A Tale of Cruelty and Criminality: Doug Valentine on the CIA

Aerial view of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. Photograph Source: Carol M. Highsmith – Public Domain.

Douglas Valentine is the best writer still writing about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  His books combine a deep skepticism of the Agency’s myth-making machine with an almost intuitive understanding of the men and women who engage in some of the Agency’s most duplicitous and nefarious actions.  From his explosive uncovering of the United States Phoenix program in Vietnam to the CIA’s support of numerous individuals engaged in multi-million dollar drug trafficking schemes, Valentine’s work has withstood the attacks on it and on their author.  His most recent work, titled Pisces Moon: The Dark Arts of Empire, continues this tradition.

Written as something of a memoir, the story told in Pisces Moon begins soon after the publication of The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam in October 1990.  That book, which was at one point considered for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, had ruffled some very important feathers in the halls of US power.  It had also garnered Valentine some serious attention—both wanted and unwanted.  The former included an invitation to participate in a BBC series being developed about the CIA.  As Valentine explains over the course of Pisces Moon, his participation was eventually taken off the table; one assumes this was because of pressure from various officials in US and British intelligence.  The key part of his participation involved interviewing various CIA operatives, mostly located in Southeast Asia.  Consequently, the text opens with a brief section in Britain where the author prepares for his trip, discovers the BBC is no longer genuinely interested in his knowledge of the CIA and realizes his main service to the network will be as a money courier.  Nonetheless, Valentine takes on the journey, apparently deciding that his work will continue, no matter what the BBC has in store.

Regarding the money courier aspect of his assignment: While Valentine was staying in London and visiting with the late filmmaker David Munro (who together with John Pilger made the film Year Zero about the Khmer Rouge and its relationship to the CIA), he was tasked by the BBC with bringing a fair amount of cash to one of their stringers in Thailand.  As it turned out, this would be about the only thing he ended up doing for BBC after the network distanced itself from Valentine.  In other words, he was mostly on his own during the journey described in these pages.  It was quite the journey, to say the least.

The majority of Valentine’s previous works—from The Phoenix Program to The CIA as Organized Crime—are well-researched works describing in detail the numerous connections between the CIA, organized crime, big business and other elements of the US government.  Encyclopedic in their scope and approachable in their narrative style, the one regret this reviewer has regarding these works is that more people haven’t read them.  The level of criminality revealed in Valentine’s studies more than eye-opening.  Indeed, it is at times mind-blowing in its disregard for human life and just outright callousness.

Pisces Moon does not shirk from this pattern.  It names names, points fingers, and puts it all together in another blistering expose of the activities of the US Central Intelligence Agency.  The journey he describes in what is often quite personal prose takes the reader into a reality that evokes the grotesque imagery of the artist Goya or perhaps Hieronymus Bosch.  In his opening notes, Valentine quotes William S. Burroughs from his novel The Place of Dead Roads, describing the current state of the US as revealing the “bad karma and backlash of empire.”  As one who knows Burroughs work quite well, Valentine’s use of a Burroughs quote seems quite appropriate given Burroughs descriptions of some of humanity’s most atrocious manifestations and imaginings in his fictions.

While reading this, I was returned to the year in which it takes place. CIA man George HW Bush was the US president in 1991. The government of Vietnam was still considered an enemy of the United States and the vulgarity of the Reagan-Bush regimes were still very present in the venal Clinton White House. The fascism of the Trumpist movement was a mere seedling; Reagan and his crew had run secret wars, been overtly racist and homophobic, and reinvigorated the CIA, but the majority of Reagan’s followers still seemed to respect the structure of the US ruling mechanism. In 2023, that mechanism is at best a parody of what it was when Valentine took the journey he describes in this book.

The title refers to Valentine’s use of astrology as both an indication of the narrative’s direction and as a thread to weave his story together.  This is in addition to the thread provided by the CIA throughout the book.  Almost every group and every individual discussed in Pisces Moon is somehow related to that organization or its activities.  From the Chinese Kuomintang to the medical ship of the pedophile CIA asset Dr. Tom Dooley and from the streets of Bangkok to the Thai military base in Udon, this text is a catalog of government crimes against humanity and individual perversions and predation permitted in the commission of those crimes.  With Pisces Moon, author Douglas Valentine has once again outdone himself. The dark arts referred to in the title are revealed for all to see.  His personalized narrative style makes the book a captivating read.  The content makes it an extremely important one.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com