The Deeper Malady:
From Terrorism to Covert Action
excerpted from the book
The Iran Contra Connection
Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan
by Johnathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and
South End Press, 1987, paper
The Price of Covert Operations
Congress as a whole has never admitted what both champions
and critics of the CIA have long maintained: covert actions cannot
be both truly accountable and effective at the same time. When
closely regulated, scrutinized, debated and second-guessed, covert
actions remain secret only a short time. This logic has persuaded
every administration since Harry Truman's to choose secrecy over
accountability, in the name of national security. And it has persuaded
every Congress since then to bow to presidential authority in
the final showdown. Irangate was merely the latest product of
The temptations of power and secrecy overcame law and constitutional
authority from the CIA's founding by the National Security Act
of 1947. The agency's first general counsel, Lawrence Houston,
was quickly called upon to interpret the meaning of the act's
phrase assigning the CIA "such other duties and functions
related to intelligence affecting the national security as the
National Security Council may from time to time direct."
Houston concluded that "taken out of context and without
knowledge of [the act's] history, these Sections could bear almost
unlimited interpretation. In our opinion, however, either [propaganda
or commando type] activity would be an unwarranted extension of
the functions authorized by" the act. "We do not believe
that there was any thought in the minds of Congress that the Central
Intelligence Agency under this authority would take positive action
for subversion and sabotage." Any such missions would necessitate
going to Congress "for authority and funds."
A mere three months later, the NSC directed the CIA to initiate
psychological warfare operations against the USSR. Six months
after that, the NSC added paramilitary, economic warfare and political
action operations to the list. Covert action was officially born.
Future administrations would justify such authority on the basis
of the president's inherent powers in foreign affairs and the
willingness of Congress to appropriate money for the CIA. In effect,
covert operations gave successive presidents the power to legislate
as well as execute foreign policy with secret resources. Not until
the 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act did Congress supply clear
authority for covert operations.
On the other hand, Congress never showed the courage to rein
in what had become a routine usurpation of authority. The closest
it ever came to making fundamental reforms was in the mid-1970s,
when House and Senate investigations of intelligence abuses uncovered
evidence of assassination plots, illegal mail opening, illicit
drug testing, massive domestic spying and sabotage of domestic
political movements. The Senate committee, named after its chairman
Frank Church of Idaho, also looked at several covert operations,
including the destabilization of Chilean President Salvador Allende,
that had blackened America's image throughout the world.
The Church Committee warned that covert operations had developed
a dangerous "bureaucratic momentum." Numbering some
900 between 1960 and 1975, such operations were becoming "increasingly
costly to America's interest and reputation," the committee
concluded. But instead of proposing truly meaningful reforms-other
than the creation of permanent oversight committees-the panel
merely implored that covert operations be reserved for "grave
threats to American security" and be "consistent with
publicly defined U.S. foreign policy goals." New York Times
columnist Anthony Lewis called its recommendations "a gamble
that the American system of checks and balances can work even
in the powerful secret world of intelligence."
America is losing that gamble. It is losing because the public's
sense of concern did not survive the immediate scandals uncovered
by the investigations. Covert operations only dimly affect the
average citizen- until they trigger a foreign or domestic crisis.
General indifference finally greeted Church's report on intelligence
abuses. "It all lasted too long and the media, the Congress
and the people lost interest," observed Rep. Otis Pike (D-NY),
who headed the House investigation. His committee's report was
never officially published and its conclusions were ignored.
The ascendancy of a Democratic administration changed little.
President Carter still withheld from Congress advance notice of
covert operations, despite the promise of his 1978 Executive Order
12036 Attorney General Griffin Bell held that guarantees of "prior"
notice really meant "timely" notice. Carter sought further
reductions in congressional reporting requirements and a "revitalization"
of the CIA in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and
political turmoil in Iran. And he asked for sweeping exemptions
from the Freedom of Information Act for the CIA, FBI, National
Security Agency "and other intelligence agency components."
And when legislators tried to write a new CIA charter to limit
presidential powers and check abuses, Carter's people fought every
inch of the way. Exhausted liberals caved in. To complaints from
the American Civil Liberties Union that the proposed charter was
too permissive Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del) said, "Let me
tell you something, fellas. The folks don't care. The average
American could care less right now about any of this...You keep
talking about public concern. There ain't none.'
