New Cloaks for the CIA
November 11, 1981
On September 23 the House of Representatives voted 354 to 56 to enact a piece of legislation that perilously abridges freedom of speech and of the press: On October 6 the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 17–0 in favor of a similar bill making final passage a certainty. What follows is the history of this extraordinary piece of legislation, purportedly designed to protect the identities of intelligence agents but perhaps marking a fatal turning point in the history of liberty in America.
The story begins with former Central Intelligence Agency officer Philip Agee. But although Agee’s personal odyssey is by now all too familiar, the complex series of actions he initiated had repercussions far different from anything he intended — and repercussions that even today are little-known.
In London, on October 3, 1974, Agee, Notre Dame ’56, made a public announcement more quixotic than most. He intended, he said, to wage unremitting private war against the Agency which had employed him for 11 1/2 years. According to Agee, who entered the CIA a rabid anti-Communist and who left it in 1968 a rabid pro-Communist, the CIA’s unforgivable sin was its success in forestalling the worldwide triumph of revolutionary Marxism. Since that is just what the CIA claims, Agee’s opinions disturbed nobody at the Langley, Virginia, headquarters of the largest, busiest, and most inept “intelligence service” in the world. What did infuriate the CIA was the strictly practical aspect of Agee’s little war. In order to cripple the Agency, announced Agee, he intended to identify, and to train disciples to identify, “CIA officers and agents,” and by doing so to “drive them out of the countries where they are operating.”
A self-important sort of person (resembling in this respect the Agency he abhors), Agee did not divulge the CIA trade secret on which his prospective war depended — the almost comical truth that the identities of undercover CIA officers are not a secret, have never been a secret, and are not even meant to be a secret. These officers work at U.S. embassies under the thin guise of State Department employees and their “cover” is as transparent as a plastic raincoat, beneath which they wear, metaphorically speaking, CIA T-shirts in order to make it easier for the natives to find them.
In a foreign capital you can identify the CIA crew at the embassy by asking anyone at the bar favored by newsmen and politicos. The habitues can always give you the name of the CIA chief of station because he probably gives conferences — or even cocktail parties for that matter. Or you can ask an embassy janitor to point out Americans who all work in the same room and only talk to each other. If you travel in diplomatic circles, you don’t even have to ask who the CIA people at the embassy are, for, as one ex-CIA officer put it, “a favorite pastime of Foreign Service Officers and their wives was to point them out whenever the opportunity arose.”
Even stay-at-homes can identify the CIA lads working under embassy cover with the help of various unclassified government publications. If you want to know how it’s done, read “How to Spot a Spook” in the November 1974 issue of the eminently respectable Washington Monthly. One “indicator,” as the CIA calls it, is the fact that no CIA official at an embassy is allowed to be listed as a foreign service officer. This is because foreign service people, who have to take a stiff test to win that coveted title, refuse to let it be worn, unearned, by some ill-educated CIA clodhopper. So much for America’s famed clandestine service.
This great CIA trade secret would be something of a joke if the American people shared it. Most Americans do not, and because they do not, Congress, at this very moment, is exploiting that ignorance to carry out one of the deadliest assaults on First Amendment liberties ever attempted on Capitol Hill. The assault has been more than a year and a half in the making and the slow pace is readily understandable. Given a Constitution which states categorically that “Congress shall make no law… abridging freedom of speech or of the press,” passing such a law is not the work of a day.
