Markovic was trying to invoke the ghosts of the swashbuckling, sinister CIA of the past that might have plotted to finish Milosevic off with an exploding cigar or sent Stinger missiles to his political opponents. But Markovic didn’t have a lot to go on. The nefarious plan consisted of congressional testimony prepared by a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, a government think tank and grant-giving organization. Markovic and his fellow whistleblowers had simply downloaded the document from, changed the letterhead, and stamped “Top Secret”on top.

There were, no doubt, a couple of spies in Belgrade with sunglasses, boxes of secrets, and secure satellite phones connected to CIA headquarters. But the campaign to oust Milosevic was organized mostly by guys in blue blazers carting around boxes of campaign stickers. From the end of the war in Kosovo until last October, when the Serbian people stormed parliament and booted out Milosevic, the Central Intelligence Agency seems to have spent its time, of all things, centralizing intelligence. That’s why Markovic had to stretch so far to pin the blame on the Agency. It’s also one major reason why the operation to remove Milosevic worked so well.

The CIA has always supported democracy in hostile countries with a goal, as Eisenhower put it, “to get the world, by peaceful means, to believe the truth.”But when peaceful means have failed, or seemed inconvenient, the CIA has also run subversive cloak and dagger campaigns to give the world that truth, good and hard. A Cold War CIA report on covert action stated: “There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.”

Both peaceful democratic support and dark operations have existed since the Agency’s beginning. Created out of our World War II intelligence operations, the CIA’s first major operation was to provide money and technical training to Italy’s Christian Democratic party as it successfully headed off the Communists in the 1948 elections, helping to stall the leftist movement growing amidst the rubble of Europe. Only a few years later, the Agency removed Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala by dropping Coke bottles filled with gasoline to simulate bombing, spreading disinformation over the airwaves—“It is not true that the waters of Lake Atitlan have been poisoned—and creating the false impression that the left-leaning government was under siege. Arbenz fled the country in fear and a CIA man was soon propping up a hungover Elfegio Monzon in the shower as Monzon prepared to be sworn in as president.

For the next 15 years, the CIA played both dark and peaceful roles aggressively. The Agency sent men to the beaches of Cuba, trained Tibetans in Colorado for an invasion of China, and organized a war from the hills and swamps of Laos. At the same time, it served as an international endowment for the arts, trying to spread democracy by funding everything from Jackson Pollock’s splatter painting to the magazine Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol. The cover for this arts funding was blown in 1967, though, and as a result of the ensuing outcry, the Agency shut down large-scale peaceful support for democracy for 15 years.

Ronald Reagan loved subversion, and he empowered CIA director William Casey to covertly organize a war in Nicaragua. But Reagan’s more lasting legacy comes from his recognition that the weakness of communism could be exploited by international institution building. Reagan proclaimed in 1982 that “The march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history,”and set in motion a major movement that led to the creation of a number of QUANGOs (quasi-nongovernmental organizations) like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) that worked to build democratic opposition abroad. In a way, NED was chartered to do what the CIA used to do, only working bottom up and helping activists instead of working top down and lopping off heads.

Reagan also worked inside the White House, pulling Walt Raymond, a top-ranking CIA official, over from Langley to organize what the president called “Project Democracy.”As part of the project, the United States Information Agency (USIA) began to cook up plans that, except for their openness, seemed like the old CIA. In the summer of 1982, USIA organized democracy-building seminars for African colonels, voting technique lessons for Peruvians, and conferences on freedom for the press in the Philippines and Romania. Cultural ambassadors were even sent by USIA from universities to travel around and preach Reagan’s gospel of democracy, and in what Vaclav Havel would say was the most important thing the United States did for his country, USIA beamed the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe into Czechoslovakia. Simultaneously, the CIA sent millions of dollars to the Solidarity movement in Poland by way of the international arm of the AFL-CIO.

