Saturday, December 30, 2006

To put it bluntly, William K. Harvey often scared the dickens out of colleagues at the Central Intelligence Agency. To be sure, he was a superb case officer, one of the very best, entrusted with the vital Berlin Operating Base (BOB) during some of the chilliest days of the Cold War.

But he was also a walking arsenal, a man with pistols stuffed here and there around his person, which he would from time to time plop onto his desk with the casualness with which other persons handle a fountain pen. Then there was the drinking. One longtime friend told me, “When Bill came back from lunch, the liquor fumes out of his mouth would be so strong that I was afraid to light a cigarette for fear he might catch on fire.”

Be that as it may, Bill Harvey remains something of a legend among the Old Boys out at Langley. Some (but by no means all) of his career is related in a new book by a onetime colleague, Bayard Stockton — Flawed Patriot: The Rise and Fall of CIA Legend Bill Harvey (Potomac Books, $28.95, 352 pages, illus.). Stockton joined CIA right out of college and served briefly under Harvey in Berlin before taking up journalism. He died soon after finishing this book.

Unfortunately, given that much of Harvey’s work was done in the darkest of shadows, one is not going to learn much about specifics of how he earned his reputation. The best-known operation involved tunneling into the Soviet sector of Berlin and tapping into telephone lines. Although the operation was betrayed from the outset by British diplomat-turned-traitor George Blake, and the infamous Kim Philby, sheer volume alone produced good intelligence for years. And how BOB officers did the extensive snooping that made “Harvey’s Hole” a success is good tradecraft reading.

Back in Washington, Harvey’s next assignment was with Division D of CIA’s Directorate of Operations, which has been — then and now, under different bureaucratic labels — one of the most secretive crannies in the intelligence community. (One activity that Stockton hints at involved burglaries of foreign embassies to steal code books.) But so much of the work is off the books that it impossible for an outsider to venture an informed guess as to what goes on.

Whatever the agenda, Harvey soon found himself mired in two colossal messes: the failed Bay of Pigs operation, and then the bungling attempts by the Kennedy Brothers to overthrow the Castro regime, Operation MONGOOSE. Harvey’s own tortured niche was described in hearings of the Church committee in 1976: an attempt to use the Chicago gangster Johnny Rosselli to assassinate Castro. This plot, among many others, failed. (The best MONGOOSE read I’ve encountered is Don Bohning’s “The Castro Obsession.”)

The last item alone had earmarks of a career-ender. But more painful to Harvey, a veteran field man, was the attempt by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to act as grand marshal of MONGOOSE, despite his utter ignorance of covert activities. Old-timers dined out for years on stories of the verbal clashes between the young Kennedy and the rough-hewn Harvey. Dave Murphy, Harvey’s long-time colleague in BOB, quoted his friend as calling the younger Kennedy and his aides “Fifth Avenue cowboys.”

Months of bitterness climaxed in October 1962. A MONGOOSE colleague related to Stockton several exchanges in October 1962 — the day of Harvey’s final fall from grace — in the White House, as the missile crisis simmered. Whether both Kennedys were present, or the attorney general alone, is disputed. But the remarks seem an accurate rendition of Harvey’s anger: “We heard that Bobby said to Harvey, ‘I could train agents at my house in Virginia!’ … Harvey retorted, ‘as baby-sitters?’”

Harvey was incensed to learn that Bob Kennedy ordered three boats of operatives already enroute to Cuba be recalled. Harvey’s view was that they could add valuable intelligence on the Soviet missile sites.

Things went downhill from that point, until Harvey finally exploded with a statement that for the life of me I cannot cleanse sufficiently for a family newspaper. The gist of Harvey’s outburst was that had not the White House so muddled the Bay of Pigs, MONGOOSE and the kill-Castro plots would not have been necessary. (In fairness, the Kennedys should be credited with one bit of face-saving tradecraft: They kept their personal fingerprints off this deadly buffoonery, a good example of deniability.)

In the end, John McCone, the director of central intelligence, was ordered to remove Harvey from Cuban operations. He was exiled to the basement of the headquarters building, then dispatched to Rome. His final years were marked by acute alcoholism and health problems until his death in 1976.

Stockton is on target when he writes, “The cashiering of Bill Harvey, even if it was for cause, was sharp confirmation that henceforth, politics was boss. In 1965 the politicalization of the Agency was still something new, and something ugly, to the professionals. They knew they were, symbolically, celebrating the last hurrah of the free-wheeling, buccaneering CIA. That Harvey could be humiliated and cashiered because he had — albeit too blatantly — failed to carry out the personal dictates of the nation’s political leadership was a lesson … well understood. The CIA had lost what independence it still held. It had become and would remain a subservient branch of the executive.”

I have one major criticism of Stockton’s book. In discussing Harvey’s role in the anti-Castro plots, he drags longtime officer David Atlee Phillips into ill-grounded speculations about the assassination of President Kennedy.

Such baseless charges were given local currency in an 80,000-word article in the Washingtonian magazine in 1980. Even though Phillips was working on an assigned article for the magazine at the time, neither the author, one Gaeton Fonzi, nor editor Jack A. Limpert, asked Phillips to comment before publishing the staggering charges — one of several reasons that a generation of Washington writers has morphed the editor’s name into “The Jackal.”

Persons interested in the literature of espionage should pause to pay tribute to the Scarecrow Press, Inc., based in Lanham, Md., for a valuable series of “historical dictionaries” on the world’s major intelligence services. Five volumes have been issued to date, and be forewarned that they are pricey, perhaps prohibitively so for the average reader. But as series editor Jon Wornoff explains, they are intended to explain how “the world’s second oldest profession” has evolved over hundreds of years. In large part, the volumes succeed.

Of spacial necessity, many of the items are snapshots, but the extensive bibliographies tell the curious reader where to find further information (the U.S. volume, for instance, has a 55-page section). Each dictionary was compiled by a recognized authority, many of them veterans of intelligence agencies. Here is the series to date:

Robert W. Pringle’s Historical Dictionary of Russian & Soviet Intelligence ($85, 408 pages); Nigel West’s Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence ($75, 360 pages) and Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence ($87, 720 pages); Michael A. Turner’s Historical Dictionary of United States Intelligence ($77, 352 pages); and Ephraim Kahana’s Historical Dictionary of Israeli Intelligence ($75, 424 pages).

Nigel West’s Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence ($115, 544 pages) will be released in 2007.

Stocking stuffers for the next holiday season, perhaps? Tape this list to the refrigerator door as a hint!

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is

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