Secret Intelligence reviews


PBS Filling Network Void With News Documentaries

January 09, 1989| Judith Michaelson

From matters of war and peace in the nuclear age to the scourge of AIDS, from an examination of “secret intelligence” and American spying to the state of learning in the nation’s schools, from an inside look at the “real” Ronald Reagan and a Congress about to celebrate its 200th birthday to questions of public and personal ethics, the coming months on public television promise a heavy dose of news documentaries.

“This is the strongest season in that area since I’ve been here,” said Bruce Christensen, president and chief executive officer of the 324-station Public Broadcasting Service. Christensen, president of PBS since 1984, has been with public television for nearly two decades.

During a three-day press tour at Universal City promoting public TV’s winter-spring season, PBS officials and even commercial TV correspondents participating in the event pointed out that public television was filling a documentary gap left by the commercial networks.

“There’s no question,” said Barry Chase, PBS’ vice president for news and public affairs, that news and public affairs programming “appears to be the area where our greatest opportunities and greatest possibilities of service exist. The commercial services have yet to find a way of making that particular kind of programming fit.”

Chase added that network “abandonment” of such programming has been “more extreme in that area than any other.”

Boston’s WGBH-TV received $2.1 million for a five-part series on the building of a New York skyscraper as well as a four-part “Inside Gorbachev’s USSR” being produced by Martin Smith (who also did “The Real Life of Ronald Reagan” for “Frontline”) and reported by Hedrick Smith. A former Moscow correspondent and author of “The Russians,” Hedrick Smith is also the author of the book “The Power Game” about Washington, which became a four-part series on PBS.

The question about the changing nature of network TV was also put to former “CBS Morning News” host Bill Kurtis, now an anchor at WBBM-TV in Chicago.

Kurtis narrates “Secret Intelligence,” a four-part series beginning Jan. 23 and produced by Los Angeles’ KCET. The series traces the controversial and turbulent history of American espionage starting with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II to the Central Intelligence Agency–its covert operations during the Cold War, its “excesses” of the 1960s and 1970s and culminating with the Iran-Contra scandal.

Asked whether “Secret Intelligence” was the kind of program that might once have been done by the networks but now has no place in the world of “20/20s” and “48 Hours,” Kurtis laughed: “Yes, that sums it up nicely. . . . Networks have closed up the large documentary units and opted for the magazine format. PBS is the only place you will see this.”

In a year in which “tabloid television has become dominant,” Kurtis added, a program like “Secret Intelligence” “should stand out like the Washington Monument.”

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A History Of Spying In America

January 26, 1989 | Walter Goodman

A clip of Lieut. Col. Oliver L. North testifying at the 1987 Iran-contra hearings sets the cautionary theme of ”Secret Intelligence,” a four-hour history of the development of American espionage that begins tonight at 9 on Channel 13 and continues in three weekly chapters. At issue is the secrecy treasured by spies versus the openness required by democracy.

The first hour recalls America’s entry into World War I, with little inkling of what faced its troops over there. After the war, the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s ever-expanding Federal Bureau of Investigation turned to possible subversives within the United States – first Communists and then Nazis. In those years, the narrator reminds us, the line between legitimate dissent and subversion was blurred, and not for the last time.

Although written with a heavy hand and narrated by Bill Kurtis as though he were auditioning for a road-company melodrama, ”Secret Intelligence” is packed with information about America’s career in the spy game, beginning in earnest in World War II, when code breakers detected evidence of the Japanese plan to bomb Pearl Harbor, only to have the information buried in Washington – ”the worst intelligence failure in United States history,” according to Mr. Kurtis’s script.

Abetted by a prarade of experts, including six former directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, the series carries us from the derring-do of the Office of Special Services in World War II, whose ”only rule was, win,” to the establishment of the C.I.A., which, in the hyped-up language of this account, soon became ”America’s secret army of intervention.”

”Secret Intelligence” exposes no secrets; others have done that. But it does support the observation that ”when diplomacy won’t work and the marines are too noisy, the White House turns to the men of the Central Intelligence Agency.” Among the C.I.A achievements and embarrassments recounted here are its nourishment of anti-leftist forces in Italy, Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, the Philippines and Indonesia, where, reportedly, an effort was made to supply Marilyn Monroe to President Sukarno, an admirer.

Much attention is given to the mortifying efforts to topple Fidel Castro, from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs to a jumble of assassination plots that involved Mafia figures. They justify Arthur Schlesinger’s description of the world of intelligence as ”hallucinatory.”

But in Vietnam, the C.I.A proved to be clearer-sighted than the Pentagon or the White House, which resisted the intelligence analysts’ conclusions that there was no light at the end of that tunnel. Politicians have shown a tendency to prefer intelligence that suits their predilections.

