Meat Ax or Scalpel
Abuses & Aberrations
excerpted from the book
Challenging the Secret Government
The Post-Watergate Investigation
of the CIA and FBI
by Kathryn S. Olmsted
University of North Carloina
Press, 1996, paper
Congress's first serious attempt to limit the post-Vietnam CIA
came in 1973, as legislators angrily reasserted their power against
a deceitful and discredited executive. A bipartisan group of senators,
hoping to restrict the president's power to conduct military operations
without congressional approval, introduced the War Powers Bill.
Senator Tom Eagleton objected, however, that the bill had a major
loophole: it did not apply to nation's secret warriors. He introduced
an amendment to extend it to include the CIA. When his amendment
was decisively defeated, the Missouri senator decided to oppose
the bill, arguing that it was useless without constraints on the
Although the CIA easily survived this
first salvo, it would continue to fight a defensive battle against
congressional assaults for the next two years. In 1974, Senator
Howard Baker and Representative Lucien Nedzi headed separate inquiries
into the agency's murky role in Watergate. Neither committee was
able to solve this mystery definitively. But Baker's report implied
that there was a good deal more to the CIA's involvement in the
scandal than was then known. Baker believes that his report was
the beginning of a new era of congressional oversight of intelligence.
"I don't think there ever would have been a Church committee
without that [report]," he says. When hawkish Republicans
like Howard Baker doubted the CIA's truthfulness, the agency had
good reason to worry.
Then in the fall of 1974, Seymour Hersh
revealed that the White House and the CIA had lied to Congress
about U.S. involvement in Chile. Mike Mansfield, now Senate majority
leader, tried to use Congress's outrage over Chile to win approval
for another of his periodic proposals to increase oversight of
the CIA and to investigate the intelligence community. This time
a liberal Republican, Charles Mathias, cosponsored his effort.
Other congressmen introduced similar proposals.
Two liberal legislators, Senator James
Abourezk of South Dakota and Representative Elizabeth Holtzman
of New York, attempted to do more than investigate: they wanted
to ban all covert operations. Abourezk believed that the CIA would
never inform Congress of its most secret actions, even if the
oversight system were reformed. So, he concluded, "since
they are never going to tell us, the only real alternative is
to take away their money, abolish their operations so that we
shall never have that kind of immoral, illegal activity committed
in the name of the American people.'' Abourezk's bill gained the
support of only seventeen senators. Holtzman's similar bill in
the House lost 291-108.
Although the Ninety-third Congress refused
to ban covert actions, it did decide to enact the toughest oversight
bill in history. The Hughes-Ryan amendment to the Foreign Assistance
Act, named after Representative Leo Ryan and Senator Harold Hughes,
expanded the number of ~ congressional committees to be briefed
by the CIA from four to six, adding the more liberal Senate Foreign
Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees to the list. Most
important, the amendment attempted to improve accountability by
requiring the president to make a "finding" that covert
action was necessary for national security before reporting it
"in a timely fashion" to the six committees. It was
widely understood that this meant within forty-eight hours.
The Hughes-Ryan amendment was more significant
than anything that would later come out of the Pike and Church
committees. It substantially increased the amount of control Congress
exercised over the CIA and, indirectly, the nation's foreign policy.
By forcing the CIA to brief six (and later eight) congressional
committees, and by demanding timely notification of covert actions,
the Hughes-Ryan amendment gave Congress more oversight power than
it had possessed before-or than it would have after the amendment
was gutted in 1980.
Yet this amendment passed almost unnoticed
by the press-and, more important, by the White House. Neither
the Ford administration nor the CIA made any serious effort to
organize opposition to the amendment. One Republican moderate
on the House-Senate conference committee was amazed by the lack
of resistance to the sweeping proposal. "They [the White
House] were shell-shocked from the Chilean expose, and just couldn't
come to grips with the fact that in this thing they were playing
with fire," he told conservative columnists Rowland Evans
and Robert Novak. Indeed, Henry Kissinger, the president's chief
foreign policy adviser, was more worried by the Foreign Assistance
Act's limits on aid to Cambodia and Chile and its threatened cutoff
of aid to Turkey than the expanded reporting requirements for
covert action. Kissinger did suggest that Ford consider vetoing
the measure because of several "deficiencies," including
the Hughes-Ryan amendment. CIA director William Colby also wrote
to Ford expressing concerns about the reporting requirements.
But the president, deciding that this was the best foreign aid
bill he could get out of a hostile Congress, signed it into law.
The swift, almost unchallenged passage
of this radical expansion of congressional oversight illustrates
the extraordinary opportunity for change that existed in the fall
of 1974. Congress was on the attack, while the CIA was weak and
battered. The White House also felt besieged and demoralized,
unable to mount an effective defense against a historic erosion
of its foreign policy powers. When the Church and Pike committees
issued their reports in a much different climate some fifteen
months later, they must have longed for that immediate post-Watergate
In late 1974, as the New York Times edition
carrying Seymour Hersh's domestic spying series hit the streets,
Congress was prepared to act. It had seen the CIA misused-or out
of control-in Vietnam, in Watergate, and in Chile. Congress had
shown its willingness to impose controls on the agency by passing
the Hughes-Ryan amendment. Now Hersh's stories would provide the
final incentive to launch special investigations.
