The Intelligence ‘Flap’: Lies My Uncle Told Me

by Janet Karsten Larson

Dr. Larson is assistant professor of English and director of composition at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 2, 1976, pp. 536-543. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The subversive activities of the FBI, CIA and Department of Defense have seriously undermined the security of the Republic, within and without. Absent strong public pressure, the Congress may be unable to sustain a critical posture toward the executive branch with its insistent claim that national security requires public trust in secret power.

Once upon a time there was the frank and fearless liar -- but sooner or later the facts would out, and make an end of him. Now we have the bureaucrat, mumbling and amnesiac; the master of plausible denials and institutionalized cover-up; the limited investigation and the interpretive memo; the document-shredders, the secrecy-stampers, the propaganda machinists. And it is no longer so easy to find them out. It took 15 months and $3 million for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to unearth some of the things our masters of deceit were not telling us about -- and to frame legal remedies for keeping our intelligence establishment more nearly honest and law-abiding in the future.

Now that the Senate panel chaired by Frank Church has released its censored final report, we can assess the findings of the most extended peek in our history into the baroque machinations of U.S. intelligence. Although the initial waves of outrage have subsided; our unhappy right to know has burdened us with large responsibilities for the future. Without strong public pressure, the Congress may be unable to sustain a critical posture toward the executive branch with its insistent claim that national security requires public trust in secret power. The House has already retreated, turning around from its aggressive inquiry into the spy establishment to compliant, worried investigation of itself. Nonetheless, what this past year’s massive congressional effort has taught us we cannot afford to forget: that more than any House leak or Senate revelation, the subversive activities of the FBI, CIA and Department of Defense have seriously undermined the security of the Republic, within and without.


"This is a report that probably should never have been written," declares Senator Barry Goldwater in dissent from the Senate panel’s final report. It has indeed caused "severe embarrassment" to the nation, as he laments, for the Senate investigation has laid before the public the elements of a terrible irony: that acts which are illegal and unethical for citizens to engage in at home are condoned, even aggressively pursued, by American law-enforcement officers and secret agents both at home and abroad.

Thus while FBI’s COINTELPRO prying violated the civil liberties of Americans unjustly suspected of subversion, the CIA was conspiring to overthrow governments abroad, fix their elections, and assassinate their leaders. While the FBI claimed it was hunting out terrorists and preventing violent acts, both CIA and FBI were inciting groups to violence, here and overseas. The FBI tried to smear student activists by linking drug use with "Red Chinese" narcotics plots to "weaken" our youth; the CIA and the army, meanwhile, were secretly spending millions for LSD experiments on unsuspecting persons, several of whom died, and shredding the evidence afterward. Responding to threats real and imagined -- and the report documents both kinds of dangers -- we adopted methods "more ruthless than the enemy," as a major 1950s policy statement advised, and our adversaries became ourselves.

No communist plot could have succeeded so well to undermine American values and institutions. Even more disturbing than the now-familiar horror stories about what government agents have done to protect America are all the report’s examples of how little was done to protect us from them. The Senate Select Committee concluded that our system of checks and balances has failed to curb secret power. Six Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, other top-level officials, and particularly the attorneys general "virtually abdicated their constitutional responsibility to oversee and set standards for intelligence activity." Second, Congress has exercised lax oversight, bowing to the will of the executive, and framed such vague, inadequate laws that the intelligence agencies have filled in almost at whim the blank checks at their disposal. Although the Constitution requires disclosure of how public monies are spent, Congress has never asserted its right to know the extent of the financial empire which intelligence commands.

Third, the judiciary has been reluctant to intervene, even where laws have clearly been broken. As the ACLU’s Christine Marwick writes, for years the Justice Department promised the CIA that

there would be no prosecutions for CIA illegalities if a trial would threaten to reveal classified information. And since virtually all information about an organization created for clandestine activities is secret, there were no prosecutions for, illegal programs. As the Pike Committee observed, the CIA was not out of control, it was "utterly responsive to the instructions of the President." It simply appeared to the naïve outsider to be out of control because it was, in fact, beyond the law ["Reforming the Intelligence Agencies," First Principles (March 1976), p. 5].

