There is a surprising amount of publicly available information on the Central Intelligence Agency’s past operations on Wikipedia! The basic premise of the organization as a whole is pursue American interests overseas, which was bound to lead to some moral gray areas. What is acceptable foreign actions, and what constitutes an obscene overstepping of moral standards? I have no idea! You definitely aren’t going to learn anything about morality here, but you can learn about some insane historical footnotes. Starting with the most reasonable actions and ending with the most indefensibly insane:
(NOTE – there are a lot of these – A LOT. Many are related to things you are already are familiar with, while others are more unfamiliar. Any single one of these could warrant a full self-standing article, so I will do my best to briefly summarize the most insane parts of each while still attempting to be subjective and instructive, because we all came here to learn right?)
Canadian Caper: In 1979, Iranian students took US embassy personnel as hostages in a protest of the Iranian government. In 1980, somewhere in the midpoint of the crisis before all the hostages were released, the CIA, with the help of six Canadians, an Irishman and one Latin American (before you bitch, Wikipedia didn’t specify the last individual’s nationality – vague brown person it is!). This group pretended to be a film crew looking for a location to shoot their fictional science fiction movie (word play!), and then snuck eight Americans out with them when they left. This was the movie Argo with Ben Affleck. As far as international intervention goes, this is a great reason to fuck with some foreigners.
Operation Lincoln: During the height of the Cold War, individuals accepted by the USSR for travel to the Soviet bloc were briefed before their trip about things to observe and take note of, and then debriefed upon their return. Relatively innocuous if you ask me. Just asking some questions about the people threatening to nuke the planet into oblivion is all!
Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis: Post-Cold War, the CIA leveraged their global surveillance records and capabilities for the study of climate change. Look how thoughtful the CIA is! Nothing came of this, but hey, the effort is what counts right? /watches Florida get hammered relentlessly during hurricane season for the umpteenth year before falling entirely into the Atlantic
Operation Timber Sycamore: The CIA began providing money and weaponry to Syrian rebels fighting President Assad, who likes to gas and murder civilians. So, pretty justified I would say.
Operation MIAS: Remember all those missiles and Stingers and anti-aircraft the CIA sold to the mujhadeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 80s? Yeah they want those back now please. SPOILER: they didn’t get all of them.
JMWAVE: Around the time the Cuban government began to tip their hand as a communist state, the CIA went to the University of Miami and built a station to spy on our now-enemies to the south. When your rival loads a ton of nuclear-tipped missiles a few miles away from your border, you’re gonna want to keep an eye on that; I’ve played Risk, I know this.
Project COLDFEET: In 1961, the Soviets were forced to abandon an ice station in the Arctic due to pressure in the ice disrupting their only means of egress. For some reason, the Soviets thought they could just leave the station to eventually be folded into the ice, but the CIA is all about digging through other people’s trash, and flew out to collect any pertinent data they could from the station. Hey, if your rival is going to leave his shit out in the open, it’s fair game I say. /eats all of your leftovers from the fridge, “I SAID FAIR GAME!”
Project Azorian: Similar to COLDFEET. A Soviet submarine sunk in the Pacific in 1974, and the CIA was hell bent on uncovering what those rascally Soviets were up to. The Soviets watched the sub sink to a deep trench, and figured it would be safe from prying eyes miles below the surface. NO FUCKING WAY, said the CIA. Roughly $800 million dollars later (approximately $4 billion in 2018 dollars), the CIA managed to get the sub off the floor of the ocean, only for two-thirds of the recovered sections to break off and sink back to the bottom completely destroyed after a mechanical failure. FYI – the average teacher makes $36,617 annually. Think on that while you grapple with $4 billion spent to recover one-third of a soggy submarine.
HTLINGUAL: Between 1952 and 1973, the CIA intercepted mail sent to the Soviet Union and China as a matter of national security and general nosiness. Originally the CIA only monitored names and addresses, and then graduated to straight up opening and reading mail. Considering the political environment, this seems like a pretty reasonable operation; I don’t love it but hey, don’t send shit to communists.
