Re-post: Rumsfeld and Cheney pressured CIA to mislead Congress in the 1970s
The Iraq war, shades of Vietnam
The first time Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld pressured the Central Intelligence Agency to mislead Congress was in 1975 and 1976, when Cheney was chief of staff to President Gerald Ford and Rumsfeld was Ford’s secretary of defense. (Cheney, having held a series of positions alongside Rumsfeld—starting under him in the Nixon administration–also became campaign manager for Ford’s reelection campaign.) George H. W. Bush headed the CIA, appointed by Jerry Ford when Ford switched Rumsfeld from White House Chief of Staff to Secretary of Defense.*
Waldron is co-author, with Thomas Hartmann, of Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination, an exhaustively documented 800 pages compiling more than three decades of research into the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. In two  interviews of more than an hour each, Waldron discussed how much some things haven’t changed since before Watergate.
Reacting to public outrage over a series of abuses—including domestic surveillance–exposed during Watergate, the Nixon impeachment and the winding down of the Vietnam War, in 1975 Congress authorized a special senate committee chaired by Democrat Frank Church of Idaho to look into abuses of the intelligence agencies, primarily CIA and FBI. The Church Committee was convened, getting off to a slow start and under steady CIA-friendly media fire from the beginning. Ford appointed George H. W. Bush as head of the CIA and Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense in October 1975.
As Waldron points out, we know from thousands of documents declassified since the 1970s that a massive amount of vital information was withheld by Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush from the Senate’s Church Committee. The White House and top echelon of the CIA withheld crucial information from the Committee:
- the CIA’s extensive manipulation of U.S. news media;
- domestic spying;
- material about Cuba including JFK’s plan to topple Fidel Castro on December 1, 1963,
- the Mafia’s infiltration of the anti-Castro plan,
- and the CIA’s unauthorized continuation of agency plotting to use the Mafia to assassinate Castro.
Waldron and Hartmann document in Legacy of Secrecy that then-CIA official Richard Helms also withheld the unauthorized extension of the mob-linked anti-Castro plots from JFK himself, from President Lyndon Johnson and from the Warren Commission afterward, and even from JFK’s own CIA Director.
The legacy of secrecy—often for political or career reasons, depending on the individual, or for bureaucratic self-protection–continued throughout the sixties and seventies to the Church investigation. Some particularly flashy and sensational material on the larger issues was shared with the Committee, garnering headlines. Elements of the Castro assassination plots like those ‘exploding cigars’ to be given to Fidel, for example, were divulged by the CIA to Church and were exposed with much fanfare. But the deeper concern of intensive Mafia participation in the anti-Castro plots was never fully investigated, not even by the later House Select Committee on Assassinations, and certainly not by the Church Committee.
The back story is that from 1960 to 1963 Mafia participation in plots to assassinate Castro became, tragically for the United States, a powerful Mafia participation in plots to assassinate President Kennedy. The CIA picked up too lethal a tool in choosing the Mob to carry out its plans to remove Castro. To this day, the general public—which never bought the ‘lone nut’ theory that the manipulated Lee Harvey Oswald, a beginning-level marksman, single-handedly brought off the assassination—still has not been permitted to know the full extent of the powerful arsenal of resources trained against President Kennedy by the wealthiest Mafia clans in the U.S.
Coordinated by Carlos Marcello, head of the oldest Mafia family in the U.S. (dating from the 19th century) and Gulf Coast kingpin in control of Louisiana and Texas, they had planned since 1962 to take out the Kennedy brothers—either Attorney General Robert Kennedy, aggressively pursuing the Mob, or, more effectively, the brother in the White House who had appointed him AG. When John Kennedy came down South—as they had previously threatened—they took him out, having tried twice before in November 1963 to get JFK, once in Tampa and once in Chicago. The helpless Oswald—seen drinking a Coke in the Texas Book Depository two minutes after Kennedy’s murder—was then taken out himself, by heavily mob-connected ‘nightclub owner’ (actually, mob gnome) Jack Ruby, given basically full run of the Dallas police station. The general public has also not been permitted to know the full extent of Ruby’s Mafia involvement, despite hundreds of pages of information detailing his mob connections.
One continuing consequence was the negative effect on U.S. relations with Cuba for decades, deplored by Waldron and Hartmann. Waldron argues that no national security reason justifies hiding the JFK assassination archives at present. Congress intended them to be revealed years ago; the Cuban official implicated in the anti-Castro plots –Almeida—has long since been outed and forgiven; and both the United States and Cuba would benefit from expanded trade and other relationships.
Releasing a million pages of documents that Congress has already said should be released would illuminate more history of the twentieth century, including one of its defining tragic events. Waldron also expressed a wish to see Cheney testify under oath about the material withheld from the Church Committee. After all, there is no argument, however specious, that releasing it would somehow endanger U.S. troops.
