S. Eugene Poteat, President of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) is no fool. A senior CIA official for thirty years, now retired, Poteat was a scientific intelligence officer and program manager for special reconnaissance systems for the U-2, SR-71, and other reconnaissance vehicles. He received the CIA’s Medal of Merit and the NRO’s Meritorious Civilian Award.
As I say, no fool.
So I did a double take when I read Poteat’s words in the current edition of the Intelligencer, a Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies. “Thirty years ago,” he wrote, “the Church and Pike Committees bought into the KGB perception management campaigns to discredit American intelligence and proceeded to limit the activities of the intelligence community …”
Since the Church and Pike Committee hearings are probably not covered in high school history courses, let me remind younger readers that these were congressional committees convened to investigate egregious excesses by an intelligence community that had come to act with little or no external accountability.
The agency’ excesses included assassinations, coups detats, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements, covert action to influence the elections of friends and enemies alike, mind control experiments that sometimes led to murder, and other behaviors that caused lots of reasonable people to question the agency’ unlimited freedom to act without transparency or accountability. The excesses were not about how they gathered intelligence so policies could be set. The excesses were about policies devised and executed in a black box.
Poteat is saying that citizens concerned with that unrestrained behavior were deceived by the KGB.
So let me get my confession on the record: I was a victim of the KGB.
I naively bought into the notion that the wholesale use of journalists and media executives by the CIA, for example, written about by Carl Bernstein in Rolling Stone, was an impediment to a free press. I uncritically accepted the notion that administering chemicals, electric shocks, and prolonged isolation illegally to unwitting victims to test theories of behavior modification suggested that an agency that purportedly existed to “gather intelligence” was coloring a little outside the lines.
In the current climate of free-floating anxiety I would guess that Poteat’s revisionist characterization sounds right to a lot of people. Recent polls indicate that nearly half of those questioned believe the Bill of Rights should not extend to Moslems and a similar number think “the Bill of Rights goes too far.” It’s a no-brainer to substitute “terrorist dupe” for “Communist dupe” to designate people who object to egregious violations of civil and human rights in the name of fighting terror.
That’s the American mind-set in 2005. But it wasn’t always so. How did we get here?
During times of crisis or war, when liberties and constitutional rights come into conflict with the necessities of self-defense, it’s the liberties and rights that go. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War and Japanese-Americans were herded into concentration camps during World War 2.
Those wars, however, were clearly defined wars and contrasted with periods of peace.
That distinction no longer applies. War and peace are indistinguishable. We live in a permanent state of war or preparation for war. As Orwell wrote, war is peace. Peace is war.
The wartime environment of World War 2 morphed seamlessly into a Cold War which lasted for 45 years. Levels of secrecy necessary during wartime (“loose lips sink ships”) were applied to a world no longer defined as Axis vs. Allies but as Communists vs. Free World. The Free World included American allies whose governments ranged from democratic to fascist. Alignment with American objectives was more important than ideology or behavior and we sponsored, trained, and supported death squads and counter-revolutionaries, training our proxies in assassination, torture, and sabotage.
That’s not speculation. That’s historical fact.
Several generations have now grown up in a bifurcated environment: above the line, information and media are manipulated to create a consensus, a reasonably coherent if fabricated narrative, for a population lacking access to the important facts. Below the line a variety of alternative interpretations are available in a compartmentalized way on a need-to-know basis and at various levels of clearance. We accept that multiple streams of alternative realities flow in layers and consider their flagrant contradictions a necessary consequence of national security. I’m not referring simply to secrecy and secrets but to the wholesale creation of varieties of historical narrative and their dissemination to serve varying interests. This is Babel squared, Babel at the level of conceptual thought, civil discourse and systems of belief, not merely different languages.