In the intelligence "flap" as in Watergate, it has been the Fourth Estate -- the press -- that has played the most vigilant watchdog role, despite the CIA’s and the FBI’s devious efforts to co-opt or discredit the media.

During its investigations the Senate panel probed hard to find evidence of respect for law in the daily operations of intelligence. Certainly, honest and laudable officials are mentioned in the report. But an overwhelming number of cases turned up habitual, even institutionalized, disregard for law. Repeatedly inspectors general warned about "potential flap activities" -- not crimes. FBI memos acknowledged illegality but authorized bugs and black-bag jobs anyway because they were "invaluable techniques" "necessary" for protecting the nation. The head of the FBI’s Intelligence Division testified that he never heard anyone raise legal or ethical questions: "We never gave any thought to this line of reasoning, because we were just naturally pragmatic. How persistently officials maneuvered to elude the requirements of law is well documented in the report:

• Although COINTELPRO came to light in 1971 -- with its disregard of First Amendment freedoms and its massive violations of federal and state statutes against mail and wire fraud, incitement to violence, extortion, and sending obscene material through the mail -- the Justice Department did not look into the program until 1974, and even then it uncovered no crimes. Its report, only mildly alarmed, was based on misleading FBI-prepared "short summaries" of COINTEL incidents. That same year Justice also issued sweeping authorizations for more COINTEL-type FBI investigations of "subversives," potential civil disorders and "potential crimes."

• When President Johnson’s Katzenbach Commission told federal agencies to halt covert financial relationships with "U.S. educational and private voluntary organizations which operate abroad," CIA sent out a field circular stressing stringent secrecy to prevent more exposes. "In simple terms," the circular said, "we are now in a different ballgame. Some of the basic ground rules have changed." Among the CIA’s clever ruses was to shift the covert "ballgame" from institutions to the individuals within them. If CIA no longer funds the National Student Association, it uses exchange students (some hold government grants) to collect intelligence overseas. Even today the CIA is using "several hundred American academics" to provide leads, make introductions for intelligence purposes, and write propaganda theme material." Some are used "operationally," and at most of the institutions involved, no one knows of the CIA link except the agent-professor.

The CIA was not the only agile partner in this little dance of "reform." Katzenbach testified that his commission was (in the report’s words) "designed by President Johnson . . . to head off a full-scale Congressional investigation."

• In the past congressional oversight has all too often been no more sharp-eyed than Edward V. Long’s hearings in 1966 on electronic surveillance. The senator allowed FBI agents to write his press release stating that the subcommittee had "conducted exhaustive research" and was now "fully satisfied" that the FBI had not abused its bugging authority. The "exhaustive" peek was a 90-minute briefing from the FBI which failed to disclose the bureau’s most serious misdeeds. Wrote one bureau official to the associate director afterward: "We have neutralized the threat of being embarrassed by the Long Subcommittee.

While the existing intelligence charters are vague, it can hardly be argued that the officials who systematically broke the law did not know what they were doing. A 1957 CIA memo called its drug experiments unethical and illegal" six years before they were halted. While former CIA Director William Colby was publicly taking the line that the President has constitutional power to conduct covert operations, Colby himself had approved an internal CIA study which found that, prior to the 1974 Foreign Assistance Act, there were no legal or constitutional grounds for covert action without the advance approval of Congress. From 1969 on, CIA Director Helms sent warnings to the White House that CHAOS the domestic spying scheme which came perilously close to giving us a secret "thought police" -- had gone beyond the CIA charter. "I need not emphasize how extremely sensitive this makes the paper," Helms wrote in a study of "Restless Youth." The program -- which was mandated to find proof that foreign elements supported the American peace movement (any kind of support, even "encouragement," "casual contacts" or "mutual interest") -- was not halted until March 1974.

