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How the Powerful Derail Accountability: The Case of Intelligence Reform (Part II) | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

How the Powerful Derail Accountability: The Case of Intelligence Reform (Part II)


The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia, August 14, 2008. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

Yesterday we learned how in 1975 the media, CIA apostate Philip Agee, the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House revealed the American intelligence community to be a violent, thuggish and ineffectual embarrassment to the Constitution of the United States—and not very intelligent to boot. And what happened next, in 1976?

Pretty much nothing. The establishment’s distraction campaigns proved too powerful.

Begin the melodrama around Christmastime 1975, with Agee, author of the devastating expose Inside the Company: A CIA Diary. He had by then, from his hideout in Communist Cuba, joined a movement to actively sabotage American intelligence, centered in the organization the Fifth Estate and its magazine Counterspy (whose founders and funders included the novelist Norman Mailer). “The most effective and important systematic effort to counter the CIA that can be undertaken right now,” Agee wrote in the winter 1975 issue, was “the identification, exposure, and neutralization of its people working abroad.” One of the people Agee’s article thus named was named Richard Welch, whom he identified as the station chief in Lima, Peru.

By then, however, Welch was not in Lima. He was the station chief in Athens—where, two days before Christmas, he was ambushed and assassinated by masked men outside his home.

Agee’s article was merely coincidental to the attack—and in Athens, Welch’s cover had already, independently, been blown (as, in fact, it had been in Lima), not least because he lived in a house whose CIA identity was a matter of wide public knowledge. The work being done by the House and Senate select committees on intelligence had even less to do with it. No matter: here was the perfect fodder for a perfect disinformation campaign. Presidential press secretary Ron Nessen insinuated that the intelligence committees’ carelessness was responsible for the tragedy. The plane bearing Welch’s coffin was timed to touch down at Andrews Air Force Base for live coverage on the morning news, greeted by an Air Force honor guard. (It circled for fifteen minutes to get the timing just right.) Time had already eulogized Welch as a “scholar, wit, athlete, spy”—a gentleman James Bond. “Never before,” Daniel Schorr announced on the CBS News on December 30, “had a fallen secret agent come home as such a public hero,” and the lionization was only beginning: over the protests of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Welch’s burial broke military protocol by taking place at Arlington Cemetery, starring more honor guards, dozens of flags, the flower of the American defense establishment and the very same horse-drawn caisson from the interment of President Kennedy bearing the coffin; President Ford escorted the veiled widow.

Soon, hundreds of telegrams and letters—some with just the single word “Murderer!”—flooded the Church Committee’s transom, from angry citizens’ alerts to the administration’s insinuations that it all must have been congressional investigators’ faults. A supposedly adversarial press piled on, especially The Washington Post. In 1974 it brought down a president; now, it ran thirteen stories in the week after Welch’s death following the administration line, an editorial labeling it the “entirely predictable result of the disclosure tactics chosen by certain American critics of the agency.” Wrote the Post’s admirably independent ombudsmen Charles Seib, “The press was used to publicize what in its broad effect was an attack on itself.” That is, when the press bothered to cover intelligence reform at all, now that a weary press public’s attentions had turned elsewhere—to the hydra-headed 1976 Democratic presidential field, to the showdown between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, to the impending bicentennial celebrations.

And it all happened just as the two select committees on intelligence were drawing up their final reports and investigations for intelligence reform—terrified, now, that any more disclosure of any secret would discredit the entirety of their work.

That was no accident. It was an orchestrated campaign—one taking advantage, not of the committees’ recklessness (in fact they were remarkably free from leaks) but of their very deliberateness, the months of quiet investigation and backroom executive sessions that provided an opening for propaganda to blindside reform. A high-ranking CIA official named David Atlee Phillips quit from the Company to organize retirees into an apparently independent lobby. Though in the shadowlands of espionage, nothing could be so straightforward. They actually worked in harness with a president who used words like “crippling” and “dismantling” in his every reference to the intelligence investigations. And by the time the White House began dancing on Richard Welch’s grave, Atlee’s 600-member Association of Retired Intelligence Officers were ready to wave the bloody shirt on the president’s behalf—in speeches, letters to the editor and canned op-eds from a forty-eight-page guide, all pressing the message that the expansion of the nation’s suspicious circles into the sacred precincts of intelligence was putting her heroes in danger. Until, hardly three weeks after Welch’s death, the momentum for reigning in the intelligence community was at all but a standstill—just as planned. “Revamping the CIA: Easier Said Than Done,” as The New York Times headlined on January 18.

And then—that same week, in fact—came the saga of the Pike Committee’s final report.

Historian Kathryn Olmsted, in her definitive Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI, from which much of this material derives, has written how the Pike Report, drafted by a veteran of the Senate Watergate investigation, was, for a government document, a model of literary grace, and hard-hitting as hell: it opened with a seventy-page savaging of the Ford administration’s lack of cooperation with their work. It continued, much more aggressively than the public hearings—which had been plenty aggressive themselves—by documenting the CIA’s wasteful spending (where it could figure out what it spent), its bald failures at producing useful predictions, its abuses of basic civil liberties and its indifference that any of this might be a problem. It singled out Henry Kissinger, still the establishment’s darling: he had a “passion for secrecy” and his statements were “at variance with facts.” It detailed failed and embarrassing covert actions—not naming country names, but with enough identifying contextual details to make things obvious enough for those who cared to guess. For instance, how the Nixon administration encouraged the Kurdish minority to revolt, then abandoned them when the Shah of Iran objected, of which caper the Pike Report concluded, “Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical exercise”—and, given later developments, a portentous one as well.

