Lawyers, Guns, and Money

In his excellent work on the French Revolution, Citizens, Simon Schama makes many connections between the path of revolution and Romantic philosophy.  They came to associate monarchy with secrecy–secret plans, secret councils, and the like.  Romanticism preached openness to all things, to nature, to oneself, and so on.  Real, authentic, people had nothing to hide.   It made sense then, that real, authentic government had nothing to hide either.

The French paranoia over secrecy, Schama argues, drove much of the violence in the Revolution.  Even simple misunderstandings could be evidence of “plots,” for no true Frenchman would have anything to hide.  For example, Robespierre’s lieutenant Armand St. Just wrote some unpublished ideas for laws that would have taken his ideas of an open society to an absurd degree.  He urged that,

Every man twenty-one years of age shall publicly state in the temples who are his friends. This declaration shall be renewed each year during the month Ventose. If a man deserts his friend, he is bound to explain his motives before the people in the temples; if he refuses, he shall be banished. Friends shall not put their contracts into writing, nor shall they oppose one another at law. If a man commits a crime, his friends shall be banished. Friends shall dig the grave of a deceased friend and prepare for the obsequies, and with the children of the deceased they shall scatter flowers on the grave. He who says that he does not believe in friendship, or who has no friends, shall be banned of ingratitude shall be banished.

But all this wide-eyed optimism did not prevent the Revolution from eventually being run by the Committee of Public Safety, which met in secret.  It did not prevent informers roaming about looking for counter-revolutionaries.

With the best of intentions comes a tremendous and inevitable tension.  We expect monarchies to have secrets.  Monarchs, by definition, are not quite like normal people anyway.  They decide things apart from the people.  Democracies have different standards, which sometimes makes for more difficult choices and an unsolvable tension.

Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is in some respects a marvelous book.  He writes well and so the pages turn easily.   Weiner’s pours gobs of research into his account.  He has more than 100 pages of footnotes.  Many of his citations come not from other books about the CIA, but from the agents themselves and especially from the CIA’s own de-classified documents.  Weiner works for the NY Times in his day-job reporting on national security issues, so he knows the territory for this book quite well.

Unfortunately for me Weiner rarely delves into analysis and synthesis of his material.  Maybe he wants a “just the facts” reporters perspective.  That’s his strength, and if he added analysis the book might get unwieldy in size.  Fair enough, but in the end the failure to plumb the depths of certain questions make this book incomplete in my eyes.

Weiter hammers away at the CIA, citing failure after failure, blown operation after blown operation.  Their charter called for them to provide political leadership with crucial information that could inform decisions but they whiffed on almost every major crisis.  Their most significant “successes,” such as organizing regime change in Iran in the 1950’s, backfired terribly a generation later.  We had very little success recruiting agents within the Soviet Union and often relied on the intel of our allies.  Internal reviews often pointed out the CIA’s shortcomings, but these reports almost always got buried and nothing changed.

Supposing that Weiner’s basic appraisal is true (which is up for debate), I would have liked more from Weiner on why the CIA failed as it did, but he offers only hints.

Time might have something to do with it.  We are still a young country, with a very young intelligence service.  The British, the Russians, and so on have all done  this for much longer than us and would likely do a better job than us for that reason alone.

I wondered if the level of internal criticism from their own reviews is at least a partial function of personality.  Many intelligence analysts might tend toward pessimism and obsession over detail.  Maybe they would naturally be too hard on themselves.  I stress the word “maybe.”  I glanced through Victor Cherkashin’s Spy Handler: Memoir of  a KGB Officer for a different look and he confirmed some of what Weiner wrote, especially regarding our very poor handling of some of our agents behind the curtain.  Cherkashin handled and helped recruit both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.  He confirms some of what Weiner wrote about the Ames disaster (Hanssen was from the FBI). But he also mentioned some worthy adversaries and tough problems posed by the CIA for the KGB.  His perspective gives the CIA more credit than Weiner.

