.
T

he Director of the Central Intelligence Agency is one of the most challenging, most rewarding, and least understood jobs in Washington DC. Your successes are almost certainly classified—and will never be known—but your failures will be front page and above the fold. The director must serve a dynamic executive in the president, and be responsible to a fickle at best, politically volatile at worst Congress. The director must speak truth to power, and provide unvarnished, un-politicized information to the president, but not weigh in on policy. Yet, the CIA may be tasked with undertaking covert action by administrations that see it as a panacea for policy shortcomings.  

The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future | Chris Whipple | Scribner Book Company | September 2020.

They must manage a complex bureaucracy, staffed by some of the most dedicated Americans in the country, yet ones divided into two very different tribes—analysts and operations officers, introverts and extroverts respectively. If you are an outsider, the institution will be suspicious of you; if you’re an insider, the job may not be any easier—you just know how to work the system and climb the ranks. Yet, at the same time, they get to see the story behind the news, help defend the country from countless unknown threats, and see—often firsthand—history being made.

Illuminating the Shadows

Chris Whipple’s The Spymasters is an attempt to illuminate an otherwise shadowy subject: the directors of the CIA and the Agency’s role in America’s national security history. It is a very accessible account that fills the gap in popular writing between formal intelligence studies and popular fiction. Whipple focuses on the dozen living (11 men and one woman) directors, starting with Richard Helms and closing with the current, first female director, Gina Haspel. Whipple’s access and interviews are impressive. He interviewed nearly every one of the 12 directors and many of their deputies, White House and Pentagon counterparts, and critics.

Whipple’s exploration of the different dynamics of the directors themselves, the presidents they served, and the challenges each faced is fascinating. From James Schlesinger’s admonishment that the CIA was going to “stop [expletive deleted] Richard Nixon” to William Colby’s disclosure of the Family Jewels and the Agency’s brush with elimination, through to George Tenet’s “slam dunk” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction intelligence, Whipple highlights how each director found themselves making history. Jimmy Carter’s decision to not keep George H.W. Bush as his CIA director likely changed the course of political history—had he done so Bush may never have run for president.

Reading The Spymasters, one can’t help but get the sense that it is a Netflix or Showtime documentary in book form. It is filled with the literary version of quick cuts from scene to scene, extensive interviews with key figures (only missing dramatically swelling music toward the most contentious part of the quote), and even has a “never before told” story thrown into the mix. Here you wouldn’t be wrong. The book, one finds out in the acknowledgments, grew out of the author’s earlier film project of a similar name—The Spymasters: the CIA in the Crosshairs.

The downside of this approach is that, while being accessible and compelling (and it is), it forgoes the opportunity to explore in greater depth the subjects it is covering, which a book affords. At nearly every turn of the page, the reader is left wanting more: to explore the relationship between the president and their CIA director, to understand the director’s approach to working both inside the Agency and with the White House and Congress, and to understand more of the intelligence process itself.

Doubling the book’s length and taking advantage of the opportunity to further explore his subjects, the history and context of the incidents, and provide greater analysis would have been welcomed. Indeed, it would not even have detracted from the reader’s experience—Whipple’s writing is breezy, accessible, and compelling.

To be fair to Whipple, this is unlikely to be an issue for the layperson or average reader. The Spymasters is a solid starting point for someone interested in the recent history of those that occupied the seventh floor of Langley and the Agency’s role in various events in history. For those who are deeply interested in, or more well-read about, intelligence, espionage, and the CIA, The Spymasters is a touch light.

In reading The Spymasters, the reviewer was reminded of The Black Door by Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac. This weighty tome, exploring the relationship of successive British prime ministers and their intelligence chiefs, is both a surprisingly easy read and unbelievably deep. One would welcome a similar treatment of the relationship between the president and the CIA director—The Spymasters on academic steroids, perhaps (if one would forgive the odd analogy).

