- - Tuesday, October 11, 2016


By Christopher Moran

Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99, 346 pages

Say the words “Publications Review Board” within earshot of a retired CIA officer, and his reaction is likely to the same as if you goosed him with an electric cow prod: a harsh frown, and perhaps an explosive epithet. The PRB is the in-house office that has go/no-go authority over permission to publish anything the officer writes for public distribution, be it a letter to the editor or a memoir.

Such makes good sense: Intelligence is a trade one does not babble about on the village green, and those who enter it know the rules about secrecy. Veterans recognize the value of pre-publication review — in theory, at least — but by no means are they universally happy with the process.

Christopher Moran, a British writer, explores the history of publications review dating from the end of World War II, when veterans of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor, flooded bookstores with memoirs and helped Hollywood produce a rash of movies that sensationalized the realities of intelligence beyond recognition.

The founding barons of the CIA, understandably, wished to be portrayed as something other than a gang of gun-slinging killers — and also to protect the sources and methods of tradecraft that should not be disclosed to adversaries. As Mr. Moran correctly observes, secrecy is “an essential element of successful operations.” The National Security Council laid down the rules in 1950: “Any publicity, factual or fictional, concerning intelligence is potentially detrimental to the effectiveness of an intelligence activity and the national security.”

Hence the requirement that any person who enters the intelligence community, be it the CIA or elsewhere, is required to sign a secrecy agreement. Violators face prosecution.

Mr. Moran’s account relates how the review board’s standards have varied over the decades, ranging from almost total censorship of memoirs to lenience when approval serves the agency’s purposes. And there are the instances where well-meaning officers are frustrated by decisions that make no sense on the surface.

Over decades of writing about the intelligence community, I have heard an uncountable number of such complaints, many from persons of stature in the CIA. One man complained that the board insisted that he delete a recognition signal based on the fact that a person owned a dog. The kindest thing he would say was that the change was “utter nonsense.” The late James Lilley, whose 30-oddyear career included a posting as chief of station in Beijing, spent several frustrating years getting clearance for a memoir. Several officers said the board insisted that nonfiction memoirs be rewritten as novels — only denied clearance even then.

Mr. Moran explores several instances where officers defied the oath and published books without clearance. Readers might blink at the undisguised sympathy he has for the turncoat Philip Agee, whose 1975 book “Inside the Company” named scores of covert officers worldwide. According to persons who worked with him in Mexico City and elsewhere, Agee was a slovenly drunk who made crude propositions to other officers’ wives.

Credible evidence exists that the KGB had a hand in Agee’s book, via its subsidiary, the Cuban DGI. Such was told to me a decade or so ago by several officers. Mr. Moran quotes one of them, Cameron LaClair, a CIA founding father. LaClair told Mr. Moran (and me) that the CIA had “overwhelming evidence” that Cuban intelligence owned Agee. Confirmation of the Cuban link was provided by two defecting KGB officers, Oleg Kalugin and Vasili Miteokhin.

Malice and money seemingly motivated Agee. But another officer discussed by Mr. Moran, Frank Snepp, had cleaner hands. Disgusted with how the United States abandoned Vietnamese allies in evacuating Saigon, Mr. Snepp raised a futile fuss through channels, then published an angry book without clearance. The CIA sued Mr. Snepp for breach of contract, and he forfeited a six-figure sum the book earned.

True to his British leftist credentials, Mr. Moran is hypercritical of the very existence of the CIA; he casually bandies such words as “criminal” and “strong arm.” His scorn extends to Adm. Stansfield Turner, director of central intelligence under President Carter. Turner pledged a “sincere attempt to level with the American people without damaging the ongoing work that must kept secret to succeed.” He receives not even an “E” for his effort.

Silly errors weaken Mr. Moran’s case. He writes that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover opposed making Office of Strategic Services chief William Donovan head of postwar intelligence because he was having an affair with President Truman’s “daughter-in-law, Mary.” Odd, given that Truman did not have a son. (Mr. Moran footnotes this reference to an earlier book on Donovan.)

Mr. Moran repeatedly butchers the name of my late pal David Atlee Phillips, rendering his surname as “Atlee Phillips.” A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Dave would grin at the British rendition of his name.

Essentially a waste of time. Don’t bother.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 19 nonfiction books.

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