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Post-Watergate Intelligence Investigations

Alex Constantine - April 10, 2013

The Watergate scandal, the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon, and the election that fall of a "reform Congress" set the stage for Congressional investigations into illegal activities and other abuses by US intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI and CIA. The abuses included domestic spying on Americans, harassment and disruption of targeted individuals and groups, assassination plots targeting foreign leaders, infiltration and manipulation of media and business, human experimentation using drugs as part of a "mind control" program, and more.

Leading newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, which had covered Watergate extensively, carried articles exposing the illegalities. The New York Times carried a front-page story on 22 Dec 1974 by Seymour Hersh entitled "Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years."

A Presidential commission and several Congressional committees, the most famous of which was headed by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, held hearings and produced reports over the next few years. Some of the findings of the Church Committee led to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which investigated the murders of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Eventually these efforts waned, in part due to pushback from the intelligence agencies and their allies, particularly after the CIA station chief in Athens was murdered following the publicizing of his name (these committees were not responsible for the leak). With the election of conservative Ronald Reagan in 1980, the partially successful efforts at reform drew to a close. But lessons learned from those investigations are especially relevant today.

The Gathering Storm

The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 capped off a tumultuous year which saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, as well as growing anti-war protests and continuing race riots. Nixon ran as a "law and order" candidate and barely defeated Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who ran after President Lyndon Johnson had removed himself from the race on March 31.

Nixon presided over continued conflict in Vietnam, and anti-war students and activists were joined by a continually growing array of mainstream voices, including respected commentator Walter Cronkite. Nixon's poor relations with the media worsened when he unsuccessfully attempted to block the New York Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, leaked by Pentagon insider Daniel Ellsburg.

Nixon easily won re-election over Democrat George McGovern in 1972, but the seeds of disaster were already planted. Nixon's White House Plumbers had already broken into Ellsburg's psychiatrists' office in an attempt to find material to discredit him, and had subsequently been caught breaking into the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. It would take until the spring of 1973 for Watergate to develop into a full-blown scandal, and more than another year before Nixon was forced to resign his office to avoid impeachment.

Some in the intelligence agencies took note of the looming scandals. CIA Director James Schlesinger, the replacement for Richard Helms who had been fired for refusing to block the FBI's Watergate investigation, ordered Agency personnel in 1973 to compile a report on CIA activities which were illegal or exceeded its charter. These "family jewels" were finally declassified in 2007, with significant redactions, as part of a new "openness" campaign. That same year, Army Intelligence carried out the destruction of domestic surveillance files, including one on Lee Harvey Oswald, a file which the Warren Commission had never seen.

The Watergate scandal eventually consumed Richard Nixon's presidency; faced with imminent impeachment Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. He was replaced by former Warren Commissioner Gerald Ford (1973 also saw the uncannily-timed removal of VP Spiro Agnew). Ford soon pardoned Nixon and promoted national reconciliation, but the fury unleashed by revelations of Nixon's misdeed and that of the executive branch had not yet run its course.

The Rockefeller Commission

In response to various revelations, made public during the Watergate hearings and Hersh's Times article of December 1974 among others, several investigations were soon launched. Gerald Ford created an executive branch commission headed by his Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, in part to try to head off Congressional investigations.

The President's Commission on CIA Activities in the United States was created in February 1975, and was run by its Executive Director David Belin, a former Warren Commission staff member. Limited in scope by its very title, it nonetheless conducted an investigation into mail opening, information collection on American citizens, improper relations with the White House "Plumbers," and even a few aspects of the Kennedy assassination (whether Watergate burglars Hunt and Sturgis were two of the "three tramps," and why JFK's head snapped back if he had been shot from behind).

The Rockefeller Commission learned of and investigated CIA plots to assassinate foreign leaders and apparently had some internal debate over whether to publicize their findings. The Commission's Report in the end did not include the plots.  Due to its limited scope and the perception that it conducted a "limited hangout," the Commission was quickly overrun by a much more aggressive and wide-ranging Senate investigation, the Church Committee.