Called "Frank Sunday School" and "Frank Cathedral"
by those in Washington who found him a bit stuffy, Church was
a bright, conscientious senator known for his flowery speeches
and heartfelt morality. After conquering what his doctors thought
was fatal cancer at age twenty-three, he was not afraid to take
chances. He had launched a long-shot bid for the Senate in 1956
and shocked the state by becoming at age thirty-two the fourth
youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
No one ever doubted the integrity of "the
boy wonder from Idaho," but some were irritated by his aloof,
moralistic style. Many career spies and foreign policy "realists"
found him, as one CIA officer said, "a decent and sincere
man, but . . . also sanctimonious and self-righteous." To
the real-world pragmatists at the CIA, used to deceiving and being
deceived, the intense moral vision of the former choirboy from
Idaho seemed alien indeed.
Although Church had begun his career as
a strong supporter of the Cold War consensus, he moved steadily
leftward as the 19605 progressed. The Vietnam War prompted him
to reassess his previous endorsement of an aggressive, interventionist
foreign policy. Church expressed antiwar views in an interview
in Ramparts magazine as early as January 1965. By 1966, he was
one of the leading Senate "doves," attracting nationwide
attention for his tough questioning of administration officials
during the televised hearings of the Foreign Relations Committee.
By 1972, according to his biographers, he had come to view the
war as nothing less than "a monstrous immorality."
The Vietnam War also convinced Church
that Congress needed to reclaim the powers that it had ceded to
the executive branch since World War II. In addition to cosponsoring
a series of resolutions forcing the president to limit the war
in Indochina, he tried to renew and restore Congress's power of
investigation. In 1972, Church initiated a Foreign Relations subcommittee
inquiry into multinational corporations and their effect on American
foreign policy. The subcommittee's findings were explosive. Church
proved and expanded upon columnist Jack Anderson's charges that
ITT had offered vast sums of money to the CIA to topple the leftist
Allende regime in Chile. In 1975, his subcommittee would uncover
a bribery scandal with global repercussions. Church's revelation
that American corporations had bribed foreign leaders prompted
investigations in the Netherlands and Italy and led to the arrest
of a former Japanese prime minister.
In his speeches and writings, Church often
condemned indiscriminate interventionism and emphasized the need
for a moral foreign policy. The idol of his boyhood years, he
said in 1971, was the isolationist Republican senator from Idaho,
William E. Borah. Church wrote in an article intended for Family
Weekly magazine that he admired Borah because he "placed
great emphasis on public morality. He modeled himself after Abraham
Lincoln with whom he shared the premise that the proper political
move is always to do the honorable, the ethical, and the right."
Church admitted that some of Borah's views "now are out-dated"
but contended that in some ways Borah had been ahead of his time.
"In particular, I think of his antipathy toward the use of
force against small countries, his anti-imperialism, and his willingness
to tolerate diversity in the world at large." Borah had warned
that intervening in foreign countries could erode liberty here
at home. This was a theme that Church would sound throughout his
American foreign policy must be made to conform once more to our
historic ideals, the same fundamental belief in freedom and popular
government that once made us a beacon of hope for the downtrodden
and oppressed throughout the world.
Frank Church, speech at Idaho State University,
18 February 1977
What types of actions did the CIA carry out? Only a handful of
policymakers in Washington knew the answer in detail. The rest
of the American public, including liberal senators, seemed content
to be kept in ignorance. Both the press and the oversight committees
in Congress were willing to trust the government to do what was
necessary for national defense without asking too many questions.
This secrecy allowed liberals to support the CIA while maintaining
their belief that Americans were always "the good guys, the
white hats, the idealists struggling for democracy and freedom,"
as columnist Russell Baker wrote. The heroic image of the CIA
in the popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s had helped to reinforce
this view of American spies.
Now that Vietnam and Watergate had shattered
the liberal consensus, Americans learned of the covert operations
and dirty tricks that their secret warriors had carried out during
the height of the Cold War. And many American liberals were shocked
to learn the truth about their government's advocacy of expediency
over virtue. "Perhaps at the age of 57 I should know better,"
one woman wrote Senator Church, "but I really want our country
to behave honorably. I never thought the ideals they taught us
were just public relations." Playwright Lillian Hellman expressed
astonishment at the revelations of 1975. "Murder," she
commented in amazement; "we didn't think of ourselves that
way once upon a time." A common theme in letters to the editor
was the gap between the nation's values to be celebrated in its
Bicentennial and the agencies' secret activities. "The CIA
abroad and the FBI at home are an affront to the heritage we expect
to celebrate in 1976," one writer said. "They have disgraced
the flag." Another told the Washington Post that the CIA
"has taught Americans to live in fear and to think from
a premise of fear: what a dastardly way to celebrate our Bicentennial!''
