The Shredding of Democracy
excerpted from the book
The Secret Government
by Bill Moyers
Seven Locks Press, 1988
Ronald Reagan ran in 1980 with a strong and clear message the
world was a hostile place and closing in on America. Russian troops
were in Afghanistan, Sandinistas were in Nicaragua, and Americans
were being held hostage in Iran. President Reagan wanted to reinvigorate
the CIA. To run it, he chose a tough director, his campaign manager,
They were ideological soulmates, true
Cold Warriors on the offensive. In seven years Reagan approved
over 50 major covert operations, more than any president since
John F. Kennedy. Reagan and Casey set the agenda, but it was Oliver
North's job to carry it out. In North, they had their 007.
North's primary mission was to keep the
contra war going despite the congressional ban on aid. For two
years he master minded a privately funded airlift to Honduras.
According to some reports, criminal elements seized opportunities
presented by the secret airlift to smuggle drugs back into the
United States with profits being used to buy more weapons for
SENATOR JOHN KERRY:
Were there contras who relied on the profits
of narcotics in order to buy arms and to survive? Yes. I'm convinced
of that. Once you open up a clandestine network which has the
ability to deliver weapons or other goods from this country, leaving
airfields secretly under the sanction of a "covert operation,"
with public officials, DEA, Customs, law enforcement, whatever,
pulled back because of the covert sanctioning, you've opened the
pipeline for nefarious types who are often involved in these kinds
of activities to become the people who bring things back in.
North had been told the airlift was using
questionable characters. Robert Owen, his contact man with the
contras, wrote from the field that some of the leaders were running
drugs. In February 1986, Owen advised North that a resupply plane
had been used for shipping drugs. In Owen's words, "Part
of the crew had criminal records."
SEN. DANIEL K. INOUYE, D.-Hawaii (Iran-contra
The second sentence says, "Nice group
the boys choose." Who are the boys?
MR. OWEN: CIA.
So what happens? I asked Senator Kerry:
"In effect, does the president of the United States say,
'This is the national security, you must step back and let these
people do their job,' and therefore a lot of smugglers, drug traffickers,
others, go through the back door?"
I don't think the president of the United
States said specifically, "Look the other way to these things."
I don't think the president of the United States knew these things
were going on. But the president of the United States did encourage
to such a degree the continuation of aid to the contras, and it
was so clear, through Casey and Poindexter, etc., that this was
going to please the president if it happened. It's clear that
there were those who turned their heads and looked the other way
because they knew that this major goal was out there and it was
part of it, and if there happened to be these minor aberrations,
as people referred to them, that was the price you were paying
in the effort to accomplish the larger goal. Which larger goal,
obviously, was against the law and against the wishes of the Congress
and against the American people.
How does it happen that to be anticommunist
we become undemocratic, as if we have to subvert our society in
order to save it? Because the powers claimed by presidents in
national security have become the controlling wheel of government,
driving everything else. Secrecy then makes it possible for the
president to pose as the sole competent judge of what will best
protect our security. Secrecy permits the White House to control
what others know. How many times have we heard a president say,
"If you only knew what I know, you would understand why I'm
doing what I'm doing." But it's a self-defeating situation.
As Lord Acton said, "Everything secret degenerates, even
the administration of justice." So in the bunker of the White
House, the men who serve the president put loyalty above analysis.
Judgment yields to obedience. Just salute and follow orders.
COLONEL NORTH (Iran-contra hearings, I987):
This lieutenant colonel is not going to
challenge a decision of the commander in chief, for whom I still
work, and I am proud to work for that commander in chief. And
if the commander in chief tells this lieutenant colonel to go
stand in the corner and sit on his head, I will do so.
That notion troubled Inouye, a combat
hero of World War II. He reminded North of the military code,
of a soldier's duty.
