'Secrets': How America Lost Its Way

by Robert Parry

The Consortium magazine, November / December 1998


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.

Anti-War Disillusions

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 pattern.

"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 COINTELPRO)."

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 unauthorized disclosure."

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.

Finding Enemies

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 American philanthropist.

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 security disclosures.

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 secrecy laws.

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 observed.

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 History.]

Post-Cold War

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."


The Consortium magazine

The Consortium is an investigative online newsmagazine

The Media Consortium
2200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 102-231, Arlington, VA 22201
1-800-738-1812 or (703) 920-1802
e-mail rparry@ix.netcom.com.

Democracy watch