“The Third Option” – US Covert Action with Loch Johnson (Part 1 of 2)
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week's guest has forgotten more about American intelligence than most people know. Loch Johnson is the author of over 30 books, served on some of the most high-profile intelligence commissions and committees, including the landmark Church Committee in 1975 and the Aspin-Brown Commission in 1996, and had a long, successful career at the University of Georgia, where he is an emeritus professor. He even has a society named after him. He's also a great guy and very humble, given his considerable achievements. In this week's episode, we discuss Loch's new book on covert action, aka "The Third Option," propaganda, subversion, economic sabotage and paramilitary operations, the difference between regular intelligence and covert action and shaping history on the margins.
Andrew Hammond: If you have enjoyed "SpyCast" in 2022, please consider leaving us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. Guests this year have included ex-CIA director and secretary of defense Robert Gates, head of NATO intelligence David Cattler, former head of the Colombian Navy, Admiral Wills and former State Department intelligence chief Ellen McCarthy. Coming up next year will be a former head of research for Israeli military intelligence, the current head of the FBI's counterintelligence division and a look at some fascinating historical figures such as the Cuban spy Ana Montes and J. Edgar Hoover. We also have a cheeky episode on the historic hotel in London where Britain's crack special operations executive - or the SOE - were formed. We hope you enjoy this week's show.
Andrew Hammond: Well, it's a real pleasure to speak to you, Loch. I've been looking forward to this, and I'm so glad that it's eventually happened. The first thing that I wanted to ask was, there's a great quote that you have at the beginning of your book that studying covert action is like a motorcycle ride through an art gallery in the context of your book because you're just taking in so much so quickly. So I just wondered if you could tell us, by way of introduction, what's your book about, why did you set out to write it and how did you execute it? So why did you write it?
Loch Johnson: Yes. Well, Andrew, it's marvelous to be with you. I've been a big fan for quite a while now, and I feel honored to be here. That's a quote from Admiral Studeman, who was the second in command at the CIA. And he mentioned that in passing over lunch, and I always thought that was a picturesque phrase. As you well know - and certainly, your audience members know as well - the intelligence community in the United States - and I think this is true in the U.K. and elsewhere - has three primary activities that it's involved in. I would argue the most important is - and I'll put these two together into one basket - collection and analysis. I mean, that's why these agencies were initially created. The second one is to protect the information that we do gather through the first mission, and that's called counterintelligence - protecting our own secrets. And then thirdly is covert action - and I say thirdly because sometimes it's called the third option. This is, as you well know, a policy response in international affairs that can fit somewhere between sending in the Marines on the one hand and using the diplomats on the other hand.
Loch Johnson: So when I was on the Church Committee, I was his top aide. In 1975, '76, we held some hearings on all of those subjects. And the covert action ones were particularly spectacular and interesting to me. And as you will recall, we looked into various assassination plots against Castro and Lumumba and some others by the CIA, none of which came to fruition at the hands of the CIA, at any rate, although I think they were complicit in a couple of successful assassination attempts. And then we looked in depth at Chile. I mean, we could have looked at hundreds of different topics. I remember we were frustrated because we were limited in how many we could look at, but we thought Chile was a good case study. So having been exposed to the CIA assassination plots and the Chile case study of covert action and having been an aide to Frank Church, who was vociferously against covert action almost across the board, I began to wonder more about it. I decided once I returned to academia, I would take a closer look at that topic.
Loch Johnson: So it's so important, and I'll remind listeners that at times, what was initially the tail on the dog of the CIA - covert action being the tail added on as an afterthought to the primary mission of collection analysis - became the tail that wagged the dog. It became extremely important at the agency. And during the '50s, at one point, 78% of the CIA budget was devoted to covert action. Now, this has gone up and down and fluctuated, but it was clear to me this is a very important topic, and that's why I wanted to have a close look at it.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. That's really great. Just a few things I want to pick up on there, Loch. So just for our listeners that aren't up to speed on this, just set out what the Church Committee was. I could tell them what it was, but you were actually on the committee, so I think it may be better if you do it.
