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, William Casey.

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 the contras


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 hearings, 1987):

The second sentence says, "Nice group the boys choose." Who are the boys?


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, 1987):

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 objection?


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 the colonel.

GEORGE GORMAN, former captain, U.S. Marine Corps:

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. Marine Corps:

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, 1987):

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, 1987):

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 national security.

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 attorney general:

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 government.

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 issues.


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 Central America.


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?


Which 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 ...

Secret Government - Moyers

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