The CIA’s “family jewels” and historical irony

The press is abuzz with the June 26 release of the CIA’s “family jewels,” nearly 700 pages of documents concerning domestic meddling, foreign assassinations and other real and potential violations of the Agency’s charter that then-director James Schlesinger ordered compiled in 1973 in response to the scrutiny focused by the Watergate scandal. The front-page coverage in the New York Times noted (on the front page, above the fold) that in a note to Agency employees, current CIA director Gen. Michael V. Hayden said the release of documents was part of the Agency’s “social contract” with the American public, “to give those we serve a window into the complexities of intelligence.” Added the Times: “General Hayden drew a contrast between the illegal activities of the past and current CIA practices, which he insists are lawful.”

You have to read considerably deeper in the article to discover that the release came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request way back in 1992 by the National Security Archive. The Archive’s Tom Blanton told the Times: “Reading these memos is like sitting in a confessional booth and having a string of former top CIA officials say ‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.'”

The documents reveal CIA funding for E. Howard Hunt and other Watergate burglars, and widespread snooping on domestic dissidents, including the opening of mail. One document, entitled “Foreign Support for Activities Planned to Disrupt or Harass the Republican National Convention” in 1972, lists John Lennon, “a British subject,” as a supporter of the protest groups. An admission of “gangster-type action” refers to an assassination plot against Fidel Castro involving Mafia figure Johnny Roselli. (NYT, Granma, June 27)

The parallels to current abuses by the CIA and other intelligence agencies are too obvious to go overlooked, even by the Times, whose Scott Shane writes in a June 27 analysis:

James Bamford, whose books on American intelligence cover the period from the Korean War to the Iraq war, took a similar view. Mr. Bamford said the scale of the National Security Agency’s interception of phone calls and e-mail messages of Americans and others in the United States in recent years — which prompted a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union in which Mr. Bamford is a plaintiff — almost certainly dwarfs the electronic surveillance and the review of mail carried out by the N.S.A. and the C.I.A. in the 1960s.

If the collection details government spying on Vietnam War protesters, it has a contemporary echo in the Pentagon’s admission that a database called Talon improperly recorded the activities of Iraq war protesters, he said.

“These documents are supposed to show the worst of the worst back then,” Mr. Bamford said. “But what’s going on today makes the family jewels pale by comparison.”

The controversial activities of the campaign against terrorism took place despite the changes enacted after the scandals of the 1970s.

The Bush administration chose to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, created in 1978 to oversee eavesdropping on American soil. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees, created to make sure past abuses would never be repeated, did little to rein in the N.S.A. wiretapping program or to set limits on interrogation practices until news reports set off a furor.

On the other hand, the recent surveillance activities appear so far to have been aimed at mostly people believed to pose a terrorist threat, not a political threat. So far there is no evidence of anything comparable, for example, to the F.B.I.’s relentless pursuit and harassment of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the political abuses of Watergate.

“I think there’s a lower threshold today for activities that impinge on our privacy and civil liberties,” said Amy Zegart, author of the coming book “Spying Blind: The F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the Origins of 9/11.”

This is a perhaps intentionally ambiguous statement. A lower threshold of tolerance for CIA overreach is meaningless if there is a higher threshold of what defines overreach—which would mean greater tolerance. Bamford’s quote was a lot clearer, and states an obvious truth: the Watergate-era abuses were small potatoes compared to what the “intelligence community” is doing today. Worse, back then such activities were considered scandalous and illegal, and sparked Congressional investigations. Today they are being “normalized.” The White House openly defends snooping on e-mail on a far greater scale than the CIA snooped on snail-mail a generation ago. The Agency no longer assassinates foreign leaders as a matter of policy, but it does openly assassinate suspected “terrorists”—and rather than contracting Mafia hitmen, it is done by remote-controlled drones, as in Yemen in 2002. The revelations of secret CIA prisons may still constitute a scandal for the press, but they have sparked no Congressional investigation, as the far less sinister Watergate revelations did.

We have noted the historical irony that Mexico is opening the files on the “dirty war” of the ’60s and ’70s—even bringing “genocide” charges against a former president—even as a human rights crisis of similar scale is unfolding in Mexico. The “dirty war” in Mexico was itself a footnote to the CIA’s global crusade on Communist subversion in that era. It is a part of the propaganda system to reveal abuses a generation after the fact, as a means of assuring that it’s all in the past. It’s a glimmer of hope that at least some journalists—even at the Times—are taking note of the irony, albeit with requisite obfuscation.

See our last posts on the politics of the CIA and the GWOT.