The uncovering of the CIA’s "family jewels" a catalog of the Agency’s crimes committed at home and abroad in the 1970s underscores my principal objection to the trite post-9/11 conventional wisdom, "Everything’s changed." Because, of course, nothing has changed, not really, at least not where the unmitigated evil of the U.S. government is concerned. What these nearly 700 pages of previously classified materials reveal is that all the supposedly innovative techniques of torture, domestic surveillance, and utter disregard for the rights of U.S. citizens supposedly spawned by the "war on terrorism" predated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Detention-without-trial, "waterboarding," and other illegal abuse endured by suspects now being held at our Guantanamo gulag were prefigured, according to the documents, by the case of Yuri Nosenko, who was held for three and a half years after defecting in 1963. In spite of having handed over information that led to the uncovering of hidden microphones in the U.S. embassy in Moscow and exposing at least one West European top official as a KGB tool, Nosenko was not believed by James Jesus Angleton, the Agency’s half-loony counterintelligence chief, who was convinced he was a KGB plant. Nosenko was kept in solitary confinement at a CIA facility and relentlessly tortured. Strapped to a polygraph machine for seven hours at a time, he stoutly maintained his innocence, and the Agency openly discussed ways to dispose of him without raising undue notice. He was finally believed, taken out of the crazed Angleton’s custody, and given a CIA sinecure, while the entire affair was hushed up.
What’s different today is merely a question of scale: yet the general outlines of the neocon program of warmongering, waterboarding, and the waylaying of innocents took shape long ago. The Bush administration has merely refined and perfected the details. And that’s the main difference: yesterday our rulers had the decency to keep their immoral means and methods a secret, which meant they knew they had not only broken the law, but had done something profoundly wrong. Today, they invent elaborate legal and political theories designed to justify and even valorize their police-state methods.
CIA agents infiltrated and tried to destroy the antiwar movement, they routinely spied on and harassed American citizens engaged in peaceful, constitutionally protected activities, and they intervened directly in the political process a practice we usually associate with banana republics, or, perhaps, the former Soviet Union. A CIA listening post was set up in Miami in 1972 in order to monitor "subversive influences" on the Democratic and Republican Party conventions; as to how else they intervened, rather than merely observed, is for future FOIA requests and future historians to determine. What the "family jewels" show, however, is that the CIA acted, in effect, as America’s political police, gathering information on the opinions and activities of thousands of Americans, and specifically targeting antiwar leaders. For example, CIA personnel and resources were assigned to assist the FBI in its harassment of John Lennon, against whom J. Edgar Hoover held some kind of personal grudge.
It was Howard Hunt’s request for a CIA retiree who knew something about picking locks that set off the alarm bells that led to the compilation of the "family jewels" documents in 1973 at the request of then-CIA Director James Schlesinger. He had had no idea that the Agency was involved in any way with Watergate, and he wanted to steer well clear of it. Well, then, he wondered, what else didn’t he know?
The answer to his inquiry was contained in 693 pages of memoranda, minutes of meetings, and other materials outlining the history of illegal activities carried out by the CIA, from the assassination squads sent against Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba to the domestic spying and bizarre drug experiments carried out on unsuspecting Americans, including a child as young as four. They went after journalists, including Jack Anderson and Brit Hume (!), spying on them in order to discover their sources.
In a textbook example of how ideology, rather than an objective, empirical examination of the discoverable facts, determines policy, the CIA set up a special unit employing some 40 individuals dedicated to examining the "foreign" origins of the domestic antiwar movement. Of course, there were no such foreign connections: the antiwar movement of the 1960s was an expression of pure American radicalism and Yankee cussedness. Yet the CIA "analysts" of the time had no compunctions about drawing their conclusions first and then cherry-picking whatever factoids seemed to validate their thesis.
In examining the record of the CIA’s war against the antiwar movement, it’s interesting to note how much of this was undertaken in order to make an impact on the 1972 presidential election and partisan politics in general. Fourteen members of Congress and 7,000 other American citizens had CIA dossiers compiled, with the full story of how the government used this to neutralize their political effectiveness still to be told.
James Bamford says that what went on then "pales in comparison" to what’s going on today, and he’s right, but it’s important to understand that none of this is really very new. Much of what was "revealed" in the "family jewels" was already known, and in detail not recounted in the released documents. Furthermore, the history of the FBI and other U.S. government agencies is replete with precedents for the activities detailed in this particular document dump. In particular, it is well known that the "liberal" heroes FDR and Harry Truman utilized police-state methods to go after their political opponents, the former going so far as to order a "sedition" trial of war opponents and the latter instituting "loyalty oaths" and greatly expanding the domestic spying apparatus he inherited from That Man in the White House.
Bush’s assault on civil liberties stands on the shoulders of similar incursions initiated by such "liberal" avatars as Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Both sought to jail, and effectively outlaw, opponents of their war policies, going far beyond what the Bush administration has dared attempt. Yet when the president of the United States avers he has the "right" to declare anyone, even an American citizen, an "enemy combatant" and lock him up without trial for good, one can only imagine how and when he will choose to exercise it. That CIA lock-picker requested by Howard Hunt is today doubtless engaged in domestic break-ins, only this time under color of "law," i.e., the PATRIOT Act and other post-9/11 legislation that gives the Feds the "right" to search homes without a warrant and spy to their hearts’ content.
It is the very nature of government that leads to "abuses" of power: our rulers inevitably follow their natural inclination to try to hold on to power, and they are certainly not above resorting to illegal means to achieve their objective. That’s why we have a Constitution, which restrains government officials all of them, to a man, would-be tyrants with the chains of the rule of law. When they burst these chains, they become particularly dangerous and when they aren’t prosecuted, the cancer at the heart of our "republican" form of government grows. Until, today, it has metastasized into a malignant and potentially fatal tumor, one that will eventually overwhelm and poison the body politic until and unless it is excised.
How to cut out the cancer eating away at the very vitals of our republic? We could start with abolishing the CIA and all the other "intelligence" agencies that are, inevitably, political tools of whatever gang happens to be in power. There is a legitimate role for intelligence-gathering in terms of defending this country against terrorists and other threats, but clearly the record shows that the agencies presently charged with this work have been busy with other projects.