NSA Whistleblowers For Dummies, Part Two
(Previously: Part One)
The CIA’s attacks on "Ramparts" magazine would make for a grim beginning to this narrative, if not for the comic genius of the magazine’s editor, Warren Hinckle.
I remember Hinckle’s columns in the "San Francisco Examiner" when I was younger — the black eyepatch and the scowl; a fellow Oakland Raider fan, I assumed.
Just recently, I found a copy of Hinckle’s 1973 memoir about the 1960s and "Ramparts" magazine, "If You Have A Lemon, Make Lemonade." It’s one of the funniest, smartest, and most surprising works of American lit I’ve read. It’s like a better and non-fiction "Ginger Man" by Donleavy, only it takes place in the Bay Area in the 60s, in the vortex of some of the most important events in contemporary American history. Before reading his book, I expected Hinckle to be a grim, self-absorbed old hippie bore, a Tom Hayden type — in fact, Hinckle was a reactionary in the nerve center of the left-wing San Francisco Revolution. An active agent of upheaval, as the editor of the most fearless investigative reporting magazine in America. He despised the left, but it was a cheerful kind of loathing, without malice. Hinckle also was responsible for bringing Hunter S Thompson’s "gonzo" invention public at Hinckle’s follow-up magazine, "Scanlan's Monthly." Not "Rolling Stone."
It helps to have a sense of Hinckle’s character — utter fearlessness and old Bay Area Irish Catholic reactionary roots, his cheerful contempt for authority, and a self-conscious literary distance between protagonist Hinckle and his subject, generally of the evil-beyond-imagination sort— to understand why "Ramparts" never flinched from all the heavy-handed government attacks. Hinckle wound up hiring his screwball comedy opposite — Robert Scheer, a New Left Jewish intellectual from the east coast. Hinckle describes Scheer as "a black angel in the High Seraphim of Berkeley radicalism":
I had never met anyone quite like Scheer. He was bright and formidable and arrogant, yet his arrogance had a soft edge...I also came to understand Scheer’s deep-rooted competitiveness (which made him a damn good journalist) in terms of his four-year survival course in the left wing-Jewish intellectual Olympics at New York’s City College, with its constant one-upmanship and leftist backstabbing...he thought I was from Pluto, with my imperious, fat-dumb-and-happy Irish attitude toward everything. One attribute we shared, perverse as it was, was the ability to function normally in chaos and crisis.
Hinckle joined "Ramparts" in its initial incarnation as the voice for America’s Catholic liberal intellectuals — a mission he always found hilarious, if not contemptible — published by Bay Arean Edward Keating, or more truthfully, by his wife’s rather substantial inheritance. Hinckle described the magazine's first few issues as,
rich with a preciousness that is difficult to convey outside the reaches of Black Humor, and heavy with weird esoteric references to the decadent and royalist in Catholic literature...
Keating [the publisher] asked me what I thought of the magazine.
I answered, employing a device I learned from the Jesuits, with another question. I asked how it was selling.
It wasn’t selling.
Under Hinckle, the magazine moved increasingly leftward and radical — that was where the energy was, where the richest truths were to be found, and the most effective means to tweak authority.
"Ramparts"’ problems with the CIA started in spring 1966, when a whistleblower named Stanley Sheinbaum gave Hinckle and Scheer a bombshell story on how the CIA had been paying Michigan State University to act as the Agency’s front in South Vietnam. There had never been an investigative article quite like this, at least not since the start of the Cold War — exposing a top secret program in America’s war zone, implicating the American intelligentsia in serving the empire (MSU "advisors" trained and armed South Vietnam’s internal security forces, helped write South Vietnam’s Constitution, and provided cover for CIA officers posing as MSU academics, all in violation of UN agreements signed by the United States).
The whistleblower, an MSU Economics professor named Stanley Sheinbaum, first joined the Vietnam Project to advise South Vietnam's corrupt president Diem in 1955. In 1957, Sheinbaum was promoted to coordinator for the Vietnam Project, where he soon learned the real scope of his work there. One story Sheinbaum told: He and four top Saigon police officials came to the US for a training junket. While in the US, one of the four, the nephew of Diem, pulled Sheinbaum aside and let him in on a secret: They were planning to bump off the eldest of the four Vietnamese guests while in the US, since it would be easier to pull off in the US. Sheinbaum was horrified; he managed to create a diversion and get the intended victim sent to a hospital. A few years later, the target was executed in Vietnam anyway.
Sheinbaum soon learned about all the CIA officers under Michigan State University academic cover. In 1959, feeling used and drawn deeper into an increasingly violent and corrupt situation in Vietnam, Sheinbaum and another professor both quit the program. In the 1960s, Sheinbaum watched the US get sucked deeper and deeper into the war, and it weighed on his conscience. If academics were taking funds from the CIA to do work like keeping inventories on grenade launcher ammo, Browning automatics and .50 caliber machine guns — as MSU had been doing in Vietnam — then "where is the source of serious intellectual criticism that would help us avoid future Vietnams?" Sheinbaum asked.