In one brief aside Weiner mentions that while, yes, the CIA proved almost inept at gathering intelligence, they did an excellent job of using money to buy influence, and they created some really cool gadgets that would be the envy of the international intelligence community.   I am reminded of John le Carre’s quote that one sees the character of a country most particularly in its intelligence service.*  The shoe definitely fits in this case.  We specialize in gadgets and money.

But that doesn’t mean an intelligence failure per se, it could mean a different kind of success.  For example, Weiner seems critical of the development of the U-2 spy plane.  We would not have needed to develop such a plane if we had better human intelligence on the ground.  Eisenhower worried that the plane might get shot down, and so on. True, but the plane gathered important information, some better, some worse, than an agent on the ground would have obtained.  When Gary Powers was shot down it did cause problems, but having an agent captured would also cause problems, albeit of a different type.  We made the U-2 because of our lack of human intelligence, but that doesn’t mean to me that the U-2 symbolizes failure, or is in itself a failure.

A review of Legacy of Ashes by the CIA’s historian, who makes this same point (among many other criticisms), is here.

But it’s in another aside that Weiner gets at the real root issue.  Democracies, he mentions, simply aren’t very good at secrecy, and we’re not good at it mainly because it goes against all of our democratic instincts.  Like the French Romantics, concealment means that we must be up to no good.  And if we commit ourselves to democracy then we need an informed public.  How an informed public, let alone informed public officials, and a clandestine agency should mix we have yet to figure out.  Weiner offers no solutions.  I can’t blame him, as I have none myself.  I do wish, however, that he paid some mind to this tension present in every democracy.

Part of our desire for openness gives the press more freedom in the U.S. than anywhere else.  We have no equivalent, for example, to England’s Official Secrets Act, which allows the British government to shut down almost any story they deem a threat to national security.  The U.S. cannot do this thanks to the first amendment.  Of course sometimes the government lies and the press exposes it.  But sometimes the press gets it wrong and messes up the government.  Weiner cites one such instance during Ford’s presidency.  Ford had orchestrated a dual arms deal to both Egypt and Israel via CIA backchannels.  He wanted to avoid seeming too pro-Israeli, but didn’t want Israel to know about the sales to Egypt.  However we judge it, he had the intention of setting up the U.S. as an international broker between the two countries.  But the press caught wind of the arms sale to Israel and published stories on it, but they had no information on Egypt.  Ford couldn’t say, “Well we sold stuff to Egypt too–we’re trying our best!” for that would expose the operation.

Of course as a reporter Weiner benefits from this access and freedom.  I wish he would have explored this tension. I’m not suggesting that it’s too bad that we have the first amendment, but it’s not an unqualified good. Among other things, it makes life harder for our intelligence services.  Weiner fails to take this into account in his evaluation.

In his Revisionist History podcast renowned author Malcolm Gladwell takes a second look at stories that he feels got neglected by the flow of time.  In his “Damascus Road” episode he looks at an instance involving the press and a CIA asset.  A man named Carlos the Jackal was everybody’s most wanted list.  No one could come close to catching him.  Out of the blue a man volunteered his help to the CIA.  He wanted no money, rather, he sought to try and make amends for the terrorist activities of his past, some of which had killed Americans.  He gave us information that allowed for his capture.

Under the Clinton administration the Justice Department ordered an “asset scrub” as part of the overhaul of the CIA.  How to draw a line between who stays and who goes?  It seemed simple enough to say that anyone who had previously killed Americans needed let go as an asset.

The CIA complied for the most part, but this particular asset was simply too valuable.  He remained on the books.

Eventually, however, a reporter found out about this non-compliance from a variety of sources.  He wrote the story but met with a CIA agent before publishing it.  The CIA representative got the reporter to remove some the crucial details, but not all.  He pleaded with the reporter . . . the details he left in would expose this asset and seal his fate.  The story was published, and the asset was killed shortly thereafter.

You probably guessed that the reporter in question was Tim Weiner.

