Rethinking the OSS and CIA
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.
"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.
| January 20, 2011; 8:28 AM ET
Categories: Intelligence, Media, Military, Politics
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