Someone to Watch Over You

The Abuses of the Intelligence Agencies Washington, DC 20002)

by The Center for National Security Studies, edited by Jerry J. Berman and Morton H. Halperin
Center for National Security Studies (122 Maryland Ave., NE,, $2.25

This is a dizzying computation of all the snoopings, publicly known so far, performed by our public servants upon their putative masters. With admirable restraint the report attempts to collect and document every instance of illegal activity undertaken by our various intelligence agencies. It gives the defense offered by the agencies, the authority under which each agency operated, and the statutes apparently infringed. It is a very useful and complete handbook on official crime. We can surmise that the tally is not complete, since it arose from spot investigations, odd suits, and accidental confession. But already the count is almost self-defeating. The hundreds under surveillance, the thousands photographed, the hundreds of thousands filed. The “watch lists” in readiness for emergency detention. The blacks. The kids. Hit lists. Enemies. The “enemy within” is us. The deadpan recital of it all tends to dissolve in the mind. Everett Dirksen claimed, “A million here, a million there—in time that adds up to real money.” It doesn’t, of course, That kind of addition turns—magically, at some unthinkable number—into subtraction. We know fairly well what we are getting for $1.98. But not for forty billion. Much the same thing happens by the thousandth wiretapping or break-in recorded here.

We must summon up a gratitude to E. Howard Hunt. One or two of his comic break-ins, complete with celebratory self-photographing sessions—or one intimidating “interview” with red wig and voice-modulator—reminds us what all these figures really mean. The break-in at the Democratic National Committee was small potatoes set beside the hundreds of FBI “black bag” jobs; but its very $1.98 size smuggled it in toward the imagination past TV commercials and situation comedies. Watergate, was the sit-com of scandals, “Haldeman and Son,” your friendly garbage collectors tripping over each other’s feet.

Those who found the Nixon tenure in office peculiarly sinister fail to notice its redeeming feature: Nixon distrusted everyone, even J. Edgar Hoover. Even Richard Helms. Anyone outside his sight. He had to rely on private flunkies for everything—to control demonstrations around the White House (call over John Dean from the Justice Department), to conduct the war on drugs (use the scrubbed ferocity of Egil Krogh), to keep track of Teddy (put Tony Ulasewicz on the trail of boiler-room girls), to draw up a master plan for spying on everyone—including the spies (have young Tom Huston teach J. Edgar his tricks).

Poor Huston, how he wronged the Director: he thought him remiss in the patriotic breaking of laws. He had to admit, before the Church committee, that Hoover had been doing the very things he proposed; but Huston thought Hoover was above all that—and Hoover had to slap down the kid for being such a simpleton.

Nixon had the apparatus of a police state at his disposal, but he was too devious to use it. Right-wingers constantly make the mistake of thinking that liberals live up to their own pretensions. The pretensions give them license to sink down toward their enemies’ level. If you want real and systematic perfidy, you do not get it with Nixon, who sabotaged himself with a saving gracelessness. You get it with Truman, with his tests for security risks and front organizations. Or with Kennedy, and his harassing of socialist groups. Or with Lyndon Johnson, who warred on Black Panthers. (Eisenhower stepped up CIA activity abroad—a subject dealt with glancingly in this report, and one I hope to return to in a later piece. But Eisenhower had little, if any, interest in nonmilitary—i.e., ideological—spying, a taste that made sophisticates of “intelligence” consider him soft.)

It was during Truman’s time that the Attorney General’s List was published, a proscription list unparalleled in our history, the basis of all later black-listings. It made a man’s job fair game if he had given money to, or accepted membership in, or attended a meeting of, any one of hundreds of organizations branded for discrimination but not charged with any crime. A new public category had been created, the noncriminal non-American.

It was during Kennedy’s regime that the FBI launched its “COINTELPRO” action against the Socialist Workers of America—sending letters to employers, planting “disinformation” to scuttle a registered and above-board political party. There is something touching about the FBI’s own memos on this operation. On the one hand, the party was flagrant in its un-Americanism: it “has, over the past several years, been openly espousing its line on a local and national basis through”—are you ready for the revelation of its dastardly tactics?—“running candidates for public office.” The FBI, thwarted by this openness, had to arrange a Disruption Program (its own term) to “alert the public.” Alert it to what? To the socialist “line”? Yet the party’s very offense was the public dissemination of this line. And how did the FBI alert the public? By openly professing its own line? No, by secret slander, anonymous notes, and forged provocations.*

