Belaboring the Obvious

Friday, March 09, 2007

Before United States v. Libby....

George Bush said that he was "sad" about the Libby verdict. (Mike Malloy said of that Tuesday, "what are you supposed to think when the President is rooting for the felons?")

There's still the slim possibility of a judiciary panel declaring a mistrial, or Libby's lawyers having the verdict overturned on appeal. The convolutions of the law may yet work in Libby's favor. Even so, he may stay out of jail long enough to enable Bush to pardon him as Bush is packing up for Crawford for the last time.

There's probably some satisfaction in the verdict for Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, and it might help their civil case.

But, rather than dwell on these conjectures, I'd like to drift backwards in time to some of the underlying reasons for this trial, and the reasons why they are both confused and confusing.

A great irony, of course, is that George Bush's father, as the Vice-President and former Director of Central Intelligence, was the progenitor of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. It was the potential violation of the IIPA that prompted the CIA to request an investigation of Plame's outing in the first place, and which eventually led to the indictment and conviction of Scooter Libby on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

The greater irony is that the senior Bush requested that law of Congress with some very mixed motives, and the history of those motives is worth recalling now, since government secrecy and misbehavior are front and center again these days. Ostensibly, the primary reason for the law was the 1975 assassination of Richard Welch, the CIA's station chief in Athens, Greece, by members of the revolutionary group, 17 November. His identity had been published in the periodical, CounterSpy (even so, the magazine had published his identity a full year before the assassination--and listed his location as Peru, not Greece). Surveillance by 17 November probably was the root source of the information leading to Welch's assassination, but, certainly, publication of his name could have made that murder easier.

However, there were other reasons for the law. High among those were the books and publications of former CIA agents Philip Agee and John Stockwell, and to a lesser extent, the book by Victor Marchetti and John Marks, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, which indirectly led to the formation of the Church select committee on government operations. Agee had resigned from the CIA in 1968 after spending years in Ecuador, Uruguay and Mexico, and eventually published, in Great Britain, Inside the Company: CIA Diary, which named hundreds of CIA agents operating in Latin America, and described CIA indifference to or assistance with torture, political murders and the violent suppression of pro-democracy movements by dictatorial governments favored by the CIA and the foreign policy elite of the United States. It was Agee whom the elder Bush most often derided as the reason for the IIPA, rather than the assassination of Welch.

Agee maintained at the time that it was the only way he could think of to disrupt what he considered to be illegal activities of the CIA in support of right-wing dictatorships throughout the region--the CIA would have to withdraw those agents named and plans for political interference in Latin America would stall. After the publication of CIA Diary, he was eventually expelled from the UK, and, likely at U.S. insistence, from the Netherlands, France, West Germany and Italy.

By 1980, he was living in Grenada, and when the coup against Maurice Bishop's government began, he was given a Nicaraguan passport and eventually settled in Cuba. In the preceding years, he had published two extensive volumes about CIA operations in Europe and Africa, which described the activities of roughly 2000 CIA operatives, agents and informers. Over time, it was apparent that Agee had "gone native," and had profound ideological differences with what he referred to as the CIA's support of American capitalism, which, he said, "simply cannot survive without force--without a secret police force."

The Church committee in the Senate, and its analogue in the House, the Pike committee, were thorny issues for President Gerald Ford and his advisors, among them, Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The hearings would expose years of attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, the co-opting of both domestic and foreign journalists, secret mind-control programs, the subversion of democratically-elected governments and illegal domestic intelligence programs such as CHAOS. Over the course of many months, the CIA would be shown as less an intelligence-gathering operation and more as a covert paramilitary organization doing the President's bidding almost at whim, and without oversight by Congress.

As the committee hearings progressed, Ford became convinced, likely by Rumsfeld, that the then-current DCI, William Colby, was being entirely too cooperative with Congressional committees, and the decision was made to replace Colby with someone from outside the agency. Cheney began a lobbying campaign within the White House to nominate George H.W. Bush, most likely because he saw Bush as a potential threat to Ford's reelection (this fear of Cheney's was probably correct--Bush was nearly not confirmed when he, at first, refused to rule out running for political office were he to be confirmed as DCI--this was seen as very bad form by some in the Senate, particularly Sen. Church, who opposed Bush's nomination from the outset and warned Ford that Bush's nomination would politicize an already damaged institution). Ford had offered the nomination to someone else, but it was declined, and the senior Bush was nominated by default.

The elder Bush would go on to be DCI for slightly less than a year, and clamped down on exposure of the Agency's less savory activities, would invite in the neo-conservatives to examine the CIA's analytical methods and conclusions (which they considered to be insufficiently alarmist about the threat posed by an already-crumbling Soviet Union), used agency resources to begin a push-back against Congressional committees investigating the agency and did his very best to ingratiate himself with the Yalie branch of the CIA's leadership. He would also admit nothing about the CIA's knowledge of Operation Condor, Augusto Pinochet's network of Latin American dictators' intelligence operatives, or of Pinochet's likely involvement in the September, 1976, murders of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, murders which occurred virtually on the CIA's doorstep.

So, the IIPA came into existence, in large part, because a CIA ex-employee exposed the CIA's illegal activities and agents in an ideological quest to neuter the CIA's ability to prop up right-wing dictators in Latin America; that law, in turn, was proposed by a man, George H.W. Bush, who was nominated as DCI in order to not only shield the CIA's worst excesses from all outside scrutiny, but to also protect dictators such as Pinochet, even as they murdered an American citizen in downtown Washington, DC, and who used his brief experience as DCI to lend weight and gravity to the need for the IIPA.

And in one of life's weirder ironies, Scooter Libby, the zealous factotum of Dick Cheney (who lobbied for the elder Bush's DCI nomination as a bit of political sleight-of-hand) and who was also a national security assistant to George H.W. Bush's son, George W., would be prosecuted for lying to investigators about the exposure, for partisan political purposes, of an undercover CIA spy who might well have been doing the sort of honorable work--preventing the spread of nuclear weapons--of which both the CIA and the nation could be proud. If, as it seems more than likely now, Libby was lying to protect Dick Cheney, who himself was hiding his involvement in promoting phony intelligence to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq, it is irony compounded.

In that shadowy nether region at the intersection of intelligence and politics and the exercise of raw power, people motivated by greed and the desire for yet more power will always view morality, unfortunately, as a moveable feast.


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