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
As the Pike committee finished its work on 10 February, the members
congratulated each other for their impressive-albeit controversial-
contribution to an understanding of the nation's secret government.
"Given the circumstances, problems, and lack of support,
I think we did our best," Dellums told his colleagues. "I
hope what we have done will have some impact on the course of
history in this country." The next day, the Village Voice
published the text of their secret report.
The publication was the last in a series
of disasters for the Pike committee. It was also the first episode
in a continuing drama that would destroy Daniel Schorr's career,
at least temporarily. Schorr quickly realized that he would pay
a price for trying to keep his role secret. On the morning of
1l February, a colleague whom Schorr considered a friend, Laurence
Stern of the Washington Post, called to inform him that the Village
Voice had published the Pike report that morning in a twenty-four-page
supplement. Far from reflecting Schorr's high-minded concerns
about First Amendment rights, the tabloid trumpeted its scoop
in red capital letters: 'THE CIA REPORT THE PRESIDENT DOESN'T
WANT YOU TO READ. Stern wanted to know if Schorr was the source,
but Schorr was reluctant to reveal his role. The two journalists
had a long conversation that wandered on and off the record. Despite
Schorr's "sophistic evasions," the Post reporter eventually
learned enough to identify the correspondent as the source of
The next morning, the Post identified
Schorr not only as the purveyor of secret documents but also as
the lead actor in what it suggested was "a journalistic morality
play." Over the subsequent weeks and months media coverage
of the report leak repeatedly emphasized this "morality play-Schorr's
decision to publish a secret report, his clandestine actions in
arranging publication, his decision to give the profits to the
Reporters' Committee-rather than the contents of the report. The
Schorr drama, after all, was a simple, easily communicated story,
while the report's substance was more difficult to understand
and translate. Moreover, journalists, driven by the routines of
their profession to report only "news," saw the Schorr
leak as the new element in an otherwise old story.
The leak also gave the prestige newspapers'
editorial boards the chance to dlstance themselves from "irresponsible"
journalists like Schorr. The Washington Post, for example, never
editorialized on the report's revelations, only on the leaks.
The New York Times self-righteously condemned the "counterproductive
rash of leaked reports and premature disclosures"-disclosures
that its reporters had eagerly sought and its editors had prominently
The media's shift in attention from the
report's charges to their premature disclosure was skillfully
encouraged by the executive branch President Ford offered Congress
the FBI's help in finding Schorr's source; while Secretary Kissinger
again declared that "we are facing here a new version of
McCarthyism." Rogovin, the CIA's counsel, later admitted
that the executive branch's "concern" over the report's
damage to national security was less than genuine. "No one
really felt that Western Civilization was at risk," he Says.
But at the time, the administration had no qualms about implying
The House swiftly joined in the counterattack
on Schorr. Within days the House Ethics Committee voted to investigate
the leak, requested $350,000 to conduct the investigation, and
threatened Schorr with contempt of Congress if he refused to disclose
his source. Having learned its lesson from the recent Harrington
inquest, the Ethics Committee made sure that no technical errors
impeded its first full, formal investigation. Schorr could face
jail time or, at the least, suspension of his credentials to cover
As the legislative and executive branches
of government rushed to condemn Schorr, the institution that liked
to call itself the "fourth branch of government" failed
to defend him. Schorr's employer quickly distanced itself from
the controversial correspondent. The network was feeling pressure
from nervous affiliates who were worried about the response of
government regulators and from viewers who began to question the
network's credibility. As one citizen wrote the CBS president,
"So long as Daniel Schorr is functioning as a news source
for CBS, the public has the obligation to question the truth of
any CBS report and to suspect an ulterior motive behind any CBS
release.'' Under these circumstances, CBS was so anxious to be
rid of Schorr that network officials offered him severance pay
in addition to the two years of salary remaining on his contract
in return for his resignation. Before he agreed, however, Schorr
insisted that the forced resignation be kept secret; he did not
want the Ethics Committee to realize the extent of his vulnerability.