In early 1966, he went to "Ramparts" and told them what he knew. Right down to the names of CIA agents he provided cover for:
Central Intelligence Agency men were hidden within the ranks of the Michigan State University professors. They were all listed as members of the MSU Project staff and were formally appointed by the University Board of Trustees. Several of the CIA men were given academic rank and were paid by the University Project. The CIA agents' instructions were to engage in counter-espionage and counter-intelligence.
The head of the "Internal Security Section" ... under the Michigan State operation was Raymond Babineau who was in Saigon from the outset of the MSU Project. The other men were hired later by the University and listed on its staff chart as "Police Administration Specialists." All four — Douglas Deed, William Jones, Daniel Smith, and Arthur Stein — gave their previous employment as either "investigator" or "records specialist" in the Department of the Army.
Had "Ramparts" published the names of those spies today, Sheinbaum would face jail, and so might Hinckle and Scheer. But in 1966, there were no laws yet making it a crime to identify and publish the names of covert intelligence operatives. Such laws weren’t needed; the mainstream media wasn’t aggressive. "Ramparts" was different.
The article created a nationwide shitstorm in the halls of academia — LBJ was accused of threatening academic freedom. He responded by appointing a "task force" to look into the problem — which included top CIA executive Richard Helms.
At the same time, CIA director William Raborn asked his security director for a "run down" on "Ramparts," on a "high priority basis":
"The [CIA] Director is particularly interested in the authors of the article, namely Stanley Sheinbaum and Robert Scheer. He is also interested in any other individuals who worked for the magazine."
The CIA was now on record committing serious crimes, violating its original 1947 charter that barred the CIA from operating on US soil or spying on US citizens. These and other crimes it would go on to commit would define the CIA’s and other officials’ pushback against whistleblowers and transparency in the coming years. In the meantime, the CIA went full-bore, digging into "Ramparts"’ and Hinckle’s financial records — looking for foreign, Communist sources. The CIA "urged" the FBI to investigate "Ramparts" and its editors as "a subversive unit."
Within days, the Agency learned that a major source of "Ramparts" solvency was Hinckle’s talent for hitting up donors for more money. They assumed Hinckle was a communist, and his donors were communists.
If only the CIA knew how Hinckle described his fund-raising work, shaking down stingy rich liberal pensioners in Manhattan — it’s one of the rare moments when Hinckle unleashes his hate from his nonchalance:
After weeks of hearing sweet no-no’s I had had it with the New York rich left, who clipped their Honeywell coupons by day and gave cheap-wine fund-raising parties for antiwar radicals by night...
A difference of opinion developed between myself and many of the richer leftists over money — their money — which I suppose could be said to boil down to the fact that they wanted to hang on to it and I wanted to spend it. Also I have never been in a cafeteria in my life and it rankled beyond repair the sensibilities of some investors when I took them to lunch at the Four Seasons and paid for it with their money.... If "Ramparts" had been anything other than a leftist magazine you would never have heard one word about the money thing; the paper was quite disconcertingly upfront about using the system and insisting on its share of the white man’s privileges of the journalists on the other side of the political fence — while at the same time unreasonably attacking and vilifying the Establishment; this made people wonder what the paper was really about, and when they looked, they found me drinking at Elaine’s.
That was how Warren Hinckle talked and thought; but as far as the CIA was concerned, Hinckle must be a pinko, and "Ramparts" must be getting its funds from the Soviets.
Less than a year later, another whistleblower came forward to blow the CIA’s cover on the National Student Association, which the CIA secretly funded through a handful of nonprofit foundations. The National Student Association represented 3 million US students at the time; its job was to lobby for their interests. Instead, over the years, National Student Association leaders were made privy to the CIA’s involvement, and told to sign a secrecy contract. The CIA used the international student group for everything from recruiting foreign students to disrupting Soviet-allied student groups. (One student organizer on the CIA take was Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem.) Top student officers in the National Student Association were asked to sign a secrecy oath; but this whistleblower, who was 24 when he contacted "Ramparts," was never asked to sign the non-disclosure. (Nor had Sheinbaum been asked to sign a secrecy contract for his Vietnam Project work.) Leaks of this sort were still new to the government bureaucracy; it had never occurred to them that there might arise a dominant middle-class cultural trend favoring rebellion and conscience over conformism.
Hinckle’s portrait of the National Student Association whistleblower is worth quoting to get a sense of the kind of person he was starting to come into contact with more often, with some interesting parallels to today’s whistleblowers:
He was Michael Wood, a 24-year-old Pomona College dropout, a civil rights worker in Watts before the apocalypse, and a former fund-raiser for the National Student Association. Wood was fidgety and run-down, a psychological war refugee from himself after a year-long battle with his conscience over whether he should betray his buddies by telling me the story he had finally, in a state of napkin-wringing earnestness, decided to unfold.....Even when they are straight, as was Wood, such assassins of their own past are plagued by Raskolnikov’s dance. They have difficulty sitting still. They twist their necks. Their eyes have a malarial glare. They’re guilty about what they did — and equally guilty about informing on their friends, past and present, who may still be doing it. They are caught between a need to do some good that may live on after them and fear of some evil that may be interred with their bones.
