The CIA in the Post-9/11 World
By Philip Mudd
247 pp. Liveright. $27.95.
A few years after the attacks of 9/11, a manager of the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert interrogation program posted a warning placard in his office: “There are no secrets,” it said.
Sure enough, details on the agency’s global necklace of covert holding cells and interrogations leaked, culminating in a controversial report by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee that judged the program to be grounded in torture and largely ineffective. Not only that, it accused agency officials of lying about its results. Supporters of the program griped that the committee hadn’t interviewed its managers.
Now comes Mudd, a highly regarded senior former C.I.A. and F.B.I. counterterrorism official, with his own and other insiders’ accounts of the program, from its helter-skelter inception to its ignominious end. This is a book about Washington process and bureaucracy, for sure, but with the added heft of dozens of firsthand accounts of what it was like to ride the tiger into the gates of hell.
“Some senior officials talk about memories of feeling that they had little choice but to start, or continue, the program,” with President George W. Bush urging them “to do whatever it took within the law to save American lives,” Mudd writes. Alas, almost none of the participants, even those who’ve previously spoken publicly to defend the program, are on the record here, leaving accountability for its excesses elusive.
“From the start,” the interrogation program “had trouble written all over it,” one of the C.I.A.’s lawyers remembered thinking. That’s about the only thing everyone can agree on.
My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House
By Nada Bakos with Davin Coburn
354 pp. Little, Brown. $29.
Early on in her bracing memoir of life and death in the C.I.A., Bakos hints at a childhood like that of Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.” As a child in Montana cattle country, she “grew attached to … the orphaned calves,” which she’d later see “funneled into a factory chute, mooing in terror until the moment some guy ended their brief lives by slamming a bolt to their skulls.”
Joining the C.I.A. in 1999, Bakos turned her fury on terrorists, in particular Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a demented Jordanian criminal who had launched a vicious campaign of bombings and beheadings in the name of Islamic jihad. When she tracks him down to a safe house north of Baghdad in June 2006, she “looked forward to granting him … the honor” of martyrdom.
In the end Zarqawi’s death didn’t mean much, she writes. The 2007 troop “surge” into Iraq that rounded up thousands more suspected militants served mostly to turn prisons into terrorist universities, “a quintessential example of the way a superficial tactical advance could lead to larger strategic failure.”
Bakos ended up haunted by her own “failures” as well. By 2010, she’d had enough. Back home, she struggled with bad memories and stress. She also wore battle scars from a patriarchy of freewheeling men who had lorded over, and sometimes preyed upon, the bright young women who flocked to the C.I.A. in the wake of 9/11. Now, in the era of the #MeToo movement, this remarkable memoir arrives as another astonishing story of wartime valor.
THE MOSCOW RULES
The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War
By Antonio J. Mendez and Jonna Mendez with Matt Baglio
238 pp. PublicAffairs. $28.
Aficionados of C.I.A. history may know that a few of its leading lights were avid fans of magic. Back in the day, some operatives bested one another with card and coin tricks. It was the spooks’ version of charades.
Tony Mendez, the C.I.A.’s top disguise artist for many years, who died in January, took magic out of the living rooms and into the streets of Moscow. And in this memoir of arcane C.I.A. skulduggery, Mendez and his wife, who would eventually run the unit, demonstrate what a serious business it was: Every time C.I.A. operatives left the Moscow embassy with a K.G.B. agent in tow, they risked the lives of their Russian informants. They had to shake their tails. But how?
To my mind, Mendez reached the apex of his tricks with a contraption that could change an agent’s look from a typical briefcase-toting American diplomat to a Russian babushka schlepping a cart — this within 45 seconds while walking down a sidewalk. Now that’s magic.
But why give away the secrets now? Because the C.I.A. traitor Aldrich Ames spilled the bag of tricks to the Russians way back in 1985. Undoubtedly it’s a tougher game now, with the ubiquity of facial recognition software. All seriousness aside, “The Moscow Rules” is devilishly fun, even if you’ve heard some of the stories before.
SURPRISE, KILL, VANISH
The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins
By Annie Jacobsen
544 pp. Little, Brown. $30.
If you’re the kind of person who thinks unleashing a few more machine-gun-wielding Rambos on the Middle East will solve America’s problems, you’ll love Jacobsen’s unbelievable tales of paramilitary derring-do. If, on the other hand, you’re a discerning reader who likes your nonfiction, well, nonfiction, you’ll soon cast aside her latest sensationalist work. Her previous subjects were Nazi scientists, U.F.O.s, paranormal scientists and other conspiracy-laden topics. Now she turns her attention to covert ops and assassinations.
Jacobsen hangs her colorful stories of “complex individuals working in treacherous environments populated by killers, connivers and saboteurs” on the memories of Billy Waugh, a 90-year-old former C.I.A. paramilitary officer who seems to have cut quite a swashbuckling path through the “back alleys,” as they say, of half the world.
Unfortunately, no sooner do you get caught up in his adventures than you start tripping over long-ago-debunked legends or factual errors, most of them avoidable. There are too many to cite here, but when she misidentifies the Navy hero and future president John F. Kennedy as “a young lieutenant colonel” during World War II, serious doubts creep in. Additional simple errors pop up in her treatment of a case I devoted a book to, about Green Berets who were prosecuted for murdering one of their own agents in Vietnam. She embellishes other previously well-documented events with garish, doubtful details. And so on, and on. Otherwise, it’s a great beach book.