Publicly, the network announced that Schorr had been temporarily
"relieved" of all reporting duties because of his "adversary
position" in the pending investigation.
Many other reporters and producers seemed
just as eager as CBS to dissociate themselves from Schorr. Some
of the editorials condemning him were so vitriolic, a rare Schorr
supporter noted, that they "read as if they had been written
by former Vice President Agnew." The worst blow came from
an unexpected source. The New York Times, Seymour Hersh's employer
and the one voice Schorr must have hoped would be raised in his
defense, charged that Schorr was engaged in "selling secrets."
The Washington Post's ombudsman Charles Seib also chided Schorr
for not realizing that "the dollar sign is a danger sign
in journalism. As I. F. Stone observed, this criticism of Schorr
could only be described as "insufferably hypocritical."
After all, Schorr had arranged to donate his profits, while the
Post and the Times had profited from publishing the Pentagon Papers.
The attacks on Schorr were not limited
to the editorial pages. Once again, as had happened after Richard
Helms had verbally attacked him the year before, a series of unflattering
profiles of Schorr appeared. Newsweek, for example, discussed
the "questions of his ethics" and his reputation "for
egoism and overly aggressive reporting." The prominent journalists
on the Reporters' Committee, far from defending their decision
to accept the profits from Schorr's enterprise, charged that he
was trying to make them a "partner in his calumny."
The worst attacks came from Laurence Stern of the Washington Post,
whose article in the Columbia Journalism Review criticized the
Pike committee and its report as well as Schorr's judgment in
this "morality play for the Fourth Estate." Schorr,
who was particularly angered by this piece because he had considered
Stern his friend, wrote a nasty rejoinder in the next issue, to
which Stern wrote an even nastier reply.
A few journalists did defend Schorr. After
he had been "relieved of duties" by CBS and threatened
with contempt, three New York Times columnists opposed the editorial
position of their newspaper by supporting the veteran correspondent.
Tom Wicker disputed that he was "selling secrets," while
Russell Baker wondered whether Congress was showing "symptoms
of Nixon envy" in setting up its own plumber squad. William
Safire suggested that CBS had been looking for an excuse to fire
Schorr ever since his report on the network's connections to the
But these friendly columns were unusual.
Rather than defending a respected if unpopular colleague from
government persecution, most members of the Fourth Estate rushed
to reassure the public and the government that they were not as
irresponsible as Dan Schorr. When the investigator became the
target of investigation, he was left to face the coming ordeal
Daniel Schorr thought he was upholding
the First Amendment by publishing the Pike committee's final report;
in return, he was fired by his boss, investigated by the government,
and scorned by his colleagues. And Schorr was only the most visible
victim of a larger phenomenon: the backlash against all of the
congressional and journalistic investigators. After the triumphs
and high expectations of the year before, the investigations had
collapsed in embarrassment, frustration, and despair.
Why were the media so reluctant to defend
Schorr? Many observers at the time blamed Schorr's gift for making
enemies as well as the pressures of competitive journalism. As
with Seymour Hersh, it was easy for rivals who had missed the
story to denigrate their more successful colleague's accomplishments.
But the number and scale of the attacks
on Schorr indicate that something more was happening than simple
revenge on an unpopular colleague. In leaking the report, Schorr
had defied not only Congress and the president but also the public
mood. As David Ignatius said in a perceptive piece in the Washington
Monthly, Schorr had "misjudged the public temper. This was
not the Pentagon Papers and he was not Daniel Ellsberg, and this
was not even the same country, anymore, that had needed the press
to batter its corrupted institutions, force a lying President
out of office, strip the cover of national security from the CIA.''
A December 1975 Harris poll had shown that slightly more respondents
disapproved of the investigators than approved of them-and this
poll was taken before Welch's death and the leak. Much of the
public was tired of the Daniel Schorrs and Seymour Hershes and
Otis Pikes who seemed to be threatening the security of the nation
and its secret agents. Anthony Lewis reported that congressmen
were hearing from their constituents that they did not want to
know about any more American crimes or embarrassments. Watergate
was over; the "necessary demolition," as Ignatius said,
had been accomplished. "But Dan Schorr-ever the reporter-was
still battering away.''