For a number of years, in fact, Agee’s little war against the CIA was scarcely noticed in Congress, although by the end of 1978 he and his handful of followers had published in one place or another the names of 1000 CIA officers working in U.S. embassies around the world. Congressional lethargy stemmed from many sources, but chiefly from the fact that we were still in the era of detente; that popular support for the Cold War had broken down, and that the CIA itself was in ill-repute. Thanks to Watergate’s endlessly ramified revelations, the Agency, by 1975, had almost lost the only “cover” it has ever really cared about — the 30-year-long pretense that the Central Intelligence Agency is in fact an “intelligence-gathering” service. Blaring headlines about a CIA-backed coup in Chile and shocking stories about CIA attempts to assassinate foreign rulers gave the American people a tantalizing glimpse of the long-hidden truth. The chief activity of the CIA is to intervene politically in the internal affairs of half the countries in the world. The CIA is little more, in fact, than an enormous bureau of incessant meddling, working constantly to prop up pro-American governments, however inept or vile, and to subvert independent-minded rulers, however popular or worthy. It is chiefly because the CIA’s embassy operatives are political manipulators, not spies, that their “cover” is of so little consequence.
All such “covert action,” as it is called at Langley, is no secret to the Kremlin, which, interestingly enough, makes no effort to impede it. Indeed, it is no secret to anyone in the world except the American people, whose knowledge of what their government does overseas constitutes the only danger to “national security” America’s rulers really fear.
The real CIA is a secret of state, and by mid-1979, the time was ripe for shoving this secret back in the box. The political atmosphere was changing. Detente and Jimmy Carter were on their last legs. Suddenly Agee’s little war, a minor nuisance at most, took on interesting legislative possibilities. Agee himself was not especially useful. A law making it a crime for a former intelligence officer to publish the names of CIA officials, although often proposed in Congress, held few attractions either for the CIA or for men bent on putting the “cover” back on the Agency, namely the members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees. Such legislation would “get Agee,” as various legislators put it, but it had one quintessential drawback. It would leave the American press free to publish what it wanted about the doings of the CIA.
Far more promising was an Agee-inspired little magazine known as the Covert Action Information Bulletin. For one thing its three radical editors, Ellen Ray, Louis Wolf, and William Schaap, were private citizens. Secondly, their magazine is uncommonly easy to denounce. In addition to articles about CIA meddling abroad, the Bulletin lists at the back of each issue the names and biographies of 25 or so CIA officials working at various U.S. embassies. The editors label this the “naming names” section and the very sight of this gratuitous little directory can turn even liberal spirits livid.
Just how the CIA and its Congressional allies were going to exploit the Bulletin first became public on an NBC network program, a news magazine called Prime Time Sunday, shown on July 8, 1979. After the Bulletin editors were shown trying to explain why they opposed the CIA’s covert action the interviewer turned to Admiral Stansfield Turner, then the CIA director. What did he think these Bulletin people were trying to do? “They are avowedly doing this in order to destroy the intelligence-collecting capability of our country.” What kind of people did he think they were? “Traitors.” “What do you think would happen to these people if they lived, say, in the Soviet Union?” After pondering the blessings of dictatorship, the good Admiral crisply replied: “They would be put in jail in nothing flat.” Shouldn’t we be able to do that here, asked the interviewer, who by this time sounded like a man convinced that America faced imminent ruin because of some insane omission in the U.S. Penal Code. Yes, we should, answered the CIA’s deputy director, Frank Carlucci, now deputy secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. “We’re in the process of drafting legislation right now.” In order to get around “such problems as freedom of the press and the First Amendment,” said the deputy director, it would be “narrowly based, narrowly drawn legislation,” scarcely applicable to anything save wantonly naming CIA names in publications avowedly devoted to harming the Agency.
On October 17, 1979, Edward Boland, Massachusetts Democrat and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee introduced the CIA’s “narrowly drawn legislation” to the House, with his entire committee co-sponsoring it. Three months later, New York’s Democratic Senator Patrick Moynihan introduced identical legislation into the upper chamber with similar bipartisan support. What had won this enthusiastic backing was a bill distinguished by the fact that nothing about it was narrow. Despite the talk about “naming names,” it was only loosely linked to naming names. Despite the talk about protecting CIA officials abroad, it was not limited to CIA officials abroad.