In the end, in any event, the 1980 Intelligence Oversight
Act required advance reporting of covert operations except under
unusual circumstances (the loophole that permitted President Reagan
to conduct the Iran arms deal without notifying Congress), but
cut the number of oversight committees from eight to two to satisfy
complaints from the intelligence community that leaks from Capitol
Hill undercut the CIA's effectiveness and access to foreign intelligence
sources. That year, Congress made it illegal to reveal the names
Yet the "reforms" accomplished little because they
did not touch the underlying incentives for political abuses inherent
in covert operations. "When Congress collapsed from eight
to two committees, many of us believed there would be a new day
of openness and trust," complained Rep. Charlie Rose (D-NC),
former head of House intelligence committee. "That day never
came. It was foot-dragging and obfuscation as usual.''
The Reagan administration took such foot-dragging to new extremes.
It understood "oversight" to mean Congress should overlook
rather than review CIA practices. Its spirit was summed up in
the declaration of the 1980 transition team report on intelligence:
"Decisive action at the CIA is the keystone in achieving
a reversal of the unwise policies of the past decade.'' Congressional
meddling could not be permitted to stand in the way of that reversal.
Perhaps the most blatant example of this contempt of Congress
was the CIA's failure to notify the proper committees of the mining
of harbors in Nicaragua, a violation of international law protested
not only by the Managua regime, but by most of its Western European
trading partners. (Such violations of the rights of foreigners
figure nowhere in any official investigation to date of the Iran-contra
connection.) The Nicaraguan government itself announced the mining
on January 3,1984, but the CIA first mentioned it in passing to
the House intelligence committee on January 31. The Senate committee
first heard of it in March. The CIA released major details only
on March 27, to the House committee. CIA Director William Casey
made it clear that what Congress didn't ask for explicitly, he
would not tell them. The Republican Senator David Durenberger
admitted, "We have to share, as a committee, some responsibility
for the situation.''
Only two months later, the CIA reportedly failed to inform
the House committee of its covert intervention in El Salvador's
election on behalf of Jose Napoleon Duarte, the Christian Democratic
candidate for president. New York Times reporter Martin Tolchin
noted at the time that "members of Congress rotate on and
off the intelligence committees, so that the intelligence community
knows that it can out-wait its severest critic."
Surely the most significant breakdown of oversight, however,
came in the fall of 1985. Reporters from Associated Press and
major newspapers had broken the story that an obscure NSC official,
Oliver North, was advising and raising funds for the contras in
apparent violation of the Boland amendment. Rep. Lee Hamilton
(D-IN), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, vowed to
hold hearings to get to the bottom of the matter. Rep. Michael
Barnes (D-MD) demanded that the White House produce records of
North's activities for his Western Hemisphere subcommittee. Barnes
came away empty handed. Hamilton was unable even to convene a
hearing; all he could get was an informal briefing by Robert McFarlane
and the national security adviser's "assurance" that
North and others in the NSC were respecting the law. Ultimately,
Hamilton and Barnes were stymied because Congress was politically
divided; those members favoring aid to the contras didn't want
to know the truth. The impasse led a despondent Rep. George Brown
Jr. (D-CA) to declare that the oversight law "is not working."
What little information the committees did pry out of the
CIA convinced some members that covert action was out of control.
"The planning is being handled sloppily," Vermont Sen.
Patrick Leahy said with uncanny prescience. "Sooner or later
they're going to get caught with their pants down and we'll all
read about it in the newspapers."
As serious as the inadequacy of oversight has been the legitimacy
lent to covert operations by the appearance of oversight. Congress
appears to grant its stamp of approval to operations it does not
halt. Knowledgeable critics on the oversight committees suffer
a special handicap: they cannot speak freely about what they know.
"We become the buffer for the CIA to do whatever they want,"
observed Rep. Norman Mineta (D-CA). "They tell us, but we
can't tell anybody, and they hide behind our skirts."
Even when it has the facts, Congress rarely blocks covert
projects. Most members are content to let the president take the
heat if something goes wrong and unwilling to face responsibility
for making foreign policy.
A Blank Check for "Counterterrorism"
But that predisposition has been heavily conditioned by historical
circumstances. In particular, successive presidents have manipulated
popular fears to argue convincingly for centralizing power and
Congress from the making of national security policy. Over
time the specific "threats" have changed, but the reliance
of presidents on the public's unquestioning reaction to them has
Since World War II, the most important ideological prop to
presidential power has been anticommunism. More often than not,
the charge was false and the intervention counter-productive,
not to mention an exercise in imperial power. Having defined the
Soviet Union as the preeminent threat to American security, Washington
argued by extension that Soviet manipulation lay behind everything
from turmoil in the developing world to political challenges from
the left in Western Europe. Thus nearly any form of foreign intervention
could be justified in the name of anticommunism. The CIA's overthrow
of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 installed the Shah
on the throne and sowed the seeds of the radical Khomeini revolution.