The series – produced by Blaine Baggett, who is also the co-author of the companion book, ”Secret Intelligence,” written with Ernest Volkman and published by Doubleday – suffers from an overdose of virtue when despite its own evidence of the usefulness of espionage, it seems to be asking that America be holier-than-everyone in international hanky-panky. More persuasive is its criticism of the perennial pressures from the White House for spying on domestic dissidents.

When both the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. resisted some of President Richard M. Nixon’s desires along that line, the plumbers, former C.I.A operatives working out of the White House, got the job and produced Watergate. The unrepentant leaders of this bunch, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, share their wisdom with us.

The series ends, as it began, with another unrepentant operator, former Colonel North, who with associates working secretly out of the National Security Council gave us the Iran-contra deal.

The record presented here, with the help of sometimes familiar newsreel clips, supports the conclusion of the series that some in ”the intelligence community” have repeatedly shown a ”disdain for law, impatience for results and the conviction that it can’t be wrong if nobody knows.” There seems to be something in the nature of spying that leads to outbursts of zealotry and wackiness, despite the revelations, reprimands and resignations that generally follow.

This history demonstrates that the most effective restraint on the cloak-and-dagger set is public information, to which ”Secret Intelligence” makes a commendable contribution.

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Power and Subterfuge in the Time of the Bomb: ‘War and Peace,’ ‘Intelligence’: Mixed Signals of the Cold War

January 23, 1989 | Howard Rosenberg

We live in an age of video paradox.

How can something as exquisitely beautiful and majestic as a nuclear explosion be so unthinkably catastrophic?

The familiar flash of warming white light precedes a disturbingly seductive, fiery, violent eruption in a fine new documentary series starting tonight on PBS. As we watch–at once awed, enthralled and horrified by the orange shade of holocaust being drawn across the screen in “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age”–we hear Robert Oppenheimer, father of the Bomb, recalling the first atomic blast in 1945.

How, also, can the romantic, glamorous and thrilling espionage epitomized by mythical idealistic heroes in spy stories be squared with the shadowy realities of the FBI and CIA pictured in another fascinating but upsetting documentary series titled “Secret Intelligence”?

Domestic spying? Secret components of open government working covertly and sometimes illegally? Vendettas as a substitute for foreign policy? Often questionable ventures in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Vietnam and Central America? Even now, the negative residue remains.

This pair of series–the 13-part “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age” opening at 8 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15 and 9 p.m. on Channel 50, followed by the premiere of KCET’s own four-part “Secret Intelligence” at 9 p.m. on Channels 28, 15 and 24–is a powerful double whopper. Both series assume added relevance given the holdover perils facing the new Administration in Washington.

“War and Peace in the Nuclear Age” sort of meets “Secret Intelligence” at the pass in next week’s second episode, in which a combustible mix of Cold War passions is seen shaping early nuclear politics. These intense feelings were fueled by such demagogues as Red-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), who is seen exploiting the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case, and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who accuses the controversial Oppenheimer of being a communist agent.

Hoover also surfaces as a central character in “Secret Intelligence,” the thoughtful, bold and provocative KCET series that explores still another paradox, the need for secrecy in democracy. The executive producer is Blaine Baggett, whose credits include last season’s award-winning “Spy Machines” documentary for the PBS “Nova” series. And the correspondent–who does a splendid job of setting the tone–is Bill Kurtis.

“Secret Intelligence” may offer nothing new for specialists, but undoubtedly will shock and perhaps anger lay viewers unaccustomed to encountering such a broad, blunt and expertly presented survey on the uneasy coexistance of secrecy and openness in America. It covers some of the same turf, but surpasses in scope Bill Moyers’ 1987 program, “The Secret Government.”

“The Only Rule Is Win” is the title of tonight’s premiere of “Secret Intelligence” that examines the evolution of Hoover and theFBI, the intelligence blunders that contributed to the disaster at Pearl Harbor and the legacy of the OSS, Bill Donovan’s fabled wartime organization that sired the CIA.

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Spies And Society “Glasnost” Won’t End Espionage – On Them Or On Us. And Technology Keeps Making It Easier, As A Television Series On PBS Is Making Clear.

January 30, 1989 | Dick Polman

NEW YORK — A skeptic might argue that Blaine Baggett has read too many spy novels, or overdosed on 007 movies. But he insists that experience, not fantasy, has honed his awareness of the American intelligence establishment and its pervasive presence at home and abroad.

Back in 1983, when he was researching a history of manned space travel for public television, he met with a Soviet science attache. Not long after, when Washington expelled the man on spying charges, Baggett got a call from the FBI, “inquiring as to the nature of my association with the Soviet Union,” as Baggett dryly recalls. Nothing came of it, but the knowledge that he had been a target of surveillance sparked his decision to probe the high-stakes, high-tech world of intelligence.

