Going Back To Church

by digby

In dday's post below he discusses this chatter about a challenge to the retroactive immunity in the wiretapping cases, he quotes McJoan over at DKos saying this:

That should not, however, preclude Congress from finally conducting its own investigation in the form of a reconstituted Church Commission and the Obama administration from cooperating fully with that investigation. There really isn't a way for Congress to recover everything it lost in its myriad capitulations to a lawless administration. But a bright light shined on the whole affair might just keep it from happening yet again.

Sadly, if history is any indication, that is highly unlikely to happen. Over the holidays, at the behest of Rick Perlstein, I read a book called Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBIby Kathryn S. Olmsted. I had written something similar to what McJoan says above and he thought I should look more closely into the results of the Church (and Pike) committees and what lessons the congress and the media have likely drawn from them.

It's always interesting to have one's own recollections challenged by historians. And this was, to say the least, mindblowing:

When Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, the United States concluded one of the most traumatic chapters in its history. During the Watergate scandal, Americans had been shocked by the crimes of the Nixon presidency. Investigations by the press and Congress had exposed previously unimaginable levels of corruption and conspiracy in the executive branch. The public's faith in government had been shaken; indeed, the entire "system" had been tested. Now, with Nixon's resignation, two years of agonizing revelations finally seemed to be over. The system had worked.

Yet only four months later, New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh disclosed that the government's crimes went beyond Watergate. After months of persistent digging, Hersh had unearthed a new case of the imperial presidency's abuse of secrecy and power: a "massive" domestic spying program by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). According to Hersh, the CIA had violated its charter and broken the law by launching a spying program of Orwellian dimensions against American dissidents during the Vietnam War. The Times called it "son of Watergate."

These revelations produced a dramatic response from the newly energized post-Watergate Congress and press. Both houses of Congress mounted extensive, year-long investigations of the intelligence community. These highly publicized inquiries, headed by experienced investigators Senator Frank Church and Congressman Otis Pike, produced shocking accusations of murder plots and poison caches, of FBI corruption and CIA incompetence. In addition to the congressional inquiries, the press, seemingly at the height of its power after Watergate, launched investigations of its own. The New York Times continued to crusade against CIA abuses; the Washington Post exposed abuses and illegalities committed by the FBI; and CBS's Daniel Schorr shocked the nation by revealing that there might be "literal" skeletons in the CIA closet as a result of its assassination plots.

In this charged atmosphere, editorial writers, columnists, political scientists, historians, and even former officials of the CIA weighed in with various suggestions for reforming an agency that many agreed had become a ''monster.'' Several policymakers, including presidential candidates Fred Harris and Morris Udall, called for massive restructuring or abolition of the CIA. Media and political pundits suggested banning CIA covert operations; transferring most CIA functions to the Pentagon or the State Department; or, at the very least, devising a new, strict charter for all members of the intelligence community.

Few barriers seemed to stand in the way of such reforms. The liberal, post-Watergate Congress faced an appointed president who did not appear to have the strength to resist this "tidal shift in attitude," as Senator Church called it. Change seemed so likely in early 1975 that a writer for The Nation declared "the heyday of the National Security State', to be over, at least temporarily.

But a year and a half later, when the Pike and Church committees finally finished their work, the passion for reform had cooled. The House overwhelmingly rejected the work of the Pike committee and voted to suppress its final report. It even refused to set up a standing intelligence committee. The Senate dealt more favorably with the Church committee, but it too came close to rejecting all of the committee's recommendations. Only last-minute parliamentary maneuvering enabled Church to salvage one reform, the creation of a new standing committee on intelligence. The proposed charter for the intelligence community, though its various components continued to be hotly debated for several years, never came to pass.

The investigations failed to promote the careers of those who had inspired and led them. Daniel Schorr, the CBS reporter who had advanced the CIA story at several important points and eventually had become part of the story himself, was investigated by Congress, threatened with jail, and fired by CBS for his role in leaking the suppressed Pike report. Seymour Hersh's exposes were dismissed by his peers as "overwritten, over-played, under-researched and underproven." Otis Pike, despite the many accomplishments of his committee, found his name linked with congressional sensationalism, leaks, and poor administration. Frank Church's role in the investigation failed to boost his presidential campaign, forced him to delay his entry into the race, and, he thought, might have cost him the vice presidency.

