Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency by William J. Daugherty

by rthieme on May 22, 2008

Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency by William J. Daugherty

“Executive Secrets” reviews the history of covert action since WW2 and provides information the general reader might not have had (contrary to other reviews, there are no “secret” secrets in this book, since the author limits his examples to declassified data approved by the CIA, which eliminates much information in the public domain that the agency can not or will not acknowledge, One good recent example of the impact of this policy is the an attempt by former CIA officer Melissa Mahle to deliver a speech at the 2007 conference of the International Ethics and Intelligence Association on rendition, prevented when the agency “gutted” her talk by removing information in the public domain which it did not want to give an imprimatur of official acknowledgement).

The author is a former ranking official of the CIA and the context of this book is apologetic and defensive. It repetitively makes these points: (1) the CIA acts only when ordered to do so by the President, which orders since 1974 have been reviewed by relevant Senators and Representatives – except when it does not, e.g. Iran-Contra, in which cases it is wrong and (2) the ability to reflect honestly and deeply by an experienced intelligent career professional is compromised significantly by assimilation into the agendas of a complex organizational structure and the bureaucratic distinctions that become highly relevant inside, but not to the outside observer or citizen.

Because these two themes are the subtext of this book and the emotional energy of Daugherty’s polemic, what is revealed is the impact of a lifelong career of assimilation to “insider” thinking and the blind spots and hubris that engenders.


(1) The department or executive who did or did not approve particular actions is not, to the citizen, what is most important. Inside, it is. “Not on my desk” is a frequent defense, often heard. I once asked why a proposal was languishing inside one of the agencies and was told that it was being moved from desk to desk because no one wanted to go on record denying it. Thus has it always been; thus will it always be.

(2) The entire enterprise of how and why covert action is executed is the primary concern of the citizen, not the oft-repeated mantra that nothing is done without approval of the President. That matters, of course, but it is subordinate to the larger issues which are ignored in this book. To the citizen, what the nation is doing is critical, not simply the chain of command which exonerates intelligence agencies of responsibility by denying deniability to the executive branch. So focused is the author on pressing accountability back to the White House from Truman forward that he does not seem to notice that he is undermining the “plausible deniability” it is his sworn obligation to uphold. Therefore, the righteous indignation which suffuses so many pages is undercut by exactly the kind of CYA activities in Washington that cause citizens to become cynical and dismissive.

(3) The author fails to take fully into account, despite lip service to the fact of it, that the erosion of boundaries between foreign/domestic and our nation/other nation thanks to technological transformation of geopolitical realities (of which I have written extensively) means that “blowback” is not an incidental event but a chronic state of being for all of us. Actions and speech acts take place everywhere in the world at once, not just “here” or “there.” Actions prohibited by the Constitution are now undertaken (the author would say – by order of the President! not independently by the agency! – and he would be absolutely right, but he would miss the point) from our ground and on our ground, obscuring former legal distinctions. As far back as the fifties, when the CIA appointed itself a Ministry of Culture and supported writers, artists, publishers, etc. to oppose Soviet “socialist realism” and propaganda, the hidden effect on America was immense. Writers favored by the agency because their works supported a covert political agenda prospered while those who wrote, for example, about the poor, like John Steinbeck, did not, or they made their way on their own without hidden financial and organizational support. Daugherty says of this and other efforts, “it is hard to imagine any American being upset over these actions of the CIA.”

There perhaps is the essence of his blind spot. Those who matured during that era were victims as were all other unwitting people in the world of a false belief that a free market for art and literature and music as for other things evolved in an organic way, according to its own internal dynamics. This is, in fact, the essence of a principled conservatism, this respect for and love of the organic processes of society. But what was happening in fact was the emergence of a manipulated, leveraged, hidden structure of power – what Eisenhower called “the military industrial complex” in a warning that went unheeded and which now includes media, entertainment, academia, and all of the key components of a “free market” society – and thus the simple accepted truths of a generation of Americans were fundamentally betrayed by this radical inauthenticity at the core of our American enterprise.

That Daugherty and other apologists like him can not entertain this, can not understand why this betrayal of the marketplace of ideas in the body politic is key to the cynicism of many Americans is the real problem with this work. Insiders become so imbued with the righteousness of their cause and the territorial distinctions of bureaucracy that this wholesale shift is unseen or, if seen, ignored or, if not ignored, celebrated with what feels like a smirk of innate superiority. That the entire establishment in Washington, including the intelligence community, was not elected or authorized to do this except by its own secret and self-justifying machinations is exactly the point. Oversight by a few Congressional representatives who are assimilated into the process as insiders, the elusive quality of executives orders like EO12333 which can be changed without public notice on the fly, the hot potato game of who gave the orders (it is always mutual and collusive) – all this suggests why, when George Bush outlined at Camp David his intended responses to 9/11 and some advisors objected that at least some of them violated the Constitution, and the President replied, “The Constitution is nothing but a piece of paper” … all of this suggests why we find ourselves, these days, with a cynical electorate, impatient with precisely the kinds of insider distinctions that for Daugherty are the end of the game.

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