Its 1954 coup against the Arbenz regime in Guatemala spawned an
ongoing guerrilla war there and hardened the Marxist, revolutionary
left elsewhere in Central America with results that haunt the
Reagan administration today. Although Washington claimed otherwise,
those CIA targets-and many others-were nationalists, not Soviet
With the advent of "detente" and the visit of arch-anticommunist
Richard Nixon to the People's Republic of China, anticommunism
lost much of its emotive appeal and thus its effectiveness in
mobilizing Congress behind unquestioned acceptance of covert operations.
The Nixon administration discovered a new and seemingly uglier
menace to take its place: drugs. Nixon's "war on drugs"
opened loopholes in congressional restrictions on foreign police
training, provided cover for counterinsurgency campaigns from
Burma to Mexico and even justified plots to assassinate foreign
political leaders. All were programs picked up from the CIA in
the guise of narcotics enforcement.
Ronald Reagan's contribution was to fully develop the potential
of the ultimate bogeyman: terrorism. His predecessors, Presidents
Ford and Carter, had identified drugs and terrorism as two foreign
intelligence targets of such unquestioned importance and sensitivity
as to justify barring congressional supervision. But the Reagan
White House mastered the exploitation of public fears aroused
by highly publicized terrorist acts as
means of restoring covert operations to their central role
in presidential foreign policy. (The seizure of the American embassy
in Tehran had dramatized the issue like no other event.) By defining
terrorism sweepingly to include even guerrilla wars and insurgencies
against uniformed armies- but never anything the U.S. or its allies
do-the administration expanded the rationale for anti-terrorist
interventions. By inventing a new category of "narco-terrorism"
with which to brand certain rebel groups, the administration conjured
up even more nightmarish images. And by defining diverse terrorist
outrages as "Soviet sponsored," the administration dealt
the final blow to detente.
The terrorist threat provides the perfect rationale for secrecy
and covert operations. Responding to terrorist attacks requires
speedy intervention and absolute secrecy, not lengthy debate with
Congress. And if anyone doubts the means, the end of stamping
out terrorism justifies them as well as anything could.
The intellectual genesis of Reagan's anti-terror revolution
goes back to 1970s, when cold-war conservatives were looking for
new mobilizing issues to replace detente and human rights. The
concept of Soviet-sponsored international terrorism as new mode
of warfare against the West was kicked off at the Jerusalem Conference
on International Terrorism in July 1979. Led by a group of top
Israeli intelligence officers and political leaders, the conference
was also studded with those Americans most actively seeking a
renewal of the clandestine approach to American foreign policy.
The participants included former CIA director George Bush and
former CIA deputy director Ray Cline; the hawkish former Air Force
intelligence chief Major General George Keegan, who resigned from
the Air Force in 1977 to protest the Carter administration's estimate
of the Soviet threat; Harvard's Soviet scholar Richard Pipes,
whom Bush had recruited to bring the CIA's strategic estimates
of Soviet power more in line with worst-case military thinking;
some prominent neoconservatives including Commentary magazine
editor Norman Podhoretz; the newspaper columnist and Reagan's
1980 debating coach George Will; and reporter Claire Sterling,
who two years later would publish this faction's bible, The Terror
At the conference, Ray Cline developed the theme that terror
was not a random response of frustrated minorities, but rather
"a preferred instrument" of East bloc policy adopted
after 1969 "when the KGB persuaded the Politburo of the Communist
Party of the Soviet Union to accept the PLO as a major political
instrument in the Mideast and to subsidize its terrorist policies
by freely giving money, training, arms and co-ordinated communications."
Terrorism, he maintained, had "hardened into a system-an
international trouble-making system." The British propagandist
Robert Moss extended the theory to Iran, where he charged that
a Soviet-controlled PLO unit was functioning "as the nucleus
of a secret police, a revolutionary SAVAK." And conference
participants singled out the Sandinistas for their alleged international
This formulation was as significant for what it ignored as
for what it put in. Left out of the equation was any mention of
terrorist acts by CIA-trained Cuban exiles, Israeli ties to Red
Brigades or the function of death squads from Argentina to Guatemala.
Soviet sponsorship, real or imagined, had become the defining
characteristic of terrorism, not simply an explanation for its
prevalence. Moreover, there was no inclination whatsoever to include
under the rubric of terror bombings of civilians, for example,
or any other acts carried out by government forces rather than
small individual units.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative, Washington-based
think tank that rode Ronald Reagan's coat-tails to influence,
saw these themes as a potent vehicle for reversing political reforms
of the Watergate/Church committee era. Its master political blueprint,
prepared before Reagan's inauguration to guide his transition
team, urged "presidential emphasis on the nature of the threat,
repeated speeches on the escalation of Soviet bloc intelligence
activities, the nature of the terrorist threat and its international
dimensions and the reality of subversion." Such tactics,
the report hoped, would allow the CIA to regain authority to conduct
"surreptitious entries," mail opening and other powers
lost in the 1970s.
