News & Politics

The Legacy of Theodore Shackley

The notorious CIA man is gone, but the story of his career lives on as a cautionary lesson for an era shaped by a secret war on terrorism.
Theodore Shackley is gone. That probably doesn't mean much to you. But I once spent five years researching and writing a book on this notorious CIA official, who days ago died at the age of 75. (The biography's title was drawn from a nickname a few colleagues had assigned the light-haired intelligence officer: Blond Ghost.)

Shackley had been one of the agency's top men, the epitome of a Cold War covert bureaucrat. In the 1950s, he served in Berlin, a center for espionage, running agents across the Iron Curtain. (Agency efforts at that time were generally abysmal; most agents the CIA sent to spy on East European were captured or turned into double agents.) In the early 1960s, he was in charge of the CIA's massive station in Miami, which failed to penetrate Fidel Castro's government but conducted sabotage operations against Cuba and occasionally supported cockamamie assassination efforts (some using mob connections) against Castro.

He went on to become chief of station in Laos and managed a secret war in which U.S.-encouraged tribal forces fought against the North Vietnamese. (The tribes ended up decimated -- in part because Shackley and others pushed them to do what was best for the U.S. military. not themselves.)

Then Shackley was chief of station in Vietnam, where the agency never succeeded in collecting much valuable intelligence on the Viet Cong and where it was involved in the controversial Phoenix program, a supposed intelligence-gathering operation in which U.S.-assisted South Vietnamese units sometimes assassinated rather than apprehended their targets.

After years in the field, Shackley rose through the ranks at headquarters, leading the Western Hemisphere division (and overseeing the CIA's operations in Chile to overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected president) and then heading the East Asia division, which miscalled the fall of Saigon.

In 1976, when George Bush the elder was CIA director, Shackley was named the second in command of the CIA's clandestine service. And he was a contender for higher posts in the CIA -- perhaps the director's chair -- until his hard-to-explain relationship with Edwin Wilson, a CIA-operative-turned-rogue-arms dealer (who illegally peddled weapons to Libyan dictator Moammar Qadaffi) hit the headlines. In the mid-1980s, Shackley played a cameo role in the Iran-contra affair. He engaged in back-channel talks with a disreputable Iranian wheeler-dealer who suggested U.S. hostages held in Iran might be released in return for cash or weapons.

Shackley indirectly passed this information to a little-known White House aide named Oliver North.

All ancient history? Not quite, for parts of Shackley's tale provide cautionary lessons for an era shaped by a secret war on terrorism.

When Shackley took over the Western Hemisphere division in 1972, one mission for him was "regime change" in Chile. Of course, it is hardly appropriate to apply that term -- so much in vogue today -- to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's covert campaign to topple an elected government that posed no threat to the United States.

But those paranoids treated a democracy as if it were a regime, and Shackley saluted and helped destabilize Chile. The CIA's goal was to replace Allende, a socialist, with the Washington-friendly Christian Democrats, who received financial assistance from Shackley's division. Yet when the tragic finale came on September 11, 1973 -- shortly after Shackley left the division -- a bloody military coup ended up installing a military junta in power. Thousands of Chileans were tortured and "disappeared." Bodies floated down Santiago's Mapocho River. And all political parties -- including the Christian Democrats -- were banned.

Kissinger didn't seem to mind much and had no trouble supporting military dictator Augusto Pinochet. But the episode showed the difficulty of controlling what happens when underhanded and violent means are employed to overthrow a government. Iraq is not at all analogous to Chile. But the point is that the law of unintended consequences seems to have a disproportionate effect on covert actions.

The CIA-backed coup in Iran in 1953, for example, planted the seeds for the Iranian revolution of 1978 (which caught Shackley's CIA by surprise.) Do the math. The United States had the repressive Shah of Iran as an ally for 25 years; then it has had to deal with the ayatollahs for 24 years -- and they're still there.

One key moment in Shackley's tenure came when he engineered an important coverup for the CIA. In 1972, syndicated journalist Jack Anderson revealed that two years earlier the CIA and the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation had been involved in a "bizarre plot" to block Allende's election.

The story -- published at a time when the CIA's campaign in Chile was not publicly known -- noted that senior CIA and ITT officials in the United States had discussed causing economic chaos in Chile to encourage a military coup. Soon a Senate subcommittee was investigating, and a crucial question was whether any plotting had actually transpired on the ground in Chile. The subcommittee's pursuit of this angle was dangerous for the CIA, for it could lead to exposing the Agency's recent and ongoing clandestine operations in Chile. Shackley, though, constructed a stonewall.