That is what sinks in through the reading of this dreary catalogue, this list of spy work extended over decades, descending to the pettiest tricks—the sheer lawlessness of the activity used against legal dissemination of “un-American” ideas. The customary defense of the intelligence agencies is that they may have been carried away by their eagerness to capture criminals. The constable’s excess is an enduring problem when dealing with a wily crook. But what we see documented here, on page after page, is the conscious and deliberate and extensive breaking of laws by a whole series of public agencies (the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, military teams, the NSA) against people who have broken no laws, whose proscribed activities are not even preliminary to the breaking of laws, whose real offense is not criminal activity but disloyal thinking. Under liberal regimes, for decade after decade, we have had a thought-control approach to internal surveillance. This was known; it was supported by the public; it was endowed by the Congress—and even now there is little compunction about what occurred. The reaction of a majority of Americans to this report, shocking as it is, will be: So what?

What makes this reaction possible? Not merely the press of a cold war or the quirks of a single senator. We have to grant J. Edgar one thing—he called things un-American, and Americans agreed with him, for years, emphatically. The rejection of Nixon (and of Watergate) has nothing to do with the more serious and dangerous spying on Americans by other Americans that has been accepted as “the American way” for decades, and maybe for centuries. Maybe it is the American way.

In 1921, Gilbert Chesterton applied for entry to America as a visiting lecturer. He was stunned by the questions he had to answer. Was he an anarchist? A polygamist? Did he advocate the overthrow of America by force? He was applying in the aftermath of the Palmer raids, but the procedures of admission had been settled for years; and they amused a man who had traveled widely without ever undergoing such an inquisition: “I have stood on the other side of Jordan, in the land ruled by a rude Arab chief, where the police looked so like brigands that one wondered what the brigands looked like. But they did not ask me whether I had come to subvert the power of the Shereef; and they did not exhibit the faintest curiosity about my personal views on the ethical basis of civil authority.” Only America, the land of the free, asked him what he thought about the kind of freedom it was peddling—and asked him not as a settler or possible immigrant, but merely as a visitor. He especially loved the idea that subverters of the nation would be docile in declaring, ahead of time, their intention to subvert.

There is a naïve assumption, among Americans, that everybody knows what his or her ideas on government are, and that they will declare this mental baggage whenever challenged. We make such challenges not only to visitors or prospective citizens, but to people already certified as American—are they American enough? Hence loyalty oaths, security checks, Americanism committees of the Legion, un-American activities committees of the Congress, and Freedom Trains to teach Americans how to be more American.

America is not merely a country, but an Idea. An Ism. So we do not settle our Americanism by immigration, by citizenship, by obedience to the law. We have to prove our Americanism by recitals of a catechism about our inmost thoughts. Chesterton, being as generous as he could to this odd trait, noted a certain danger of tyranny in it but supposed that we raised an ideological test because we had not gathered ourselves together as a nation by the more gradual methods of Europe, with a racial or geographical or historical unity inbuilt by our circumstances: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.” Chesterton restated Lincoln’s claim that this country was conceived immaculately in freedom by its “dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

It is very dangerous to derive citizenship from a proposition. That means that every citizen must subscribe to the proposition. And that means we must know the citizen’s mode of thought in order to grant him a charter of participation in the national life. Unless we know the inner workings of his mind, we have no clear assurance of his citizenship. Living within our borders is not sufficient. Attending our schools is not sufficient. Even submitting to our electoral process is not sufficient.

Those surprised by McCarthyite excesses of the cold war had no excuse for their surprise. The readiness to clap Nisei into detention camps was not questioned by liberals during World War II. Liberal organs of thought cried out against German-speaking citizens in World War I (and threw Karl Muck into jail without legal process). Even those who attacked the House Un-American Activities Committee attacked it as un-American—by that very process saying there was an American way of thinking and acting that had been violated. Liberals did not protest the harassment, the provocation, the infiltration by illegal means of the Ku Klux Klan or various fascist organizations. Indeed, the FBI has lived many years of its red hunt by blunting criticism with the question: Do you want to be disarmed against the fascists or the Klan?

Since Americanism is something to be striven for daily, and to be demonstrated on demand, there is a presumption that any citizen is not American until he or she proves it. That is why politicians are introduced as “great Americans,” or real Americans, or true Americans. There are no un-English activities committees or un-French committees. Why un-American? Because the full protection of our laws is not given automatically. You must earn it by demonstrating a patriotic mentality.