Schorr partly understood this at the time.
In his first major speech after his suspension, he used the metaphor
of a pendulum to explain how the public mood in the United States
had alternately shifted from valuing liberty to prizing security.
"I got hit by a swinging pendulum," he said.
The secret agencies clearly emerged the winners of their long
battle w: the investigators. The Pike committee collapsed in frustration
and mutual recriminations. The Church committee issued a massive,
detailed final report, but some of its sections on foreign intelligence
struck many critics as vague and timid. Meanwhile, the executive
branch proposed new "reforms" that would effectively
legalize some of the past abuses and punish those who exposed
them. The only immediate reform to emerge from the investigations-the
creation of a permanent oversight committee-almost failed.
And how effective was that reform? Critics
have questioned whether the permanent committee has exercised
adequate oversight. In many ways, Congress has continued its reluctance
to challenge the secret agencies. Despite its post-Watergate reputation
for skepticism, the press has also hesitated to question and expose
the secret government.
Why, given the early high expectations
for great reform, did the investigations achieve so little? Why
did these extensive, far-reaching inquiries result only in restoring
the CIA's credibility? The answer can be found in the attitudes
toward the secret government held by the press, the Congress,
and the public. Despite the rising distrust of governmental secrecy
after Vietnam and Watergate, many journalists, congressmen, and
other Americans were not sure how much they wanted to know about
the nation's dirty secrets.
Fourteen months after Hersh exposed illegal CIA domestic spying,
twelve months after an outraged Congress voted to investigate
these charges, the president proposed measures that would make
domestic spying legal in broadly defined cases and would have
put Hersh's sources in jail. It remained to be seen whether the
Church committee could achieve real reforms in this new atmosphere.
A new day of congressional oversight was dawning-or so it seemed.
The Senate's permanent oversight committee began meeting immediately
after the end of the Church investigation. In July 1977, partly
to make the two houses of Congress consistent, the House finally
voted to create its own intelligence committee. The House intelligence
committee, however, was not the lineal descendant of the Pike
committee In fact Pike and most of the liberal Democrats who had
served on his committee voted against the permanent committee
because they thought it was, as Michael Harrington put it, a "sham"
reform. The establishment of the permanent committee laid the
foundation for reducing the number of House committees receiving
intelligence information. One scholar has called its creation
"a victory for executive secrecy."
Congress reorganized its oversight system
again in 1980, when it passed the Intelligence Oversight Act.
The new law, which superseded the Hughes-Ryan amendment of 1974,
drastically reduced the number of congressional overseers. Although
it required the CIA to inform Congress of broader categories of
intelligence activities, access to this information was now restricted
to the two permanent select committees. The House and Senate Appropriations,
Foreign Affairs, and Armed Services Committees would no longer
receive intelligence briefings.
The investigations resulted in remarkably
few legal changes for the intelligence community. In the executive
branch, the next president, Jimmy Carter, imposed stricter controls
on the secret agencies through an executive order. Vice President
Mondale worked hard to ensure the agencies' accountability. But
Carter's executive order was not permanent, and the next administration
quickly changed it. Meanwhile, in Congress, both oversight committees
spent years considering new charters for the intelligence community
to replace the vague clauses in the National Security Act of 1947.
Ultimately, however, Congress abandoned these legislative blueprints
because of opposition from the intelligence community and a lack
of enthusiasm from the Carter administration. Advocates for stricter
accountability did achieve one reform in 1978 with the passage
of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required the
FBI and NSA to obtain court orders for wiretaps in the United
When Ronald Reagan came into office in
1981, he swiftly loosened the regulations hindering the CIA and
the FBI. He allowed CIA domestic spying in certain cases, permitted
physical surveillance of Americans abroad, and authorized some
covert actions in the United States. Most important, he appointed
his campaign manager and former OSS agent William Casey to be
director of central intelligence. Casey was determined to free
the CIA from the fetters imposed after Watergate-and he was willing
to evade and subvert the law to do so.