Reagan and William Casey’s dark-side dealings in Nicaragua blew up with the Iran-Contra scandal, creating a backlash that led to increased congressional oversight of the Agency and a gradual effort by future CIA directors to open it to the public and the media. But the movement to promote democracy only gained influence. The QUANGOs, all dependent on U.S. grants and with boards full of ex-CIA and other U.S. government officials, grew stronger and ultimately played a prominent role in ousting Milosevic, 18 years after Reagan’s evocation of history’s ash heap.

The Balkans became a major international priority for the United States in 1991, when Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia and the multi-ethnic nation cracked into five different parts, each holding a knife to its neighbors’ throats. The region split and then split again, until Yugoslavia consisted of just Serbia and the much-smaller Montenegro. As the country divided, the United States waffled over policy—supporting Milosevic, then abandoning him. But by 2000, after Milosevic drove the United States and its Western European allies to war by invading Kosovo, the butcher of Belgrade simply had to go.

The post-war plan seemed to come more from the playbook of James Carville than William Casey. It kicked into gear in October 1999, when the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a QUANGO created by Democrats in the wake of Reagan’s 1982 speech, gathered a group of top Serbian activists in the Marriott hotel in Budapest. NDI had commissioned polls that showed Milosevic’s vulnerability—70 percent of the population viewed him unfavorably—and demonstrated that the most likely candidate to defeat him was a little-known nationalist named Vojislav Kostunica whom few people loved but even fewer hated. The strategy was much like the Republican Party’s in 2000: Find someone palatable, get solidly behind him, and ride to victory.

Fed up with the wreck Milosevic had made of their country, the Serbian opposition united behind Kostunica. From then on, the State Department and American and European QUANGOs helped the Serbs organize a campaign combining advanced Western strategies—tracking polls, snappy slogans—with the lessons of nonviolent resistance from countries like Czechoslovakia that had ousted totalitarian regimes.

To assist in the latter goal, the International Republican Institute (IRI), another Reagan-era creation, sent a Vietnam veteran named Robert Helvey to teach the Serbian student opposition group, Otpor, how to “identify sources of power for the regime.”Helvey and the students recognized that, like so many totalitarian regimes of the past, Milosevic’s government drew its power from its inevitability and the notion that it would never be defeated. Shattering the illusion could essentially topple the regime. As Vaclav Havel wrote in his seminal essay, “The Power of the Powerless,”such unconscious subordination holds totalitarian systems together. Without it, “the structure of the totalitarian regime vanish[es]. It disintegrate[s] into various atoms colliding with one another in their unregulated particular interests and inclinations.”The Otpor activists subsequently plastered 2.5 million stickers with the slogan “Gotov je”or “He’s finished”in nooks and crannies across the country, making it their mission to convince their countrymen that Milosevic could and would be defeated.

The “Gotov je”stickers, like much of the rest of the materials in the campaign, came from the U.S. State Department, either directly or funneled through one or more of the QUANGOs. The nonprofits also provided indispensable supplies: computers, fax machines, T-shirts with clenched fists emblazoned in the center, spray paint intended for scrawling anti-Milosevic graffiti. Serbs dominated the campaign, but there’s no discounting the international role. Even now, Otpor activists who speak mostly Serbian call their efforts to increase turnout before the election “GOTV,”an acronym based on the American slogan “Get Out the Vote.

Delivering the money and supplies to the activists wasn’t easy. Milosevic had nationalized the banking system and people working for the State Department or the QUANGOs had to literally hand over bags of cash in Montenegro or Hungary. The activists would take the money and drive back to their homeland. When asked how the money got to them, an Otpor spokesman, Marko Djuric, says, “Milosevic’s regime had some corruption, so there were ways in.”

The State Department also acted directly through the Agency for International Development (AID). The biggest project was the construction of the “Ring Around Serbia,”a series of radio towers in neighboring countries designed to beam the BBC and Voice of America into Serbia. Wanting to show that the opposition could do what Milosevic and his allies couldn’t, AID also set up a moderately successful program to deliver food to cities controlled by opposition parties.