The Reagan team took the report to heart. The lead item on
the agenda of the its first NSC meeting on January 26,1981 was
terrorism. The next day, President Reagan declared, "Let
terrorists be aware that when the rules of international behavior
are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution."
At his first news conference as secretary of state, on January
28, Alexander Haig gave terrorism an address. He charged that
the Kremlin was seeking to "foster, support and expand"
terror around world and was "training, funding and equipping"
terrorist armies. And he vowed that "international terrorism
will take the place of human rights" as the new administration's
Jerusalem Conference alumna Claire Sterling was on hand to
supply "massive proof that the Soviet Union and its surrogates,
over the last decade, have provided the weapons, training and
sanctuary for a worldwide terror network aimed at the destabilization
of Western democratic society." Her book The Terror Network,
excerpted that March in the New York Times Magazine and New Republic,
branded the 1970s "Fright Decade I" and warned that
Fright Decade II was at hand.
Sterling's book, with all its evidentiary and methodological
weaknesses, was all that administration polemicists could cite
to justify their claims. A CIA report drafted after Haig's outburst
directly rebutted his claim that most terrorism found sponsorship
from the Soviet Union. CIA Director William Casey sent the report
back for further review. Casey also asked the more conservative
Defense Intelligence Agency for a report, but found it inadequate
as well. So a third report was prepared-but it, too, concluded
that Soviets were not directly equipping or training terrorists,
nor did they have a master plan for terrorism. What little evidence
there was against the Soviets came from unverifiable claims of
a Czech defector, Gen. Jan Sejna, whose credibility the CIA came
"There's just no real evidence for it," one administration
official said of the Haig thesis. Another high administration
source lamented that such charges put "the American intelligence
community in a terrible political bind. The CIA has been requested
to look harder. When they come back and say it isn't true, that
they don't see the hand of Russia everywhere, they're told, 'Goddamn
it, you are either stupid or you aren't trying."'
FBI chief William Webster threw a little cold water of his
own on official claims pointing out that the number of bombings
had declined steadily in the United States, from 100 in 1977 to
20 in 1980. He added, "l can say that there is no real evidence
of Soviet-sponsored terrorism within the United States."
The administration was on the defensive. Since the evidence
wasn't good enough, officials fell back on altering the data.
Statistics on terrorist incidents were changed to include not
only acts but also "threats," thus at one swoop doubling
the apparent numbers.
A more effective and subtle counter came from the private
sector. Claire Sterling impugned the CIA as "the least informed
and most timid of any intelligence service on this issue."
Michael Ledeen, Sterling's longtime journalistic collaborator,
who would later become the key emissary in the Iran arms plot,
also accused the agency of incompetence. "They are scared
in the [State Department and CIA] bureaucracy," Ledeen maintained,
"because if Haig is right about the Russians, then they have
failed in their jobs." In terms almost identical to Haig's,
Ledeen called the Soviet Union "the fomenter, supporter and
creator of terrorism" worldwide. In the late spring of 1981,
Haig appointed him an adviser on international terrorism.
The Wall Street Journal editorial writers weighed in as well.
They claimed-without having seen the analysis-that the CIA document's
"underlying reasoning would not survive the light of public
day." The editorial dismissed appeals to the evidence: "no
one should be allowed to argue successfully that because there's
evidence of the Soviet influence in some places but not in others,
the whole Soviet-connection theory must be thrown out." And
most important, the editorial insisted on the broadest possible
definition of terrorism to justify a counter-revolutionary policy
abroad: "no one should be allowed to say without challenge
that Soviet support for national liberation movements is by definition
different from Soviet support for terrorism."
The themes formulated by Sterling, Ledeen and the ]Journal
served conservatives as a hammer with which to hit not only detente,
but also the Carter-era CIA. Cold-war interventionists portrayed
the CIA as crippled by excessive oversight, misplaced human rights
concerns, a deplorable timidity toward covert action and the purge
of experts in paramilitary war. The terrorism issue thus ignited
demands for a sweeping bureaucratic upheaval in the intelligence
That February, for example, Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) applauded
Haig's speech and called for "a permanent, highly professional
organization to plan and train on a continual basis" against
terrorism. He stressed:
One of the most important ingredients must be a strong, revitalized
intelligence community...No antiterrorist capability can be adequate
without excellent intelligence, including covert capabilities
which have largely been demolished...We must... repeal some laws
and executive orders which go far beyond constitutional requirements
or court decisions and which have resulted from a massive overreaction
to the Watergate/Vietnam era.
