Ralph McGehee: I was in the CIA for 25 years — Here’s how I explained my job to my kids

Tribunal on CIA Operations
Ralph McGehee at the Tribunal on CIA Operations (Photo: Wikipedia)

Ralph McGehee’s 1983 book Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA –and a subsequent lecture by the former CIA officer a few years later– introduced to me, in convincing and dispassionate detail, some of the darker chapters for which the Central Intelligence Agency, a government agency in which so few are ever held accountable that it seemingly operates above the law, has come to be known.

It was in a broad sense a history text, one I read, reread and referenced many times. I still have the autographed copy I bought at that lecture in 1986. In the ensuing years, McGehee’s name has in some respects been reduced to a footnote, albeit a critically important and often-used one. His disclosures, along with those of John Stockwell and Philip Agee in the 1970s and 1980s, helped forge the framework on which the litany of agency abuses documented in the three decades since have rested, and which are now acknowledged as part of the historical record.

Business Insider published an excerpt from the book yesterday, a somewhat light-hearted account –given the subject matter– of McGehee explaining to his daughters what he did for a living when he and has family were stationed in Asia. It was the first time I’ve seen his name in some time, a perfect opportunity to briefly revisit his book.

Deadly Deceits is a memoir of McGehee’s 25-year career at the agency, stationed both at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and abroad, in Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and finally Vietnam. Recruited in 1952, three years after graduating from Notre Dame where he was a football All-American, McGehee was the classic patriot of the times, an ardent cold warrior dedicated to and driven by his desire to help stop the spread of communism.

McGehee was good at his job. His career reached its apex in Thailand where he devised and put into practice a successful counterintelligence campaign against the communist insurgency. Widely lauded in intelligence circles, it involved collecting information using various levels of intimidation considered slightly less benign than methods that would otherwise fall within the always shifting definition of “torture”. His description of getting a mother to “talk” by pointing a gun to her baby’s head is one particularly horrific tactic I still recall from his lecture nearly thirty years later.

His disillusionment began when his findings –that the insurgents did indeed have wide popular support, contrary to previous agency reporting from the region– went ignored, rejected or even manipulated to follow the official line which would always claim that socialist-inspired insurgencies had little or no authentic grassroots support. That disillusionment only grew after he volunteered for the Saigon station in 1968 where his disenchantment almost led to suicide.  He finally retired in 1977 with a career achievement medal to his name and the realization of what the agency had grown to stand for. As he wrote in Deadly Deceits:

The CIA is not now nor has it ever been a central intelligence agency. It is the covert action arm of the President’s foreign policy advisers. In that capacity it overthrows or supports foreign governments while reporting “intelligence” justifying those activities. It shapes its intelligence, even in such critical areas as Soviet nuclear weapon capability, to support presidential policy. Disinformation is a large part of its covert action responsibility, and the American people are the primary target audience of its lies.

For those not familiar with the book, it’s instructive to include the opening words to the text’s appendix which documents the laborious and time-consuming process involved in its eventual publication. When you do read it, you should probably start with the appendix to underscore from the outset that what you are about the read is indeed fact, and that it was signed off –eventually, after a two-year legal battle– by CIA censors.

“The secrecy agreement that I signed when I joined the CIA allows the Agency to review prior to publication all writings of present and former employees to ensure that classified information relating to national security is not revealed.  This provision seems logical and necessary to protect legitimate interests.  However, my experiences in getting this book approved show that the CIA uses the agreement not so much to protect national security as to prevent revelations and criticisms of its immoral, illegal, and ineffective operations.  To that end it uses all possible maneuvers, legal and illegal.  Had I not been represented by my attorney, Mark Lynch of the American Civil Liberties Union, and had I not developed a massive catalog of information already cleared by the Agency’s publication review board, this book could not have been published.”



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