The QUANGOs also spent a great deal of money training election observers, one for almost every district in Yugoslavia. When the polls closed, the vote counters pooled their results and demonstrated convincingly that Milosevic had been trounced, preventing his last-ditch efforts to cook the books. Overall, the United States gave the Serbian opposition about $50 million. That’s not much compared with the cost of a B-1 bomber, but it’s about the equivalent of spending $2 billion on an American campaign, given Serbia’s population and cheaper prices. The United States government also kept strategy closely coordinated across all the organizations involved. According to one State Department employee who maybe spent too much time with colleagues from NED, “We would see each other all the damn time to the point of nausea.

The United States and the international community also worked to isolate Milosevic and show Yugoslavs that their leader was blocking the doorway to economic growth and reintegration with Europe. The International Criminal Court indicted Milosevic as a war criminal. Clinton and the European Union placed sanctions on the country, unambiguously signaling that they would be lifted the minute Milosevic was carted out of town. The international community also tried to “make the economy scream,”as Richard Nixon had instructed CIA Director Richard Helms to do in Chile 30 years before.

Working with the international community, and closely following the movements of Milosevic’s few trusted friends, the CIA, the State Department, and Treasury tracked Milosevic’s assets, which were essentially inseparable from the country’s. Through what Clinton’s chief Balkans envoy, James O’Brien, calls “old-fashioned detective work,”the international community found that the Serb leader was laundering billions of dollars through two major banks in Cyprus. The small island nation wanted to join the European Union and a clear signal was sent that it was unacceptable for Cyprus to run a banking system that allowed Milosevic to launder money. The assets were frozen and so was a good chunk of the Yugoslav leader’s checkbook.

With the ruler’s cash flow slowed, the economy really did start to scream, or at least huff. Bridges were rebuilt slowly; soldiers weren’t paid on time; taxes increased on wages that never came. The president was forced to hold out his hat with national campaigns based on slogans like “A dinar for roads,”asking for donations in Yugoslav currency. In July 2000, perhaps recognizing that he couldn’t financially survive through the winter without solidifying political support, Milosevic called the fateful elections set for September. Fed up with their national chaos, though, the Serbs trounced their leader. Fittingly, President Kostunica’s most successful campaign slogan was, “We need a normal life in a normal country.

Throughout the campaign, the CIA gathered important information, but mostly it stood on the sidelines. It helped to write the script and plot strategy, but it didn’t carry out the plans. The Agency worked mainly through an entity called the Balkans Task Force, controlling communication among the myriad agencies that make up the intelligence community, from the intelligence gatherers at the Pentagon to the satellite-image analysts at the National Reconnaissance Office. The Task Force was organized in 1991, but remained primarily an information-gathering organization. According to an agency source, even in 1995, the CIA had fewer than half a dozen people on the ground in Belgrade.

Part of the reason for the CIA’s reticence is that scandals of the past have led to the creation of safety mechanisms. Any plan has to be approved by the National Security Council, vetted by CIA lawyers, signed by the president, and shown to the intelligence committees in the Senate and House. The Agency also now has to worry about possible violations of international codes that could get U.S. officials hauled before the International Criminal Court, a concern that reportedly played a major role in the Serbian strategy.

In contrast to years past, the CIA and Congress worked in concert on Serbia, and the Agency piled information on Capitol Hill. According to former Senator Bob Kerrey, who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1990 to 2000, under Clinton “there was a virtual fire hose of information from the CIA.”For example, in 1996, when a CIA case officer learned that there might have been a deal approved by the American ambassador in Croatia to ship arms from Iran to the Bosnian Muslims, he didn’t turn a blind eye, or offer to help out, as William Casey had done with the Contras; he ratted the incident out to Congress.

At any step on the oversight trail, an opponent of a covert CIA plan, or someone who just thinks it’s outrageous, can leak it to the press. That is what happened to a proposal for covert action allegedly signed by President Clinton in June 1999, which would have allowed the CIA to hack into Milosevic’s computers and to try to instigate a palace coup, but that was leaked to Newsweek. The plan was miniscule compared to our overt work, but for undisclosed reasons—perhaps because of fears that public exposure of such hacking would make the United States itself an increased target of cyber-espionage or because it could be construed as a war crime—that plan was not implemented, according to Kerrey.

