The Open-Faced American
WHILE COVER IS AN ART IT IS ALSO AN AMERICAN WEAKNESS. The weakness is both conscious and unconscious. Its conscious aspect is summed up in the reaction of a young and able Harvard graduate whom I had employed for a covert operation in the Mediterranean area. His cover was to be a minor starting clerkship in a shipping firm. When this had been explained to him, he responded, in tones of shocked protest, "But you've got to give a man a cover he can be proud of!"
The unconscious aspect is typified in the experience of a New York corporation executive with whom I was once discussing these problems. A cultivated and elegant man, he was once a guest in a London club, He repaired his first afternoon to the steam-room, where he found himself alone and, except for wisps of steam, completely without "cover." He was, he thought, indistinguishable from any Britisher in a steam-bath. A club member, a total stranger, entered, and sitting down next to my friend, said, without preliminaries of any kind, "I say, so nice to have an American here."
In the conscious department we must recognize the influence of the Horatio Alger legend, and its modern-day Organization Man version. Success is not its sole component; success must also be visible, even conspicuous. The American Dream can be a serious handicap to the American agent. Most Americans in the C.I.A, view their work as a career. Its ultimate rewards for them are certainly not financial; but they are matters of recognition, of advancement in the hierarchy, and of power and influence as a high Government official. Very few men are willing to spend long years under cover outside of the Government; the few who do so are remarkable.
I refrain from any estimate of the number of Americans who might be willing to undertake an assignment similar to that of Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, a Colonel in the Red Army who, having succeeded in entering clandestinely into the United States, operated a very successful Soviet spy ring in New York. Separated from his wife and children in the Soviet Union, he for years lived obscurely in New York, making an ostensible living at various small odd jobs. And when finally apprehended, he denied all, and took his sentence stoically. (His exchange in 1962 for Powers was not his doing, but that of his American lawyer.)
I referred to the question of how many Americans might be willing to undertake an assignment like Colonel Abel's. There is also the problem of how many Americans might be capable of undertaking such an assignment. In the unconscious department, it is a sad fact that all too often American agents look and act like American agents.
Any big city-dweller, by his twenty-fifth year - and often earlier - can instinctively spot a plain-clothes policeman or a detective. Connoisseurs of the subject can even distinguish between city detectives and private detectives. Similarly, in the world of intelligence, F.B.I. agents - that is, career F.B.I. men who have been through the F.B.I. Academy, as distinct from subagents who only work outside the Bureau-stand out just about like pink carnations in a vase of red roses. Perhaps the widespread comments on their heavy preference for gabardine have now led the Bureau's agents to change into less uniform garb. But experience tells me no one has been able to do anything about their expressionless faces and their transparent reticence. They are of a mould - not unlike the comic strip's Dick Tracy, who any fan knows only laughs once a year, and can keep his counsel for as long as five years at a time, no matter how baffled his Chief becomes.
Unfortunately, the same is all too often true of American agents abroad, even if for less obvious reasons. As a nation we may still be maturing, but by now the American has become a readily-identifiable physical type abroad. It is not only his appearance; there are such things as gait, manner, and above all accent, which weigh heavily. Then there are intangibles such as psychological reactions, the approach to facts and situations, the content of idle conversation, daily habits. I myself have passed as an Englishman - but in not very discerning company, obviously never in England, and only by denying indignantly that I was English and claiming proudly that I was a Welshman.
This is about the maximum available to most American agents. There is an obvious logical exception which, strangely, often fails in practice. These are first- or second-generation Americans, Their principal, and most obvious asset, is language - the Achilles' heel of countless American officials and agents abroad. Apart from the language, however, two things count against them. The first is that the emigrant from smaller countries is easily traceable and even recognizable in his native land - and suspicion, at least on the part of the official authorities, attaches quickly to him. Elsewhere than his native land his situation is better, but, in these days of rapid communications and countless dossiers, his cover story frequently has as many difficulties to overcome as that of a native-born American. An Eastern European exile, for example, who fled Communist persecution in his native land may encounter a sympathetic reception in India, or parts of south-east Asia, but the way is open for the local security or counter-espionage authorities to find out much about him from his original country.
All this applies mostly to first-generation Americans. Second-generation Americans suffer some of these handicaps, plus a special one. Sociologists have long remarked the features of American society which produce a desire on the part of second-generation Americans to be more American than the Founding Fathers. This is a goal, represented usually in terms of material gain and community standing, that they will not surrender lightly - indeed cannot, without serious internal conflict, surrender at all.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, the principal exceptions to American agent cover weaknesses are first- or second-generation Americans. One of the most astute and effective American agents I know - political, not espionage - came to this country as a child from Russia. (In fact, in one of C.I.A.'s rare gestures of gratitude, he was awarded a medal and citation. Called to Washington, he was summoned to the Director's office, where Allen Dulles read the citation, bestowed the medal upon him, talked warmly with him for a period and then, at the conclusion of the ceremony and interview, took back the medal and citation for safe keeping in the vaults. Still and all, it was a nice gesture.) It must be admitted, however, that this agent's accomplishments are more distinguished by virtue of his ability to deal with a very touchy, temperamental and diverse group of people in difficult circumstances rather than by any particular mastery of unusual cover problems.
All this should not be taken as indicating that the American problem with agent cover is simply that Americans cannot pass as foreigners. It is more subtle and complex than that. From the cover point of view, there is nothing wrong in giving an American agent abroad an American cover; in fact, as implied above, it is the only practical course. But to be an American abroad in itself presupposes - for foreigners - certain things, all of them the result of the modern impression held by foreigners of Americans, whether justified or not. One is the American pride in remaining conspicuously, even aggresively, American.
This is expressed in more than PX's and American cars. It is implicit in the American prejudice against "expatriates," a prejudice remarked by knowledgeable foreigners, and not held, for example, by Dutchmen, or Swiss, or Norwegians, or Chinese or Japanese toward their own compatriots abroad. In 1958 an American General stationed in Orleans issued a public statement to the effect that he wanted no American in his command who had been abroad longer than four years, as he felt they could no longer be good Americans after such an extended exposure to foreign influences. He then suited action to word by departing for the United States shortly thereafter, at the end of his own four years - but not before he had backed down from the ensuing hue and cry by explaining that he had meant that his personnel lost touch with the latest American technical developments. Whether the General meant that or not, I was once told by a high Presidential advisor, who disagreed with my views, "That's the trouble with you Americans who live abroad so long. You become un-Am-." He had the grace to pause and amend his sentence, if not his thought. "You have to adapt too much to the circumstances you live in," he concluded.
Foreigners know that, in American eyes, the American has to have a good reason for living abroad.
Related to this is the American view that life abroad, even in the world's most civilized countries, is a physical, psychological and cultural hardship. This view, known to foreigners not only from their reading, but also from the complaints, clannishness and attitude of superiority of all too many Americans, reinforces the general belief that an American abroad must have an especially good reason for being there. Lastly, the well-known American addiction to material success, status, and recognition further presupposes a compelling reason for residence outside the United States.
Occasionally the interrelation of what the American is, what the foreigner thinks he is, and what the American thinks the foreigner ideally ought to think he is produces some unexpected results. It was, for example, and still is, widely assumed by professionals that a certain bank in a European city is a Soviet cover organization. As U.S. operations in Europe grew in complexity, and their financing became a real problem, it was at one point decided to follow the Russian lead, and to take over a certain old-established but relatively inactive bank in a large American city, revise its charter and establish a branch in Europe. Apart from the fact that the new board of directors was almost too distinguished to be believable, the operation failed because the man chosen to lay the groundwork in a peculiar way overdid his cover.
