The CIA’s new ‘family jewels’: Going back to Church?

March 13
The cover sheet to the 1973 "Family Jewels" Report (National Security Archive)
The cover sheet to the 1973 “Family Jewels” Report (National Security Archive)

The brawl between the CIA and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, over the committee’s investigation of “enhanced interrogation” in the 2001-06 period, is problematic for the agency on many levels. First, of course, it returns “the torture papers” to the headlines. More broadly, administration officials should clearly be worried that Feinstein has felt the need to go so public with her charges of CIA resistance to committee oversight. The separation of power issues here are very real — and serious enough, perhaps, to stir legislators out of their long-term lassitude when it comes to their duties on that front.

Along those lines, it is worth recalling another time the CIA and Congress collided over a report detailing agency behavior. It didn’t end well for the CIA.

In May 1973 new CIA Director James Schlesinger wanted to know his potential liabilities. As the Watergate investigations unfolded, the agency had been embarrassed by revelations that it had cooperated with the White House “plumbers” (those assigned to plug “leaks” such as Daniel Ellsberg’s revelation of the Pentagon Papers), providing them with false identities, electronic equipment, and the like. Thus Schlesinger directed that all potentially embarrassing agency actions — “any activities now going on, or that have gone on in the past, which might be construed to be outside the legislative charter of this Agency” — be compiled into a single report.

The result was a 702-page blockbuster, termed the “family jewels” inside the CIA — detailing some 900 major covert projects and several thousand smaller ones, conducted under presidents of both parties. These included plots to assassinate foreign leaders (e.g., Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba) and overthrow governments; programs examining the effects of illicit drugs by testing them on unsuspecting American citizens; the wiretaps, mail opening, and “black bag” jobs that made up the domestic surveillance program known as Operation CHAOS; and, for good measure, reporting John Lennon’s financial support for “disruptive” antiwar activists. (The text, obtained from the CIA in 2007 - albeit even then with many redactions – by the good folks at the National Security Archive, is available here.)

Investigations sprang up like spring flowers. Even before the contents of the full report became known, President Ford felt compelled to appoint a blue-ribbon commission on the CIA’s potential domestic abuses. Led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, it included luminaries such as former California governor Ronald Reagan and the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland. But the Rockefeller findings, which did identify past illegalities but largely found that the agency was now on the straight and narrow, were quickly eclipsed by new revelations of the CIA-sponsored assassination attempts. Public interest in the investigation exploded and the commission moved to look into the new allegations — only to be shut down by President Ford. Cries of “cover-up!” quickly arose. And the field was open for two parallel Congressional investigations, led by Sen. Frank Church (D-ID) and Rep. Otis Pike (D-NY) — the first prolonged oversight of the CIA since its creation in 1947.

Pike’s investigation (ironically, since it was spurred by leaks) was undermined when a draft copy of his committee’s report was leaked and ultimately published in the Village Voice. Under pressure from the Ford administration, the embarrassed House voted not to finalize the report and it was never officially released.

But the Church Committee’s hearings would lead to a six-volume report on both domestic and foreign intelligence, hammering both the FBI and CIA for their involvement in illegal operations. Ford issued an executive order banning political assassination, creating an Intelligence Oversight Board, preventing human subjects resources, and re-channeling the CIA out of the domestic arena. When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977 — with Church Committee member Walter Mondale as vice president — his appointee to head the CIA, Stansfield Turner, cleaned house, demoting or dismissing some 800 espionage agencies. The Church Committee also led to the establishment of the permanent select committees on intelligence. As Robert Gates (yes, that one, but in a different memoir) wrote, “If CIA had been acting as the President’s agent in many of its improper actions, then the way to control CIA was to dilute the President’s heretofore nearly absolute control over the Agency. And that would be done by a much more aggressive congressional oversight mechanism.” Some CIA insiders, like William Colby (quoted here), worried that “the shock effect of an exposure of the ‘family jewels’” might “inflict mortal wounds on the C.I.A. and deprive the nation of all the good the agency could do in the future.”

These days, release of the CIA’s contested internal report, or the committee’s, seem unlikely to “inflict mortal wounds.”  But embarrassment, yes; and this time the CIA has protected its newer family jewels with an aggression — from its “audit” to the threat of criminal investigations of Senate staffers — that seems likely to backfire. Its attempt to discredit the committee seems straight out of wishful thinking for the Pike endgame. But instead, the agency may well wind up back in Church – and in one whose previously forgiving god has turned to vengeance.

Andrew Rudalevige is Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government at Bowdoin College. He specializes in the study of American political institutions, primarily the presidency and the interbranch relations, with a recent focus on presidential management of the executive branch.
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