Osama bin Laden/Operation Neptune Spear: Before you break out into chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, consider: the CIA led a joint special operation into an allied country in order to execute a known terrorist. We celebrate this because: A. it worked, and B. fuck that guy, but consider if it had not? Consider a bunch of SEALs showed up in Pakistan, shot a bunch of civilians, and left? Absolute chaos – the Obama presidency is all but over before his second term, a critical ally abandons the US in the war on terror, and the US looks like an even bigger asshole on the international stage. Lost in the celebration was how big a gamble this was. That said… U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Operation Gold: When Berlin was separated post-WWII, foreign countries rushed to establish embassies in order to stake their claim over central Europe. Almost immediately, the US and British set to tapping the Soviet landlines back to Moscow. Lest it seem like we are unfairly maligning America, be assured the Soviets did equally terrible things across the board (keep this in mind as this certainly applies throughout the rest of the list).
Operation Merlin: The CIA left significantly flawed designs for nuclear weapons in a place they expected Iran to steal them in order to delay their progress during the Clinton Administration. I have no problems with some good old-fashioned counterespionage, but my real issue here is the gambit was immediately uncovered, which turned out to not only be useless, but a boon to the Iranians who could suddenly weed out any inaccuracies in their current program against a list of everything you shouldn’t do while making a nuclear missile. Lower than it originally would have been due to poor execution.
Extraordinary Rendition: If you are not familiar with the concept, extraordinary rendition is another delightful little moral quandary where American captives or detainees with potentially useful information are “rendered” to allied nations with more flexible stances on torture, where they are then, ahem, “interrogated” for additional information. Some would call this “kidnapping”, others would call this “deterring illegal combatants from further action”. I understand others concerns about the process but I maintain the outlook of “fuck with the bull, get the horns” of international geopolitics. Fuck ’em.
Secret War/Laotian Civil War: If I didn’t lead with “Secret War”, no one would be that interested in this. Anyway – did you know Laos had a civil war?!? At the same time as the Vietnam War? I bet you didn’t, but the CIA sure did. Soviets were dumping money into the communist rebels while the US threw weapons and funds at the reigning monarchy in an attempt to keep them in power against an artificially-inflated resistance force. The Wikipedia article was real long, but it looks like the rebels won with the backing of the North Vietnamese across the street. The CIA has a pretty sub-par record in southeast Asia.
Albanian Subversion: Wikipedia gets exceptionally opinionated on this article by referring to this as “one of the earliest and most notable failures of Western cover paramilitary operations”. Seems like editorializing to me. The CIA, in addition to other western intelligence agencies, sought to foment resistance to Soviet communism in Albania by installing expats and other agents throughout the newly-formed communist government. A Soviet mole tipped off Moscow, which immediately crushed and/or captured the agents and sent them to life in prison camps. Gonna chalk that up as a tough loss.
Air Bridge Denial Service: Starting in the 1990s, the CIA targeted aircraft believed to be trafficking drugs from Colombia and Peru, and would “force them down” (shoot them out of the fucking sky). I am extremely curious about the legality of such a program, because I am pretty confident in saying the CIA certainly was not. The project was suspended after a legitimate aircraft was shot down and two Americans were killed. Jk they halted the program for less than two years before resuming their plan to shoot anything suspicious flying out of Colombia. Drugs are bad, but the War on Drugs is even dumber, and shooting civilian aircraft because you distrust them seems like a morally questionable area.
Project MERRIMAC/CHAOS/RESISTANCE: A information gathering procedure against individuals who posed a threat to the CIA. Not terrible until you realize this was a domestic program and included spying and surveillance on domestic anti-war groups. So far we’ve seen justifiable threats, but this is more paranoia about a bunch of stoned hippies.
Plausible Deniability: Basically, everything is off-the-books. Instead of keeping an org chart, the CIA likes to just pretend potentially damaging projects or people don’t exist by leaving the off the books. I do the same thing in my phone with ugly girls.
Contras: Not Iran-Contra, mind you. Just the Contras. They were totally fine. They were only counterrevolutionaries fighting against the socialist-sympathetic Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Their ideology is described as “anti-communist”, which you can really take a lot of different directions if you really dive into it. If we fold in the Iran part, well… then the CIA was receiving money from illicitly-promised weapons to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard in order to fund the resistance against a naturally-selected sovereign government after the presidency explicitly said that’s totally not what they were doing. This is hard to explain – I can’t believe American citizens had the attention span to follow this long string of affairs. It was just discovered our current president committed goddamn TAX FRAUD in order to gain his fortune and no one even batted an eye. Christ we are so fucked.