To compound the problem of questionable legal authority, only recently did Congress become fully aware that a "secret charter" existed for the nation’s cloak-and-daggering -- the accumulated classified executive orders issued over the years. While Americans could debate the overt reform proposals in President Ford’s February order (see March 10 Century editorial, p. 211), we may never know the full content of Executive Order 11905, which merely hints that "in some instances detailed implementation of the Executive Order will be contained in classified documents." On national television Ford said that he trusted the American people to elect honest Presidents who would not abuse the powers of secrecy, and in his message to Congress he proclaimed that his plan for reform "places responsibility and accountability on individuals, not institutions." Long before the exposure of the CIA began, Richard Helms likewise maintained that the country had to "take it on faith that we, too, are honorable men."

Yet the American system is one not of persons but of laws. And in such a system, as Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1928, the "existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. . . . If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy" (Olmstead v. United States). In COINTELPRO, the Senate report found, "the bureau secretly took the law into its own hands," and the consequence was anarchy. If the FBI’s own agents did not directly carry out murder plots, the bureau intensified the climate of violence in which black leaders were slain -- just as the CIA set the stage for the kidnapping and then the shooting of General Rent Schneider in Chile and the bloody overthrow of Salvador Allende three years later.


Within this atmosphere of deceit which clandestine work seems to require, the FBI still manipulates the American media and the CIA fuels an international propaganda machine -- most likely the biggest covert operation of them all. Although for years the CIA has assured the media that it was planting no informers on their news teams, until February of this year CIA was using 50 unnamed American journalists and media employees for covert purposes. The CIA director pledged in February that the agency "will not enter into any paid or contractual relationship with any full-time or part-time news correspondent accredited by any U.S. news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station." But the new policy permits the continuing -- perhaps now expanding -- use of at least two dozen journalists who are free-lance, unaccredited, unpaid, or rewarded by CIA "briefings" in lieu of money -- as well as the use of American news executives who have been important "media assets" in the past.

On May 10 George Bush issued a further opinion -- that the CIA "should not be precluded" from using part-time journalists who want to cooperate with the agency. The CIA continues its refusal to give out names of its media "assets" -- especially not to American editors who want to clean house. In world news media the CIA is also using "several hundred foreign individuals around the world" who "provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of foreign newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets" (italics in the Senate report indicate agency censoring). In the past the CIA has maintained two "proprietary news services" in Europe, one of which served 30 U.S. newspapers, as well as regularly planting stories in the foreign press and frequently using Reuters, the well-respected news service which is considered fair game because it is British-based.

Because propaganda is aimed first at the intangible -- the shaping of perceptions -- its effects are hard to measure, especially when it comes from invisible sources. "The most important weapon of strategic propaganda" is the book, as one former Clandestine Service officer testified. CIA has been in the book business for several decades: before 1967 it "sponsored, subsidized or produced over 1,000 books," many of which were put out by CIA-backed cultural organizations whose subsidy was "more often than not" unknown to the writer. The CIA-commissioned Penkovskiy Papers (Doubleday, 1965) was a commercial success; the publisher never knew of the CIA link. When Penkovskiy was serialized in the Washington Post and 29 other U.S. newspapers, the Russians denounced the book as the "coarse fraud" it was, and, notes former Moscow correspondent Stephen S. Rosenfeld, they retaliated by closing the Post’s Moscow bureau for two years.

In 1967 -- a year of 200 CIA books, among them translations of Machiavelli’s The Prince into Swahili and T. S. Eliot’s works into Russian -- the CIA pledged it would no longer "publish books, magazines and newspapers in the United States." That same year, however, an agency order announced that "fallout in, the United States from a foreign publication which we support is inevitable and consequently permissible." The CIA’s leap in amoral logic was elucidated by testimony from E. Howard Hunt, in charge of the CIA’s U.S. publisher contacts in the late 1960s, who said that domestic fallout may not (in the report’s words) "have been unintentional."