SENATOR INOUYE (Iran-contra hearings,
The uniform code makes it abundantly clear
that it must be the lawful orders of a superior officer. In fact
it says, "Members of the military have an obligation to disobey
unlawful orders." This principle was considered so important
that we - we, the government of the United States, proposed that
it be internationally applied in the Nuremberg trials. And so
in the Nuremberg trials we said that the fact that the defendant
BRENDAN SULLIVAN, counsel to Colonel North:
Mr. Chairman, may I please register an
May I continue my statement?
I find this offensive. I find you're engaging
in a personal attack on Colonel North, and you're far removed
from the issues of this case.
North's lawyer deflected Inouye, but some
of North's fellow officers watching on television took issue with
GEORGE GORMAN, former captain, U.S. Marine
I'm two years senior to Oliver North out
of the Naval Academy, and the only thing he's got on me is a Silver
Star and six more years in the Corps. And when Oliver North started
to say the things he started to say, I literally wanted to throw
things at my TV set. I seriously considered mailing my Naval Academy
ring back to the Naval Academy and denying ever having gone there.
I was so embarrassed and humiliated that a professional military
officer would stoop to the dishonor and disgrace and warmongering
that Oliver North and Poindexter and McFarlane and the rest of
the crew did. Selling arms to the Iranians after they blew up
the Beirut barracks, after they blew up the Beirut embassy, is
the most immoral thing- that's like selling Zyklon-B to the Germans
after you've found out the Holocaust is under way.
ROBERT COLCLASURE former captain, U.S.
One of my drill instructors in the Marine
Corps - [it was at a time when] there were a of protests in Washington,
D.C., and somebody said, well, those commie lovers, or whatever
- and the drill instructor told us something as we were about
to graduate. He said, "What you're fighting for might be
wrong or right, nobody really knows. But,"(he said) "there's
a Constitution that allows those people to be out on the streets
protesting." (He said) "That's what's worth fighting
for. That's what the Constitution is." He said, "That's
what you took an oath to, and when you put those bars on as a
second lieutenant, you better remember that." I don't think
Oliver North had that drill instructor.
It was career military men who managed
the Iran-contra debacle under Reagan and Casey; North, Poindexter,
McFarlane, Secord, and Singlaub were trained to fight wars, not
run foreign policy. In war, the aim is absolute and simple: destroy
the enemy, no matter what. They had little understanding of politics
in Iran, in Nicaragua, and, most important, in Washington. Yet
our foreign policy has increasingly become a military policy.
Reagan has doubled the number of military men on the staff of
the National Security Council. What was created in 1947 as a civilian
advisory group to the president has become a command post for
covert operations run by the military. Far removed from public
view and congressional oversight, they are accountable only to
the one man they serve. The framers of the Constitution feared
this permanent state of war, with the commander in chief served
by an elite private corps that put the claims of the sovereign
above the Constitution.
SENATOR MITCHELL (Iran-contra hearings,
This is the first page of an order signed
and approved by President Reagan.
Mitchell is pointing to the ultimate weapon
of the secret government, the National Security Decision Directive,
the NSDD. Every president since Harry Truman has issued such directives.
Reagan has signed at least 280, covering everything from outer
space to nuclear weapons to covert operations in Iran and Nicaragua.
In essence, by an arbitrary and secret decree, the president can
issue himself a license to do as he will, where he will; and the
only ones who need to know are the secret agents who carry it
out, the Knights of the Oval Office.,
SENATOR MITCHELL (Iran-contra hearings,
You have testified that, as a member of
the National Security Council staff, you conducted a covert operation,
and my question is, did the president specifically designate the
National Security Council staff for that purpose?
I think what I have said consistently
is that I believe that the president has the authority to do what
he wants with his own staff, that I was a member of his staff,
that Mr. McFarlane was, and that Admiral Poindexter was, and in
pursuing the president's foreign policy goals of support for the
Nicaraguan resistance, he was fully within his rights to send
us off to talk to foreign heads of state, to seek the assistance
of those foreign heads of state to use other than U.S. government
moneys, and to do so without a finding.
