Proclaiming dissent an "honorable American tradition," a group of former Central Intelligence Agency spies, spymasters and analysts has established an organization to campaign for an end to covert activities by the U.S. government in the wake of the Iran-contra affair.
"Seven presidents since World War II have watched their administrations destroyed utterly or deeply embarrassed and the country discredited by covert action," said John Stockwell, who ran the CIA's covert operation at the start of the Angolan civil war in 1975 and is executive director of the newly created Association for Responsible Dissent (ARDIS).
"We are going to try to expose covert action. We're going to try to get it legally banned because we can find no reason, no justification, for covert action on the part of the U.S. government in the name of the American people," Philip C. Roettinger said.
Roettinger, a former CIA case officer who helped to overthrow Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, is the association's president.
Fifteen members of the group held a news conference Tuesday at the National Press Club to announce formation of the association, timed to coincide with publication of the Iran-contra report by congressional investigating committees.
In addition to lobbying, the group plans to set up a computerized research center on U.S. covert activities based in Herndon and run by Ralph McGehee, a former CIA operations officer.
Several of the members had high praise for the Iran-contra report -- at least the one published by the majority of 18 Democrats and Republicans -- but decried the relatively limited proposals for changes contained in the final recommendations as "a great non sequitur."
"It's as if the majority report, as excellent as it is, was written by 18 guys made Pontius Pilate," said David C. MacMichael, a former CIA national intelligence council analyst for Central America and the association's director of policy studies.
"These guys ought to be punished and these actions ought to be stopped, and we think somebody ought to do it," MacMichael said of the various CIA and National Security Council people involved in the Iran-contra affair.
"I can tell you who ought to do it. It is indeed the Congress. If they want to stop it, it can be stopped," he said.
In addition to Stockwell, Roettinger and MacMichael, the association's leadership includes Philip B.F. Agee, a former CIA operations officer and a leading CIA critic; Wilbur C. Eveland III, an ex-CIA operations officer in the Middle East; Ilona Maria Lorenz, a former CIA undercover agent in Cuba, and Melvin Beck, an ex-CIA counterintellegence specialist.
The only non-CIA figure among the 15 persons at the news conference was Brian Willson, a peace activist whose legs were amputated after he was run over by a Navy munitions train in Concord, Calif., on Sept. 1.
Many of the association's leaders -- such as Agee, Stockwell, Beck and Eveland -- have written books about their personal experiences in the agency and criticized the CIA.
Asked what the CIA's reaction to the organization might be, Stockwell replied, "My guess is that they have been wondering for 10 years why we've been so slow in getting organized."
A reporter asked whether ARDIS leaders would be dismissed as "a bunch of crackpots."
"No, sir," Stockwell shot back. "We're distinguished citizens, doctors, lawyers and attorneys. We have medals that we earned risking our lives defending the country."
According to ARDIS leaders, the association intends to lobby for prohibition of covert activities through personal contacts and "delivering several hundred lectures and interviews" in the next year.
While the association will work to expose CIA covert actions, it will not disclose names of agents involved, Stockwell said.
"In the simplest possible English, this organization works within the system. It respects the law. The law prohibits the revelations of secret agents' names, and we will not be revealing names," he said.