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For the CIA, Honesty Is Still the Best Policy

Column by Matthew Hersch

The Central Intelligence Agency deserves a hearty round of applause -- not for keeping a secret, but for letting one out. For years Spook Central has been keeping the lid on dozens of ancient artifacts of Cold War: reports of covert operations conducted in the 1950s and 60s to make the world safe for democracy, justice, and the United Fruit Company of Guatemala. Saturday, CIA spokesmen announced (anonymously, of course) the agency's intention to release these files, heralding, hopefully, a new era of openness that will further the work of historians about as much as it will help the CIA's tarnished image.

The CIA now is probably the best of America's intelligence organizations. That isn't saying much. Other organizations, notably those run by the Defense Department services are notorious for fraud, accidental deception, and general incompetence. The CIA, though frequently ignored, has often been right. If not for failing to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, it might even rank as mediocre.

A really complete picture of America's intelligence underworld, though, has always evaded public analysis. With the release of these formerly secret files, some significant questions about America's role in the Cold War may finally be answered.

Much of the files -- name of agents, etc. -- will likely still be blocked out by thick black magic marker, but they will probably still shed a lot of light on a fabulously bizarre period of American history. The files will, as one CIA spokespook declared, make the Agency look really, really bad.

This won't be too much of a surprise. Over the years, the CIA has done some pretty ethically indefensible thing in the name of national security -- hired gangsters, overthrown legitimate rulers, assassinated a young American President for signing a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (well, the jury's still out on that one).

Even so, getting this stuff out in the open can only help the Agency, and the country. Releasing files showing CIA success (and there have been plenty) can only help its reputation, and the sooner the CIA owns up to prior abuses, the sooner it will be able to distance itself from them.

Hopefully, this one shot espionage enema will become regular cleansing. After twenty years or so, intelligence estimates, and even information regarding operations becomes pretty stale -- there isn't much reason why such data should be released, by default, after a certain period set by Congress. Understandably, some files would need to remain under close guard, but a regular jolt of light on the CIA should help to convince it that covert actions won't escape public scrutiny forever.