European Affairs

William J. Casey, an abstemious Irish Catholic and grandson of an immigrant barkeep, had quit social work to attend law school. Then he discovered a talent for financial and political analysis that his employer, the Research Institute of America, peddled to big corporations.

Richard M. Helms, grandson of a wealthy banker and Federal Reserve governor, seemed destined for law school or Wall Street after excelling at Williams College. But teenage years spent in Europe created a taste for adventure. He became a reporter in Berlin, watching Nazis consolidate their power.

William E. Colby, descended from Plymouth Rock Puritans, hoped to be a career Army officer like his father. Poor eyesight sent him to Princeton rather than West Point and he took his ROTC commission five months before Pearl Harbor because he yearned for action in the war he saw coming.

Different histories but they shared three critical distinctions. All were recruited by William “Wild Bill” Donovan to serve in the infant Office of Strategic Services. Later, each headed the Central Intelligence Agency. And their CIA careers all ended badly.

With “Disciples,” Douglas Waller, author of a well regarded biography of Donovan, has produced a sequel of sorts. Donovan is a spectral presence in the book, revered by the four future CIA directors who got their start in the spook world under his leadership, and who emulated his adventurous ways. As Waller says of the quartet: “These were strong, decisive, supremely confident men of action, doers who believed they could shape history rather than let it control them.”

With war imminent, Franklin Roosevelt had drafted Donovan to create an espionage service that soon sported a commando function as well. It might well have been called Operation Improvisation. The OSS had no clear place in the bureaucracy, just as there was no precedent in the security establishment for the service’s broad mission. After all, FDR’s hawkish Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, while serving in the previous administration, had abolished the miniscule Cipher Bureau. Stimson famously observed: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

With a fine taste for colorful detail and an ability to maintain narrative drive despite complex material – he was a successful Newsweek and Time writer (where we were colleagues) – Waller describes how his protagonists quickly trashed Stimson’s dictum.

Dulles, after some tutoring by “cousins” in Britain’s MI6, became a proficient spymaster as OSS chief in Bern. Neutral Switzerland was a magnet for diplomats, refugees, business travelers and spooks. When MI6 rejected an overture from a German functionary, Fritz Kolbe, Dulles cultivated him. It took six months for Dulles to persuade Washington and London that Kolbe was neither a crank nor a double agent.

Among the many valuable documents Kolbe smuggled out was a list of German moles burrowed into British embassies. Bill Stephenson, an MI6 official who had mentored Dulles, later said that the OSS’s employment of Kolbe was “one of the greatest secret intelligence achievements of the war.”

Dulles sometimes used his direct channel to Donovan to deliver much more than ordinary intelligence. Mining his network of German contacts, Dulles began an effort to induce an unconditional surrender in Italy, where bloody, inconclusive combat ground on.

Diplomatic obstacles – including Moscow’s fear that London and Washington would conclude a separate piece – slowed the process by several weeks. But the initiative paid off when the Germans in Italy gave up six days earlier than the Wehrmacht to the north, avoiding additional unnecessary casualties. Dulles regarded it as his most important World War II contribution.

Casey’s biggest project was to supervise the recruitment, training and deployment of espionage teams dropped by parachute into Germany in early 1945. Donovan made what he called “penetration en masse” a top priority as Allied armies marched on Hitler’s home turf. Casey had risen rapidly in OSS’s chaotic London station because he demonstrated strong administrative skills.

One of his aides was Navy Lt. Helms, a late arrival in London whose original assignment was to assist Dulles in running the OSS operation in post-war Germany. Hitler’s Ardennes counter-attack – which cruelly surprised the Allies – both slowed the clock and sharpened the desire for military intelligence from deep behind German lines.

The OSS gratified Colby’s appetite for action. Despite his myopia and puny build, he aced the commando training course and parachuted into occupied France to help local resistance forces harass the Wehrmacht. Then he floated into Norway, head of a squad assigned to destroy bridges and railways in order to impede the return of German divisions to their Fatherland. General Donovan would personally pin a Silver Star on Major Colby’s tunic in recognition of his performance behind enemy lines.

When peace broke out, Dulles and Helms rapidly built an espionage operation in Germany. Penetrating the Soviet zone was the main objective, but they also deployed spies to monitor British and French operations. (The practice leading to the embarrassing disclosure that Americans were eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a long history.)

Waller’s rich narrative thins out as it reaches the Cold War. A significant flaw of omission: Waller abstains from placing the later difficulties of the quartet into a larger context.