Under the key provision of the bill, anybody could be prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for disclosing “any information,” including information that was already public, which directly or indirectly revealed the identity of any person in the world who had secretly been an “agent” or “source of operational assistance” to the CIA. This means thousands of CIA-bribed politicians and trade union officials; this encompasses the security police of dozens of countries; this includes kings, sheiks, presidents, party leaders, dictators, and juntas from one end of the third world to the other. A reporter who publishes a detailed account of some CIA-backed coup, or a diplomatic historian who traces the secret links between our government and the old Congo regime, could, using information already public, without naming a name, find himself subject to federal prosecution. If the government proved “intent to impair or impede the intelligence activities” of the United States, the prison doors would clang shut behind him.
This was not a so-called “names of agents” bill, as a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union was soon to testify. “We are talking about closing down substantial discussion about the foreign policy and intelligence activities of this country.” In making it a crime to publish public information, said Floyd Abrams, the most eminent First Amendment lawyer in the country, the bill’s backers were doing something “flatly and facially unconstitutional,” something “absolutely unprecedented and terribly dangerous.” They were putting into the hands of the federal government the liberty-destroying power to prosecute the press. Had such legislation existed in 1972, Americans would never have learned about the crimes of Richard Nixon; instead, it would have been a crime to reveal that the Watergate burglars had been agents of the CIA.
The House Intelligence Committee held hearings on this extraordinary piece of legislation on January 30 and 31, 1980. The first witness was one of the most important men in the House, Jim Wright of Texas, the Democratic majority leader. His brief testimony in favor of the bill proved to be the epitome of the extraordinary fakery to come. Americans had become so critical of a futile war and a lawless president, so irked by revelations long overdue and by corruption too long hidden, said the majority leader, that “It has become chic in some circles to disparage and belittle the CIA.” This was cutting close to the national security bone. “To make the nation’s intelligence apparatus the object of scorn is damaging,” he went on. “It is bad because of the deleterious effect that it exercises upon the morale of those who must perform this delicate, dangerous, and difficult task for the United States… they have lost their zest simply because they haven’t been able to feel that the public, that the United States appreciated their efforts or were behind them.”
Such was the majority leader’s testimony that in both the House and the Senate, CIA spokesmen and defenders would be left perfectly free to describe the Agency as, above all else, an “intelligence-gathering apparatus” engaged in the dangerous craft of espionage, to describe CIA officers as top-secret spymasters penetrating the designs of America’s adversaries, to describe their cover as a matter of life and death.
Consider the testimony of Deputy Director Carlucci, who bore the brunt of justifying legislation which, looked at squarely, would make it a crime for an American to tell a fellow citizen what the CIA takes no pains to conceal from the KGB. “I start this morning,” said Carlucci, “from the premise that our effort to collect information about the plans and intentions of our political adversaries cannot be effective in a climate that condones revelations of the means by which these efforts are conducted.” Given that “premise,” which suggests that lack of sympathy for the CIA is itself a menace to America’s safety, the deputy director then cited the damage done by “unauthorized disclosure of the identity of individuals employed or assisting in the foreign intelligence activities of the United States.” For one thing, “nearly all major foreign intelligence services with which we have liaison relationships have undertaken reviews of their relations with us.” What this portended was not as yet clear. For another thing, when CIA officials have their identities revealed “some must be removed from their assignments at substantial cost,” which implies that most of them stay right on the job, “blown” cover and all. The damage that has been done, or could be done, or might be done to America’s fictive ability to discover “the plans and intentions of our political adversaries,” plus the “climate” condoning that damage, “constitutes,” concluded Carlucci, “a serious threat t0 our national security.”
