'Secrets': How America Lost Its Way
by Robert Parry
The Consortium magazine, November / December
Tyranny, like cowardice, often comes in small pieces, compromises
that seemed reasonable at the time, the best we could get, but
in totality can doom a noble ideal. That is the worthwhile truth
that Angus Mackenzie recalls to our attention in his posthumously
published book, Secrets: The CIA's War at Home.
The book is very much Mackenzie's story as he charts the course
of his short life -- from legends that he heard during boyhood
days about American Minute Men who stood their ground at Compo
Hill in his native Westport, Conn., in 1777, to a different reality
two centuries later when the CIA rode roughshod over politicians
and supposed protectors of U.S. civil liberties.
Secrets also is the story of a democratic ideal smothered
by a government that came to see an informed electorate as an
obstacle to the prosecution of a long Cold War. Yet, this was
a slow strangulation, a garotte closing around the victim's neck
so no single twist would be recognized as life-threatening.
Mackenzie's personal conflict with this national security
state came from his practice of what he thought were enshrined
constitutional rights: freedom of the press and the right to dissent.
To his amazement, his Vietnam-era underground newspaper, The People's
Dreadnaught, made him a target of his own government.
"One of the fundamental lessons passed on from generation
to generation is that Americans have the greatest of all freedoms,
the freedom to express ourselves in open and public debate,"
Mackenzie wrote. "Imagine my surprise ... when I found myself
in trouble with the law for publishing a newspaper."
Mackenzie then challenged the secrecy-holders through lawsuits
brought under the Freedom of Information Act. Over time, he broke
through some -- but not all -- of the stone walls. Mackenzie kept
up that struggle until May 13, 1994, when he died of brain cancer
at the age of 43.
For the next two-and-a-half years, his family pulled together
the final pieces of his manuscript. The resulting work is an important
road map for Americans who wonder how their country lost its way,
from the era of Thomas Paine and the Minute Men, to an era when
the citizens are denied an honest accounting of the last 50 years,
even after the end of the Cold War threat that supposedly justified
the secrets in the first place.
Mackenzie's People's Dreadnaught was one of hundreds of independent
publications that sprang up in the 1960s and early 1970s as young
Americans grew bitterly disillusioned by U.S. policies in Vietnam.
Mackenzie's first encounter with angry law enforcement came with
local authorities who arrested him on obscenity charges for selling
an issue that contained an account of the My Lai massacre.
But Mackenzie and his friends also found themselves approached
by long-haired strangers who encouraged the commission of crimes,
from drug sales to vandalism. Only years later, as a result of
his lawsuits, did Mackenzie discover that those approaches were
entrapments set by undercover police and were part of a nationwide
"I learned that editors at scores of other underground
newspapers had experienced similar treatment at the hands of local
and state authorities," Mackenzie wrote. "I learned
that local cops who proved themselves effective tormentors of
underground editors were rewarded by federal authorities. ...
"I learned that [an IRS intelligence unit] was specifically
assigned to target the dissident anti-war press and furthermore
that the IRS was connected to two larger surreptitious operations,
one run out of the Central Intelligence Agency (code-named MHCHAOS)and
the other out of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (code-named
Mackenzie's initial suit earned a jury award of only $2,500
but he added: "Our lawsuit was most valuable for what I learned
about the cynical contempt in which some agents of the government
hold the First Amendment." His investigation then pressed
onward into other areas of secrecy, that of censorship and the
punishment of government officials who broke the code of silence.
The book's narrative starts with the doubts that some members
of Congress had about the proposed National Security Act of 1947.
Rep. Clare E. Hoffman, a conservative Michigan Republican, had
agreed to introduce the bill but later was stunned at the open-ended
language. The CIA would get the authority to perform "functions
and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security
as the National Security Council may from time to time direct."
Hoffman and others feared that the CIA might evolve into an
American Gestapo, which "could secretly manipulate elections
or could undermine political opponents," Mackenzie wrote.
"The greatest danger was that, once created, the CIA would
be hard to contain."
The Truman administration agreed to add some language barring
the CIA from domestic police and national security functions,
but little notice was taken of a simple phrase granting the CIA
director powers "for protecting sources and methods from
After some modest compromise, nearly all congressional opposition
faded away, but Hoffman rued his initial support for the CIA.
He concluded that the agency would become a threat to American
democracy. Over the next five decades, some of Hoffman's fears
would become reality.
But as the CIA's powers grew, so too did intermittent challenges
by American citizens who experienced the agency's abuses. One
of the most significant abuses began with the CIA's demand in
1966 for a "run down" on Ramparts magazine which was
preparing a story about the CIA's penetration of U.S. universities
and student organizations. The order led to dossiers on 22 of
Ramparts writers and editors.
An important line had been crossed. The war against the underground
press was underway.
The chief of that CIA operation, Richard Ober, soon was collecting
IRS records on the magazine and its publisher. The justification
for the investigation was the supposed suspicion that foreign
communist agents were inspiring the articles. Stories suggesting
those ties were planted in U.S. newspapers, although the CIA knew
from its investigation that the money was coming from a wealthy
The Ramparts case also led the CIA to tighten government-wide
procedures for preventing future leaks and to undertake a much
broader domestic spying operation, known as MHCHAOS. Soon, the
CIA was sneaking informants and troublemakers inside underground
newspapers and other antiwar activities. One informant, Salvatore
John Ferrara, proved doubly effective because his pose as an underground
journalist let him glean defense strategies on criminal cases,
including the notorious Chicago Seven trial.
