Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones's "A Question of Standing"

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is an Emeritus Professor of American history at the University of Edinburgh. He studied at the Universities of Wales, Michigan, Harvard, and Cambridge, and is the honorary president of the Scottish Association for the Study of America. He has held visiting fellowships and professorships in Harvard, Berlin, and Toronto. He is the author of a prize-winning book on the American left, and of sixteen other books published in eleven languages, mainly on US intelligence history, including The CIA and American Democracy (1989), The FBI: A History (2007), In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence (2012), and We Know All About You (2017).

Jeffreys-Jones applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA, and reported the following:
The page discusses how President Gerald Ford responded to the great CIA scandal of the mid-1970s. It explains how he reacted to the revelation that the agency had plotted a number of assassinations. He issued an executive ban on this practice. But his motive was to prevent Congress from passing a more enduring legislative ban on assassination. Future presidents would be able to reverse his order, and he warned that the United States should never tie its own hands in a hostile world. Ford was interested in keeping certain CIA secrets from leaking. Page 99 goes on to give the example of how stories began to leak about the agency’s plan to lift a sunken Soviet submarine in order to retrieve the secret data that its equipment would reveal. The CIA commissioned the Glomar Explorer, a specialist vessel, to do the job. Ford went to some lengths to prevent the story from leaking into the public domain. All this, the paragraph explains, was part of a Ford administration counter-reformation against reforms being pressed for in Congress.

The page gives a good idea of the theme of Chapter 8 in the book, which is titled ‘From Reformation to Counter-reformation in the 1970s’. It illustrates one facet, but one facet only, of the overall theme expressed in the book’s title, A Question of Standing. The book argues that the CIA must be in good standing to do its job properly, analysing foreign threats and giving the nation’s leaders an opportunity to respond to them effectively. The CIA was the world’s first democratically approved secret intelligence service and continued to depend on the respect and support of the US public. The 1970’s revelations wrecked such confidence and reform was needed to restore trust. President Ford was a reluctant contributor to that process.

The Page 99 Test thus works up to a point in the case of A Question of Standing. It does not – and could not -- summarise the other points made in a book that covers a long period and is by definition about world history. It does not tell you about the Bay of Pigs, about the CIA’s contribution to President Reagan’s effort to end the arms race and European communism in the 1980s, and does not foretell future problems with Al Qaeda and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But surely the appeal of any book should not be monochromatic. Every page, when turned, should present you with a different little surprise. Also, while lengthy deviation can be annoying, there is room for little asides and anecdotes that enliven the story and keep the reader’s attention. Page 99 should succeed because it relates to other pages, but also because it is different from them.
Learn about Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones's top ten classic spy novels.

The Page 99 Test: In Spies We Trust.

The Page 99 Test: We Know All About You.

--Marshal Zeringue