Sunday, December 25, 2005

History Repeats with the Spy Scandals

The Los Angeles Times today presents a story eerily reminiscent of one Sy Hersh wrote just before Christmas many years earlier. Is history repeating itself? If it is, we should look for lessons learned back then and see if those lessons can help us avoid mistakes today. It was extraordinarily difficult to investigate the agencies and the White House back in the seventies, and this at a time when the Democrats controlled the Senate. How much more difficult will it be now, when the Republicans in charge are loathe to investigate their own?

In the LA Times, Josh Meyer and Joseph Menn write:
President Bush has acknowledged that several hundred targeted Americans were wiretapped without warrants under the National Security Agency's domestic spying program, and now some U.S. officials and outside experts say they suspect that the government is engaged in a far broader U.S. surveillance operation.Although these experts have no specific evidence, they say that the NSA has a vast array of satellites and other high-tech tools that it could be using to eavesdrop on a much larger cross-section of people in the United States without permission from a court. The suspicion is quietly gaining currency among current and former U.S. intelligence officials and among outside experts familiar with how the NSA operates.
Thirty-one years and three days ago, Sy Hersh wrote something similar in the New York Times:
The Central Intelligence Agency, directly violating its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups in the United States, according to well-placed Government sources.

An extensive investigation by the New York Times has established that intelligence files on at least 10,000 American citizens were maintained by a special unit of the C.I.A. that was reporting directly to Richard Helms, then he Director of Central Intelligence and now the Ambassador to Iran.

In addition, the sources said, a check of the C.I.A.’s domestic files ordered last year by Mr. Helms’s successor, James R. Schlesinger, produced evidence of dozens of other illegal activities by members of the C.I. A. inside the United States, beginning in the nineteen-fifties, including break-ins, wiretapping and the surreptitious inspection of mail.
What of the President's respective responses when the spying was exposed? When asked by reporters for his response, Ford said he had informed the CIA that he would not tolerate the Agency conducting operations in violation of its charter. Bush, as we know, said just he opposite – not only was breaking the law necessary, but that he had personally authorized it. (Even Nixon was never so bold as to admit he had knowingly broken the law, and he still got impeached. That should give us hope for appropriate action against Bush.) But Ford actually knew of the article days in advance, and had not spoken out at that time, nor had he requested an accounting from the Agency.

When Hersh’s allegations hit the wires, Senators and Congressmen called for an investigation, just as Senator Barbara Boxer, Congressman John Conyers, and Senator Arlen Specter did. Arlen Specter, however, has far less credibility on this matter.

Specter is the inventor of the Single Bullet Theory in the case of the JFK assassination. The Warren Commission had a serious problem. In order for Oswald to be the lone shooter, he had to get off the maximum number of shots possible in 4.9 seconds. At best, that could only be three. And two of the shots were clearly accounted for. Kennedy has hit by at least one bullet in the head, and a bystander was hit far down the road towards the underpass by a wild bullet. So only one more bullet remained to cause two additional wounds in Kennedy and five in John Connally, seated ahead of Kennedy.

So what did Specter do? Say hey guys, this looks fishy? Of course not. Ambitious young Specter simply rearranged the wounds – moved the back wound up into the back of the neck, moved the throat wound down almost into the chest, changed the position of Connally and then defied the rules of physics to get a bullet that looks like it only ever passed through a barrel of water to pass through skin, muscle, bone, and air, where it changed directions a couple of times. Oh, and the doctors and FBI at the autopsy reported that the back wound had not penetrated, rendering Specter’s scenario physically impossible in yet another way. Specter and the commission simply ignored all the evidence and claimed the bullet entered Kennedy’s back, exited the throat, entered Connally’s back, exited his chest, and then passed through his wrist and into his thigh. (Never mind too that it was his right wrist and his left thigh.)

The only reason I bring this up is to show that Specter got to be a Senator by lying to protect the government (represented by the Warren Commission). Why should we expect him to be honest now? If he is, great. But I fear he’s eager to grab the investigative reins so he can drive the investigation away from sensitive areas.

