The CIA, Rockefeller,
and the Boys in the Club

by Howard Zinn, 1975

from the Howard Zinn Reader


The CIA, it is generally understood by now (1996), has a long and dirty record of violating, again and again, norms of moral behavior: overthrowing governments, installing military dictatorships, planning the assassinations of foreign leaders, spying on American citizens, interfering in foreign elections, causing the deaths of large numbers of innocent people. In 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War, some of its activities were just coming to the fore, and to quiet further inquiry an investigating commission was set up under Nelson Rockefeller. When the commission released its report, I wrote a column 'June 7, 1975) for the Boston Globe.


"Rockefeller Inquiry Clears CIA of Major Violations" was the headline in the New York Times. Now we can relax. Except for one troubling question: who will clear Rockefeller?
All these fellows go around clearing one another. It seems that only at the top levels of government is serious attention paid to the principle that criminals should be tried by juries of their peers. What would be the public reaction to the headline: "Boston Strangler Clears Cambridge Mugger"? Is that more shocking than: "Attica Massacre Chief Clears Assassination Plotters"?

Rockefeller was the perfect choice to head a commission investigating the CIA. Questioned during his nomination hearing last fall by Sen. Hatfield: "Do you believe that the Central Intelligence Agency should ever actively participate in the internal affairs of another sovereign country, such as in the case of Chile?" Rockefeller replied, "I assume they were done in the best national interest." According to CIA head William Colby's testimony, the CIA tried-with $8 million-to change the election results in Chile when it seemed a Marxist, Allende, would win. American corporations didn't like Allende because he stood for nationalization of Anaconda Copper and other businesses. Anaconda Copper owed a quarter of a billion dollars to a group of banks led by Chase Manhattan, whose chairman is David Rockefeller, Nelson's brother. Now we are catching on to the meaning of "national interest."

But the circle is still not closed. The CIA action to overthrow Allende was approved by the Forty Committee, whose chairman is Henry Kissinger. And it was Kissinger who recommended that Rockefeller head the commission to investigate the CIA.

Rockefeller summed up the commission report: "There are things that have been done which are in contradiction to the statutes, but in comparison to the total effort, they are not major."

The same report can be made on the Corleone family, after studying them in the motion picture The Godfather. True, they murdered people who challenged their power, but in comparison to all the harmless things they did, like drinking espresso, going to weddings and christenings, and bouncing grandchildren on their knees, it was nothing to get excited about.

Yes, the CIA had its little faults. For instance: It kept secret files on 10,000 American citizens. It engaged in domestic wiretapping, breaking and entering, and opening people's mail. It approved Mr. Nixon's "dirty tricks" plan, and abetted Howard Hunt's burglarizing. All this was illegal. And its director, Richard Helms, lied about it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The CIA plotted to overthrow various governments: successfully in Iran and Guatemala, unsuccessfully in Cuba. It discussed assassinating Fidel Castro, with the Kennedys' approval, Gen. Lansdale has testified.

The CIA ran a program of assassination, torture and imprisonment in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971, called Operation Phoenix, headed by the present CIA director William Colby, who admitted over 20,000 Vietnamese civilians were executed without trial. That is a blood bath, by any definition.

One more fact: no President, no Congress, no Supreme Court, for 25 years, has done anything to stop these activities.

There is murder and deceit on the record of the CIA. But we mustn't abolish it, because we need it to fight Communism. Why do we need to fight Communism? Because Communism roams the earth, conspiring to overthrow other governments. And because we don't want to live in a society where secret police tap our wires, open our mail, and have the power to quietly eliminate anyone they decide will hurt "national security." Once, there was the Stone Age. Now, the Age of Irony. It is only fitting that Rockefeller and his commission should befriend the CIA. It would confuse us if they denounced members of their own club. The Rockefeller report clears the air; our problem is not the CIA, but the club itself.

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