Neo-conservative and intelligence-connected circles quickly
mobilized public support for giving the administration and CIA
a freer hand abroad. Writer Midge Dector (the wife of Norman Podhoretz)
founded the Committee for the Free World in February 1981 to call
attention to the terrorist threat and revive America's interventionist
impulse. According to the New York Times, Dector
said the idea for the committee emerged almost two years ago
after she and others attended a meeting in Jerusalem on international
terrorism. She said she came away convinced of the need for action
against those who kidnap and throw bombs, many of whom are trained
in the Soviet Union and Cuba, but also concerned about a spreading
practice of indulging in self-criticism to the point of condoning
terrorism as being justified.
The members included Michael Ledeen; former CIA deputy director
of plans Ray Cline; Leo Cherne, chairman of the President's Foreign
Intelligence Advisory Board; and Paul Henze, former CIA station
chief in Turkey, who would take the lead with Sterling in publicizing
alleged Soviet-bloc complicity in the attempted assassination
of Pope John Paul II.
Lest domestic dissent at home hamstring administration plans
for a tougher foreign policy, the terrorism issue served to break
down barriers to surveillance and intimidation of domestic critics.
The new Republican Senate formed a special subcommittee on security
and terrorism in February. Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC), chairman
of the parent Judiciary Committee, predicted it would be "one
of the most important subcommittees of the entire Congress."
The subcommittee's chief counsel, Joel Lisker, pledged that "we
will do everything we can to modify and eliminate" restrictions
on infiltration and surveillance of domestic groups. Members said
they would strongly urge the administration to remove other restraints
on the intelligence agencies. Witnesses at their first hearing
included Claire Sterling and Michael Ledeen, who reiterated their
warnings of the Soviet threat.
In March, the Reagan administration moved on the same front.
It came up with a draft executive order that would allow sweeping
additions to the CIA's authority, particularly in area of domestic
operations previously ruled off-limits. Several months later,
the administration also proposed amending the Freedom of Information
Act to exempt files relating to organized crime, foreign counterintelligence
and terrorism. "It isn't an accident that they picked terrorism
and foreign counterintelligence," observed Jack Landau, director
of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "That's
the mandate that the FBI used to violate peoples' civil liberties."
The proposals naturally met opposition from civil libertarians
and some members of Congress. Liberals who had not abandoned the
Carterera commitment to human rights deplored Reagan's apparent
double standard on terrorism. In March, for example, the administration
announced its intention to lift the ban on arms sales to Argentina,
imposed three years earlier by Carter because of the mass killing
of civilians committed by the military. And the CIA was reported
to be "considering the renewal of cooperation with anti-Castro
Cuban exiles as part of a general expansion of its covert operations."
But Congress as a whole was in no mood to quibble over such
inconsistencies. After the humiliation of the Tehran embassy crisis
and the Reagan election sweep, it granted Reagan almost everything
he wanted in the way of intelligence resources. The first three
years of the Reagan presidency saw a 50 percent increase in CIA
appropriations and a five-fold increase in the number of authorized
covert operations. And after all the layoffs of the Nixon-through-Carter
years, the CIA workforce grew by over a third. The White House
now had the tools and the incentive to go undercover with the
implementation of its foreign policy agenda.
This initial vote of confidence in the CIA was not enough.
The administration redoubled its domestic propaganda campaign
to persuade the nation of the virulent menace of foreign terrorism.
If no one could find convincing evidence of Soviet-sponsored terror,
they could of Libyan support for violent European and Middle Eastern
groups. And the administration could magnify the evidence until
Americans felt positively threatened by what was in fact a weak
and ineffectual power-and one that, far from being a surrogate
of the USSR, did not even let the Soviets base ships at its ports.
The campaign against Libya started at the New Republic, whose
line on terrorism and foreign policy in general was shaped increasingly
by editor Martin Peretz's strong political commitment to Israel.
The once-liberal magazine had begun publishing regular articles
by Michael Ledeen and former Newsweek correspondent Arnaud de
Borchgrave, a Jerusalem conference participant and a vociferous
exponent of the theory that Soviet disinformation had duped the
American media. (De Borchgrave would later become editor of the
Washington Times, owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.) Now, in March,
the New Republic excerpted a chapter from Claire Sterling's new
book on terrorism. Entitled "Qaddafi Spells Chaos,"
the kicker read "A murder, a maniac-and Moscow's man."
On July 26, 1981 Newsweek reported that the administration
was gearing up a major effort to topple Gadhafi, involving a "disinformation"
campaign to erode the colonel's domestic support, formation of
a "counter government" of Libyan exiles and a program
of paramilitary and sabotage operations inside Libya to stir up
discontent and expose Gadhafi's vulnerability.
