Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan

By Breen, John G. | Military Review, May-June 2016 | Go to article overview

Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan


Breen, John G., Military Review


Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan

Douglas Waller, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2015, 592 pages

The CIA is said to have three primary missions: the clandestine recruitment and handling of human assets, the analysis and production of finished intelligence, and the conduct of presidentially directed covert action. The last mission set appears to be the most problematic; it has resulted in embarrassing disclosures and ever-increasing congressional oversight. Reportedly, presidents used to be able to wield the authority to order covert action by simply picking up a phone and calling the CIA director; today it takes a signed presidential finding with congressional notification.

While truly successful covert action will perhaps never be acknowledged or revealed, the litany of failed or ethically questionable covert actions is well known: the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the effort to influence the Chilean presidential elections in 1970, the CIA involvement in the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program, the clandestine and illegal sale of arms to fund Nicaraguan fighters in the Iran-Contra affair, and most recently, the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding against prisoners in CIA custody. Though morally dubious as they may sometimes be, presidents rely on covert action. It is an important tool to support identifiable foreign policy objectives vital to national security, certainly, when overt action tied to the United States would run the risk of conflagration.

In Disciples, author Douglas Waller provides a detailed accounting of the early careers of CIA luminaries Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, and William Casey. Each began his career immersed in World War II espionage, and each ended his career after covert action programs following the war went wrong, with details spilling into the press or into congressional hearings. These four began their service under "Wild Bill" Donovan, the legendary director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in a largely paramilitary covert-action-based "good fight" against the Nazis. Each eventually rose within the ranks of the newly created CIA, successor to the OSS after the war, to become director of central intelligence (DCI). Each pursued far-ranging covert action and clandestine human intelligence operations throughout the Cold War.

What lessons can today's CIA leadership learn from their examples? What lessons did the author draw from their World War II OSS careers to help explain their challenging director tenures-Dulles and the Bay of Pigs, Helms convicted of lying to the Congress, Casey and Iran-Contra? While Waller leaves many of these questions for readers to figure out on their own, in a separate article based on the book, he suggests an answer of sorts, highlighting how the OSS's failings "permeated the new agency," and attributing those failings to "the delusions that covert operations, like magic bullets, could produce spectacular results" and the feeling that "legal or ethical corners could be cut for a higher cause." (1)

Disciples is at its best when the author takes some time to consider these ethical and moral ambiguities. Why, for example, diverging so sharply from the views of his contemporaries, did Colby choose to release to Congress the "Family Jewels," an internal report on questionable CIA covert action? In 1975, following media reports of domestic intelligence collection and foreign assassination plots, the Senate established a Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee. DCI Colby made the arguably bold and precedent-setting decision to cooperate with this congressional oversight. But, while Colby soberly called the final report of the committee "a comprehensive and serious review of the history and present status of American intelligence," Helms felt betrayed and had a "special loathing" for Colby; Casey "watched in horror" and, responding to a friend who suggested Colby was forced to answer congressional questions, replied that "[h]e didn't have to understand the question. …

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