Hellman urged the government to stop using
dirty tricks and to begin to practice what it preached. This was
typical of the response of many shocked Americans: from now on,
they said, the United States should adhere to its true values
of liberty and democracy. Americans should put on their white
hats again. Prominent liberals insisted that these new tactics
were both practical and essential if the country was to regain
its soul. The New York Times editorial board, for example, declared
that morality in government "is not an impractical dream
of naive do-gooders. It is the only inherent strength of a self-governing
nation." The Church committee assassination report later
echoed this judgment: "Means are as important as ends. Crisis
makes it tempting to ignore the wise restraints that make men
free. But each time we do so, each time the means we use are wrong,
our inner strength, the strength which makes us free, is lessened."
But why had the country chosen to sacrifice
means for ends ? How had Americans come to violate their publicly
expressed values ? One explanation might be, as Garry Wills suggested,
that the Cold War presidents had encouraged the CIA to imitate
Soviet methods, regardless of the cost to American values.
The committee's examination of the FBI was one of its most significant
contributions to public knowledge. It also unearthed the most
persuasive evidence of presidential responsibility for intelligence
The committee began its FBI hearings by
presenting the details of COINTELPRO, or counterintelligence program-the
bureau's efforts to discredit and destroy dissident organizations.
The program had been directed against many groups, including Communists,
the Socialist Workers' Party, the Ku Klux Klan, civil rights and
black nationalist groups, the New Left, and women's liberation
groups. FBI informants would infiltrate these organizations, report
on their movements, disrupt their plans, and often attempt to
discredit the organizations' members-even, in some cases, to the
point of encouraging them to kill one another or destroying their
personal lives. For example, one agent tried to break up the marriage
of a white woman involved in a black activist group by writing
a letter to her husband. Pretending to be a disgruntled black
woman in the group, the white agent wrote to the husband in what
he presumed was black English: "Look man I guess your old
lady doesn't get enough at home or she wouldn't be shucking and
jiving with our black man in ACTION, you dig? Like all she wants
to integrate is the bedroom, and us black sisters ain't gonna
take no second best from our men."
The most egregious example of the FBI's
abuse of authority was its harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Not only had the bureau bugged and wiretapped the civil rights
leader, but it had also engaged in a concerted program to knock
him "off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence."
The FBI warned congressmen, university officials, and even the
pope of King's allegedly dangerous and immoral tendencies. The
low point of the bureau's harassment campaign came thirty-four
days before King was to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
King received an anonymous tape in the mail that purportedly recorded
him engaged in extramarital affairs. The letter that accompanied
the tape- written by assistant FBI director William Sullivan himself,
it was later revealed-concluded with this suggestion: "King,
there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is.
You have just 34 days in which to do it.'' King took this to be
a suggestion that he commit suicide.
The committee's hearings also revealed
that presidents since Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the FBI to
wiretap, follow, and compile secret files on American citizens
for political purposes. Both Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson
had preceded Richard Nixon in ordering the bureau to wiretap or
monitor the activities of reporters. President Johnson had asked
the FBI for reports on Barry Goldwater's staff in 1964, when the
senator was running against him for president, and on Americans
who wrote the White House opposing his foreign policy decisions.
Even Franklin Roosevelt had asked the FBI to investigate Americans
who sent angry telegrams to the White House.
In the view of the nation's pundits, the
FBI hearings proved that the president was responsible for many
of the intelligence community's abuses. The New York Times decided
that the latest revelations put Watergate in a new perspective.
"By the time Richard Nixon became President, the practiced
seaminess had become so entrenched that the deceptions of Watergate
flowed with alarming naturalness," the paper's editorial
board declared. William Safire tried to use the revelations to
revise the historical image of his favorite president. "History
will show the Nixon Administration not as the one that invented
abuse of power," he wrote, "but the one that gloriously
if unwittingly served the cause of individual liberty by the clumsy
way it tried to continue the abuses of Kennedy and Johnson."
Tom Wicker astutely pointed out that the newest revelations and
conclusions about presidential responsibility presented troublesome
problems for reformers. "No one in Congress or the executive
branch has even begun to face-let alone answer-the consequent
philosophical and institutional questions" raised by this
new evidence, Wicker wrote.
The most popular theories concerned the murders of John F. Kennedy
and Martin Luther King, Jr. Many Americans had never been convinced
that Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had acted alone. When
the Church committee revealed that the CIA and the FBI had withheld
key evidence from the commission investigating Kennedy's death,
the lone-assassin theory was left "almost totally without
adherents," according to Gallup pollsters. By 1976, the overwhelming
majority of Americans, 8 percent, believed that other people were
involved in the assassination, while 8 percent were unsure. Even
more surprising, seventy percent of Americans believed that Martin
Luther King's assassin, James Earl Ray, was part of a conspiracy,
while sixty percent believed that both the Kennedy and King assassinations
involved conspiracies. Only 5 percent of the
American people accepted the official explanations of both shootings.
the Secret Government