Strange Bedfellow

CIA Home Videos

The agency needs a new career, but public relations is a weird choice.

The CIA made headlines twice last week. The first wave of publicity was of a familiar and negative type. Declassified documents revealed new details about “Operation Mongoose,” the campaign to murder and otherwise annoy Fidel Castro. Besides the infamous toxic cigars and powder intended to make the dictator’s beard fall out, the agency developed a killer scuba suit and poison-injecting pens. None of it worked.

The second wave of publicity was more novel and positive. It was about a video the CIA released as the FBI concluded its criminal investigation into the TWA Flight 800 disaster. The 15-minute film was intended to bolster the FBI’s conclusion that the explosion was not the result of a terrorist attack, by explaining why eyewitnesses might have mistaken the airplane’s midair disintegration for a missile attack.

Here, then, were the two CIAs: the ineptly diabolical agency of old vs. the chastened, competent, and versatile one of today. The folks at Langley, whose run of luck in recent years has resembled that of the Mir spacecraft, must be hoping for just such a contrast to form in the public mind. But while the agency certainly has changed for the better, it would be premature to quit worrying about what it’s up to. The new, user-friendly CIA gives pause in new ways.

Watch the docudrama-style video, and you’ll understand why. At the beginning, the CIA great seal appears and dissolves. Spooky music is heard, of the type most often used as background for cheesy shows about paranormal phenomena. An anonymous narrator recounts the facts of the July 1996 disaster, and says that FBI investigators were especially concerned with dozens of eyewitnesses who thought they saw a missile. “At the request of the FBI, CIA weapons analysts looked into this possibility,” the narrator explains. On-screen is a windowless room full of CIA officials. One, in a tie and vest, motions toward a display board. The others, in shirtsleeves, look on attentively. “The CIA’s conclusion: The eyewitnesses did not see a missile,” the narration continues. “What these eyewitnesses saw was, in fact, the Boeing 747 in various stages of crippled flight.” With animation, the film re-creates the way the analysts think the airplane disintegrated. It then reconciles this scenario with the testimony of witnesses.

T his account is probably the best explanation for the inevitable discrepancies in the evidence about what happened to Flight 800–a subject with which I have no obsession. But the video is nonetheless a bizarre artifact, on several levels. Consider the several scenes of CIA analysts working on the case. There are two possibilities here. Either these portrayals are unacknowledged dramatic simulations, or the CIA spent a lot of time and money documenting its own inner workings. The former alternative suggests that old habits of deception die hard. The latter suggests that the CIA’s public-relations goals for the Flight 800 assignment were fully integrated into the investigation itself. In fact, both things are probably true.

The strangest thing about the film is that it is supposed to dispel paranoid theories–and that the CIA made it. From the outset of the investigation, the FBI has been saying, convincingly, that a missile hit was a near-impossibility. Most journalists and outside experts accept this. When Pierre Salinger proposed that the U.S. military shot the plane down, he was widely assumed to be off his rocker. The CIA video is directed, then, at the small minority of conspiracy buffs who do not accept the official explanation. In other words, it is directed at the last people in the world who would ever believe anything the CIA said. At Flight 800 sites on the Web, as you would expect, the video has merely added fuel to the fire. Getting the CIA to reassure paranoiacs is like hiring Michael Milken to run the Securities and Exchange Commission.

More troublesome is the CIA’s unprecedented role as purveyor of the official government line. Since its creation in 1947, the agency has always had a dual function. It is half neutral analyst, providing background for policymakers, and half clandestine arm of U.S. foreign policy. This split is built into the structure of the agency, which separates its directorate of intelligence from its directorate of operations. The CIA wants the film to look like a product of the analysts. Its slick production values, however, suggest something of a debt to the operations directorate, which has long experience at spreading disinformation abroad. Because this is the CIA, we’ll never know for sure (or at least not for 35 years). But it is alarming, to say the least, if agents trained in lying abroad are now moonlighting at home–even if they’re telling the truth this time. The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are prohibited from broadcasting to the United States specifically because Congress didn’t want the government’s propaganda resources trained on Americans. The (oft-violated) CIA charter forbids it from spying on Americans. It fails to ban domestic propagandizing only because no one ever envisioned such a role for the agency.

So why is the CIA doing this? The answer goes beyond the urge for self-promotion. Since the Soviet Union fell apart, the agency has been increasingly desperate to justify its continued existence. Though its side won the Cold War, it didn’t get much credit. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has emphasized, CIA analysts wildly overestimated the Soviet economy and missed the impending Communist collapse. Meanwhile, Aldrich Ames and Harold Nicholson were running amok. Morale is reportedly low, and career officials have been resigning in droves. The CIA has been through five chiefs since 1991.

T he latest director, George Tenet, hopes to protect the agency’s 16,000 staff and its $3-billion budget (a number only recently declassified) by orienting it around new international threats–narcotics trafficking, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. There are debates about whether the CIA has an appropriate role in any of these areas. The military may be better suited to dealing with terrorists and weapons. Narcotics enforcement is primarily the role of the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. In calling in the CIA to help on Flight 800, the FBI was making a peace overture in a bitter, age-old rivalry. After seeing the video, it may regret this gesture. James Kallstrom, who directed the Flight 800 investigation, indicated at a press conference last week that he had some misgivings about the film.

You don’t have to be conspiracy nut to worry about a huge organization with high-tech espionage capabilities and a criminal record looking around for something to do. The friendly new CIA may mean well, but it sort of makes you nostalgic for the spooks from the bad old days. Right about now, they’d be sending Saddam a box of exploding berets.