Unwelcome Truths

excerpted from the book

Challenging the Secret Government

The Post-Watergate Investigation of the CIA and FBI

by Kathryn S. Olmsted

University of North Carloina Press, 1996, paper

As the Pike committee finished its work on 10 February, the members congratulated each other for their impressive-albeit controversial- contribution to an understanding of the nation's secret government. "Given the circumstances, problems, and lack of support, I think we did our best," Dellums told his colleagues. "I hope what we have done will have some impact on the course of history in this country." The next day, the Village Voice published the text of their secret report.

The publication was the last in a series of disasters for the Pike committee. It was also the first episode in a continuing drama that would destroy Daniel Schorr's career, at least temporarily. Schorr quickly realized that he would pay a price for trying to keep his role secret. On the morning of 1l February, a colleague whom Schorr considered a friend, Laurence Stern of the Washington Post, called to inform him that the Village Voice had published the Pike report that morning in a twenty-four-page supplement. Far from reflecting Schorr's high-minded concerns about First Amendment rights, the tabloid trumpeted its scoop in red capital letters: 'THE CIA REPORT THE PRESIDENT DOESN'T WANT YOU TO READ. Stern wanted to know if Schorr was the source, but Schorr was reluctant to reveal his role. The two journalists had a long conversation that wandered on and off the record. Despite Schorr's "sophistic evasions," the Post reporter eventually learned enough to identify the correspondent as the source of the report.

The next morning, the Post identified Schorr not only as the purveyor of secret documents but also as the lead actor in what it suggested was "a journalistic morality play." Over the subsequent weeks and months media coverage of the report leak repeatedly emphasized this "morality play-Schorr's decision to publish a secret report, his clandestine actions in arranging publication, his decision to give the profits to the Reporters' Committee-rather than the contents of the report. The Schorr drama, after all, was a simple, easily communicated story, while the report's substance was more difficult to understand and translate. Moreover, journalists, driven by the routines of their profession to report only "news," saw the Schorr leak as the new element in an otherwise old story.

The leak also gave the prestige newspapers' editorial boards the chance to dlstance themselves from "irresponsible" journalists like Schorr. The Washington Post, for example, never editorialized on the report's revelations, only on the leaks. The New York Times self-righteously condemned the "counterproductive rash of leaked reports and premature disclosures"-disclosures that its reporters had eagerly sought and its editors had prominently published.

The media's shift in attention from the report's charges to their premature disclosure was skillfully encouraged by the executive branch President Ford offered Congress the FBI's help in finding Schorr's source; while Secretary Kissinger again declared that "we are facing here a new version of McCarthyism." Rogovin, the CIA's counsel, later admitted that the executive branch's "concern" over the report's damage to national security was less than genuine. "No one really felt that Western Civilization was at risk," he Says. But at the time, the administration had no qualms about implying otherwise.

The House swiftly joined in the counterattack on Schorr. Within days the House Ethics Committee voted to investigate the leak, requested $350,000 to conduct the investigation, and threatened Schorr with contempt of Congress if he refused to disclose his source. Having learned its lesson from the recent Harrington inquest, the Ethics Committee made sure that no technical errors impeded its first full, formal investigation. Schorr could face jail time or, at the least, suspension of his credentials to cover Congress.

As the legislative and executive branches of government rushed to condemn Schorr, the institution that liked to call itself the "fourth branch of government" failed to defend him. Schorr's employer quickly distanced itself from the controversial correspondent. The network was feeling pressure from nervous affiliates who were worried about the response of government regulators and from viewers who began to question the network's credibility. As one citizen wrote the CBS president, "So long as Daniel Schorr is functioning as a news source for CBS, the public has the obligation to question the truth of any CBS report and to suspect an ulterior motive behind any CBS release.'' Under these circumstances, CBS was so anxious to be rid of Schorr that network officials offered him severance pay in addition to the two years of salary remaining on his contract in return for his resignation. Before he agreed, however, Schorr insisted that the forced resignation be kept secret; he did not want the Ethics Committee to realize the extent of his vulnerability. Publicly, the network announced that Schorr had been temporarily "relieved" of all reporting duties because of his "adversary position" in the pending investigation.

