While the CIA is commonly understood to be an intelligence agency, we shouldn’t forget the important role it has played in carrying out clandestine operations that have benefited the financial elite.
This accusation is substantiated by the CIA’s elitist origins, its well-documented connections to Wall Street, and its sordid history of carrying out assassinations, staging coups, and fomenting civil wars.
The CIA and the financial elite have always had shared goals, interests, and backgrounds. Those in the upper echelons at Langley have often attended the same universities, belonged to the same fraternities, and attended the same clubs and parties as the Wall Street elite. This is why the intelligence community is often described as the “old boy network.”
This collusion is perhaps best illustrated by the career of Allen Welsh Dulles. Dulles was an operative of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the American WWII intelligence organization and forerunner of the CIA. He was also a senior partner of Sullivan & Cromwell, a well-connected Wall Street law firm representing several large American corporations, and a board member of J. Henry Schroeder Bank, a multinational investment house. Dulles’s international business concerns created myriad conflicts of interest while he headed the CIA from 1953 to 1961.
When Dulles was assigned the task of drafting the proposal for the organization that was to become the Central Intelligence Agency, he created an advisory group of a half dozen men, all of them Wall Street investment bankers and lawyers. Incidentally, Dulles had intended to be installed as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) as early as 1949, but when President Harry Truman defeated New York Governor Thomas Dewey (Dulles was Dewey’s speech writer) in the 1948 presidential election, his plans were put on hold.
Such conflicts of interest had existed within the intelligence community from the start. During World War II, the OSS recruited almost exclusively from the nation’s elite universities and corporate boardrooms. The international scope of many American corporations, particularly those in the insurance and petroleum industries, made them ideally suited for intelligence gathering. The alliance was refined, if not formalized, after the war with the creation of the CIA in 1947.
During the Cold War, U.S. corporations routinely provided CIA agents with cover, secret funding, resources, and contacts overseas. The CIA often reciprocated by giving these corporations multibillion dollar contracts, providing them immunity from media scrutiny by invoking “national security,” propping up “pro-American” puppet regimes, and, when necessary, overthrowing recalcitrant foreign governments.
Under Dulles’s directorship, there were two major operations carried out by the CIA that illustrate perfectly the agency’s corporatist mission.
In 1953, the CIA, working with the British MI6, overthrew the democratically elected Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh, citing a communist threat. But there was no such threat. The Soviets had withdrawn from the country in 1945, and the Iranian communist party, the Tudeh, was weak and in no position to seize power.
The real reason for the CIA-backed coup that smothered Iran’s nascent democracy and installed the tyrannical Shah was Mossadegh’s threat to nationalize his country’s oilfields. This policy might have jeopardized the profits of British and American oil companies, but it certainly posed no threat to the security of the United States.
The CIA’s toppling of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 was also justified as an anti-communist operation. But again, there was no communist threat. Arbenz’s government had run afoul of the United Fruit Company by instituting a land-reform program that called for the compensated taking of portions of the company’s vast property holdings. The CIA Red-baited Arbenz, staged a coup that overthrew him, and installed the brutal dictator Colonel Castillo Armas. The operation was considered an unambiguous success by the CIA and, no doubt, by the board of United Fruit — but it proved to be a disaster for the Guatemalan people, who would endure 40 years of civil war.
And of course the CIA’s corporatist operations did not end with Dulles’s ouster in 1961.
In 1973, the CIA orchestrated a coup against Chile’s democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende. Allende had crossed the U.S. financial elite by nationalizing foreign-owned interests like the country’s copper mines and telephone system. The CIA responded with a coup that resulted in Allende’s death and the installation of General Augusto Pinochet as the country’s dictator. Pinochet’s reign would last another 15 years, during which his regime tortured and murdered thousands of political opponents.
In 1987, the former CIA station chief in Angola, John Stockwell, said that the CIA was responsible for tens of thousands of covert actions and destabilization programs since its inception. At the time, Stockwell estimated that over 6 million people had died in CIA covert actions. Former State Department official and author William Blum has called this an “American Holocaust.”
That this alliance between the intelligence and business communities would lead to much mischief, mayhem, and bloodshed abroad is hardly surprising. Secrecy in the name of “national security” enabled both the CIA and corporate America to avoid accountability, rise above the law, and increase their power and profits.
Moreover, the destabilization of so-called third-world countries provided an arena for the Agency’s “fun-and-games” branch (clandestine operations). Weapons and narcotics trafficking flourished in the various hot spots stoked by Western intelligence agencies. These conflicts had nothing to do with national security, but they kept the spies employed and made a few arms dealers very wealthy. If millions of innocents suffered and perished in the senseless fighting, well, C’est la guerre.
In 1975, Philip Agee, an ex-CIA agent and author of Inside the Company, one of the first detailed exposés of the CIA, made this insightful observation:
To the people who work for it, the CIA is known as The Company. The Big Business mentality pervades everything. Agents, for instance, are called assets. The man in charge of the United Kingdom desk is said to have the “U.K. account.”…
American multinational corporations have built up colossal interests all over the world, and you can bet … that wherever you find U. S. business interests, you also find the CIA.… The multinational corporations want a peaceful status quo in countries where they have investments, because that gives them undisturbed access to cheap raw materials, cheap labor and stable markets for their finished goods. The status quo suits bankers, because their money remains secure and multiplies. And, of course, the status quo suits the small ruling groups the CIA supports abroad, because all they want is to keep themselves on top of the socioeconomic pyramid and the majority of their people on the bottom. But do you realize what being on the bottom means in most parts of the world? Ignorance, poverty, often early death by starvation or disease.
Throughout the Cold War, the CIA served the interests of the financial elite by artificially inflating estimates of Soviet military strength. These gross overestimates ensured the passage of enormous military-appropriation bills by Congress, thus enriching a few corporations within the military-industrial complex.
When the Cold War ended and the CIA found itself without an adversary, it was quick to come up with a new mission: corporate espionage. Journalist Robert Dreyfuss writes,
Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has been abuzz with talk about using the CIA for economic espionage. Stripped of euphemism, economic espionage simply means that American spies would target foreign companies, such as Toyota, Nissan, and Honda, and then covertly pass stolen trade secrets and technology to U.S. corporate executives.
The CIA’s behavior is hardly an American innovation. Indeed, it goes back at least as far as the British East India Company and is part of the game of empire. To gain insight into how this game is played, I recommend Russ Baker’s Family of Secrets and John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman.
This article was first published by the Future of Freedom Foundation.