Weiner argued that if anyone should be blamed for the man’s death, it was the CIA.  They broke the law (a dumb law, but the law nonetheless) and his job as a reporter is to at times expose the misdeeds of government.  He had credible sources within the CIA itself for the story.  He might further argue that he had no reason to fundamentally trust the CIA with its claims, so often did they mislead and misdirect.

I can’t see it that way.  Had Weiner not published the article, or even watered it down more, our asset would not have been exposed.  He played a role in his death.  When asked how those at the NY Times reacted to this turn of events, he said that for the most part it was business as usual.  You move on to the next story.

That argument aside, I find it ironic that Weiner should so stringently criticize the CIA for not developing foreign assets when he himself had a direct hand in exposing one of their best.

Moving on to a different argument . . . I say that “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” is far and away Warren Zevon’s best song.  The song’s unreliable narrator makes this one so enjoyable and so funny.  Those familiar with the lyrics know that the protagonist always goes home with a waitress, and surprise, it doesn’t always work out.  He goes “gambling in Havanna” and–shockingly–finds himself in hot water, then calls upon dear old dad (not for the first time, it seems) to bail him out.  Yet, he remains “an innocent bystander,” who “somehow got stuck.”

Ok, the connection to all I’ve written here is weak.  Mainly, I thought the song made a great title for this post.  It’s a book about the CIA, after all.  I do not suggest that Weiner resembles Zevon’s most famous character.  But Weiner criticizes the CIA constantly throughout his work for losing track of ends and means, for never looking squarely in the mirror, for dissimulation and failure.  However true, Weiner suffers from something similar.  Legacy of Ashes paints with too narrow a brush.

Weiner’s characters almost all suffer from myopia.  Weiner might suffer from it as well.  There is no particular shame in this.  It is a human problem, and not the sole property of spies.


*Le Carre is a perfect example of the principle I speculate about in the above paragraph.  He is the former spy for the west who now is enormously critical of spying.  His cold war novels expressed an ambivalence about the two major sides, while his post-cold war work exclusively criticizes the West in general, and the U.S. in particular.  People naturally assume that this makes his portrayals more realistic, but I’m confident that’s not necessarily so.




Meandering Thoughts on Equality

For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service.  I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.

I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.

It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C.  There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’).  Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.

Enter Solon.  He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich.  He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides.  He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect.  More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete.  One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.

He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of

  • Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
  • Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
  • Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
  • Etc.  You get the idea.

By some accounts aristocrats paid a % 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.  

He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work.  This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.

He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.  

In the end

  • Athens had a stronger middle class
  • Athens had relative social stability
  • Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later.  They  create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)

Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us.  For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process.  He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word).  C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways.  We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.

I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it.  Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this, i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know).

The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before.  But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians.  For better or worse we are more individualistic.  The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.  

Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours.  Ancient Persia could be an exception.  The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception.  They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean.  It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures.  But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different.  This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic.  It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality.  If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*

The trade-offs are huge.  You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and open immigration.  The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible, the third, from my point of view, would be immoral.  Would you want to make these trades even if it was possible?

Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete.  But . . . he found a way to work with it.  

Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America?  If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia?  Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America?  Would the world be safer?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal.  In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way.  Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.

Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C.  They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed.  All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that

  • Both sides used violence to settle issues
  • Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’  They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.).  The Roman civil wars gave us the emperors.  

We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley.  He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid.  If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.  

None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue.  Why is inequality a problem in the first place?  By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.

We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so.  For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common.  We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.

Other societies experience inequality or have experienced it without thinking much about it.  Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue.  But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.**  We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.

Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success.  The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously.  Vast gaps between classes opened up.

Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically.  In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.

Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state.  Marx had many things wrong.  But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess.  Why did the capitalist state survive?  Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society.  Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.

The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle.  It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing.  I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth.  I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt.  I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.

Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place.  All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.

All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution.  The monastics show us that it is possible.


*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality.  Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?

**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.