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 corporations.

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.


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