The Venezuela Kerfuffle and the Secret Team

The recent snafu of the covert Venezuela operation echoes the account of the Bay Of Pigs fiasco in Col L. Fletcher Prouty’s repressed book, The Secret Team: The CIA and Its Allies in Control of the United States and the World first published in 1973. After good early sales,100 positive reviews and a printing of 100,000 copies of a paperback by Ballantine books, it disappeared from bookstores, libraries, and even the Library of Congress. It was “sanitized,” in CIA speak. Recently it has been reissued.

The point is not that one thing looks like another. Prouty reveals, in this appalling history, the bizarre nature of the “Secret Team” and its congenital lethal bumbling. The book is the story of the evolution of the CIA. Prouty was in a particularly good position to tell this story. He was the “briefing officer” for the CIA at the Department of Defense . His job was to persuade the Department of Defense officials to allow their assets to be used in various CIA covert operations. Prouty points out that briefing officers who feed information to supposedly important officials influence policy far more than we civilians realize.

He is the man who sees the President, the Secretary, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff almost daily, and who carries with him the most skillfully detailed information. He is trained by years of experience in the precise way to present that information to assure its effectiveness. He comes away day after day knowing more and more about the man he has been briefing and about what it is that the truly influential pressure groups at the center of power and authority are really trying to tell these key decision makers.

It is the briefing officer who conveys what the groups at the center of power, the “High Cabal,” want to tell these key decision makers. What those at the center of power want is only given in hints, a language of, in my ears, deniable innuendo. To them I suppose it seems aristocratic. Prouty held this job from 1955 to Jan 1, 1964. Illustrated with several key CIA operations, namely, the Gary Powers U2 incident, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and a crucial report McNamara gave Johnson that began the expansion of a large covert operation into the Vietnam War, Prouty’s book shows the “Secret Team” (ST) as something so bizarre that I never would have imagined it, yet it is obvious once revealed.

Although it is hard to believe today, governments actually respected the norms of international law in the fifties. It took a lot of clever maneuvering for “Wild” Bill Donovan the founder of the CIA, to get the authorization to run covert operations. Countries did not run such operations in other sovereign countries. If they did so they took great care to make those operations plausibly deniable. Covert had to mean covert. When the U-2 plane went down, Allen Dulles head of the CIA, had T. Keith Glennan, administrator of NASA, offer a rather lame excuse. Then, when it turned out that Gary Powers, the pilot, was alive and neither he nor the plane had been “sanitized,” it made Glenman’s story into a monumental embarrassment, Khrushchev offered Eisenhower the option of sacking Dulles on the grounds that he had been illegally making foreign policy and thus it was not the United States that had sent the U-2. Only in the case that it had not been the United States violating Soviet sovereignty would he go on with the summit scheduled only two weeks away. Eisenhower had the choice of admitting that he was not in control of US foreign policy or taking responsibility for the illegal flight. He took responsibility, thus admitting that the United States was an international outlaw. The summit, which Eisenhower had hoped would end the cold war, was canceled.

Many have considered this a very noble stand on the part of President Eisenhower, and it was. However, this public admission by the Chief of State that he had directed clandestine operations within another state is exactly the type of thing that reduces the prestige and credibility of United States in the family of nations to the condition described by Arnold Toynbee. Interference in the internal affairs of one nation by another is an unpardonable violation of international law and custom.

However this may be, the incident established the CIA as operating under independent initiative and for dark purposes, dark not only because they were illegal, but also because they were nebulous.

By 1961, it had become apparent that the CIA played a split- personality role to suit its own purposes. It would speak of CIA reports which said one thing, when it would be doing exactly the opposite with its undercover, covert sections. This, too, becomes readily apparent to the diligent reader of the Pentagon Papers.

This incident casts light on the apparently inevitable Keystone Cops flavor of CIA operations. Both parts of Prouty’s title, secret and team, are important. A team consists of a group of skilled players directed by a coach or manager. The members of the team do not question the decisions of the coach. The connection between the coach’s instructions and the ultimate goal may be obscure, but to question this connection is not the business of the team. You are either on the team or off the team. The CIA, Prouty emphasizes, is an agency, not a department. They serve a client, which need not be governmental. The client, not part of the team, is the coach. The thought of team members extends no further than “us” and “them.” The client need only be one of us. A fervent “anticommunism” justifies every action, even if that action considered rationally, would not particularly damage communism if successful, and would damage the United States if botched. The team member needs no connection between what he does and the banal goal, like”anticommunism” or “anti-terrorism,” he is trying to achieve, and that goes as well if he is trying to achieve “secrecy.” The U-2 incident is a good example of knee-jerk unquestioning anticommunism, a pointless operation in which secrecy was blown.

