The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence
In drafting impeachment articles the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives charged Nixon with “misuse of the CIA.” The more fundamental question was outside the scope of their inquiry: What is the proper use of the CIA?
In the national security world Watergate has become a code word for official dismay that the wrong people were supplied with ill-fitting wigs and burglar tools at the wrong place and time. Nixon’s defenders on the committee argued that if the president had reason to think that the CIA was involved in “proper” covert operations that would be jeopardized by a vigorous FBI investigation he was indeed obliged to mislead the chief investigating arm of the federal government. The president’s accusers believed that he committed an impeachable offense by allowing members of the intelligence underworld like Hunt and Liddy to go after the wrong targets.
“National security” is the holy oil that converts felonious acts into patriotic exploits. It has been sprinkled liberally to justify break-ins at foreign embassies, but it is, fortunately, not yet available to bless burglaries on Beverly Hills psychiatrists. In the practice of covert intelligence the working tools are burglary, assassination, extortion, blackmail, and lying. It is hardly surprising that agents like E. Howard Hunt labor under some moral confusion. The following exchange between Hunt and Assistant US Attorney Earl Silbert took place before a federal grand jury in April, 1973.
Silbert: Now while you worked at the White House, were you ever a participant or did you ever have knowledge of any other so-called “bag job” or entry operations?
Hunt: No, sir.
Silbert: Were you aware of or did you participate in any other what might commonly be referred to as illegal activities?
Silbert: Yes, sir.
Hunt: I have no recollection of any, no, sir.
Silbert: What about clandestine activities?
Hunt: Yes, sir.
Silbert: All right. What about that?
Hunt: I’m not quibbling, but there’s quite a difference between something that’s illegal and something that’s clandestine.
Silbert: Well, in your terminology, would the entry into Mr. Fielding’s [Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist] office have been clandestine, illegal, neither, or both?
Hunt: I would simply call it an entry operation conducted under the auspices of competent authority.
Hunt’s responses illustrate what Victor Marchetti and John Marks call the “clandestine mentality,” the state of mind which sustains the entire covert intelligence effort. Richard Bissell, former head of clandestine operations, once put it that CIA men “feel a higher loyalty and…they are acting in obedience to that higher loyalty.” That higher loyalty is a definition of “national security” developed and communicated in secret by higher-ranking bureaucrats hermetically sealed from public scrutiny. “The nation must to a degree take it on faith that we too are honorable men devoted to her service,” CIA Director Richard Helms declared in 1971. There is indeed a code of honor operating in the intelligence underworld, which is made up of people…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.