And today, at the dawn of the George Bush era (the first president ever to have served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency), Baggett appears sobered by his own findings, by his fear that a world dominated by the threat of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and chemical warfare will increase our reliance on the spymasters – and pave the way for fresh assaults on the democratic tradition.

“Because the technology is advancing so rapidly,” says Baggett, executive producer for the four-part Secret Intelligence series, now airing Monday nights at 9 on WHYY-TV (Channel 12), “and because the intelligence agencies are so large and so pervasive, and because they’re so secret, there’s this increasingly terrible conflict with democracy. It’s going to be difficult, going into the 21st century, to keep our form of government, our individual freedoms, our Bill of Rights, as we know them today.”

He says this, in an interview, with no apparent outrage. As a citizen, he seems resigned to it. After all, he says, the sprawling U.S. apparatus began with a noble cause. The modern spy establishment was first nurtured amid the exigencies of World War II, when covert action was an honorable weapon in the fight against fascism, when the intelligence failures at Pearl Harbor were still fresh. And not even the subsequent fiascos (Bay of Pigs, CIA-Mafia plots against Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Iran-contra) have compelled most Americans to challenge the system.

Baggett also predicts that, despite Mikhail S. Gorbachev and glasnost, the Soviet-American spy game “won’t change a whit. The Soviets have been good at this since 1917, when they gained control of the state and had to protect their borders. They’re very patient. They see the long view better than we do. Whereas we’re an instant society of microwave ovens and instant coffee.”

This brand of realpolitik is a source of pleasure to Ray Cline, who advised Baggett on the spy series. Cline is a retired deputy CIA director, a hard- liner from the old-boy network, who says today that Baggett began his work believing that intelligence agencies “were secret and sinister forces. That was naive. I think I turned his thinking around a bit. Fact is, 98 percent of the time, they’re doing the right thing. Any bureaucracy that doesn’t do a few dumb things isn’t doing anything.”

Baggett is willing to defend the agencies – “there’s too much of a negative skew to everything we know about those folks” – but warns that even the good guys have made heavy inroads against the right of privacy: “The potential for espionage is so vast that virtually no conversation you want to have is assured of being a private conversation. If you call overseas, it’s going via satellite. Even if the U.S. isn’t listening, the Cubans are. The Cubans have got a big listening base. The Russians are listening. The Canadians and the British are listening, and they can send memos on your conversation to U.S. agencies they cooperate with.

“Here at home, there’s a device (agents) can put into a phone that can pick up anything in a room even when the receiver is in its cradle. There are devices that can be put on the wall of the next room, and they can ‘listen’ through the wall. Or there can be a laser gun pointed at your room from across the street, and it’ll get your audio by picking up the vibrations off your

window. And this is just the technology that we were able to get a hold of; the stuff that’s really state-of-the-art, we probably don’t even know about.”

Meanwhile, says Baggett, “we’ve become so cynical about our government that we’ve come to expect abuses like Iran-contra. We’ve almost lost the capacity to be outraged. Even this month, when (special prosecutor) Lawrence Walsh dropped the key conspiracy charge against (former national security aide) Oliver North, there was no hue and cry. We probably won’t ever know the whole story of how money from the Iranian arms sale got diverted to the contras in Nicaragua, or what the involvement was of Ronald Reagan or George Bush. You know why I think there’s no outrage? It’s because we have a new president, and we want to start out with a clean slate.”

What kind of history will be etched on that slate is anyone’s guess, but observers such as Baggett and others are making predictions. Secret Intelligence, and its companion book of the same name, co-authored with Ernest Volkman, appear at a time when a longtime friend of the intelligence community is taking up residence in the White House. By all accounts, Bush was a very popular figure with the spy establishment when he served as CIA director in the final year of Gerald R. Ford’s presidency. His strategy, most observers agree, will be to rebuild morale after the embarrassing Iran-contra scandal.

His critics say Bush was popular with agents, back in 1976, only because he refused to clean house; he became director at a time when a Senate panel, headed by Frank Church, was busy exposing the Castro assassination plots and brandishing CIA dart guns for the cameras. “Bush was a patsy of the covert operators” who seek to influence events in foreign countries, says Ralph McGehee, a retired CIA agent who was still on the payroll during the Bush era. ”With Congress, he defended the agency at all costs.”

Jeff Nason, a longtime investigator for the National Security Archives, a Washington watchdog group, says, “Bush’s popularity, inside the CIA family, is unbelievable. Those people can relate to him, and he to them. . . . He believes in covert operations as a way to get things done. . . . He came in (13 years ago) when the agency was on the ropes, and he restored morale. The same thing is happening now – the agency suffered through Iran-contra, and he’ll get things back on track.”

