Spies should not write books. The word ‘disclosure’ should not enter their vocabulary. They are trained to be inveterate ‘hiders’ of things, taught neither to confirm nor deny. And yet, for almost as long as its existence, the CIA has produced memoirists.
The CIA currently receives 50 books each month to vet. Many of these works attract enormous publicity, with the authors being propelled onto network television shows and commanding six-figure advances. Valarie Plame, the CIA officer whose identity was leaked by the Bush White House in 2003, reportedly received $2 million for her book Fair Game. High-profile CIA officers have seen their memoirs become bestsellers. Published in 2007, At the Center of the Storm, the memoir of CIA Director George Tenet, rose as high as Number 2 on the Amazon bestseller list, beaten to the top spot only by the seventh and final Harry Potter novel.
Company Confessions is the absorbing and untold story of the development of CIA memoirs. Using a wealth of newly-declassified materials, unpublished private correspondence and elite interviews with prominent memoirists, it explores a number of key questions. One, why do spies write books? Two, what do memoirs reveal about the CIA, intelligence and the broader subject of US foreign policy? And three, how has the CIA responded to the challenge of officers writing books?
One of the key contentions of Company Confessions is that the CIA memoir is an exposé of American Empire. Few memoirs are content to discuss the CIA’s analytical function, preferring instead to focus on covert action in far flung corners of the globe. By discussing how the CIA has carried out paramilitary operations, psychological warfare, and covert propaganda, to name just a few activities that fall under the mantle of covert action, authors reveal the extraordinary reach of US power. More recently-published CIA memoirs also consider whether this Empire is in trouble, if not on the verge of collapse. Opening up about the CIA’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as interventions in the 1990s in Panama, Bosnia and Kosovo, these works suggest that the US is being undermined by the very empire is has so assiduously cultivated.
A study of CIA memoirs is highly revealing of the Agency's approach to information management, and represents a unique vantage point from which to assess the depth of secrecy in US intelligence. The arbitrary decision-making of the CIA is often reported in the press. It is also well-known that the CIA has frogmarched authors off to court. Behind these familiar methods, however, exist a range of ad hoc (and sometimes disturbing) tactics. Company Confessions will disclosure occasions where the CIA has stolen book manuscripts from publishing houses; required staff to take polygraph tests to reveal their publishing intentions; and carried out domestic surveillance of authors. In the case of Phillip Agee, the Agency even bugged his typewriter, fitting it with microphones and transmitters. Company Confessions will also reveal that, behind the scenes, the CIA has been lending discreet support to selected memoirists with the objective of improving the Agency's image and correcting popular misconceptions. Privileged authors, chosen for their willingness to toe the line, have received remarkable access to classified materials to help them produce 'surrogate official histories'.
Christopher Moran is Professor of US National Security at the University of Warwick. He is the author of two single-authored books: Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain, which won the St. Ermin’s Intelligence Book of the Year Award in 2013, and Company Confessions: Secrets, Memoirs and the CIA. His work has appeared in leading academic journals including Foreign Affairs, International Affairs, and The English Historical Review. He is a former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and since 2016 has been a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.&nb...
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