The CIA finally spills its secrets Television: Allende? Castro? Iran? In this compelling documentary, former agents and insiders confirm your suspicions, and then some.

March 31, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Sending the severed ears of dead Communists through the mail. Teaching Afghan rebels how to make a "camel bomb" by loading an animal with explosives and detonating it outside a Soviet officers' club. Deciding to mine the harbor of Managua, Nicaragua, one night after a few too many martinis.

It's just another day at the office for the guys from the Central Intelligence Agency, according to "CIA: America's Secret Warriors," a compelling three-part documentary beginning at 10 tonight on the Discovery cable channel.

Discovery is to non-fiction television what HBO is to made-for-television movies: Nobody does it better -- not NBC, ABC, CBS or PBS. "Secret Warriors" is of the same high quality and blistering intensity as such other Discovery productions as "Watergate," "The Fall of Saigon" and "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation."

In this 50th anniversary year of the CIA, "Secret Warriors" tells the agency's history primarily through the words of former officers from its Directorate of Operations, the elite division responsible for clandestine operations. The culture they proudly depict will make your skin crawl and your head ache with what has been done in the name of God, country, paranoia and higher profits for American corporations operating abroad.

This history starts in 1942, after Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, with the creation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) by President Franklin Roosevelt. Five years later, it evolved into the CIA with its manifesto of fighting communism.

In the beginning, the agency was virtually all Ivy League -- particularly Yale with its secret societies and exclusive fraternities, according to "Secret Warriors." Forty-two members of the Yale class of 1943 alone found their way into the agency, viewers are told. The path from the halls of Ivy to Langley, Va., remained a heavily traveled one throughout the 1950s, '60 and '70s.

"I can't get over the feeling I had when I showed up," says Frank Anderson (CIA, 1968-1994). "This was an outfit that had an image that only the best and the brightest from the Ivy League schools with tremendous political connections get in the door. And the truth of the matter is, I was really grateful to be there."

Major victory

The first major victory for the alleged "best and the brightest" came in 1953 when Iran threatened to nationalize Western oil companies, and the CIA hired a local mob to protest. The result: one prime minister toppled, and one pro-American Shah put in power.

A year later, a popularly elected government in Guatemala made the mistake of threatening to nationalize land under the control of America's United Fruit Company. United Fruit had ties to the Dulles brothers (Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles), and, before you can say "coup," another government falls with the help of the CIA.

Bay of Pigs, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Iran-contra and assassination attempts on Castro -- the greatest hits and misses of the CIA from the Shah of Iran to allegations of CIA drug trafficking in Los Angeles are all played on full volume in "Secret Warriors." For virtually every allegation against the agency that you ever heard but thought was too wild to be true there is a former CIA officer on camera saying things like, "Allende? Chile? Yeah, we did that. But let me tell you what we did in El Salvador."

There's Anthony A. Poshepny, a k a. Tony Poe, saying, "I was involved in the most beautiful killing operations but I could do it because I'm a little unconventional." Poshepny, who was with the CIA from 1950 to 1976, organized the Hmong tribesmen in Laos to fight Communists by paying a dollar for each set of Communist ears brought to him. He is said to be one of the models for Colonel Kurtz, the character played by Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now."

There's Duane "Dewey" Clarridge (1957-1987), recalling his conversation with the late William Casey, then CIA director, about how they should proceed in Central America: "It didn't take rocket science to figure out what should be done down there. We should take the war to Nicaragua and we should start killing Cubans. Well, of course, this is exactly what Casey wanted to hear."

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Tomorrow, the focus is spying during the Cold War, with such voices as Aldrich Ames, the convicted traitor, and James Angleton, the wildly paranoid former chief of counterintelligence. Wednesday, Philip Roettinger (1954-1964) and others talk about blowback, the fallout of 50 years of covert CIA actions, in the form of terrorist acts in the United States today.

Besides such former officers, there are on-camera interviews with four former directors: Richard Helms, Stansfield Turner, John Deutch and the late William Colby.

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