AS I READ The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, a new book by Salon founder David Talbot, I couldn’t help thinking of an obscure corner of 1970s history: the Safari Club.
Dulles — the Princeton man and white shoe corporate lawyer who served as CIA director from 1953 to 1961, still the longest tenure in agency history — died in 1969 before the Safari Club was conceived. And nothing about it appears in The Devil’s Chessboard. But to understand the Safari Club is to understand Allen Dulles and his milieu.
Any normal person would likely hear the Safari Club saga as a frightening story of totally unaccountable power. But if there’s one thing to take away from The Devil’s Chessboard, it’s this: Allen Dulles would have seen it differently — as an inspiring tale of hope and redemption.
Because what the Safari Club demonstrates is that Dulles’ entire spooky world is beyond the reach of American democracy. Even the most energetic post-World War II attempt to rein it in was in the end as effective as trying to lasso mist. And today we’ve largely returned to the balance of power Dulles set up in the 1950s. As Jay Rockefeller said in 2007 when he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “Don’t you understand the way intelligence works? Do you think that because I’m chairman of the Intelligence Committee that I just say ‘I want it, give it to me’? They control it. All of it. All of it. All the time.”
While there, Turki, who’d graduated from Georgetown University in the same class as Bill Clinton, delivered a speech at his alma mater that included an unexpected history lesson:
In 1976, after the Watergate matters took place here, your intelligence community was literally tied up by Congress. It could not do anything. It could not send spies, it could not write reports, and it could not pay money. In order to compensate for that, a group of countries got together in the hope of fighting communism and established what was called the Safari Club. The Safari Club included France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Iran … so, the Kingdom, with these countries, helped in some way, I believe, to keep the world safe when the United States was not able to do that. That, I think, is a secret that many of you don’t know.
Turki was not telling the whole truth. He was right that his Georgetown audience likely had never heard any of this before, but the Safari Club had been known across the Middle East for decades. After the Iranian revolution the new government gave Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, one of the most prominent journalists in the Arab world, permission to examine the Shah’s archives. There Heikal discovered the actual formal, written agreement between the members of the Safari Club, and wrote about it in a 1982 book called Iran: The Untold Story.
And the Safari Club was not simply the creation of the countries Turki mentioned — Americans were involved as well. It’s true the U.S. executive branch was somewhat hamstrung during the period between the post-Watergate investigations of the intelligence world and the end of the Carter administration. But the powerful individual Americans who felt themselves “literally tied up” by Congress — that is, unfairly restrained by the most democratic branch of the U.S. government — certainly did not consider the decisions of Congress to be the final word.
Whatever its funding sources, the evidence suggests the Safari Club was largely the initiative of these powerful Americans. According to Heikal, its real origin was when Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, “talked a number of rich Arab oil countries into bankrolling operations against growing communist influence on their doorstep” in Africa. Alexandre de Marenches, a right-wing aristocrat who headed France’s version of the CIA, eagerly formalized the project and assumed operational leadership. But, Heikal writes, “The United States directed the whole operation,” and “giant U.S. and European corporations with vital interests in Africa” leant a hand. As John K. Cooley, the Christian Science Monitor’s longtime Mideast correspondent, put it, the setup strongly appealed to the U.S. executive branch: “Get others to do what you want done, while avoiding the onus or blame if the operation fails.”
This all seems like something Americans would like to know, especially since de Marenches may have extended his covert operations to the 1980 U.S. presidential election. In 1992, de Marenches’ biographer testified in a congressional investigation that the French spy told him that he had helped arrange an October 1980 meeting in Paris between William Casey, Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign manager, and the new Islamic Republic of Iran. The goal of such a meeting, of course, would have been to persuade Iran to keep its American hostages until after the next month’s election, thus denying Carter any last-minute, politically potent triumph.
De Marenches and the Safari Club certainly had a clear motive to oust Carter: They blamed him for allowing one of their charter members, the Shah, to fall from power. But whether de Marenches’ claims were true or not, we do know that history unfolded exactly as he and the Safari Club would have wished. The hostages weren’t released until Reagan was inaugurated, Reagan appointed Casey director of the CIA, and from that point forward America’s intelligence “community” was back in business.
And yet normal citizens would have a hard time just finding out the Safari Club even existed, much less the outlines of its activities. It appears to have been mentioned just once by the New York Times, in a profile of a French spy novelist. It likewise has made only one appearance in the Washington Post, in a 2005 online chat in which a reader asked the Post’s former Middle East bureau chief Thomas Lippman, “Does the Safari Club, formed in the mid-70s, still exist?” Lippman responded: “I never heard of it, so I have no idea.”
The fallout from Watergate initially would have horrified him, with mere elected members of Congress placing restrictions on patricians like himself. But he then would have been thrilled to see the ingenuity with which his heirs escaped those bonds, and deeply satisfied that the club did its work while staying hidden from the prying eyes of History.