Baggett notes approvingly that Bush has retained CIA Director William H. Webster, a former federal judge who is seen as believing in the rule of law – the antithesis of the late William J. Casey, who, the record shows, was given free rein by Reagan to mount a paramilitary campaign in Nicaragua against the ruling Sandinistas. Stymied by a congressional ban against such CIA action, Casey went outside the agency, tapping Oliver North for an “off the shelf” operation, run out of the White House through the National Security Council.

Baggett interviewed Casey in 1986 in one of the last sessions he granted before his death in May 1987. Casey limited the questions to his days as a World War II spy, working for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. But therein lies the key to understanding Casey’s excesses in Nicaragua, says Baggett: “Casey was trying to resurrect the anti-Nazi resistance movement of World War II. He adored (OSS chief) William Donovan, a ‘can-do’ guy who loved action and had a low regard for Congress.

“That’s how Casey wanted to operate. But times had changed. Nicaragua wasn’t Nazi-occupied Europe. The Nazis were a despised foreign occupation force; Nicaragua had a home-grown army which wasn’t universally popular, but it was Nicaraguan. Europe had a complex communications-and-transportation network that could be blown up; Nicaragua was an agrarian country.”

In addition, he says, the majority of Americans never viewed the Sandinistas with the same horror as they viewed other communist regimes, like the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea. The lesson, says Baggett, “is that, in a democracy, these intelligence agencies are going to get into trouble if they’re doing things that don’t have the support of Congress and the public.”

And in pragmatic terms, says Jeff Nason, the Casey-North operation was a ship with a leaky bottom. “By definition,” he says, “a covert operation is supposed to be secret. The knowledge is supposed to be compartmentalized, among only a few key people. This thing leaked out because Oliver North blabbed about it to every last Central American sleazebag who had a big mouth and a shady past. Too many people were in the loop who didn’t need to know.” By contrast, everyone agrees, Bush will run these things by the book – “infrequently, and with careful planning,” says Ray Cline.

At present, says Baggett, American operatives are busy in Afghanistan, Kampuchea and El Salvador, “and I doubt Bush will slack off in those areas.” There was a time when Baggett may have been more critical about such actions; today he says, “I came away (from the series) realizing and respecting the difficult position that the agents are in. These guys risk their lives, and all they hear about is what’s wrong. There are many unsung heroes.”

In any case, he knows he cannot deny reality. There are too many reminders. Not long ago, he met a disc jockey in San Francisco. Baggett asked about the guy’s past. Sure enough, he used to be employed by the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on electronic transmissions worldwide. He worked there as some kind of electronics whiz, but he couldn’t elaborate. In the spy trade, after all, NSA is known as “Never Say Anything.”

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Interview with Blaine Baggett

February 26, 1989 | Cheryl Lavin

“The necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent. All that remains for me to add is, that you keep the whole matter as secret as possible.“ So said George Washington in 1777. Today intelligence is still a necessity, and so is secrecy. In “Secret Intelligence“ (Doubleday), Blaine Baggett, with coauthor Ernest Volkman, discusses “the inside story of America`s espionage empire.“

Q-What is the essential problem built into our espionage system?

A-We have a democracy that cherishes openness, individual rights, a free press and the rule of law. At the same time, we have a need for secrecy in our espionage system. These two things are contradictory.

Q-How has it been resolved?

A-It hasn`t. It`s a continuous problem, and the pendulum is constantly swinging from one extreme to the other. The Reagan years, with the Iran-Contra scandal, represented one extreme-a disdain for congressional oversight, the Constitution and the separation of powers. On the other hand, some critics would argue that the kind of openness we had between Congress and the intelligence agencies during the Carter administration led to the taking of American hostages in Iran. Carter had emphasized the use of technical equipment at the expense of human agents. That was why we didn`t know what was going in the alleyways and mosques of Iran. We paid the price when the Shah was overthrown, and we we were caught offguard.

Q-When did modern spying begin?

A-The idea of trying to get information is as old as humankind. But modern spying, with its use of high technology, began with the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union during the `50s. For the first time, we realized that we could collect massive amounts of information by overhead surveillance. That led to satellite technology, which is so critical to verification of compliance with nuclear arms treaties.

Q-How effective are our intelligence agencies?

A-That`s hard to gauge because we don`t know about their successes. We only know when they cross the line-as in the Ollie North case-or when something goes wrong.

Q-We always read that the Israelis have the best spy network. Is that true?

A-Theirs is the most admired. They’re surrounded by potential adversaries, and they have a critical need for intelligence. It is a high priority for them. Look at how they handled the raid at Entebbe and compare that with our failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. Also, their intelligence agencies don’t have all the constitutional restrictions that ours do. You can have a more efficient intelligence operation, but at what price to your liberty?

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