Many other reporters and producers seemed just as eager as CBS to dissociate themselves from Schorr. Some of the editorials condemning him were so vitriolic, a rare Schorr supporter noted, that they "read as if they had been written by former Vice President Agnew." The worst blow came from an unexpected source. The New York Times, Seymour Hersh's employer and the one voice Schorr must have hoped would be raised in his defense, charged that Schorr was engaged in "selling secrets." The Washington Post's ombudsman Charles Seib also chided Schorr for not realizing that "the dollar sign is a danger sign in journalism. As I. F. Stone observed, this criticism of Schorr could only be described as "insufferably hypocritical." After all, Schorr had arranged to donate his profits, while the Post and the Times had profited from publishing the Pentagon Papers.

The attacks on Schorr were not limited to the editorial pages. Once again, as had happened after Richard Helms had verbally attacked him the year before, a series of unflattering profiles of Schorr appeared. Newsweek, for example, discussed the "questions of his ethics" and his reputation "for egoism and overly aggressive reporting." The prominent journalists on the Reporters' Committee, far from defending their decision to accept the profits from Schorr's enterprise, charged that he was trying to make them a "partner in his calumny." The worst attacks came from Laurence Stern of the Washington Post, whose article in the Columbia Journalism Review criticized the Pike committee and its report as well as Schorr's judgment in this "morality play for the Fourth Estate." Schorr, who was particularly angered by this piece because he had considered Stern his friend, wrote a nasty rejoinder in the next issue, to which Stern wrote an even nastier reply.

A few journalists did defend Schorr. After he had been "relieved of duties" by CBS and threatened with contempt, three New York Times columnists opposed the editorial position of their newspaper by supporting the veteran correspondent. Tom Wicker disputed that he was "selling secrets," while Russell Baker wondered whether Congress was showing "symptoms of Nixon envy" in setting up its own plumber squad. William Safire suggested that CBS had been looking for an excuse to fire Schorr ever since his report on the network's connections to the CIA.

But these friendly columns were unusual. Rather than defending a respected if unpopular colleague from government persecution, most members of the Fourth Estate rushed to reassure the public and the government that they were not as irresponsible as Dan Schorr. When the investigator became the target of investigation, he was left to face the coming ordeal nearly alone.

Daniel Schorr thought he was upholding the First Amendment by publishing the Pike committee's final report; in return, he was fired by his boss, investigated by the government, and scorned by his colleagues. And Schorr was only the most visible victim of a larger phenomenon: the backlash against all of the congressional and journalistic investigators. After the triumphs and high expectations of the year before, the investigations had collapsed in embarrassment, frustration, and despair.

Why were the media so reluctant to defend Schorr? Many observers at the time blamed Schorr's gift for making enemies as well as the pressures of competitive journalism. As with Seymour Hersh, it was easy for rivals who had missed the story to denigrate their more successful colleague's accomplishments.

But the number and scale of the attacks on Schorr indicate that something more was happening than simple revenge on an unpopular colleague. In leaking the report, Schorr had defied not only Congress and the president but also the public mood. As David Ignatius said in a perceptive piece in the Washington Monthly, Schorr had "misjudged the public temper. This was not the Pentagon Papers and he was not Daniel Ellsberg, and this was not even the same country, anymore, that had needed the press to batter its corrupted institutions, force a lying President out of office, strip the cover of national security from the CIA.'' A December 1975 Harris poll had shown that slightly more respondents disapproved of the investigators than approved of them-and this poll was taken before Welch's death and the leak. Much of the public was tired of the Daniel Schorrs and Seymour Hershes and Otis Pikes who seemed to be threatening the security of the nation and its secret agents. Anthony Lewis reported that congressmen were hearing from their constituents that they did not want to know about any more American crimes or embarrassments. Watergate was over; the "necessary demolition," as Ignatius said, had been accomplished. "But Dan Schorr-ever the reporter-was still battering away.''

