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Indeed, for all their ill-advised or bungled covert ops — which included coups from Tehran to Guatemala City — it is impossible not to be a little swept up in the spectacle of this bygone era when intrepid individuals actually shaped history, even if it was often for the worse. Anderson quotes an erstwhile ornithologist who had joined the Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.’s World War II precursor, lamenting the office’s breakup once the conflict had ended. “Jesus H. Christ,” the operative griped, “I suppose this means that it’s back to those goddamned birds.”
Some of the people in this book will be familiar to students of C.I.A. and Cold War history. The story of Wisner, the head of the early intelligence apparatus’s covert action arm, has been well told many times before. Anderson is at his best, however, when he plows fresh ground — as he does with the story of Sichel, a German émigré who signed on to help the O.S.S. as a “special funds officer,” trading gold coins on the black market and artificially aging fresh bank notes by stomping on them. Sichel eventually rose to the position of head of C.I.A. operations in Eastern Europe, running agents deep inside Soviet territory.
The problem, Sichel discovered, is that once these infiltrators arrived, they had almost no support system to latch onto. Often the local resistance networks were ephemeral, mere “catchment basins” for K.G.B. counterintelligence. Sichel came to view these operations as useless at best and immoral at worst. Anderson interviewed Sichel, who is now in his late 90s, eight times, and his story sensitively and dramatically illuminates the practical and moral dilemmas of mid-20th-century spycraft.
Anderson’s book is a period piece, covering the years 1944 to 1956 — but the climate of fear and intolerance that it describes in Washington also feels uncomfortably timely. Even as the fledgling C.I.A. was swiftly expanding its reach in Europe and Asia, domestic enemies were beginning to chip away at its political support at home. Seeing an opportunity to hobble a bureaucratic rival, the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover launched his own covert war against the C.I.A., spreading rumors that Wisner had compromised himself by a relationship with a Romanian princess and relentlessly hounding gay intelligence officers out of the service, a purge that came to be known as the Lavender Scare.
Both these factors — creeping right-wing hysteria at home and cynical maneuvering abroad — combined to embitter Wisner’s operators. “For a man like Burke — erudite, cultured, liberal, but also engaged in a war where ideas themselves were weapons — it was all enough to call into question just what sort of nation and society he was fighting to defend,” Anderson writes. Burke ultimately quit the agency in frustration in 1955 and took a job as general manager of the Ringling Brothers circus. (“You’ve been training for it all your life,” his new boss needled him. “You just haven’t known it.”)