The Senate report quotes a September 1970 cable summary during CIA’s propaganda program in Chile to suggest that the agency regularly expected "fallout":

Sao Paulo, Tegucigalpa, Buenos Aires, Lima, Montevideo, Bogota, Mexico City report continued replay of Chile theme materials. Items also carried in New York Times, Washington Post. Propaganda activities continue to generate good coverage of Chile developments along our theme guidance. . .

Domestic fallout is "permissible" not only because it is inevitable but also because it is desirable -- especially where the selective release of "facts" or the currency of agency-favored ideas serves an ideological line or stratagem. To some it may seem acceptable, if distasteful, for propagandists hired by our government to tell lies in order to protect American democracy. Yet the implication is that our government and way of life have a monopoly on truth -- an attitude characteristic of totalitarian states, not one embodied in traditional American values. If Senate-approved treaties affirm our respect for the sovereignty of other nations, we cannot permit our government’s undercover agents to mount attacks -- military or verbal -- that threaten the right to self-determination; no matter how misguided we may judge other nations to be.

Like most other questionable secret designs recently made public, propaganda is justified as counterweight to ‘enemy propagandizing. Yet as the Senate report simply puts it: "The strongest defense a free country has from propaganda of any kind is a free and vigorous press that expresses diverse points of view" -- without its credibility being jeopardized by our own covert propagandists. There are a number of stories in the Senate report which document an ingenious system by which propaganda is made to look like the real thing: CIA’s domestic "plants" can legitimize "news" reprinted abroad, while domestic fallout gives credibility to stories planted initially in the foreign press. Besides polluting the free flow of ideas, manipulations such as these are nothing less than subversive: they undermine the United States and its institutions -- universities, the press, charitable groups, foundations and the churches -- by exploiting the legitimacy they may inherently possess, in order to gain for insidious designs credibility which the CIA would not otherwise be able to command.

When the Church panel found that the FBI too had been using "friendly" reporters at least through 1973, the bureau insisted that if names were published the reporters might "dry up" as sources of information -- thus implying that the practice is still going on. Under Hoover the FBI’s press liaison was the head of the Crime Records Division, who disseminated to the bureau’s "press friends" information to discredit the FBI’s critics and targets and to disrupt their activities. The most massive FBI propaganda effort is now well known: the vicious campaign to take Martin Luther King "off his pedestal" by planting derogatory articles in the media, peddling secret tapes to journalists (such as Ben Bradlee when he was Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief), and sending threat letters to King and his wife, Coretta. The bureau’s specialty in covert propaganda has been forged poison-pen letters, such as those sent to sow fear and hate among rival black groups so that their members might be provoked -- and some were -- to kill each other off.

Hoover’s propagandists aimed also at influencing foreign policy during the Vietnam years -- leading policy-makers to believe that antiwar sentiment was communist-inspired and thus did not need to be taken seriously. Hoover asked for and got reports that judged communist influence in the civil rights movement "vitally important" even though his bureau had found it an "obvious failure." Nevertheless, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was hounded for 25 years, despite an early report noting the NAACP’s "strong tendency" to "steer clear of communist activities." (In all, the FBI conducted more than a half-million investigations of alleged "subversives," yet was not able to prosecute a single individual or group for planning or advocating overthrow of the government.)

The most recent instance of an overt propaganda campaign has been the CIA’s public-relations effort to discredit its critics in the congressional inquiries. In December when CIA’s Athens station chief, Richard Welch, ‘was ambushed outside his home and killed -- after his name, along with those of other agents, had appeared in the offbeat magazine Counter-Spy -- the CIA at last unleashed its secret weapon: the public hero.