“Disposition Matrix”/Drone Strikes: I bet you opened this tab and did not expect to delve into a legitimate ethics discussion, did you? The Disposition Matrix is the database maintained by the CIA in order to track, capture and kill suspected enemies of the US by way of unarmed aerial vehicles (drones). The process for determining who lives and dies, or when they are allowed to be targeted or what the equation for determining an acceptable amount of collateral casualties is not publicly known, but we DO know President Obama is the first person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize while staking his foreign policy on the concept of executing unarmed civilians in foreign countries on ambiguously defined qualities.
Tibet: The CIA had a long-running operation during the Cold War in Tibet where they pushed political action, propaganda and the general idea of an independent Tibetian state among foreign nations in an attempt to piss off China, and by extension, the Soviets. If you haven’t noticed, this is a recurring theme. The CIA worked closely with the Dalai Lama’s brothers in order to basically annoy the Chinese, and ended the program once President Nixon agreed to call it off after visiting China in 1972. This pissed off the Dalai Lama, who used it as evidence the US never actually cared about Tibet’s plight. Imagine what an asshole you had to be to piss off the Dalai Lama. Tricky Dick was one of a kind.
Operation CHATTER: Technically not the CIA, but its forerunner in the US Navy; the government was interested in identifying and testing natural and synthetic drugs during interrogation and recruitment of agents. At the risk of spoiling later entries, this one is relatively low as the testees were animals and consenting volunteers.
Bay of Pigs: You know the basics – the CIA got some Cuban expats together to invade and overthrow the newly-Communist government of Cuba under Fidel Castro. This faux revolution lasted three days before the rebels were hammered by Cuban armed forces. Like Operation Merlin, it loses additional credibility by being an absolute shitshow in the sense that not only did it not succeed, but backfired tremendously in that it strengthened Castro’s position as a legitimate leader and pushed Cuba to more closely align with the USSR, leading ultimately to the Cuban Missile Crisis. I may be overstepping my bounds here, but it seems like the CIA tends to overvalue short-term gains in regard to potential long-term losses. But hey what do I know, I’m just an asshole writing on the internet.
Assassination Attempts of Fidel Castro/Operation Mongoose: The CIA hates many things: communism, independently-elected leaders, unapproved foreign activity, communism again, coherent strategies, communism again for the third time, but none of these compare to their detestation of Fidel Castro. They HATED that guy. There are at least eight attempts on Castro’s life according to declassified CIA documents, whereas a Cuban counterintelligence chief stated it was closer to 638: I’m guessing it’s somewhere between those two estimates. Some of the verified attempts included: subcontracting the mafia for an execution, cigars laced with botulism, bacteria-laden scuba suits with a booby-trapped conch on the bottom of the sea, an (actual) exploding cigar, a hypodermic syringe masquerading as a pen, an attempt to blow him up while visiting Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban museum, cold creams filled with poison, and tampering with podiums where he was set to visit. The CIA also attempted to thin Castro’s revolutionary beard, lace him with LSD during public speeches in attempts to make him seem disoriented, and dropped leaflets over the country offering hundreds of thousands to anyone who could bring them the head of heads of state but only offering $2 for Castro in an attempt to denigrate his power. I was not kidding when I said the CIA hated Castro more than you could imagine.
Battalion 3-16 in Honduras: A CIA-funded and -trained army unit responsible for carrying out assassinations and torture. That’s pretty unfortunate, and then you realize, this Battalion had collaborated with the Chileans and Argentines to assist in their respective rebellions and coups. Geez guys. If you wanted to jump off before things got too real, now is about that time.
Project Dark Gene: Back when the US and Iran were the bestest of friends (oh did you forget the US and Iran used be super tight? You can’t be arch nemeses without a period of aggressive cooperation), they would look for holes in USSR radars by flying America planes stationed at Iranian bases through them to test for responsiveness, effectiveness and interception tactics used by the Soviets. Imagine being a pilot and being told you are going to fly into the USSR in order to see what happens next. IT’S OKAY, IT’S FOR SCIENCE! To reiterate, we are ranking based on the sheer audacity of these operations, not necessarily the questionable morality of said operations. Because morally, this is dubious, but look at the notion they did this with the outlook of “fuck it, let’s see what happens” really escalates the insanity.
1953 Egyptian Coup d’Etat/Project FF: WE COVERED THIS ALREADY! It was great, and you should read it (https://musingsandmalarkey.org/2018/07/12/arch-stanton-guest-post-episode-11-in-today-i-learned-project-ff/). We call this ‘synergy’ in the blogging biz. Teddy Roosevelt’s kid got pissed off at the Iranian head of state whom he prefer to refer to as “Fat Fuck”, and eventual had his deposed. What a delightful little anecdote!
