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Reagan CIA: Arrogance Instead of Oversight

January 04, 1987|James Bamford | James Bamford, author of "The Puzzle Palace" (Houghton Mifflin), an examination of the National Security Agency, writes frequently on intelligence issues

ASHLAND, MASS. — Like a labyrinth in a Jorge Luis Borges fable, the scandal enveloping the White House grows more complex the deeper it's explored. At its center lies arrogance of power: The Reagan Administration, on the one hand, pushed to the limit its involvement in covert wars, while on the other hand demonstrated only contempt for the whole principle of oversight. Although this attitude has been most obvious in the Administration's dealing with the congressional intelligence committees, it has also been a major factor in the virtual denigration of the important oversight and review panels in the executive branch itself.

This tone and direction, which has so undermined the Reagan presidency, was set in motion quite early. Within days of his 1980 election, the President-elect began putting together his intelligence transition team, to lay the ground work for a smooth shift from Adm. Stansfield Turner to William J. Casey. The team members, however, were an assortment of far-right ideologues from the Senate Intelligence Committee and crusty former agency officials dating back to the Central Intelligence Agency's earliest days. Their chief common denominator was a firm belief that the Church Committee--which had conducted a wide ranging investigation into past intelligence abuses in the mid-1970s--had "decimated" the intelligence community and, second, that Turner had "destroyed" the CIA's covert action capability. Thus, the goal of the new Administration would be to undo the damage done by Congress and recall the secret warriors dismissed by Turner. The CIA could then return to its glory days of nation-toppling.

Leading the charge was Casey, who considered covert action the agency's raison d'etre. What Casey brought to the agency was a strong bond of personal loyalty, as the new President's former campaign manager, and a dedication to placing the human element back into the intelligence equation. But the CIA's role in pure espionage had long since passed to the satellites of the National Reconnaissance Office, listening posts of the National Security Agency and various other techno-spies. The only thing left to the agency, beyond analysis, was covert action--what Casey, an old Office of Strategic Services veteran, knew best. But, to Casey's dismay, he had to contend with senators and congressmen poking into his agency's highly secret business.

Like Casey, Reagan also had little interest in oversight. Five years before he entered the White House he was appointed to the eight-member Rockefeller Commission, set up by President Gerald R. Ford as his answer to the Church and Pike Intelligence Investigating Committees. But Reagan, apparently, had more important things to do. He left the first meeting before it was finished and managed to miss three of the next four weekly meetings.

Reagan carried that arrogance toward intelligence oversight into the presidency. Although he did little about the congressional watchdog, nothing required him to treat the subject seriously within his own executive branch. One of his earliest acts was to reestablish the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board--and then immediately turn it into a dumping ground for wealthy contributors and old cronies. Created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the advisory board served for many years as a unique repository of outside experts who would offer advice on future intelligence issues. By loading it with friends and supporters, however, Reagan significantly diminished its potential usefulness .

Another area where Reagan chopped away at oversights was the little-known President's Intelligence Oversight Board, originally established by Ford in the wake of the Church Committee. The board, made up of three distinguished citizens outside of government, was to notify the President and attorney general of any ethically questionable or illegal activities coming to its attention, investigate if necessary and review the practices of the inspectors general of the various intelligence agencies.

But according to Stansfield Turner, the Reagan Administration "emasculated the IOB and limited its writ to matters of legality." Turner had explained that he was more interested in looking into matters of propriety and ethics because the attorney general is supposed to watch legality. Once again, Reagan appears to have viewed membership on the board simply as a political thank you with no regard to qualifications. Under Jimmy Carter, the board was led by Thomas L. Farmer, a Washington lawyer with experience as a special counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson and a tour of duty at the CIA; plus a former governor and a former U.S. senator.

Reagan appointed as chairman W. Glenn Campbell, director of the Hoover Institution which holds Reagan's pre-presidential papers. Also appointed was the director of the conservative Committee on the Present Danger and the head of a Detroit restaurant equipment firm.

That Reagan would eventually meet his Watergate as a result of a massive intelligence disaster seems almost to have been inevitable. Had he and his advisers spent more time learning from the Church Committee rather than condemning it, and more time on analysis and collection than covert action, the end result might have been different. In the same way, if there had been less emphasis on secrecy, more consultation with wise advisers on the foreign intelligence advisory board, it might have been avoided. Also, had the President's own oversight board and the various inspectors general been strengthened rather than weakened, the transfer of Iranian funds to the contras might have been short-stopped or at least discovered early enough to have been defused. Finally, unless the President understands the twists and turns which led to his present disaster, he has no hope of ever emerging from the dangerous maze in which he now finds himself.

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