CIA witnesses and committee members pointed out time and again that unauthorized disclosures jeopardize the lives of CIA officials and their families. Yet nobody asked a CIA witness why after five years and 2000 published names, no CIA official so named had demonstrably suffered harm because of it. The lawmakers didn’t ask because they already knew the answer: CIA people are so widely known that further identification makes remarkably little difference. The one named CIA official killed by terrorists was a CIA chief of station, Richard Welch. In December 1975, he was gunned down in Athens outside his front door, not because his assassin had read his name in a several-months-old American pamphlet but because he had insisted, despite three warnings from Langley, in renting the home of the previous CIA chief of station in Athens. If terrorists really started attacking CIA officials abroad, what would be needed is not a law against the press but a new system of cover.
One after another, CIA witnesses testified that unauthorized disclosure of CIA identities “crippled” America’s ability to learn the plans of its enemies, to “blunt their plots,” to “monitor their military activities.” Yet no member of either committee asked the perfectly obvious question, which reduces such assertions to absurdity: If identifying CIA officials is such a “serious threat to our national security,” why doesn’t the KGB do it? The legislators didn’t ask because the real CIA, the Agency which props up and subverts fourth-rate powers, has no convincing answer. That was demonstrated in August 1980, when the names-of-agents bill passed through the hostile purlieus of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. There the CIA’s legislative counsel, Fred Hitz, finally had to confront the KGB question. It reduced him to that curious combination of blather and self-pity which characterizes the CIA whenever it is put on the defensive. The counselor replied (if that is the word) that what “professional intelligence officers… did not sign up for is a situation where citizens from their own country in effect make the moral judgment themselves that the activity in which the intelligence officer is engaged is improper…” At which point his questioner, Democrat John Seiberling of Ohio, impatiently cut Hitz short: “My question is not what they signed up for.”
Not only did the intelligence committees ask no revealing questions, they utterly ignored the few witnesses who raised the questions themselves. One such witness was an ex-CIA man named John Stockwell, who had served in the Agency from 1964 until 1977. Unlike Agee, who turned against the Agency because he thought it stemmed the tide of “socialism,” Stockwell had turned against it because he thought it disgraced America. In the long written statement he submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee, he noted the Agency’s “long and continuing record of arrogance, incompetence, cruelty, and irresponsible activities.” Covert interventions, in his own long experience, “had little if anything to do with United States’ national security.” What he had come to tell the committee, his statement continued, is that “the objective of this bill is clearly not to protect the safety of secret agents, as its proponents claim, because the CIA itself is flagrantly careless of the identities of its own agents.” The bill’s real objective, wrote Stockwell, is “to gain an important weapon for the CIA to use in silencing its critics.”
Stockwell’s spoken testimony was brief but devastating. “I was a clandestine case officer for 12 ½ years. I lived under cover. I did CIA operations on four continents… I think it is fair to say that I know how cover functions.” The committee did not seem to realize, said Stockwell, that cover “is not intended to be, nor has anyone in CIA ever pretended that the 95 per cent of its officers are, in fact, safely and completely covered when they go overseas… Everyone around them knows they are CIA.” What is more, it is often actually an “advantage” to be so known. “This was the first thing my first chief of station told me. He said: ‘Forget everything you learned in training about cover. You want people to know you are CIA so that they will come to you, they will report to you.’ ” Far from being “dangerous for CIA people to be known as CIA,” they often “played to” their CIA identities.
Hard-won truth was at last confronting flimsy sham. What would the sham artists say? Senator Jake Garn, Utah Republican, was the first to reply. “Mr. Stockwell, it is a little bit difficult for me to handle this because I have such disgust for your activities… and your disloyalty to this country.” Stockwell’s answer was simple and eloquent. “I cannot let anyone challenge my loyalty to this country. I have been awarded medals. I have served in three wars for this country. I was 19 years in the Marine Corps Reserve. I am sorry, I cannot let you challenge my loyalty to this country. The CIA is not the United States of America.” Following Garn, Senator John Chafee, high-toned Rhode Island Republican, evaded Stockwell’s home truths somewhat more deftly. He insisted that what Stockwell had said about cover could not possibly be true because “What you are doing today is giving evidence that is quite contrary to the evidence by the head of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, whom you just heard, that of Mr. Carlucci, that of station chiefs that we have met.” When Stockwell replied that the committee was getting the CIA’s “party line,” Senator Chafee replied, in tones of shocked disbelief: “Is this a master plot?” Was Stockwell actually suggesting the existence of “some kind of cabal”? Clearly anyone that hostile to the CIA, concluded Chafee, was a worthless witness with nothing to say “constructively” about the legislation in hand.
