Specialists in coups and killing

FOLLOWING THE death of rebel agent Philip Agee, Todd Chretien describes the bloody history of the CIA.

PHILIP AGEE, the former CIA agent who rebelled against the U.S. spy agency, died in Cuba at the age of 72 last week.

Agee resigned in 1968 after working for the CIA for more than a decade--during which time he ran the CIA operation in Mexico during the 1968 Olympic Games, when hundreds of students were massacred by the Mexican Army at Tlatelolco.

He went on to write Inside the Company: CIA Diary in 1975, which not only recounted the long list of atrocities committed by the CIA, but also named 250 CIA agents around the world. Agee's U.S. passport was revoked in 1979, and in 1982, Congress passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, making it a crime to expose CIA operatives.

This law was intended to silence Agee and others who worked to expose the CIA's ongoing crimes. However, last year, it was used to convict former Bush administration official Lewis "Scooter" Libby on perjury charges for conspiring to expose CIA operative Valerie Plame as punishment for her husband Joseph Wilson's public contention that Iraq didn't have the components to make nuclear weapons.

What else to read

Philip Agee's Inside the Company: CIA Diary caused a sensation when it was published by exposing agency operations and naming agents. It is out of print today, but can still be found in used bookstores.

For a meticulously documented history of the CIA's crimes, see Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, by William Blum. Blum is also the author of the out of print Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower.

The CIA's role in the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz is exposed in Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer.

For a comprehensive history of U.S. imperialism from before the CIA was formed through the Vietnam era, get Sidney Lens' The Forging of the American Empire.

Wilson was proved correct, and the Bush administration's drive to war on Iraq was exposed as having been based on a series of lies.

The occupation of Iraq has been such a disaster that sections of the permanent military and intelligence bureaucracy now oppose some of the Bush's tactics. Most recently, the CIA's assessment that Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program was released to the media, creating a major stumbling block for any White House hopes for military action.

These disputes within the establishment have led some liberals to identify Bush's critics within the CIA (or the Pentagon) as the "good guys."

So, for example, although Valerie Plame was working on behalf of the Bush administration trying to prove that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Jon Stewart promoted her on his TV show in October 2007 to an enthusiastic response from his audience.

Worse, in March 2007, while Plame was testifying before Congress, Rep. Dennis Kucinich defended the CIA's right to protect its agents from public exposure, saying, "Exposing an agent is destructive for the agency and for the taxpayers' investment in the agency."

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HISTORIAN WILLIAM Blum has painstakingly documented the bloody history of the CIA since its inception after the Second World War under President Harry Truman. It is worth recalling a few of the CIA's many victims in light of these present controversies:

-- In 1953, the CIA engineered the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq after he threatened to nationalize foreign oil companies. In his place, the Shah of Iran took power and was showered with billions of dollars of military hardware, which he used to build a terrifying police state based on torture. Iran, along with Israel, remained the main U.S. military ally in the Middle East until the 1979 Iranian Revolution toppled the Shah.

-- In 1954, the CIA organized the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, paving the way for decades of military rule. Hundreds of thousands of leftists, union organizers and especially indigenous people have since been massacred.

-- In 1960, Patrice Lumumba, the first elected prime minister of the Congo after it won independence from colonial rule, was deposed in a CIA-engineered coup, setting the stage for decades of bloody rule by Mobutu Sese Seko.

-- During the Vietnam War, the CIA ran Operation Phoenix, under which tens of thousands of Vietnamese people were tortured in the name of gathering "actionable intelligence."

-- In 1968, the CIA helped organized the military coup in Iraq that brought Saddam Hussein to power. With U.S. support, Hussein led a devastating war against Iran from 1980 to 1988, with a death toll of more than 1 million on both sides.

-- In 1973, the CIA sponsored Gen. Augusto Pinochet's coup against the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in Chile. Tens of thousands of Chilean leftists and union activists were murdered, tortured and exiled.

-- From 1979, the CIA sponsored many sections of the Afghan resistance to the invasion of the USSR. Covertly pumping in billions of dollars in Operation Cyclone, the U.S. worked with Pakistan's secret service to arm, train and fund the militias that today comprise Afghanistan's warlords and the Taliban. With Saudi Arabia's help, the CIA laid the basis for al-Qaeda to arise.

-- In the 1980s, the CIA directed the covert U.S. war against the Nicaraguan Revolution that toppled American-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Some 80,000 Nicaraguans were killed and the country's economy devastated. The operation included mining Nicaraguan harbors and the formation of the counter-revolutionary contra army--whose operations were funded through Agency sales of banned arms to Iran and cocaine imports into the U.S. that the CIA facilitated.

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SINCE THE end of the Cold War with the USSR, there has been a relative decline in the number of major CIA operations. Why?

The military and economic power of the Soviet Union meant that Washington had to sometimes resort to backdoor means to pursue Corporate America's interests. The end of the Cold War in the 1990s that followed the collapse of the USSR meant that the U.S., under the Clinton administration, was able to impose its will economically on weaker countries.

Plus, after the collapse of the USSR, the U.S. could bomb or invade countries without fear of any military competitor. Thus, Bush Sr. invaded Iraq in 1991, Clinton invaded or bombed Somalia, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sudan during his terms, and Bush Jr. has obviously continued down the same path.

However, this isn't to say that the CIA was left aside in the massive military spending spree since September 11. The agency has expanded its operations dramatically, setting up secret torture sites around the world and building up its "extraordinary rendition" apparatus. And the CIA is very active within the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, carrying out Phoenix-type operations.

Still, in recent years--for example, regarding Iran--the CIA's analysts almost seem like restrained academics compared to the Bush neo-cons. In the past, it was often argued that the CIA was a "rogue agency" in the same way that people today think of Bush and Cheney as a "rogue administration."

Of course, there are tactical policy disagreements and bureaucratic turf wars between government agencies and the two ruling political parties in the U.S. However, with rare exceptions, the CIA has acted under the orders of presidents of both parties, and in close cooperation with the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.

Sometimes, it is convenient to leave the grubbier aspects of the agency's work unsaid in order to provide the politicians with plausible deniability. But the CIA budget is voted on by Congress, and all the elected officials agree to keep it a secret. Leaders of both parties are briefed on a regular basis.

In the same way, the vast majority of what the Bush administration has done was with the support of Democrats in Congress. For instance, last year, torture by waterboarding became a huge scandal. But just as some Democrats started to make an issue of it, it emerged that, starting in 2002, the CIA had given Congressional leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, briefings about waterboarding.

The history of the CIA's crimes is certainly depressing. But it is important to keep in mind that the spies can be beaten.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA-organized invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. But within days, the invasion force of thousands of right-wing Cubans was wiped out by local militias fighting to defend the land they had recently received from radical land reform.

And the CIA's brutality could not defeat the mass movement for independence in Vietnam. These massive social struggles in turn helped to radicalize the U.S. population in the 1960s and created the climate for someone like Philip Agee to turn against his bosses.

More recently, millions of working-class Venezuelans took to the streets to defeat a CIA-orchestrated coup in 2002 against democratically elected president Hugo Chávez.

These struggles, and not a misplaced faith in the Valerie Plames and Joe Wilsons of the world, hold the keys to closing the book on the CIA's bloody history.