As Talbot points out, Dulles stated his worldview publicly and explicitly in 1938 during his only run for political office: “Democracy only works if the so-called intelligent people make it work. You can’t sit back and let democracy run itself.” Unsurprisingly, homilies like this did not carry him to victory. But so what? He went on to wield far greater power than most elected officials ever have. And while Dulles is the star of The Devil’s Chessboard, he’s surrounded by an enormous supporting cast.
As Talbot explains, “What I was really trying to do was a biography on the American power elite from World War II up to the 60s.” It’s a huge, sprawling book, and an amalgam of all the appalling things Dulles and his cohort definitely did, things the evidence suggests they probably did, and speculation about things they might plausibly have done. More than a biography, it’s a exploration of well-organized pathology.
It includes detailed reexaminations of Dulles’s most notorious failures, such as the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the nightmarish mind control program MK-ULTRA, as well as his most notorious “successes,” the CIA’s overthrow of democratic governments in Iran in 1953 and in Guatemala in 1954. Talbot notes that an internal CIA account of the Iran coup fairly glowed with joy: “It was a day that never should have ended. For it carried with it such a sense of excitement, of satisfaction and of jubilation that it is doubtful whether any other can come up to it.” According to a participant in an Oval Office briefing for President Eisenhower, Dulles’s brother John Foster, then secretary of state, “seemed to be purring like a giant cat.”
But by this point these events are fairly well-known. Perhaps most compelling is Talbot’s in-depth look at Dulles’s lesser-known yet still extraordinarily sordid projects. As the Swiss director of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, Dulles — whose law firm had represented German corporations and many U.S. corporations with German interests — quietly attempted to undermine Franklin D. Roosevelt’s demand that Germany surrender unconditionally, going so far as to order the rescue of an SS general surrounded by Italian partisans. Dulles also led the push to save Reinhard Gehlen, Nazi head of intelligence on the Eastern Front and a genuine monster, from any post-war justice. Dulles then made certain Gehlen and his spies received a cozy embrace from the CIA, and helped push him to the top of West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service.
Also gruesome is the lurid story of how Jesus de Galindez, a lecturer at Columbia University, was kidnapped in Manhattan by U.S. government cutouts and delivered to Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo then had Galindez, whose exposés of corruption Trujillo feared, boiled alive and fed to sharks, and ordered the murder of the American pilot who’d flown Galindez there. All under the beneficent gaze of CIA Director Allen Dulles.
In a sense, however, all of The Devil’s Chessboard seems to exist to set the stage for the final chapters about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. In the first 500 pages you are convinced that Dulles would have had no moral qualms about killing any politician, including Americans. You learn Dulles had a lifetime of experience in arranging assassinations, and apparent ties to attempts to overthrow or murder French president Charles de Gaulle. And you discover the depth of his grudge against John F. Kennedy, who dismissed him and several of his key underlings after the Bay of Pigs.
But were JFK and possibly Robert Kennedy killed by conspiracies involving Dulles? That’s the conjecture of The Devil’s Chessboard. There’s no question Talbot has pulled together a lot of suggestive old information, and uncovered some that’s new. Furthermore, he certainly proves there was a great deal of reluctance on the part of journalists and politicians at the time to pull on even the most obvious threads. But 50 years later, I don’t think there’s any way to say much for sure on this subject, except that it’s pretty interesting. (Given humanity’s history of catastrophic slapstick, I’ve always enjoyed the theory that a Secret Service agent shot Kennedy accidentally.)
In the end, whatever the reality of Talbot’s most sensational claims, he unquestionably makes the case that — unless you believe we’re governed by shape-shifting space lizards — your darkest suspicions about how the world operates are likely an underestimate. Yes, there is an amorphous group of unelected corporate lawyers, bankers, and intelligence and military officials who form an American “deep state,” setting real limits on the rare politicians who ever try to get out of line. They do collaborate with and nurture their deep state counterparts in other countries, to whom they feel far more loyalty than their fellow citizens. The minions of the deep state hate and fear even the mildest moves towards democracy, and fight against it by any means available to them. They’re not all-powerful and don’t get exactly what they want, but on the issues that matter most they almost always win in the end. And while all this is mostly right there in the open, discernible by anyone who’s curious and has a library card, if you don’t go looking you will never hear a single word about it.
Moreover, it’s still right there in front of us today. Talbot recently argued, “The surveillance state that Snowden and others have exposed is very much a legacy of the Dulles past. I think Dulles would have been delighted by how technology and other developments have allowed the American security state to go much further than he went.”
Or as a staff member of the 1970s congressional investigation of Kennedy’s murder said in an interview with Talbot: “One CIA official told me, ‘So you’re from Congress — what the hell is that to us? You’ll be packed up and gone in a couple of years, and we’ll still be here.’” According to The Devil’s Chessboard, the Safari never ends.