When Seymour Hersh exposed the CIA's domestic spying, when Michael
Harrington demanded that the House investigate the charges, when
Otis Pike confronted Henry Kissinger, when Frank Church issued
his assassination report, and when Daniel Schorr arranged to publish
the Pike report, they never expected that the end result of their
efforts would be to legitimize the secret government. After Vietnam
and Watergate, many reformers had hoped to attain a new democratic
accountability for the secret agencies. They had wanted to restructure
the intelligence community, enact restrictive laws, write new
charters, even abolish covert action. In the end, though, many
were happy to settle for a new congressional committee.
One institution that was consistently reluctant to challenge the
nation's foreign intelligence agencies was the American press.
Few observers, however, realized this at the time. Defenders of
the intelligence community charged that the press was endangering
the nation's security, while supporters of reform applauded the
media's fearlessness. They believed that the media's triumph in
Watergate had transformed the press corps into a battalion of
daring, independent investigators-the "myth" of post-Watergate
journalism, as Michael Schudson has called it.
Many journalists were indeed willing to
question the open operations of the government, seeking out stories
on corruption, incompetence, or personal immorality. These reporters
tried to emulate Woodward and Bernstein, or at least pop culture's
mythic image of Woodward and Bernstein. But only a very few reporters
dared to challenge the secret government. Those who did so won
no prizes for their efforts. Seymour Hersh's domestic spying stories
were underplayed by all but his own newspaper. A whispering campaign
in Washington questioned the veracity of his stories and prevented
him from winning a Pulitzer Prize. Daniel Schorr was also attacked
by his colleagues, first for his mistake on the spy-in-the-White-House
story, then for his role in the publication of the Pike report.
Even the New York Times, the most aggressive
news organization throughout the year of investigations, proved
receptive to government pleas for secrecy. The Times refused to
publicize President Ford's unintentional disclosure of assassination
plots. It joined many other papers in suppressing the Glomar Explorer
story and led the editorial attacks on the Pike committee and
on Schorr. The real question, as Tom Wicker wrote in 1978, is
not "whether the press has lacked aggressiveness in challenging
the national-security mystique, but why?'' Why, indeed, did most
journalists decide to defer to the administration instead of pursuing
In part, this deference was a defensive
reaction. Intellectuals and columnists like Max Kampelman, Irving
Kristol, and Joseph Kraft would continue to condemn the "imperial
media" for years to come. Many journalists were intimidated
by these attacks.
In [the] first post-Watergate years, journalists' greatest fear
was that the government would restrict press freedom. One Columbia
University journalism professor wrote in 1978: "The equivalent
of an Official Secrets Act is being forged in this country today,
link by link. The inevitable result is a weakening of the First
Amendment." John B. Oakes, editorial page editor of the New
York Times, worried at the end of the investigations that freedom
of the press "today is under more serious attack than at
any time since the Sedition Act nearly two centuries ago."
Oakes concluded-as did many of his colleagues throughout the year
of intelligence-that the press needed to exercise more "responsible
self-restraint" and reassure the public that it would not
"defy the national interest." Daniel Schorr provided
a case study in what could happen to the "irresponsible"
For many journalists, even more important
than their fear of public anger or government repression was their
concern that their critics might, in fact, be right. Maybe they
had gone too far. Most journalists, despite their talk of serving
as the "Fourth Estate," were not happy being adversaries.
They wanted to appear responsible. Tom Wicker maintained that
the greatest threat to press freedom did not come from the government:
"At least as great a threat, I believe, comes from the press
itself-in its longing for a respectable place in the established
political and economic order, in its fear of the reaction that
boldness and independence will always evoke." Those who criticized
Cold War institutions risked losing their status among their elite
friends and sources.
The media wanted to appear particularly
responsible in their coverage of foreign policy. The FBI of J.
