Argument

No, Pete Buttigieg Is Not a CIA Asset

The agency’s history of bloody-handed bungling abroad has come back to haunt U.S. politics.

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg watch late primary results in Nashua, New Hampshire in Feb. 11. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The American presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s narrow win in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month has turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Headlines have been dominated by tales of chaos, not of an unexpected victory from a long-shot candidate. And it’s helped fuel one of the strangest ideas to have emerged from the far-left: that Buttigieg is a CIA asset.

While the South Bend, Indiana, mayor appears to have edged out democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders in the delegate count for the Iowa Democratic primary, the chaos of the counting, compounded by a buggy app designed by a firm whose staff largely back Buttigieg, have begotten conspiracy theories. Some Sanders supporters now allege that the vote was, at best, fumbled on purpose or, worse, deliberately rigged. Maybe, this was accomplished using the same tactics that the United States learned from ousting democratic leaders abroad.

This is nonsense. The Iowa process was horribly botched—but caucuses have always been a mess, not least because of the ridiculous mathematical twists involved. None of the theorists can produce a sane narrative of how rigging could have occurred in a process where participants stand in the open to show their support and where observers from different camps document the proceedings. Buttigieg’s strong second-place showing in New Hampshire on Tuesday should be a testament to the fact that he actually has a support base in the party.

But even though these theories may just be a product of conspiracy-minded websites and the cesspool of political Twitter, it it also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the CIA’s own competence—or lack of it—and of the cost that the agency’s blundering imposed on the developing world.

A left-wing website, the Grayzone, has spearheaded the more tenuous theorizing around Buttigieg’s supposed CIA ties. A series of articles, which concluded the national security regime had “groomed” Buttigieg for power and which draw shaky ties between Buttigieg and the CIA, have racked up thousands of shares, especially from pro-Sanders Facebook pages. (The Grayzone notes that it does not directly allege Buttigieg is himself a CIA asset, but it does plenty to suggest it.)

In fairness, Buttigieg’s own past offers material for conspiratorial pickings. At the consulting firm McKinsey, Buttigieg helped advise on grocery pricing for the Canadian grocery giant Loblaws—a company later implicated in an industrywide price-fixing scheme for bread. McKinsey has also been a favorite contractor for the CIA, although that work was more about reorganizing the agency’s bureaucracy than rigging elections.

After that, Buttigieg joined the Navy Reserve and deployed to Afghanistan, where he did intelligence work, among other things. It’s not quite clear where, in his work history, Buttigieg was supposedly recruited to work for the agency. Nor can anyone seem to explain how his military role somehow switched over into work for the CIA, beyond both roles involving intelligence. It’s rare for an intelligence officer to use as his cover… being an intelligence officer.

That hasn’t mattered much for an audience that likes to see the CIA under every stone. It was likely Chapo Trap House—a very popular political comedy podcast, boasting over 35,000 paid subscribers and hundreds of thousands of listeners per episode, that is fanatically supportive of Sanders—that got #CIAPete trending on twitter. On the first episode of the podcast after the delayed Iowa results were reported, one co-host, Will Menaker, concluded that the caucuses “had probably done more to destroy the legitimacy of our democratic process than almost anything that happened in American history.” Other hosts chimed in with their agreement.

Menaker turned to Buttigieg, calling him, his campaign, supporters, and all involved in the Democratic Party “ratfuck pieces of shit,” concluding they were all guilty of electoral fraud.

Co-host Amber A’Lee Frost jumped in to add, “We would actually be sending in troops if we were a South American country right now.”

“Can you imagine if, in any Central or South American country, what happened last night took place?” Menaker agreed. “Pete Buttigieg literally did the Juan Guaidó playbook. If you don’t think this guy is CIA-affiliated by now, I don’t know what to tell you. This is straight out of the McKinsey-CIA election-stealing ratfucking playbook. He declared himself the victor exactly like Juan Guaidó did with no support or evidence for it.”

The conspiracy theories swirling around Buttigieg appear to be mostly trying to explain away the rise of a centrist Democrat, with a relatively hawkish foreign policy, in a primary that has otherwise tilted leftward. To get there, the Chapo pundits had to imagine themselves—prosperous New Yorkers—and other Sanders supporters as analogous to the actual victims of violence and civil war as a result of U.S. imperialism in Latin America.

Buttigieg did, indeed, declare victory in the Iowa caucuses before the results were in—because the quirky rules of the Iowa caucuses mean anyone can, roughly, count the results themselves. Yet that’s not even what Guaidó did—rather, he contested the Venezuelan election itself as having been fixed and claimed the authority to act as head of the National Assembly. And there’s a bit of a gulf between an election that gives you control of a nation and a primary that secures, at most, a tale of “momentum” and a handful of delegates.

Ludicrous as they are, the conspiracy theories are strangely apt for this primary season.

Past contests have largely wrestled with whether the Democratic Party should be quite hawkish in settling conflicts abroad or only somewhat hawkish. This time, however, the diverse field ranges from Tulsi Gabbard, whose opposition to U.S. interventionism brought her to Aleppo to meet Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad; to Joe Biden, who has fashioned himself as critical of his own administration’s engagement in the Middle East; and to Buttigieg, but even he supports a withdrawal of ground troops from Afghanistan and an end to U.S. support for the campaign in Yemen.

Virtually the whole field has taken the symbolic step to oppose America’s engagement in so-called forever wars. But not since Eugene McCarthy, who first pushed for congressional oversight of the CIA, and George McGovern, who helped publicize the assassination attempts on Cuba’s Fidel Castro, has the party had a front-runner dove like Sanders.