The Spymasters also seems to be in a rush to get to the administrations of President Obama and President Trump. Throughout the book, Whipple peppers chapters with foreshadowing of issues that reappear in the President’s relationship with former Congressman Mike Pompeo and his successor, Gina Haspel. Undoubtedly this is because of the recency of events and the public’s appetite for more information on what happened in the 2016 election and since President Trump assumed office.

Whipple’s criticisms of Gina Haspel are likely premature. The current director, it appears, has quite sensibly remained below the parapet and out of the limelight, especially given the volatile nature of the president’s relationship with the Intelligence Community, which Whipple explores in the final chapter. If anything, she appears to be hunkering down and getting on with the business of intelligence and avoiding the free-fire zone that is 2020 politics.

Ironically, for as much as The Spymasters is about the rise of congressional oversight and holding the CIA accountable for its actions, there is very little exploration of this subject in the latter portion of the book. It could be argued that, currently, both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have all but abdicated their traditional oversight role in favor of political opportunism. Indeed, there has yet to be a worldwide threats-briefing or any public hearings on foreign interference in the 2020 elections.

The Dog that Didn’t Bark

In Christopher Nolan’s latest (and incredible) film, Tenet, the protagonist towards the end of the film remarks about how no one cares about the bomb that didn’t go off, but it is that event that has the power to change history. For the CIA, this is an apt turn of phrase, perhaps more eloquently put by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper—there are policy successes and intelligence failures.

Coming away from The Spymasters the reader would be forgiven for thinking that there have been few (if any) intelligence successes. Whipple’s book reads like a charge sheet of failed endeavors, missed opportunities, or nefarious misdeeds. He does follow the effort to target and eliminate Imad Mughniyeh—the Hezbollah terrorist responsible for some of the worst attacks against the United States in the Middle East—but that is perhaps one of a handful.

Ironically, he references some of these successes but doesn’t explore them further. Throughout The Spymasters there are references to various agents recruited, but it is their downfall that is discussed, not their identification, approach, or handling. Whipple explores the controversial Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and briefly mentions that the practices may have helped in getting key information on the location of Osama bin Laden, but largely omits the staggering effort that went into tracking down the accuracy of that intelligence or targeting Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. He discusses the Agency’s 2017 exfiltration of a key asset close to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, but only in the context that President Trump could have inadvertently compromised the agent, but nothing about the agent’s recruitment or handling.

While the disruption of a plot, the stopping of a bomb from going off, or the recruitment of an agent may not be as high-profile as some of the events Whipple covers, they are the bread and butter of the CIA’s mission. Indeed, it is likely fairer to say that many of the events described in The Spymasters are less of intelligence failures and more of policy failures.

Covert action is not a panacea for the absence of policy options, yet too often the occupants of the Oval Office believe that that is the case. Covert action disconnected from policy or strategy is almost certainly doomed to fail in the long run—it may achieve a tactical victory, but strategic goals remain unresolved, or even worse off.

In Seth Jones’ brilliant book, A Covert Action, he explores how the CIA’s efforts to support the Solidarity movement in Poland took place against the backdrop of President Reagan’s confrontation with the Soviet Union—an example of a covert action program that was tied to a whole-of-government strategy and, ultimately, achieved the desired outcome.

The Director’s Dilemma

The Spymasters is, ultimately, a story of the tension between intelligence and policy, politics and facts, and oversight and autonomy. The CIA is tasked with the hardest of missions: providing strategic foresight for policymakers, recruiting human intelligence sources in the most hostile operating environments, and conducting covert action. This is done all with the knowledge that their successes will be unknown, their failures highlighted, and the possibility that the political winds will change.

The CIA’s directors must speak truth to power, often telling presidents what they don’t want to hear, while resisting the pressures to “politicize” intelligence, twisting facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. They must remain above the fray, providing purely intelligence, without directing or advocating for policy solutions.

Whipple’s exploration of these dilemmas and how the living directors faced them is fascinating. The Spymasters offers lay readers unique insights into this otherwise opaque position, but could benefit with more heft and context, and offer more fact and less foreshadowing.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

The Spymasters: Book Review

September 19, 2020

The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future | Chris Whipple | Scribner Book Company | September 2020.

T

he Director of the Central Intelligence Agency is one of the most challenging, most rewarding, and least understood jobs in Washington DC. Your successes are almost certainly classified—and will never be known—but your failures will be front page and above the fold. The director must serve a dynamic executive in the president, and be responsible to a fickle at best, politically volatile at worst Congress. The director must speak truth to power, and provide unvarnished, un-politicized information to the president, but not weigh in on policy. Yet, the CIA may be tasked with undertaking covert action by administrations that see it as a panacea for policy shortcomings.  

The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future | Chris Whipple | Scribner Book Company | September 2020.

They must manage a complex bureaucracy, staffed by some of the most dedicated Americans in the country, yet ones divided into two very different tribes—analysts and operations officers, introverts and extroverts respectively. If you are an outsider, the institution will be suspicious of you; if you’re an insider, the job may not be any easier—you just know how to work the system and climb the ranks. Yet, at the same time, they get to see the story behind the news, help defend the country from countless unknown threats, and see—often firsthand—history being made.

Illuminating the Shadows

Chris Whipple’s The Spymasters is an attempt to illuminate an otherwise shadowy subject: the directors of the CIA and the Agency’s role in America’s national security history. It is a very accessible account that fills the gap in popular writing between formal intelligence studies and popular fiction. Whipple focuses on the dozen living (11 men and one woman) directors, starting with Richard Helms and closing with the current, first female director, Gina Haspel. Whipple’s access and interviews are impressive. He interviewed nearly every one of the 12 directors and many of their deputies, White House and Pentagon counterparts, and critics.

Whipple’s exploration of the different dynamics of the directors themselves, the presidents they served, and the challenges each faced is fascinating. From James Schlesinger’s admonishment that the CIA was going to “stop [expletive deleted] Richard Nixon” to William Colby’s disclosure of the Family Jewels and the Agency’s brush with elimination, through to George Tenet’s “slam dunk” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction intelligence, Whipple highlights how each director found themselves making history. Jimmy Carter’s decision to not keep George H.W. Bush as his CIA director likely changed the course of political history—had he done so Bush may never have run for president.

Reading The Spymasters, one can’t help but get the sense that it is a Netflix or Showtime documentary in book form. It is filled with the literary version of quick cuts from scene to scene, extensive interviews with key figures (only missing dramatically swelling music toward the most contentious part of the quote), and even has a “never before told” story thrown into the mix. Here you wouldn’t be wrong. The book, one finds out in the acknowledgments, grew out of the author’s earlier film project of a similar name—The Spymasters: the CIA in the Crosshairs.

The downside of this approach is that, while being accessible and compelling (and it is), it forgoes the opportunity to explore in greater depth the subjects it is covering, which a book affords. At nearly every turn of the page, the reader is left wanting more: to explore the relationship between the president and their CIA director, to understand the director’s approach to working both inside the Agency and with the White House and Congress, and to understand more of the intelligence process itself.

Doubling the book’s length and taking advantage of the opportunity to further explore his subjects, the history and context of the incidents, and provide greater analysis would have been welcomed. Indeed, it would not even have detracted from the reader’s experience—Whipple’s writing is breezy, accessible, and compelling.

To be fair to Whipple, this is unlikely to be an issue for the layperson or average reader. The Spymasters is a solid starting point for someone interested in the recent history of those that occupied the seventh floor of Langley and the Agency’s role in various events in history. For those who are deeply interested in, or more well-read about, intelligence, espionage, and the CIA, The Spymasters is a touch light.

In reading The Spymasters, the reviewer was reminded of The Black Door by Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac. This weighty tome, exploring the relationship of successive British prime ministers and their intelligence chiefs, is both a surprisingly easy read and unbelievably deep. One would welcome a similar treatment of the relationship between the president and the CIA director—The Spymasters on academic steroids, perhaps (if one would forgive the odd analogy).

The Spymasters also seems to be in a rush to get to the administrations of President Obama and President Trump. Throughout the book, Whipple peppers chapters with foreshadowing of issues that reappear in the President’s relationship with former Congressman Mike Pompeo and his successor, Gina Haspel. Undoubtedly this is because of the recency of events and the public’s appetite for more information on what happened in the 2016 election and since President Trump assumed office.

Whipple’s criticisms of Gina Haspel are likely premature. The current director, it appears, has quite sensibly remained below the parapet and out of the limelight, especially given the volatile nature of the president’s relationship with the Intelligence Community, which Whipple explores in the final chapter. If anything, she appears to be hunkering down and getting on with the business of intelligence and avoiding the free-fire zone that is 2020 politics.

Ironically, for as much as The Spymasters is about the rise of congressional oversight and holding the CIA accountable for its actions, there is very little exploration of this subject in the latter portion of the book. It could be argued that, currently, both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have all but abdicated their traditional oversight role in favor of political opportunism. Indeed, there has yet to be a worldwide threats-briefing or any public hearings on foreign interference in the 2020 elections.

The Dog that Didn’t Bark

In Christopher Nolan’s latest (and incredible) film, Tenet, the protagonist towards the end of the film remarks about how no one cares about the bomb that didn’t go off, but it is that event that has the power to change history. For the CIA, this is an apt turn of phrase, perhaps more eloquently put by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper—there are policy successes and intelligence failures.

Coming away from The Spymasters the reader would be forgiven for thinking that there have been few (if any) intelligence successes. Whipple’s book reads like a charge sheet of failed endeavors, missed opportunities, or nefarious misdeeds. He does follow the effort to target and eliminate Imad Mughniyeh—the Hezbollah terrorist responsible for some of the worst attacks against the United States in the Middle East—but that is perhaps one of a handful.

Ironically, he references some of these successes but doesn’t explore them further. Throughout The Spymasters there are references to various agents recruited, but it is their downfall that is discussed, not their identification, approach, or handling. Whipple explores the controversial Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and briefly mentions that the practices may have helped in getting key information on the location of Osama bin Laden, but largely omits the staggering effort that went into tracking down the accuracy of that intelligence or targeting Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. He discusses the Agency’s 2017 exfiltration of a key asset close to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, but only in the context that President Trump could have inadvertently compromised the agent, but nothing about the agent’s recruitment or handling.

While the disruption of a plot, the stopping of a bomb from going off, or the recruitment of an agent may not be as high-profile as some of the events Whipple covers, they are the bread and butter of the CIA’s mission. Indeed, it is likely fairer to say that many of the events described in The Spymasters are less of intelligence failures and more of policy failures.

Covert action is not a panacea for the absence of policy options, yet too often the occupants of the Oval Office believe that that is the case. Covert action disconnected from policy or strategy is almost certainly doomed to fail in the long run—it may achieve a tactical victory, but strategic goals remain unresolved, or even worse off.

In Seth Jones’ brilliant book, A Covert Action, he explores how the CIA’s efforts to support the Solidarity movement in Poland took place against the backdrop of President Reagan’s confrontation with the Soviet Union—an example of a covert action program that was tied to a whole-of-government strategy and, ultimately, achieved the desired outcome.

The Director’s Dilemma

The Spymasters is, ultimately, a story of the tension between intelligence and policy, politics and facts, and oversight and autonomy. The CIA is tasked with the hardest of missions: providing strategic foresight for policymakers, recruiting human intelligence sources in the most hostile operating environments, and conducting covert action. This is done all with the knowledge that their successes will be unknown, their failures highlighted, and the possibility that the political winds will change.

The CIA’s directors must speak truth to power, often telling presidents what they don’t want to hear, while resisting the pressures to “politicize” intelligence, twisting facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. They must remain above the fray, providing purely intelligence, without directing or advocating for policy solutions.

Whipple’s exploration of these dilemmas and how the living directors faced them is fascinating. The Spymasters offers lay readers unique insights into this otherwise opaque position, but could benefit with more heft and context, and offer more fact and less foreshadowing.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.