Loch Johnson: Yes. Well, in December of 1974, Seymour Hersh, a leading reporter of The New York Times, who had already won one Pulitzer Prize for covering the My Lai massacre, was the recipient of a leak - or leaks - from the CIA. We don't know from whom, even now. But they talked about what's known inside the CIA as the Family Jewels. And this was a list of abuses that was supposed to be kept inside. It was ordered by James Schlesinger back in 1973 because he wanted to have an inventory of - from inside the house out there at Langley, Va., as to what had gone wrong in the past so that he could start with a clean slate and wouldn't be responsible or be charged for those things that had happened in the past. You could say, well, this is the list I was given. I'm not responsible for those. So this list was, to say the least, rather explosive, outlining all of the mistakes the CIA had made, including some illegal operations.
Loch Johnson: So this was a shocking headline in The New York Times. And Hersh had several stories during - particularly in December of 1974. And two of the ones that were most prominent had to do with, first, Operation CHAOS, which was nothing less than the Orwellian CIA spying on American citizens, specifically anti-Vietnam War protesters, and mainly on the U.S. campuses. And then secondly, details on a covert action against Allende in Chile, who had been the president of Chile and was assassinated - not by the CIA but by some people who the CIA had funded. And that was a disturbing case, as well. So that immediately created a firestorm, first in Washington, D.C., and then one that spread across the United States. 'Cause, after all, the American people thought that these agencies - CIA and the others - were there to protect them, not to spy on them, and were there to advance democracies around the world, not to undermine the democracy in Chile, however much we may not have liked Allende.
Loch Johnson: So immediately, after all the years the CIA had been around since 1947, the Congress finally decided that maybe the time had come to bring that agency into the American government - not to have it outside somewhere operating on its own, but subject, like the Department of Congress or the Department of Agriculture, to laws and regulations and regular briefings and what we all call accountability. So the Church Committee was created in January of 1975 to take a closer look at The New York Times charges to see if they were correct and to see what else these agencies were up to. And we very quickly confirmed that the CIA had, in fact, engaged in Operation CHAOS, had, in fact, been involved in trying to overthrow Allende in Chile. But then, lo and behold, as we lifted up the rock and peered underneath, all these other things came wriggling out, many other intelligence activities that were beyond the pale.
Loch Johnson: For instance, just to be brief about it. One was COINTELPRO, which was an FBI program to not only spy on civil rights activists in the United States and anti-Vietnam protesters, but to conduct nothing less than covert action against them. That is, to disrupt their families, to ruin their lives so that they could no longer be involved in protest movements against the United States. And the key target became Dr. Martin Luther King, who was the leading religious leader in the United States, an African American man. J. Edgar Hoover, the leader of the FBI, was an archracist (ph). And he told, in essence, his CIA - or rather his FBI offices to go after King with everything they had. And that ended up with blackmailing King into - the FBI hoped - taking his own life before he received the Nobel Prize for peace. And the blackmail took the form of some tape recordings that the FBI had gathered against him with him involved in some extracurricular activities outside the bounds of matrimony, which was quite embarrassing to King. But he did the right thing. I think he called in his wife and explained what had happened, and she stood by him, and they made the tapes public - tremendously embarrassing, obviously, and shameful for a religious leader like that. But it defused the blackmail attempts. At the time, Dr. King had no idea where these tapes came from. They came anonymously. And it was the Church Committee that discovered it was the FBI, a prominent agency of the United States government, that was involved in this.
Loch Johnson: Let me hasten to say, Andrew, that when I say things that are critical of the FBI and the CIA and these other agencies, I'm talking about the minority of the activities they're engaged in. They're doing some awfully good work. And these are agencies that we need and must have. But sometimes they've erred, and that's what we're talking about.
Andrew Hammond: And just for our listeners, I'm just going to make a brief insertion here just so that the - we get up to speed and so that we can move on to discuss covert action. So the CIA is founded in '47 - 75 years old just the other week there. Then there's three major - as I see it, there's three major instances of reform. So as you say, from '47 until '75, it's off the books considerably. And then there's the Church Committee, which you're involved in, which the U.S. Senate - that's the U.S. Senate Committee. Then there's the Pike committee, which is the House, and then there's a Rockefeller Commission, which is a presidential commission by President Ford.
Andrew Hammond: And then the next major instance of reform is in 1995, '96, looking at the post-Cold War intelligence community. And that's the Les Aspin committee as well. But you're also on that. So you're involved in the first two. And then the third one comes after 9/11 with the reforms and the intelligence reforms that come after 9/11. And we can come on to discuss some of that stuff a little bit later. But just for listeners, I just wanted to kind of put a few markers in the sand so they know what's going on.