"Without a finding." The law
requires presidents to make a finding that the national interests
will be served by a covert action and to report it to Congress
in a timely fashion. The idea is to make sure that both Congress
and the executive, each elected independently by the people, are
accountable for what is done in our name. But Reagan gave himself
permission to ignore the requirements of the law: when he sold
arms to our avowed enemy in Iran, he signed the finding after
the fact and then ordered that it not be reported to Congress.
The president becomes his own arbiter of the law in matters of
national security. Or, in Richard Nixon's words, "When the
president does it, that means it is not illegal."
COLONEL NORTH (Iran-contra hearings, 1987):
I think it is very important for the American
people to understand that this is a dangerous world, that we live
at risk, and that this nation is at risk in a dangerous world.
PROF. STEPHEN F. COHEN, Princeton University:
The issue here is not whether we should
pursue a foreign policy that guards against the Soviet Union.
That's not the issue, because obviously in significant ways the
Soviet Union represents a threat to our interests around the world
and to our values. The problem is the excessive American perception
of that threat, the pathological ways we construe that threat,
and what it leads us to do. Because in addition to distorting
our domestic priorities, to undermining our democratic civil liberties
at home, in the end, arguably, it actually does damage to our
There is, I reminded Professor Firmage,
a doctrine called "the reason of state," which holds
that whatever is necessary to defend the state's survival must
be done by the individuals responsible for it. "Doesn't that,"
I asked, take precedence over this 18th-century set of values?"
I think the survival of the state is what
the Constitution is about. The reason of state argument is a very
slippery thing, and at heart, at best amoral.
Oh, you bet. I would say it ranges from
amoral on the good side, to just basically immoral.
Assume I'm president, and I'm going to
say, Professor Firmage, that's all wonderful, but I deal in an
ugly world. The United States is a wonderful place, relatively,
because of this document, because of the values the founders inculcated
in us, but the world beyond these borders is a pretty ugly world.
People don't like us, people don't share those values, people
are out to get us. And if I don't do the ugly things that are
necessary to protect us from an ugly world, you won't be able
to exercise the right of free speech out at that university."
I would say poppycock, Mr. President.
That is simply nonsense. The whole fight is over means, not ends.
Every president with every good intention, and every tyrant, with
whatever his intention, has used precisely the same argument.
That is, don't constrain me by means, and I will get you there
safely and well. And I think any time we accept a reason of state
argument to justify means that are totally incongruent with the
values of our state, we're on the high road to tyranny and we
deserve to be there.
Our nation was born in rebellion against
tyranny. We are the fortunate heirs of those who fought for America's
freedom and then drew up a remarkable charter to protect it against
arbitrary power. The Constitution begins with the words, "We
the people." The government gathers its authority from the
people, and the governors are as obligated to uphold the law as
the governed. That was revolutionary. Listen now to the voices
of some people who believe the fight for freedom isn't over.
ROGER WILKINS, writer, former U.S. assistant
I am a citizen of this country. That's
the highest thing you can be, and you'd better tell me the truth
because we don't run a secret country, and we don't run a secret
Roger Wilkins and his family have long
battled for a more just America.
And if we continue these policies, to
rob ourselves in order to feed this national security monster,
we are going to continue to degrade American life. That's not
real national security. National security for the United States
is making the United States a good place to live, where people
want to be active, intelligent, involved citizens. For people
at the top to say, "This world is so complicated and so dangerous,
just a few of us need to govern it and hold the secrets in and
we will tell you what's good for you," that is moving down
the road to dictatorship.
The national security argument now interferes
with every American's right ( to understand its government. That's
what secrecy's all about these days.
Scott Armstrong is director of the National
Security Archive, a public interest group devoted to a more open
government. He has pored over the Iran-contra evidence and believes
Congress has failed to deal with the fundamental constitutional
The Founding Fathers never intended for
George Washington to be able to go to George III and say, "I
don't like what Congress has done here. Give me some money, I'll
hire some mercenaries, and we'll call it American foreign policy."
That would have been treason.
Gail Jensen, Marylee Fithian, and Nancy
Jones live in Minneapolis. Last summer they organized citizens
around the state to monitor the Iran-contra hearings as a way
of increasing public awareness.
