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Are Presidents Afraid of the CIA?
By Ray McGovern
December 29, 2009
In the past, I have alluded to Panetta and the Seven Dwarfs. The reference is to CIA Director Leon Panetta and seven of his moral-dwarf predecessors — the ones who sent President Barack Obama a letter on Sept. 18 asking him to “reverse Attorney General Holder’s Aug. 24 decision to re-open the criminal investigation of CIA interrogations.”
Panetta reportedly was also dead set against reopening the investigation — as he was against release of the Justice Department’s “torture memoranda” of 2002, as he has been against releasing pretty much anything at all — the President’s pledges of a new era of openness, notwithstanding. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “CIA Torturers Running Scared.”]
Panetta is even older than I, and hearing is among the first faculties to fail. Perhaps he heard “error” when the President said “era.”
As for the benighted seven, they are more to be pitied than scorned. No longer able to avail themselves of the services of clever Agency lawyers and wordsmiths, they put their names to a letter that reeked of self-interest — not to mention the inappropriateness of asking a President to interfere with an investigation already ordered by the Attorney General.
Three of the seven — George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden — were themselves involved, in one way or another, in planning, conducting or covering up all manner of illegal actions, including torture, assassination and illegal eavesdropping.
In this light, the most transparent part of the letter may be the sentence in which they worry: “There is no reason to expect that the re-opened criminal investigation will remain narrowly focused.”
When asked about the letter on Sunday TV shows on Sept. 20, Obama was careful always to respond first by expressing obligatory “respect” for the CIA and its directors.
With Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation,” though, Obama did allow himself a condescending quip. He commented, “I appreciate the former CIA directors wanting to look out for an institution that they helped to build.”
That quip was, sadly, the exception to the rule. While Obama keeps repeating the mantra that “nobody is above the law,” there is no real sign that he intends to face down Panetta and the Seven Dwarfs — no sign that anyone has breathed new life into federal prosecutor John Durham, to whom Holder gave the mandate for further “preliminary investigation.”
What is generally forgotten is that it was former Attorney General Michael Mukasey who picked Durham two years ago to investigate the CIA’s destruction of 91 tapes of the interrogation of “high-value detainees.”
Durham had scarcely been heard from when Holder added to his job-jar the task of conducting a preliminary investigation regarding the CIA torture specialists. These are the ones whose zeal led them to go beyond the already highly permissive Justice Department guidelines for “harsh interrogation.”
Durham, clearly, is proceeding with all deliberate speed (emphasis on “deliberate”). Someone has even suggested — I trust, in jest — that he has been diverted to the search for the money and other assets that Bernie Madoff stashed away.
In any case, do not hold your breath for findings from Durham anytime soon. Holder appears in no hurry. And President Obama keeps giving off signals that he is afraid of getting crosswise with the CIA — that’s right, afraid.
Not Just Paranoia
In that fear, President Obama stands in the tradition of a dozen American presidents. Harry Truman and John Kennedy were the only ones to take on the CIA directly.
Worst of all, evidence continues to build that the CIA was responsible, at least in part, for the assassination of President Kennedy. Evidence new to me came in response to things I included in my article of Dec. 22, “Break the CIA in Two."
What follows can be considered a sequel that is based on the kind of documentary evidence after which intelligence analysts positively lust.
Unfortunately for the CIA operatives who were involved in the past activities outlined below, the temptation to ask Panetta to put a SECRET stamp on the documentary evidence will not work. Nothing short of blowing up the Truman Library might help some.
But even that would be a largely feckless “covert action,” copy machines having long since done their thing.
In my article of Dec. 22, I referred to Harry Truman’s op-ed of exactly 46 years before, titled “Limit CIA Role to Intelligence,” in which the former President expressed dismay at what the Central Intelligence Agency had become just 16 years after he and Congress created it.
The Washington Post published the op-ed on Dec. 22, 1963, in its early edition, but immediately excised it from later editions. Other media ignored it. The long hand of the CIA?
Truman wrote that he was “disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment” to keep the President promptly and fully informed and had become “an operational and at times policy-making arm of the government.”
The Truman Papers
Documents in the Truman Library show that nine days after Kennedy was assassinated, Truman sketched out in handwritten notes what he wanted to say in the op-ed. He noted, among other things, that the CIA had worked as he intended only “when I had control.”
In Truman’s view, misuse of the CIA began in February 1953, when his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, named Allen Dulles CIA Director. Dulles’s forte was overthrowing governments (in current parlance, “regime change”), and he was quite good at it.
With coups in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954) under his belt, Dulles was riding high in the late Fifties and moved Cuba to the top of his to-do list.
Accustomed to the carte blanche given him by Eisenhower, Dulles was offended when young President Kennedy came on the scene and had the temerity to ask questions about the Bay of Pigs adventure, which had been set in motion under Eisenhower.
When Kennedy made it clear he would NOT approve the use of U.S. combat forces, Dulles reacted with disdain and set out to mousetrap the new President.
Coffee-stained notes handwritten by Allen Dulles were discovered after his death and reported by historian Lucien S. Vandenbroucke. They show how Dulles drew Kennedy into a plan that was virtually certain to require the use of U.S. combat forces.