Schorr partly understood this at the time. In his first major speech after his suspension, he used the metaphor of a pendulum to explain how the public mood in the United States had alternately shifted from valuing liberty to prizing security. "I got hit by a swinging pendulum," he said.

The secret agencies clearly emerged the winners of their long battle w: the investigators. The Pike committee collapsed in frustration and mutual recriminations. The Church committee issued a massive, detailed final report, but some of its sections on foreign intelligence struck many critics as vague and timid. Meanwhile, the executive branch proposed new "reforms" that would effectively legalize some of the past abuses and punish those who exposed them. The only immediate reform to emerge from the investigations-the creation of a permanent oversight committee-almost failed.

And how effective was that reform? Critics have questioned whether the permanent committee has exercised adequate oversight. In many ways, Congress has continued its reluctance to challenge the secret agencies. Despite its post-Watergate reputation for skepticism, the press has also hesitated to question and expose the secret government.

Why, given the early high expectations for great reform, did the investigations achieve so little? Why did these extensive, far-reaching inquiries result only in restoring the CIA's credibility? The answer can be found in the attitudes toward the secret government held by the press, the Congress, and the public. Despite the rising distrust of governmental secrecy after Vietnam and Watergate, many journalists, congressmen, and other Americans were not sure how much they wanted to know about the nation's dirty secrets.

Fourteen months after Hersh exposed illegal CIA domestic spying, twelve months after an outraged Congress voted to investigate these charges, the president proposed measures that would make domestic spying legal in broadly defined cases and would have put Hersh's sources in jail. It remained to be seen whether the Church committee could achieve real reforms in this new atmosphere.

A new day of congressional oversight was dawning-or so it seemed. The Senate's permanent oversight committee began meeting immediately after the end of the Church investigation. In July 1977, partly to make the two houses of Congress consistent, the House finally voted to create its own intelligence committee. The House intelligence committee, however, was not the lineal descendant of the Pike committee In fact Pike and most of the liberal Democrats who had served on his committee voted against the permanent committee because they thought it was, as Michael Harrington put it, a "sham" reform. The establishment of the permanent committee laid the foundation for reducing the number of House committees receiving intelligence information. One scholar has called its creation "a victory for executive secrecy."

Congress reorganized its oversight system again in 1980, when it passed the Intelligence Oversight Act. The new law, which superseded the Hughes-Ryan amendment of 1974, drastically reduced the number of congressional overseers. Although it required the CIA to inform Congress of broader categories of intelligence activities, access to this information was now restricted to the two permanent select committees. The House and Senate Appropriations, Foreign Affairs, and Armed Services Committees would no longer receive intelligence briefings.

The investigations resulted in remarkably few legal changes for the intelligence community. In the executive branch, the next president, Jimmy Carter, imposed stricter controls on the secret agencies through an executive order. Vice President Mondale worked hard to ensure the agencies' accountability. But Carter's executive order was not permanent, and the next administration quickly changed it. Meanwhile, in Congress, both oversight committees spent years considering new charters for the intelligence community to replace the vague clauses in the National Security Act of 1947. Ultimately, however, Congress abandoned these legislative blueprints because of opposition from the intelligence community and a lack of enthusiasm from the Carter administration. Advocates for stricter accountability did achieve one reform in 1978 with the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required the FBI and NSA to obtain court orders for wiretaps in the United States.

When Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, he swiftly loosened the regulations hindering the CIA and the FBI. He allowed CIA domestic spying in certain cases, permitted physical surveillance of Americans abroad, and authorized some covert actions in the United States. Most important, he appointed his campaign manager and former OSS agent William Casey to be director of central intelligence. Casey was determined to free the CIA from the fetters imposed after Watergate-and he was willing to evade and subvert the law to do so.

