Fats: In the family jewels?
Gary: In the family jewels, man!
Wyatt: Worst pain there is.
Gary: Broke my heart in two!
Fats: She broke more than your heart. –Weird Science
It turns out that procreation of secretive criminal government agencies doesn’t require a male or a female, and family jewels have little to do with it. The CIA (short for Criminal Implementation of Arrogance) calls certain reports on its immoral and illegal activities its “family jewels.” John Prados, author of The Family Jewels, the CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power, calls all of the CIA’s outrageous secrets its family jewels. But the CIA reproduces itself whether or not its secrets are exposed, and if it’s a family we might just all end up dying from a bad case of family values.
Prados’ book recounts various CIA abuses from the 1970s through today, with chapters on domestic surveillance, detention and interrogation, and assassination. Of course, the abuses predate the period focused on in this book, go back to the origins, and could fill much thicker volumes. If the CIA has a problem with bad apples, we’re talking about orchards full of them. The vicious power-mad bursts of criminality do seem to come in historical cycles, peaking every 60 seconds or so for the past 60 years. There’s no record of the CIA functioning in “proper” manner without the atrocities that are its bread and butter. A CIA history is a history of relentless destructiveness — relentless but worsening.
“What are we talking about, here?” asked Senator Frank Church, back in the day. “Agencies of the government that are licensed to undertake murder. Is the president of the United States going to be a glorified godfather?”
Today that goes without saying, although I’m not sure opinion polls wouldn’t find the mafioso godfather to be the more glorified of the two, presidential drones or no presidential drones.
One problem, Prados points out, is secrecy. “Not only does secret knowledge have extremely seductive power, when spooks walk on the dark side they experience the greatest invitation to excess, believing that security classification shields their actions from scrutiny.”
Prados quotes Harry Howe Ransom: “At the level of representatives of the people — executive and legislative — the problem is primarily how to control a dimly seen instrument so hot that if not handled with great skill it can burn its user instead of its adversary.”
(You may take a moment here to remember President Kennedy if you are so inclined.)
Secrecy is a source of evil, but not of its procreation. The way the CIA keeps going is through the granting of immunity for its crimes, the glorification of its culture, the Hollywood propagandizing of its purpose, the cowardice of Congress members, the complicity of media types, the indifference of millions, and the repetitive-to-the-point-of-insanity push to reform the unreformable.
As someone engaged in the very useful work of exposing secrets, Prados seems at least as outraged by the CIA’s reluctance to reveal its secrets as by the murderous horrors from which those secrets are constituted. But if the secrets are exposed, they’ll still be horrors, and — frankly — they’ll be nothing entirely new. If the United Nations sees the details on every drone murder, the United Nations will become a more openly pro-war institution, but the dead will still rot, their loved ones will still wail, and the CIA will still be seen as some mixture of necessary strength, heroic cool, and occasional unavoidable excesses so common that we get tired of hearing about them. Unless we decide that enough is enough.