The local government was not, at that time, issuing charters for new banks; it was necessary to purchase the charter of an existing bank. As it happened, I knew of a small bank that was willing, for a reasonable sum, to sell its charter, subject, as required, to the Finance Ministry's approval. Unfortunately, the emissary from America talked too much. Instead of saying merely that his principals in America wanted to enter banking to make money, he talked incessantly and widely about how local interest rates were usurious. It was his principals' intention, he said in noble, ringing tones, to introduce modern banking practices, to put credit within reach of everyone, for the ultimate benefit of the entire local economy. While he was delivering these sentiments, of course, his hearers, many of them bankers, hastened to the Ministry to protest strongly in advance against the approval of any charter for such disruptive elements. (As a colleague of mine remarked at the time, "A good example of all cover and no agent.")
The conscious and unconscious elements in the American character and personality have led, at least in the domain of agent cover, to two defects. One is excessive use of Government cover abroad; the other is a certain transparency in private cover arrangements.
The use of Government installations abroad as cover is not necessarily a defect in itself; it is a matter of proportion. The proportion applies both to the number of covert operations officials in relation to the number of legitimate officials, and to the number of covert personnel under Government cover in relation to the total covert personnel in any area. Too many covert officials masquerading as legitimate Government officials increases enormously the risks of embarrassment; it also undermines the reputation and effectiveness of the legitimate officials. In addition, it subjects the C.I.A. to a charge which in its own interest, and that of all American covert operations, it ought to avoid: that of exercising a disproportionate influence over United States policy. And, finally, too many covert officials working under Government cover, in relation to the total number of covert personnel, produces too great a uniformity of point of view in intelligence reporting, and diminishes the scope and effectiveness of covert political operations.
The general situation was described clearly by Thayer Waldo, American reporter, who wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle concerning the Cuban operation:
"This reporter spent the first half of last year (1960) in Cuba. At that time, with the U.S. Embassy still in operation and fully staffed, eight of its personnel were C.I.A. agents, three worked for the F.B.I. and each of the Armed Services had from one to five operatives assigned to intelligence work.
"No special effort was required to learn these facts or to identify the individuals so engaged. Within thirty days of arrival in Havana, their names and agency affiliations were made known to me, without solicitation, by other correspondents or Embassy employees.
"The latter included one C.I.A. man who volunteered the identities of all three persons accredited to the F.B.I., and a Cuban receptionist, outspokenly pro-Castro, who ticked off the names of six C.I.A. agents - with entire accuracy, a later check confirmed.
"In addition to Embassy staffers, the C.I.A. had a number of operatives (I knew fourteen, but am satisfied there were more) among the large colony of resident U-S. businessmen. One of these, a roofing and installation contractor, had lived in Cuba from the age of six, except for service with the Army' during World War II - as a master sergeant in G-2, military intelligence. Predictably, that known background made the man a prime target for observation by Castro's people when U.S.-Cuban relations began to deteriorate seriously. He was shadowed day and night, his every contact reported. Yet the C.I.A. made him its chief civilian agent in Havana."
The American dilemma which all of this reflects can be handled in three ways. The first is by the classical rule of covert operations: if cover is blown or even seriously endangered, suspend the operations until cover has been rebuilt or a new cover developed. The second way is simply to ignore the problem, hoping to get by. The third way is to rely heavily upon agents of foreign nationality. The third way, which has, of necessity, been widely used in American operations, poses problems other than cover - chiefly political - which are discussed elsewhere. In describing cover as an American weakness, I had in mind chiefly our heavy preference for the second solution over the first. It is a root cause of our troubles.
In the course of the 1961 Cuban operation, a recruiting office for the anti-Castro forces was established in New York. In due time, the Press uncovered this centre. At the appearance of the very first article on the subject, the recruiting office was closed. Correct procedure - even if the reason was the proximity of the United Nations rather than a breach of cover. At the same time, however, stories began to fill the newspapers of the training and preliminary operations taking place in Florida, Guatemala and elsewhere around the Caribbean. The operations continued unchecked. To complain later that the American Press was unpatriotic or irresponsible in publishing these stories is unworthy petulance.
