At a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, President Joe Biden’s pick to become Director of the CIA, former ambassador William J. Burns promised “lawmakers he would intensify the spy agency’s focus on China, calling “an adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership” the U.S.’s “biggest geopolitical test.”” (The Wall Street Journal)
China, we all know, is on the radar of the West for many reasons and discussing them is not the province of this book review. But the implementation of the policies envisioned by Director Burns, once green-lighted by the Senate, will depend on his relationship with the commander in chief. As veteran journalist Chris Whipple writes in The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future (Scribner), “the CIA is useless without access to one person: the president of the United States.” Simple as that.
In a masterful book at the crossroads between the ability to dissect the anatomy of power like Bob Woodward and the capacity to bring characters to life like Robert A. Caro, the author provides an exhilarating panorama of the men and woman who have been called to be in charge of the legendary American institution. Among the great anecdotes that take life between the covers, my favorites are reading about William Casey’s (Director of the CIA under Ronald Reagan) proficiency of taking some time off during trips to find a bookstore and picking “[…] out about ten books that he hadn’t seen before. He’d read them before we finished the trip.”” The other one is about the legendary avid reading habits of Bill Clinton, who bemused his National Security staff by sending back marked copies of articles from The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (of which I am also very fond). All his life, Clinton was a consummate reader.
But, predictably, every customer is different and “[…] every president consumes intelligence in his own way: Barack Obama received his PDB on his iPad and read it thoroughly, making detailed notes and queries. Ronald Reagan preferred watching movies to reading the PDB—so the CIA created short videos for him on world leaders.”
Personal relations are, of course, the most important ingredient in the rapport between the two individuals. James Woolsey could not really perform well, from the moment “Clinton turned to an aide and said: “I don’t ever want to see that man again.”” At the opposite of the spectrum, Barack Obama found John Brennan fascinating and dubbed him “[…] a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia.”” But it is sometimes easy for a CIA Director to cave to the temptation to please the boss. George Tenet and Gina Haspel succumbed to the luring sirens of not wanting to displease. Direct access and influence are vital to give the best possible advice to the president, but it’s a privilege not to be repaid with sycophancy.
Chris Whipple also details those episodes when the CIA was caught flat-footed, like when it failed to sound the alarm regarding the Kippur War (in Israel) in 1973, when it failed to foresee the Iranian Revolution in 1979 or when the Arab Spring caught the Agency off-guard, reminding the readers that “there are only policy successes – and intelligence failures.” Politicians never like to stand close to a mistake, mostly when it is their own making. Among all the security-oriented domains, intelligence is probably the one where the human factor is the most important. At every level. Some of the characters contained in the book are not really attractive. James Jesus Angleton is in that category. But most of them are absolutely fascinating. The anecdote about the golf game between Leon Panetta and then vice-president Joe Biden immediately comes to mind and any real student of power will just love it.
At the operational level, I was fascinated to read the references about the collaboration between the Mossad and the CIA in general. In particular, I was dumbstruck to read the episode when a team of Israeli agents switched the door of the SUV of Imad Mughniyah, the operational genius behind several terrorist attacks conducted by the Hezbollah, to replace it with an identical one containing the bomb (“constructed under CIA auspices”), which would expedite him where he could no longer harm anyone. While the purpose of the book is not to explore the collaboration between the two agencies, Chris Whipple nevertheless opens a fascinating window on a topic about which lots has to be written.
It is impossible, soon after its inauguration, to predict the outcomes of the policies espoused by the Biden administration, but one thing is certain. The level of closeness between William J. Burns and POTUS will be crucial. If the CIA is on board and its Director is a real player at the White House, it will really spell the end of amateur hour on the Potomac. But the fact that Donald Trump – a political chieftain who had no use for the work of the CIA and despised the intelligence community – is now out of the corridors of power can only be a great start.
I predict that The Spymasters will soon become a classic, not only for intelligence enthusiasts, but also for any politics aficionado. It is one of the best books I have had the tremendous pleasure to read about the decision-making and the exercise of power.
Chris Whipple, The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, New York, Scribner, 2020, 400 pages.
I would like to express my deep gratitude towards Athena Reekers, from Simon & Schuster Canada, for sending me a copy of this book.