Secrecy is, of course, an ST fetish. At the same time it has become more and more pro forma. Things are not secret just because they are officially secret.

The ST members have become so powerful and ambitious that sometimes they no longer respect the basic fundamentals of their profession. As far back as 1948 the CIA had been given limited authority by the National Security Council (NSC) to carry out only those clandestine operations that the NSC directed. This authority is contained in a series of documents, the first of which was issued in the summer of 1948 and was called NSC 10/ 2. When the NSC granted this authority, it did so with the firm stipulation that any such special operation must be truly clandestine, that it must be performed in such a manner that if the exercise failed or was otherwise discovered, the U.S. Government would be able plausibly to disclaim its role in the operation, and further — what would seem most obvious, but was added for emphasis — that it must be truly secret and concealed.

The STs founding is nutty. The document says, in effect, “I forbid you to do anything I don’t know about, but if you do something make sure I can plausibly deny knowing about it.”

There is a difference between being actually covert and going through the motions. Secrecy is tricky. It is, after all, a kind of lying. Holes in the story can spring up anywhere. Since the team nature of the ST made the goal obscure, those who carried out this operation didn’t know what they were doing. Carelessly doing prescribed procedures that are supposed to maintain secrecy inevitably leads to sloppiness.

Prouty recounts an incident leading up to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Like good team players, agents did things and questioned nothing. A Cuban came to the CIA with a plan to blow up a sugar refinery. Castro was a communist so this seemed like a good idea. The guy needed material, but in preparing to receive it he tipped Castro off. When they tried to fly it in, Castro was waiting for them. The plane escaped but was forced to land in Mexico rather than Guatemala where the CIA had a base. How to explain it? The plane had been “sanitized.” anything that could identify it as American had been removed. The Mexicans didn’t want the plane but offered to exchange it for a similar plane. The ST accepted, thus involving the government and revealing, undeniably, the CIA participation. It was a ridiculous blunder that Pompeo has just repeated, almost exactly in trying to free the Venezuela plotters.

The stain to the CIA’s reputation meant that from then on the secret team could only be secret pro forma. When something happened they were the “usual suspects.” With the decay of international law, especially after Kosovo and The Former United States’s usage of Security Council resolution 1973 in Libya, pro forma is, I guess, good enough, even though it fools nobody. The Venezuela caper is a good example of pro forma secrecy. Prouty, writing in 1972 bemoans that in 1970 Arnold J. Toynbee, historian and scion of tippy-top English aristocracy, declared that the CIA meant for the rest of the world what communism meant for Americans, an unmitigated evil. Today the CIA is just another name for brazen violation of international law.

Since team players questions nothing, having, as a matter of course, no understanding of a connection between what they are doing and some purpose, no one can stop an operation once it begins. The raid on the sugar refinery inevitably led to the Bay of Pigs. When the sugar refinery operation failed miserably, the only choice was to expand it. Given the structure of the secret team no one is in a position to say “no.” Failure requires a bigger more powerful operation. Organizational structure limits what can be said and what will be rewarded. “No” is not in the vocabulary. The situation reminds me of a football game I once saw. It was between the Giants and Eagles and was played in the Yale Bowl, which had no lights then. Both teams stank that year. It was near the end of the season and they were both going nowhere. The game was totally lopsided. I forget who was winning. Ran was coming down in buckets and the field was a lake. With every tackle the players slid through ten yards of soup. Caked with mud , the uniforms were indistinguishable. It was late, and the dark sky made night come early. But they played the game to the bitter end. The secret team is all this but, in addition, labors under secrecy not only from the outside world, but within the team where “need to know” rules often applied purely for career influencing motives make the members of the team operate partially blind.

Because of the nature of the ST, the Bay of Pigs operation was bound to go wrong. Prouty attributes the failure entirely to a lack of leadership. He points out that the CIA, with its covert operations, was the instrument for a change from a coherent foreign policy to a reactive piecemeal one. The client could only give veiled generalized instructions and carefully avoided knowing much. Actual operations were ad hoc and entirely reactive. From the end of WWII the United States has had no real foreign policy other than to react to events. The structure of the ST precluded effective leadership.

The Bay of Pigs operation grew and was planned in the Eisenhower Administration, but was carried out in Kennedy’s. It’s failure “burned” Kennedy and he vowed not to be burned again. The Kennedy Administration produced NSAM #55 and NSAM #57, memoranda that clipped the wings of the ST, restricting it to “small” operations, and reasserted the necessity for real secrecy. The growing operation in Vietnam should not have been under the control of the ST according to this memorandum.

Thus, by the very size of its activities in so many areas, the CIA had exceeded all reasonable definitions of clandestine. This new Kennedy directive hit right at the most vulnerable point in the ST game at that time. No sooner had this directive been received in the Pentagon than heated arguments sprang up, wherever this order was seen, as to what was “large” and what was “small” in clandestine activities.

With NSAM #57 and NSAM #55 Kennedy tried to regain control of covert operations. The centerpiece of Pruty’s book is a briefing Robert McNamara gave Lyndon Johnson on Dec 21, 1963. Kennedy had been dead less than thirty days.

This was the climax of a long bit of maneuvering within the Government by the ST and its supporters. To accomplish their ends, they did not have to shoot down the Kennedy directives, NSAM #55 and #57, in flames like the Red Baron; they simply took these memoranda over for their own ends, and ignored them when they were in conflict with whatever it was they wanted. They buried any opposition in security and need-to know and in highly classified “eyes-only” rules.

Two and a half months earlier, on October 2, they had given a similar report to Kennedy.

Upon their return, following a brief trip, they submitted a report to President Kennedy, which in proper chronology was the one immediately preceding the remarkable one of December 21, 1963. This earlier report said, among other things “There is no solid evidence of the possibility of a successful coup, although assassination of Diem and Nhu is always a possibility…”

“It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time….” [the end of 1965]

Only three days after this report, on October 5, 1963, the White House cabled Ambassador Lodge in Saigon: “There should be… urgent covert effort . . . to identify and build contact with possible alternate leadership.” Knowledge of a statement such as this one made by the ostensible defenders and supporters of the Diem regime was all those coup planners needed to know. In less than one month Diem was dead, along with his brother.

“Big” Minh, someone Prouty thought could have managed Vietnamization and thus have allowed for American withdrawal, replaced Diem, and so gave Kennedy the chance to extract the United States from the war. But Kennedy was killed on November 22, and soon afterward Minh was out.

Fifteen days after Kennedy’s death McNamara went back to Vietnam to produce the Dec 21 report. This report, instead of having the October report’s statement, “It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time [1965]….” had instead “Substantial reductions in the numbers of U.S. military training personnel should occur before the end of 1965.” The training personnel were a small contingent compared to the total personnel in Vietnam. This, with other language describing the growing power of the Vietcong and suggesting large expanded operations, indicated a complete reversal of Kennedy’s policy. Prouty comments, “This time, the McNamara report was, to quote The New York Times, ‘Laden with gloom’.”

What is most shocking is Prouty’s description of how these reports were produced. He describes agents almost immediately after Kennedy’s assassination skilled at preparing reports for briefing officers, busy at work in Washington producing the report of Dec 21. McNamara flew to Vietnam where he was led to what the CIA wanted him to see, then flew to Hawaii. The report, produced in Washington, was flown to Honolulu where it was given to McNamara, who familiarized himself with it on the flight back to Washington. Then he delivered the two inch thick report to Johnson as the result of his fact finding mission. Surely no one was fooled. What was the purpose of this rigmarole? No one who had been in Vietnam had any hand in the report. The October report was produced in much the same way. Given Prouty’s description of the life of the briefing officer, both reports were carefully crafted, using what this officer knew about the respective president, to make him see things as the client did. Everyone involved had seen such things done as a matter of course. That is what briefing officers do.

Behind these reports was nothing about the situation in Vietnam. Nothing happening there had anything to do with it. Vietnam was simply a “big” covert operation that the ST wanted to retain control of . It was all a question of bureaucratic infighting. Expanding the war, Prouty suggests, was seen as equivalent to neutering NSAM #55 and #57. To retain control of covert operations in Vietnam was to retain control of “large” covert operations in general and so win the argument that was then, according to Prouty, raging in the Pentagon about just what was “large” and what was “small.” The motive for the expansion of the war was retention of the ST control of large covert operations by neutering the two NSAMs.

But the “High Cabal,” the clients, surely did not change their minds about covert operations because Kennedy was killed. Why would they? No, Kennedy was killed to retain the possibility of large covert operations under ST control. The only one who would have that goal was the ST itself. For without purpose, and team-like as the ST is, it does have one purpose, retaining the scope of ST operations.

One wonders what might have happened had the ST simply ignored the NSAMs from the beginning. Where was the person who could say “no?” Was it Kennedy? What could he have done? Issued another directive? For it seems that his entire administration jumped on the bandwagon in Vietnam as soon as he was dead. What influence could he have had had he lived? Am I the only one who can step back and see that this hilarious tragedy is, in fact, madness?


Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He can be reached at: