Sam Smith, 2003 – If you want to confirm the Washington Post’s affection for the CIA, not to mention its attraction to politically perverted role models, check out its obituary section.
Just a few weeks after giving the notorious Richard Helms false nobility in an obituary, it sent off another egregious CIA figure, Theodore Shackley, with even more misleading kudos. J.Y. Smith wrote:
Theodore G. Shackley, 75, a retired associate deputy director for clandestine operations of the CIA whose career took him from the streets of Berlin to the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, died of cancer Dec. 9 at his home in Bethesda. In the context of an agency and a profession whose watchwords are secrecy and deception, Mr. Shackley was a legendary figure. He was known as ‘the godfather of secret warriors.1 He was a three time recipient of the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the agency’s highest honor.
While Smith admitted that Shackley was controversial – a common Post euphemism for a bad sort it likes – there was no sense of the truly destructive, deceitful, murderous, and counterproductive life that Shackley led – including his involvement with the pointlessly unsuccessful attempts to kill Castro, the disastrous secret war in Laos and its resultant heroin trade to the U.S., and the unpunished international war crime known as the Phoenix program.
He was likely also involved in the October Surprise and in helping Oliver North and George Bush Sr. establish what, with the help of the Democratic governor, became a CIA guns and drugs operation out of Mena Arkansas.
In a more balanced piece in the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg noted: “In Miami, he directed an ambitious anti-Castro propaganda and paramilitary campaign, and as a sign of its significance, Shackley would later say that he commanded the third-largest navy in the Caribbean — only the United States and Cuba had more vessels than the CIA station chief’s flotilla.” She continued:
In Laos, Shackley helped run a secret war using local tribes people, and at the end of that campaign the tribe was decimated,” said David Corn, author of the 1994 book, Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA’s Crusade. “Shackley was in some ways the archetype of the Cold War covert bureaucrat.
He took orders from above . . . running secret wars, undermining democratically elected governments, compromising journalists and political opponents overseas and made them a reality,” Corn said. Shackley also ran Latin American operations out of CIA headquarters in 1973 when Gen. Augusto Pincohet led a coup in Chile that toppled the elected government of President Salvador Allende. “He was not the mastermind of the clandestine operations of presidents and CIA directors. He was the implementer,” Corn said.
Ralph McGhee, a former CIA officer, has described the Phoenix operation as originally designed 0’to ‘neutralize,’ that is assassinate or imprison, members of the civilian infrastructure of the [Vietnamese] National Liberation Front. Phoenix offices were set up from Saigon down to the district level. . . The original Phoenix concept was quickly diluted, for two main reasons: (1) pressure from the top to fill numerical quotas of person to be neutralized; (2) difficulties at the bottom of identifying NLF civilian infrastructure, who were often indistinguishable from the general population, and the near impossibility of proving anyone membership in the NLF. The result was vastly to increase the numbers of innocent persons rounded up and imprisoned, indiscriminately murdered, and brutally tortured in an effort to show results . . . Between 1968 and 1972 hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians were rounded up and turned over to the Vietnamese police for questioning. Such interrogation has usually been marked by brutal torture.’” While the Post mentions Shackley retiring during the Carter administration – he was really fired – and it describes CIA chief Stansfield Turner’s effort to reform the agency and get rid of its barbarian cowboys as “drastically reducing the clandestine service.”
The Post does admit that “by the end of the decade, Mr. Shackley’s career appeared to have hit a dead end, in part because of dealings he had with Edwin P. Wilson, a former CIA agent who illegally sold explosives to Libya.” In fact, the well-meaning Carter-Turner effort had serious blowback, for people like Shackley didn’t really retire; they just became freelancers who returned to haunt the country during the Iran- Contra era. The Post’s claim that “he had a minor and tangential role in the Iran-contra scandal that rocked the Reagan administration” illustrates that while Shackley may be dead, disinformation thrives.
The real epilogue for such a life won’t found in such spook-cuddling journals as the Washington Post and the New York Times but in backwaters of memory almost as obscure as an agency file. One of the best is Joseph Trento’s “Secret History of the CIA” in which he describes interviewing grand spymaster James Angleton shortly before his death:
The last time I saw James Angleton, his face, always thinner than thin, had changed little, even though the cigarettes he would not give up had destroyed his lungs with cancer. The other cancer that was eating away at him was the suspicion and fear that came with his job. He was a man estranged by his career from his wife and children and dying in total emotional isolation.
Within the confines of his remarkable life were most of America’s secrets. “You know how I got to be in charge of counterintelligence? I agreed not to polygraph or require detailed background checks on Alien Dulles and 60 of his closest friends.” His monologue would stop only for a sip of tea or a violent fit of coughing. “They were afraid that their own business dealings with Hitler’s pals would come out. They were too arrogant to believe that the Russians would discover it all.”
The real problem, Angleton concluded, was that “there was no accountability. And without real accountability everything turned to shit.” All the trappings of Angleton’s legend were gone by this time, except for his love of exotic tea. But now this man who had struck fear into most of his colleagues – this man who had been able to end a CIA career with a nod or a phone call – seemed empty. “You know, the CIA got tens of thousands of brave people killed. . . We played with lives as if we owned them. We gave false hope. We -I – so misjudged what happened.” I asked the dying old man how it all went so wrong. With no emotion in his voice, but with his hand trembling, Angleton replied:
“Fundamentally, the founding fathers of U.S. intelligence were liars.”The better you lied and the more you betrayed, the more likely you would be promoted. These people attracted and promoted each other. Outside of their duplicity, the only thing they had in common was a desire for absolute power. I did things that, in looking back on my life, I regret. But I was part of it and loved being in it. . . Alien Dulles, Richard Helms, Carmel Offie, and Frank Wisner were the grand masters. If you were in a room with them you were in a room full of people that you had to believe would deservedly end up in hell.”
Angleton slowly sipped his tea and then said, “I guess I will see them there soon.”