According to Daniel Schorr’s journal of those days ("My 17 Months on the CIA Watch," Rolling Stone [April 8], p. 92), the plane carrying Welch’s body was timed to touch down at Andrews Air Force Base for live TV coverage on the morning news shows; the funeral and civilian Welch’s special burial in Arlington National Cemetery -- with full military honors and the same caisson that carried the body of President Kennedy -- was elaborately orchestrated to impress upon Congress and the press the dire consequences of their reckless probes and leaks. Blaming Welch’s death on the press was grossly unfair; and there are several good reasons to believe that Welch’s "cover" may already have worn dangerously thin before his name was published. For one, his residence had been the home of the former Athens CIA chief; for another, counterspies could find good clues of our agents’ identities in the State Department’s own Foreign Service List (which ceased publication in March) and its Biographic Register (now published only on a restricted basis in order to protect State’s employees abroad, according to the department’s policy statement -- which mentioned Welch’s death).

When Daniel Schorr of CBS leaked the secret House intelligence report to the Village Voice in February, accusations grew louder that Congress could not be trusted with oversight. The people believed. Writing in the New York Review of Books (April 1), I. F. Stone made an astonishingly persuasive case for the bizarre possibility that the CIA leaked the House report to an unwitting Schorr -- a masterstroke which channeled public anger toward a virulent "secrecy backlash."


"It used to be that a person could live isolated from the world’s problems," muses the "Peanuts" character Lucy, playing psychiatrist. "Then it got to be that we all knew everything that was going on. The problem now," she tells poor Snoopy, "is that we know everything about everything except what’s going on. That’s why you feel nervous. . . . Five cents, please!" Given the clandestine community’s past record, now only tough legal restraints and congressional oversight -- as well as genuinely independent review at the executive level and a special prosecutor for intelligence cases -- can assure that intelligence will serve us. Otherwise, the American people will be short more than a nickel, we’ll still be nervous, and we still won’t know what is going on.

The Senate Select Committee asked for a new oversight panel to draft omnibus legislation to recast the National Security Act of 1947 and frame explicit intelligence charters. Two initial "reform" efforts -- President Ford’s February executive order and Attorney General Edward Levi’s April FBI guidelines on domestic investigations -- are not yet embodied in law. While many of the Church committee’s 183 recommendations entrust oversight responsibilities to agency types, cabinet officers, and President’s men who have been untrustworthy in the past, the Church plan taken as a whole attempts to put our check-and-balance system into better working order -- not to tie the hands of intelligence but to enable it to serve a democratic society’s needs without undermining its cherished principles. Some of the Church committee’s key points of reform are these:

* The CIA, the National Security Agency, and the clandestine arms of the Department of Defense must stay out of the domestic arena. Only the FBI should conduct domestic security investigations which are aimed at acts that violate federal laws. Under restrictions which some senators believe are not stringent enough, "preventive intelligence investigations" are’ allowed in order to head off terrorist plots or counteract the designs of hostile foreign agents. Current bureau practices suggest that new laws, recommended by the panel, must be enacted to prevent COINTELPRO redux: the FBI still has a half-million domestic intelligence files and has budgeted for the current fiscal year $7 million to pay domestic security informants -- twice that spent for informants against organized crime. In remarks appended to the Senate’s domestic report, Senator Philip A. Hart warns that laws should not be framed for times of national calm, but "for the next periods of social turmoil and passionate dissent, when the current outrage has faded and those in power may again be tempted to investigate their critics in the name of national security."

• A "comprehensive civil remedies statute" should be enacted to give American citizens clear claim for litigation against the government. The Justice Department is making efforts to notify COINTELPRO victims, and under the Freedom of Information Act citizens may succeed in finding out about intelligence activity directed against them (a local ACLU office can help).

• The CIA must get out of the covert publishing business in the U.S. While the "operational" use of American academics would not be banned, top university officials must be informed of CIA use. Laws are also recommended to prohibit the operational use of missionaries and media personnel. (In February the CIA announced it had "no secret paid or contractual relationships" with U.S. clergy, but said it would "continue to welcome information" from voluntary clergy-informants. Even when requested by the churches, former CIA Director Colby had refused to halt the use of missionaries; the CIA under George Bush still insists that there is no "impropriety" in its clergy and media use. The Senate report tells of a Third World pastor-agent who carried out covert-action projects, developed CIA "assets," and passed its propaganda to the local press. He or she was only one of 21 similarly cooperative clergy.)