"Ramparts" reporters fanned out to cross-check and verify the whistleblower’s story. But they quickly found that every potential source or person of interest had been tipped off in advance not to talk to "Ramparts." It was later revealed that the CIA planted a mole inside the magazine. None of it was legal of course, but no one knew and no one could stop it.
By 1967, the CIA had a new chief, Richard Helms, who in turn appointed a high level Agency counterintelligence expert, Richard Ober, to oversee the "Ramparts" spy operation, with a support staff of 12 officers. They were unable to find a legal way of shutting down the magazine before the story published in the March 1967 edition; so the CIA decided to ruin "Ramparts"' scoop by essentially scooping them first. So they arranged for the National Student Association leaders to hold a press conference revealing the relationship and managing the fallout before the "Ramparts" issue went to print.
Hinckle, however, had his own "Ramparts" plant inside the student group, who warned him about the plan to scoop his "Ramparts" scoop. Declaring "I was damned if I was going to let the CIA scoop me," Hinckle bought full-page ads in both the "New York Times" and "Washington Post" announcing in-advance that the March issue of "Ramparts" would "document how the CIA has infiltrated and subverted the world of student leaders." As Hinckle said, "I scooped myself" first.
The fallout from the advertisements and the story was huge — eight leading Congressmen, including John Conyers of Michigan, signed onto a letter of protest to LBJ:
"This disclosure leads us and many others here and abroad to believe that the CIA can be as much a threat to American as to foreign democratic institutions."
The CIA got the tax records for "Ramparts," its publisher, Hinckle, Scheer and others, but couldn’t find a single foreign source that would provide a modicum of legal cover for the CIA’s spying. In all, the CIA investigated 127 Ramparts reporters and researchers, and roughly 200 other Americans linked to "Ramparts," according to Angus MacKenzie’s book, "Secrets: The CIA’s War At Home."
Ober circulated a memo to his dirty dozen anti-"Ramparts" spooks, offering "certain operational recommendations" — interpreted later by a fellow CIA officer, Louis Dube, as meaning "articles that would appear in other media."
We’ve already seen some of this as part of the pushback campaign against the Snowden leaks, and against Greenwald in particular. The tactic was used against "Ramparts," and later, against Seymour Hersh. One smear came from nationally-syndicated columnist Carl Rowan, usually considered a liberal-centrist. Rowan had just finished a stint as director of the United States Information Agency, which runs Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Now he was a nationally syndicated columnist, and his response to the "Ramparts" exposé on the CIA-National Student Association was to smear "Ramparts" as Communist dupes:
A few days ago a brief, cryptic report out of Prague, Czechoslovakia, was passed among a handful of top officials in Washington. It said that an editor of "Ramparts" magazine had come to Prague and held a long, secret session with officers of the Communist-controlled International Union of Students [IUS]. ...The Prague report aroused deep suspicions here among officials who are privately shocked and dismayed at the damage to the CIA and to U.S. foreign policy interests caused by the needless series of busted intelligence "covers" that has resulted from the "Ramparts" exposé. What, if any, relationship does "Ramparts" have to the IUS?
(One month after calling "Ramparts" commie subversives, Carl Rowan accused Martin Luther King, Jr. of "creating the impression that the Negro is disloyal" due to Dr. King’s denunciation of the Vietnam War.) The story won "Ramparts" a George Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism. The CIA announced it had "divorced" from the student association group, which changed its name to the United States Student Association, and summarily saw its membership and influence crash.
The CIA didn’t like what had happened, and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. So they decided to double-down on their illegal domestic spying program by expanding it to the entire range of "underground" anti-Vietnam War student press. The idea was to spy and subvert the growing opposition press before it had a chance to embarrass them, not after.
Richard Ober was assigned to head up a new top-secret CIA domestic spying program code-named MH-CHAOS ("MH" for "worldwide operations" and "CHAOS" for "chaos"). Ober and 10 CIA officers set up a secret office in a secured underground vault in the basement of the CIA headquarters — protecting the operation from fellow CIA colleagues as well as outsiders. Intelligence reports on domestic political dissidents generated by this illegal program were shared with LBJ in his last year in power, and more vigorously with Nixon’s White House. Two presidents were active participants in a criminal program spying on and subverting political dissent. With MH-CHAOS, that program massively expanded. Two top CIA officials — counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, and deputy director Thomas Karamessines, a dirty tricks expert who oversaw the campaign to overthrow Chilean President Allende — ordered Ober’s team to spy on and subvert the huge underground left-wing antiwar press that now dominated youth and campus culture. For cover, Ober advised everyone who worked on MH-CHAOS that they were investigating foreign funding of domestic dissident groups — that would provide at least some legal justification.
By this point, America’s student and alternative antiwar press had grown so large that it spawned its own alt-press wire service, pooling together publications whose combined circulation reached up to seven million readers. That meant Ober had to grow MH-CHAOS to keep up with the workload, from 10 to well over 60 CIA employees around the country. That of course increased the chances of someone leaking the program, and Ober feared if word got out, people could go to jail, and the Agency might be destroyed.