Stargate Project: Literally the X-Files in real life. The CIA created a unit dedicated to investigating potential psychic phenomenons. This unit was really only formed after multiple similar projects were eventually combined – GONDOLA WISH, GRILL FLAME, CENTER LANE and SUN STREAK. Take a moment to appreciate the fact the CIA has had multiple independent iterations of projects dedicated to psychic activity, and one was called “GONDOLA WISH”.
1954 Guatemalan Coup d’Etat (MS Alfhem/Operation PBHistory): Pretty straight forward at this point. The elected officials were communist, and the CIA ain’t about that shit, so they dabbled in fomenting a little revolution. Just a little one, no big deal.
Operation Charly: The CIA would provide weapons and military accouterments to the Argentinean military which they would then forward to Central American anti-communist parties in order to presumably round out their cosplay outfits. Or to murder people. Potato, po-murder.
Operation IA Feature: It doesn’t get much publicity, but the CIA has interests in Africa! In this instance, they were providing support to Angolan rebels. Pretty boring really. This is why no one knows about CIA ops in Africa.
Operation Midnight Climax: Definitely the SEXIEST named operation. Part of larger, yet-to-be-addressed project where the CIA would hire prostitutes to lure johns back to safe houses where they would be unknowingly dosed with LSD. Drugging unsuspecting victims is unchill, even by CIA standards, but you have to appreciate the perspective of “hey they’re already breaking the law so fuck ’em, right?”
1951 Iranian Revolution: In an attempted to be cooler than their imperial British predecessors, the Americans were going to let Iran govern itself. What a novel idea! The Iranians then sought to nationalize what was at that time a private British company responsible for draining oil out of the country. Suddenly, this seemed like a bad idea. The CIA hustles in, astroturfs a revolution forcing the leader Shah Reza Pahlavi to resign. Problem solved! Oil = retained! At least until fundamental Islamists took control of the country, executing dissenters and nationalizing the oil anyway. It went just about as poor as it could have possibly could have. This gets a bump down because in the immediate aftermath, the CIA was so pleased with itself it took this same playbook to South America where they did the same shit a dozen more times before realizing they had fucked up what they originally perceived as a success more than they could have possibly expected. The fun part is seeing your success collapse, and then looking at all your current successes based on that same plan as they begin to unravel, and thinking “well this is just unfortunate”.
Operation Mockingbird: In the 1950s, the CIA attempted to influence domestic news sources in order to promote propaganda. They also funded student organizations and magazines to push their policies in a more organic manner. Part of me is deeply offended by this, but what modern technocrat doesn’t do the same shit with well-placed soft ball interviews or puff pieces about all the good things they’re doing? Did you guys know Mark Zuckerberg likes smoking meats (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBxTEoseZak)? Look how quaint his little backyard is! That’s totally where he lives guys, just like you! Definitely not in the middle of the four surrounding properties he bought and tore down for additional privacy (https://www.marketwatch.com/story/facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-to-raze-four-homes-with-a-view-of-his-own-2016-05-24)!
Operation CHAOS: This was the CIA equivalent of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, where American citizens/dissenters were surveyed, infiltrated, discredited and blackmailed. COINTELPRO was all about really ruining lives domestically, where CHAOS was about attempting to identify any possible foreign influences. I’m sure that was it, they definitely wouldn’t resort to planting evidence to make their own case.
Operation Washtub: The CIA resorted to planting evidence of Soviet weapons in Nicaragua to make the case the government was harboring Soviet sympathies. Well, so much for the CIA not fabricating reasons to fuck some shit up. FYI – it worked. It drummed up enough dissent among locals (in addition to CIA canvassing and efforts) that the Nicaraguan president eventually resigned in 1979. The ends justify the means, I suppose. The CIA does seem to draw heavily from Machiavelli.
Edgewood Arsenal: The CIA was in charge of documenting the results of low-doses of various chemical agents. The victims – ahem – “volunteers” were generally aware of what they were agreeing to, but without reading more into it, I have a hunch they were not made fully aware of the dangers they were to be exposed to. A sample of the chemical agents tested were: alcohol and caffeine (original Four Lokos baby!), cannabis, LSD, PCP, benezoids, irritants/riot control pepper sprays, pesticides, mustard gas, and fucking sarin gases. It escalated from “aw hell yeah this is a party” to “sweet Jesus I am being murdered in the most painful ways imaginable.” Obviously (or, given the rest of this article, maybe not), these experiments resulted in massive lawsuits and government crackdowns.
