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Hullabaloo


Monday, January 06, 2014

 
Exclusive Preview: excerpt from Rick Perlstein's new book (on  how the Village reacted to the CIA revelations back in the 70s) 

by digby

Over the week-end many of us read this piece by Michael Hirsh about the press and the Snowden revelations with a mixture of amusement and horror. The horror comes from the ongoing spectacle of people who call themselves reporters writing bizarre indictments of their own profession for simply fulfilling its role in our democracy. The amusement comes from the fact that Hirsh appears to absolve one primary reporter on the story, the long-time national security investigative reporter Barton Gellman, by suggesting that he's been mesmerized by journalism's Rasputin, Glenn Greenwald. (Gellman was not amused.)

In any case, when I read this I was reminded of a riveting story in a manuscript I was recently privileged to read --- Rick Perlstein's awesome new history of the 1970s (which is going to knock your socks off when it's published later this year.) And he generously gave me permission to publish the very first excerpt of the book here, which I think will give you a little sense of just how entrenched these Villager attitudes really are.

Let's take a trip back in time to 1976 to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by Congressman Otis Pike, which held investigations parallel to the Church Committee in the Senate:
...The [Pike] report, drafted by an Ervin Committee veteran, was, for a government document, a literary masterpiece, and hard-hitting as hell: it opened with seventy pages savaging the Ford administration's lack of cooperation with Congress's work, and continued, more aggressively than Pike's public hearings—which had been plenty aggressive themselves, far more so than Senator Church's—by documenting the CIA's wasteful spending (where it could figure out what it spent), its bald failures at prediction, its abuses of civil liberties and its blanket indifference that any of this might pose a problem. It singled out Henry Kissinger for his "passion for secrecy" and statements "at variance with facts"; it detailed a number of failed covert actions—not naming countries, but with plenty enough identifying details to make things obvious enough for those who cared to infer. For instance, how the Nixon administration encouraged the Kurdish minority in Iraq to revolt, then abandoned them when the Shah of Iran objected. "Even in the context of covert action," it concluded concerning that one, "ours was a cynical exercise."

And something about all this seemed to spook cowed congressmen—who soon were voting to neuter themselves.

The House Rules Committee approved a measure by nine votes to seven to suppress publication report unless President Ford approved its contents. The full House debated whether to accept or reject the recommendation. Those against argued that the "classification" system itself violated the canons of checks and balances that were supposed to be the foundation of the republic. A moderate Republican from Colorado pointed out that the executive branch was desperate to serve as judge and jury in the very case for which it was plaintiff: that the report definitively established that the CIA had committed "despicable, detestable acts," but that "we are being castigated by those who perpetrate the acts and classify them." Pike made a demystifying point: that each of these things called "secrets," and hemmed around with such sacralizing foofaraw, talked of as if they were blatant instructions to our enemies on how to defeat us, "is a fact or opinion to which some bureaucrat has applied a rubber stamp." A Democrat from suburban Chicago drove home the bottom line: "If we are not a coequal branch of this government, if we are not equal to the President and the Supreme Court, then let the CIA write this report; let the President write this report; and we ought to fold our tent and go home."

To no avail. On January 29, the full House voted by two to one, led by conservatives, to suppress the very report it had authorized a year of work and several hundred thousand dollars to produce.

It all was too much for Daniel Schorr. He took his copy to his bosses at CBS: "We owe it to history to publish it," he said. They disagreed. He went to a nonprofit organization called the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to see if they could find a publishing house that might be interested, with the proceeds perhaps going to their group. They could not. Finally the alternative weekly the Village Voice agreed to publish it, in a massive special issue, and since the Reporters Committee now controlled the document, the Voice made a contribution to the group. This set off a fierce backlash among the polite guardians of journalistic decorum; the New York Times editorialized that by "making the report available for cash" Daniel Schorr was guilty of "selling secrets." On ABC, anchor Sam Donaldson said, "There are those that argue that in an open society like ours nothing should be concealed from the public. Depending on who espouses it, that position is either cynical, or naive." He said "mature and rational citizens" understood this—but not, apparently, Daniel Schorr. Nor his bosses at CBS News, who suspended him, though local affiliates begged CBS brass to fire him.

The House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into who leaked the document to Schorr, who never told coughed u his source; they ended up spending $350,000, interviewing 400 witnesses, coming up with, yes, one leaker, Congressman Les Aspin (D-Wisconsin)—but he had leaked it to the CIA, as a political favor.

I'm sure you noted the same dynamics at play that we see today, even down to the obnoxiously authoritarian notion that a reporter is "selling secrets" by publishing the material.

Then, as now, you had alleged journalists proclaiming that "mature and rational" citizens such as themselves understand that the government must keep its illegal activity secret from them. For our own good, of course. One cannot help but wonder if journalists who are currently clutching their expensive pearls over the propriety of the mainstream press publishing the Snowden documents would look back at this episode from history and think we all would have been better off if Daniel Schorr had been a good little boy and the Pike Report had been successfully repressed?

When you read stories like this it's easy to get cynical and think things can never change. But they do. The good news today is that even if many of the celebrity reporters on TV and leading members of the Village cognoscenti still prefer to keep their heads in the sand (and, presumably, their access to the movers and shakers of the political establishment) editors of mainstream newspapers here and all over the world apparently learned their lesson from the past and are vetting and publishing the Snowden documents. This is progress.

But the instinct among the Villagers does not change: circle the wagons, protect the powerful, attack the journalists who are doing the job they are supposed to do. That's how they roll.


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