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March 16, 2007

The Rope Dancer — by Victor Marchetti


A unique book, in the strictest, most literal sense of the word.

Victor Marchetti had a highly successful 14-year career at the CIA.

He rose to the position of executive assistant to the deputy director of the agency and attended regular planning and intelligence meetings which included CIA director Richard Helms.

He was also a courier for the agency group that approved covert operations, and as such had access to the most carefully guarded CIA information, called Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI).

Such material was distributed strictly on a need-to-know basis.

His positions as executive assistant to the deputy director and secure courier allowed Marchetti an overview of the agency purposely denied to most CIA officers.

Over time, Marchetti became troubled by the agency's role in the overthrow of various governments and by CIA involvement in other nations' internal policies.

He decided to quit the agency age 39, and soon thereafter wrote a novel entitled "The Rope Dancer."

Prior to its 1971 publication by Grosset and Dunlap, a CIA officer read the manuscript at Marchetti's home, in keeping with the rules set out in the CIA secrecy contract Marchetti had signed.

The CIA officer found no security breaches and publication went forward.

Then word got out that Marchetti was preparing a non-fiction book highly critical of the CIA.

Concerned, CIA director Richard Helms himself ordered Marchetti placed under surveillance beginning on March 23, 1972.

Within days, an article written by Marchetti appeared in the April 3 issue of The Nation, under the headline, "CIA: The President's Loyal Tool."

In 1974 the book the CIA feared, by rogue former officer Marchetti, was published, with much of its content deleted by the CIA for reasons of "National Security."

Co-authored with John D. Marks, its title was "The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence."

Along with "The Rope Dancer," it remains surprisingly hard-to-find, though with the Internet it's no longer next-to-impossible, as was the case in the 80s.

I first read "The Rope Dancer" a long time ago, and I return to it, as I just have, every decade or so because of the uncanny sense of verisimilitude it offers the reader.

Now, it's not a well-written book: Marchetti has a clunky style, and the narrative is anything but smooth.

But that's small potatoes compared to the scope and depth of the author's knowledge, and the sense you get reading the novel of what it must be like to work in the CIA, called the NIA (National Intelligence Agency) in the book.

The protagonist is executive assistant to the deputy director of the NIA; he's married, with two sons, just like Marchetti was at the time in real life; and he's put under surveillance — or thinks he is — just as Marchetti was to be several months after the novel's publication.

I can't help but believe this is the best look into the hearts and minds of the movers and shakers of the CIA in the 60s and early 70s that will ever exist.

Very worth reading.

As of late 2004 Marchetti was 72 years old and living quietly in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., according to an email I received at the time from one of his grandsons.

Perhaps he'll read this and update me.

Used copies of "The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence" are available at Amazon for $1.91 and up.


Used copies of "The Rope Dancer" start there at $2.26.

March 16, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Dear Mr. Marchetti:
About 10 years ago, or so by now, I was shopping at The Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa, California, and talking in normal speeking volume to a cashier who was about my age, early 50s, about a recording I had heard on NPR radio during the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations. The recording was played by the announcer whose name I do not recall.

The recording was from a CIA wire tap on the office phone of FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, about three months before the November 22, 1963 public murder of President Kennedy in Dealey Plasa, a part of Dallas, Texas. The CIA counter-intelligence team that serrupticiously recorded the conversation, as i recall, was called "Pegusus."

Some of the names of people who spoke on the tape include individuals whose names are well known in political circles today, in one case in particular, because his son is the current occupant of the White House.

There was a man, dressed in black trousers and shirt, with a tie and well groomed, who walked up to us as the cashier and i spoke, and said to me, "If you want to know where the only copy of the Pegasus tape is still located, there is a man named Victor Marchetti. You should try to find him and see if he can give you a copy of the tape," or words to that effect.

I guess I'm curious if such a tape copy exists. Could you respond to my email address above?


Dave Masonlich

Posted by: Dave Masonlich | Nov 17, 2007 9:07:51 PM

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