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.

Simultaneously came word of a new book rolling off the presses in Great Britain: a shocking book-length exposé from an exiled former CIA agent, Philip Agee, called Inside the Company: A CIA Diary. In it, a twelve-year agency veteran working South and Central America chronicled his growing realization “that millions of people all over the world had been killed or had their lives destroyed by the C.I.A. and the institutions it supports.” At the end of the book he announced that he “wrote it as a contribution to socialist revolution.” It also revealed the CIA’s hand in as many undercover operations as he could recollect, compiled with proper names, in a handy appendix. An analyst wrote in the agency’s classified review of the book that he was the CIA’s “first real defector in the class sense of the word.”

Meanwhile Congress’s two intelligence investigations started spilling forth extraordinary revelations. So did dogged media watchdogs. In February Daniel Schorr reported, “President Ford reportedly warned associates that if current investigations go too far, they could uncover several assassinations of foreign officials in which the CIA was involved.” Time, in its June 2 issue, reported that in 1961 John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, enraged at the failure at the Bay of Pigs, “covertly ordered agencies of the U.S. government to find some sure means of deposing Fidel Castro, Cuba’s chief of state. Whether or not assassination attempts were authorized by the Kennedys is still unclear…. The C.I.A. did work with two U.S. Mafia leaders, Sam Giancana and John Roselli, in unsuccessful attempts to kill the Cuban leader.” And then there was the fact that in 1953 a 22-year-old Army biochemist named Frank Olson, an unwitting participant in a CIA study that spiked his drink with LSD, jumped out a window to his death.

And all this came months before the opening of the public hearings of the Church Committee (in the Senate) and the Pike Committee (in the House). That fall was when America learned, for instance, that the CIA continued to stockpile chemical weapons in defiance of the law; that the Government Accounting Office hadn’t been allowed to audit the CIA since 1962, had no idea how much the agent took in or how it was spent, and that only six employees at the Office of Management and Budget studied the foreign intelligence budget as a whole, three of them former CIA employees; and that, the day before the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out, the CIA had told the president to expect Middle East peace. That the CIA had recruited Christian missionaries in defiance of an Eisenhower-era directive outlawing the practice. And that Big Brother had also been opening their mail—over 215,000 pieces in New York City alone between 1953 and 1973, including one, in 1968, from presidential candidate Richard Nixon to his speechwriter Ray Price. And that J. Edgar Hoover had tried to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide. And that John F. Kennedy had shared a mistress with the same mafioso the CIA had hired to assassinate Castro.

Back in the day, Congress had cojones.

So it was that the executive branch assiduously endeavored to chop them off. Tomorrow I’ll pick up the story at Christmastime, 1975, a year after Sy Hersh’s revelations kicked off the Year of Intelligence, when the stories of Philip Agee, Daniel Schorr and the CIA station chief in Greece converged to end the Year of Intelligence in an orgy of sheer stupidity, ensuring that no truly meaningful reform came of it at all.

Rick Perlstein writes about why Obama’s pick for FBI director is not the reformer some liberals hope he’ll be.