Send in the CIA

excerpted from the book

The Secret Government

by Bill Moyers

Seven Locks Press, 1988


There are 58,000 names on the wall of the Vietnam memorial; 58,000 men died in Vietnam. Their deaths and all the deaths in Southeast Asia-the names not on this wall-raise painful questions about our secret government and our role in the world. Were we certain what we asked people to die for?

The men who wrote our Constitution tried to make it hard to go to war. Human life was at stake, they knew, as well as the character of this republic. War should be soberly decided, publicly debated, and mutually determined by the people's representatives. It is the people, after all, who must fight, pay, and die once the choice is made. The Constitution was to protect them from dying for the wrong reasons. It was to protect them from killing for the wrong reasons.


"I don't know, the public still don't want to understand what the hell really happened. But maybe one day they will. As far as Central America, I see the same damn thing happening there in Central America that happened in Vietnam."



"Well, I think the country has learned very graphically that we better be really assured that if we're going to send our young men and women off to die like this, that it better really be in the interests of every citizen of this United States to sacrifice somebody like that, so that we don't have more blood on this wall or other walls. And I think that we ask a lot of questions now that we didn't used to ask. We want to know why, and we'll hear Ollie North's analysis of what's happening with the contras, and a lot of us say we want some more verification of that. We want to know just what are we involving ourselves in when we go do that."

I find it stunning, looking back, how easily the cold war enticed us into surrendering popular control of government to the national security state. We've never come closer to bestowing absolute authority on the president. Setting up White House operatives who secretly decide to fight dirty little wars is a direct assumption of war powers expressly forbidden by the Constitution.

Not since December 1941 has Congress declared war. Yet we've had a "police action" in Korea, "advisers" in Vietnam, "covert operations" in Central America, "peacekeeping" in Lebanon, and "low-intensity conflicts" ... from Angola to Cambodia. We're never really sure who is exercising the war powers of the United States, what they're doing, what it costs, or who is paying for it. The one thing we are sure of is that this largely secret global war, carried on with less and less accountability to democratic institutions, has become a way of life.

... we're faced with a question ... : can we have a permanent warfare state and democracy, too?

In 1975, as the war in Vietnam came to an end, Congress took its first public look at the secret government. Sen. Frank Church chaired the Select Committee to Study Government Operations. The hearings opened the books on a string of lethal activities, from the use of electric pistols and poison pellets to Mafia connections and drug experiments. They gave us a detailed account of assassination plots against foreign leaders and of the overthrow of sovereign governments. We learned, for example, how the Nixon administration had waged a covert war against the government of Chile's president, Salvador Allende, who was ultimately overthrown by a military coup and assassinated.


"Like Caesar peering into the colonies from distant Rome, Nixon said the choice of government by the Chileans was unacceptable to the president of the United States. The attitude in the White House seemed to be, "If in the wake of Vietnam I can no longer send in the Marines, then I will send in the CIA."

But the secret government had also waged war on the American people. The hearings examined a long train of covert actions at home, from the bugging of Martin Luther King by the FBI under Kennedy and Johnson to gross violations of the law and of civil liberties in the 1970s. They went under code names such as Chaos, Cable Splicer, Garden Plot, and Leprechaun. According to the hearings, the secret government had been given a license to reach, as journalist Theodore White wrote, all the way to every mailbox, every college campus, every telephone, and every home.


"You start out breaking foreign laws since most countries have laws against secretly overthrowing their governments, and then you end up breaking the law at home, and coming to feel a contempt for the law, for your colleagues and associates, for the Congress and the public, and for the Constitution."

Morton Halperin was a victim of the secret government's paranoia. He worked for Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council in 1969. Critical of policies in Cambodia and Vietnam, he resigned. He later discovered his telephone had been bugged for 21 months. He is now the director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.


"What you have is a growing gap between the perceptions inside the executive branch about what the threats are to our national security and the beliefs in the Congress and the public about the threats to national security. And that leads to secrecy. That is what drives the policy underground, that's what leads the president to rely more on covert operations, what leads the president and his officials to lie to the public, then lie to the Congress about the operation. Precisely because they cannot get their way in public debate, they are driven to seek to circumvent the democratic process."

Oliver North obviously disagrees:

COLONEL NORTH (Iran-contra hearings):

"And the president ought not to be in a position, in my humble opinion, of having to go out and explain to the American people on a biweekly basis or any other kind, that I, the president, am carrying out the following secret operations. It just can't be done."

In my interview with Professor Firmage, I cited a common rationale:


It is said that the constitutional system of checks and balances has so prohibited the president, so hamstrung him, that he cannot effectively lead foreign policy, that he has to be resorting to clandestine, covert, secret -


Horsefeathers. He needs to do that only when he wants to subvert Congress. If Congress says, "Don't do that," and the president says, "But I want to, I want to, I really want to," the conclusion from that isn't that the president is right. It is that the president is considering being an outlaw.

It's been said that the secret realm of government is the deformed offspring of the modern presidency. Presidents take an oath to uphold the Constitution, but then, finding the cumbersome sharing of power with Congress an obstacle, they start looking for shortcuts to silence their critics and achieve their objectives.


And it goes back to the beginning. I mean, there is a famous letter, which Madison wrote late in his life, in which he said, "Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home will be charged to dangers, real or imagined from abroad." And that is the lesson of history.

Secret Government - Moyers

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