Prelude to Terror—The Rogue CIA and the Legacy of America’s Private Intelligence Network—is a sweeping chronicle of the CIA from its inception in 1947 to 9/11. The author begins his history highlighting the private networking escapades of Prescott Bush, father of George H.W. Bush, and grandfather of George W. Bush. This is a convenient nexus to establish the book’s thesis that private networking eventually led to relationships—such as the Bush network’s friendship with the Saudi royal family—that tainted a full recognition of the threats that culminated in 9/11. However, the author acknowledges that, by 9/11, events had “outpaced the intelligence community’s capacity to deal with them.”
While private intelligence networks have serious shortcomings, it must be understood that the CIA could not function without recruiting the covert services of private partners. The range of tasking is simply too immense. The downside is an absence of oversight. As an example, the author details how “off the books covert actions” have produced a number of scandalous blow-ups—but, what about the successes?
Arguably, what has been more onerous is the damage that, historically, has been done to the CIA’s operational capacity by the political process. Congressional oversight, like private networking, is a necessity, but the consequences of exposure can be detrimental to accomplishing the mission. In this regard, the author downplays the long term consequences of President Carter’s failed attempt to reform the CIA under the tutelage of Admiral Stansfield Turner. Neither are the negative consequences of the Church Committee, led by a Senator with Presidential ambitions, fully explored. Oversight should not be interpreted as a carte blanche license to sensationalize operations to the detriment of national security. Unfortunately, this has become established practice.
Prelude to Terror is an informative read by an authority in the field, but this reviewer can’t resist positing an opposing thesis in which CIA covert operations could be selectively outsourced to private intelligence networks without attribution. Presumably private networks would not hesitate to inform us whether or not we had been targeted by a spontaneous riot or an act of terrorism.