This lesson was brought home to me succinctly, if painfully. I was once in immediate charge of an operation similar to, but considerably smaller than, the Cuban operation. To my chagrin, I picked up a leading American newspaper one morning to find that one of the better-known American foreign correspondents had the entire story, with shattering accuracy, starting on page 1. When I saw him shortly thereafter I gave him the usual bureaucratic reproach for irresponsible journalism. His answer was quick. "Look, friend," he said. "That story didn't come to me from any confidential briefing. If I could put it together, so could the Russians and a lot of other people. Take it as a measure of how well your arrangements are working." I found the logic irrefutable.
Knowledge of the projected Cuban operation was by no means confined to American reporters. Was Castro's Foreign Minister, Dr. Rau, also unpatriotic when he presented these same stories before the United Nations? Can anyone believe that Dr. Rau's sole source was American newspapers? That Castro sympathisers, and foreign correspondents of all nationalities, didn't know what was going on, once the cover wore thin? The responsible party in this situation was not the American editor; it was the American official who, knowing that cover exists to mask connections and activities from the Press just as much as from anyone else, and that the cover on this operation had been blown, decided to go ahead anyway. In other words, he consciously chose the second solution over the classical rule.
To state that an official was responsible is not necessarily tantamount to saying that he was wrong. For a variety of reasons, I personally believe the decision in the 1961 Cuban operation was gravely wrong. But this does not vitiate the principle that, in any given situation, the ultimate authority, recognizing that perfect cover is an unattainable ideal, can weigh the risks and decide, without being either arrogant or irresponsible, to ignore the classical rule.
The U-2 case illustrates the point - plus a few specific weaknesses.
Faced with the implications of our cover difficulties, the Government made a concerted study in 1954 to find new ways of meeting our needs for intelligence about the Soviet Union. The U-2 was one result of this study. Its primary appeal was, of course, the unquestionable veracity and reliability of the information it could produce.
So far as the basing of the planes and the transmission of the collected information for processing were concerned, the operation used American and allied air-bases as cover, plus a cover story that the planes were engaged in meteorological research. The flights over the Soviet Union were, however, clandestine rather than covert. There was no conceivable story which could cover the presence of the aeroplane 1,000 miles from the nearest Soviet border nor, with the photographic and monitoring equipment aboard, explain the role of the pilot as being other than what it was. If there was any cover for the flights themselves, it lay in the technical performance of the aircraft - its ability to fly above the range of Soviet anti-aircraft weapons and at a speed which guaranteed it could outdistance any pursuers.
This protection, however, was subject to two risks: one, mechanical failure; and two, Soviet development of weapons which could intercept the aircraft. It is still not clear which of these eventualities materialized. In any event, the decision was made that the potential results justified the risks. General Eisenhower has stated that the operation was justified on exactly these grounds-namely, that the advantages outweighed the risks. The four-year history of the operation certainly seems to support this decision. So far so good.
However, responsible cover for the operation would not be limited to these considerations. It would also of necessity have to embrace the steps to be taken in the event of an interception of the aircraft. Clearly this had been taken into account in the U-z operation. How well it was taken into account is another matter.
When Powers's flight was overdue, the cover story was issued. Its announcement by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was authoritative reinforcement for the story that these were meteorological research flights. The story itself, of a flight over a triangular course within Turkey; with one leg approaching the Soviet border, of a message at about this point from the pilot reporting difficulties with his oxygen equipment, and the suggestion that the pilot must have lost consciousness and inadvertently crossed into the Soviet Union while in this condition, was adequate. The accompanying bellicose assertion that the Russians must have outrageously destroyed the aeroplane was gratuitous, and politically inept. It was not, however, the fundamental defect of the cover story.
The defect was simply that, at the very least, for the story to be at all plausible, the aeroplane had to be totally destroyed. And for it to be a fully valid cover story not only would the aeroplane have to have been destroyed; the pilot would also have to be dead. Even with only the wreckage of the aircraft, the Russians - as was shown - could make a mockery of the cover story. But with only the wreckage, public opinion would be inclined to believe that the Russians were lying in their charges of deliberate overflights for reconnaissance purposes, and the issue would ultimately have been obscured in dispute. With the pilot alive, however, the possibility of clouding the issue was materially lessened. Powers could certainly not have hoped to pass as anything except an American pilot. But if he himself had maintained the same cover story as that given out by the N.A.S.A., it is possible, though not certain in the face of the evidence the plane wreckage provided, that the issue could have been kept sufficiently in doubt so that Soviet ability to exploit the incident would be kept to a minimum. This is what might be called the last-ditch function of cover.
