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The Secret Government | The Nation

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The Secret Government

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It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of "fair play" must be reconsidered.

Though these words echo his famous endorsement of working "the dark side" in order to triumph in the "war on terror," they were not, in fact, written by Dick Cheney. They come from the Doolittle Report, which was commissioned by President Eisenhower in 1954 to craft an intelligence strategy for winning the cold war. From a strategic perspective, the threat posed by global communism, headquartered in a massive, nuclear-armed superpower with almost 6 million men under arms, and Al Qaeda, a networked, globally distributed group of thousands of nonstate actors, could not be more different. But the national security state's understanding of each as an existential threat was, and continues to be, nearly identical. The enemy is ingenious, relentless and unencumbered by the procedural and moral niceties that hamstring the bureaucrats of a liberal democracy. Victory--indeed, survival--requires us to become more like them.

And so: the CIA contracted a Mafia boss to murder Fidel Castro, sent biotoxins to the Republic of Congo with orders to poison Patrice Lumumba and tested LSD on unsuspecting citizens (one of whom jumped out of a window to his death). It fomented coups and bloodshed against democratically elected governments, while the National Security Agency, in coordination with the major telegram companies, read every single telegram coming in or going out of the country for three decades. The FBI infiltrated peaceful antiwar groups, breaking up marriages of activists with forged evidence of infidelity, while surveilling civil rights leaders with an assortment of bugs and break-ins. It even attempted to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide, shipping him tapes of him midcoitus with a mistress and a note that said, "There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

We know all this (and much more) thanks to the work of the Church Committee. Chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church in 1975-76, the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities labored for sixteen months to produce a 5,000-page report that is a canonical history of the secret government. Over the past three decades the Church Committee has faded into relative obscurity. (I was somewhat surprised to discover how few people my age had heard of it.) But in the wake of further disclosures of crimes and abuses committed by the Bush administration and the escalating war of words between the CIA and Congress over just how much Congress knew about (and approved) these activities, the specter of the committee has begun to haunt Capitol Hill.

Mostly, the Church Committee is invoked by conservatives as a cautionary tale, a case of liberal overreach that handicapped the nation's intelligence operations for decades. Dick Cheney bemoaned the fact that his time as President Ford's chief of staff was "the low point" of presidential authority, thanks to a feckless Congress "all too often swayed by the public opinion of the moment."

But a growing chorus of voices, some of whom served on the original committee and some of whom currently occupy oversight positions in Congress, have begun to refer to the Church Committee as a model for the kind of sustained inquiry needed today. Congressman Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, has served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence since 2003. When I met him recently, his office had a table full of books and papers about intelligence oversight and the Church Committee's legacy. "The intelligence community has not undergone comprehensive examination since then," he said, "and it needs it."

In a recent interview with the Washington Independent, former Senator Gary Hart, who served on the Church Committee, said there are "sufficient parallels" between the abuses of the cold war and those revealed in the past few years to "warrant a kind of sweeping investigation." Senators Pat Leahy and Russ Feingold have expressed support for a commission of inquiry. Even former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who previously criticized the post-Church intelligence community's risk-averse ways, is on board. "In a democracy with Congressional oversight...when you've had this period where there appears to have been excesses, [where] there appears to have been illegality," he told me, "you need a comprehensive checkup."

The original Church Committee ushered in an era of reforms that we've come to take for granted: the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts and executive orders banning assassinations. But it's hard to survey the legal and moral wreckage of the "war on terror" and conclude that those reforms have stood the test of time. When the country faced another "implacable" enemy, the reforms of the Church Committee were subverted, circumvented, rolled back and outpaced.

To take just the most recent examples, press reports indicate that the CIA may have been training agents to conduct assassinations of Al Qaeda leaders during the first six months of the Obama administration, before either CIA director Leon Panetta or Congress was notified. What's more, according to reports in the New York Times and this magazine, the CIA outsourced parts of an assassination program to the private security firm Blackwater. As this article goes to press, Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed a special prosecutor, John Durham, to determine if a criminal investigation should go forward against CIA agents and contractors for torturing detainees. Durham's narrowly defined inquiry targets fewer than a dozen cases and falls far short of the "sweeping investigation" called for by Hart, Clarke and others.

Once again, it seems a comprehensive accounting is long overdue.

On December 22, 1974, the New York Times published an explosive front-page story by Seymour Hersh. Drawn from leaked portions of a 704-page internal CIA review of covert activities, known within the agency as "the family jewels," the article detailed the activities of a massive domestic spying program called Operation Chaos. "Huge CIA Operation Reported Against Antiwar Forces and Other Dissidents During the Nixon Years," read the headline.

The article created an uproar. In the wake of Watergate and the revelations of Nixon's recklessly lawless executive branch, the public was primed to think the worst. Church, a liberal, saw an opportunity to ferret out abuses, rein in an out-of-control intelligence apparatus and give himself a prime platform from which to run for president. He advocated for a special committee to investigate the activities of the various intelligence agencies. Senate Republicans objected, and the White House sought to cut off momentum by establishing its own commission of inquiry, chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. But the press didn't let up. Hersh published more startling revelations, and CBS's Daniel Schorr began airing reports of the CIA's involvement in international assassinations. For a nation that had suffered the traumatic deaths of JFK, RFK and MLK in the past dozen years, this was the last straw. "Murder," playwright Lillian Hellman wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "We didn't think of ourselves that way once upon a time."

On January 27, 1975, the Senate voted to create the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities. (The committee also had a House counterpart, chaired by Otis Pike.) Each of its eleven members, six Democrats and five Republicans, appointed a staff liaison. The committee was given broad latitude, subpoena power and, crucially, a staff of 150. "We were in a huge auditorium in the new Senate office building," recalls Barbara Banoff, who joined the staff of the committee as a young attorney from New York. "They were just little cubicles with office dividers; if somebody was yelling at one place in the auditorium, everyone else could hear them."

The staff was impressive. Chief counsel Frederick "Fritz" A.O. Schwarz was a top-flight litigator at a white-shoe New York firm. Other positions were filled by career intelligence officers, attorneys and academics. "I thought the committee was outstanding," says Loch Johnson, who served as Church's special assistant on the committee and now edits the journal Intelligence and National Security. "I was kind of amazed by that.... Usually in committees you get a hodgepodge.... Look at the résumés of the people: a lot of great attorneys and social scientists with well-regarded credentials."

Immediately, Schwarz says, it became apparent that the magnitude of the task before them was overwhelming. "We had to pick a few subjects and look at the subjects in real depth because if we didn't do that...there were so many things that were coming in as tips that we could never get any of them well."

The committee broke its staff up into task forces, each focusing on a discrete area, such as the CIA, assassinations and the FBI's domestic spying. Sensing the particularly acute outrage over revelations of the CIA's assassination plots, the committee worked hard to produce an interim report on the matter, which it released on November 20, 1975. It contained many of the more lurid examples of CIA high jinks--including plans to kill Castro with poisoned cigars--that would come to define the agency's image for an entire generation of Americans.

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