October 31, 2018

International Security Prof. to Speak On the CIA, History, the Secret State

LANDSCAPE OF SECRECY: Richard Aldrich, professor of international security at the University of Warwick, UK, will be speaking on ”Policing the Past: The CIA and the Landscape of Secrecy” at 5:30 p.m. Friday, November 2, in the Institute for Advanced Study’s Wolfensohn Hall. (Photo courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study)

By Donald Gilpin

The shadowy parts of government will be brought into the spotlight on Friday at 5:30 p.m. when Richard Aldrich, international security professor at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom, speaks at the Institute for Advanced Study’s Wolfensohn Hall.

Titled “Policing the Past: the CIA and the Landscape of Secrecy,” Aldrich’s lecture promises to “explore the relationship between history, the media, and the secret state, a journey that has involved both cooperation and extreme skepticism.”

Aldrich, whose main research interests lie in the areas of intelligence and security communities and is leading a research project on “The Central Intelligence Agency and the Contested Record of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1947-2001,” described the history of the CIA as “something of a battleground.”

“The issue of secrecy has barely been off the front pages of our newspapers over the past 15 years,” Aldrich said in a phone interview from the UK. “It’s important that historians and political scientists explore these things, but it’s difficult for scholars to research information that is secret.” 

He emphasized the importance of history to challenges of our current world. “The CIA takes its history very seriously,” he said. “How Americans think about the CIA’s past has reverberations in the present.” 

Recalling how Ronald Reagan in 1980, on the campaign trail prior to his election, promised to “unleash” the CIA, Aldrich noted that the CIA has often been “symbolic of wider issues in American foreign policy,” including tensions between interventionism and isolationism, between presidential secrecy and a democratic foreign policy, and between human rights and national security imperatives.

Aldrich said he will also be talking about “how the CIA has tried to shape its own image and how historians should respond.” He noted, “The CIA is very interested in how they are seen by Hollywood, starting with Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991),” which, according to Aldrich, prompted the CIA to send an agent to persuade Hollywood to make better films about the CIA, which resulted in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and Argo (2012), about the rescue of American diplomats in Iran.

Aldrich mentioned the paradox of the CIA’s emphasis on secrecy along with its eagerness to promote its image. “The CIA has sought to police the past, seeking to prevent the disclosure of sources and methods, arguing that this can endanger lives and put the success of its operations at risk,” he stated. “Yet it has also encouraged its own senior officers to write memoirs and has dispatched its officials to Hollywood to work with producers in shaping CIA narratives.”

Aldrich explained some of the immense challenges and equally large rewards of scholarly research in this realm of international security, quite different from the traditional work of historians doing research. “Just going into the archives probably isn’t good enough,” he said. “Historians in this field need to learn from investigative journalism. They need to learn from the spies. Although this terrain is difficult, there are some amazing treasures.”

Among those treasures, which he looks forward to being able to acquire someday, he mentioned “pretty much every word Yaser Arafat said on the phone over the past 50 years” and the 20-30 tons of paper the National Security Agency was producing every day in the 1970s. “These are among the treasures for historians inside the archives of the intelligence agencies, but going in there with just a pad and pencil won’t be good enough.” 

In regard to the current relationship between President Trump and the CIA, Aldrich observed that “things had settled down a bit,” and noted that leaders, notably Trump and Putin, “have used secrets and intelligence activities as a dramatic device. They enjoy telling about and hinting at secret activities. It makes them look tough.”

He added, “Presidents like talking about this shadowy stuff.  It captures headlines.  Fifty years ago leaders fled from any discussion about the CIA. Today they love talking about it.  Trump loves hinting at dark powers and discussing this stuff.”

Aldrich, whose most recent book is The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers, said he will argue in his lecture Friday that “historians have a crucial role to play not only in the curating of national memory but also in mediating between the public and the more shadowy parts of government.”