsuit went nowhere. In September 2011, Abdul was killed in a CIA drone strike.
At about the same time, Abdulrahman, now sixteen, decided to look for his father, who had been long absent. He sneaked out of the house and headed to where thought his father might be in South Yemen. When Abdulrahman heard the news that his father had been killed, he headed back home. As bad luck would have it, he was sitting in a cafe in South Yemen with some friends when a drone missile struck. He and his friends were killed. The missile, it turned out, had been directed at someone else who was supposed to be in the cafe but wasn’t. It’s also possible that it was sent not by the CIA but by the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s covert group. The CIA and JCOS, that is, were sending their own drones into the same area at the same time, working off their own individual kill lists.
Whenever law enforcement cleans up after another U.S. mass murder inspired by al-Qaeda, invariably they find Abdul al-Awlaki’s anti-American videos on the attackers’ computers. By killing him and his son, the U.S. may have inadvertently fueled additional home-grown terror.