So Ober came up with a simple plan to prevent whistleblowers and prevent the public from learning that they were being spied on, a plan that became an early blueprint for what we have today: Ober made everyone working on MH-CHAOS sign a "secrecy contract," patterned after Britain’s Official Secrets Act of 1911. The "secrecy contract" or non-disclosure contract barred those who signed it from ever going public. No one had ever tested such a secrecy contract in the US in peacetime; but even before it was tested in the courts, it had a serious preventative dampening effect on anyone thinking of becoming the next people’s hero.
The consequences of keeping this illegal program a secret were as bad as can be expected: Unchecked, MH-CHAOS grew out of control, expanding from a targeted program against "Ramparts" magazine in 1966, to a program that spied on at least 300,000 Americans by the early 1970s.
All of which made Ober exactly the kind of guy Nixon wanted close by. As leaks started to plague Nixon’s presidency, Ober was brought into a special White House intelligence outfit led by John Dean, which included officials from the National Security Agency, FBI, Pentagon and Secret Service. On orders from Nixon, the task force was asked to draw up a program to stop the leaks and frighten and punish whistleblowers. Ober took charge of the report, which drew on his experience fighting leakers that began with "Ramparts," and had now mushroomed into the CIA’s MH-CHAOS program. Ober’s top secret report, titled "The Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information," noted that the key problem was that there was no uniformity across federal agencies on protecting secrets and punishing whistleblowers. To change this, Ober’s report recommended:
- Restricting and recording all contacts between federal officials and journalists, and issu[ing] uniform and clearly defined procedures;
- Centralizing each federal agency's office that records all contacts between federal officials and journalists;
- Pursuing, punishing and firing all leakers;
- Enacting laws punishing and criminalizing unauthorized disclosures.
Those recommendations, along with Ober’s emphasis on getting employees to sign secrecy contracts, became the national security state’s blueprint model to protect its secrets — "the foundation for the largest peacetime secrecy-and-censorship apparatus the United States has ever known," in the words of former UC Berkeley journalism teacher Angus MacKenzie. The secrecy apparatus had to wait for Reagan to take office in 1981 — the 70s was a bitch for national security state apparatchiks.
Ober’s operation was also one of the earliest examples of how the national security state shifted its rationale from combating domestic leftwing dissidents to combating something newer, more amorphous and more credibly scary: International Terrorism.
After the Watergate break-in in 1972, Ober’s bosses in the CIA grew even more nervous about having their secret illegal domestic spy operation exposed. So they redefined the rationale for spying on Americans. On December 5, 1972, Richard Helms told Ober that from now on, they should say that the purpose of the MH-CHAOS program was to combat international terrorism, rather than domestic Communist subversives. Helms whipped out a final policy memo to his future replacement, Bill Colby:
To a [sic] maximum extent possible, Ober should become identified with the subject of terrorism inside the Agency as well as in the Intelligence Community.
Colby quickly followed that up with a memo to Richard Ober’s immediate superior in the counterintelligence branch:
"A clear priority is to be given in this general field to the subject of terrorism. This should bring about a reduction in the intensity of attention to political dissidents in the United States not apt to be involved in terrorism."
As Angus MacKenzie correctly observed, in 1972, American mainstream culture had changed — "dissidents" were not only "cool" but increasingly mainstream, pop culture heroes. International terrorism, on the other hand, was something newer, more mysterious, and more plausibly sinister.
Just days after introducing his prescient new rationale for the national security state, Helms resigned from the CIA, along with Ober’s boss in counterintelligence. Just before leaving, Helms shut down Richard Ober’s MHCHAOS program and created a new project named the "International Terrorism Group," with Ober as its head. Somehow, the threat posed by Warren Hinckle’s punk journalism in 1966-7 seamlessly morphed into the threat posed by international terrorism.
Leaks and an obsession with plugging them are what drove Nixon to lose his marbles, veer towards fascism, and eventually destroy himself.
To combat leaks and perceived domestic enemies, Nixon adopted something called the "Huston Plan." The brainchild of a 29-year-old White House libertarian named Tom Huston, it called for: breaking into the homes and offices of dissidents and opponents; flooding campuses with snitches; installing Nixon puppets in top IRS positions; and weaponizing the tax agency against leftists and political opponents.
According to a 1973 article in the "Times," the Huston Plan also called for,
monitoring of American citizens using international communications facilities; increased legal "mail coverage" (exterior examination to determine sender, postmark, etc.) and relaxation of restrictions on illegal mail coverage (opening and reading)...
Nixon initially green-lighted the Huston Plan, then reversed himself a few days later — the plan was too explicitly evil. Nevertheless, Nixon adopted most if not all of the Huston Plan recommendations, right down to the burglaries and phone tappings made famous by the White House Plumbers’ operation at Watergate.
