Hiding Political Spying

excerpted from the book


The CIA's War at Home

by Angus Mackenzie

University of California Press, 1997, paper



Hiding Political Spying

Soon after Reagan's second inauguration, he appointed Bush to chair a cabinet-level Task Force on Combating Terrorism. With this mandate, Bush set out not only to narrow congressional oversight of the CIA and to pass new secrecy laws but also to use terrorism as a justification for domestic spying against left-wing citizen groups that had lobbied Congress to ban Contra funding. That this task force was a cover is clear from its own statistics, which showed domestic terrorism in sharp decline just as Bush was ostensibly cranking up his force to fight it. The number of terrorist incidents reported in the United States fell off sharply from twenty-nine in I980 to only seven by I985, with a high of fifty-one in I982. Nevertheless, the thirty-four-page Public Report of the Vice President's Task Force on Combating Terrorism of I986 recommended that the intelligence agencies involve "conventional human and technical intelligence capabilities that penetrate terrorist groups and their support systems."

In an accompanying cover letter, Bush self-consciously tried to explain away the inconsistency between his orders to "improve America's capability for combating terrorism" and FBI reports that domestic terrorism was virtually nonexistent, arguing that terrorism being waged in foreign countries posed "the potential for future problems . . . here at home.'' Moreover, the report shifted the ground of the debate by describing terrorism as "political theater designed to undermine or alter governmental authority or behavior." This was a radically new definition. Political theater aimed at altering governmental behavior is an American tradition that started with the Boston Tea Party and has long since been protected by the First Amendment.

Following recommendations from Bush's task force to increase the overall surveillance of terrorists, the FBI conducted 8,450 domestic terrorism investigations in I986, even though they reported only seventeen actual terrorist incidents that year. Much of the difference between the two figures can be explained by the fact that the FBI was conducting political spying under the "terrorism" label. According to FBI documents later released through FOIA requests, the prime targets of these so-called terrorist investigations were those groups advocating the congressional ban on Contra funding. The CIA used a similar strategy when covering up MHCHAOS: domestic political operations are more easily defended if they are labeled as anti-terrorism.

Some FBI special agents were not willing to pursue wholesale spying against U.S. citizens. In Buffalo, New York, agents took the unprecedented action of refusing to conduct the political investigations ordered by headquarters. In a few instances, the executive assistant director of the FBI, Oliver "Buck" Revell (who was also a member of Bush's terrorism task force), overrode the FBI agents' objections and ordered the investigations to continue.

An even larger problem for Bush's task force was finding a way to keep secrets from journalists. Indeed, there were already problems with exposure. Reporters were beginning to write about some FBI political spying for the White House that had occurred in I984. Syndicated columnist Jack Anderson reported that the FBI was spying on peace groups. It became known that in I982 the FBI had conducted an "administrative" probe of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, a worldwide group of doctors whose campaign for a nuclear weapons freeze at the international level was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in I985. FBI Assistant Director William Baker admitted to me in the mid-I980s that FBI informants had been used inside the group.

Intent on improving secrecy, Bush's task force attacked the FOIA- particularly the I974 amendments, which had been a vehicle for exposing Nixon's political intelligence operations. Among the recommendations in the report was the repeal of these post-Watergate reforms on the grounds that terrorists might be using the FOIA. It was a wholly speculative argument, as the recommendation itself showed: "Members of terrorist groups may have used the Freedom of Information Act to identify FBI informants, frustrate FBI investigations, and tie up government resources in responding to requests. This would be a clear abuse of the Act that should be investigated by the Department of Justice and, if confirmed, addressed through legislation to close the loophole" (emphasis added).

The truth was that the task force's concern with the FOIA had little to do with terrorism but much to do with political spying. By the end of I986, this emphasis on spying was causing a growing rebellion within the FBI's usually well-disciplined ranks. Special Agent John C. Ryan, a twenty-one-year veteran from Peoria, Illinois, flatly and repeatedly had refused FBI orders to conduct a "terrorism" investigation of anti-Contra protesters whom he knew to be religious pacifists. As a result, Ryan was fired for insubordination on August 25, I987, eighteen months after Bush's task force issued its report. Ryan was the first FBI agent fired for refusing to obey orders as a matter of conscience.

As Congress raced toward adjournment, the FOIA amendment was hurriedly put to a vote. Members of Congress said aye without ever seeing a copy of what they were voting on; there had not been enough time to print an up-to-date version of the legislation. As one staffer for Congressman Glenn English commented in an aside to me, "My boss was over on the floor asking, 'Who's got a copy?' " The bill passed October I7, I986, and Reagan signed it into law. The fact that the legislation was the handiwork of Bush's task force went essentially unnoticed. And to make matters more confusing, some journalists got it wrong. The Washington Post, for instance, reported that the FOIA amendment had not been enacted.

Given this level of misinformation, there was little opportunity to fully assess the political implication. Few journalists understood that the FBI would now be able to withhold files that had nothing to do with the enforcement of laws, such as those dealing with political spying operations. Attorney General Edwin Meese III, whose job it was to implement the new FOIA amendment, reported that it "established important new records exclusions"-a different story than the one told by the ACLU. The amendment shielded "more routine monitoring," said Meese. Under it, the FBI could keep secret all kinds of data, not just "specifically focused law enforcement inquiries." Almost gleefully Meese advised the FOIA supervisors to "be mindful of the greater latitude": documents could be treated "as if they did not exist." Most important, the FBI could now largely exclude secret counterintelligence or international terrorism files from public and judicial review, so long as the operation was so secret that its very existence was classified.