Edgar Hoover, guilty of domestic abuses, received unsparing criticism
from the press. But the CIA's assassination plots, the raising
of the Russian submarine, and the Pike report prompted a more
ambiguous response. These stories involved foreign policy-the
bipartisan Cold War foreign policy that the media had endorsed
Other scholars have demonstrated that
the supposedly adversarial press of the late 1960s and early 1970s
was actually rather timid. Daniel Hallin has shown that reporters
were not nearly as aggressive in covering Vietnam as conventional
wisdom might suggest. Similarly, Ben Bagdikian has demonstrated
that in 1972-the year of the Watergate break-in-the press was
so intimidated by the Nixon administration's attacks that it tried
to avoid angering or embarrassing the president.
The media also lacked investigative zeal
after Watergate-indeed, throughout the most celebrated case of
post-Watergate investigative reporting. The press during the year
of intelligence was nervous about its newfound power, fearful
of a public and governmental backlash, and receptive to government
requests for self-censorship. Vietnam and Watergate may have transformed
the way the press covered domestic political scandals, but most
journalists still shied away from questioning the national security
... the investigations never truly aroused the public the way
Church a hoped. This apathetic response might have been a product
of what sociologists call the "issue-attention cycle."
According to Anthony Downs, American public attention does not
remain focused on any one issue for long, "even if it involves
a continuing problem of crucial importance to society." Typically,
Downs says, a new problem will vault into the center of public
attention, stay there a short time, then quickly fade from public
view as people realize how difficult, threatening, or costly the
solutions would be-or simply after they get bored with hearing
about the problem. During the investigations, congressmen frequently
commented that their constituents did not seem interested in intelligence
abuses after the initial flurry of revelations. "This is
not the Watergate investigation," one member of Congress
told the New York Times as early as May 1975. "Nobody ever
talks to me about it on home trips, and I hear very little about
Some commentators argued that Americans
could not sustain their outrage because they had become jaded
by scandal. The public had already learned about the My Lai massacre,
the secret bombing of Cambodia, the secret war in Laos, and the
Watergate scandals. As a result, Americans had experienced "a
kind of deadening of moral nerve-ends, a near-inability to be
surprised, let alone disturbed," by new revelations, the
Washington Post editorialized. The "years of revelation and
shock," as columnist Meg Greenfield put it, had produced
an "anesthetizing effect" on many Americans.
Americans also may have doubted that they
or their representatives had the power to change the secret agencies.
A December 1975 poll showed that only 30 percent believed that
the investigations would produce real reforms, while 41 percent
were more skeptical. Moreover, with public confidence in all governmental
institutions at a historic low, most Americans did not trust the
Congress to devise solutions.
Finally, many Americans resisted believing
the news that their government had committed crimes. During the
years of the liberal consensus, there had been no dialogue in
American political culture about CIA or FBI activities. Most Americans'
knowledge of these agencies came from popular culture, which portrayed
U.S. agents as heroes. Once Vietnam and Watergate had shattered
the liberal consensus, suddenly the American people learned about
the murder plots, drug testing, and harassment of dissidents that
had been carried out in their name. They had been taught a "child's
history" of the world, as Richard Helms's biographer Thomas
Powers has explained, and they did not want to learn about the
real history written by Helms and his colleagues. "To discover
oneself the victim of so many illusions, all at once, is disorienting,"
Powers has noted.
It is painful for any nation to learn
about its government's dirty tricks, but it is perhaps most painful
for Americans, who hold their government to a high moral standard.
As Michael Schudson has commented, "That is not to say that
other peoples expect their governments to be immoral but there
may be an unusual American spirit that the government is expressive
of and representative of its people and that we cannot think well
of ourselves if we cannot think well of our leaders." America
is, after all, supposed to be the "city on a hill,"
admired and emulated by the rest of the world. Subverting foreign
governments and plotting to assassinate foreign leaders does not
fit well with this image.
Nor does secrecy in general. American
government is based on the diffusion of power and on democratic
accountability. A secret agency undercuts these checks and balances.
For this reason, the establishment of the CIA would seem to contradict
American ideals. Yet after World War II, most Americans came to
believe that they needed a CIA to match the Soviets' worldwide
The country has never resolved this contradiction
between its ideals and its acceptance of Cold War secrecy and
subversion. Most policymakers decided to maintain American illusions
by keeping the public ignorant of secret operations. They concluded-perhaps
correctly-that many Americans wanted to be kept in ignorance.
