Both the critics and the admirers of the Central Intelligence Agency have tended to portray it as an all-knowing, all-powerful, invulnerable entity and to exaggerate the ability of America’s spies to determine the outcome of developments around the world. An American reporter interviewing an ordinary citizen—or an official—in Cairo, Buenos Aires, or Seoul may hear that “everyone knows” that the CIA was behind the latest rise in the price of vegetables or the recent outbreak of flu among high-school kids. It’s like you Americans aren’t aware of what’s obvious (wink, wink).
New histories of the agency, drawing on recently released classified information and memoirs by retired spies, provide a more complex picture of the CIA, its effectiveness, and its overall power, suggesting that at times Langley was manned not by James Bond clones but by a bunch of keystone cops. My favorite clandestine CIA operation, recounted in Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, involves its 1994 surveillance of the newly appointed American ambassador to Guatemala, Marilyn McAfee. When the agency bugged her bedroom, it picked up sounds that led agents to conclude that the ambassador was having a lesbian love affair with her secretary. Actually, she was petting her two-year-old black standard poodle.
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