Monday, November 20, 2006


Church and Pike Committees Post-mortem

Historian Kathryn S. Olmsted's Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Pr., 1996) is a retrospective look at the 1975-76 work of the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the "Church Committee") and the House Select Intelligence Committee (the "Pike Committee"). Olmsted argues that the outcome of these "inquiries show that American political culture of the 1970s was characterized more by continuity than by change." More specifically, she highlights the "resistance to change in three important areas:"
  1. Congress "hesitated" to take responsibility to oversee the operations of US intelligence agencies.
  2. "The media proved reluctant ... to confront the national security state."
  3. The American people "were reluctant to acknowledge unpleasant truths about their secret agencies."
Each of the points above is drawn from Olmsted's "Introduction" and is an example of scholarly understatement, as the body of the book makes clear. For example, as Olmsted, quoting I.F. Stone, notes: "at the end of the investigations, their net effect ' has been to accustom the public mind to the evils exposed and to institutionalize and legalize them by systems of congressional "oversight." ' " Olmsted quotes former CIA head William Colby drawing a similiar conclusion.

In the chapter, "Sensational Scoops and Self-Censorship" the case of Mr. Colby shows how the press generally performed a lapdog rather than a watchdog role. Concerning Project Jennifer--the CIA's secret operation with Howard Hughes to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine--Colby is shown to have contacted the editors of major US news organizations and they all "agreed to suppress the story." As Olmsted continues:
For his part, Colby was "totally surprised and pleased" by the media's self-censorship. ... Indeed, "responsibility," not aggressivesness, was the watchword for the post-Watergate press in the case of Project Jennifer. Far from playing the mythic role popularly assigned to them after Nixon's fall, the nation's editors seemed terrified of the potential risks of defying the government.
An earlier chapter, "Trusting the 'Honorable Men' " explores how the media suppressed information about the CIA's involvement in domestic spying and in Watergate affair.

There are mostly villians and anti-heroes--including the American public--in Olmsted's book but a few heroes emerge, too: Otis Pike, Seymour Hersh, Daniel Schorr, Jack Anderson. General Lyman Lemnitzer makes a cameo appearance in the book. In 1962, Lemnitzer, "infuriated [then-Representative Gerald] Ford by deleting some of his questions on the U-2 spy plane program from the transcript of a defense appropriations hearing" and Ford complained, at the time, of a " 'totalitarian' attempt to suppress information." In the wake of Seymour Hersh's expose on CIA involvement in the Chilean coup of Augusto Pinochet, however, Ford appointed Lemnitzer to his Commission on CIA Activities in the United States, along with Lane Kirkland and Ronald Reagan, because Ford knew that Lemnitzer could be trusted to guard the CIA's secrets and power.

I first learned of Lemnitzer while reading a book about the National Security Agency by James Bamford. During the Kennedy adminstration, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lemnitzer was one of the proponents of Operation Northwoods-- a secret plan that included killing American civilians in false-flag operations to be blamed on Cuba. According to a March 13, 1962 memorandum, the point was to create "pretexts which would provide justification for US military intervention in Cuba." The Northwoods memo was supported by the other Joint Chiefs and sent to the Secretary of Defense for his approval. In 1963, Lemnitzer left the JCS to become Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and Operation Northwoods remained secret for 25 years.

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