Loch Johnson: Yes. Well, that's an excellent and succinct summary of the three major ones, yes.
Andrew Hammond: So let's - just very briefly, the Church Committee - that's not just looking at the CIA, right? It's the intelligence community.
Loch Johnson: Well, the initial impetus, as I mentioned, was the Times reporting on the CIA. So that's what created the committee. But once we were created, we decided, well, what are these other agencies doing? Maybe we ought to have a look at the National Security Agency, the NSA, and the FBI and, you know, all the rest of them. I think back in those days, there were about 12 of them. Today, there are 18. And so we began to have a look, and we didn't really anticipate finding much. But we certainly found a lot from COINTELPRO to various NSA programs eavesdropping on American citizens, which nobody except a very small group of people knew was going on and was quite questionable, to say the least.
Andrew Hammond: That's really interesting. And it was interesting that the family jewels example - so Jim Schlesinger - come up with some overview of all the things that we've been involved in that, you know, we may not want to do in the future that eventually gets released. And it reminded me when you were speaking there about the Pentagon Papers because that was a secret study commissioned by the defense secretary, Robert McNamara. And it seems to me that if you're inside government and you've got dirty secrets you want to keep, the last thing you should do is ask for some comprehensive report that can then subsequently get leaked.
Loch Johnson: That's a good one.
Andrew Hammond: But for the public, this is a great thing - right? - because then you've got the overview that could be very difficult to piece together. So I say that as an aside. So let's just put another marker in the sand. When we're talking about covert action, what are we talking about? Like, people like you and me that, you know, read that stuff and do it for a living - we kind of know what's going on. But just for your average person on the street, well, isn't everything the CIA does covert action? I mean, it's not like they walk up to the Soviet Embassy and chop the door and say, you know, we're here to get some secrets. So what's the difference between regular intelligence activity and covert action? What makes something covert action?
Loch Johnson: Well, much of what the CIA does is covert in nature. And I mentioned at the very beginning of this program that the main duty of the CIA and all the other intelligence agencies in the U.K. and throughout the world and Russia, for that matter, is to gather intelligence about adversaries and not only adversaries. But today, the list of potential threats has broadened to include environmental problems and, need I say, a possibility of pandemics and what that can do to a country.
Loch Johnson: So the intelligence collection mission is quite broad. About 95% - this is an astonishing figure, I think - of all U.S. intelligence reports are comprised of open source material - what's called OSINT, open intelligence, gathered from newspapers and magazines and listening to people give speeches overseas. You know, if you go to Moscow today - I've not been there myself, but I'm told that there are kiosks all over with hundreds of magazines about what's going on in Russia. So there's a lot of open-source information. But, you know, some of the most important information is sealed. It's hidden in safes in Beijing or in Moscow or Kremlin or other places. So we'd like to be able to find out the innermost secrets of our adversaries because they might include military plans or economic plans that can be harmful to us. So in this first mission of collection and analysis, we have developed a lot of technology to gather these secrets. So all of that is secret. But we also are called upon in the CIA to sometimes try and shape history. And, Andrew, as you know, good luck with that. History doesn't like to be shaped. It's a power all of its own. But we try to shape it, at least at the margins. And we do that through covert action, sometimes called a third option or special activities or the quiet option at times, certainly quieter than using the Marines.
Loch Johnson: And it really comes in four packages. Package No. 1 is propaganda. Through secret channels around the world, the United States and every other country that can afford it - certainly, the Russians and the Chinese have become expert at this - try to flood the media airwaves, social media and more open, more straightforward, old-fashioned media with information that's supportive of one's own nation.
Loch Johnson: Now, the difference between - and this may not be credible to some viewers, but I think it's - or some listeners. But I think it is true. The difference between U.S. and Russian propaganda is about 98% of ours is true. It's just resonating themes from the White House or the State Department but through these hidden channels because, you know, if you're a journalist in Germany and the CIA can recruit you to write in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine or some other newspaper locally, some article that has really been written in the CIA but now translated into German, that has a lot more credibility with German readers than a White House press release.
Loch Johnson: So we try and persuade people around the world that America's point of view is this and deserves to be supported. Now, in times of military conflict, about 3% of our propaganda will be misleading. We tried to fool the Nazis - successfully, I might say - into thinking we were going to land in someplace other than Normandy as we invaded Europe during World War II.
