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It is an axiom of governance that power, once acquired, is seldom freely relinquished... View other pieces in "The New Yorker"
By Mark Danner July 29, 1991
Tags: CIA | Foreign Affairs Print

It is an axiom of governance that power, once acquired, is seldom freely relinquished. Though the Cold War no longer casts its shadow over us, our government has shown little eagerness to surrender the powers it claimed under cover of that shadow. In the name of "national security," enormous parts of the federal budget (perhaps thirty billion dollars for the intelligence agencies alone) are still hidden from public scrutiny; some seven million documents are still being "classified" every year; and many of the most important elements of American foreign policy continue to be conducted beyond the scope of public debate. Secrecy has become a great wellspring of government power, and a forceful weapon in the hands of the executive branch in its struggles with Congress. The recent guilty plea of Alan Fiers, a senior official of the Central Intelligence Agency, to charges of lying to Congress about his knowledge of the diversion to the Nicaraguan Contras of profits from secret weapons sales to Iran -- a plea that confirms not only the agency's deep involvement in the Iran-Contra affair but its role in the coverup that followed-discloses what is only the latest instance in a long history of official abuse of the principles of national security.

When Congress created the C.I.A., in 1947, it conferred upon the agency the power to collect intelligence and also to "perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may frorn time to time direct." "Affecting the national security" was intended as an "important limiting phrase," according to Clark Clifford, one of the authors of the law. Over the years, however, that phrase, instead of serving to sift out all activities except those deemed critical to the nation's survival, came to encompass matters that were simply too controversial or too inconvenient to disclose. Secrecy gradually turned into a convenience, and "national security" came to serve the executive branch as an immense loophole, justifying everything from tapping reporters' telephones to covertly attacking countries with which the United States was officially at peace. Eventually, this manipulation of the notion of national security helped promote a profoundly anti-democratic notion of truth: truth became something dangerous to the country-something to be stamped "Top Secret" and handled only by a small number of privileged officials who enjoy the highest security clearances.

The record of our major covert actions abroad can be charitably described as mixed. In their effects at home, however, those actions, and the expanded executive powers that came along with them, have been an unqualified disaster. As the Watergate hearings showed, the purported need to protect national security during the Vietnam War was used to justify burglaries and wiretaps against our own citizens. But there was a subtler and even more sinister form of corruption going on. As the postwar consensus on foreign policy frayed and finally burst apart during the Vietnam War, covert actions increasingly became a tool in the hands of the executive branch to avoid policy disputes with Congress and to conceal unpopular decisions: they allowed the President to conduct his own foreign policy, out of sight of Congress and of the public. Covert actions, which were originally understood to be operations that secretly lent support to America's official foreign policy -- a policy formulated and developed in public debate-became a means of escaping the constraints of the Constitution.

During the Iran-Iraq War, for example, the keystone of American policy was said to be Operation Staunch, in which the United States exerted its influence around the world to halt the flow of weapons to Iran. But, as we have since learned, the United States was in fact supplying weapons to Iran, and it now seems likely that it was supplying them indirectly to Iraq as well. At the same time, behind the public policy of "not dealing with terrorists," our government was negotiating with the Iranians over American hostages in Lebanon. These acts were illegally kept secret from the congressional intelligence committees not because their disclosure might have threatened America's national security but because if Congress had learned of them it would almost certainly have stopped themby passing laws, cutting appropriations, or, as a last resort, "leaking" to the public what the Reagan Administration was doing. In the end, the Administration's policies were secret because if they had been made public they would have been highly controversial and immensely unpopularbecause, in short, they were politically unsustainable. In the Iran-Contra case, as in so many others, the real purpose of our doing something covertly was not so much to conceal it from the rest of the world as to hide it from the American people. The "secret bombing" of Cambodia, to take another example, was no secret to the Cambodians. Of the parties concerned, only the Americans-substantial numbers of whom would have objected to the expansion of the warwere left in the dark.

