In the early 1990s, Senator Patrick Moynihan campaigned for the abolition of the CIA. The brilliant campaigner thought the US Department of State should take over its intelligence functions. For him, the age of secrecy was over.
In the speech introducing his Abolition of the CIA bill in January 1995, Moynihan cited British author John le Carré's scorn for the idea that the CIA had contributed to victory in the cold war against the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev and his successors. “The Soviet Empire did not fall apart because the spooks had bugged the man's room in the Kremlin or put broken glass in Brezhnev's bath,” Le Carré had written.
This was one of the CIA's lowest points since its establishment in 1947 (my new book marks the agency's 75th anniversary). It was created with two key goals in mind: thwarting Soviet expansionism, and preventing another surprise attack like that carried out by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour during the second world war. While Moynihan's campaign to shut down the CIA did not ultimately prevail, there was certainly a widespread perception that the agency was no longer fit for purpose and should be curtailed.
Throughout the cold war, many had regarded fighting communism as the CIA's raison d'être. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the agency's role was less clear, and it came under heavy criticism for having distorted intelligence and “blatantly pandered” to one ideological viewpoint: blind anti-communism. Without the cold war, Moynihan predicted, the CIA would become “a kind of retirement programme for a cadre of cold warriors not really needed any longer”.
Three decades on, however, Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has put Russia's threat to the stability of the world back at the top of the US foreign agenda. With a formidable Kremlinologist now in charge of the CIA and Donald Trump out of the presidential picture (for the moment, at least), the agency might be expected to be an influential player in the US response to this “new cold war”. But how much does Washington trust the CIA these days — and how much influence does it really have on events in Ukraine? To shed light on these questions, we need to go back to the early days of the Ronald Reagan presidency.
‘Stay the f-ck out of my business'
As US president from 1981 to 1989, the neoconservative Reagan unleashed the CIA from restrictions that had been imposed on it during the reforming post-Vietnam 1970s.
Like other anti-communists, Reagan saw the agency as a prime weapon in weakening the Soviet Union, which he famously denounced as the “evil empire”, and preventing the worldwide spread of communism.
The new US president was convinced that in opposing an unethical foe, one could not afford to be too scrupulous. He chose as his CIA director Bill Casey, a veteran of intelligence in the second world war – a time when it had been “gloves off” for dirty tricksters.
An outright cold warrior, Casey resuscitated old CIA habits, running covert operations against the left-leaning — but democratically elected — Sandinista government in Nicaragua from December 1981 to the ceasefire of March 1988. Even the veteran conservative senator Barry Goldwater admitted he was “pissed off” when, in 1984, the CIA mined Nicaragua's harbours without informing Congress. Accosted with this oversight, the uncompromising Casey replied: “The business of Congress is to stay the fuck out of my business.”