It is commonly accepted that democratic governments are better than dictatorial or totalitarian ones. To the extent that citizens are able to influence and criticize government policies, speak their minds freely, elect parties and representatives of their choice, and are less often subjected to police brutality, they are better. But even democratically organized governments with popular elections, a division of powers between executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, and a Bill of Rights such as that of the U.S., have built-in anti-democratic tendencies that are difficult to overcome. These include:
- The pre-eminent economic and political influence of the wealthy capitalist class;
- The constant pressure by the executive branch to enlarge its powers and gain ascendancy over the legislature and the judiciary;
- The growth of a strong military, supposedly to guard against external enemies;
- The pre-occupation of governments with keeping secrets, especially from its own citizenry;
- The growth of a secret police establishment (which in the U.S. has included the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the so-called Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Many of us have felt in our bones that the CIA is an evil institution that displays little intelligence, an exemplification of government at its worst. There have been a number of recent exposes of CIA misdeeds, accompanied, of course, by official denials. Angus Mackenzie, in Secrets, adds to the story of CIA viciousness, deception, and devotion to the cult of secrecy, and especially the CIA�s interference with peace groups in the U.S.
In this carefully researched book about the involvement of the CIA in spying on and disrupting domestic peace and social justice groups and anti-war publications, journalist Mackenzie documents the spread of U.S. government concern with secrecy in the post-World War II era. Unfortunately, soon after completing this book, Mackenzie died of brain cancer in 1994. An Epilogue written by two family members who prepared the book for publication points out that the secrecy mania has continued and even intensified after the end of the cold war. "Secrecy" they write, "has functioned principally to keep the American people in the dark about the nefarious activities of their government."
The main seeds of evil originated with the CIA's going beyond gathering and sorting information to engage in clandestine activities. Secret police and covert action agencies generally act as though they are not bound by the same moral principles as the rest of us. Like many government officials — especially those connected with the executive branch — they justify their illegal efforts as necesary to protect the government; their ends justify the use of any necessary means. Covert operatives of the CIA do almost anything they can get away with, arguing that their activities — whether "legal" or not — are justified for reasons of national security.
It is beyond the scope of this brief review to provide an extensive catalog of the nefarious deeds of the CIA; a few reminders must suffice.
The CIA was involved in overthrowing the Arbenz government of Guatemala and the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. It carried out the infamous "Bay of Pigs" invasion of Cuba. It orchestrated the murders of such nationalist and revolutionary leaders as Patrice Lumumba and Che Guevara, and plotted several unsuccessful assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. Former CIA operatives formed the core of the infamous Watergate "plumbers" unit organized by Richard Nixon, and were an integral part of the Iran-contra "enterprise" directed by Oliver North and his cronies in carrying out Ronald Reagan's private war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
From its beginnings in 1947 up until the present, the CIA protected drug smugglers and helped them import tons of cocaine and other drugs into the U.S. During the 1980's this was a quick way for the secret government conspirators to raise money to buy weapons for the contra mercenary army (See Gary Webb's expose of CIA involvement in drug trafficking in Central America first printed in the San Jose Mercury and recently revised as The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion).
Mackenzie augments the long list of CIA abuses, chronicling in Secrets its domestic activities. Under its authorizing statute, the CIA was supposed to limit it activities to other countries, but it was not long before U.S. Presidents succumbed to the temptation to use the CIA to monitor and stifle dissent within this country, beginning with a campaign against criticis of the Vietnam War. A special subunit of the CIA, responsible for organizing a domestic spying and harassment program against the anti-Vietnam War movement, was dubbed MH CHAOS. It bore a strong resemblance to the FBI's infamous COINTELPRO program which undermined U.S. civil rights groups and peace groups and fomented the murder of Black Panther leaders in Chicago and elsewhere. Since the CIA was not supposed to engage in domestic spying or covert activities, there was at the same time a need for a continuing and extensive cover-up to keep these activities secret from other parts of the CIA as well as from the general public. (Similarly, the first reaction of the ringleaders of the Iran-Contra scandal were to try to cover up the whole story).
Mackenzie began his journalistic career in 1970 at age 19 as the publisher of The People's Dreadnaught, one of some 500 or so anti-war publications of that era. He was arrested by local police for selling the paper, and once charged with distributing "obscenity." Another time a raiding party of 10 police kicked the office door in. The police onslought eventually forced him to close the Dreadnaught. Mackenzie and his brother James sued for violation of their civil rights, and were awarded $2,500 damages by a jury. During the course of the lawsuit, Mackenzie found out that many editors of other peace movement newspapers had experienced similar persecution. Moreover, the local cops who did the dirty work were rewarded by the federal government. For example, the captain who led the raid on the Dreadnaught office was promoted to an "intelligence" unit of the Internal Revenue Service dedicated to the harassment of anti-war publications and their editors.
Secrets grew out of a series of requests for information about CIA and FBI activities filed by Mackenzie under the Freedom of Information Act. Though heavily censored, the documents he received allowed him to piece together an incredible story of censorship and government-sanctioned repression of dissent in the U.S. Beginning with the Johnson administration and extending through the Nixon and Bush periods and into the Clinton Presidency, the cancer of secrecy has spread inexorably until it now permeates almost every agency of the U.S. government.
This book lays out a clear picture of increasing government concern with secrecy, even after the end of the cold war. It chronicles the defensive tactics used by government agencies to protect themselves against leaks, inside critics and whistle blowers, which had resulted in the publication of The Pentagon Papers and newspaper reports like Seymour Hersh's front page New York Times article which first broke the story of the CIA's MH CHAOS (12/22/74).
Among the stories included in Mackenzie's book:
- The cooperation between the FBI and CIA in hounding the anti-war movement, so extensive that one person was hired to carry documents between the two spy agencies full time;
- The continuing cover-up of CIA domestic spying and covert activities in the U.S. by the MH CHAOS gang;
- The history of the Freedom of Information Act, and bureaucratic resistance to implementing it;
- The attempts by the CIA to censor books about its operations written by former employees;
- The spread of secrecy contracts to prevent the disclosure of information about government agencies to the public unless such information is first presented for prior censorship.
Secrecy contracts, first used within the CIA, eventually spread to other government agencies including the State Department and the Pentagon, and even include 1.5 million employees of private military contractors. Their sole purpose is to prevent whistle blowing and attempts by government employees to share information about wrongdoing within their agencies with the general public.
We expect that totalitarian governments will use secrecy and the secret police against their people. It is disturbing to be reminded that the same dangers exist in supposedly democratic societies when secret police agencies use secrecy to shield the Executive branch from popular scrutiny. Nevertheless, it should come as no surprise to those of us who believe that even democratic governments generally serve themselves and the ruling classes, rather than the citizenry at large.