Loch Johnson: And then next comes political covert actions. Here's where we attempt to nurture political systems overseas so that they're more friendly toward the United States. And this can mean secret money given to politicians who we find friendly to the United States to help them in their election or reelection bids. In England, MI6, the equivalent of the CIA over there, calls us King George's Cavalry. And what they mean is this is money riding to the rescue. You give a candidate a bag of money - let's say $1,000,000 in it. He or she can buy a lot of advertising time in Italy or Germany or some other place that you're trying to get this person elected to. And we support political parties secretly.
Loch Johnson: Now, why don't we do all this openly? Well, we do some of it open, and we have some institutions in Washington that try to support democracies around the world openly. But back in the 1940s, we decided, particularly in Italy, that if we gave money openly to Italian politicians, the people of Italy who were voting might think, oh, the Americans are trying to buy these elections, and they might vote against these people as being puppets of the United States. So we went underground and gave money to pro-U.S. candidates so that they would have more credibility. In the meantime, the Russians were doing the same thing. Millions of rubles were floating into the Italian Communist Party. So there was a subterranean electoral war going on. And that's what the second package is all about - trying to do well in the political domain around the world.
Loch Johnson: Thirdly, out of the four that I'm presenting, is economic covert action. Disrupt the economy of a foreign power that is an adversary of ours, mining their harbors so shipping can't come in as we did in Vietnam and Nicaragua, counterfeiting currency to create economic chaos within their country, blowing up dams - there are all kinds of mischievous things one can do in the domain of economics clandestinely.
Loch Johnson: And then fourthly and most dramatically are paramilitary operations. And these are warlike activities. These can be coups d'etat or supplying weapons to groups we support overseas. A classic case is providing Stinger missiles secretly to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s, which, Andrew, you've written about very well, I think. So those are the four major packages of covert action. And you can see how they're distinct from the first set of secret activities because the first set had to do with collecting information through HUMINT and technical sources. And the second approach that we're talking about now, covert action, has to do with trying to manipulate events abroad, change the course of history, give history a nudge. That's what it's all about.
Andrew Hammond: So you could sum it up as saying trying to put your thumb on the scale of history to tilt it one way or another. Would that be fair?
Loch Johnson: Yes. That's fair. That's a good way to put it.
Andrew Hammond: OK. A couple of things just before we move on - sometimes I think that I like to do interviews the way that I like to cook. I like to clean up as I go along, whereas when my wife cooks, it's just - she cooks, and then the kitchen is like a bomb site at the end. So just before we move on to the next part, if I can just tidy up a couple things - so you mentioned 78% of CIA funds in the '50s were going towards covert action. Do you have any sense of how that fluctuated or has fluctuated over the years?
Loch Johnson: Yes. Well, thank you for that question. I think that's quite an important question. Imagine trying to diagram the emphasis on covert action by the CIA from 1947 when it was created 75 years later till now. I would say it would look like a three-humped camel. I don't think I use that phrase in the book, but that's one way of looking at it. So when you start off, covert action is very low-level, in amounts of virtually no money because they're just getting it started. But then when the Korean War comes along, suddenly, paramilitary activities are extremely important in support of American overt military force against the North Koreans. So you get your first hump and lot of spending, particularly on paramilitary weaponry and so on, in the war against North Korea.
Loch Johnson: And then it begins to subside after that war ends and we turn a little more away from paramilitary operations toward political ones. And that's where you have the classic intervention in Iran that put the shah in power, followed by in Guatemala, where you put Arbenz in power, two figures who were controversial at the time. The Mosaddegh was the controversial figure in Iran and replaced by the shah. In Guatemala, we also deposed a person who had been elected by the people of that country. So we turned to political activities more, and that went along pretty well until what's famous to everyone or infamous - the Bay of Pigs operation. And that's when the hump really reaches down into a valley because that discredited the approach of covert action.
Loch Johnson: The success in Iran, the success in Guatemala, the success earlier in helping Italy and other countries resist communism in Western Europe all were big pluses. And there was a sense of euphoria both in the Truman and particularly the Eisenhower administration, that here was a new secret way to shape the world and achieve America's political and military objectives without calling out the Marines and all the cost that involves in blood and treasure.
Loch Johnson: So the next hump that came along really was the Reagan administration. And in between there, of course, you have the Vietnam War. But that was kind of a minor uptick in covert action because there was still a lingering concern that covert action was really all that useful because of the lingering Bay of Pigs memory and so on. But there were covert actions, particularly propaganda and political ones. Diem, for example, was a candidate that was pushed forward by the CIA and accepted by Kennedy.