The next month, provocative U.S. naval exercises off Libya's
coast provoked a rash-and desired-response from Gadhafi. U.S.
jets downed two Libyan fighters in a dogfight over Gulf of Sidra.
In September, columnist Jack Anderson confirmed that CIA director
Casey had concocted a disinformation campaign to mislead the American
press about Libya by planting false stories abroad. The stories
accused Gadhafi of supporting the slave trade in Mauritania, mismanaging
his country's petrodollar accounts and stirring up terrorism.
On October 19, Newsweek passed along a provocative leak that
the administration was talking with Egypt about a possible invasion
of Libya. After the August confrontation over the Gulf of Sidra,
according to this account, Gadhafi hatched a scheme to kill the
American ambassador in Rome, Maxwell Rabb. The plot "was
aborted when Italian police deported ten suspected Libyan hit
men," Newsweek reported. "Washington officials now believe
Gadhafi has called off the assassination attempt, but they are
not entirely certain." It also mentioned in passing that
U.S. intelligence had "picked up evidence that Ghadafi had
hatched yet another assassination plot-this time against President
The plot continued to thicken-with numerous ominous leaks
but no evidence. On October 2 5 the New York Times revived the
Libyan plot to murder Rabb, reporting that he had been rushed
out of the country "without even a change of clothes."
(Other sources insisted he had simply left for Washington to lobby
for the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia.) Gadhafi hotly denied the
charge and noted correctly that to carry out such a plot would
November saw a positive flurry of reports linking Gadhafi
to terrorist plots. Newsweek cited reports of Libyan plans to
attack four U.S. embassies in Western Europe. Secretary of State
Haig blamed Gadhafi for hiring a killer to target Christian Chapman,
the U.S. charge d'affaires in Paris. Time magazine joined in with
a report that National Security Advisor Richard Allen had discussed
with French officials plans to assassinate Gadhafi. And in late
November claims surfaced that Gadhafi planned to kill the president
But the most significant theme in this strategy of tension
surfaced with Newsweek. Its voluble U.S. intelligence sources
tipped the magazine that "Gadhafi is plotting to assassinate
the president and other top American officials," including
Vice President Bush and Secretaries Haig and Weinberger. The average
reader could sympathize with administration officials who were
said to "openly admit that they would be delighted if someone
else killed Gadhafi."
The notorious Reagan assassination plot story hit the front
pages of the New York Times on December 4. "The government
has received detailed reports that five terrorists trained in
Libya entered the United States last weekend with plans to assassinate
President Reagan or other senior officials," the paper revealed.
A "huge nationwide search for the potential assassins"
was underway. Later reports added lurid flourishes:
no less than Carlos "the Jackal," the infamous Venezuelan
terrorist, was on his way to kill the president.
Fed a steady diet of Gadhafi rumors, the American public could
be excused for believing President Reagan's dismissal of the Libyan's
denials: "We have the evidence, and he knows it....l wouldn't
believe a word he says if I were you."
A few skeptics raised questions. It seemed doubtful that any
one informant (as reported) could supply so much detail on each
member of the hit team, that Libya would send so large a squad
and that the East bloc would have risked training the assassins.
Government sources told the Washington Post that reports of the
plot included "lots of speculation" based on "a
plausible scenario" resting on "a limited amount of
Haynes Johnson, a veteran Post correspondent, noted "lt's
almost as if public opinion were being prepared for dramatic action-say
a strike against Libya or Ghadhafi himself...lt is reminiscent
of the talk about Castro in the days when the United States was
planning the Bay of Pigs invasion, and in fact, commissioning
assassination schemes against Castro."
Then, as mysteriously as they had appeared, the hit teams
vanished. By late December, officials decided "the hit squads
have become inactive." Indeed, "the information about
the hit squads has been and still is mushy," sources told
the Washington Post. "The United States still does not know
for sure whether any members of the two hit squads ever left Libya."
Only in the context of the latest Iran arms scandal has the
public finally learned that the source of the fanciful "hit
squad" story was Manucher Ghorbanifar, a former Iranian SAVAK
agent with close ties to Israeli intelligence. According to the
Washington Post, the CIA believed he was a Iying schemer who "had
made up the hit-squad story in order to cause problems for one
of Israel's enemies."
These details confirm what the Los Angeles Times had learned
in 1981: "Israeli intelligence, not the Reagan administration,
was a major source of some of the most dramatic published reports
about a Libyan assassination team allegedly sent to kill President
Reagan and other top U.S. officials... Israel, which informed
sources said has 'wanted an excuse to go in and bash Libya for
a long time,' may be trying to build American public support for
a strike against Libyan strongman Moammar Ghadhafi, these sources
In short, the whole story was an intelligence provocation
from start to finish. So, it would now appear, was Israel's promotion
of Ghorbanifar as a reliable go-between for Washington with Iran
But if it served Israeli interests to discredit Gadhafi, it
also served the Reagan administration. The deadly threat from
Libya swept aside public objections to a sweeping expansion of
CIA powers. Never mind that the reality, as evidenced by the 1986
bombing attack on Tripoli, that in fact it was Reagan who planned
and attempted to assassinate Gadhafi, not the reverse.