In addition, after World War 2 nuclear weapons made it impossible to fight a war to “total destruction” because of the “blowback” of assured mutual destruction. Wars like Korea or Viet Nam were fought within limits lest the confrontation escalate. So covert warfare waged by the CIA and other intelligence units became a preferred means of executing strategy. The CIA from the beginning was a covert military branch that helped to overthrow designated enemies or establish preferred governments in Iran, Greece, Italy, Guatemala, the Philippines, all early on. There were, of course, more to come.
A national security state predicated on a culture of secrecy, funded clandestinely and unaccountable to an electorate, inevitably evolved. During times of “democratic excesses” in the sixties, as the Bilderberg Conference called social action on behalf of greater equality and justice, a strategy of managing perception indeed evolved, a private and public partnership that continues to this day. Eisenhower called it the “military-industrial complex” when he left office and warned of its growing power.
He had no idea. What Ike feared, a tiny alien bursting out of the gut of the Cold War, is nothing compared to the monster with which we live.
In those bygone days, the FBI and CIA may not have officially shared information but they shared parallel strategies and they shared operational resources in the trenches where everything is murky. Distinctions between foreign and domestic enemies blurred. The FBI engaged in illegal surveillance and covert action like COINTELPRO which spied on domestic groups and destroyed political opponents through blackmail and other illegal means. Foreign entities that opposed our will were either Communists or allied with Communists; domestic activists who fought for change were … well, either Communists or allied with Communists.
It logically follows that citizens protesting the excesses of the CIA were not patriots who cared about the Constitution; they were victims of disinformation by the KGB.
After the Church and Pike Committees convened, congressional oversight of the intelligence community was allegedly tightened but oversight quickly evolved into partnership, protecting secrecy, mitigating transparency and accountability, and subverting any effort to restore a semblance of checks and balances. Nobody watches the watchers and the watchers and their partners profit.
Because the terrorist threat is defined vaguely, the conditions that justified an anti-Communist national security state are now used to justify an anti-terrorist national security state. Appropriate responses to a nebulous enemy range from invading nations unilaterally to gloves-off covert warfare that includes assassination and torture, The war on drugsin the nineties failed as a justification for the military machine so once terrorism was substituted for Communism it was dropped from propagandistic rhetoric, except when narco-terrorism is evoked as a subset of the terrorist threat. The war on drugs is “really,” we all know now, part of the war on terror.
People in power and authority, fused with the instruments of that power and authority, leveraging mass media concentrated in a dozen hands as a means of social control, can make terrorists of us all. It is simply a matter of naming and shaming, defining those who protest illegal and unconstitutional action as aiding or abetting terrorism or being terrorists themselves.
Unlike the seventies, however, new technologies serve as force multipliers for both state and non-state actors and amplify the power of the authorities to an exponential degree. The media filter continues to determine what is real for the American public and mask much of what happens away from our shores. As a CIA report said in October,1991:
“The PAO (Public Affairs Office) [of the CIA] has relationships with reporters from every major wire service, newspaper, news weekly and TV network … this has helped turn some “intelligence failure” stories into “intelligence success” stories, and it has contributed to … countless others. In many instances we have persuaded reporters to postpone, change, hold or even scrap stories.”
I said in a recent interview with the Linux Journal, “The convergence of enabling technologies of intrusion, interception, and panoptic reach, combined with a sense of urgency about doing counter-terror and a clear mandate from the White House to do everything possible and seek forgiveness afterward rather than permission in advance has created a dire but often invisible set of threatening conditions.
The enemy can be a splash of rhetoric on a blank page, a cloud of power obscuring morphing borders, anyone who colors outside the lines of a global military and economic network. The enemy must have significant organizational power; individuals and groups that are fragmented, weak or diffused are not a real threat. As during the Cold War, alignment distinguishes friend from foe, not ideology or behavior.
When assassination like outsourced torture is just another tool and trans-global supra-national entities and new technologies obliterate meaningful distinctions between foreign and domestic, then inevitably assassination will be used at home too when other strategies fail because “home” is not a place, home is where the heart is, wherever we find ourselves with a commitment, an investment, an interest. Although a presidential directive (PD 12333) officially prohibits assassination, it remained a viable option before 9/11 when, a reliable source tells me, the elimination of Saddam Hussein was officially authorized.
