Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities
From the voluminous reports on the criminal activities of what is somewhat quaintly called the intelligence community, it is difficult for us to know whether to be more astonished at the arrogance of a succession of presidents who presided over it, or at the pusillanimity of successive Congresses which acquiesced in it—and financed it. More depressing than astonishing is the realization that neither the current president nor the current Congress appears to have learned very much from this somber chapter of our history.
Over the past two decades presidents and congressmen alike have consistently and, apparently, with clear conscience betrayed the Constitution they swore to sustain. Presidential betrayal was a product, however distorted, of the office, which has boasted a long history of aggrandizement; betrayal by the Congress, passive rather than active, was precisely in its inactivity a repudiation of its historic—and its constitutional—role, and therefore doubly culpable. The constitutional injunction to take care that the laws are faithfully executed is, to be sure, laid on the president, but it is the Congress which, by virtue of its control of the purse, its power of investigation, and its power to impeach, should be the special guardian of the Constitution. It is a duty which has long been neglected and there is little reason to believe that the Congress is about to repair that neglect.
Unfortunately the exposure of the lawlessness of the CIA and the FBI and of other intelligence activities (the use of secret data by the Internal Revenue Service for purposes of harassment, for example) was neither dramatic nor conclusive. Each day brought its quota of revelations which, with the connivance of the president, spokesmen for the intelligence community minimized, or explained away as aberrations, or as the price which had to be paid for achievements never specified. Each new disclosure was dismissed as incidental, or fortuitous, to the otherwise beneficent work of the agency involved. Only rarely was there any hint that more was at stake than the unfortunate behavior of some nameless agent whose errors could be shrugged off as products of an excess of zeal. The question of legality simply never arose, not even at the highest level: another example of the banality of evil.
Some newspapers—The New York Times, The Washington Post most conspicuously—some journals—The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The Progressive—did their best to focus public interest on issues of principle, but in vain, for they appealed chiefly to those already committed to constitutionalism, and did not reach those who thought that consideration irrelevant. As for television, it was committed almost by its nature to reporting the transient and the episodic rather than interpreting the permanent and the substantial: there was no repetition of the coverage of the McCarthy hearings or the Watergate hearings.
The Rockefeller report, which concealed as much as it revealed, was something less than bold, and President Ford’s gesture toward more effective control of intelligence agencies proved merely an endorsement of existing practices and malpractices,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.