Loch Johnson: But the really big second hump came when the Reagan administration came in because they were extremely enthusiastic about covert action. And, again, Andrew, you've written wonderfully on this era. During that period, you had covert action that was a great success in Afghanistan, as I mentioned earlier, providing the Mujahideen with Stinger missiles. And at least over the short term, that's viewed as one of the top covert actions ever because it helped drive the Soviets out of that country just as today, we're trying to help the Ukrainians drive the Russians out of their country.
Loch Johnson: And then furthermore, the Reagan administration had a wonderful success in helping the people of Poland try and resist communist influence. And the CIA supported labor movement there and did a lot of really important propaganda and political work that helped gave the people - give the people of Poland a sense of possible freedom they could enjoy. But unfortunately, though, during that same period, you had the Iran-Contra affair, which, in my book, comes across as the worst of all of these covert actions because it involved not only a major blow against the U.S. Constitution by robbing the Congress of the right to fund operations. The Reagan administration funded its covert actions in Nicaragua through private funding outside the realm of the normal government procedures. So that was a difficult event.
Loch Johnson: But still, in terms of emphasis, that's a huge middle hump here where you had a lot of money going into covert action and then a falling out because the Iran-Contra affair badly harmed the reputation of not only the Reagan administration but the use of covert actions. But then 9/11 occurred, and counterterrorism went into full gear, and covert action became an important augmentation to our overt efforts to stop terrorist activities around the world. So those are the three main periods. And of those three, I'd say the period we're in right now, the counterterrorism period, which continues on, is by far the most important in terms of the money spent on covert action and the attention paid to it.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And in your book, you divide that - in the first part of the book, you divide up chronologically from '47 to '60, from '60 to '75, from '75 to 2000 and 2000 to now. So I would be interested, like you said, to see a diagram to see where those humps map onto those different acts of your work. So just to summarize - so the third option - the first two options are diplomacy and war. And then the third option, covert action - that is the third option. So diplomacy, war, covert action - but intelligence is used for all three of them, right? So the military have their own intelligence arm. The State Department have their own intelligence agency. And then covert action is part of intelligence as well. So intelligence goes across all three of them. But covert action is exclusively an intelligence function. Or it's also done in coordination with the DoD. Or it depends on the case.
Loch Johnson: I think you're quite right, Andrew, because all of these, today, 18 agencies need information to carry out their duties. And so that means they have engaged in intelligence collection. But when it comes to covert action, this more aggressive manipulating of history - or an attempt to do that, at any rate - that has been the CIA's almost sole duty. Let me put that another way. When it comes to covert actions, the CIA is the agency that's been called upon to do it. That's beginning to change a little bit because the Pentagon has begun to creep into the covert action area through their use of special forces, which is rather alarming to me because I don't think you have the same kind of accountability, same kind of legislative controls over Pentagon covert action as you do over CIA. But I must say, even though the Pentagon has slipped into this domain - that remains a topic of controversy in people who are looking at it closely today as to whether or not that's proper - I'd say 98% of all covert actions are done by the CIA today in those four packages that I mentioned.
Andrew Hammond: OK. And so we've got diplomacy, war and covert action. Those are the three options. And then for the third option, we've got coups, assassinations, sabotage, propaganda, political operations like electoral interference and secret wars. Is that a decent summary of all the different buckets that fall within covert action?
Loch Johnson: I think it is. I think that's a great summary.
Andrew Hammond: OK. So I mean, when you were talking earlier, I was just thinking, here at the International Spy Museum, we've got stuff on pretty much most of the things that you've mentioned - the Italian elections, the Stingers, the Bay of Pigs. Just so much that we have touches on what you've spoke about. So I think that that's quite interesting as well. The other thing that I wanted to go onto then was this idea of plausible deniability. So like, for, say, Operation Cyclone, which you mentioned - so '79, the Soviets invade Afghanistan. They leave in '89 - the longest war in the history of the Soviet Union. So during this period, and it begins under Carter, we're going to fund the mujahedeen. We're going to give them weapons. We're going to give them money. We're going to, like, make sure that they can continue the fight and their resistance against the Soviet Union, just like we see today in Ukraine. But I think it's, like, literally within six weeks, there's stuff in The Washington Post and The New York Times saying that there's covert actions going on. So I just wondered, like, for our listeners that are like - well, how can this stuff ever be plausibly deniable when it always hits the newspapers within a couple of months? Or is that not the point? It's not the, OK, well, the information came out. It's just part of this dance in international affairs, international relations, where the other side said, you've done this. And you say, no, we haven't. And there's never any smoking gun that connects you to the action. Or even if there is, you kind of just downplay it and say, well, that didn't happen, et cetera, et cetera. So it's this kind of gray zone in international politics where people know that something's going on. The other side may well know that you're doing it. But you just maintain this fiction. You continue this dance that we are not involved because to admit that you were involved would have different implications. Is that fair?
