What might an anthropology of the covert look like? I think of the covert as a particular type of secret, one grounded in deception and shadows, and populated by individuals pretending—in part—to be someone other than who they actually are. My current research project is about the CIA as agents of US empire during the Cold War. It is about being invisible, being undercover, and being a legitimate ethnographic subject rather than just a historical or political one. Yet, what sort of ethnography can be written about covert, undercover subjects? How does one humanize the CIA?
I’ve been turning this question over since October 2009 when I found myself at CIA Headquarters. Two weeks before, a mysterious envelope arrived in my on-campus mailbox in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. The return address read “CIA Fine Arts Commission.” I remember looking around the office to see if this was a joke. The CIA Fine Arts Commission? For real? The CIA had an art department? It didn’t help matters that the envelope looked sort of homemade, as if someone had printed the mailing and return addresses on a home laser printer. Perhaps they had. At any rate, I opened the envelope up in the main anthropology office, thinking it was somehow safer to open it there rather than alone back in my own office.
There was no explosion. Phew.
Instead, inside was an invitation. I was being invited to the unveiling of a painting titled “The Secret PLA Pouch Heads to K Building.” That might sound cryptic—this is the CIA we’re talking about, after all—but I knew exactly what it referred to: a Chinese PLA commander’s pouch that Tibetan resistance soldiers had captured in the 1960s and sent to the CIA. I knew this because I had spent the last decade and a half conducting research with and about the independent Tibetan resistance army who had been trained and funded in part by the CIA from 1956 through 1967. I had written about the pouch in my then-forthcoming book Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War. Presented with an invitation to now go to the CIA for an event commemorating the Tibet operation, I immediately sought security clearance and bought a plane ticket. A discussion of this ceremony as well as a photograph of the painting with the artist and donor was the last material I added to the manuscript right before Duke University Press published the book in 2010. But now it is time to tell the part I did not include in the book.
The audience for the unveiling ceremony was a mixed group—retired CIA officers who had worked on the Tibet operation, family members of those retired CIA officers, one of the Tibetan translators who had been part of the operation (but not his wife who, it turns out, had not been officially invited and thus did not have security clearance; she waited outside in the guard station), current CIA officers, the British military artist Keith Woodcock, and me. The audience assembled, speeches were made, and then the painting was unveiled. Following this, a woman stood up and invited all of the guests to head to our left, to the gift shop.
The gift shop? Once again, I was floored. The CIA had a gift shop?
Indeed it did. A classic gift shop even, one stocked with all manner of doo-dads, clothing, and highball and shot glasses emblazoned with the CIA logo. I knew I needed to buy something—The novelty of it! The confirmation that capitalism is at the heart of it all!—but what? “Future Spy” t-shirts for my kids? A CIA ornament for my Christmas tree? I settled on golf balls with the CIA logo on them, but it wasn’t until I found the CIA coffee mugs that I hit the jackpot. I picked one up and turned it over to check the price. Aiya! Right there on the bottom of the mug were the words: Made in China.
Made in China?!
The CIA gift shop sells things made in China? If I had been drinking coffee from said mug, I would’ve spit it out in disbelief right about then. Anti-communism had been one of the CIA’s signature issues since its formation. What’s more, I was at the CIA to commemorate one of their supposed anti-communist, anti-China operations. It was ironic, it was sublime, and I thought it couldn’t get any better than this—a CIA logo mug that says ‘Made in China’ on the bottom. I was wrong about that. It could get better. It did get better.
I walked over to the cash register to pay. There it was: The Sign.
“Don’t forget! If you are undercover, you cannot charge! It will blow your cover.”
Undercover CIA officers need to be reminded that they are undercover. Do not use your credit card! Your cover will be blown! But, what dangers loom if your cover is blown? Revelation? Recognition? Revenge? The invisibility of being undercover rests on presumptions and calculations of what is visible. Both are situated in historical, political, and social contexts. Who sees which guises, and who knows what secrets, is never only about a politics of access or knowledge. It is about politics and power, about secrets, and about defacements in Michael Taussig’s sense.
Everyone knows the CIA conducts covert operations and has undercover agents, but this knowledge is strategic rather than revelatory. For example, even now if I request CIA documents related to Tibet, they will come heavily redacted. Whole sentences, paragraphs even, blacked out. Identities, ideas, projects hidden five, six decades later. The secret of the CIA’s relationship with Tibet is out, but the substance, the body, the force of these secrets are not yet fully revealed.
The gift shop offers an ethnographic in-road to CIA subjectivities beyond the assumed or the proclaimed. This is more than just kitschy or banal consumer capitalism. Or is it? One thing is for sure: the gift shop is disarming. CIA headquarters provide a safe haven (of sorts) for an undercover officer but the gift shop disrupts this, pulling an agent back into an undercover world, then conscientiously providing a reminder of this very act: “Don’t forget!” Other messages are embodied in the goods for sale. This is where the gift shop relocates ideology from an anti-communist or anti-China stance, and instead domesticates these relationships in the name of empire. Fighting communism is part of building empire and making the world safe for U.S. political and business interests. At the CIA gift shop, ideology is a coffee mug made in China. Identity is a credit card with a spy’s undercover name on it. Capitalism is the highest form of imperialism, indeed.
As I continue to think ethnographically about 1960s CIA worlds, I am struck by just how many ways there were—and weren’t—to be undercover. Not all covert selves moved in the same mysterious ways. Nor were all politics, then or now, transparent. With regard to Tibet, it has become commonplace to say that the CIA didn’t “really” care about Tibet, but were instead acting against communism and China. They were, and yet that wasn’t the entirety of their covert Tibet operations or the sentiments attached to them. “Care” was involved in both surprising and expected fashions. Care for Tibet, and care for self. Both of these matter and yet have been kept undercover.
Empire needs to be a more prominent part of conversations about the CIA. As Ann Stoler has so convincingly argued, empire is as much an affective project as it is an economic or political one. This is the direction in which an anthropology of the covert needs to move.
Stay tuned for more.
Carole McGranahan is a pseudonym for Carole McGranahan, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado.