Angus Mackenzie

[1997] How the CIA Got Away With Domestic Spying

SECRETS  The CIA's War at Home By Angus Mackenzie

The most outspoken of the CIA critics at the [Ramparts] magazine was not a Communist but a former Green Beret veteran, Donald Duncan. Duncan had written, according to then CIA Deputy Director Richard Helms, "We will continue to be in danger as long as the CIA is deciding policy and manipulating nations."

... the FBI was conducting political spying under the "terrorism" label.

... domestic political operations are more easily defended if they are labeled as anti-terrorism.

Syndicated columnist Jack Anderson reported that the FBI was spying on peace groups. It became known that in I982 the FBI had conducted an "administrative" probe of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, a worldwide group of doctors whose campaign for a nuclear weapons freeze at the international level was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in I985. FBI Assistant Director William Baker admitted to me in the mid-I980s that FBI informants had been used inside the group.

By the end of I986, this emphasis on spying was causing a growing rebellion within the FBI's usually well-disciplined ranks. Special Agent John C. Ryan, a twenty-one-year veteran from Peoria, Illinois, flatly and repeatedly had refused FBI orders to conduct a "terrorism" investigation of anti-Contra protesters whom he knew to be religious pacifists. As a result, Ryan was fired for insubordination on August 25, I987, eighteen months after Bush's task force issued its report. Ryan was the first FBI agent fired for refusing to obey orders as a matter of conscience.

"Terrorism incidents are down, and hype is up," said one congressional staffer with FBI oversight responsibilities. "There was a concern that administration policy was undercut by domestic opposition groups. It was necessary to discredit and disrupt those groups. There was interest in the investigation of those groups. It was thought they could be disrupted by arrests.

A House investigator specializing in the FBI observed, "The only way, the best way, for Congress to learn about FBI political investigations is with the aggressive use of the FOIA. In past years, congressional oversight of the FBI could not function without FOIA. Did the changes in the FOIA adversely affect congressional oversight? Yes. Definitely."

[Congressman Jack] Brooks summed up the lessons he had learned about government secrecy during thirty-four years in Congress. "Most of the classification, in my judgment, is not to keep our enemies from finding out information. It is to keep the American people and the Congress from finding out what in God's world various agencies are doing and how they are throwing away money, wasting it.... They throw away money like dirt, and lie and cheat and hide to keep Congress from finding out, and, for God's sake, they don't want the American people to find out," he fumed.

60 Minutes sage Andy Rooney, blasted the CIA in his syndicated newspaper column printed January 26, I992. It was headlined by the San Francisco Sunday newspaper "A Lack of Intelligence: Fire the Spies." Rooney wrote, "If they cut the $30 billion [sic] Central Intelligence Agency budget tomorrow by 75 percent, it wouldn't be a month too soon." He said, "When the CIA is questioned about anything, they have a standard answer: 'That's a secret that would compromise the security of the United States."

Aldrich Ames, convicted CIA spy, to the judge during his spy trial

"I had come to believe that the espionage business as carried out by the CIA and a few other American agencies was and is a self-serving sham, carried out by careerist bureaucrats who have managed to deceive several generations of American policymakers and the public about both the necessity and the value of their work."

For some time there had been no plausible reason for the American people not to know how much the intelligence community spends. The full Senate had passed resolutions in I99I, I992, and I993 favoring disclosure of the figure. Robert Gates had testified in I99I that he had no problem with disclosure. Besides, almost everyone who frequented the corridors of Capitol Hill or the nearby watering holes (including any foreign agents worth their salt) already knew the number. And, to make the secrecy even more of a joke, a Senate committee had inadvertently published enough figures to allow easy calculation of the intelligence community budget for fiscal year I994 ($28 billion).

In the decades that followed I947, the CIA not only became increasingly involved in domestic politics but abridged First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free press in a conspiracy to keep this intrusion from the American people. The intelligence and military secrecy of the I940s had broadened in the I960s to covering up the suppression of domestic dissent. The I980s registered a further, more fundamental change, as the suppression of unpopular opinions was supplemented by systematic and institutionalized peacetime censorship for the first time in U.S. history. The repressive machinery developed by the CIA has spread secrecy like oil on water.

Only recently in the history of the world's oldest republic has secrecy functioned principally to keep the American people in the dark about the nefarious activities of their government. The United States is no longer the nation its citizens once thought: a place, unlike most others in the world, free from censorship and thought police, where people can say what they want, when they want to, about their government. Almost a decade after the end of the cold war, espionage is not the issue, if it ever really was. The issue is freedom, as it was for the Minute Men at Compo Hill. The issue is principle, as it was for Ernest Fitzgerald, who never signed a secrecy contract but retained his Pentagon job because he made his stand for the First Amendment resonate in Congress. Until the citizens of this land aggressively defend their First Amendment rights of free speech, there is little hope that the march to censorship will be reversed. The survival of the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights is at stake.