Review: Spymaster–My Life in the CIA

5 Star, Intelligence (Government/Secret)

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Essential, Incomplete, Deceiving,

October 8, 2006
Ted Shackley
I would normally have given this book only three stars for its incompleteness and deception (outlined below), but Ted Shackley was arguably a giant in the clandestine world, and whatever his crimes of omission or commission might have been, I consider this a “must read” for anyone who wishes to move beyond the entry level in the clandestine service. I note with respect that B. Hugh Tovar, himself an accomplished officer, writes the Foreword.

Shackley’s career covered all the hotspots, from attempting regime change in Cuba to Berlin Cold War operations to Laos where he excelled while killing tens of thousands, to Viet-Nam where he helped cook the books and ramp up the “report count” (the CIA equivalent of the body count), to Chile to Iran Contra in his afterlife. I pay particular deference to the author’s discovery that the combination of US air power for surveillance, mobility, and fire support, with indigenous irregulars, constituted a new form of warfare, one CIA executed well in Afghanistan.

This personal account is grotesquely incomplete. The author has essentially provided a “CIA Lite” account that is not as much fun as Mile Copeland’s “Without Cloak or Dagger,” not nearly as revelatory as “Blond Ghost” by David Corn, which clearly rankled the author and perhaps drove him to devise this account; and not nearly as detailed as any of the books on Viet-Nam including those by Snepp, De Forest, and of course Allen, whose “None So Blind” is the definitive work. There is no mention of Sam Adams or the author’s acquiescence in false force reports demanded by General Westmoreland and the politically-motivated Ambassador. There is also no mention of his role as a recruiter and funder of Zbigniew Brzezinski when the latter was a student here in the USA and Shackley was a Polish-speaking case officer trolling for influentials. The book is yet to be written on the triangle between Shackley, Breziznski, and the mandarins of the extreme right like Dick Cheney, all of whom agreed that the capture of the Caspian Sea energy and the Eurasian region was a priority for the 21st Century.

This personal account is also extremely deceptive. The naive reader who is not widely read or is lacking in professional experience will not be familiar with the very deep literature on drug running and money laundering that was pioneered by CIA officers working out of Laos in the Viet-Nam era, and its subsequent evolution into the Nugen Hand and BCCI money laundering bank activities. Nor is there mention here of the Safari Club or other notorious alliances by select elements of the CIA with South Africa, Argentina, or Saudi Arabia. The account also ignores any reference to the alleged activities of Ted Shackley in running arms to the Contras and bringing drugs back into America via Southern Air Transport, going onwards to Europe to convert the drugs into money and the money into more arms for the Contras (against the will of Congress).

Within this book, the author is at pains to document that he forbade any drug activity to be associated with Air America or any of his operations in Laos, that he conducted spot checks, and on one occasion intercepted and then publicly burned a case of high-grade opium.

He concludes the book with some moderate recommendations for change, but most interestingly for me, as the international proponent for Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), he states on page 282 that the world has changed to such an extent (i.e. commercial access to Russia and China and other previously denied areas) that fully 80% of any secret wish list from 1991 can today be satisfied with overt means, including overt human legal travelers. We agree on this important point, which most of the U.S. Intelligence Community continues to deny.

I read this book with care, in part because as resident in Viet-Nam from 1963-1967, and as a clandestine case officer in Central America during very ugly times, I feel I have walked in this ghost’s shadow.

I have three bottom lines:

1) By any standard, this was an extraordinary officer who performed at the very top of the profession as it was then defined. He earned the respect of his Laotian counterparts, and I have absolutely no doubt that those whom he was charged with impressing or serving, were impressed and served.

2) Much of what he did was covert action of questionable legality and value, such as the pin prick sabotage attacks against Cuba, but this was not his fault, it was the fault of an extraordinarily stupid political system in America (Bobby Kennedy exceeded Ollie North on the idiot standard in our world).

3) Finally, we have the question mark. I have no direct knowledge, but I venture to suggest that Ted Shackley, according to multiple accounts in the published literature, was at least indirectly if not directly associated with a number of criminal or extra-legal adventures. I do not believe he profited personally–I believe he felt that whatever he was doing was in the service of his government, but like so many others, I do wonder if he did not confuse loyalty to the system with integrity in preserving the Constitution.

Hence, I believe this book, and the author’s life, were one third heroic, one third mundane, and one third highly questionable–not because he lacked honor, but because the system that he served lacked honor.

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