In the seventies, civil rights activists were disrupted, undermined and assassinated because they threatened the civil order with social revolution. Kennedy, Kennedy, King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X all went down. The leadership of the viable left was decimated and the center shifted radically to the right, where it remains today.
Who on the right was assassinated? No one. After the leadership of the left was slaughtered, how did the world tilt? To the right. Yet even to suggest a pattern to those assassinations instead of believing them a collection of random acts as decreed by the thought police gets one branded a “conspiracy theorist,” a “fringe thinker,” or worse. It is not reaching a conclusion about conspiracy that gets one branded-merely raising the question in the face of suggestive evidence is sufficient.
COINTELPRO was not executed in isolation. J. Edgar Hoovers hatred of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his rabid campaign to destroy him using FBI resources made Hoover at the least complicit in creating conditions that resulted in Kings murder.
Enabling communication and information technologies are today linked and mined to a degree unimaginable in the seventies. We don’t even have to intercept it all; we can make the information come to us. But those technologies are the platform of social control, not its ultimate end. They allow those in partnership with the state to focus their intentions more efficiently and at the same time conceal the lethality of their strategies.
A man like Gene Poteat certainly understands the consequences of habitual lying. He once told me how, as a radar expert at CIA, he was asked by John McCone, then CIA Director, to respond to Lyndon Johnsons request for evaluation of an alleged attack in the Tonkin Gulf on American ships by North Vietnam. Poteat told McCone they could give him an answer in 48 hours but Johnson insisted on the next morning. Poteat said that was impossible. The next morning, without corroborating evidence, Johnson announced the attack and in effect declared war on North Vietnam. Subsequent analysis indicated that no attack took place.
Poteat asked McCone why Johnson did not let them do their job. “We could have discovered the truth,” he said.
Because the president didn’t want the truth, McCone said. He wanted to go to war.
So Poteat knows that secret action in a context that lacks accountability can lead to millions of deaths – without the KGB even getting involved.
In our time, the designated enemy is anyone who raises questions about the American Empire – its dynamics, its behaviors, its actions – and whose speech is likely to become actionable. Freedom of speech is a genius-level bleeder valve, restoring equilibrium to the body politic like a thermostat, tolerated so long as it is not a threat to those in power. If speech threatens to move people to action, however, people get whacked, both metaphorically and literally. In the 21st century, neutralization has a thousand means at its disposable.
Am I merely a victim of the KGB in the seventies and a global Islamist cabal today? I dont think so. I fear I am a real victim, but of a state that has become its own god. And we are all victims of campaigns of disinformation.
“In many parts of the world,” Poteat concludes, “there is still a serious struggle to secure democracy and the rights of man.”
Amen, brother. Amen. But you seem unaware of the irony of those words in a world gone liquid and difficult to challenge, one in which it takes energy not to dismiss the cascading consequences of decades of covert extra-legal action, unilateral expansion, and empire building as if the world has no moral order, justice is one thing eating another, and words mean exclusively what we say they mean.
Those consequences in a moebius strip world where everything folds back into our own lives are not just “out there” but “in here,” in our souls, where the corrosive acid of self-deceit challenges the American belief that we are good or better or different. The cognitive dissonance increases and all the sex, scandals, and media events in the world may not be sufficient to distract the masses forever.
If our real history in all its many layers reveals who we are and how the world works in its ultimate reaches, let’s just say so. Then we can speak to ourselves as well as others with authenticity and integrity. We can stop pretending.
Yet … after such knowledge, what forgiveness? And what will we bequeath to our children if not a receipt for deceit, a model of habitual lying and might making right, democracy nothing but a cover story for doing what we do … because we can?
RICHARD THIEME is an author and public speaker focused on change, the human side of technology, and the issues that matter to us most. A collection of his work, “Islands in the Clickstream,” was published this year by Syngress Publishing. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website: http://www.thiemeworks.com/