Despite the crackdowns, a devastating leak of government secrets
still occurred in 1971 with Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon
Papers. The documents detailed the deceptions that had led the
nation into the Vietnam War. Furious at the leak, President Nixon
struck back with creation of his illegal Plumbers operation.
But even more significant was the imposition of ever-stricter
regulations on government employees who had access to secrets.
By 1972, the CIA had gotten into the business of censoring books,
including one by former senior CIA officer Victor Marchetti. CIA
officials insisted that Marchetti's account of CIA misconduct
would jeopardize national security and violate his secrecy agreements.
Through the courts, the CIA won important new victories, making
Marchetti's book the first ever in America to be published with
deletions from government-imposed censorship. The case also convinced
the CIA to compel more and more government officials to sign secrecy
pledges that would forever prevent them from telling the American
people the truth.
The CIA also challenged a book by Alfred W. McCoy, an academic
who had studied the CIA's tolerance of heroin trafficking in Indochina.
This time, the CIA exploited personal contacts in McCoy's publishing
house, Harper and Row, to block or water down the book, The Politics
of Heroin in Southeast Asia. When the CIA's ploy was exposed,
however, Harper and Row proceeded with the book.
The mid-1970s saw the CIA's bid for wider secrecy suffer other
setbacks. Published disclosures of CIA abuses and congressional
investigations into the secret agency pulled back the curtain,
again and again. For the first time with hard facts, Americans
were alerted to the danger of clandestine CIA missions at home.
Bush to the Rescue
In 1976, however, a new director, George Bush, rode to the
CIA's rescue. With his own impressive array of contacts and his
noblesse-oblige style, Bush spearheaded a clever counter-offensive
that falsely pinned the murder of the CIA's Athens station chief,
Richard Welch, on anti-CIA disclosures in a magazine called CounterSpy.
Internally, the CIA concluded that Welch's identity already was
blown and that the magazine was not at fault. But Bush and other
CIA defenders pushed hard for new laws criminalizing national
These initiatives continued to gain ground under President
Jimmy Carter and reached a fever pitch during the early years
of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Reagan signed anew presidential
order demanding that information be classified if officials believed
its release might endanger national security. Before, the government
was required to identify an actual threat and even weigh the benefits
of secrecy against the public's right to know.
Though the Soviet Union was in demonstrable decline, the White
House ratcheted up the secrecy throughout the 1980s. Mackenzie's
book details how the Reagan administration succeeded in maneuvering
secrecy critics into a series of crippling compromises that expanded
Some of the sacrifices were promoted by "bipartisan"
Democrats, such as Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana. Others were tolerated
by ACLU officials, such as Morton Halperin. The rationale often
was that the compromise was better than what the Reagan administration
might do otherwise. But the Executive Branch gained crucial ground
in its demand to punish officials who divulged secrets.
Ex-CIA officer Ralph McGehee was shocked when he read Reagan's
new secrecy order. "People in government who become disillusioned
and quit at an earlier age than me will virtually lose their freedom
of expression," he said. "The people most able to give
informed views will be unable to comment."
With the CIA again on the rise, director William J. Casey
began bullying even mainstream news organizations into withholding
stories on national security grounds. "Casey's threats of
prosecution against the [Washington] Post and other major periodicals
also demonstrated the increase in the CIA's power since 1966,
when the agency had 'run down' the left-wing Ramparts," Mackenzie
By the mid-1980s, Vice President Bush was promoting terrorism
as the new rationale for domestic security. Some of these "terrorists"
were Americans critical of U.S. policies in Central America. Bush
also sought curtailment of the Freedom of Information Act because
"terrorists groups may have used" it to gain information
about FBI surveillance.
Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan administration also mounted
aggressive "public diplomacy" campaigns against reporters
who disclosed government secrets. Then at The Associated Press,
I was told that the administration maintained a list of so-called
"treasonous reporters" and that I was on it. During
the Iran-contra scandal, documents surfaced revealing that this
domestic media operation was run by a veteran CIA propagandist
named Walter Raymond Jr. who sent detailed reports to CIA director
Casey. [For details on this operation, see Robert Parry's Lost
Ironically, the end of the Cold War did not appreciably lessen
the government's hunger for secrecy. After his election in 1992,
President Clinton vowed that a new era of candor was at hand.
But Clinton failed to follow through.
As Mackenzie observed, "at the beginning of his presidency,
Clinton did not boldly challenge the bureaucracy and relied on
others -- often the bureaucrats themselves --to carry out reforms.
In the case of the CIA, he relied on [his CIA director James]Woolsey,
a Yale lawyer whose background and sensibilities were similar
to those of many career officers under him." Mackenzie concluded
his account by remembering those Minute Men from 1777. "The
issue," he wrote "is freedom, as it was for the Minute
Men at Compo Hill. ... 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."
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