The record of this report is a long series of incursions on the legal rights of Americans, of men and women who were ideological suspects and therefore second-class citizens, open prey to anyone with a purer ideological claim. For instance: In 1968, the Ku Klux Klan was going to hold a meeting in the conference facilities of an Alabama motel. The FBI, as part of its general harassment of the Klan, went to the national headquarters of the motel chain and asked that the Klan be denied this site. The bureau also used the IRS, a dummy organization of its own, and forged materials to discredit the Klan. What has any of this to do with law enforcement? Nothing at all. It was conscious war against ideas—war not conducted openly by politicians and publicists, but secretly by our national police force. It was an ideological logical purge, in which any means were sanctified by the holiness of the cause. People were slandered, set against each other, intimidated—all with our tax dollars and without our knowledge. Laws were broken; but by the law enforcers. A second-class citizenship, outside the law, was established for Klan members.

What was done to the Klan was done even more zealously against communists, leftists, black activist groups, and civil rights leaders. Provocateurs were sent into organizations, to prod them into breaking laws. A 1968 memo on the New Left set the bureau’s goal: “to expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize the activities of this group.” The activities of the group—not its illegal activities. The FBI long ago gave up the narrow aim of investigating crimes. It now polices the mental health of America, trying to destroy any group it does not approve of.

The FBI may have established the pattern for our modern ideological policing; but this report shows how readily all other enforcement agencies followed that lead. Military intelligence units moved into the area of citizen harassment very actively in the wake of 1967’s riots. The army center at Fort Holabird opened files on at least 80,000 nonmilitary citizens of the US, and spread its lists by computer to many other bases. The files were FBI-inclusive, with material on sex lives and other private habits for use in ideological blackmail. Military agents were sent to infiltrate groups that might take part in any demonstration. The center at Fort Holabird set up a code for 770 organizations, and by 1969 it was receiving 1,200 reports a month, to build up a surveillance record on domestic activities that would outreach even the FBI’s. This information was ordered destroyed in 1970, but a Senate investigating committee found solid evidence that it still exists in various forms, thanks to the computer system that spread the information.

Local police forces, when they do not cooperate with the FBI, compete with it. The FBI’s war on the Black Panthers used local arrests on various charges (like defective lights on cars) to harass the Panthers and dry up their bail fund. At times the harassment became entrapment—but who cares, since they were Panthers. The IRS has long been trained to get people on tax counts, when they are really wanted for something else. This practice goes back to Al Capone. We declared him a second-class citizen and then found some law to put him away with. It was Robert Kennedy’s approach to Jimmy Hoffa.

The National Security Agency has added its own expensive talents to the American snooping effort. It automatically plucks out of cables and radiograms information keyed to proper names or certain words. The CIA uses citizen fronts as cover for its foreign activities; it claims to have infiltrated student organizations to train agents for work with overseas leftists. It prefers to manipulate even friendly types (like writers for Encounter) to maintain control over the channels of ideological exchange. The reaction of people like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to the Encounter revelations shows how we have come to expect ideological self-policing. The CIA was working on the right side, wasn’t it? The inappropriateness of having a secret police covertly run the magazine and radio stations did not strike people, so long as the operations were well run, were on our side.

Indeed, the CIA was long welcomed by liberals as a kind of good FBI, an FBI of our very own. The good guys were doing the manipulating in this case. But of course that is what most of the nation has all along thought of the FBI itself. It was the good guys, and it was out to get the bad guys. Who cared how that was done? Since they were bad guys, you could not handle them with kid gloves. Agencies that deal with them have to destroy the law in order to save it. Un-Americans don’t deserve the protection of the law anyway. And who was un-American? We all are, until we prove different—take our loyalty oaths, submit to security checks. Stand up and be counted. If you are not willing to be snooped on, manipulated, observed, then you must have something to hide—foundation in itself for a prior assumption of un-Americanhood. The only good American, the only one who deserves to be free, is the one who puts his freedom at the disposal of our secret police system. Alas, that makes most of us pretty good Americans.

It happened—all the long tale of deceit, laid out in patterns in this straightforward account—because we let it happen; in some measure, wanted it to happen. We had an American proposition we must be dedicated to. If the Klan did not accept the abstract proposition of human equality, its thoughts could be persecuted, entirely aside from the enforcement of laws. And so we advance the 1984 equations: freedom can only be guarded by destroying privacy; only secrecy can protect the open society; and the law must be denied those Americans who are sneaky enough to obey the law while thinking things we do not like. Right, Comrade?

  1. *

    Thanks to pretrial discovery, there is a particularly full account of the FBI activities against the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialists Alliance. All these documents will soon be published in a paperback by the Pathfinder Press (410 West St., NYC 10014; $1.95). It is no wonder that intelligence agencies try to stay out of court.