He had one of his deputies conspire with an ITT operative in Chile who had been in league with CIA officers there. Shackley's subordinate arranged for this ITT man to testify falsely before the subcommittee. The gambit paid off, and the busybodies of the subcommittee did not uncover the CIA's extensive activity in Chile. But -- more unintended consequences -- lies the CIA told at this time eventually led to further investigations. Which led to legal action against CIA chief Richard Helms, who in 1977 was convicted of lying to Congress about the CIA operations in Chile and sentenced to the maximum fine of $2000 and a suspended two-year prison sentence. (Helms died two weeks before Shackley, and at his funeral current CIA director George Tenet praised him as "the complete American intelligence officer." On ABC, George Will hailed Helms as a "passionate patriot...not too squeamish to do hard things." Like overthrow democracies and support state terrorists.)

Shackley's Chile coverup highlights one of the built-in quandaries of the intelligence business: congressional oversight. If the overseers of Congress do not know what to ask about, how can they keep track of what the cloak-and-dagger set is doing?

The war on terrorism, as President Bush, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other administration officials repeatedly say, will often be fought by clandestine warriors in engagements hidden from public scrutiny. How can the citizenry be assured that checks and balances are being applied to this war and that it is being fought effectively, in keeping with accepted values?

Congress must vet the actions of the covert warriors. That means the intelligence and military committees of the House and Senate have to maintain a close and independent-minded watch. Yet their record is not stellar on this front. Since Shackley bamboozled that subcommittee thirty years ago, other CIA officials have misled Congress. Even during the committees' recent 9/11 inquiry, the CIA withheld embarrassing -- but hardly sensitive -- information and did not fully acknowledge errors. Given the CIA's traditional reluctance to share fully and the committees' traditional reluctance to pressure the agencies too firmly, it will be tough for a citizen to have full confidence that this secret war on terrorism is being conducted effectively, appropriately and legally.

One of the mysteries of Shackley's career (as seen from the outside) was his rapid ascent in the Agency. His station in Miami never gathered much useful information on Castro or mounted covert actions that mattered, yet he was promoted to run the secret war in Laos. (The Miami station may have played a role in discovering the Soviet missiles that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that information also came from a routine refugee interview.) Shackley's station in Vietnam didn't get the goods on the VC, but he was elevated into the senior management ranks. He was a competent, hard-charging (too hard-charging) fellow and directed some ops that paid off. But he failed as much, if not more, as he succeeded. When I was interviewing CIA veterans for my book, I asked them about Shackley's rise and the internal culture of the Agency. Several said that what counted was not always results but whether it appeared that an officer was doing all he could. After all, the missions at hand were often nearly impossible. Penetrate the VC? Infiltrate Castro's circle or the Kremlin or the inner sanctum of Beijing? If no one could do that, Shackley could not be held accountable for falling short as well.

Accountability has not been a dominant value within the CIA over the years. That was evident in the case of Aldrich Ames, the CIA mole who left clues right and left that he was working for the Soviets yet escaped detection for years. It is somewhat understandable that members of a covert community tend to be protective of one another. But the absence of strict accountability in this ends-justifies-the-means bureaucracy is cause for concern. Especially now that intelligence agencies -- with their information-gathering responsibilities -- are the first line of defense against al Qaeda and Osama wannabes.

When the congressional intelligence committees released their final 9/11 report this week, Senator Richard Shelby, the senior Republican on the Senate panel, issued a dissent. It was more critical than the majority report. He noted, for example, the CIA's "chronic failure, before September 11, to share with other agencies the names of known Al-Qa'ida terrorists who it knew to be in the country allowed at least two such terrorists the opportunity to live, move and prepare for the attacks without hindrance....Sadly, the CIA seems to have concluded that the maintenance of its information monopoly was more important than stopping terrorists." But Shelby was angrier about the lack of accountability within the intelligence establishment. "It is disappointing to me," he wrote, that the majority report "has not seen fit to identify any of the individuals whose decisions left us so unprepared." He added, "Wise presidents dispose of their faltering generals under fire." Yet Bush has embraced Tenet and the CIA rather than hold anyone responsible for the pre-9/11 intelligence screw-ups -- and the intelligence committees, with the exception of Shelby, have not protested.

Shackley departed the agency 23 years ago. But problems and dilemmas illuminated by his career remain. Clandestine action is difficult to do well, particularly by self-protecting government bureaucracies, and it is difficult for legislative bodies to monitor such action. There are, no doubt, new Shackleys in the system, implementing the orders of the day. Might they also believe it is up to them to decide what Congress deserves to know? They need to be watched -- as do those in the government whose job it is to do the watching.
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