The Deeper Malady:
From Terrorism to Covert Action

excerpted from the book

The Iran Contra Connection

Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era

by Johnathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Hunter

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 that syndrome.

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 of agents.

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 excluding

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 not.

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 surrogates.

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.

Paradigm Shift

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 Network.

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 terrorist connections.

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 top priority.

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 to doubt.

"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 community.

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.

Libya Bashing

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 Reagan."

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 be suicidal.

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 of Niger.

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 knowledge."

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 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 said."

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 in 1985.

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 [1978] 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 of power."

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 rhetorical.

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 opposed."

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 evidence.

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 for counterterrorism

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 national interest."

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.

The Iran Contra Connection

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