It's ironic that the mastermind of the plan, Tom Huston, was a 29-year-old "libertarian," one of the earliest to identify with that political label. And yet this "libertarian" was responsible for drawing up what author James Reston Jr. called "arguably the most anti-democratic document in American history." It’s a perfect illustration of how much our politics and political labels have changed: Huston and Snowden were both 29-year-old libertarians, yet they’ve played completely opposite roles.
A 1973 "Times" article, "State of Siege," describes Huston’s libertarianism:
Indiana is a stronghold of "libertarianism," that brand of intense individualism which can serve as an ideological underpinning for everything from freewheeling radicalism to rigid conservatisim. Tom Charles Huston, of Logansport, Ind., began as a Stevensonian Democrat but in high school became a "Jeffersonian Republican" who admired Cato and John C. Calhoun and wished he had lived in the 18th century.
At Indiana University, where he gained bachelor’s and law degrees, he became national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom...Beyond two years in Army intelligence, the tall, bespectacled Huston brought little experience to his security job. But he justified his role in terms of "libertarian" doctrines.
"The real threat to internal security is repression. But repression is an inevitable result of disorder. Forced to choose between order and freedom, people will take order."
How and why the roles of libertarians and liberals have flipped so radically in the 40 years since the Huston Plan is for another article. Huston became one of the Nixon Administration’s sacrificial freaks in the Watergate drama. Even though the plan was officially shelved, investigators traced the creation of Nixon’s Plumbers to Huston’s plan. Like the name says, Nixon’s Plumbers were tasked with fixing leaks the down ‘n’ dirty way. The Plumbers were cobbled together from a bunch of incompetent fascist burnouts from the CIA and FBI, and their first task was to break into Daniel Ellsberg’s shrink’s office, steal his private records, and then leak them to the press to call into question Ellsberg’s mental health. (Questioning the leaker’s mental health is a tactic being used again today against Snowden.)
The Plumbers didn’t find Ellsberg’s records, but they did something right because the same crew was tapped for another leak-plugging mission: Jack Anderson. As in plug him. Literally.
Anderson had been publishing a series of embarrassing stories on secret White House foreign policy, based on classified documents leaked to him on a regular basis. Unlike the Pentagon Papers — more of a historical record as the Vietnam War was already winding down — the classified papers leaked to Anderson dealt with current and classified policy as it was happening, and it drove Nixon and his circle into paroxysms of violent paranoia. For example, in 1971, Nixon and Kissinger secretly backed Pakistan’s campaign to exterminate 3 million Bangladeshis back when Bangladesh was officially part of Pakistan, known as "East Pakistan." During its genocide campaign, Pakistan launched a surprise military invasion of India — and Nixon and Kissinger secretly arranged to provide Pakistan’s dictator with arms, jets and other weapons (America was almost alone in the world in backing Pakistan). Nixon also ordered the nuclear-armed US 7th Fleet into the region, nearly sparking a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, which backed India and sent two naval fleets into the region.
What drove Nixon and Kissinger to support Pakistan so recklessly was their still-secret courtship of Mao Tse-Tung’s China, which wasn’t made public for another year. China and Pakistan had long been allies against both India and against the Soviets. By backing Pakistan, Nixon showed Mao he was serious about forming a new, still-secret alliance with Red China against the Soviets, and against the Vietnamese. Regardless of their clever chess game strategies, Pakistan got crushed by India in a short two-week war, and Bangladesh became independent. The policy was a failure, and throughout the Pakistan-India crisis, Jack Anderson was leaking day-to-day classified insider memos and documents showing how reckless Nixon and Kissinger's war plans were.
Nixon’s wrath turned on Anderson and finding who his leaker was. And this is where things got really weird. After a lot of strong-arming and interrogating, it turned out that Anderson’s source was a 27-year-old Navy Yeoman named Charles Radford, who served as an aide to the National Security Council. At first Nixon thought Radford leaked to Anderson because both were Mormons. But under polygraph interrogation, Radford confessed he’d been acting on orders from top Navy brass — two admirals serving in Nixon’s National Security Council, and the head of Nixon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer. On their orders, Yeoman Radford stole classified documents right out of Kissinger’s briefcase on Air Force One flights, during meetings, or in "burn bags" meant for destruction. It was no secret that the military brass and military-industrial complex were unhappy with Nixon’s plans to form an alliance with Red China and to bring de facto peace with the Soviet Union through arms treaties and detente. But finding out that officers at the highest levels of the American armed forces were running an illegal spy operation against Nixon, and leaking damaging information to the press, was downright frightening. (It was later revealed that the National Security Agency illegally spied on Kissinger during this time, and passed his communications on to Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, for roughly the same reasons.)
When Nixon learned that the Pentagon was running a spy ring against him and Kissinger, he gasped: "Jesus!" As recounted in the book "Poisoning The Press" by Mark Feldstein,
Nixon concluded that the entire affair was "a federal offense of the highest order," nothing less than a Pentagon "espionage system" with the military "setting up their own Gestapo" and "spying on the President." Attorney General Mitchell agreed and thought it raised the "specter of [a] military takeover."
"If it was in a movie, you wouldn’t believe it," Nixon marveled.