Aligning the intelligence function effectively with the national security hierarchy has been a chronic problem for presidents and legislators. As the Pacific war ended, Harry Truman eased Donovan out, shrank the OSS, changed its name to Strategic Services Unit and placed it in the War Department. Donovan had made bureaucratic enemies, including FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

The need for a robust independent intelligence entity soon became apparent, leading the CIA’s creation in 1947. But inadequate coordination among agencies persisted for decades. It came to the fore most notably in the wake of 9/11, leading to a broad reorganization.

Another recurrent problem is finding an effective balance between the gathering and sound analysis of information on the one hand and covert action – including subverting foreign governments or mounting paramilitary action -- on the other.

Dulles, as DCI beginning in 1953, was a notoriously poor administrator and became obsessed with covert action. He gave responsibility for the overthrow of Fidel Castro to a reckless subordinate who failed to grasp the dictator’s strong standing among Cubans. Hence the Bay of Pigs fiasco. That contributed to the Cuban missile crisis, which threatened to melt the Cold War in thermonuclear heat. That John Kennedy fired Dulles in a courteous manner seemed a great kindness.

Helms, who had remained in the intelligence field without interruption, was more cautious concerning paramilitary operations. But after Lyndon Johnson appointed him DCI, Helms allowed the agency to be used to undermine opponents of the Viet Nam war (Operation Chaos) and even extended limited help to Richard Nixon’s “plumbers.” Both violated the CIA’s charter.

Nixon, dissatisfied with the agency’s performance and distrusting Helms personally, fired him anyway. Helms got the ambassadorship to Iran as a consolation prize. But he spent nearly as much time testifying before Congressional committees investigating CIA malfeasance on a number of fronts. Ultimately Helms pleaded no contest to a minor charge -- failing to provide an honest account of the agency’s role in overthrowing Chile’s legal government – and was sentenced to two years on probation.

Helms’s immediate successor, James Schlesinger, purged hundreds of the old guard but promoted Colby to second in command. They compiled a summary of the agency’s misdeeds, what would be called the “family jewels” report, intending that it remain secret. In the cabinet turmoil engendered by Watergate, Schlesinger soon became Defense Secretary. Colby was astonished when Nixon appointed him DCI.

Colby strived to restore the CIA’s confidence and improve its analytic function but press leaks and pressure from Capitol Hill engulfed him. That Gerald Ford went further than he intended in mentioning to reporters assassination attempts aimed at foreign officials increased the heat. Eventually Colby succumbed. He delivered the family jewels document to Congress. To withhold it, he reasoned, would force even broader disclosures. The CIA needed to turn the page and come to terms with congressional oversight. Ford, choking on a surfeit of other controversies, also wanted a new page. He fired Colby in 1975.

What he considered Colby’s cowardly capitulation outraged his former colleague, Bill Casey. Twenty years earlier, in one of his last assignments from Donovan, Casey had co-authored a prospectus for a post-war intelligence agency. It envisioned an entity similar to what became the CIA, but the politics of 1945 held the plan in abeyance.

Casey went on to amass a fortune as lawyer and venture capitalist but never lost interest in the intelligence game. After working for Nixon’s election in 1968, Casey turned down a CIA job because he wouldn’t work under his former subordinate, Helms. So he served elsewhere in the Nixon administration, including the State Department.

As Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, Casey had a stronger claim. After he became DCI in 1981, Casey seemed amnesiac vis-à-vis the previous decade’s controversies. Ousting the dictatorial leftist government of Nicaragua became one of his special causes. So he secretly funneled money and arms to the right-wing opposition, the Contras. That violated a statute barring such assistance.

Eventually, Casey’s obsession morphed into the Iran-Contra fiasco, which threatened to cripple Reagan’s second term. It caused a wholesale overhaul of the White House staff, criminal prosecutions and the attempted suicide of one former official. The onset of brain cancer in December 1986, just as congressional investigators were closing in, spared Casey formal retribution. Rather he was merely “a target of accusation and ridicule,” in Waller’s telling, as he resigned in January and died four months later.

Waller clearly admires the disciples for their strengths and guts though he doesn’t shrink from describing their flaws. What the author doesn’t do is firmly tie what he calls the “sad ending for all four” to the overarching issue of the country’s inability to maintain an effective intelligence service that operates within a reasonable set of rules.

Laurence Barrett was associated with Time Magazine for 32 years as Correspondent and Editor. He is the author of several books including “Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House