There is also no argument that those anti-Castro plots ‘worked’. Waldron: “Nobody thought Castro would be in office this long.” Adding: Nobody thought back during the 1970s that Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush would be back in government again, either, much less that they would return respectively as Vice President and Secretary of Defense in a bloody war, president and father of a president. If we don’t learn from the past, we are condemned to relive it with a vengeance. (The late Mary McGrory wrote about the return of Nixon retreads in the Reagan administration. Very few other established Washington journalists did so, at least in newspapers or on the networks.)
*Rumsfeld was Ford’s transition chairman in the WH, then chief of staff 1974 to 1975; secdef for Ford 1975-1977 (and secdef for GWBush 2001-2006, youngest and oldest person ever and 2nd longest holding that ofc, etc). Appointd secdef in Oct 1975 when George HW Bush appointd CIA head.
*Cheney was on Rumsfeld’s staff under Nixon; Cheney and Rumsfeld both were Nixon alums, along with GHWBush, who was previously head of the Republican National Committee and resisted acknowledging the ills of Watergate to the bitter end. Cheney became assistant to pres under Ford; became Ford’s chief of staff when Rumsfeld became secdef, and Ford’s campaign manager. As deputy asst to pres in 1974-75, he memoed Rumsfeld about using the DOJ to get at journalist Seymour Hersh, then of the NYTimes. Waldron says that all the information about CIA manipulation of the news media has “definitely not” come out. Much of it is contained in documents still held by the CIA in spite of the congressional act of 1992 saying that they should be declassified and released.
Congress, CIA, Cheney and Rumsfeld
Following up with Lamar Waldron, author with Thom Hartmann of Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination:
Declassified archives show that Richard Helms, then number-4 man in the CIA, withheld even from his CIA chief and from President John F. Kennedy the CIA’s unauthorized continued plotting to kill Fidel Castro and remove the Cuban government. Helms continued to withhold this crucial information under two more presidents, a task aided by his being appointed Director of Central Intelligence under Johnson and Nixon. According to Waldron, there are many parallels between what happened in the 1970s, including what happened when Democrat Jimmy Carter replaced the GOP in the White House, and what has happened since, including developments under the second Bush administration.
Stansfield Turner, Carter’s CIA chief, came into the agency determined to clean it up following exposure of agency abuses from Watergate through the Church Committee. To some extent, Turner did so—but when he got rid of some of that era’s ‘bad apples,’ he unleashed a mighty backlash from CIA-friendly media outlets and from that era’s version of the rightwing noise machine. When Turner, with Carter’s approval, began firing people in CIA, he and the administration were in short order accused of going too far and of making America less safe. Anonymous charges of undermining American security began turning up in major media outlets. The GOP and the right seized another weapon in Cold War tensions to bring down the first Democratic administration since 1968, and Carter lost his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan.
Neither the rightwing noise machine nor the CIA’s grip on large media outlets is today what it was in previous decades. However, responding to questions in one of two lengthy interviews, Waldron says that the material about CIA manipulation of the news media has “definitely not” all been released. Much information about relations between the CIA and the press was withheld from the Church Committee—this while the CIA and the White House, under Bush senior and White House operatives Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were stonewalling the Committee on other topics as well. “Church uncovered a lot,” Waldron comments, but Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld stonewalled on essentials.
To read a detailed history of the Kennedy assassination is to be reminded—forcibly—of what a ‘limited hangout’ (in spy parlance) the Watergate investigation turned into. Most of the personnel who broke into the Watergate were Bay of Pigs alumni, including E. Howard Hunt who coordinated the op. Several perpetrators—represented as semi-illiterates barely able to make sense of a home movie in the Woodstein book All the President’s Men–were also mob-affiliated. This grim coterie included some Cuban expats also closely connected to the inner circle of anti-Castro plotting. By any reasonable reading of history, the Watergate break-in and cover-up should be revisited as a further chapter in the history of the JFK assassination and Mafia piggybacking onto CIA anti-Castro assassination plots. It was Cuba—the Bay of Pigs and the tragic consequences of assassination–that Nixon as president was terrified the public might learn about, not some miscellaneous purported campaign plans purportedly housed in Larry O’Brien’s safe. After all, Kennedy had inherited the Castro assassination plot from Nixon, who headed the anti-Castro plans as Vice President under Eisenhower, and Nixon had been familiar with the early stages of the planning. Exposure of even a fraction of what Nixon knew about plans to kill Castro, and when he knew it, would make for a devastating October surprise in any election.
The selectivity of the limited hangout became a pattern for succeeding administrations, as Waldron and Hartmann show.
Moving up to the Bush years, it is reasonable given the history to ask how much of what the CIA did under the Bush-Cheney administration was known even by CIA directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden. How much were even the heads of the agency aware of? Waldron points out that every agency head has his own institution to protect and that it is part of an agency head’s job to know a lot but not everything about the institution he heads.
