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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
- The CIA's War at Home