The church I go to, we have a hymn and
the words go something like, "I wish that my eyes had never
been opened." Because if they'd been opened, I'd have to
do something about it, an I think that that's a problem with a
lot of people in this country:(they) don't want their eyes to
be opened because they're very comfortable, very secure; and if
their eyes are opened, they're going to have to do something.
The people that we're talking to have
quite-they recognize that we're only talking about subverting
the Constitution, that's all.
The American people are part of the checks
and balances. It's not just the executive branch and the Congress
and the judicial branch; the people have a role too.
I grew up just feeling. . .the system
out here's pretty hunky-dory; all you have to do is admire it
and respect it and let it keep operating. We'll always have freedom,
we'll always have democracy, we'll always have free elections.
[Now] I've got to question. . . [if] that's going to continue-unless
I decide to go for it and keep on effecting change.
Pete Edstrom, a dairy farmer in Wisconsin,
is a believer in the American way. With his pastor and other farmers,
he started a newspaper to rally their neighbors to community action.
If there's anything I want my children
to understand, it's the concept of the old town meeting type of
politics where people do it, people are involved, people are informed.
I think that probably the problems this country are in right now-the
[Iran-contra] hearings are a classic example-are clearly a case
of an American people not having been involved.
Walter Chilsen is a Republican state senator
in Wisconsin, a popular conservative who says the hearings this
summer forced him to reconsider his support for U.S. policy in
SEN. WALTER JOHN CHILSEN:
When you've been a Republican for 20 years,
and you like to say that the Republicans are the best guys, the
guys in the white hats,-the recognition that indeed in this very
important situation, that wasn't the case, that the policy was
dead wrong, [makes me feel] an obligation to speak out.
Senator Chilsen's change of heart was
personal and political. At the urging of their daughter, Liz,
Senator Chilsen and his wife went to Central America to see for
themselves. When they returned, he was still critical of the Sandinistas
in Nicaragua, but he was also convinced that an American-backed
war on peasants was not the way to stop communism.
There's a great danger that in this country
we would accept automatically things that are said to us in a
doctrinaire fashion-you know, that we've got to be fighting communism-
That can be the whitewash that can cover up a multitude of sins....
We can't be fighting for democracy in Central America and-seeing
it shredded back here at home.
President Reagan's men did learn one thing
from Watergate. Richard Nixon said it only last year: "Just
destroy all the tapes."
MR. NIELDS (Iran-contra hearings, I987):
Where are these memoranda?
The memoranda that you sent up to Admiral
Poindexter, seeking the president's approval.
I think I shredded most of that. Did I
get them all? I'm not trying to be flippant, I'm just-
Well, that was going to be my very next
question, Colonel North. Isn't it true that you shredded them?
I believe I did.
It doesn't have to be. The people who
wrote this Constitution lived in a world more dangerous than ours.
They were surrounded by territory controlled by hostile powers,
on the edge of a vast wilderness. Yet they understood that even
in perilous times, the strength of self-government was public
debate and public consensus. They knew too that men are fallible,
themselves included, and prone to abuse great office. They left
us safeguards against men whose appetites for power might exceed
their moral wisdom.
To forget this-to ignore the safeguards,
to put aside our basic values out of fear, to imitate the foe
in order to defeat him- is to shred the distinction that makes
us different. For, in the end, not only our values but our methods
separate us from the enemies of freedom. The decisions we make
are inherent in the methods that produce them. An open society
cannot survive a secret government. Constitutional democracy is
no romantic notion. It's our defense against ourselves, the one
foe who might defeat us.
Citizens have a moral responsibility for the decisions made by
their government that lead to the death of other people.
A theoretician of low-intensity warfare, who has been a consultant
to the Reagan administration, warns that the United States cannot
successfully wage little wars around the world unless the media
and Congress cooperate.
... the vast part of the public that no longer expects much from
the political process anyway, grows more indifferent and cynical,
while the highly vocal partisans, deluded by ideology and frustrated
by democracy scream for more ...
Government - Moyers