And when the “intelligence community” began scanning the drafts, they reacted, as Tom Wicker wrote in On Press, a fine little 1978 book about the politics of the media that deserves to be rediscovered in these days of David Gregory and Edward Snowden, “as if to a rattlesnake and in the finest bureaucratic tradition—with outrage and charges that the report was biased and distorted, inaccurate, and seriously threatened—you guessed it—the national security.”

The report was scheduled to be published at the end of January. And as the intelligence agencies negotiated with Pike Committee staff about its supposed grave threats to the safety and security of Grandma in her kitchen, Daniel Schorr of CBS got leaked a copy and reported on its contents. So did The New York Times, which revealed stuff like how an Italian neofascist general got paid $800,000 from the CIA—a revelation that had nothing to do with violating national security, but everything to do exposing incompetence and immorality.

Be that as it may, the very fact of “unauthorized leaks” provided an opening. Ron Nessen said they raised “serious questions about how classified material can be be handled by Congress when national security is at stake.” The CIA said genial, bow-tied Otis Pike would soon be responsible for the blood of more Richard Welch’s. A congressman asked Pike to find out who passed on the copies to the press. Pike replied, “What do you recommend, precisely? Lie detector tests members of Congress?”

An absurd notion—back then. Who knows how close we may be to that now?

Pike proved more stalwart than his congressional colleagues—who soon started voting to neuter themselves. First the Rules Committee voted to suppress release unless President Ford approved its contents. The entire House would have to vote to approve or reject the Rules Committee’s recommendation. Then came the debate. Those in favor of release made arguments about the very nature of “classification” that should be resounding far and wide today: quite nearly by definition, it violates the system of checks and balances that is supposed to be the foundation of the republic. One of those moderate Republicans of blessed memory, James Paul Johnson of Colorado, pointed out that the report’s aim was to publicize “despicable, detestable” acts, but that “we are being castigated by those who perpetrate the acts and then classified them”—serving as judge and jury in their own case, precisely what the constitutional system was theoretically supposed to prevent. Pike pointed out, “A ‘secret’ is a fact or opinion to which some bureaucrat has applied a rubber stamp”—not holy writ, nor some sort of ineluctable instruction to our “enemies” about how to defeat us. A Democrat from suburban Chicago, Morgan Murphy, drove home the bottom line: “If we are not a coequal branch of this government, if we are not equal to the President and the Supreme Court, then let the CIA write this report; let the President write this report; and we ought to fold our tent and go home.”

Here was an unappreciated hinge in the constitutional history of America’s relatively new national security state—a debate over precisely that: whether the Congress in a national security state would be a co-equal branch. The House, writes Olmsted, “after spending one year and several hundred thousand” dollars on an intelligence investigation, voted more than 2 to 1”—with the preponderance of censors being conservative and Southern—“not to let the public learn what the committee had discovered.” The bloody shirt of Richard Welch proved too much the distraction. It was, after all, an election year.

The late Daniel Schorr told the next part of the story many times in his commentaries on NPR’s All Things Considered. He gave a Xerox copy of the report to his bosses at CBS news and asked if they wanted to help him turn it into a book, perhaps through a publishing subsidiary of the network: “We owe it to history to publish it,” he said. They disagreed. He went to the nonprofit organization the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to see if it could find a book publisher that was interested in publishing the book in exchange for the profits going to the group. It could not. The Village Voice did agree, however, and because the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press now controlled the document, the Voice agreed to make a contribution to the group. (The curious can download that Voice issue here.)

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The upshot: the House of Representatives having abandoned the principle of Madisonian checks and balances, the lion’s share of the nation’s media took the opportunity to abandon the Jeffersonian principle—“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”—of an adversarial press. Congress investigated him, and virtually no one defended him; The New York Times editorialized that by “making the report available for cash sale” he was guilty of “selling secrets.” CBS News suspended him; their local radio affiliates begged for CBS to fire him. The congressional investigation cost $350,000, interviewed 400 people, never found Schorr’s source and ended up with the Ethics Committee deciding by only one vote not to throw him in jail for contempt of Congress. The investigation did, however, find one of the leakers of the report—Wisconsin Congressman Les Aspin. He leaked it not to the press but to the Central Intelligence Agency itself. Was Les Aspin punished? Not hardly. Instead, he became Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense. That’s how the leaking game works: it’s a machine for selective persecution. A whore’s bath of elite manipulation. Les Aspin won, because he helped the CIA accomplish this. In Olmsted’s words:

when the Pike and Church committees finally finished their work, the passion for reform had cooled. The House overwhelmingly rejected the work of the Pike committee and voted to suppress its final report. It even refused to set up a standing intelligence committee. The Senate dealt more favorably with the Church committee, but it too came close to rejecting all of the committee’s recommendations. Only last-minute parliamentary maneuvering enabled Church to salvage one reform, the creation of a new standing committee on intelligence. The proposed charter for the intelligence community, though its various components continued to be hotly debated for several years, never came to pass.

Otis Pike, despite the many accomplishments of his committee, found his name linked with congressional sensationalism, leaks, and poor administration. Frank Church’s role in the investigation failed to boost his presidential campaign, forced him to delay his entry into the race, and, he thought, might have cost him the vice presidency.

The targets of the investigation had the last laugh on the investigators. “When all is said and done, what did it achieve?” asked Richard Helms, the former director of the CIA who was at the heart of many of the scandals unearthed by Congress and the media. “Where is the legislation, the great piece of legislation, that was going to come out of the Church committee hearings ? I haven’t seen it.” Hersh, the reporter who prompted the inquiries, was also unimpressed by the investigators’ accomplishments. “They generated a lot of new information, but ultimately they didn’t come up with much,” he said.

And now, we live with the consequences. Enjoy your Fourth of July!

In case you missed Part I of Rick Perlstein’s “How the Powerful Derail Accountability,” read it here.

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