Of ghosts and gentlemen and G-men, and the disasters they made

January 08, 1995|By Robert Scheer | Robert Scheer,Los Angeles Times

Ted Shackley was appropriately called the "Blond Ghost" by his CIA colleagues, for he quietly ran the show without ever leaving fingerprints. The nickname was not at all intended to flatter. As point man for a generation's worth of agency escapades, from the Cuban missile crisis to Irangate, Shackley earned the reputation of a survivor who had risen rapidly in the ranks by dutifully carrying out orders, no matter how bizarre they might be -- and without ever being tarred with responsibility for the debacle that ensued.

Journalist David Corn, in his fast-paced and provocative book, has managed to get the still tight-lipped crowd that worked with Shackley to talk.

Thanks also to Mr. Corn's skillful combing of long-secret but newly released public records, we finally get inside the head of a man whose career thrived on national disaster.

It was Shackley who managed the huge CIA station in Miami during the Kennedy years and who dispatched Cuban emigres and American Mafiosi alike to assassinate Fidel Castro and burn Cuba's sugar fields. Yet even though Shackley's and the agency's record in attempting to overthrow the Cuban president was marked by ineptitude worthy of the Keystone Kops -- producing results that were always disastrous when they weren't merely humorous -- Shackley was rewarded with the CIA's sensitive Laotian desk after leaving the Caribbean theater.

Historical accountability only caught up with the Blond Ghost when he became a target of a congressional investigation of the Iran-contra affair for his activities soon after retiring from the CIA.

The jobs Shackley performed for the U.S. government throughout his decades of intrigue were repetitious to the point of dullness: laundering illicitly obtained money, trafficking with drug runners, hiring hoodlums and free-lance killers. The sense one is left with is of the quintessential government goon, who could have carried out the orders of the most monstrous of leaders.

Fortunately, the leaders of the CIA and the presidents it pretended to report to were not monsters. Instead, as Peter Grose's excellent and long-needed biography of Allen Dulles, the seminal figure in the agency's history, demonstrates, they were highly intelligent, well-educated, inherently elitist, but almost always immature. Despite Mr. Grose's somewhat gingerly and overly forgiving stance, which at times strains credulity, Dulles and his contemporaries at the top of the agency's hierarchy come across as hyperactive kids who refused to grow up and remained, into ripe old age, hooked on the sugar of intrigue. As a result, men like Dulles and Shackley became "Park Avenue cowboys," overly warming to the agency's covert operations while effectively undermining its crucial information-gathering functions.

"Gentleman Spy" is just right as a title for summarizing Dulles' long career with the CIA, which he directed from 1953 to 1961. (His first name is generally used because Dulles always operated in close proximity to his even more famous brother, John Foster Dulles, U.S. secretary of state from 1953 to 1959.) Educated in the best schools and wined and dined at the finest watering holes, Dulles became a corporate lawyer and partner in the Sullivan & Cromwell firm that represented many top business clients with investments abroad. When he entered government service, he suddenly found himself empowered to act against -- even to order the execution of -- people who dared question the propriety of U.S. foreign investment.

One of Dulles' anti-business targets was Jacobo Arbenz, the elected leader of Guatemala. Arbenz had ruffled the feathers of top executives of the United Fruit Co., who were accustomed to treating Guatemala as an obsequious franchise. In the 1950s there was no politically correct hand-wringing over conflict of interest, so it did not seem to matter that the law firm where Dulles and his brother (by then secretary of state) had been senior partners had represented United Fruit.

It was therefore without qualm, and without any serious criticism in the U.S. media, that Dulles ordered, in Mr. Grose's words, "nothing less than the overthrow of a duly elected government," in an operation he labeled "Operation Success." And it was successful, if success is represented by overthrowing an elected leader who made gestures at redistributing United Fruit land to his mostly poor and landless countrymen. The result is that Guatemala has been ruled almost ever since by ruthless, military-backed dictators, and many thousands have fled the country to escape repression. Any Guatemalans in Los Angeles now struggling to prove legitimacy in the aftermath of Proposition 187 could rightfully list Dulles as the sponsor for their green cards.

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