But Powers talked. (According to a C.I.A. announcement in March of 1962, at the time of Powers's appearance before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, this was in keeping with his instructions.) Naturally, the same people who thought all signers of the Peace Appeal were Communist dupes alleged that Powers was a Soviet agent. This again is a defeatist view which clouds the true problem. Personally, I wonder about the role of the American Dream in this case. From Powers' public statements in Moscow, and from his published letters to his wife, it appears that his chief motive in his work was that he could save the money to buy a house.
There is evidence that the role of both plane and pilot had been thought about in advance. The Russians claimed that the U-2 was equipped with a button which, when pressed, would totally destroy the aircraft and the pilot, and that Powers had been told only that it would destroy the plane, after the mechanism had first ejected him. This is open to conjecture, in view of Powers' statement that the destruction switch was designed to eject him first, and that, prevented by gravity from reaching it, he was only able to eject himself, but not to destroy the plane. If the Russian version is true - which we will never know - the question whether or not Powers knew the true function of the button is immaterial. If Powers knew, then the cover for the operation ultimately depended upon his suicide. If he did not know, it depended, in effect, upon his murder. It is axiomatic among covert professionals that a cover which depends for its success upon the suicide of the agent is not reliable. It is only slightly less accepted that a cover which depends for its success upon the murder of the agent, even by mechanical means, is also not reliable. Victims have a way of behaving unpredictably, and thereby unconsciously outwitting even mechanical devices.
But, regardless of advance provisions for plane and pilot, we come back here to a fundamental weakness of American cover practice. The cover for the U-2 operation was good as far as it went. My own view is that the cover did not go far enough. It could have gone farther - far enough to preserve the reputation and prestige of the United States Government, not to mention the stature and capacity for manoeuvre of the American President, but only by one means. That sole means was the story the agent himself would give to his captors. The C.I.A. public statement on the case does not mention whether Powers was told of what the N.A.S.A. cover story would be in the event of disaster. The point is far from academic. If Powers's instructions were as stated by the Senate Armed Services Committee - "pilots should . . adopt a co-operative attitude toward their captors [and] are perfectly free to tell the fill truth about their mission..." - the question arises of why the detailed and belligerent N.A.S.A. cover story was originally issued when Powers was missing.
Our problems and weaknesses with cover do not stop with the difficulties of adapting the American personality to this work, or with a recurring slipshod tendency in our arrangements. The basic weakness is a heavy preference for the alternative of hoping to get by over the well-founded rule of pausing when cover is endangered. It is tantamount to down-grading cover as an element in covert operations, which is, in turn, like playing baseball without a bat. One of our fondest national legends is that if you want success enough, success will come. But in covert operations, even more than in open war, it is vital to plan for both success and failure. Cover is the realm where this is done.
On April 15, 1961, three B-26 bombers - a type of plane then still in Castro's Air Force - raided military targets in Cuba, mostly airfields around Havana. The planes then flew to Florida, where, upon landing, one of the pilots was permitted to see the Press. He gave out a laboriously detailed account of how he and his companions, who he said were all officers in the Cuban Air Force, had planned to defect from Castro for months. Fearing detection of their plans, the group had taken to their planes that morning, he said, and, as a final gesture of resistance, had bombed military targets on their way to exile in the United States. This was the cover story - for, as a quick count of his Air Force told Castro, the bombers had come from outside Cuba.