Most journalists missed the significance of the new amendment because they were taking their cues from Halperin, but one who saw through the smoke screen was Scott Armstrong, a former Washington Post reporter who had founded the National Security Archive-a privately funded group that collects, indexes, and circulates government documents released under the FOIA. Armstrong tried to make it known that the amendment allowed terrorism and counterintelligence files to be kept secret forever, but his efforts were to little avail.

Another part of the new FOIA amendment permitted the government to seek the dismissal of pending FOIA lawsuits. During the slam-bang passage of the legislation, no one in Congress had thought to remove this ex post facto section, and in equally hasty fashion the Justice Department moved to dismiss FOIA cases just days after the final vote. U.S. District Judge Thomas Flannery subsequently interpreted the law exactly contrary to Halperin's intention. Flannery cited "the newly amended statute, and the broader category of information that is protectable" in blocking the release of documents related to the assassination of President Kennedy.

The Justice Department attorney assigned to take advantage of the new FOIA amendment was Richard Willard. He lost no time in using the amendment to fend off a class action lawsuit brought by, among others, Frank Wilkinson in California. Wilkinson had sued the FBI in I980 for documents about himself and his organization, the Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, founded in the I960s. Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who had a close relationship with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, cited informers who said Wilkinson was a Communist. On that basis the FBI had amassed more than I30,000 pages of documents concerning him and his associates. Wilkinson was asking to see those files under the FOIA, but so far all he had obtained from the FBI were heavily censored copies.

Richard Criley, an elder statesman among California's civil libertarians, had inspected the I30,000 pages, threading his way around the blacked-out words, and had constructed a cross-reference file. He concluded that the documents would prove that the FBI had done the following:

disrupted meetings at which Frank Wilkinson was to speak

manipulated the news media to discredit another organization founded by Wilkinson, the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation (formerly the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee)

prepared "poison pen" letters against the group

intervened illegally in the legislative process

disrupted the organization through the use of informer/agent provocateurs

sabotaged fund-raising

According to Criley, "the entire operation of the FBI was focused on 'discrediting' and 'disrupting' the organization by illegal means and could not be considered 'law enforcement' by the furthest stretch of the imagination.

Now Wilkinson, represented by attorneys from the Southern California ACLU affiliate, was petitioning the federal courts to compel release of the information that had been blacked out. Three days after Reagan signed the FOIA amendment, however, Willard invoked it to block further release of the files. He argued that the goal of the FOIA amendments was to frustrate the efforts of people like Criley "who have both the incentive and the resources to use the act systematically-to gather, analyze, and piece together segregated bits of information obtained from agency files." He accused Criley of having already put together apparently innocuous information to reveal the identity of at least one FBI informant.

"It's true," Criley said. "I did identify an informant who was dead . . . the guy was an officer of NCARL reporting to the FBI." And by authority of the new amendment, the presiding judge in the Wilkinson case ruled that the relationship of an informer to the Bureau can be kept secret in perpetuity, even after the informant's death.

In one hard-fought case, however, the persistence of Ann Marie Buitrago, chairwoman of a group called Freedom of Information and Accountability, together with Michael Ratner of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, led to the release of thousands of pages of the FBI file on the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. CISPES had opposed U.S. intervention in Central America. While many portions of the file were censored, the documents revealed that under the heading "terrorism matter," CISPES and more than two hundred other anti-Reagan groups had been targeted by the FBI. Investigations had been carried out by fifty-two of the FBI's fifty-nine field offices (see appendix).

Leaders of CISPES held press conferences simultaneously in five cities to call attention to the FBI's massive political operation. In response to the publicity, FBI Director William S. Sessions denied that the operation was ordered by the White House or was politically motivated. He claimed that it began as a "reasonable examination of a possible terrorist threat." However, Sessions was compelled to concede that the FBI found "no substantial link between CISPES and international terrorism," and in an extraordinary move he disciplined six FBI agents for their role in the scandal, suspending some without pay for two weeks.

In the wake of the CISPES disclosures, Congressman Don Edwards ordered the General Accounting Office to inspect politically motivated FBI "terrorism" investigations into peaceful dissenters opposed to U.S. foreign policy in Central America. But the GAO was stymied by the FBI and not allowed to inspect Bureau files for their political content. Instead, the GAO had to be satisfied with responses to questionnaires, which were filled out by FBI agents themselves. Even so, the GAO did discover that the FBI had obtained information on lawful activities in many of the I8,I44 FBI international terrorism cases between January I982 and June I988.

"Terrorism incidents are down, and hype is up," said one congressional staffer with FBI oversight responsibilities. "There was a concern that administration policy was undercut by domestic opposition groups. It was necessary to discredit and disrupt those groups. There was interest in the investigation of those groups. It was thought they could be disrupted by arrests. There was at the time a sincere belief that there was a link between political opposition and illegal activity."

A House investigator specializing in the FBI observed, "The only way, the best way, for Congress to learn about FBI political investigations is with the aggressive use of the FOIA. In past years, congressional oversight of the FBI could not function without FOIA. Did the changes in the FOIA adversely affect congressional oversight? Yes. Definitely."

William H. Webster, who had moved laterally from FBI director to CIA director, admitted that the FOIA amendment helped agencies maintain the secrecy of classified covert operations. "[The laws] have been made a little more reasonable in protecting sources and methods," Webster said. "That's what it's all about." With the curbing of the FOIA's application to the FBI and the CIA, the Reagan administration's secrecy program continued to roll along in high gear. At the Pentagon, however, the secrecy program ran into one man who stood up and organized a political counterattack.

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