Secret Intelligence


For the most part, this is a lucid review of the development of U.S. intelligence in the present century, from its amateurish thrashings during the 1919 “Red scare,” to CIA involvement in the Iran- contra affair. The authors discuss how technology has come to dominate the intelligence scene, and warn that its use in secret domestic surveillance threatens the roots of American democracy. Volkman and Baggett come down hard on the super-secret National Security Agency, which they call “a rogue elephant on the loose.” This decidedly negative survey of secret U.S. intelligence activities refers often to the inherent ability of such organizations to threaten Constitutional guarantees of freedom, but there is more warning here than argument, as the evidence they have procured is less than comprehensive. Secret Intelligence is a companion volume to a forthcoming PBS television series. Volkman ( Warriors of the Night ) is executive editor of Espionage magazine; Baggett is executive producer of the PBS series.



This book is a companion piece to a four-part PBS-TV series from the author of Warriors of the Night (1986) and his producer. The text, as in Volkman’s previous book, offers a once-over-lightly and vaguely reproachful account of US intelligence activities during the 20th century. Drawing mainly on secondary sources, Volkman and Baggett lead with a recap of the Wilson Administration’s ill-advised efforts to topple the USSR’s Bolshevik regime after WW I. They follow up with some grand but twice-told tales about baseball star Moe Berg, writer Ernest Hemingway, and other civilian amateurs recruited to spy for diverse government agencies between the wars.

The authors march quickly through WW II, focusing on the bias for covert operations the OSS bequeathed its peacetime successor, the CIA. Also recounted is the postwar emergence of an espionage establishment encompassing the National Security Agency and a clutch of other information-gathering entities. Volkman and Baggett log the successes (in Guatemala, Italy, the Philippines, and allied venues, including aerospace surveillance) as well as the failures and blundering excesses of the undercover crowd. Cases in point range from Cuba, Vietnam, and the so-called Huston Plan through the Iran-contra scandal.

Intermittently, the authors halt their otherwise fast-paced narrative to comment on the dilemma of a putatively open society’s involvement in dubious or clandestine enterprises that frequently violate the civil liberties of American citizens and make the US vulnerable to charges of engaging in anti-democractic activities. Conceding today’s dangerous and uncertain world demands some measure of self-protection, however, they effectively duck the issue of what means might be justified in achieving this end. More to the point, perhaps, their material provides at best a sketchy briefing on the equivocal record compiled by the US intelligence community.