The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia, August 14, 2008. (Reuters/Larry Downing)
Two weeks ago I reflected on how power uses distraction campaigns to do its dirtiest work—for instance, discrediting whistleblowers and dissolving investigations that threaten to upend the cozy arrangements of the powerful. I cited the way the (authentic) story of George W. Bush going absent without leave from the Texas Air National Guard was derailed by raising questions about one (inauthentic) document; and how, in 1975, the killing of a CIA station chief in Greece was deployed to dampen momentum for a thorough reform of America’s intelligence agencies. Today and tomorrow, we’ll learn more about the latter example. I fear it will become more and more relevant as the weeks to on.
Some background. Christmastime, 1974, in a massive front page New York Times article, Seymour Hersh revealed that the CIA had collected intelligence files on at least 10,000 American citizens in direct violation of its 1947 charter stipulating that it was only allowed to work overseas. It also documented “dozens of other illegal activities by members of the C.I.A in the United States, beginning in the nineteen-fifties, including break-ins, wiretapping, and the surreptitious inspection of mail.” Emerging but eighteen weeks after Richard Nixon’s resignation, when the momentum for deep reckoning with America’s sins had never been stronger, President Ford was forced to react. He impaneled a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the allegations—a paper-tiger panel made up of the very establishmentarians whose complicity in CIA sins should have been a subject of investigation itself. “Having the CIA investigated by such a group,” The New York Times editorialized “is like having the Mafia audited by its own accountants.” Not having any of it, both chambers of Congress impaneled their own select committees to investigate the CIA, FBI, and—later—the NSA.
Between 1947 and 1974 some four hundred bills had been introduced to improve congressional oversight over intelligence agencies. All had come a cropper—Congress generally having taken the attitude articulated by Mississippi’s Senator John Stennis, one of the tiny cadre of congressional insiders allowed “oversight” into such matters: “You make up your mind that you are going to have an intelligence agency and protect it as such, and shut your eyes some and take what is coming.” An attitude, by the way, embarrassingly redolent of Senate Intelligence Committee chair Diane Feinstein today.
But not after Sy Hersh’s scoop. It took just two hours of debate for the Senate to authorize its select committee on intelligence, by a vote of 82 to 4; the world was different now. “In this year—so soon after Watergate—we cannot leave in doubt the operations and activities of agencies involved in such sensitive and secret endeavors,” conservative Democrat Walter Huddleston of Kentucky said. Republicans were if anything harsher. Howard Baker, who had earlier tried and failed to charter an investigation on the CIA’s role in Watergate, spoke of his “shuddering fear” the CIA was out of control. The Pennsylvania liberal Republican Richard Schweiker called it a “shadow government.” Even Barry Goldwater, the security establishment’s best friend, acceded to its investigation: “If surgery is required, let it be performed only after the most careful diagnosis.” The New York Times predicted “a thorough and potentially far-reaching review of United States intelligence practices and requirements”—“The Year of Intelligence,” as it titled a February 8, 1975, editorial.