The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future by Chris Whipple-Book Review by Joseph Snoe

I learned a lot reading Chris Whipple’s THE SPYMASTERS: HOW THE CIA DIRECTORS SHAPE HISTORY AND THE FUTURE, and I’ve already forgotten most of it.

The introduction was an eye-opener. If you don’t read the book, visit your local library and read the introduction.

 A couple things I came away with: the CIA (Central INTELLIGENCE Agency) is one of fifteen intelligence agencies in the U.S. Government. That’s a lot to me. Apparently to Congress, also, who after 9/11 set up the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to coordinate all the spy agencies. The CIA is the principal intelligence agency. The DNI is the head of intelligence gathering, though, and technically the CIA Director answers to the Director of National Intelligence (good luck on that).  The DNI is responsible for being the president’s chief intelligence officer and overseeing the President’s Daily Brief (PDF). But the CIA prepares the PDF and briefs the President on it.

The CIA is the chief intelligence agency, but it’s function is human intelligence (you know – spies and double agents and moles and assets and counter intelligence  – that sort of stuff). But we also get intelligence information from electronic signals and systems such as communications systems, radars, bugs and weapons systems (known as SIGINT – short for Signal Intelligence). I would have thought that was under CIA control, but no, that’s the National Security Agency (and the NSA has more personnel than the CIA). The NSA shares its information with the CIA, but I bet there’s a lot of inefficiencies.

The CIA in practice has two arms. On one hand there are the Analysts, who spend their lives analyzing and decoding all kinds of information about foreign governments and terrorist groups.  These are described an intelligent “introverts without tans.” The other group are the operatives, the clandestine faction who make for good movies and novels – brash, charming, secretive. In theory both groups are intelligence gatherers. Somehow and sometimes the CIA engages in Covert Operations, like killing people and overthrowing governments. How much covert activities the CIA engages in ebbs and flows depending on who the CIA Director and Presidents are at any given time.

In theory (and apparently in practice) The CIA gathers information and presents it to the President. The CIA does not argue for any policy. The CIA merely gets the information for the President and his cabinet, and it’s the President and his people who formulate policy. In fact, after President gets data, the CIA briefer usually leaves the room. Presidents differ on how they use the information (if at all -It seems too many Presidents only want to hear information that backs their world view.)

The CIA Director informs the President, but is accountable to Congress (who some time are at odds). The Director to be successful must support his or her CIA operatives and analysts. The Director who can’t or refuses to do all three doesn’t last long. If the CIA royally screws up, the Director often takes the fall and is replaced.

There is no “one type” of CIA Director. They can be dignified or brutish, quiet or garrulous, a lifetime CIA operative or an outsider, military background or civilian. Some directors are more successful than others.

The book is about those directors and the tough situations they faced during their tenures. Some come out looking good in the book. Others don’t fare so well.

Overall I learned a lot and recalled events that were blurry when they occurred (anyone remember Iran-Contra fiasco) (or 9/11 – CIA many times notified Condoleezza Rice about impending terrorist attack between July and September by the way) (or Beirut) (or killing bin Laden) (or a host of other front page news events).

Maybe because there are so many people discussed and so many events and so many agency initials invoked, it was hard to piece it all together, which keeps this book from being five stars. My rating: 4 stars

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