Nixon realized that if the spy scandal went public, it would damage him much worse than the Jack Anderson leaks — losing him the right-wing voting bloc, and dragging him into open conflict with the US military. Nixon quietly put the leaker, Yeoman Radford, out to pasture — and instead focused on taking down celebrity columnist Jack Anderson.
The White House brought in their "Plumbers" to plug Anderson — as in plug him for good. They drew up plans to dose Anderson’s steering wheel with LSD; they looked into staging a deadly car accident in a "well-known deadly road curve" in DC; they met with a CIA doctor to procure untraceable poisons; and they considered staging a deadly DC mugging. Before they could agree on the best way to snuff Jack Anderson, they were sent to bug the Watergate offices of the Democratic Party, where they were busted by a rent-a-cop, and the whole thing came crashing down.
Nixon was forced to resign in August 1974 because he couldn’t manage his war on leakers properly. After that, the whole house of cards started to collapse. Investigative journalists and whistleblowers suddenly became pop culture heroes; the spectacle of a president forced to account for his crimes was, for a short while, empowering. The national security state was now seen as the enemy.
Ford pardoned Nixon just days after taking power, sparking an angry backlash. I’ve read recent claims that the media and political establishment supported Ford’s pardon of Nixon, but that’s a lie if you go back and check the record. Republicans were split; but Democrats were overwhelmingly opposed, some bitterly denouncing Ford, who was dragged before Congress to testify if he’d lied or cut a deal with Nixon. Sen. Mondale even proposed a new Constitutional amendment giving Congress the right to overturn presidential pardons, which the Constitution allows.
Politically, Ford’s pardon backfired. The post-60s liberals saw government as the main threat now; economics and big business were an afterthought. On the eve of the 1974 midterm elections, Democrats led by Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Jack Moss, passed legislation that put teeth in FOIA requests, and shifted the burden of proof to the government: Now, if the government claimed the material should not be releasd to the public for national security reasons, the government had to prove its case, and federal judges were empowered to review the requested material and override the government. Also, the time period for fulfilling requests was drastically shortened to two weeks.
President Ford vetoed the bill on the advice of his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld; Rumsfeld’s deputy, Richard Cheney; and a young Justice Department lawyer named Antonin Scalia, who told Ford the bill might lead to even more damaging leaks. But the mood had changed, and those Democrats weren’t today’s Democrats. They overrode Ford’s veto, and now FOIA was a new major battleground.
The November 1974 elections swept to power the most radical liberal class of Democrats into Congress since FDR’s time, including 75 freshman Democrats. Goldwater called it "the most dangerous Congress ever."
But it’s important to keep in mind, when looking back on the failures and how we got to the Democratic Party of today, that the radical class of 1974 was not focused on fighting economic power and big business power, as the left had traditionally done; this was a new, post-60s, Baby Boomer-informed radicalism, which saw government power and the national security state as the threats, and found business and economics boring at best. Perhaps in part that's because they could afford to — it's no coincidence that 1973 was the peak year for American equality in terms of distribution of wealth and income, and it's been downhill ever since for all but the top 5-10%.
So just as Democrats turned their full energy against government power and the national security state, they were also turning away from the New Deal politics of labor and social democracy, in favor of the neoliberal/libertarian politics of privatization and markets. That turn against government and towards market solutions eventually led to where we are today under Obama, the worst of both the national security state and austerity politics, a smoldering toxic dump of all the worst that the Democratic Party has offered.
Just before the new "radical" Democratic Congress took power, Seymour Hersh blew open Richard Ober’s CIA operation in the "New York Times" — a program that initially began with "Ramparts" magazine. Hersh's article changed everything.
Headlined: "Huge CIA Operation Reported In US Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents In Nixon Years," Hersh’s article accused the CIA of mass criminal behavior and keeping files on over 10,000 Americans. His story blew the whole thing open that Richard Ober and Richard Helms had desperately tried to keep hidden. Ford’s CIA chief, William Colby, said Hersh’s article "triggered a firestorm," later writing,
"In it, all the dreadful fears and suspicions about the CIA, which had been building for years, suddenly crystallized."
Commissions and committees were formed: Ford announced a Rockefeller Commission with his vice president Nelson Rockefeller in charge; the Senate launched its Church Committee under Idaho Sen. Frank "Sunday School" Church; and the House set up the more aggressive Pike Committee, which after early problems turned into the most radical of the three commissions.
Less well-remembered today is the way Hersh was savaged by the rest of the media establishment when his article first appeared, something they probably don’t tell you about at the Newseum.
Newsweek’s answer to Hersh’s exposé:
The story that toughed off the flap was surprisingly tough in the headline, but sparse in detail....
'Overstepping': Reactions from other well-placed sources ranged from guarded confirmation to outright skepticism. A source familiar with Colby's 30-page report to Ford told NEWSWEEK: "There's something to Hersh's charges but a hell of a lot less than he makes of it."