• Covert activities, the Church panel says, should be employed only by the CIA and only when "required by extraordinary circumstances to deal with grave threats to national security" -- a definition that would drastically curtail CIA’s past habits. Going beyond President Ford’s proposal, the senators would ban all political assassinations, fixing of democratic elections, and covert support for foreign police that systematically violate human rights.

• The senators have asked that the FBI director be limited to an eight-year term, and they have charted myriad bureaucratic changes to improve intelligence effectiveness and to create "paper trails" of accountability. Building on Ford’s plan for strengthening the role of the Director of Central Intelligence, the Church committee would have the DCI prepare the budget and allocate resources for the entire clandestine community. His post should be separated from that of CIA head in order to avoid a conflict of interest.

• The central element in the Church plan is a powerful, well-informed Senate oversight committee with rotating membership, budgetary authority, legislative powers, and the right to receive advance notice of all "significant" covert operations. However the Senate’s oversight apparatus will actually function -- and that will be subject to some senatorial political machinations -- it is well to keep in mind Senator Mike Mansfield’s general warning against "a committee cloaked with only apparent importance, . . . in the end so impotent that it would itself become a creature if not an active conspirator within the community over which it must exert scrutiny."


In an age of proliferating nuclear powers, it would be ‘naive to propose that we have no need for intelligence services. It would be equally naive to trust the clandestine establishment as the sole, secret guardian of our national security. The Senate panel has attempted to steer carefully between these twin naïvetés. It has envisioned comprehensive, if cautious, reform which we clearly need: yet for a number of reasons, it is altogether possible that we could get something considerably less.

First there is the nature of the Senate inquiry itself. Avoiding the House committee’s adversary style and appearance of leakiness, the Senate panel strove to be a tight-lipped model for future oversight. The committee held most of its hearings in secret and worked closely with the administration, even deleting at its request 200 pages from the published text. Names are frequently missing, and, like the full House, the Senate panel voted at the last minute not to reveal the total intelligence budget. The concessions made to secrecy seem to have undermined the impact of the report -- and even helped those forces which oppose strong oversight. Three panel members -- Senators Walter F. Mondale, Philip A. Hart and Gary Hart -- have warned that the report is "diluted" in important respects, and that the secrecy stamp has caused some of the report’s "most important implications [to be] either lost or obscured in vague language."

In mid-May, however, the committee mounted an effective media strategy by steadily releasing a stream of 15 supplementary reports, which made the nightly news with graphic tales of abuse for several weeks. The strategy forced the directors of CIA and IRS to reply, and finally -- after all this time -- wrung a down-in-the-mouth public apology from Clarence Kelley, the FBI head who has been under pressure from the ranks of bureau faithful not to confess Hoover’s wrongdoing. While drama was needed to heat the debate up again, zeal for reform is likely to cool as the refinements of law are worked out in the coming year.

The times are also against reform. After the massive losses of Vietnam and Watergate, the intelligence debate is set at a historic’ juncture for U.S. international leadership and trust in American institutions at home. It is commonly realized that political agreement about covert operations has disintegrated. During oversight debate earlier this year, former CIA head John McCone urged that the cold-war consensus be rebuilt. World events, national politics -- and covert propaganda somewhere? -- seem already to be moving the United States toward a ‘70s version of that old consensus, in spite of lessons learned. This emerging climate of opinion could block the overhaul of intelligence agencies -- without which, in Nelson Rockefeller’s words, we would be "a sitting duck in a world of loaded shotguns."

