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The Long Sixties: What Did We Know, And When Did We Know It?

Books Weekend Reader

The Long Sixties: What Did We Know, And When Did We Know It?


Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism by Karen M. Paget; Yale University Press

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger; Vintage

Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough; Penguin Press

In 2006, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau received the Pulitzer Prize for their stories on the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance programs. Later that year, they reported that the administration also traced the banking records of thousands of Americans with suspected ties to al Qaeda. Because Risen and Lichtblau revealed classified information in their stories, some are now calling for their prosecution under the Espionage Act, which doesn’t distinguish between investigative reporting and funneling state secrets to hostile foreign governments.

On this issue, Senator Tom Cotton argues that the system is the solution. “When people violate the espionage laws,” he told a conservative website last month, “they should be prosecuted. They believe they have First Amendment rights, and that’s a defense they can assert in court. Reporters and editors don’t get to decide for themselves what is and is not a sensitive national-security matter. That’s for the American people to decide through their elected representatives.” The Obama administration seems to agree; it has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined.

Is there any reason to believe that Senator Cotton’s prescription would work as outlined? That question links several recent books about national security and political dissent in the 1960s and 1970s. Taken together, they suggest an intriguing thought experiment: If everyone had followed Senator Cotton’s line, what exactly would we know about our government, and how could we use that knowledge to shape it through our elected representatives?

Karen Paget’s exhaustively researched Patriotic Betrayal suggests we would know almost nothing about the CIA. In the 1960s, Paget’s husband was an officer in the National Students Association (NSA), a private organization founded after the Second World War. As part of its Cold War strategy, the CIA not only funded the NSA but also determined its policy positions. Only top officers knew about this arrangement, and many went on to work for the agency. When Paget and her husband were briefed on the CIA connection during the 1960s, they agreed to swear an oath of secrecy under the Espionage Act. The NSA was by no means the only organization in this position; by that time, the CIA had developed an invisible network of political, cultural, and media fronts and contacts that functioned as a highly effective propaganda machine. One agency official named it the Mighty Wurlitzer, after the organ that orchestrated audience responses during the silent film era.

NSA members played their part by reporting on foreign students they met at international conferences. The CIA fed that information to other governments, which almost certainly used it to crack down on dissidents. “My God,” asked one NSA officer who later worked for the CIA, “did we finger people for the Shah?” A similar scenario played out in Iraq, where the 1963 Ba’athist coup led to 10,000 arrests and an estimated 5,000 executions. According to Paget, “It apparently never occurred to witting staff that the information [they provided] might flow through their CIA case officers into a broader CIA pipeline, a fact that haunts many of them today.” At least one senior U.S. official wasn’t haunted at all. “We were frankly glad to be rid of them,” he said of the liquidated Iraqi communists.

The NSA’s development officer, who wasn’t sworn to secrecy, spilled the beans to Ramparts magazine, which published the story in March 1967. Other news organizations picked it up and soon revealed the larger network the CIA had assembled. Congress was taken aback, and agency officials were stunned; it was the first time the CIA had received such public criticism. The brass immediately launched an investigation of Ramparts and everyone connected to it. The CIA’s charter forbade domestic operations, so the fig leaf for the investigation was that the upstart San Francisco muckraker had foreign backers. Yet even after the agency knew this was false, it continued to target the magazine. Ramparts also criticized U.S. policy in Vietnam, and the CIA soon broadened its operation, code-named MH/CHAOS, to include antiwar groups.

The Ramparts vendetta “set in motion an even larger catastrophe for the CIA,” Paget notes. “One may draw a straight line from the Ramparts exposures in 1967 to the 1975 congressional hearings on CIA activities and the revelation of the so-called Family Jewels, a collection of documents containing the deepest agency secrets, including its part in assassinations.” Those hearings, in turn, eventually led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, which instituted the surveillance protocols the Bush administration pointedly ignored after the 9/11 attacks.

Nothing in Paget’s account suggests that, absent the whistleblower story, the CIA would have been responsive to American voters speaking through their elected representatives. Whatever knowledge we have of the agency and its history was obtained, at least initially, despite the government’s workaday operations and not because of them.

A similar story played out at the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover’s fiefdom for more than four decades. Although the FBI routinely carried out “black bag jobs” and illegal wiretaps, its operations received no serious scrutiny from Congress or the courts. Before 1971, only one FBI file had ever been made public, and that was over Hoover’s strenuous objection. In 1949, a Justice Department employee was charged with stealing FBI secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union; when her attorney asked that FBI files be admitted as evidence, Hoover claimed that turning them over would endanger national security. He also suggested that the court reprimand the defense attorney for even requesting the files.

Peter Richardson

The book review editor at The National Memo, Peter also teaches humanities and American studies at San Francisco State University. His publications include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (2005). In 2013, he won the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism.

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