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Posted at 8:28 AM ET, 01/20/2011

Rethinking the OSS and CIA

By Jeff Stein

It doesn't seem all that long ago that *le tout Washington* was crying for the CIA to be demolished and replaced by an updated version of the OSS, our World War II spying and dirty tricks service.

The idea, accelerated by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was that the CIA had grown too bloated, comfortable and cautious over the 40 years since it moved into its new headquarters in Langley, Va. The challenge thrown down by al-Qaeda, it was said, called for a far smaller, nimble, can-do organization, as presidential candidate John McCain put it, that would fight terrorist subversion across the world and in cyberspace.

But a few hours spent with Douglas Waller's forthcoming and lively new book, "Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage," should cure that. As Waller and a number of other authors before him have discovered, the forerunner of the CIA was every bit as bewitched, beleaguered and befogged for much of its brief existence as its successor has too often been.

Not that Waller, a respected former foreign and diplomatic correspondent for Newsweek and Time, set out to take down the Donovan's OSS, a subject that has already been tackled at least a half-dozen times in serious fashion and many times more that in fanciful memoirs. Indeed, Waller clearly, and rightly, finds much to admire about the OSS, its eclectic corps of brave and imaginative agents and of course, Donovan, the Wall Street lawyer whose dedication and perseverance in winning the war was emblematic of his generation.

But even in Waller's balanced hands, there's no glossing over the record that the OSS's contribution to the glorious victories over Germany, and especially Japan, was marginal. From the invasion of North Africa through the Italian campaign, to the invasion of occupied France and the final push into Germany, the OSS mostly muddled through. It efforts were hobbled by inept station chiefs and turf battles with the uniformed military services, War Department bureaucrats, the FBI and our allies -- the Soviets, Nationalist Chinese and even British secret services.

Sound familiar?

"I've jokingly said to myself that I wonder how they had time to spy on the Axis -- they were spending so much time snooping on each other," Waller told me.

It's hard to believe that anyone could dig up new material about the OSS, but even at this late date Waller has managed to do it with the help of the Freedom of Information Act. There are new (and sometimes hilarious) details on episodes ranging from OSS break-ins of foreign embassies in Washington to Donovan's plots to assassinate Hitler and dispatch "death squads" to murder top Nazi officials (an idea that was abandoned).

Much of the material feels contemporary. One of the operations Waller dug up will ring a bell with those who remember the Bush administration's intelligence hijinks leading up to the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein. At its center was an OSS spy in Rome, an Italian code-named Vessel who was supplying "spectacular" reports and verbatim transcripts from inside the Vatican, whose envoys had close contacts with the Axis powers.

Vessel, as Waller puts it, turned out to be "a pornographer with a vivid imagination" -- not so unlike "Curveball" and other code-named informants who supplied the CIA with bogus information about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Maybe swapping out the CIA for the OSS is still a good idea. But not much has been heard of it lately. And after reading "Wild Bill Donovan," you might think it's not such a sensible idea at all.

By Jeff Stein  | January 20, 2011; 8:28 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Media, Military, Politics  
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It is unfortunate that there is such an interest bordering on obsession with covert and clandestine operations. In point of fact OSS had a very effective analysis division, which was the only part of the OSS structure that was preserved at the end of WWII.

Posted by: retiredreader | January 20, 2011 12:51 PM | Report abuse

The previous comment is incorrect. In addition to the OSS Research and Analysis Branch that was transferred to the State Department at the end of World War II and became its Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the OSS Secret Intelligence Branch (SI) and Counterespionage Branch were transferred to the War Department's Strategic Services Unit (SSU).

Regarding the contribution made by General Donovan and his OSS to World War II, Admiral Lord Mountbatten said that "doubted whether any one person contributed more to the ultimate victory of the Allies than Bill Donovan."

Posted by: osssociety | January 22, 2011 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Of course the esteemed osssociety fails to mmention that theh SSU was then liquidated in accordance with NIA Directve No.4. (See "Creatinng the Secret State" by David F. Rudgers University of Kansas 2000).

Posted by: retiredreader | January 22, 2011 7:08 PM | Report abuse

The more esteemed "retiredreader" - who, as his or her name suggests, has retired from reading - misrepresented NIA Directive #4: "The national interest demands that the complete liquidation of SSU shall not be accomplished until it is determined which of its functions and activities are required for the permanent Federal foreign intelligence program, and should therefore be transferred to the Central Intelligence Group or other agencies in order that its useful assets may not be lost. Such determination and transfers shall be made and the liquidation of the remainder of SSU shall be completed as promptly as possible and prior to 1 July 1947. The Direct or Central Intelligence shall issue the necessary directives to effect the liquidation. He will make recommendations to this Authority as to the intelligence activities permanently required in the peace-time effort."

SSU assets were made part of the new Central Intelligence Group as the Office of Special Operations (OSO) on April 2, 1946, and OSO was later incorporated into the Central Intelligence Agency as part of the National Security Act of 1947.

Posted by: osssociety | January 23, 2011 9:15 PM | Report abuse

More precisely OSO was ‘merged’ with the Office of Policy Coordination and both eventually were absorbed by CIA. In any event this exchange is rather pointless since my original point was that intelligence analysis is at least as important as clandestine operations. While your, I presume, collective point is that the OSS really was an effective force in aiding the allies in WWII. I would say that both are points are debatable , but plausible.

Posted by: retiredreader | January 23, 2011 11:49 PM | Report abuse

Retiredreader's point about the contributions made by the analytical component of OSS is well taken. General Donovan, in fact, attributed much of the success of OSS to "good old fashioned intellectual sweat" - its Research and Analysis Branch (R&A).

Posted by: osssociety | January 24, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

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