In times that tolerate such cold-war rhetoric (and a gargantuan new defense budget), security and national security have become common themes for an election year in which an ailing economy has further weakened a progressive national spirit. Campaign language everywhere betrays fears of the loss of American omnipotence -- or rather that delusion of superpower, in the view of Frank Church, which dispatches squads of covert agents to police the world. In this climate the intelligence "flap" is a non-issue. While big-government fears fuel the presidential campaigns, the real menace of Big Brother government provokes from the major candidates nary a whisper. The perennial inanities of our national politicking are in part responsible for this omission. The intelligence issue is far too complex and abstract to lend itself to sloganeering and headline-length promises. We have heard more campaign yawp about abortion -- an important issue but one with which Presidents have little to do -- than about where each hopeful stands on civil-liberties issues such as Senate Bill One. Where would each candidate draw the line on covert activities? How would he see his role as chief of the most awesome system of clandestine power in the world?

Although intelligence reform is fundamentally a law-and-order issue which ought to appeal to conservative voters, this cautious election year augurs ill for reform in two additional ways. The widespread reaction against the 1960s makes it hard for many to sympathize with the victims of those years -- with the single exception of Martin Luther King. The candidates know this. They are not about to champion the Socialist Workers Party, slain Black Panthers and New Left activists -- although these are only the most outrageously maligned of the multitude spied upon, which included such sterling citizens as Eleanor Roosevelt and thousands of ordinary, tax-return-filing Americans. We are still, it seems, unwittingly suffering from the deceits of COINTELPRO propaganda. It becomes difficult to picture those years other than the way we perceived them then -- and in the collective consciousness of the electorate, it was all so long ago.

The test of vigilance which faces the American public comes in the year of our bicentennial when most of all we should, in the words of Tom Paine, "refresh our patriotism by reference to first principles." Yet the congressional probing of intelligence was inevitably anticlimactic after Watergate’s daily drama; and the audience, given to ephemeral intensities, soon got tired of the show. There are other reasons too why our vigilance has flagged. In a New Republic interview with Oriana Fallaci, Congressman Otis Pike speaks about why House members have not rushed out to read the guarded copies of the intelligence report they had voted to keep to themselves:

Oh, they think it is better not to know. There are too many things that embarrass Americans in that report. You see, this country went through an awful trauma with Watergate. But, even then, all they were asked to believe was that their President had been a bad person. In this new situation they are asked much more; they are asked to believe that their country has been evil. And nobody wants to believe that. . . . I was one of [those who believed the government]. It took this investigation to convince me that I had always been told lies, to make me realize that I was tired of being told lies [April 3, 1976, p. 10].

Perhaps it is hard to feel some personal animus toward typical bureau mumblings that defend the indefensible, like Clarence Kelley’s apology for the FBI ("Power abused perhaps can be explained and possibly even be excused, but only when the explanation is truthful, contrite, and is accompanied by a well-defined plan to prevent a recurrence"). In the broadest of human terms it is no unique indictment that the average American citizen finds it hard to care very much about what the CIA has done. All of us like a personal world -- we revel in gossip, in the Nixon of the bedroom and the White House chapel. We want persons behind the evil events of our times. The congressional inquiries did not raise up new national heroes or villains.

As the psychologist Ernest Becker has written, for the sensitive soul the impersonality of evil -- the central fact of the contemporary world -- is unbearable: it is, as he says, too much to believe. What has begun to seep into public consciousness is that the horror of the CIA -- and in the end, all of intelligence, "theirs" or "ours" -- is its impersonality, expressed in its bland, emotionless, mind-deadening prose. We know that its faceless agents are "out there" -- though we do not know quite where even now -- on missions that sacrifice persons to ideology, human relationships to "contacts" and "assets," hearts and minds to the gears of the propaganda machine. If the horror of CIA is its abstract impersonality, that is also its impenetrable advantage: for we cannot act against what is vastly beyond our power to see and believe.

Legal issues are abstract, and as the framing of new intelligence laws goes on through the rest of the year, most Americans will probably not be able to keep up with all the detail. The danger of partial, compromised reform is that it might create nothing more than a framework of loopholes -- a set-up for CIA’s vanishing acts. If Americans do not press for stringent intelligence laws in the emerging cold-war climate of Congress and country, even the news that reform has been done could turn out to be the biggest lie yet that my Uncle Sam told me.