During the mid-seventies, hearings by the Church and Pike committees exposed many of the C.I.A.'s most colorful covert actions, and new procedures were set up to make the intelligence agencies "accountable" -- to committees in Congress, if not to the public-but the "national-security" loophole remained. The Reagan Administration, determined to carry out a politically unpopular policy in Nicaragua, simply avoided the scrutiny of the congressional intelligence committees by shifting control of the Contras to officials within the White House. After Congress expressly forbade the government to fund the Contras, various White House and State Department officials solicited money secretly from foreign governments and private supporters, thus circumventing Congress's exercise of its most basic power, that of the purse. This funding allowed the "covert war" in Nicaragua to continue, and the Administration's role in financing the war was an open secret in Washington: "secrecy" didn't conceal the Administration's involvement but merely prevented public debate that might have succeeded in putting an end to it. Mr. Fiers' guilty plea now reveals not only that the C.I.A. was deeply involved, contrary to what he and other agency officials swore before congressional committees investigating Iran-Contra, but also that its lawbreaking continued well after the Iran-Contra affair was brought to light, and may be continuing still. By now, of course, this is an old story; in fact, that may be the most dangerous corruption of all. Our easy familiarity with four decades of government coverups and C.I.A. misdeeds and secret wars has begun to rob us of our power to be outraged. Congress itself, the party most immediately abused by Iran-Contra, conducted its investigation into the affair in a manner that seemed designed to prevent unexpected disclosures from getting out of hand. The investigating committees strictly limited public hearings; set themselves an unreasonably early deadline for concluding the investigations, which allowed the Administration to stall in releasing documents; and focussed their attention obsessively on the narrow question of what the President knew, rather than what his Administration had done. Recently, the Speaker of the House, Thomas Foley, carried congressional reluctance a step farther when he explained his hesitancy about mounting an investigation of new disclosures about a possible "October Surprise" (a deal that members of the 1980 Reagan campaign are alleged to have made with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages in Teheran) by noting that there was "no evidence of misconduct on the part of the President"-- as if nothing less than proof of illegal acts by President Bush himself would constitute sufficient abuse of the electoral system to warrant an inquiry.

Meanwhile, the national-security establishment's distrust of and disdain for Congress are alive and well. When members of the Senate Intelligence Committee dared, in the light of Mr. Fiers' disclosures, to postpone hearings on the nomination of Robert Gates, the President's choice to head the C.I.A., Mr. Bush-who in 1976 was himself brought in as C.I.A. director, and given the job of healing the agency after the Church and Pike committees' findings-- excoriated them for running "like a covey of quail." As for Mr. Gates, who was Mr. Fiers' superior at the C.I.A. during the Iran-Contra affair, he has summarized the attitude of William Casey, the C.I.A.'s director during Iran-Contra, and Clair George, then its covert-action chief, as follows: "Their attitude toward the Hill was screw 'em. And that attitude communicated itself throughout the operations directorate -don't tell Congress anything unless you're driven to the wall." Unfortunately, Congress has been increasingly reluctant when confronted by claims of "national security" to drive anyone to the wall. Members of Congress seem to see little political reward in taking on the nationalsecurity establishment, and to be concerned mostly with not being viewed as "politically opportunistic" or, worse, "partisan."

"The cold war changed us," Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a year ago in the New York Review of Books. "We used to be pretty much what we started out to be: a republic which expected normally to be at peace.... We became a national security state, geared for war at all times." And though the breaching of the Berlin Wall may have marked the end of the Cold War, the principles of openness and accountability which were once fundamental to our government remain casualties of that war. We remain a nation in which the truth is thought to pose a threat. But there is no reason that this should be so: no reason that "national security" should provide the license it does, no reason that the C.I.A. should remain constituted as it now is-no reason at all that it and the other organs of our national-security state should not be demobilized and prepared for peace. It is not naive for Americans to demand that the "new world order" lately hailed by President Bush include among its benefits a domestic glasnost --a reinvigorated commitment by the country and its leaders to the end of secrecy, and to the primacy of truth.

© 2021 Mark Danner