It is only fitting that the tale of spies and sex now unfolding in the US should have its origins in Bond, James Bond.
The David Petraeus scandal is about hubris, adultery and clothing: a general with his regimental trousers down, an FBI agent with his shirt off and a lot of overdressed socialites who might have stepped out of Desperate Housewives. It touches on national security, privacy and marital morality.
But at a deeper level, it reflects the ancient, ingrained and highly damaging rivalry between the CIA and FBI, the agencies responsible for foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering, combatants in a turf battle stretching back 70 years.
The FBI has in effect toppled the head of the CIA, reviving antagonism between the two agencies and raising a slew of disquieting questions.
Inside the Washington beltway, the longstanding rift between the two agencies is known as “the Wedge”. And the thin end of that wedge was none other than Ian Fleming, who created Bond.
On May 25, 1941, Commander Fleming and his boss, Admiral John Godfrey, the director of naval intelligence, travelled to Washington on a secret mission to encourage the creation of a central American agency for the collection of intelligence. Roosevelt followed British advice and placed Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan in command of the new department that would evolve into the CIA. (In gratitude, Donovan presented Fleming with a .38 Colt revolver inscribed “For Special Services”.)
The agency was vigorously opposed by J. Edgar Hoover, America’s secret- keeper-in-chief, who believed that his well-established FBI should expand its domestic operations to international dimensions.
Hoover lost that battle and the wedge was in place, splitting America’s spy-catching operations permanently and at times disastrously.
The false distinction between foreign and domestic counter- intelligence is a recipe for conflict. Spies and terrorists do not respect borders. Does a plot hatched abroad but aimed at the homeland properly lie with an internal security service or an external intelligence agency? Richard Helms, a former director of the CIA, once described the division of US intelligence as “cutting a man in half”.
A similar competitiveness existed (and continues) between MI5 and MI6, but never with the intensity, venom and ill-effects of the CIA-FBI divide, a tension exacerbated by jealously guarded stereotypes: the Feds as beer-drinking, down-home sleuths from the University of Life, while the freewheeling CIA types went to Ivy League schools and plotted foreign coups over dry martinis.
CIA agents mocked the FBI as “Foreign Born Irish”. Under Richard Nixon, Hoover felt powerful enough to break off contact with the CIA: “Let them do their own work,” he said -- the recipe for intelligence failure.
Similar missions and competition for resources forge mutual suspicion; rivalry begets pettiness and failure; an organisation watching its back will tend to miss what is in front of it.
In his book Wedge: How the Secret War between the FBI and CIA has Endangered National Security, Mark Riebling describes how a series of calamities was rooted in intelligence failures that can be traced back to this judgement-sapping, self-defeating institutionalised in-fighting.
From Pearl Harbor to the Bay of Pigs, Watergate and Iran-Contra, US intelligence was fatally hampered by lack of co-operation. The Kennedy assassination might have been avoided had the CIA told the FBI that Lee Harvey Oswald had met the KGB shortly before the killing.
The problem was thrown into tragically stark relief by 9/11. The CIA was accused of failing to notify the FBI about two suspects tracked in Malaysia who later took part in the attack. The FBI and CIA blamed each other, usually by anonymous leaks to the media. Every subsequent inquiry pointed to chronic blockages in the system.
Testifying to the investigating commission, former attorney- general John Ashcroft described the “wall” between the FBI and the CIA. “Government erected this wall,” he said. “Government buttressed this wall. And before September 11, government was blinded by this wall.”
George W. Bush was candid: “In terms of whether or not the FBI and the CIA were communicating properly, I think it is clear that they weren’t. And now we’ve addressed that issue.”
And so he did. In the months after 9/11, CIA officers were installed in each of the 56 main FBI field offices. The FBI was deployed to Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Senior FBI officials sit in on CIA meetings, and vice versa, sharing more information than ever before. The world is safer as a result.
This is what the Petraeus scandal threatens to unravel, amid suspicions that an FBI investigation, leaked to Congress but kept secret from the President, has destroyed the reputation of the man he appointed to lead the CIA.
Barack Obama has said carefully that he is “withholding judgement” on how the FBI investigation came about, but he cannot withhold it for long without doing serious damage to a vital link within the US government.
The FBI is a domestic law enforcement agency focused on crime; the CIA is an international intelligence agency gathering information to guide political and military decisions; one is concerned with prosecution, the other with prediction and analysis using whatever information is available. There is a natural tension between the two organisations but history clearly shows that the more acute the enmity, the worse the intelligence and the greater the threat.
It would be a disaster if the tangled relationships between the generals and their so-called “social liaisons” imperil a relationship of far more importance -- that between the FBI and the CIA.
The scandal has already deprived America of a fine intelligence leader. If it is allowed to drive a new wedge between the CIA and the FBI, then America, and the world, will be a more dangerous place.
THE TIMES, LONDON
Macintyre is a British author, historian and columnist