There’s a certain hypocrisy in trying to build open societies through secret action. The Senate went into paroxysms of rage when it learned of money funneled from Asia into the Clinton campaign, even if that was only peanuts compared to what we sent to Serbia. Removing a tyrant like Milosevic does require a different set of standards than a race between a moderate Democrat and a moderate Republican. But the lessons of our past show that when we throw all the rules out the window, we have shown a strong tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot, if not the head.

The CIA has an abysmal record of covert action. To be sure, the CIA’s failures, almost by definition, get more play in the history books than its successes; but even when successful, it has unleashed forces beyond our control. When we removed Arbenz from power in Guatemala, we ushered in 40 years of brutal military rule and alienated much of Latin America. We even inspired a young Che Guevara living in Guatemala to turn to socialism. CIA support for Afghan rebels in the early 1980s helped facilitate the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the same people we had shipped missiles to later drove an explosive-laced truck into the basement of the World Trade Center. In 1991, CIA Director Robert Gates said, “Other parts of the intelligence community can cause controversy, but it seems like the clandestine service is the only part that can cause real trouble.

Our recent record isn’t much better. As reported by Andrew and Patrick Cockburn, the CIA tried to organize a coup against Saddam Hussein in the winter and spring of 1996, but the Iraqis cracked our plans and arrested nearly all of the American agents working inside the country. On June 26, not long before the planned day of action, Iraqi officials used their stolen communications equipment to send a message to the Agency’s base in Jordan: “We have arrested all of your people. You might as well pack up and go home.

In Serbia, covert CIA action had serious potential to create blowback. The United States and NATO had just spent months bombing the country and Milosevic desperately wanted to be able to pin the label of Yankee Stooges on the opposition. This is partly why Serbs were drawn to Kostunica, who swore that he had never taken a dime from the United States. According to Robert Helvey, “The easiest way to destroy a movement is for the CIA to taint it.”By acting in the open, the United States also knows that it can leave Serbia having helped empower a group of young democratic activists, not warlords with Kalashnikovs strapped to their backs or even the Agency’s shady friends of the past, like Manuel Noriega or Peru’s Vladimir Montesinos.

Serbia isn’t a perfect model for future democracy building since so many stars lined up: Everybody hated Milosevic so there was no fear that by supporting the opposition we were helping to brew a cure worse than the disease. It’s also easier to marshal political resources for European intervention than in other parts of the world, and Serbia did have a basic level of openness that helped to feed our strategy—Serbs did have TVs, and they did have elections.

Even so, the stunning success makes a very good case that open intervention and support should be more and more the future of the CIA. The Cold War made open intervention impossible in nearly half the globe. But those barriers are down, and globalism and development are making covert action even less practical. You can manipulate a village if there’s only one guy with a radio; you can’t if they’ve got CNN. And long gone are the days when Lyndon Johnson could say to the Greek ambassador to this country: “Fuck your parliament and your constitution … If your prime minister gives me talk about democracy, parliament, and constitutions, he, his parliament, and his constitution may not last very long.”

In some ways, time has passed the sinister side of the CIA, and an open world is not one the CIA dominates. According to Peter Galbraith, former ambassador to Croatia, “Espionage is an expensive and not very useful way to follow internal political developments. It is easier to talk to people and to read the newspapers.

In Serbia, the world was open enough to make covert action a sideshow, and we should certainly hope the future will see more campaigns like this. As Nenad Konstantivoc, an Otpor leader said, “We did not need intervention. In the 21st century we could bring Milosevic down in a civilized way.”History seems to suggest that it’s better to help people make their own government more democratic by giving them stickers, rather than trying to hand their president an exploding cigar. l

Nicholas Thompson is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email him by clicking here or read his other articles by clicking here

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Nicholas Thompson, the CEO of The Atlantic and the former editor-in-chief of Wired, is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly