Before he wrote Harlot’s Ghost, his novel about the Central Intelligence Agency, Norman Mailer wrote an essay proposing five “models” for understanding the organization. He knew (and Le Carré did, too): The CIA is a vast bureaucracy staffed by gifted, if not necessarily glamorous, civil servants. He wasn’t drawn to the subject for the plot possibilities, though they exist. Rather he was interested in a culture completely organized around secrecy and myth. He was drawn to look at the emotions of men making those kinds of complex moral choices. Mailer’s “Model IV” is one sentence long, and it summarizes his case:
Doubtless the difficulty [in understanding the CIA] is analogous to writing a poem with nothing but names, numbers, facts, conjecture, gossip, trial balloons, leaks, and other assorted pieces of prose.
Which is to say, a poem defined by what’s missing, by the absences.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, French directors Jules and Gédéon Naudet were in downtown Manhattan, following a firetruck. They’d planned to film the city’s celebrated Engine Seven, Ladder One. The rest is history: The first footage of American Airlines 11 hitting the towers was shot by Jules. Perhaps, being French, the Naudets were positioned to see things differently that day.
Their latest project, The Spymasters, airs on Showtime on November 28, which is excellent or ironic timing, depending on your view. Excellent if you feel the case for the CIA must be made in advance of the presidential primaries; ironic if you feel it was was made last week in Paris. In the two-hour-long documentary, narrated by Homeland’s Mandy Patinkin, writer-producer Chris Whipple interviews each of the 12 living former directors of Central Intelligence, as well as former director of the National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez and 25-year intelligence veteran Gina Bennett. These are the “spies” present at the creation of the dislocating place in which we now live now. Do we call it the “State of Terror,” as the Times identifies its ISIS section? Do we call it the new normal? Whatever we call it, it’s defined by ambiguity, horror, fear.
Some of Whipple’s subjects will be familiar. (Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, George Tenet, Michael Hayden, Porter Goss.) Others less so. (Cofer Black, Michael Morell.) Whipple stays with recent history, with questions formed in late 2001 involving words and phrases that didn’t exist before: enhanced interrogation techniques; drones; black sites. These are the primary programs for which the CIA’s been tried in the media, and by Congress. The Spymasters isn’t another trial, though it’s not an apologia, either.
There have been many attempts to indict the CIA over the course of its history. According to some of The Spymasters’ subjects, the most recent of these attempts, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 2014 “Torture Report,” might be described as “assorted pieces of prose,” or perhaps even “gossip.” Asked about the theory that the CIA intentionally engaged in torture, Rodriguez, who destroyed the interrogation tapes against the counsel of his boss, is the most succinct: “Total bullshit.”
We assume the leaders of our intelligence community establish the calculus on questions of liberty versus security. Periodically, we revolt against their math. When we felt safe, there was a movement to criminalize the choices the CIA made when we felt scared. Just as Errol Morris tried to elicit regret from former Defense Secretaries Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld (succeeding with the former, failing with the latter), with The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, Whipple wants answers in The Spymasters: What is the definition of torture? What is the place of targeted killings? What are the limits of a person’s grace under pressure?
The film opens with a shot of a clear blue sky, much like the one New Yorkers remember on 9/11. Then the camera pans down, not to Wall Street, but to Arlington Cemetery. In a voice-over, Panetta is describing a typical day. It’s the day he visited Arlington for the service of a young female officer killed in a bombing at the CIA facility in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009. Khost was the greatest loss of life in CIA history, the result of a suicide bomber who had been considered an agent. After the ceremony, Panetta receives a call: The man who planned the attack has been located, but he is with his wife and children. What does Panetta want to do?
Conventional wisdom says that you don’t make hard choices in elevated emotional moments. CIA wisdom is to chronically make hard choices in elevated emotional moments. “I mean, I’m the one who’s gonna have to say Hail Marys here,” Panetta says. “You have to be true to what you think is right and hope that ultimately, God agrees with you.” He authorizes a strike.
When Sir Richard Dearlove, former Head of Britain’s MI6, was shown a drone strike for the first time by his CIA peers, he said, “It’s not quite sporting, is it.” The line is at once criticism and praise; the art of collecting intelligence was once the art of human connection. There is nothing human about a surgical strike. There is nothing human about many of the strategies required for these wars. Only: “We do not know what the rules of engagement are,” Porter Goss tells Whipple. “Are we dealing with enemy combatants? Are we dealing with criminals? Are we dealing with thugs?”
If The Spymasters illuminates anything, it’s that gossip and politics—is waterboarding a trial balloon?—can always lap logic in the fight for the public’s attention. It’s that two directors from successive administrations, or even the same administration, might look at the same facts and divine a different view.
Tenet thinks the Bin Laden raid would not have been possible without the interrogations. “The [Senate] Report is dead wrong, on every account,” he says. “Period. End of paragraph.” Brennan’s view is, “There’s no way to know.”
Tenet: “The bin Laden operation would not have been possible without the courier in question being highlighted as prominently as he was by detainees.”
Brennan: “There’s no way to know whether or not KSM would have provided information if he had not been waterboarded. That is unknowable, because that scenario never happened.”
Assorted pieces of prose, indeed.
Another model for understanding how we assess intelligence, not Mailer’s, has become iconic. Its author is Donald Rumsfeld, who described it extempore, at a press conference in February 2002:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
Is this clever, or obfuscating? Well, it’s memorable. Unknown unknowns set the calculus. Unknown unknowns undue the poetry, explode the trial balloons, challenge and upend the gossip. In the wake of the Paris attacks, we’re experiencing a fresh echo of an old framework. Watching Cofer Black describe a meeting in the White House where he told Condoleeza Rice it was urgent we get “on a war footing,” you hear Whipple off-camera ask, “And what happened?” “Yeah, what did happen?” Black says. That meeting took place July 10, 2001.
“We had the same arguments about torture that the directors have in the film,” Chris Whipple wrote to me. I’d asked if making the film changed his views. He wrote:
It’s fascinating to me that Leon Panetta, who opposed the EIT program, makes an exception when it comes to a “ticking time bomb” scenario. When you consider the nature of the threats post-911, George Tenet would argue that he faced a ticking time bomb every day for three years.
Is the bomb ticking now? What about the calculus?
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