When Seymour Hersh exposed the CIA's domestic spying, when Michael Harrington demanded that the House investigate the charges, when Otis Pike confronted Henry Kissinger, when Frank Church issued his assassination report, and when Daniel Schorr arranged to publish the Pike report, they never expected that the end result of their efforts would be to legitimize the secret government. After Vietnam and Watergate, many reformers had hoped to attain a new democratic accountability for the secret agencies. They had wanted to restructure the intelligence community, enact restrictive laws, write new charters, even abolish covert action. In the end, though, many were happy to settle for a new congressional committee.

One institution that was consistently reluctant to challenge the nation's foreign intelligence agencies was the American press. Few observers, however, realized this at the time. Defenders of the intelligence community charged that the press was endangering the nation's security, while supporters of reform applauded the media's fearlessness. They believed that the media's triumph in Watergate had transformed the press corps into a battalion of daring, independent investigators-the "myth" of post-Watergate journalism, as Michael Schudson has called it.

Many journalists were indeed willing to question the open operations of the government, seeking out stories on corruption, incompetence, or personal immorality. These reporters tried to emulate Woodward and Bernstein, or at least pop culture's mythic image of Woodward and Bernstein. But only a very few reporters dared to challenge the secret government. Those who did so won no prizes for their efforts. Seymour Hersh's domestic spying stories were underplayed by all but his own newspaper. A whispering campaign in Washington questioned the veracity of his stories and prevented him from winning a Pulitzer Prize. Daniel Schorr was also attacked by his colleagues, first for his mistake on the spy-in-the-White-House story, then for his role in the publication of the Pike report.

Even the New York Times, the most aggressive news organization throughout the year of investigations, proved receptive to government pleas for secrecy. The Times refused to publicize President Ford's unintentional disclosure of assassination plots. It joined many other papers in suppressing the Glomar Explorer story and led the editorial attacks on the Pike committee and on Schorr. The real question, as Tom Wicker wrote in 1978, is not "whether the press has lacked aggressiveness in challenging the national-security mystique, but why?'' Why, indeed, did most journalists decide to defer to the administration instead of pursuing sensational stories?

In part, this deference was a defensive reaction. Intellectuals and columnists like Max Kampelman, Irving Kristol, and Joseph Kraft would continue to condemn the "imperial media" for years to come. Many journalists were intimidated by these attacks.

In [the] first post-Watergate years, journalists' greatest fear was that the government would restrict press freedom. One Columbia University journalism professor wrote in 1978: "The equivalent of an Official Secrets Act is being forged in this country today, link by link. The inevitable result is a weakening of the First Amendment." John B. Oakes, editorial page editor of the New York Times, worried at the end of the investigations that freedom of the press "today is under more serious attack than at any time since the Sedition Act nearly two centuries ago." Oakes concluded-as did many of his colleagues throughout the year of intelligence-that the press needed to exercise more "responsible self-restraint" and reassure the public that it would not "defy the national interest." Daniel Schorr provided a case study in what could happen to the "irresponsible" journalist.

For many journalists, even more important than their fear of public anger or government repression was their concern that their critics might, in fact, be right. Maybe they had gone too far. Most journalists, despite their talk of serving as the "Fourth Estate," were not happy being adversaries. They wanted to appear responsible. Tom Wicker maintained that the greatest threat to press freedom did not come from the government: "At least as great a threat, I believe, comes from the press itself-in its longing for a respectable place in the established political and economic order, in its fear of the reaction that boldness and independence will always evoke." Those who criticized Cold War institutions risked losing their status among their elite friends and sources.

The media wanted to appear particularly responsible in their coverage of foreign policy. The FBI of J. Edgar Hoover, guilty of domestic abuses, received unsparing criticism from the press. But the CIA's assassination plots, the raising of the Russian submarine, and the Pike report prompted a more ambiguous response. These stories involved foreign policy-the bipartisan Cold War foreign policy that the media had endorsed for years.

