Judge Webster and covert actions
AS he takes on the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency, let us hope Judge William Webster makes time to review the deliberations of that remarkable summer in Philadelphia 200 years ago. If he does, he has a good chance of avoiding the disastrous mistakes of earlier CIA directors. It was covert action unauthorized by Congress that nearly brought both the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to their knees in the years after World War II. Had leaders of these two essential agencies been respectful of the Constitution and the advice of its authors, many men and women would not have been hurt, billions of dollars would have been saved, and America's reputation as an honorable, law-abiding nation would not have been tarnished.
Two centuries ago as the founders met in Philadelphia, our frail new nation was surrounded by powerful enemies.
The British maintained large garrisons in their frontier forts and encouraged Indian tribes to threaten American settlers. With powerful warships at the mouth of the Mississippi, Spain thwarted American shipping. The French saw a republic with popular elections as a threat to the monarchy. Barbary pirates captured American ships and sold the crews into slavery, while Europe sneered at American requests for assistance.
Despite the precarious state of the new country, the founders, without hysteria or fear, deliberated the issues and wrote the US Constitution in an atmosphere of confidence and optimism.
There is no hint they considered for a moment solving the problems of that perilous era by secret means. No thought was given to licensing or fomenting squalid little wars, plots, crimes, subterfuges, and lies in the theory that they alone knew best what was good for the country.
If he's done his homework, Mr. Webster will contrast the bold and straightforward conduct of our early leaders with today's politicians obsessed with a nearly destitute Central American nation of 3.5 million people whose type of government they dislike, which the politicians are attempting to overthrow by covert actions.
To his credit, while heading the FBI Judge Webster insisted that the bureau not be involved in covert activities. His able and honorable direction of the FBI over the past nine years did much to rehabilitate the reputation of that essential agency as the nation's chief police and internal intelligence force.
Domestic security investigations of Americans who hold unpopular views are not permitted unless criminal conduct is involved. Congressional oversight and the press uncover few instances of questionable activity.
Now that he's at the helm of the CIA, however, Webster will be told emphatically by the CIA's ``experts'' that covert activities by the agency are absolutely essential in this dangerous world. The Soviets do it. The Cubans do it.
Yet, whatever other nations do, and whatever we have done in the past, the US's experience with covert operations is dismal.
In reviewing them, one is struck not only with the damage they have done our standing in the world as a respectable nation, but also by their ineffectiveness. Covert operations generally fail and are a waste of taxpayers' money. Their purported goals could more often be achieved through peaceful, public means.
A 1982 study by the bipartisan Congressional Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus described the results of United States-sponsored covert operations beginning in 1953, when the CIA's Kermit Roosevelt masterminded the overthrow of the popular but left-leaning Muhammad Mossadeq and his replacement by the Shah, whose tyrannical rule ended 26 years later with his overthrow by the American-hating Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
CIA covert operations played a hand in Ferdinand Marcos coming to power in the Philippines and Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Secret operations in Guatemala, China, Vietnam, Tibet, Congo, Laos, Cuba, Peru, Bolivia, and Angola are also examined in the caucus study, and it is difficult to find any benefit to US interests in any of these.
Witness the Tower Commission report and the shocking misconduct and criminal activity revealed by the Iran-contra hearings. While not primarily a CIA operation, that agency's fingerprints are seen everywhere. It is probable we will learn in the final analysis that the late CIA director, William Casey, was the moving force behind this sordid endeavor.
The CIA's new director should examine in depth his agency's experience in this outlaw activity. If he does, and if he is able to resist the pressures of his so-called ``experts,'' I believe Judge Webster can save the CIA from itself.
Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California is chairman of the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, which has legislative and oversight jurisdiction over the FBI.