The CIA: In Fact and Fiction

As Monty Python might say "And now for something completely different…" Or perhaps "And now for a little blow-back."

The CIA: In Fact and Fiction
Reva and David Logan Lecture Symposium
UC Berkeley School of Journalism
May 5, 2007 (Cinco de Mayo)

"Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who." Monty Python

On a day meant for Corona and Lime on a beach with mariachi music in the air, your intrepid concert-goer found himself holed up in a darkened, stuffy lecture hall at the University of California- Berkeley listening to the official historian of the CIA drone on about government history. Worse yet, bureaucratic agency history- which DCI beget which DCI in some carnivalesque parody of Genesis. And the Lord said, "Let there be spies! And there were spies and it was good." Of course, there were film clips from the "Good Shepherd" and commentary from Eric Roth, the screenwriter, but tragically no popcorn.

While you might consider this to be a puzzling way to spend a beautiful Saturday in San Francisco, I did this intentionally. And there were a few nuggets of information, all declassified for your enjoyment. What is a spy gathering without a little braggadocio? Apparently, the CIA invented Blackberry technology 20 years ago. Makes you wonder what toys they are currently hiding in their basement at Langley. There was also the dubious claim that the CIA has forsworn any assassination attempts since 1963. Of course, this could be true, when you can outsource torture, you can outsource assassinations. That way everyone's happy. Plausible deniability and all that. Clean linens, cool toys. Don't fuss.

"Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony." Monty Python

As journalist Tim Weiner noted, it is difficult to discuss the CIA without the conversation devolving into a foreign policy debate. Nevertheless, that foreign policy debate was curiously absent from the Berkeley symposium. You could expect nothing less from a historical symposium largely populated by former officers of the CIA discussing a film about the formation of the CIA in 1947. There were categorical denials, "We don't do torture." Although this statement came with a curious caveat that this was, at least, true until the current Administration. And there was the catch-all defense laid out at the beginning, "The CIA is carrying out the President's foreign policy. The CIA does not devise their own foreign policy." This was the ultimate escape clause for almost any dubious action and further limited any moral or ethical objections to CIA activity- even though this defense was rejected at Nuremburg. Nevertheless, it is still a part of the US government lexicon. Of course, there is no need for farcical aquatic ceremonies or CIA-engineered coups when the army drops bunker-busters on the front-door. Not much mystery or romance there. All at the President's order.

"It's not a question of where he grips it! It's a simple question of weight ratios! A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut." Monty Python

This brings us to the current CIA figure du jour and media whipping boy George Tenet. And leads one to ask the question, what would have happened at Nuremburg if the only evidence allowed was provided by Albert Speer? I suspect Ohio would have re-elected Hitler. Even the career CIA officers could only muster half-hearted statements of support and one nearly explicit charge of incompetence. Which leads me to my only real complaint about an otherwise stellar and thought-provoking Symposium: with the focus on history and the CIA portrayal in film, there was very little discussion about the most salacious controversies swirling about the CIA today- torture, extraordinary rendition, and no discussion at all about 9/11 and WMD, perhaps the greatest intelligence failures in a generation. Those will have to be for another symposium and another day.

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