1973 Chilean Coup d’Etat/Project FUBELT: In the 1960’s, Chile was one of those undecided countries in terms of the Cold War. There came a point when it became clear socialist Salvador Allende was set to win an open election, and the CIA was dispatched to fuck things up, because that’s what they’re there to do. Once Allende was identified as a likely leader, the CIA set about to assassinate his character before his confirmation and begin laying the groundwork for a military coup to boot. Why is this project ahead of the long list of similarly situated operations? One – FUBELT is a wonderful name. Two – Castro was on the record as anti-American and pro-Soviet, same as many other Central American countries, so they essentially identified themselves as hostiles in regards to the US. Allende was relatively neutral in the Cold War and intended to operate Chile as he thought best, not by American or Soviet terms. But fuck if that was going to be allowed – a military coup was pressed against him. He vowed to never resign his democratically-elected position, and instead opted to shoot himself in the head. I am sure the CIA considered this a win. I don’t really have a punchline here. Not only did the CIA topple an elected government, but they replaced him with Augusto Pinoche, who was a bit of a dick, to put in the most modest of terms. Pinochet was a fan of mass executions and tortures in the center of then-abandoned soccer stadiums. I am pretty comfortable calling this a low point for the CIA and American foreign policy in general.
Operation Northwoods: Moving away from “morally dubious” into “wait, what?”, let’s revisit Cuba. Doesn’t it feel like it’s been a while since we talked about the CIA’s throbbing boner for fucking with Castro? In 1962, the CIA floated an array of operations to the Kennedy administration about false flag attacks in order to drum up the justification for large-scale war in Cuba. Some of the alleged ideas to get the American public’s backing included: sinking Cuban refugees attempting to flee to America, hijacking planes, blowing up American ships, and orchestrating terrorist attacks in American cities. We’ve seen some pretty heinous shit but really let that sink in – the CIA was totally cool with killing American civilians in false flag attacks so they could invade another country. Sometimes I really understand conspiracy theorists who think the government is out to get, because history has this nasty habit of proving them correct. I like to think that, at some point, CIA agents looked at their plans and had an honest moment of reflection on “are we sure we aren’t the bad guys?”
MKUltra: The CIA mind control operation! This is a fun one! Until you realize it was less ET and more “identifying drugs to force confessions from unwilling participants by manipulating their mental states.” When you put it that way, less fun. Most of what we know about this comes from a Congressional investigation called the Church Committee and the testimony that resulted since, as soon as it was apparent Congress was curious what all these hallucinating people were talking about, CIA heads ordered most of the physical documentation destroyed. The best thing I learned about this was many of the victims were Canadian because, eh, what are they going to do about it?
Project ARTICHOKE: I’ll let a particularly descriptive sentence from the CIA documentation introduction clarify this project: “Not all viruses have to be lethal.” Do you really need to know more? Do you really WANT to know more? Yes you do because you are a sadist. Similar to MKUltra, this was an earlier attempt to see if the CIA could take control of an individual to the point they would “do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation.” Further details emerged about targeting “weaker” and “less intelligent” segments of society. Spoiler! They were almost certainly “black” and “Native American”, and probably women because it was 1951. I wonder what later generations will look back on us and think “what was their deal with [x]?” like how we look back at the 1950s and 1960s obsessions with mind control.
Acoustic Kitty: We have covered a wide range of territory, escalating into some pretty reprehensible actions in the ambiguous and all-encompassing name of “national defense”. Many of these dabble on the edge of or veer into moral gray areas, with many straight up terrible (it going to take a while for me to get over the CIA telling Kennedy “whattya mean we can’t kill some Americans to go kill some Cubans?”), but most had some basis in reality. But not Acoustic Kitty. Oh baby, Acoustic Kitty was something different. The CIA wanted to bug cats to spy on the Kremlin. They inserted microphones into the cats’ ears and a small transmitter at the base of the skull. The first cat was bugged and let lose outside the Soviet compound in DC where it was immediately hit and killed by a taxi. Subsequent tests failed as the cats turned out to be hard to train and pretty indifferent to handler requests, and opted to just prowl around looking for snacks. This project cost the CIA $20 million dollars in the 1960s. TWENTY MILLION DOLLAR CATS. Steve Austin was seriously injured in an experimental airplane crash, and he was remade with the best the United State of America had to offer, and he still only turned out to be the Six Million Dollar Man.