Ford, like Bush, was not eager to expose the intelligence services. Ford wrote in a 1967 letter to his constituents,
To 'expose’ and condemn the CIA and call for major restrictions may only weaken a necessary international operation. As one who served for some years on the congressional committee supervising the CIA, I can say that I have more confidence in the patriotism and competence of men like Allen Dulles, John McCone, Admiral W. F. Raborn and Richard Helms than I have in some of those Americans who delight in ‘exposing’ the CIA. (Source)
Ford’s position on the CIA was essentially unchanged as Hersh’s article hit.

Ford and Bush both turned to Henry Kissinger as their first choice when confronted with the need for an investigation. Kissinger was to run Colby’s report through the NSC before bringing it to the President. (Why? To keep some things filtered from Ford so he could truly claim no knowledge?) Bush turned to Kissinger when forced into creating a commission to look into the attacks of 9/11. (Popular protest eventually nixed this idea, thank goodness.)

Ford appointed members to what became known as the Rockefeller Commission, headed by his newly installed Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller. In addition, Rockefeller had been on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board which oversaw CIA operations. Many feared Rockefeller would protect the Agency’s operations in order to protect his having approved them.

Ford’s other appointees were no better, and were made in spite of warnings from his staff to avoid appointing those who made the Commission look like a “’kept body’ designed to whitewash the problem.” He added Ronald Reagan, Douglas Dillon, Erwin Griswold, and Lane Kirkland, all of which “had been privy to CIA secrets in the past or noted for their strong support of governmental secrecy.” (Source)

Congress was suspicious that the deck was stacked in the government’s (CIA’s) favor already, but Ford stumbled so badly it’s a wonder Chevy Chase did not parody this exchange on Saturday Night Live. Quoting from Daniel Schorr’s account in Clearing the Air:
On January 16, [1975] the President had a White House luncheon for Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger and editors of the New York Times….Toward the end of the conversation, the subject of the Rockefeller commission came up. One editor, noting the predominantly conservative and defense-oriented membership of the commission, asked what credibility it would have. President Ford explained that he needed trustworthy citizens who would not stray from the narrow confines of their mission because they might come upon matters that could damage the national interest and blacken the reputation of every President since Truman.

“Like what?” asked the irrepressible Times managing editor, A. M. Rosenthal.

“Like assassinations!” President Ford shot back, quickly adding, “That’s off the record.!”
The New York Times, that illustrious “newspaper of record,” kept the President’s confidence then, just as they did more recently for President Bush. But word got out in Washington. After all, there were a lot of people at that luncheon.

Schorr continued:
Because of the commission’s mandate to investigate activities at home, I surmised that he had referred to assassinations in the United States.
Schorr was likely correct, and who better to worry than Ford, who had sat on a commission that excused the CIA from any participation in the assassination of President Kennedy. (Schorr later asked Colby if the CIA killed anyone in this country, and took Colby’s bait when he replied, “Not in this country.”

Many scholars believe that Colby’s “revelations” were not meant to damage the Agency, but to save it. By exposing some of the CIA’s foreign assassination plotting, he could seem to be open and honest while concealing the CIA’s hand in actual assassinations, including, some believe, those closer to home. Curiously, Schorr’s first guess on a foreign assassination target was UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, whose strange death, which may well have come at the instigation of the CIA, I have written about previously.)

Similarly, in our time, people from the intelligence community have come forward to expose the CIA’s torture prisons in order to save the Agency’s reputation, not to harm it. By airing the dirty laundry and decrying it, people around the world can be seduced by the appearance of a return to kindler, gentler days. I hope for all our sakes that serious reform will transpire, and real legislative oversight is more possible. And I caution those who pat those doing the exposes on the back. When longtime CIA heavyweight Ray Cline came forward saying that Kissinger and Nixon ordered the CIA to act, against their will, in Chile, Kissinger turned over memos showing that contrary to his public protestations, covertly, Cline was an eager participant.

When Ford stumbled so obviously, Congress did not wait long to react, and set up the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, more succinctly known as “the Church Committee” after its chairman, Frank Church. The equivalent body in the House was the House Select Committee on Intelligence, commonly referred to as “the Pike Committee” after its chairman, Otis Pike.

The story of these investigations is a hair-raising tale of threats, pressure, and near blackmail. Phil Agee quoted, in an introduction to the Pike Report published in London by Bertrand Russell’s organization, Pike’s comments himself regarding a threat he had heard attributed to the CIA’s Special Counsel for Legal Affairs, Mitchell Rogovin: “Pike will pay for this, you wait and see…We will destroy him for this.” When I heard Senator Gary Hart speak in DC not long ago, Hart too mentioned how unpopular seats on the Church committee were. The head of the Select Committee on Assassinations that grew out of the faint attempt of the Church Committee to address the JFK assassination, G. Robert Blakey, talked at the same event of how he feared for his life the first day he had to drive out to the agency.