Unleashing the CIA
On the very day the New York Times reported the existence
of the Libyan hit squad, President Reagan announced his signing
of Executive Order 12333, a controversial and long-awaited blueprint
for the intelligence community's resurgence.
When first drafted in March 1981 under the supervision of
an interagency task force led by CIA officials, the order provoked
instant controversy. "The proposed order would recast Mr.
Carter's  decree in terms that authorize, rather than restrict,
the collection of intelligence information and the use of such
techniques as searches, surveillance and infiltration," the
New York Times had noted that spring. "The existing order
says that intelligence agencies may collect, store and disseminate
information about a person who is 'reasonably believed' to be
acting on behalf of a foreign power or engaging in international
terrorist or narcotics activities. The draft order drops the requirement
for a 'reasonable' belief." Significantly, the Times added
that the revised order had grown out of a meeting held at the
outset of the administration "in which intelligence officials
discussed terrorism with President Reagan. The White House asked
various agencies to suggest changes in intelligence regulations
to improve antiterrorism capabilities and approved a suggestion
by the CIA for a study group to make specific recommendations."
As Congress reviewed successive drafts, Republican Sen. David
Durenberger warned the order would "give credence to many
of the public's fears and worst-case scenarios of government misuse
But the timing of Reagan's announcement of the final order
ensured a minimum of protest. Coming on the heels of so much talk
of Libyan plots, his stress on the dangers of terrorism sold the
plan. "The American people are well aware that the security
of their country-and in an age of terrorism, their personal safety
as well-is tied to the strength and efficiency of our intelligence
gathering organization," Reagan maintained. "An approach
that emphasizes suspicion and mistrust of our own intelligence
efforts can undermine this nation's ability to confront the increasing
challenge of espionage and terrorism...We need to free ourselves
from the negative attitudes of the past and look to meeting the
needs of the country."
Aside from opening the door to a renewal of domestic espionage-a
policy shift that may explain the rash of burglaries suffered
by organizations critical of administration policy on Central
America-the order also contained an obscure loophole through which
the NSC's covert operators would later slip. The order directed
that "No agency except the ClA...may conduct any special
activity unless the President determines that another agency is
more likely to achieve a particular objective."
Washington Becomes Militant
Ongoing political turmoil in the Middle East ensured that
terrorism would continue to occupy center stage in the administration's
foreign policy agenda.
The antiterrorist fervor reached a new plateau after the April
1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut-wiping out the entire
CIA station-and the devastating bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks
in October 1983. Although the latter suicide attack targeted uniformed
military personnel and not civilians, administration spokesmen
and the media denounced it as the most brutal act of terrorism
to date. In response, the Joint Chiefs that January formed the
Joint Special Operations Agency to coordinate special operations
against terrorists. And Congress would enthusiastically cooperate
in promoting the buildup of SOF counterinsurgency forces in the
name of fighting terrorism.
On April 3, 1984, President Reagan signed National Security
Decision Directive 138, which guided 26 government agencies in
drafting counter-terrorist measures. Deputy Assistant Secretary
of Defense Noel Koch said it "represents a quantum leap in
countering terrorism, from the reactive mode to recognition that
pro-active steps are needed." Although it did not authorize
U.S. "hit squads," as reportedly recommended by senior
Pentagon officials and the NSC's Oliver North, the directive was
said to permit "the use of force in other forms, such as
by FBI and CIA paramilitary teams and Pentagon military squads."
Administration sources called the aggressive plan an "effort
to give the cloak and dagger back to the Central Intelligence
Agency. The campaign will include pre-emptive strikes and direct
reprisals" based on Israeli models. Officials admitted that
the distinction between retaliation and assassination was mainly
Jeff McConnell observed:
This new policy on counterterrorism could not have come at
a better time for the Reagan administration. Its effort to end
the so-called 'Vietnam Syndrome' had blown up in Lebanon. Support
in congress for war in Nicaragua was at an all-time Iow...Though
the 1984 directive had been drafted with more limited purposes
in mind, administration planners now saw in it a way to resuscitate
its foreign adventures. Yet the policy lacked a rationale large
enough to sustain so much. It was one thing to make a case for
commando assaults against hijacked airliners, quite another to
sell military action all over the world as counterterrorism. What
was needed was an ideological framework for the new policy that
would spell out terrorism's threat in a way clear enough to enlist
popular sympathy and, at the same time, comprehensive enough to
justify action against all the Third World nations that Washington
That framework was found in the concept of "state-sponsored
terrorism," and more particularly, the presumption of Soviet
sponsorship of terrorist cadre that Haig and other administration
officials had pushed from the opening days of the administration.
