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The Proliferation of Failed Missions

In the 1960s and the 1970s covert action became virtually synonymous with one of its instruments: paramilitary operations. Perhaps the most well-remembered action is the Bay of Pigs disaster. As the most overt operation the CIA has ever conducted, it can be considered a distant predecessor of the current support for the Nicaraguan contras. It also lacked the coordinated interagency review of covert operations that had been the hallmark of previous administrations. Early planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion was confined to the operational side of the CIA, which had the largest organizational stake in seeing the project advance. Each of the changes adopted as the plan developed made sense to Allen Dulles, the CIA director, and to his colleagues. Yet the cumulative effect of those changes was dramatic. The result was very different from the "Guatemala scenario" that had been the plan's original model. What emerged was a major amphibious invasion with no fallback; its success or failure would quickly be apparent, as would the role of the United States. Although much blame for the fiasco can be assigned to the Kennedy White House (for its timidity), the CIA was not guiltless. In an unpublished memoir, Allen Dulles explains that the agency had never raised objections to repeated emphasis [by the president] that the operation:

a) must be carried through without any "combat" action by U.S.A. military forces;
b) must remain . . . disavowable by [the U.S. government];
c) must be a quiet operation yet must rouse internal revolt vs. Castro and create a center to which anti-Castroites will defect.[26]

By deliberately allowing Kennedy to overlook central weaknesses of the invasion plan, Dulles sought to steer him into a project he deeply mistrusted, but that the CIA nevertheless wished him to carry out. As historian Lucien Vanderbroucke notes:
These advisers may have hoped to draw the president into a situation where he would be forced to abandon the policy limits he had been so eager to preserve, granting the covert operators instead the latitude to conduct the operation as they saw fit, in order to succeed. . . . they appear to have assumed the unauthorized role of de facto policymakers, acting as if, in the covert war against Castro and communism, key decisions rested with them rather than with the nation's elected leaders.[27]

However, if the CIA was not anxious to point out problems, neither was the Kennedy administration, or subsequent ones, eager to voice its qualms. Political leaders are reluctant to challenge the expertise of intelligence professionals, yet the need for secrecy makes them unwilling to expand the circle of decisionmaking to include other sources of expertise. The most recent and perhaps most dramatic example of that process is the Iran-contra initiative, for which the circle was so narrow that even CIA professionals were excluded. The operation was run entirely from the White House. As the Tower commission observes:

The initiative fell within the traditional jurisdictions of the Departments of State, Defense and CIA. Yet these agencies were largely ignored. Great reliance was placed on a network of private operators and intermediaries. How the initiative was to be carried out never received adequate attention from the NSC principals or a tough working-level review. . . . The result was an un- professional and, in substantial part, unsatis- factory operation.[28]

Moreover, it is important to remember that in recent times presidents have not been captives of the bureaucracy. They have put pressure on the CIA far more often than they have been pressured by it. In Angola, for example, President Ford and Henry Kissinger elected to use covert action, the "middle" option, despite CIA reluctance and the opposition of the State Department's African bureau.[29]

The other great CIA paramilitary fiasco of the 1960s and early 1970s was its program in Vietnam. Just after the Bay of Pigs, the CIA undertook an even larger and longer paramilitary effort, providing advice, training, and equipment to Meo tribesmen in Laos from 1962 to 1971. As the United States withdrew from Vietnam, there was little hope for the Meo. Although some were taken to the United States, other Meo went into exile or were left to face punishment at the hands of victorious North Vietnamese.[30] The CIA was also in charge of the controversial Phoenix pacification program in Vietnam. Officially Phoenix was a massive intelligence program to collect information on suspected Vietcong, who could then be "neutralized" by South Vietnamese security forces, but many claimed that it was an assassination program. At any rate, William Colby, the head of the CIA's Far East division, felt compelled to issue a directive in 1969 that prohibited assassination and other violations of the rules of war.[31]