Under the JFK Records Act, some of the files of the Rockefeller Commission, those related to CIA assassination plots and the JFK investigation have become public.

The Nedzi and Pike Committees

In February 1975, the same month the Rockefeller Commission was launched, the House Select Committee on Intelligence was formed under the leadership of Michigan Representative Lucien Nedzi. Only a few months had passed when the New York Times revealed that Nedzi, as head of the House Armed Services Intelligence Subcommittee, had been briefed in 1973 by CIA Director Colby on some of the contents of the "family jewels," including assassination plotting. The resulting furor expressed by other members of the Committee resulted in the Committee being dissolved in July and replaced by one run by Otis Pike of New York.

The Pike Committee's relations with the CIA were tense from the start, particularly over what level of access it would be given to CIA files. The hostile relationship between the Pike Committee and the CIA, as well as the White House, was profound and impeded the Committee's ability to conduct its investigation. The New York Times joined a chorus of other media outlets accusing Pike of running a witch hunt. When presented with a draft of the Committee's report, CIA legal counsel Mitchell Rogovin is said to have told the Committee's staff director Searle Field: “Pike will pay for this, you wait and see…. There will be a political retaliation…. We will destroy him for this."

In the end, the Committee's report was not accepted by the full House of Representatives, though it was leaked by journalist Daniel Schorr, and the Village Voice printed it. The very first line of the report reads "If the Committee's recent experience is any test, intelligence agencies that are to be controlled by Congressional lawmaking are, today, beyond the lawmaker's scrutiny."

A subcommittee run by the flamboyant Bella Abzug of New York produced a draft report on the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance activities, but it was never officially published either. Congress did publish a few volumes of the Committee's hearings and proceedings.

The Church Committee

A Senate committee headed by Frank Church had somewhat more cordial and less confrontational relations with the CIA and FBI, and conducted the most wide-ranging and detailed investigation of the intelligence agencies in US history. The Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the Church Committee, published 14 reports in 1975 and 1976.

The first of these reports documented CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, and other foreign leaders. The Committee absolved the CIA of responsibility for actually causing the deaths in each case (only Castro survived the attempts). But it laid out at some length the operational details of these plots, based on interviews with many CIA officers. The paper trail was thin, though the CIA had compiled an Inspector General's Report on the Castro plots in 1967, and in the end the Committee was unable to fully penetrate the system of "plausible deniability" and reach firm conclusions on whether Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy authorized the plots. Regarding the paper trail, one CIA document was found which referred to "forged and backdated" files in order to hide the assassination operations, and "provisions for blaming Sovs. or Czechs in case of blow."

The Schweiker-Hart subcommittee of the Church Committee undertook a review of the JFK assassination, limited to the question of how the intelligence agencies aided the Warren Commission. The slim report produced was blunt in its criticism, saying that the probe had "developed evidence which impeaches the process by which the intelligence agencies arrived at their own conclusions about the assassination, and by which they provided information to the Warren Commission." Senator Richard Schweiker was even more blunt, talking on national television about a cover-up by the FBI and CIA in regards to the Kennedy assassination investigation.

But the Church Committee did far more than investigation assassination plots. It also conducted hearings and a detailed investigation of the FBI's COINTELPRO operation, a program of infiltration and disruption of anti-War groups, the Black Panthers, and many other organizations. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a target of this operation. The FBI's operation, which included wiretaps and microphone surveillance, even went so far as to mail King a tape recording of his sexual activities, threatening that the tape would be released and "there is only one thing you can do to prevent this from happening." Declassified files show that King's hotel room trash was collected as part of the surveillance.

The Committee also investigated and reported on mail opening operations conducted under a joint FBI-CIA program, NSA electronic surveillance, abuses by the Internal Revenue Service, Nixon's ill-fated "Huston Plan," CIA's domestic spying operations, and more. One volume of hearings was on CIA covert operations, devoted specifically on the US-supported 1973 Chilean coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet. The Church Committee reports also contain a detailed history of the development of the intelligence agencies in the aftermath of World War II.