Secretary of State George Shultz recalled those old themes along
with the new counter-terrorism stance in late June at a Washington
conference sponsored by the Jonathan Institute. He blamed the
Soviets for providing "financial, logistic and training support
for terrorists worldwide." They "use terrorist groups
for their own purposes, and their goal is always the same: to
weaken liberal democracy and undermine world stability,"
he charged. The threat called for tougher countermeasures. "It
is time to think long, hard and seriously about more active means
of defense-about defense through appropriate preventive or pre-emptive
actions against terrorist groups before they strike." Shultz
added, "We will need to strengthen our capabilities in the
area of intelligence and quick reaction." Those two areas
encompassed the CIA and Pentagon special operations forces.
CIA Director Casey told an interviewer in the same month that
"I think you will see more...retaliation against facilities
connected with the country sponsoring the terrorists or retaliation
that just hurts the interests of countries which sponsor terrorism"-an
open-ended formula for aggression against any country that the
administration labeled a sponsor of terrorism, with or without
Looking to the Future
The continued use of terrorism as an ideological rationale
for expanded covert operations, foreign intervention and government
secrecy still goes largely unchallenged in the wake of the Iran
and contra scandals. Frank Carlucci, the former CIA deputy director
brought to replace Admiral Poindexter as national security advisor
and clean house on the NSC, has chosen to place responsibility
under an expanded intelligence unit, as yet unnamed. 'Terrorism
and intelligence are very closely related,' says Carlucci. 'The
best way to stop a terrorist act is to know it's going to happen.'
The head of the new section...will be Barry Kelly, who...had previously
served in the CIA's clandestine service during Carlucci's tour
as deputy director.
The new intelligence unit, according to James Bamford, will
handle not only counterterrorism and all covert actions, but narcotics
control as well- significantly the one other area where Congress
has abdicated its oversight responsibilities. New officials have
replaced old and discredited ones, but the potential for abuses
may be greater than ever.
Accompanying this centralization of secret authority for covert
operations is a massive expansion of the president's ability to
intervene abroad. A new Special Operations command at the Pentagon
will coordinate covert terrorism and insurgency, grouping together
some 30,000 men from the Army Special Operations Command, the
Rangers, SEALS, Delta Force and others. The command reportedly
will be "very tightly controlled by the White House,"
so that it can carry out operations "closely tied to the
Finally, following the Tower Commission's recommendation,
congressional conservatives are pushing for a merger of the House
and Senate intelligence committees to further limit oversight
of covert operations. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) seeks a "lean,
mean, small, very active committee with as few malcontents as
possible " It would be ironic, but far from unprecedented,
if a "reform" commission ended up grossly aggravating
the problem by so fundamentally mis-identifying the cause.
Covert action embodies in its purest form the philosophy that
ends (anticommunism, counterterrorism, democracy, economic gain)
justify the means (political manipulation, disinformation, even
support for death squads). Where such tools exist, abuses will
follow whether the ends are good or not. The fact that the ends
are so often verbal rationales themselves only makes the situation
that much worse. Power corrupts, and secrecy is an essential element
of unchecked power. Where secrecy is allowed to flourish, under
the guise of protecting national security, fighting terrorism
or combating narcotics traffickers, the conditions are ripe for
presidential usurpation of power from the Congress and the cynical
manipulation of public opinion.
Secrecy and covert policy making are not only undemocratic,
they inevitably lead to bad policy. Secrecy breeds arrogance among
policy makers who consider themselves uniquely "in the know"
and thus less fallible in their judgments; at the same time it
motivates the elite of "cleared" individuals to elevate
their status by confining secrets (and thus policy advice) to
an ever tighter circle. The consequences can be disastrous; the
administration's failure to consult a wider group of experts or
members of Congress surely contributed to its extraordinary blunders
in Iran. Ignorant errors are compounded by the temptation to adopt
covert means-to avoid messy public debates-where policy objectives
are unclear and public support is lacking. Most damaging of all,
covert operations usually become overt, discrediting not only
the particular administration but the United States as a whole.
If the immorality of covert policies like the Iran and contra
operations doesn't decide the case, these practical considerations
should. Failure to curb the extraordinary power of presidents
to wage covert foreign and military campaigns can only ensure
a succession of similar policy disasters in the future.
Iran Contra Connection