"Time" raised non-existent doubts in a piece headlined "Supersnoop":
There is a strong likelihood that Hersh's CIA story is considerably exaggerated and that the Times overplayed it. So far, Hersh has failed to name one of the 10,000 citizens whom the CIA allegedly watched nor does he explain what kind of surveillance the CIA used.
Elsewhere "Time" assured its readers,
Many observers in Washington who are far from naive about the CIA nevertheless consider its past chiefs and most of its officials highly educated, sensitive and dedicated public servants who would scarcely let themselves get involved in the kind of massive scheme described.
Even the "Washington Post" went after Hersh’s credibility, as recounted in UC Davis history professor Kathryn Olmsted’s book "Challenging the Secret Government":
Hersh's competitor on the intelligence beat at the Washington Post, Laurence Stern, wrote an article on Hersh's stories for the Columbia Journalism Review under the condescending headline "Exposing the CIA (Again)." Stern criticized Hersh for the "dearth of hard facts," which "stood in sharp contrast to the article's page-one display." Furthermore, Stern wrote, Hersh had followed his initial story with a "remarkably febrile succession of follow-ups." Stern's employer, the Post, editorialized that the Times had used too many anonymous sources — a surprising charge from the newspaper that had relied on Deep Throat.
You can see these same tactics today being used by media pundits and bloggers to discredit the Edward Snowden story and its reporters. Some of it’s professional jealousy; some of it’s institutionalized distrust and partisanship; some of it is straight-up corruption. But after a year of committees and hearings, Hersh was vindicated beyond his wildest paranoid nightmares.
It turned out the CIA had spied on as many as 300,000 Americans or more; that they’d conducted secret and sometimes bizarre drug, chemical and mind-control tests on unwitting Americans; that the CIA’s still-secret budget was at least three times larger than lawmakers had assumed; that the CIA’s overseas propaganda operations were larger than its intelligence gathering operations; that the CIA had hundreds of American journalists and media figures on its payroll or cooperating with the Agency; that the CIA maintained an enormous paramilitary wing that was larger than most countries’ armies; and that the CIA had been involved in a number of attempted assassinations on foreign leaders.
One of the biggest shocks came from a hitherto unknown outfit called the National Security Agency, which had been spying on Americans on a scale that made Richard Ober’s program look like kid’s stuff. Moreover, as Congress was beginning to learn, the NSA operated essentially beyond the reach of Congress. In his opening statement on the NSA hearings in late 1975, Sen. Church introduced the NSA's existence to the American public:
In contrast to the CIA, one has to search far and wide to find someone who has ever heard of the NSA. This is peculiar, because the National Security Agency is an immense installation. ...Just as the NSA is one of the largest and least known of the intelligence agencies, it is also the most reticent. While it sweeps in messages from around the world, it gives out precious little information about itself. Even the legal basis for the activities of NSA is different from other intelligence agencies. No statute establishes the NSA or defines the permissible scope of its responsibilities. Rather, Executive directives make up the sole "charter" for the Agency.
They learned about two NSA programs spying on Americans: "Project Minaret" that spied on 1,600 Americans on a "watch list"; and Project Shamrock, which tapped all international communications with the cooperation of the major cable companies. The Church Committee described Project Shamrock as "probably the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken."
But there’s something about the NSA that no one wants to touch. Not even then, at the peak of reform fever, in the climate of the "end of the national security state as we know it" as one magazine crowed. Carter and Church managed to cage much of the CIA and FBI’s worst activities for a few years — but even the FISA law of 1978 provided odd exceptions for the National Security Agency.
In 1978, the "Washington Post" reported on the new FISA law in an article headlined "Carter Signs Bill Limiting Foreign Intelligence Surveillance" that began:
Setting aside nearly 40 years of executive branch claims of "inherent" power to spy at will, President Carter yesterday signed legislation requiring court approval before the government can conduct electronic surveillance in most foreign intelligence cases.
Reportedly narrow exception was made for highly secretive National Security Agency operations, such as intercepts of communications between a foreign embassy and its superiors abroad.
Addressing the two spy programs uncovered by Church, the WaPo reported that the bill only banned the NSA’s smaller "Project Minaret" program while leaving the Shamrock program completely alone:
Contains restrictions to prevent the resurgence of NSA "watch lists" concerning the international communications of listed Americans. The bill, however, does not deal with Americans abroad and it still permits so-called "vacuum cleaner" intercepts of electronic communications between the United States and other countries.
And that was it, our highwater mark to check the national security state. After that, it was all downhill.
Reagan put his CIA men, Bill Casey and Vice President Bush, in charge of undoing all reforms of the previous decade, and reimposing a new, much tighter secrecy apparatus with a vengeance. The first secrecy/censorship law that Casey pushed through Congress was the "Intelligence Identities Protection Act," which made identifying US spies a jailable offense.
The real purpose of the law wasn’t to protect the Jason Bournes in foreign hotspots, or the Valerie Plames — it was to bury the dirty secrets from the public, and to scare away potential heroes inside the Agency and in the newsrooms. The Reagan Administration had big plans — death squads in Central America that would kill tens of thousands; massive domestic spying programs against US antiwar activists; illegal underworld covert operations like Iran-Contra — none of which it wanted the public to know about.
