Secrecy vs. democracy. Moyers probes America's clandestine `shadow government'
New York — The Secret Government - The Constitution in Crisis A special report by Bill Moyers. PBS, tomorrow, 9-10:30 p.m. (check local listings). Writer/executive editor/host: Bill Moyers. Senior producer: Alan M. Levin. This is a landmark program in the glorious tradition of Edward R. Murrow's famous ``See It Now'' report on the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Bill Moyers, the television newsman who today comes closest to wearing the mantle of Murrow, waited until much of the partisan hullabaloo surrounding the Iran-contra hearings died down to release this thought-provoking personal essay, which attempts to put it all in perspective. The program comes the week before Congress's own report on the hearings is due to be released.
What emerges is not a cool, disinterested study of a quirk in the democratic process. It is, rather, a passionate, vigorous attack on the abuse of power which Mr. Moyers sees threatening American democracy.
Moyers carefully traces the background of ``shadow governments'' in the US, which started long before the Casey-Poindexter-North cabal. According to him, the pattern of deception started shortly after World War II, when the United States compromised its political morality by protecting Nazis like Klaus Barbie so they could help in the growing competition with the communists.
The cold war signaled a perpetual state of emergency, which radically transformed US government, Moyers says, when President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947. According to Moyers, that legislation established the framework for ``a national security state.''
With the development of the Central Intelligence Agency came the constantly escalating involvement in shadowy activities. Moyers traces the secret and often illegal and distasteful actions in Iran, Vietnam, Laos, Guatemala, Cuba, and Chile.
Moyers calls a lie a lie - even when it comes from the mouth of a President. And he makes no attempt to hide the fact that he at one time served two of the Presidents he criticizes, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. President Reagan's men learned only one thing from Watergate, he contends: ``Destroy the tapes.''
Throughout a series of interviews, Moyers speaks with experts who have worked within the CIA, the military, and the legislature. But often it is the ordinary citizens he talks with who best voice their own deep involvement in American democracy. They mirror Moyers's own disgust at the breaches in constitutional government, the abuses of power, the breaks of faith, ``the passion cloaked in fiction and deception.''
Of course, it is still a risk to attack, even obliquely, the man who has become a folk hero in many circles - Lt. Col. Oliver North. But Moyers doesn't hesitate to impale him on his own words: ``There is a difference between lies and lies.''
Moyers points out that Colonel North did not wear his uniform at work, only when testifying before the subcommittee. In the bunker of the White House, Moyers observes, ``the men who serve the president put loyalty above analysis; and judgment yields to obedience. Just salute and follow orders.'' ``If the commander in chief tells me to go in a corner and stand on my head, I will do so,'' says North. Sen. Daniel Inouye reminds him it must be the lawful orders of a superior.
The powers claimed by presidents to ensure national security have become the controlling wheel of government, driving everything else, Moyers contends. ``Secrecy makes it possible for the president to pose as the sole competent judge of what will best protect our security.'' With the CIA still functioning covertly, Moyers stresses that secret global war has become a way of life. Then, in a clear warning that government by military junta is always a possible danger, he asks: ``Can we have a permanent warfare state and democracy, too?''
``The Secret Government'' makes no pretense at impartiality. Moyers makes clear over and over again that his belief in the US Constitution is completely partisan, that he has little patience for presidents who do not take care that laws are faithfully executed, for legislators who do not safeguard their obligation to control participation in wars - and for admirals, colonels, or secretaries who regard themselves as ``above'' the law.
``An open society cannot survive a secret government,'' Moyers warns in conclusion.
This program is important because it uses the unhurried perspective of time and considered judgment to review dangerous trends in government in light of recent events.
Whether or not viewers agree with all of the individual interpretations, Moyers's long view that ``constitutional democracy is our defense against ourselves, the one foe who might defeat us,'' is indisputable. PBS and the American viewing public are fortunate that the spirit of Edward R. Murrow survives today in the conscience - and talent - of Bill Moyers.