The bombing had a twofold purpose: militarily, it was supposed to cripple Castro's Air Force in preparation for the invasion, planned for forty-eight hours later; politically, it was supposed to create the impression before Cuban and world opinion - including American - of a mounting opposition to Castro inside Cuba. The military success of the operation did not depend in any way on the cover story. Its political success, on the other hand, was totally dependent upon the cover story. As anticipated, the Press-particularly the American newspapers gave a big play to the cover story. Castro's denial that any of his Air Force had defected was thrown into doubt. The impression was created of strife, potent opposition and turmoil in Castro's Cuba. So far so good. In the hue and cry the basic defect was barely visible.
But it was there, all the same. It was simply that there was a definite time limit on this initial success. That limit was the day when a foreign correspondent left Cuba and reported the truth. For world opinion, that day would occur when any reputable correspondent filed his story supporting Castro's denial; but the effectiveness of this eventuality, at least for American opinion, could - unfortunately all too easily - be sharply limited by denunciation, and the limit put off until an American correspondent returned with the true story - as later happened.
Those responsible for this operation could not but be fully aware of this time limit. They were also aware that the invasion was scheduled for forty-eight hours later. Since the blowing of this cover story would seriously compromise the U.S. Government's reputation and integrity - not the least with the American Press itself - there had to be an assumption that the cover would hold beyond the obvious limit. There were only two possibilities which would have produced such a result. One was that the invasion would succeed, in which case the true story would have been suppressed, or overlooked, or even condoned, in the aura of success. The other was that the invasion would be partially successful, and the story forgotten in the drama of civil war. It is impossible to know which of these alternatives weighed most heavily; most probably both weighed equally in deluding the authors of this scheme that it was usable. The fact that certain Americans in New York were approached - by American officials - prior to the Cuban invasion and offered jobs as advisors to a new Cuban Government-to-be suggests that not much distinction was being made between total and partial success. And in making a judgment about cover it doesn't matter. For any operation which relies on success for the preservation of its cover, or presupposes that success will obliterate the fact of blown cover, is not a covert operation. It is not even clandestine. It is a gamble. American weaknesses with cover will not be solved by looking for scapegoats. The problem is more complex than the individual responsibility of some official, and more profound than the organizational chart or allotted powers of some government agency. It is compounded of three main elements.
One is, as was suggested by the Powers case, the psychological limitations on Americans acting as agents.
Another is a certain slipshod quality at the professional level, which is not so much a lack of thoroughness as it is the hope to get by. In the summer of 1960 two young Americans, travelling ostensibly as students gathering materials for treatises, were arrested by the Russians in the Ukraine on charges of espionage. (It is worth noting that each denounced the other, and that they were forthwith released and expelled from the Soviet Union.) They were travelling, they said, on grants from the Northcraft Educational Fund of Baltimore, Maryland. An American reporter, hoping that the Fund itself would be able to refute the Russian charge, uncovered the fact that no such organization existed in Baltimore, or anywhere else. In this case, a minor expenditure for a one-room office and a telephone listing would have saved the U.S. Government considerable embarrassment,
The other main element in our difficulties stems from the highest levels of Government. At these levels decisions are made on whether or not to proceed with those operations which engage the worldwide power and position of the United States. No one who has observed this decision-making process can be other than sympathetic to those who carry the burden. But it is my impression that where those decisions have led to difficulty or even disaster, it is because at this level there was too little understanding of the nature and importance of cover. A certain desperation governs such decisions; there is a feeling that political and power considerations outweigh cover. When, for example, the overthrow of the Arbenz régime in Guatemala was decided upon in 1954, and the highest levels of Government insisted, over the vigorous protests of C.I.A. professionals, on the use of aircraft in the operation, no serious observer - and there were millions in Latin America - believed that Colonel Castillo Armas just happened to be the owner of a number of American bombers. The question can properly be asked whether we would not have had more Latin American support in the Castro problem if we had not been so flamboyant in Guatemala. Cover certainly does not outweigh fundamental considerations of politics and power; but in covert operations it is an integral part of the international political results of those operations.
Whatever may be the shortcomings of the open-faced American in this work, they are never ameliorated by Americans either over-confident of, or desperate for, success.