The mid-1970s era of investigations also included hearings on MKULTRA, the CIA's program of experimentation with drugs and hypnosis. The Agency had destroyed most of its files in 1973. And some topics were too hot for even the Church Committee to report on, including the CIA's relationship with the nation's media. Carl Bernstein, of Watergate reporting fame, wrote a piece in Rolling Stone called The CIA and the Media based on his own investigation.

But it wasn't long before a pushback developed. CIA propaganda and covert operations specialist David Phillips formed the Agency of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) in 1975, with a mission to "build a public constituency for a sound, healthy and capable US intelligence system." Future President George H.W. Bush became CIA director in 1976, and was very popular within the Agency and is credited with restoring morale there (there have long been allegations that Bush was already in the CIA during his oil career in the 1950s and 1960s). As of 2008, Bush is listed as the Chairman of an Honorary Board of Directors of the AFIO. Along with allies in the media, a pushback against the "excesses" of the Church Committee began to develop.

This pushback gained strength in the aftermath of the assassination of Athens CIA station chief Richard Welch in December 1975. He had been "outed" as a CIA officer by the magazine CounterSpy. While the Church Committee was not responsible for this or any other known leak of an agent's name, the Welch murder helped fuel a backlash that was aided by allies in the media such as popular radio commentator Paul Harvey. The Church Committee, reviled by many Washington power brokers, came again under criticism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; James Baker said within hours of the attacks that the Church Committee hearings had caused the US to “unilaterally disarm in terms of our intelligence capabilities,” and the Wall Street Journal added that the opening of the Church hearings was “the moment that our nation moved from an intelligence to anti-intelligence footing.”

The post-Watergate investigations eventually ran out of steam, but not before exposing illegal acts and documenting an intelligence system which had accumulated far more power than that envisioned by President Harry Truman when he signed the National Security Act of 1947. In 1980, the election of conservative Ronald Reagan spelled the end of the "era of reform."

Lessons for Today

The Church Committee issued various recommendations, including the establishment of a permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to provide improved Congressional oversight. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 established procedures and a special FISA court to authorize electronic surveillance operations when warranted.

The Church Committee's investigations and findings could hardly be more relevant today. In the aftermath of 9/11, the "war on terror" was used to justify the jettisoning of many restrictions and procedures which had been put in place in the 1970s. The FISA court was bypassed in a new era of warrantless electronic surveillance, there have been reports of COINTELPRO-like operations against anti-Iraq-War groups and others, in addition to restrictions on civil liberties.

Some of the executive and legislative decisions regarding the detainees held at Guantanamo hold potentially far-reaching consequences for erosion of habeas corpus and other rights for U.S. citizens. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which restricted the use of the U.S. military for law enforcement, is also endangered in the age of "homeland security." While the 2006 John Warner National Defense Authorization Act, which expanded federal powers of martial law, was repealed, the U.S. for the first time has a military command, NORTHCOM, whose area of responsibility includes the United States itself. Little-noticed Continuity of Government (COG) plans now place in the hands of the President the power to declare a "catastrophic emergency" and override the normal functions of government. Most of "Executive Directive 51" is classified; U.S. representative and Homeland Security Committee member Peter Fazio requested to see the classified annex of this document; the White House denied him access, citing "national security concerns."

In the post-9/11 era, the US struggles to find a new balance between security and civil liberties, though  for many observers this is a false choice. The Roman Empire devolved into imperialism and collapsed from within long before it was overrun by foreign armies.

It is worth observing that the revelations of assassination plotting and domestic spying that so shocked the national more than 30 years ago no longer has the power to evoke such strong reactions when similar relevations occur today. Is this the result of increased realism on the part of the public? Or is it a cause for alarm?


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