A defensive crouch is nothing new for the CIA
COMMENTARY | April 28, 2009
George Wilson goes back some to recall the U-2 plane shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 on a mission whose director, Richard Bissell of the CIA, later said should never have been undertaken. It resulted in worsened relations between the U.S. and the USSR, and there never was an examination to find out what went wrong. Instead not long afterward Bissell was put in charge of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
By George C. Wilson
The CIA is back in its familiar defensive crouch before Congress, this time for torturing terrorism suspects. Forty-nine years ago Friday — on May 1, 1960 — the CIA was in an even deeper defensive crouch.
The agency had sent a U-2 spy plane deep inside the Soviet Union on a secret mission to photograph military bases. The plane and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, were missing because the Soviet gunners knew they were coming and shot them out of the sky. The mission had been compromised before Powers ever took off.
Congress could have lived up to its oversight responsibilities and found out how the U-2 mission got compromised to lessen the chance this would happen again. It didn’t. President Dwight Eisenhower, who at first authorized his deputies to lie to the world about the true purpose of the U-2 overflights, could have appointed a truth commission to find out what went wrong. He didn’t.
Richard Bissell was the CIA executive who ran the U-2 spying program. He was never brought to account for the Powers mission, which he later admitted should never have been launched so close to a scheduled summit meeting in Paris where Eisenhower had high hopes of negotiating an arms control agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The U-2 overflight blew up any chance of that happening.
I interviewed Bissell extensively about the ill-fated mission while I was a reporter for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.
Bissell, as a condition for sitting down for the interview, insisted that the CIA have the right to censor the transcript of our conversation before it was published. CIA censors deleted all the significant passages.
The Congress and the American public had to wait for years to learn what Bissell really thought of the CIA’s last U-2 overflight of Russia which, after Soviet gunners shot down the spy plane and captured its pilot, embarrassed the United States the same way the CIA torture of captives is embarrassing the country today. Bissell wrote the following in his little-noticed memoir, “Reflections of a Cold Warrior:”
“We knew that the Soviets could track the plane and send a missile up to the proper height to intercept it. We were equally aware that a Soviet modified surface-to-air missile had an estimated altitude capability of at least 70,000 to 75,000 feet, which was very close to the altitude of the U-2” when flying over the Soviet Union. “The Air Force was asked for a new assessment of Soviet air defenses. Its analysis concluded that the surface-to-air missile represented the greatest threat to the U-2 but only if the U-2 was detected early enough in flight to alert the missile sites properly.
“By the time the mission was given the go ahead on May 1 , security had been compromised,” Bissell wrote. He added that the Afghan foreign minister had told an official in the U.S. embassy in Kabul that Powers, before he took off on his spying flight, had been “entertained socially by his Pakistani officer opposite numbers who knew all about his mission.”
“As events transpired and history has documented,” Bissell wrote in his memoir, “the Soviets shot down Francis Gary Powers and the Paris summit ended in disarray. An important opportunity for an early détente had been lost. There is now no doubt that we should have been more sensitive about planning a flight so close to the summit date.”
Congress had a few superficial hearings on the U-2 shoot-down but did not delve into how it was compromised before takeoff. In retrospect, the lawmakers probably never knew the mission had been compromised before takeoff and certainly did not bother to find out.
For want of either Congress or the executive branch bothering to find out what went wrong on the Powers mission and holding CIA officials accountable, the CIA gave Bissell, the man in charge of the U-2 spying flights, the job of planning the disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. That fouled-up operation turned out to be as embarrassing to President John Kennedy as the Soviet shoot-down of Powers’ U-2 had been to Eisenhower.
So here we are, wrapped around the axle again, on the question of whether Congress, another royal truth commission or somebody else should find out how come the United States, the glittering city on the hill, resorted to waterboarding and perhaps otherwise torturing its prisoners or sending them to foreign jails to be brutalized.
I frankly don’t think it matters who does the investigating. But our country will not feel clean until somebody gives us the unvarnished truth about our uncivilized behavior. What the country needs now, no matter what entity wraps its arms around the torture tar baby, is another Ferdinand Pecora, the fearless chief counsel of the Senate Banking Committee who back in 1933 exposed with withering questioning the Wall Street shenanigans that brought on the crash of 1929.
This column first appeared in National Journal’s CongressDaily AM.
I hate to say it, but...
07/05/2009, 03:30 PM
...any investigation of Bissell and the CIA regarding the U2 incident and/or the Bay of Pigs will inevitably lead to the assassination of JFK.