Reviewed by Robert Rayle
Bayard Stockton, Flawed Patriot: The Rise and Fall of CIA Legend Bill Harvey, Potomac Books, Dulles, VA, 357 pages, $28.95
Bill Harvey was arguably America’s most competent and effective intelligence and counter-intelligence officer of the past century, and possibly its most controversial. Flawed Patriot, Bayard Stockton’s ambitious biography of Harvey, is an extensively researched compilation of information from all phases of Harvey’s life, including his youth, his FBI service during and after World War II, his emergence as a leading figure with the CIA in the intelligence battles of the Cold War, his management of the Agency’s anti-Castro Cuban operations program, and finally the forced retirement that left him under a cloud of suspicion and a target of criticism. The author’s sources include official government records, unofficial publications, and interviews with Harvey’s family, friends, former colleagues, critics, enemies, and detractors.
Harvey is revealed as a man of tremendous gifts of intelligence, analytical skill, and leadership. He possessed enormous energy and an incredible work ethic. He inspired a generation of intelligence officers and trained a talented group that went on over the next 25 years to become the top leaders and managers of CIA. Yet he comes across as a classical tragic figure, having in his own personality the seeds of his eventual downfall. His persistent troubles with his superiors, most notably J. Edgar Hoover and Bobby Kennedy, and his devotion to the five-martini lunch, kept him from getting the recognition and honors he richly deserved.
Flawed Patriot is at its best in the early chapters, in its discussion of Harvey’s remarkable early career with the FBI, where he became a legend even before he came to work for the CIA, and in its description of his years as the CIA’s chief of base, Berlin, where he solidified his legend status as the force behind the famous “Berlin Tunnel.” The book is at its weakest in the later chapters, after Harvey’s removal as chief of Cuban operations and as the leader of the effort to assassinate Castro. In these chapters the author indulges in unsupported speculation on Harvey’s character and motivation in the latter part of his career and in his retirement, and on the nature of his relationship and friendship with the Mafioso whom Harvey used in the effort to assassinate Castro, and who became his friend. The author allows full voice to the conspiracy theorists who believe that Harvey was somehow involved in the assassination of John Kennedy. He does not take many pains to refute these charges, though he finally dismisses them as lacking credibility.
These flaws aside, Flawed Patriot is a rich trove of information that will be of particular interest to students and scholars of the Cold War period and its struggles between the American and Soviet intelligence services. It also reveals insights into the U.S. anti-Castro program, including efforts to assassinate Castro, which Harvey led, and into Harvey’s differences with Bobby Kennedy, which eventually boiled over and led to Bill’s removal from Cuban operations. Kennedy had no understanding of the value of “plausible denial,” which Harvey was offering, and sabotaged any possibility of claiming it by insisting on becoming personally and very actively involved in what became a crusade by the Kennedy brothers against Fidel Castro. And the amateur Bobby’s heavy-handed intrusions were profoundly irritating to the consummate professional Harvey.
Richly sourced and documented though the book is, Stockton has not made things easy for his readers. Though I am intensely interested in the events described, and somewhat familiar with some of them, I found reading the book a struggle. The book has to be studied, rather than casually read. The extensive footnotes are a help, but it is a nuisance to have to keep checking them in order to understand what is going on.
Flawed Patriot has a future as a reference work on a very turbulent period in American history, but not as an explanation and analysis of those times.
Bob Rayle is a former CIA operations officer whose overseas service includes tours in Germany, India, and Greece. He was a military intelligence officer in the Army before joining CIA. He retired in 1981 after 30 years of government service, and has since worked as a consultant in a variety of businesses. He has a BS degree from Clemson University.