The CIA’s belated release of its infamous “Family Jewels” sheds light on U.S. intelligence abuses during the CIA’s first quarter century, but this openness may actually obscure a darker reality – that the subsequent three-plus decades have witnessed worse national-security crimes committed under the cloak of greater secrecy and deception.
Washington’s current conventional wisdom is that the “bad ol’ days” of the 1950s and 1960s couldn’t recur because a formal system of congressional oversight was put in place after press reports first disclosed CIA abuses in the mid-1970s.
Today’s reality, however, is far less reassuring. The start of routine congressional oversight in 1977 only caused intelligence hardliners and their political allies to shift operations off-books while simultaneously building a right-wing media infrastructure to harass journalists, investigators and whistleblowers who still exposed wrongdoing.
The combination of these two factors – the semi-privatizing of covert operations and the emergence of right-wing media defenders – has made it harder, not easier, to uncover and expose intelligence crimes.
Plus, the culture of deception has only deepened in Washington over the past few decades. Looking back on the Family Jewels documents, it’s almost quaint that CIA officers would comply with an order from CIA Director James Schlesinger in 1973 to confess acts that may have violated the CIA’s charter.
Since then, the pattern – reaching from the CIA to the White House – has been to keep on stonewalling and lying, while right-wing media operatives lay down covering fire of angry talking points against any accusers. Many career-minded mainstream journalists then join in “debunking” the potential scandal until it fades away, often amid derision.
In this environment, it would take very tough investigators willing to absorb withering media attacks to pry loose a new generation of Family Jewels. Indeed, it’s next to impossible to envision the current batch of U.S. government officials or this era’s journalists showing the tenacity and courage to do that.
Questions to Ask
However, if CIA Director Michael Hayden wanted to go further than just accepting plaudits for releasing some ancient history, he would demand that CIA personnel answer questions about the following events from the 1970s and 1980s that collectively make the old Family Jewels look like child’s play:
--What is the full story about the CIA’s connection to a right-wing Latin American terror network known as Operation Condor, which carried out a series of international murders including a terrorist attack that killed Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier and American co-worker Ronni Moffitt on the streets of Washington in September 1976?
(The CIA, then run by George H.W. Bush, received warning messages from a U.S. ambassador about a plot by the Chilean government's assassins to use the CIA as a cover for infiltrating into the United States, but Bush has never fully explained why he didn’t do more to prevent the Letelier-Moffitt murders.)
--What did the CIA know about the terrorist bombing of a civilian Cubana Airliner in October 1976 which killed 73 people, including youngsters on the Cuban national fencing team? Why has the U.S. government protected and harbored two of the implicated terrorists, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada, to this day?
(Though George H.W. Bush ran for national office four times since the Cubana attack, he has never been pressed to give a thorough answer about his knowledge of the terror wave that occurred under his watch at CIA. Neither has George W. Bush been challenged over his decision to spare Posada from extradition to stand trial.)
--In 1980, what was the role of three CIA officers – Robert Gates, Donald Gregg and George Cave – in backchannel contacts between the Reagan-Bush campaign and Iranian Islamic radicals then holding 52 Americans hostage, a crisis that effectively doomed Jimmy Carter’s reelection bid?
(Gates, Gregg and Cave have denied involvement in the “October Surprise” case, but their alibis have never been carefully vetted. Gregg also failed a lie-detector test when he was asked about his role in this secret 1980 operation during Iran-Contra questioning. Despite extensive evidence that Republicans did contact Iran behind Carter’s back, congressional investigations into the scandal were, at best, half-hearted.)
--What did the CIA do to protect drug traffickers connected to two major paramilitary operations in the 1980s, the contras in Nicaragua and the mujahedeen in Afghanistan?