The Ghosts of Langley by John Prados

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Historian John Prados has written a greater number of books than most people read in a lifetime. Starting with World War II, his writing focuses on United States international relations and his history lessons are formidable. A senior fellow at the National Security Archive, Prados directs its CIA Documentation Project and Vietnam Documentation Project. He also is a long-time contributor to the print edition of The VVA Veteran.

For the sixth time, he examines the CIA in The Ghosts of Langley: Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness (New Press, 446 pp.; $28.95, hardcover; $18.99, Kindle). In it, the twenty-nine-page prologue alone delivers enough information to fill an average book.

Citing newly declassified documents, Prados argues that CIA leaders have drifted beyond their original espionage and intelligence analysis mission, and have created more problems than they have solved. Today the agency works amid aftereffects of covert operations that closely resembled military actions, Prados says.

The CIA “ghosts” Prados refers to are spymasters and their henchmen and women who caused the agency to alter its classic role. Its current methods of operation include torture, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, evasion of legal oversight, and more, according to Prados, who speaks with authority.

He eschews chronology and sets out the agency’s evolution by grouping spies according to character types. This produces chapters with titles such as “Zealots and Schemers,” “The Headless Horseman,” “A Failed Exorcist,” and “The Flying Dutchman.”

Prados’ declarative sentences can be attention grabbers. For example, in introducing “The Sheriffs,” he says, “The CIA had long had a problem with women. From the beginning, agency folk considered spying man’s work. Women were not viewed quite the same as homosexuals, but they needed to fight for acceptance.”

Throughout the book, Prados touches on CIA activities during the Vietnam War. Several times, he raises the issue of CIA countermeasures against antiwar demonstrators. He writes about topics such as the Phoenix Program and the November 1963 coup against South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. In these cases, Prados examines the actions of people who controlled events more than the events themselves.

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Notes, a bibliography, and an exceptionally detailed index support the text.

Almost as a footnote to The Ghosts of Langley, on the afternoon I finished reading the book, Iran accused the CIA of fomenting protests calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

The CIA declined to comment.

The author’s website is http://johnprados.com/

—Henry Zeybel

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CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans by Bill Collier

 

In 2015, Bill Collier wrote a memoir, The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps. Earlier year he published CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans: Flying Helicopters in Laos for Air America (Wandering Star, 349 pp. $20, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

In reviewing his earlier book, I said, “Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.” Collier’s new book has similar qualities: It kept me continuously entertained. Just about anywhere readers open the book, they will find an outrageous story filled with chills and thrills, laughs, or romance.

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans has two main stories lines.

The first deals with Air America and, of course, the “secret” war in Laos. Collier flew there from mid-1970 to the end of 1972. Chapters such as “Sleeping in the Cockpit While Flying” left me nodding and smiling. Despite the book’s title, Collier tells interesting stories without giving away secrets about war-time air operations.

His flying stories do not reach the emotional intensity of his experiences as a rookie Marine pilot. Back then, when he proudly attained aircraft commander status, he wrote timeless lines such as, “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.”

The second story line deals with the playboy activities of the well-paid Air America pilots. The men enjoyed long annual leaves and traveled internationally: Athens, Madrid, Lisbon, London, Miami, San Francisco, and San Diego once were stops on the same vacation. For shorter leaves, Collier and the other pilots stayed closer to home at Udorn, Thailand, as well  Bangkok, Hong Kong, India (visiting the Taj Mahal), Katmandu, and Sydney.

They did well with many of the women they encountered. Collier is man enough, though, to confess to times when he struck out. Primarily, the pilots shared mutual admiration, understanding, and satisfaction of physical needs with airline stewardesses.

Collier summarizes one vacation by quoting W.C. Fields. To wit: “I spent my money on whiskey and women. The rest of it I wasted.”

He validates his memory with three lengthy appendices: “The History of Air America: CIA Air Operations in Laos 1955-1974” by William M. Leary; Anne Darling’s “CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans” from the 1972 premier issue of Oui magazine; and “Life and Death among the Hill Tribes” by Peter Aiken from a 1972 Lookeast magazine.

To wrap, Collier cites Anne Darling on the security of the Air America/CIA programs. She quotes a pilot who said, “The North Vietnamese know everything we’re doing. They’re not the problem. The security Air America is concerned about is being secure from the scrutiny of the American people.”

Even today, Bill Collier pretty much treats security in the same manner. Yet he still tells great stories about a war that never was.

—Henry Zeybel