Russell Baker commented ironically on this ignorance in a column
on U.S. intervention in Chile. He noted that some in Congress
wanted to punish Michael Harrington for telling others about this
secret action. "If we are becoming the enemy we set out to
thwart," Baker wrote, "the least Congress can do is
punish anybody who threatens to let us know about it."
Richard Helms contends that this attitude
reveals that "we're basically a rather hypocritical nation;
we like things to be done, but we don't want to have the blood
on our own hands.'' Some American opponents of covert action agree
with him. The Dayton Daily News editorial board was annoyed that
Americans would "pretend" to be shocked by the Church
committee assassination report. "We have never before known
the details-and they are sordid and ludicrous in the extreme-but
we have known that American policy has at times meant interfering
in the internal affairs of other countries and trying to bring
down their governments," the paper scolded. A Washington
Post reader urged Americans to admit that they supported "covert
subversive activities" in other countries or take responsibility
for attempting to limit them. Most Americans refused to make that
choice, however. They preferred to leave the CIA's undemocratic
actions in the "attic of the implicit," as columnist
Rod MacLeish said, rather than bringing them down to the more
painful level of explicit endorsement.
The intelligence investigations forced
Americans to face difficult questions concerning the competence
of their intelligence agencies, the moral basis of American foreign
policy, the health of the constitutional system of checks and
balances, and the tensions between secrecy and democracy.
The inquiries asked them to doubt the
morality of J. Edgar Hoover and John F. Kennedy-men they had regarded
as true American heroes-and to question whether their nation truly
adhered to its professed ideals.
One year earlier, Americans had faced
equally difficult questions during the Watergate scandal. But
not even Watergate had shaken most Americans' support for "the
system," political scientists have shown. Having survived
that shock, most Americans were reluctant to challenge the system's
legitimacy now. As one American wrote to the president in 1975,
"Let's not turn the CIA probe into another Watergate. Just
try to take steps to prevent the recurrence of alleged illegal
activities." It was much easier to assume that the investigations
had taken care of past problems-and that the system had worked-than
to challenge American illusions.
Given the power of these illusions, perhaps
it is more surprising that the investigations occurred at all
than that they failed to achieve their goals. For twenty-five
years, Congress and the press had allowed the executive branch
to conduct secret operations with little accountability. Then,
for a moment, a determined group of investigators in the press
and Congress decided to challenge that secret government. Before
their challenge faded, they uncovered information vital to all
Americans struggling to understand the events of the Cold War.
For a brief moment, they forced the nation to debate the perils
of secrecy in a democracy.
... the press as a whole after 1975 continued to retreat from
the aggressive journalism associated with Watergate-a retreat
first shown in the intelligence investigations. In 1982, for example,
the retiring president of the Society of American Newspaper Editors
told his colleagues: "We should make peace with the government.
We should not be its enemy.... We should cure ourselves of the
adversarial mindset. The adversarial culture is a disease attacking
the nation's vital organs."9 One journalism historian has
even called the late 1970s and 1980s a "new age of deference"
for the press. Reporters covering domestic issues were not always
deferential, of course, but most journalists continued to avoid
questioning foreign policy and the national security state.
Congress began a new era of oversight
in 1976. The "newness" of this era, however, became
the subject of much controversy ... In 1986, the two successors
to the Church and Pike committees discovered that the Reagan administration
had evaded and ignored the intelligence reforms enacted since
the 1970S and had lied to the overseers. In 1987, former Church
committee member John Tower, who headed the presidential commission
that investigated the scandal, pronounced the Iran-contra affair
to be an "aberration." In 1988, the joint congressional
investigating committee concluded that the existing oversight
laws were adequate and that the system had worked. This view was
widely shared by opinion leaders. In the 1990S, there seems little
prospect that lawmakers or journalists will again question the
fundamental soundness of the existing oversight system.
the Secret Government