CHRIS WHIPPLE: THE SPYMASTERS

We at The Common Good are extremely fortunate to have hosted this intimate, comprehensive and timely conversation between author and journalist, Chris Whipple and author and historian, Kai Bird, about the CIA – its innerworkings, successes and failures, role in American history, and ultimately its fundamental purpose. For an institution with so much brand recognition – the Rolls Royce of government if you will – it remains a mystery to most. However, not to these two guests – it’s clear from their research, their writing and this conversation that Chris and Kai are two of the most knowledgeable observers of the CIA living today. 

To illustrate the extent of the CIA’s secrecy, Kai opens with a simple question – How many people work at the CIA? 

  • We actually don’t even know that, but Chris’ educated guess is in the tens of thousands. 

What is more clear, however, is the CIA’s role in some pivotal moments in American history. 

  • Chris and Kai discuss Richard Helms, the quintessential spymaster – he was a career intelligence officer, who viewed the president as his only client; he was also a great dancer and loved dry martinis. 

Helms was also, however, implicated in the flawed Domino Theory that ultimately drew America deeper into Vietnam – the theory purported that if one country fell to communism, the surrounding countries would also fall. 

Citing another intelligence failure, Chris and Kai examine President Carter’s biggest foreign policy blunder – Iran. 

  • American intelligence community missed the Iranian revolution entirely, illuminating a complete misunderstanding of internal Iranian Politics. 
  • This of course had immediate consequences for American hostages, but one can also draw a line back to the Iranian revolution to explain much of American/Iranian relations today. 
  • Fascinatingly, Chris and Kai opined that MBS of Saudi Arabia today may be mirroring the Shah of Iran in the 1970s.
  • They cite The Bay of Pigs and Weapons of Mass Destruction to be other monumental intelligence failures.

Intelligence Failures versus Policy Failures 

Chris and Kair joked that there are only policy successes and intelligence failures – meaning the CIA gets blamed a lot, but in reality, the failure often happens when an administration either fails to act or acts in correctly in response to accurate intelligence.  

  • In weeks leading up to 9/11, the CIA, specifically George Tenet and Cofer Black, provided the Bush administration with credible evidence that Al-Qaeda was planning to attack America at home. The Bush administration mostly ignored the warning and the rest is history. 
  • More recently, and perhaps even more consequentially, the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment warned the Trump administration about the likelihood of an airborne, flu-like global pandemic that would kill millions and devastate the world, economically and geopolitically. As we all know now, that’s exactly what is happening. 
  • Chris called President Trump, the “unbriefable” president in response to a question about Russian bounties on American soldiers. Moreover, Trump’s disdain and skepticism for the intelligence community is uniquely dangerous. 

We had some fascinating and illuminating questions from a superb group of guests, so we do encourage you to watch the event in its entirety. However, some highlights include. 

  • Gillian Sorenen, Ted Soresnen’s widow, asked about assassinations, their records and the importance of transparency in an institution shrouded in secrecy. 
  • How has the CIA evolved and where is it today?
    • Since, 9/11 there’s been an internal battle for the soul of the CIA: Is it an information gathering agency or a paramilitary organization? 
    • Chris noted President Obama’s escalation of drone usage in his first term despite rhetoric that would suggest otherwise. 
    • The creation of the DNI in 2004 to coordinate between 17 intelligence agencies  has also been an important development 
  • What does the CIA need right now in its next leader? 
    • Someone who avoids group-think, brings fresh eyes to old problems (Middle East) 
    • Chris cited some contenders: Darrell Blocker, Michael Morell and Sue Gordon, but noted that the lag in Biden’s announcement has been odd. 
    • Interestingly, Chris mentions Pete Buttigieg as someone who would have been good. 
    • Leon Panetta was the gold standard – “an iron fist in a velvet glove”
    • Gina Haspel is a “fascinating figure” – and importantly, has surrounded herself with women as deputies, so for the first time ever, there are women effectively running the CIA. 

With recent cyber attacks and political interference, where is intelligence heading as it relates to Russia and Putin? Why haven’t we hit back harder? 

  • President Obama decided not to pull the larger trigger, and was followed by a president who a lot of people in the intelligence community think is compromised – financially or otherwise. 
  • President Obama didn’t want to retaliate even though  we could have taken down the Russian economy with a cyber attack, because we are better at offense than defense. It would have meant an escalation that we might not have been ready for. 
  • This current hack is likely to be a monumental intelligence failure – we just don’t know the extent yet.

In memory of John le Carré,  we’re watching the Cold-War spy thriller “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Netflix) this weekend. 

WATCH THE VIDEO BELOW:https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZlbooLamF_4?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1


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Chris Whipple is one of the most accomplished multimedia journalists of our era: a writer, documentary filmmaker, and speaker. He is a multiple Peabody and Emmy Award–winning producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Primetime. 

He is currently the chief executive officer of CCWHIP Productions and is a frequent guest on MSNBC and CNN. Chris served as the executive producer and writer of Showtime’s 2015 documentary film The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs. 

His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Politico, theDaily Beast, and many other publications.


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Kai Bird is an author and columnist who has written on numerous topics and won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography on Oppenheimer. His books have received critical acclaim and popular success, including The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, which was a New York Times best-seller. His memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

In January 2017 he was appointed Executive Director and Distinguished Lecturer of CUNY Graduate Center’s Leon Levy Center for Biography. He is also the recipient of the McArthur Genius Grant for research and writing. 

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