So much for John Stockwell, and so much, too, for the 1980 hearings on what had come to be known as the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Throughout the hearings, the bill’s proponents had argued that they were compelled to entrench upon freedom of the press because of the overriding demands of national security. The truth was exactly the opposite. Exploiting the mystique of espionage, they propounded a sham threat to national security in order to abridge our freedom to discuss the seamy side of American foreign policy. As Robert McClory of the House Intelligence Committee put it: “We are in a new age and we are plowing new ground.”
America’s venerable liberties, however, cannot be plowed under quite so readily. When the Senate committee hearing ended on June 25, the future of the bill was cloudy. Two ingredients of success were still missing. The first was genuine popular support, support strong enough to cow the press, which, for all its faults, does protect its freedom from the grosser forms of assault. The second missing element was a Justice Department assurance that the bill was constitutional, thereby providing balm to legislative consciences of the more tender variety. Unfortunately for the bill’s proponents, the department could not bring itself to agree that the bill’s chief provision, the one which made it a crime for the press to publish public information, was quite up to snuff constitutionally. It was hard for Justice Department lawyers to see how prohibiting the publication of information not even classified could possibly be constitutional. As long as the Justice Department refused to enter “the new age,” the bill’s proponents were leery of reporting it out of committee.
Just when civil libertarians were beginning to breathe easily, however, a stunning event took place in Kingston, Jamaica, that gave momentum to identities legislation. On July 2, just eight days after Senate hearings had ended, Louis Wolf of the Covert Action Information Bulletin held a press conference in Kingston in which he supplied the names and addresses of 15 CIA officers working at the U.S. Embassy, including station chief Richard Kinsman. The main object of this exercise was to prove that the CIA was working for the conservative candidate for prime minister, Edward Seaga, against the socialist incumbent, Michael Manley, whom Seaga accused of being a puppet of Fidel Castro and his CIA. Both accusations were probably true. In any case, at around three o’clock on the morning of July 4, some unidentified gunmen sprayed .45 caliber bullets at the home of Kinsman, many of the bullets riddling the blank wall of his carport. Nobody was hurt; indeed Kinsman’s family was away on holiday. Kinsman himself did not call the police. Knowing a propaganda coup when he saw one, he called up the Daily Gleaner, the leading anti-Manley newspaper in Kingston, and on July 5 the story of the attack made front-page headlines from one end of the U.S. to the other. The next day CIA lobbyists hotly demanded to know why a bill designed to prevent just such an outrage lay bottled up in congressional committees.
The Justice Department suddenly saw the light. Reluctant Intelligence Committee members hurried to get on the bandwagon. As one of Senator Chafee’s aides explained to me many months later, the Kinsman attack “established clearly the connection between naming names and terrorist attacks,” a connection which, he noted, “the Welch case” had unfortunately failed to make. Could anyone doubt now that naming names endangered the lives of CIA officials? Yes. Anyone, for instance, who notices how the failed, indeed markedly feeble, attack on Kinsman’s home was trumped up by its chief beneficiary, namely the CIA. The Agency, in fact, had what every detective looks for in determining a prime suspect, namely means, motive, and opportunity — not to mention a 30-year history of pulling off “dirty tricks” exactly like the Kinsman attack.