Other scholars have demonstrated that the supposedly adversarial press of the late 1960s and early 1970s was actually rather timid. Daniel Hallin has shown that reporters were not nearly as aggressive in covering Vietnam as conventional wisdom might suggest. Similarly, Ben Bagdikian has demonstrated that in 1972-the year of the Watergate break-in-the press was so intimidated by the Nixon administration's attacks that it tried to avoid angering or embarrassing the president.

The media also lacked investigative zeal after Watergate-indeed, throughout the most celebrated case of post-Watergate investigative reporting. The press during the year of intelligence was nervous about its newfound power, fearful of a public and governmental backlash, and receptive to government requests for self-censorship. Vietnam and Watergate may have transformed the way the press covered domestic political scandals, but most journalists still shied away from questioning the national security state.

... the investigations never truly aroused the public the way Church a hoped. This apathetic response might have been a product of what sociologists call the "issue-attention cycle." According to Anthony Downs, American public attention does not remain focused on any one issue for long, "even if it involves a continuing problem of crucial importance to society." Typically, Downs says, a new problem will vault into the center of public attention, stay there a short time, then quickly fade from public view as people realize how difficult, threatening, or costly the solutions would be-or simply after they get bored with hearing about the problem. During the investigations, congressmen frequently commented that their constituents did not seem interested in intelligence abuses after the initial flurry of revelations. "This is not the Watergate investigation," one member of Congress told the New York Times as early as May 1975. "Nobody ever talks to me about it on home trips, and I hear very little about it here."

Some commentators argued that Americans could not sustain their outrage because they had become jaded by scandal. The public had already learned about the My Lai massacre, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the secret war in Laos, and the Watergate scandals. As a result, Americans had experienced "a kind of deadening of moral nerve-ends, a near-inability to be surprised, let alone disturbed," by new revelations, the Washington Post editorialized. The "years of revelation and shock," as columnist Meg Greenfield put it, had produced an "anesthetizing effect" on many Americans.

Americans also may have doubted that they or their representatives had the power to change the secret agencies. A December 1975 poll showed that only 30 percent believed that the investigations would produce real reforms, while 41 percent were more skeptical. Moreover, with public confidence in all governmental institutions at a historic low, most Americans did not trust the Congress to devise solutions.

Finally, many Americans resisted believing the news that their government had committed crimes. During the years of the liberal consensus, there had been no dialogue in American political culture about CIA or FBI activities. Most Americans' knowledge of these agencies came from popular culture, which portrayed U.S. agents as heroes. Once Vietnam and Watergate had shattered the liberal consensus, suddenly the American people learned about the murder plots, drug testing, and harassment of dissidents that had been carried out in their name. They had been taught a "child's history" of the world, as Richard Helms's biographer Thomas Powers has explained, and they did not want to learn about the real history written by Helms and his colleagues. "To discover oneself the victim of so many illusions, all at once, is disorienting," Powers has noted.

It is painful for any nation to learn about its government's dirty tricks, but it is perhaps most painful for Americans, who hold their government to a high moral standard. As Michael Schudson has commented, "That is not to say that other peoples expect their governments to be immoral but there may be an unusual American spirit that the government is expressive of and representative of its people and that we cannot think well of ourselves if we cannot think well of our leaders." America is, after all, supposed to be the "city on a hill," admired and emulated by the rest of the world. Subverting foreign governments and plotting to assassinate foreign leaders does not fit well with this image.

Nor does secrecy in general. American government is based on the diffusion of power and on democratic accountability. A secret agency undercuts these checks and balances. For this reason, the establishment of the CIA would seem to contradict American ideals. Yet after World War II, most Americans came to believe that they needed a CIA to match the Soviets' worldwide intelligence network.

The country has never resolved this contradiction between its ideals and its acceptance of Cold War secrecy and subversion. Most policymakers decided to maintain American illusions by keeping the public ignorant of secret operations. They concluded-perhaps correctly-that many Americans wanted to be kept in ignorance. Russell Baker commented ironically on this ignorance in a column on U.S. intervention in Chile. He noted that some in Congress wanted to punish Michael Harrington for telling others about this secret action. "If we are becoming the enemy we set out to thwart," Baker wrote, "the least Congress can do is punish anybody who threatens to let us know about it."

Richard Helms contends that this attitude reveals that "we're basically a rather hypocritical nation; we like things to be done, but we don't want to have the blood on our own hands.'' Some American opponents of covert action agree with him. The Dayton Daily News editorial board was annoyed that Americans would "pretend" to be shocked by the Church committee assassination report. "We have never before known the details-and they are sordid and ludicrous in the extreme-but we have known that American policy has at times meant interfering in the internal affairs of other countries and trying to bring down their governments," the paper scolded. A Washington Post reader urged Americans to admit that they supported "covert subversive activities" in other countries or take responsibility for attempting to limit them. Most Americans refused to make that choice, however. They preferred to leave the CIA's undemocratic actions in the "attic of the implicit," as columnist Rod MacLeish said, rather than bringing them down to the more painful level of explicit endorsement.

The intelligence investigations forced Americans to face difficult questions concerning the competence of their intelligence agencies, the moral basis of American foreign policy, the health of the constitutional system of checks and balances, and the tensions between secrecy and democracy.

The inquiries asked them to doubt the morality of J. Edgar Hoover and John F. Kennedy-men they had regarded as true American heroes-and to question whether their nation truly adhered to its professed ideals.

One year earlier, Americans had faced equally difficult questions during the Watergate scandal. But not even Watergate had shaken most Americans' support for "the system," political scientists have shown. Having survived that shock, most Americans were reluctant to challenge the system's legitimacy now. As one American wrote to the president in 1975, "Let's not turn the CIA probe into another Watergate. Just try to take steps to prevent the recurrence of alleged illegal activities." It was much easier to assume that the investigations had taken care of past problems-and that the system had worked-than to challenge American illusions.

Given the power of these illusions, perhaps it is more surprising that the investigations occurred at all than that they failed to achieve their goals. For twenty-five years, Congress and the press had allowed the executive branch to conduct secret operations with little accountability. Then, for a moment, a determined group of investigators in the press and Congress decided to challenge that secret government. Before their challenge faded, they uncovered information vital to all Americans struggling to understand the events of the Cold War. For a brief moment, they forced the nation to debate the perils of secrecy in a democracy.

... the press as a whole after 1975 continued to retreat from the aggressive journalism associated with Watergate-a retreat first shown in the intelligence investigations. In 1982, for example, the retiring president of the Society of American Newspaper Editors told his colleagues: "We should make peace with the government. We should not be its enemy.... We should cure ourselves of the adversarial mindset. The adversarial culture is a disease attacking the nation's vital organs."9 One journalism historian has even called the late 1970s and 1980s a "new age of deference" for the press. Reporters covering domestic issues were not always deferential, of course, but most journalists continued to avoid questioning foreign policy and the national security state.

Congress began a new era of oversight in 1976. The "newness" of this era, however, became the subject of much controversy ... In 1986, the two successors to the Church and Pike committees discovered that the Reagan administration had evaded and ignored the intelligence reforms enacted since the 1970S and had lied to the overseers. In 1987, former Church committee member John Tower, who headed the presidential commission that investigated the scandal, pronounced the Iran-contra affair to be an "aberration." In 1988, the joint congressional investigating committee concluded that the existing oversight laws were adequate and that the system had worked. This view was widely shared by opinion leaders. In the 1990S, there seems little prospect that lawmakers or journalists will again question the fundamental soundness of the existing oversight system.

Challenging the Secret Government

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