Loch Johnson: Yes, I think so. And, you know, that dance does go on with some important covert actions, particularly the paramilitary ones that do come to light because it's pretty hard to carry on a war - even a so-called, quote, "secret," unquote, war - when people are shooting at each other and there are tanks involved and so on. So one of the journalists coined the phrase called the overt covert action. There's some supposedly covert actions that are reported in the newspaper all the time. And you're exactly right. We - even in those cases where the whole world knows what's going on, we don't formally try to admit that we've done that because then that would force, let us say, the Russians to then respond in kind. And it could escalate the tensions and, eventually, the activities of one country toward another. So it's a kind of a gentleman or gentlewoman's agreement among these countries that, on some of these matters, we're going to keep it down, keep the temperature down by not admitting fully about these activities, which could lead to then, maybe, a formal declaration of war and the use of military power. But I would point out, Andrew, that the vast majority of covert actions are, in fact, covert. They're not known by you or me or anybody else, except those immediately involved in it. Of course, the target nation knows something's happening against them. And often they presume correctly that it's the CIA. Plausible deniability does work in those cases. But I think after the Iran-Contra affair - and, actually, a little before that, as a result of the Sy Hersh reporting in The New York Times - people began to say, look; plausible deniability is an anti-democratic concept. In democracies, we have formal approval by the president. And if you're going to have formal approval, that ought to be a matter of public record. So the Congress passed a law which was signed by President Ford, which is called Hughes-Ryan Amendment, which requires that presidents formally authorize every single covert action. Now, they're still often, in fact, almost always kept secret, but they are reported to the Congress so that the president can no longer say, well, I didn't have anything to do with that. The Congress will know that this important step of presidential authorization has been a box that's been ticked off. So I think that's a very important change.
Loch Johnson: So plausible deniability no longer means the president is not in the decision group. Now the president is always required to formally sign off on a covert action. And anytime there's a covert action, the world knows, and certainly people who follow this know, that the president knows about it and the Congress knows about it.
Andrew Hammond: So, like, what, for example - so you have covert action. You have overt covert action. It seems to me that the moment in Ukraine is overt overt. How do you see Ukraine as very open and upfront - yes, we are funding Ukraine. We are helping them. There's not even a pretense of, like - I'm sure there's other covert activities going on that we don't know about, but by and large, it's - yeah, we're funding them. Like, help us understand that in the way that - how does that fit within the framework of your book on covert action, if at all?
Loch Johnson: Yes. Well, anytime there's an overt military activity - and certainly you're right. We well know that all kinds of military weapons are being shipped to Ukraine by the United States and many of the people - or many of the nations that belong to NATO. So that's the overt part. But, you know, I'm guessing here because none of us really know for sure, and underlining the fact that it is covert, the CIA, no doubt, is involved in propaganda activities against the Russians and encouraging Ukrainians to stand up and continue on with this effort. I'm sure there are political activities going on to make sure that some of the pro-Russian factions in Ukraine, particularly in the eastern part, are - have activities planned against them, money given to those people in those areas who are trying to defeat those people in elections and so on.
Loch Johnson: And then who knows what kinds of economic sabotage activities are undertaken by the CIA right now? There's bound to be some. And I'm sure there are some CIA people out there helping with paramilitary in the sense of helping train Ukrainian soldiers and otherwise assisting them. And I'm sure there are some overt people there helping, too. So it's a combination of both, I think. And any time you've got the United States involved in a military activity either with its own army or by supporting others, you're bound to have a covert element in there, too, where the CIA is helping support.