The really depressing thing is that the CIA found an unlikely ally in this: The ACLU. Some of the very same people who helped draft the FISA laws and laws expanding the FOIA program — Morton Halperin, Mark Lynch — turned around and quietly worked with the CIA’s lawyers to undo those reforms, and create the most effective secrecy apparatus this country has ever had.
It began with the bill criminalizing naming CIA agents. In April, 1981, CIA chief Bill Casey went to Congress pushing hard to pass a bill that would make exposing names of US spies an offense punishable by up to three years in prison and a $15,000 fine — even if a journalist pinpointed a spy by analyzing public information, rather than classified information from a leaker. Casey also wanted a law granting the FBI the right to make surprise searches in American newsrooms if a leak was suspected.
Publicly, the ACLU denounced the bill. But on July 13, 1981, the ACLU’s Morton Halperin went to Langley to work out a backroom deal, according to files and transcripts uncovered in MacKenzie's book "Secrets": in return for softening the language against journalists, the ACLU would get its Democratic allies to back the bill. The deal offered by the ACLU — exempt journalists and publishers, fuck the leakers— would essentially legalize a sleazy unspoken arrangement that grew out of the Nixon years, in which the same information is considered criminal and immoral when leaked by one party (the government employee), but when leaked by another party (journalist/media) it’s considered heroic, democratic and beyond legal reproach. Profiting off that information is considered sleazy if the leaker profits from it, which leakers rarely do; but it’s perfectly fine and honorable for that same information to provide journalists with lucrative prizes and promotions, and their media outlets to win advertisers and subscribers off that same leaked information.
Somehow, leaking has been divided into two totally separate and antithetical actions: one is Benedict Arnold, the other Jeffersonian; one is a criminal, the other reaffirms the very purpose of the American Republic. It makes no sense: by this logic, journalists should be leading the crusade against leakers and whistleblowers. But the media wants to profit off what they do without having to share in the downside. And politicians are far more fearful of pissing off the powerful media than they are isolated whistleblowers; and publishers and journalists don’t want to go to jail. As MacKenzie described the ACLU’s backroom deal with Reagan’s CIA:
Although his compromise contained an unprecedented capitulation, giving the government carte blanche to prosecute its own employees, Halperin felt certain he had saved the day for journalists...journalists would be left alone at the expense of those government employees with the courage to blow the whistle. More significantly, Halperin’s compromise was a signal that the ACLU would not mobilize its quarter million members to lobby Capitol Hill in defense of the First Amendment rights of government employees or reporters. As the ACLU position became clear in the ensuing months, the traditional liberal coalition against secrecy began to disintegrate both inside and outside Congress.
The punchline to all this is that after the ACLU’s support for the bill was made clear to Democrats and the liberal opposition to it broke, the CIA went back on its deal with Halperin: Congress passed a harsher version of the bill in 1982. As the New York Times wrote,
The new law would, for the first time, make it possible for someone to be prosecuted for publishing information available to the public.
MacKenzie’s sympathies were for both parties who got screwed by this bill, not just reporters:
The government now had powerful new weapons to wield against any whistleblower who talked to a reporter and against the reporters themselves.
Among those who voted for the bill, called the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, that was used to put CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou in jail: libertarian hero Ron Paul.
Among the bill's few opponents: Sen. Joe Biden, whose administration jailed Kiriakou, for violating the same Intelligence Identities Protection Act that Biden railed against in 1982.
This law was one of the first steps under Reagan in a multi-pronged effort to impose secrecy and censorship, and institutionalize it in government. Most of what the Reagan people implemented — secrecy contracts for most of the federal workforce, rules regulating contact with the media, penalties and vicious pursuit of leakers — was drawn from the same outline Richard Ober offered to Nixon a decade earlier.
Despite getting screwed the first time around, the ACLU’s relationship with its CIA counterparts grew even cozier throughout the Reagan years, providing crucial cover for new rules forcing employees to sign non-disclosures contracts (Form 189, Form 312) and helping draw up new restrictions on FOIA laws rolling back Kennedy's reforms in 1974. When the ACLU’s relationship with Reagan's CIA broke into the open, it caused a minor scandal — the "Nation" covered it, and even the "New York Times" ran a piece in 1985 headlined, "The Dept. of Strange Bedfellows: C.I.A. and A.C.L.U."
I had no idea before reading Angus MacKenzie’s book, and then cross-checking the record and footnotes, but it’s there. But we know what happened after that arrangement: the ACLU’s crucial "liberal" cover for Big Tobacco in exchange for ACLU support for the tobacco giants’ "First Amendment" rights to advertise freely, and "smokers’ rights" in the workplace.
Everything is rotten, right down to our politics and ideologies. The whole fucking thing is upside-down, inside-out, with Tom Huston’s descendents as the heroic leakers against government tyranny, the Church Committee’s descendants as the security apparatus tyrants, and no one has a clue how we got here or how we can get ourselves out, except through vague fantasies involving flash mobs and Guy Fawkes masks.