The targets of the investigation had the last laugh on the investigators. "When all is said and done, what did it achieve?" asked Richard Helms, the former director of the CIA who was at the heart of many of the scandals unearthed by Congress and the media. "Where is the legislation, the great piece of legislation, that was going to come out of the Church committee hearings ? I haven't seen it." Hersh, the reporter who prompted the inquiries, was also unimpressed by the investigators' accomplishments. "They generated a lot of new information, but ultimately they didn't come up with much," he said.

This was immediately post-Watergate, probably the most likely time in history for the government and the press to be able to change the way things were done. The new congress, the bumbling appointed president, the country's weariness with Vietnam and the shocking revelations of Nixonian overreach all argued in favor of the congress being able to step up and make serious changes. And I actually thought they did. But I misremembered. The sturm and drang of the period and my own youthful political leanings led me to believe that the Pike and Church Committees resulted in real reforms. And because it so damaged the careers of so many of those involved who tried, the political lesson is pretty stark.

The book discusses all of this in great depth, including the natural desire of the political and media establishment, through their similar class backgrounds and social hierarchy to find ways to excuse this kind of illegal behavior and avoid adversarial confrontations. The political consensus around the cold war did show some cracks and the establishment took on a slightly different character, but as we've seen these last few years, it comes back together quite seamlessly at the first opportunity. It is the fundamental character of the place.

When I see someone like ex-company man Michael Scheuer whimpering as he did today on CNN about the Panetta appointment, I see all the old arguments being pulled off the shelf:

MICHAEL SCHEUER, FMR. CIA OFFICER: I think the impression that will be brought in the intelligence community is that the Obama administration means to punish those people who were defending America through the rendition program or through Guantanamo Bay.

As many of us have ruefully observed, nobody has said anything about punishment. But the intelligence community are old hands at this kind of bureaucratic battle and they know how to rally the political establishment around them, which I think is quite clear by the fact that a highly respected bipartisan fetishist like Panetta can suddenly be seen as a controversial choice simply because the intelligence community insists on running their own show. We've seen this movie before.

I wish I believed that this Democratic congress could possibly be more effective than the Pike and Church Committees of yore, but the thought makes me laugh. (The only thing they seem to get exercised about is being dissed by Rod Balgojevich.) And while Seymour Hersh is still out there doing his thing and there have been fine examples of the press revealing illegal government activity these past few years, it has only penetrated the government to the extent that they are willing to disavow torture and eventually close down Guantanamo --- or so we think.

And it was press complicity that led us into an illegal and unnecessary war in Iraq (and ironically Watergate hero Bob Woodward who created such a hagiography around Bush that he was nearly unassailable for nearly four years of violent and unchoate leadership.) Nobody wants to delve too deeply or "look in the rearview mirror" or "play the blame game" because their primary duty is always to protect each other. And they are all guilty to one degree or another.

Michael Scheuer says that the choice of Panetta will be seen as a move to "punish" those in the agency. But what he means is that it's a choice to punish the village. Obama broke the rules and the pressure on him and Panetta to reassure them will be intense. Scheuer laid it all out pretty clearly on tonight's News Hour when he said this:

MICHAEL SCHEUER: The American -- you know, this whole business on rendition and prisons and the rest of it has been a very politicized issue. The fact is, America is much safer today for the people that have been rendered and imprisoned.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Panetta, Mr. McGovern are all very good at wanting to destroy that function, that operation that has protected America. They have nothing to replace it with.

He looked like a total psychopath when he said that.

*Ray McGovern gave a great case for ignoring Scheuer in that segment on the Newshour. It's worth reading in it's entirety. Too bad he's considered a raving member of the ideological "intellectual left" and therefore a clown even when facing someone who seems to be somewhat deranged.

** There are more segments of the Olmsted book at this link. I highly recommend that you read the whole book if you want to get a very clear idea about the prospects for change of these policies through the normal functions of congressional oversight. I honestly don't see how it can happen, which is why I support the idea of asking Obama to appoint a special prosecutor. It's an extreme longshot, but it's probably the only way this can be effectively pursued.