Andrew Hammond: That's really, really interesting. So I just wanted to give our listeners a couple of examples to hang their hats on. Tell us one case where you think, here's a covert action that was, on its own terms, extremely successful. And tell us one that you think that was just a complete disaster. You mentioned the Bay of Pigs earlier. You know, your choice completely - what's a good example of a successful covert action? And what's a good example of one that you think was a great example of how not to do it?
Loch Johnson: Well, Andrew, in my book, I talk about the five best covert actions, in my view, since 1947 and the five worst. So let me take the top two in each category. On the best side, I think when the al-Qaida group hit the United States in the 9/11 attempt and then retreated back to their safe haven in Afghanistan, we immediately sought to pursue them and bring them to justice. And we did that initially by sending in CIA people, paramilitary officers, to track down the al-Qaida leaders from bin Laden on down and some of their Taliban assistants. And they were almost immediately supported by Pentagon Special Forces that had some tough military combat people in uniform on the ground playing a role as well. And then we had overt bombing by the U.S. Air Force. It was just a marvelous synergism and combination of different forces.
Loch Johnson: And I think that it's a wonderful example of a successful paramilitary operation. The whole effort to topple the Taliban regime took about five weeks, so it moved very quickly. Now, unfortunately, as you well know, the Bush administration, in a terrible decision, in my view, got distracted and decided to invade Iraq right in the middle of our efforts to go across Afghanistan and find bin Laden and bring him to justice. In the meantime, he was hiding out in mountains in Afghanistan and probably later in Pakistan. And we lost a lot of the momentum in that effort. But the initial effort to go in and punish the Taliban, the host for al-Qaida and al-Qaida itself, was tremendously successful, I think, and a perfect example of why covert action can be very helpful in harness with overt support, as well. On the worse side, that's not even a close call because nothing is quite like the Iran-Contra affair, which is a very complicated matter and could take a whole program just to look at. But in a nutshell, some basic laws were violated. The 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act, which requires the president, in this case, the Reagan administration, to report to Congress before conducting any major covert actions - that was completely ignored in terms of giving weapons to Iran in hopes that it would help us rescue William Buckley, a CIA officer being held by terrorists in Lebanon. There are - there was an anti-terrorist law that prevented that from happening, and this was reported to Congress in advance. That was ignored.
Loch Johnson: And the - William Casey, who did some good things out at the CIA but in this case, I think, was the author or the co-author, at least - there were a number of people involved - allowed the CIA to create an outside institution called the Enterprise completely free of the United States government, which raised money from rich conservatives in the United States, from the Sultan of Brunei, from the king of Saudi Arabia, other people providing funds. This was a government on its own, violating several laws of the United States, among them the Boland Amendments because later, the Reagan administration, as part of this package, went into Nicaragua to try and oust that government. And the money that was raised to conduct that covert action, which had been expressly prohibited by Congress, was found from these same sources overseas. So you had, really, a major blow against the U.S. Constitution and completely illegal operations in both Iran and the Nicaragua case.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. Yeah, that would be a good podcast one time, looking at Iran-Contra. It's very complicated. And I was just thinking as you were talking there, all of the things that came up during the Church Committee, like the heart-attack gun, the other artifacts that were part of this program to potentially assassinate foreign leaders - this is a completely self-interested question on behalf of the Spy Museum - do you know where any of them are and if we can get them? Do you know where the heart-attack gun is?
Loch Johnson: Well...
Andrew Hammond: 'Cause there's that famous image with Frank Church holding the heart-attack gun.
Loch Johnson: Yes. By the way, that was a matter of controversy on the committee because some people thought that was theatrical and going a bit too far to hold that gun up on - during the hearings. But Church's view - and by the way, he was criticized by the CIA for that as posturing so that he could run for the presidency. But in reality - and I remember discussing this with Church at the time - he thought that if you couldn't rivet the public's attention on the hearings, that we could never have intelligence reform. And that was the whole purpose of having this committee. So he did that as a kind of a stage device to draw attention. And it really worked because the next day on virtually - on the front page of virtually every newspaper in the United States, major and minor, was that picture, him holding up that gun. So people began to follow the hearings and realize the CIA, although it had done so many great things, had also strayed off the reservation from time to time. That gun, I presume, is somewhere out at the CIA. I've been to the CIA museum, as I've been to yours before it moved to its new building. And I haven't seen it in either one of those places. But it exists somewhere, I'm sure. So keep after that. You're...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter at @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at email@example.com. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter at @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.