Meat Ax or Scalpel
Sensational Scoops
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 CIA.

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 atmosphere.

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 post-Vietnam career.

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 agency abuses.

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.

Challenging the Secret Government

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