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Posted at 5:06 PM ET, 09/17/2010

Korean War spy rivalries persist 60 years later

By Jeff Stein

Far be it that the week should pass without noting that it was 60 years ago on Sept. 15 that allied troops under Gen. Douglas MacArthur pulled off one of military history’s greatest feats: a surprise landing behind North Korean lines on the Inchon Peninsula.

Not satisfied with that, as historians also note, MacArthur then turned his triumph into a Shakespearean tragedy by driving his troops north to the Yalu River on China's border, supremely confident that Beijing would not react.

It did, of course, in large numbers, dooming tens of thousands of U.S. and allied troops to cold, bitter deaths, not to mention his own command, in time.

The CIA, in its infancy then, didn’t see the Chinese coming. As University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings notes in his new book on the Korea War, “On September 20 the CIA envisaged the possibility that Chinese ‘volunteers’ might enter the fighting, and a month later it noted ‘a number of reports’ that Manchurian units might be sent to Korea.”

However, the CIA reported, “the odds are that Communist China, like the USSR, will not openly intervene in North Korea.”

Even after Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, the CIA director at the time, noted that the Chinese feared a U.S. invasion of Manchuria and would likely react, the agency’s combined analysts “still found insufficient evidence to suggest a Chinese plan for ‘major offensive operations,' ” Cumings writes.

The People's Liberation Army launched sharp attacks in late October, then withdrew. MacArthur plunged forward. Chinese units would come south again, in force, a month later.

But the CIA can’t be held entirely responsible for the intelligence failings in Korea -- far from it. In a criminal lapse that would be echoed on another September day 51 years later, U.S. intelligence agencies were more at odds in Korea than in harness.

“When the CIA was formed,” Cumings writes, “it threatened MacArthur’s exclusive intelligence theater in the Pacific … MacArthur and [his intelligence chief Charles] Willoughby thus continued the ‘interdiction’ that they practiced against the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the Pacific War. Operatives either had to get permission from Willoughby or hide themselves from MacArthur’s G-2 (as well as the enemy target).

“Effective liaison in the handling of information,” Cumings writes, “barely existed.”

And so it went. On Christmas Day almost 60 years later, the Nigerian “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly brought down a Northwest airliner with hundreds of passengers aboard.

Later reviews cited a lack of coordination in U.S. intelligence for the ability of the would-be bomber to get on the plane.

By Jeff Stein  | September 17, 2010; 5:06 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Military  | Tags:  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab  
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Comments

One of the greatest achievements of the Vietnam Conflict is that America learned how to fight a war in Southeast Asia without getting into a war with China. We have our Great Wall of Vietnam dead. We don't want a Great Wall of China.

Posted by: blasmaic | September 17, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

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