In his notes Dulles explained that, “when the chips were down,” the new President would be forced by “the realities of the situation” to give whatever military support was necessary “rather than permit the enterprise to fail.”
Additional detail came from a March 2001 conference on the Bay of Pigs, which included CIA operatives, retired military commanders, scholars and journalists. Daniel Schorr told National Public Radio that he had gained one new perception as a result of the “many hours of talk and heaps of declassified secret documents”:
“It was that the CIA overlords of the invasion, Director Allen Dulles and Deputy Richard Bissell, had their own plan on how to bring the United States into the conflict.… What they expected was that the invaders would establish a beachhead … and appeal for aid from the United States. …
“The assumption was that President Kennedy, who had emphatically banned direct American involvement, would be forced by public opinion to come to the aid of the returning patriots. American forces, probably Marines, would come in to expand the beachhead.
“In fact, President Kennedy was the target of a CIA covert operation that collapsed when the invasion collapsed.”
The “enterprise” which Dulles said could not fail was, of course, the overthrow of Fidel Castro. After mounting several failed operations to assassinate him, this time Dulles meant to get his man, with little or no attention to what the Russians might do in reaction.
Kennedy stuck to his guns, so to speak; fired Dulles and his co-conspirators a few months after the abortive invasion in April 1961; and told a friend that he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.”
The outrage was mutual, and when Kennedy himself was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, it must have occurred to Truman that the disgraced Dulles and his outraged associates might not be above conspiring to get rid of a President they felt was soft on Communism — and, incidentally, get even.
In his op-ed of Dec. 22, 1963, Truman warned: “The most important thing … was to guard against the chance of intelligence being used to influence or to lead the President into unwise decisions.” It is a safe bet that Truman had the Bay of Pigs fiasco uppermost in mind.
Truman called for CIA’s operational duties [to] be terminated or properly used elsewhere.” (This is as good a recommendation now as it was then, in my view.)
On Dec. 27, 1963, retired Admiral Sidney Souers, whom Truman had appointed to lead his first central intelligence group, sent a “Dear Boss” letter applauding Truman’s outspokenness and blaming Dulles for making the CIA “a different animal than I tried to set up for you.”
Souers specifically lambasted the attempt “to conduct a ‘war’ invading Cuba with a handful of men and without air cover.”
Souers also lamented the fact that the agency’s “principal effort” had evolved into causing “revolutions in smaller countries around the globe,” and added:
“With so much emphasis on operations, it would not surprise me to find that the matter of collecting and processing intelligence has suffered some.”
Clearly, CIA’s operational tail was wagging its substantive dog — a serious problem that persists to this day.
Fox Guarding Hen House
The well-connected Dulles got himself appointed to the Warren Commission and took the lead in shaping the investigation of JFK’s assassination.
Documents in the Truman Library show that he then mounted a small domestic covert action of his own to neutralize any future airing of Truman’s and Souers’s warnings about covert action.
So important was this to Dulles that he invented a pretext to get himself invited to visit Truman in Independence, Missouri. On the afternoon of April 17, 1964, Dulles spent a half-hour trying to get the former President to retract what he had said in his op-ed. No dice, said Truman.
No problem, thought Dulles. Four days later, in a formal memo for his old buddy Lawrence Houston, CIA General Counsel from 1947 to 1973, Dulles fabricated a private retraction, claiming that Truman told him the Washington Post article was “all wrong,” and that Truman “seemed quite astounded at it.”
No doubt Dulles thought it might be handy to have such a memo in CIA files, just in case.
A fabricated retraction? It certainly seems so, because Truman did not change his tune. Far from it.
In a June 10, 1964, letter to the managing editor of Look magazine, for example, Truman restated his critique of covert action, emphasizing that he never intended the CIA to get involved in “strange activities.”
Dulles and Dallas
Dulles could hardly have expected to get Truman to recant publicly. So why was it so important for Dulles to place in CIA files a fabricated retraction? My guess is that in early 1964 he was feeling a good bit of heat from those suggesting the CIA might have been involved somehow in the Kennedy assassination.
Indeed, columnists were asking how the truth could ever come out with Allen Dulles on the Warren Commission. Prescient.
Dulles feared, rightly, that Truman’s limited-edition op-ed might yet hit pay dirt and raise serious questions about covert action. Dulles would have wanted to be in position to flash the Truman “retraction,” with the hope that this would nip any serious questioning in the bud.
The media had already shown how co-opted — er, I mean “cooperative” — it could be.
As the de facto head of the Warren Commission, Dulles was perfectly positioned to exculpate himself and any of his associates, were any commissioners or investigators — or journalists — tempted to question whether the killing in Dallas might have been a CIA covert action.
Did Allen Dulles and other “cloak-and-dagger CIA operatives have a hand in killing President Kennedy and then covering it up? The most up-to-date — and, in my view, the best — dissection of the assassination appeared last year in James Douglass’s book, JFK and the Unspeakable.
After updating and arraying the abundant evidence, and conducting still more interviews, Douglass concludes the answer is Yes.
Ray McGovern now works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. During a 27-year career at CIA, he served under nine CIA directors and in all four of CIA’s main directorates, including operations. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).