The Corruption of Covert Actions
by Ramsey Clark
CovertAction Quarterly magazine, Fall 1998
Nothing is more destructive of democracy or peace and freedom
through the rule of law than secret criminal acts by government.
The fact, or appearance, of covert action by government agents
or their surrogates rots the core of love and respect that is
the foundation of any free democratic society. Every true citizen
of any nation wants to be able to love her country and still love
justice. Corrupt covert actions make this impossible.
Despite common knowledge that the U.S. government is engaged
continually in dangerous covert actions, some that can alter the
futures of whole societies, most people cling desperately to the
faith that their government is different and better than others,
that it would engage in criminal, or ignoble, acts only under
the greatest provocation, or direst necessity, and then only for
a greater good. They do not want information that suggests otherwise
and question the patriotism of anyone who raises unwanted questions.
In Vietnam 30 years ago, with all of Charlie Company, including
dozens of robust young American soldiers who shot and killed helpless
Vietnamese women and children and many other U.S. military personnel
witnesses to, or aware of, the slaughter at My Lai, few would
imagine the murderous event could be kept secret. Yet few would
deny the U.S. intended to do so. The tragedy barely came to light
through the courage and perseverance of several men. Ron Ridenhour
broke the story after personal inquiry with letters to the Congress.
The hero of My Lai, Hugh Thompson, who ended the massacre by placing
himself between the U.S. troops and surviving Vietnamese and ordering
his helicopter machine gunner to aim at the American soldiers
and shoot if they tried to continue, was removed from Vietnam,
separated from the service, and threatened with prosecution supported
by Congressmen Mendel Rivers and Edward Hebert. Lt. William Calley
alone was convicted, confined to base for a while, and still enjoys
government support. Only by the sacrifice and heroism of an unusual
handful did the story become known, and even then there has never
been an acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the U.S. The medal begrudgingly
given Thompson in 1998 was for non-combat service. And My Lai
is viewed as an aberration, an ambiguous aberration.
When Salvadoran soldiers of the elite Atlacatl Battalion,
which trained in the U.S., massacred Salvadoran villagers at El
Mozote, shooting even infants Iying on wooden floors at point
blank range, the U.S. government was able to cover up any public
disclosure, even though top reporters from the New York Times
and the Washington Post and a TV team from CBS knew the story.
It was a dozen years later before the massacre at El Mozote was
confirmed, and years too late to affect U.S. plans for El Salvador,
or the careers of those responsible for yet another U.S.-condoned,
and inspired, massacre.
Just to list a few of the alleged assassinations conducted
or planned by U.S. agents exposes the crisis in confidence covert
actions have created for our country. Allende, Lumumba, Diem,
Bhutto, with many questioning whether President Kennedy and Martin
Luther King, Jr., should be included, and U.S. planning for the
assassination of Fidel Castro part of our public record, while
air and missile attacks directed at Qaddafi of Libya and Saddam
Hussein of Iraq missed their targets.
CIA Director Richard Helms pleaded guilty to perjury for false
testimony he gave before the U.S. Senate on the CIA' s role in
the overthrow of President Allende. He was fined, but his two-year
prison sentence was suspended. But the American public is unaware
of it, and Chile has never been the same. U.S. support for the
overthrow of Allende was the essential element in that tragedy.
For years, Patrice Lumumba's son would ask me whenever we met,
first in Beirut, or later in Geneva, if the U.S. killed his father.
I finally gave him a copy of former CIA officer John Stockwell's
In Search of Enemies, which tells the story. Justice William O.
Douglas wrote in later years that the U.S. killed Diem, painfully
adding, "And Jack was responsible." Bhutto was removed
from power in Pakistan by force on the l5th of July, after the
usual party on the 4th at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, with
U.S. approval, if not more, by General Zia al-Haq. Bhutto was
falsely accused and brutalized for months during proceedings that
corrupted the judiciary of Pakistan before being murdered, then
hanged. That Bhutto had run for president of the student body
at U.C. Berkeley and helped arrange the opportunity for Nixon
to visit China did not help him when he defied the U.S.
So we should not be surprised that patriotic Americans wonder
whether, or even charge that, the U.S. government assassinated
President John F. Kennedy and our greatest moral leader, Martin
Luther King, Jr.
We have been told time and again of the "Deadly Deceits"
of our government, occasionally by career CIA officers like Ralph
McGehee, by FBI agents, crime lab scientists, and city detectives
like Frank Serpico. Major studies on the lawless violence of COINTELPRO,
the Life and Death of National Security Study Memorandum 200,
the police murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark,
are a part of the lore of our lawless government.
And still the People want to Believe.
Our covert government's past is modest prologue to its new
powers of concealment, deception, and deadly secret violent actions.
Too often the government is supported by a controlled, or willingly
duped, mass media, by collaborating or infiltrated international
governmental organizations, and by key officials in vast transnational
The new evil empires, terrorism, Islam, barely surviving socialist
and would-be socialist states, economic competitors, uncooperative
leaders of defenseless nations, and most of all the masses of
impoverished people, overwhelmingly people of color, are the inspiration
for new campaigns by the U.S. government ... to shoot first and
ask questions later, to exploit, to demonize and destroy.
The CIA is rapidly expanding its manpower for covert operations
against these newfound enemies. The National Security apparatus,
with major new overseas involvement by the FBI, is creating an
enormous new anti-terrorism industry exceeding in growth rate
all other government activities.
The U.S. is not nearly so concerned that its acts be kept
secret from their intended victims as it is that the American
people not know of them. The Cambodians knew they were being bombed.
So did the Libyans. The long suffering Iraqis know every secret
the U.S. government conceals from the American people and every
lie it tells them. Except for surprise attacks, it is primarily
from the American people that the U.S. government must keep the
true nature and real purpose of so many of its domestic and foreign
acts secret while it manufactures fear and falsehood to manipulate
the American public. The reasons for and effects of government
covert acts and cultivated fear, with the hatred it creates, must
remain secret for the U.S. to be able to send missiles against
unknown people, deprive whole nations of food and medicine, and
arrest, detain, and deport legal residents from the U.S. on secret
allegations, without creating domestic outrage.
As never before, it is imperative that the American people
care about and know what their government is doing in their name.
That we be demanding of government, skeptical, critical, even
a little paranoid, because not to suspect the unthinkable has
been made a dangerous naiveté by a government that does
unthinkable things and believes it knows best. We must challenge
controlling power in America that seeks to pacify the people by
bread and circuses and relies on violence, deception, and secrecy
to advance its grand plans for the concentration of wealth and
power in the hands of the few.
For 20 years, Ellen Ray, Bill Schaap, Lou Wolf, and Philip
Agee, with the help of very few others, have struggled against
all odds to alert our people to the perils of covert action. They
started their lonely, courageous, dangerous struggle in what many
want to think was the aftermath of the worst of times, but now
we can clearly see the worst is yet to be. The American people
owe an enormous debt of gratitude to these valiant few.
The role of CovertAction Quarterly is more important than
ever. Those who love America should support and defend its efforts,
against the most powerful and secretive forces, to find the truth
that can prevent our self-destruction and may yet set us free.
Ramsey Clark was United States Attorney General during the
Johnson administration. He is an international lawyer and human
rights advocate, based in New York City, and a prolific author.
and Third World
Global Secrets and Lies