Ready to “plow new ground,” the Justice Department no longer doubted the constitutionality of a law prohibiting the press from publishing public information. The Department had one proviso, however. The disclosure of “any information” that might identify a ‘”covert agent” of the United States would be a criminal act only if done “in the course of a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents.” The original bill’s proponents were entirely agreeable to this apparent narrowing. The House Intelligence Committee added an analogous condition, that the disclosure, to be criminal, must be made “in the course of an effort to identify and expose covert agents.” On July 25, the House Intelligence Committee unanimously reported out its amended bill. On August 6, the Senate committee reported out its new version of the bill with only a single dissenting vote.
Those who had hotly supported the unamended bill were pleased to announce that the amended version accomplished everything they had wanted all along-to prohibit what the Senate committee’s report called “a conscious and pernicious effort to expose agents,” in short, Agee’s little war and nothing else. The amended law, said Kentucky Democrat Roman Mazzoli, was drawn up “so only the real fish we are going after — and that is the Covert Action Bulletin-type information — is netted.”
In fact the amended bill did nothing of the sort, as Don Edwards’s House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights made clear in mid-August hearings. The criminal disclosure still did not have to be a name — so much for “netting” the Bulletin‘s “naming names” section. The definition of a “covert agent” remained as vague and as broad as ever — so much for all the talk about protecting the lives of CIA officers. The bill still threw a protective blanket over the entire secret world of American foreign policy, the part the CIA conducts. The “pattern of activities” requirement proved under questioning to be little more than window dressing. As Associate Deputy Attorney General Robert Keuch testified, the “pattern” did not mean “that you have to have a series of revelations” of names in order to prosecute. The government could prosecute a writer, said Keuch, even if he never named a name in his life. Nothing had been changed at all.
Although a campaign year recess and some knotty parliamentary tangles kept the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1980 from the floor of the 96th Congress, Deputy Director Carlucci had every reason to boast of the Agency’s legislative success at the sixth annual meeting of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. “We’ve managed to pursue a very aggressive strategy on the Hill; that strategy has paid dividends.” Immediately reintroduced in the 97th Congress, the legislation is now moving smoothly toward eventual passage, strengthened, if anything, by the stunning victory of Ronald Reagan, by Republican control of the Senate, and by what leaders of both parties regard as a popular mandate to restore the good old days of the Cold War.
The operative word is restoration. Therein lies the significance of identities legislation, the reason its promoters pretend it is narrow but drew it broad, why they asked no honest questions and swallowed so many lies. As Thomas Powers put it in The Man Who Kept the Secrets, “the history of the CIA is the secret history of the Cold War.” As long as Americans are free to write about, read about, and discuss the real CIA and the secret Cold War, the restoration of the old Cold War political system cannot be carried out.
For 30 years, our leaders have justified their Cold War policies by blatant appeals to fear, by raising false alarms, by detecting nonexistent “gaps,” by crying up “growing threats,” by endlessly depicting an America backed weakly against the wall. But what the covert activities of the CIA reveal is that America’s leaders, in secret, regard Russia as a markedly inferior power and have not seriously feared her since 1948. CIA activities reveal, too, what Americans at home cannot readily grasp, that their country is so extraordinarily rich and powerful that CIA twerps fresh out of college can make and break the careers of politicians twice their age and with five times their ability. Our leaders have also justified their Cold War policies by working up moral outrage over “Communist subversion” and “Soviet expansionism,” but the covert actions of the CIA reveal that America is just as subversive as Russia, just as determined to expand its dominion, just as ruthless in the means it employs.
In short, popular knowledge of the secret Cold War the CIA wages would deprive our leaders of fear and moralizing as propaganda props for their Cold War policies. Such knowledge would force them to do what they have not done for 30 years: attempt to explain to the American people just what relation actually exists between their foreign policy and our national interests — our just and legitimate interest in safeguarding the independence of the Republic and the liberties of its people. Instead, by means of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1981, they hope to abridge our liberties in order to safeguard their Cold War. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 23, 2019