(One further point: One thing the successful stonewalling of the Church Committee and other investigative bodies demonstrates is that there is no ‘wall’ between intelligence agencies, when it comes to cover-up. Hardly anything successfully concealed by the CIA was exposed by the FBI, for example. There may be a ‘wall’ between foreign and domestic information gathering, between CIA and FBI—as we are repeatedly told–covering the thousands of employees of both huge agencies, that prevents coordinating efforts to protect our country. But there seems to be no wall that prevents coordinating efforts to protect the bureaucracy or to protect individual careers. )
Back to the Church Committee: Nixon and Ford
When the Church Committee began looking into abuses by the intelligence community—including CIA manipulation of the news media and domestic surveillance of administration critics—back in the 1970s, White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and Assistant to the President Dick Cheney, working for Gerald Ford, knew they had to circle the wagons. Predictably if ironically, they did so by intensifying the same efforts that had drawn investigation in the first place, continuing unauthorized operations in secret and manipulating the news media to prevent exposure.
The Committee—formal title, the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities—was formed in response to public outrage over spy agency abuses during the Vietnam War and before, including covert assassination plots against foreign leaders revealed by Seymour Hersh in the New York Times. Its multiple reports were the fullest revelation of behind-the-scenes malfeasance to that date, even if the Committee was to some extent playing catch-up ball with some reporters and with much of the general public.
Nixon was never a very popular politician, in spite of his decisive win over George McGovern in 1972. McGovern, a war hero in World War II and political moderate in the old-school New Deal vein, was painted as the candidate of hippies and drug users if not one himself. During the Cold War, after all, stodgy Democratic congressmen were routinely accused of basically wanting to let Russian tanks invade suburban back yards. But Nixon and his top people were fully aware of their nonexistent hold over American minds and hearts. Even rock-ribbed Republicans, and Southern converts attracted by Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy,’ which slowed down civil rights for a generation, thought Nixon was a crook.
Cheney and Rumsfeld, in the Ford White House, were Nixon alumni—minor figures and not top people, as Waldron pointed out, but in a position to observe and absorb the lessons of Watergate. According to Waldron, one lesson they learned was don’t put anything in writing. It was those secret tape recordings, including the exposure of Nixon’s four-letter words behind the scenes with aides (in light of his public sanctimoniousness), that did Nixon in politically.
Since the Church Committee could not be prevented or even blatantly opposed, the effort, according to Waldron, was to contain its investigation, and the effort succeeded. It was facilitated in several ways: Dick Cheney was promoted to White House Chief of Staff, replacing Don Rumsfeld—who was promoted to Secretary of Defense, without ever having seen combat, the youngest person in U.S. history to have held that office. In being lofted to SecDef, Rumsfeld of course bypassed a generation of war heroes from World War II, a point not much emphasized or criticized in a press that tended to focus more on the who’s-in-who’s-out of WH staffing. Score one for the concealers.
Rumsfeld’s transition to Defense enabled him to help further in blocking the Church Committee. For one thing, he now had freer rein to claim that secrecy and concealment were justified by national security concerns. He could also more fully ensure that no one in the military cooperated too much with investigation into the intelligence agencies, including military intel agencies. He could also—behind scenes—encourage or facilitate attacks on the Committee using unnamed military sources ready to claim that American spies and soldiers were being endangered by revelations of agency abuses. Rumsfeld was thus ideally positioned to shunt off investigation into, for example, military infiltration of the American anti-war movement—which appears to have been copious, although the full records and numbers have yet to be released. Any commander in the later stages of the Vietnam War might understandably prefer to detail young military personnel to infiltrate anti-war protestors at home than send them to Vietnam.
Needless to say, any and all investigation and communication to the public were also opposed by Cheney in the White House, who was always viscerally opposed to transparency anyway. But Rumsfeld in Defense and Cheney in the White House also had a formidable ally in their corner—George H. W. Bush, appointed by Ford as head of the CIA at the same time Rumsfeld was appointed to Defense. Suffice it to say—condensing here for brevity—Bush at CIA had the at least the equivalent means at his disposal, and usefulness to the Ford White House, as Rumsfeld at Defense.
Another lesson that Cheney, Rumsfeld and (former head of the RNC) G. H. W. Bush learned from Watergate was to control the press. Nixon had misguidedly antagonized two of the most powerful dailies in the U.S., the New York Times and the Washington Post, going so far as to pursue them in court, where he lost. Judicial restraint in advance of publication is a non-starter in this country. Bush Sr. was more subtle. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward was allowed to extend contacts with the CIA and became increasingly helpful to it in his reporting; Post neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer sniped years ago that Woodward was an unofficial spokesman for the CIA. The other half of Woodstein, Carl Bernstein, au contraire, who published an excellent and forceful article on the limitations of the Church investigation, had to go other ways. Judicial restraint of the press does not work. Injudicious restraint by other means does.
As Waldron points out, attempts to control the press hardly ceased with Nixon, as the tragic case of courageous reporter Gary Webb alone would demonstrate.
[This material was posted in May 2009 and is slightly edited here. Back then the top article was lifted from a re-post on another site and was posted on Huffington Post without the author’s consent or knowledge, and without linking to the author’s site, thus denying the author’s site the hits/traffic. (It received at least 27 Diggs on HuffPost.) Undoubtedly every HuffPost editor and journalist knows this conduct to breach journalistic ethics.]