Senator Church called the CIA a “rogue elephant on a rampage,” a charge the CIA’s spokespeople hotly denied. As Adam Walinsky, a former aide to Robert Kennedy explained, the CIA hoped to demonstrate “that it may be a gang of murderers, but it is Our Gang; Killers, but obedient; not independent entrepreneurs, but faithful servants of the Company.” (Source)

Investigating intelligence agencies is a difficult and dirty business. The agency holds secrets the President isn’t even cleared to see, as Nixon found out when he demanded to see the CIA’s secret report on the Bay of Pigs incident. Ehrlichman wrote about that in barely disguised fiction in his book Company. So imagine how difficult it is for Senators or Congressmen to pry loose the necessary information?

The CIA managed to get the Pike Report suppressed, initially. But suppression actually ran counter to the CIA’s argument that the Congress couldn’t be trusted to investigate its secrets. If the report was kept secret, that made the CIA more, not less, suspect. So someone in the agency leaked this to Schorr, who in turn leaked it to the Village Voice. The leak was presented as a reporting “coup,” but it appears to me as if Schorr was, witting or unwittingly, actually serving the Agency’s agenda. In any case, since the report had initially been suppressed, when it did get out, it was a really big deal. The report with these damning words:
If this committee's recent experience is any test, intelligence agencies that are to be controlled "by Congressional lawmaking are, today, beyond the lawmaker's scrutiny.

These secret agencies have interests that inherently conflict with the open accountability of a political body, and there are many tools and tactics to block and deceive conventional Congressional checks. Added to this are the unique attributes of intelligence—notably, “national security,” in its cloak of secrecy and mystery—to intimidate Congress and erode fragile support for sensitive inquiries.
Strong words to open a report with! No wonder the Agency wanted this suppressed. But figuring, as Allen Dulles had said to justify the release of the Warren Commission’s evidence, that people don’t read, they were right to leak it. How many of you reading this right now have ever read this before? See? They were right. People don’t read. They don’t read what’s not in the news right now. And history is all important in instructing us on the likely consequences of our behavior.

So what did Pike warn future generations regarding how best to investigate intelligence agencies?
The key to exercising oversight is knowledge. In the case of intelligence agencies, this translates into a need for access to information often held by the agencies themselves…

There were numerous public expressions by intelligence agencies and the Executive that full cooperation would be accorded. The credibility of such assurances was important, since almost all the necessary materials were classified and controlled by the executive branch. Despite these public representations, in practice most document access was preceded by lengthy negotiations. Almost without exception, these negotiations yielded something less than complete or timely access.
Pike warned too that the Agency asked committee members to sign secrecy agreements:
The Committee refused, as a matter of policy, to sign agreements. It refused to allow intelligence officials to read and review our investigators’ notes, and avoided canned briefings in favor of primary source material. The Committee maintained that Congress has a right to all information short of direct communications with the President.
He added, “Our ability to abide by these policies has been a mixed record.”

So what can be done? Pike gave us a little hope, but only a little:
On the plus side, an aggressive pursuit of facts and a willingness to back up this pursuit with subpoenas produced some unprecedented results. …

Nonetheless, if that is the positive side, it was offset by the extraordinary efforts that were required, even in a climate favorable to reviewing past Executive conduct, to identify and obtain documents.

It is a commentary in itself that subpoenas were necessary.

It is a further commentary that much of the time subpoenas were not enough, and only a determined threat of contempt proceedings brought grudging results.
So will we get to the bottom of the torture prison scandal? Will we find out how many Americans were spied on and why? Or will we, like Pike, end up pulling out our hair in frustration at the difficulty of investigation a government wedded to conducting policy through covert activities?

Guess what? WE determine the answer to that question. It’s up to us to hold our representatives’ feet to the fire, and to watch their backs when they step up and do the right thing. Pike and Church succeeded as well as they did because the public was vocally, persistently urging them on. Our current representatives need no less.

When you start to despair, remember this thought:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Merry Christmas, everyone.


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