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.