Given that they are all too aware of America’s actual history with political subterfuge abroad, it’s not all that surprising that Sanders’s supporters, in particular, see coups behind every corner.

But fans of Sanders should really study up on the very cases he cites, because they offer a useful guide to the CIA playbook. And they help explain why the idea of the agency putting its finger on the scale of the Iowa caucuses, at least with any kind of success, is comical.

A frequent example of CIA coup involvement Sanders cites, 1973 ouster of Chilean President Salvador Allende, is particularly instructive in showing just how flat-footed the CIA can be.

The CIA spent much of the 1960s funding right-wing and Christian democratic groups in Chile in an effort to thwart a socialist rise. They couldn’t even do that properly, and in 1970 the left-wing Allende won in a three-way race.

“President Nixon informed the [director of central intelligence] that an Allende regime in Chile would not be acceptable to the United States,” reads a 2000 CIA review of the operation.

So the CIA dropped the subtle skullduggery and began providing weapons to anti-socialist elements in Chile—factions of which kidnapped and killed an army commander who refused to block Allende. Still, the CIA couldn’t get a proper coup off the ground, and Allende took office. The agency kept it up for the following three years, continuously communicating with and providing intelligence to right-wing groups, including in the military. U.S. money indirectly supported a trucker strike, which kept supermarkets bare, stoked unrest, and ultimately helped force Allende from power.

Allende shot himself as the Chilean Army closed in on his presidential palace. His successor, Augusto Pinochet, would become one of the most brutal dictators in South America. Some 3,200 Chileans were killed or disappeared during his 17-year rule. The CIA, generally satisfied to have an anti-communist in power, cut off its aid to moderate and democratic activists.

The CIA’s ham-fisted tactics were applied across Central and South America. Sanders rattled off a few examples in a foreign-policy interview with the New York Times.

“The United States overthrew the government of Guatemala, a democratically elected government, overthrew the government of Brazil,” Sanders told the Times. “I strongly oppose U.S. policy, which overthrows governments, especially democratically elected governments, around the world.”

In 1954, the CIA ran an incredibly expensive and widespread campaign in Guatemala to prop up a right-wing, anti-communist movement, largely through anti-communist media and propaganda. When that didn’t take, the CIA chartered a private air force to start bombing military installations. After that, an internal CIA cable instructed that it was time for “the surgeons to step back and the nurses to take over the patient,” according to Tim Weiner’s history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. Through “brute force and blind luck,” Weiner writes, the plot worked. Leftist President Jacobo Árbenz was out, and military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas was in. His brutal regime would lead into the 36-year Guatemalan civil war.

The list of other examples is long. Mohammad Mossadeq was toppled in a CIA-backed military coup in 1953, over his nationalization of Iran’s oil. João Goulart was overthrown in Brazil in 1964, thanks in part to U.S. funds and arms. The Reagan administration famously orchestrated a scheme to launder money to the far-right Contra rebels in Nicaragua by selling weapons to Iran—there was no coup, but tens of thousands of people died in the fighting before the left-wing Sandinista government lost power in 1990. All of these were bloody, chaotic affairs in which the CIA role was either apparent at the time or rapidly emerged.

The history of U.S. covert operations is long and varied—ordered by both Democrats and Republicans, targeting foreign leaders both democratic and authoritarian—but there are two things that tie virtually all of them together: CIA operations are not subtle, and they don’t stay secret for long.

Both of those factors slowly led to a decrease in CIA foreign operations.

Concerns about foreign coups led to the creation of the Church Committee, which, in 1976, offered a clear and damning look at CIA meddling. That led to an executive order banning the assassination of foreign leaders. The CIA whined about that legal barrier, complaining it tied its hands as it tried to oust the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, once a CIA asset, in 1988 and 1989. Plans to get rid of him were leaked, too, before they were put into action—no matter, as Reagan ended up invading anyway. The assassination ban has shifted over time, but the appetite for the swashbuckling days was evaporating.

Part of it was that nobody could keep their mouths shut. Emmanuel Constant, a Haitian paramilitary leader, was outed as a CIA asset after a 1991 coup in that country. Then he went on 60 Minutes to discuss his role.

The end of the Cold War removed the supposed justification for many of the CIA-organized coups. A bad track record, accented by a list of bloody civil wars and purges brought on by U.S. meddling, meant a more constrained agency.

The new geopolitical reality was just more complicated, too. When U.S. President George H.W. Bush tried to bump off Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, a lack of good options to replace him really complicated matters.

Speaking to the New York Times in 1996, retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, also a former director of the National Security Agency, observed that “covert action makes the least sense when you’re trying to achieve a foreign-policy goal on the sly without facing up to the strategic implications.”

Sanders is right to be critical of U.S. involvement in coups and regime change—and even today, oversight of intelligence is a critical issue. But thumping the CIA as the ever-present bogeyman can become a bit of a crutch—just ask the president—and can beget a fanatic fan base that rationalizes loss as the product of the supposed deep state. There’s no doubt the CIA is still active, and we’re not always up to speed about the clandestine work it is doing — although history shows it generally comes to light. The CIA certainly works abroad, but not all democratic opposition to a leftist leader is a plot hatched at Langley—especially not in the United States itself.

Maybe the CIA has become an omnipresent, undetectable, and ruthlessly effective clandestine operation capable of running a young, gay municipal politician through the gauntlet of the Democratic primary—and rigging votes when they don’t go the right way—while it orchestrates regime change in Latin America, leaving no real evidence behind.

But until the death squads emerge in Des Moines, the odds seem against it.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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