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BOOK REVIEW: ‘MH/CHAOS’
With the nation reeling under the impact of terrorist bombs and urban rioting as Vietnam War protests turned violent, Presidents Johnson and Nixon tasked the CIA with determining whether hostile foreign governments were fostering the deadly turmoil incited by black nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party (BPP) and New Left outfits such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Both groups openly advocated violence as a revolutionary tool to topple what they called “Amerika,” the Germanic slant suggesting the U.S. government was fascistic. Further, many of the “peace activists” made publicized trips to Cuba and Tunisia to avail themselves of guerrilla training.
The presidential chore was assigned to a special operations group (SOG) created in the CIA's Operations Directorate, known in-house as the Clandestine Services. The name, chosen from an alphabetical list, was MH/CHAOS. Traditional tools of espionage, such as wiretapping and recruiting agents-in-place, were not employed. Obligingly, the New Left and black power groups provided a plethora of material through public statements.
Frank J. Rafalko, a key SOG officer, writes with the insight of a counterintelligence expert. A CIA officer for 32 years, Mr. Rafalko is the author of four volumes tracing the history of American counterintelligence. The book at hand relies on CIA documents gathered during the course of MH/CHAOS, plus the author’s personal experience. It will perhaps stand as the ultimate objective study of a program that proved highly controversial.
One of the loudest advocates of violence during the turbulent period was, in later years, a boon companion of fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama. He was Bill Ayers, the vice president of SDS (later renamed Weatherman). As Mr. Rafalko writes, Mr. Ayers “proudly proclaimed that he was responsible for the [New York City] police department, Capitol and Pentagon bombings.” Mr. Ayers stated, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Mr. Ayers also “cased” the White House for possible bombings. In a 2001 book he boasted that he wanted to show “that a homegrown guerrilla movement was afoot in America.” (Mr. Rafalko’s listing of bombings - and threats - between 1969 and 1970 runs for 46 pages.)
Mr. Rafalko convincingly refutes claims in the media and elsewhere, especially by the odious Church Committee of the 1970s, that the CIA had created a “Gestapo” that operated outside the bounds of law, given that its charter does not permit investigations of Americans within the United States. The myth began with a sensational (and in key parts inaccurate) New York Times article by Seymour Hersh that Mr. Rafalko dissects charge by charge. The author counters Sen. Frank Church’s claim that the CIA was a “rogue elephant” - with MH/CHAOS as a potential Gestapo - with the retort that the senator “was a rogue jackass braying out of control.”
Mr. Rafalko makes plain that the two presidents had legal authority to order the CIA to keep tabs on the threats. Courts have repeatedly held that “implicit” in the constitutional requirement to “preserve, protect, and defend” the United States” is the power to protect our government against those who would subvert or overthrow by unlawful means.”
In the end, Mr. Rafalko writes, MH/CHAOS produced no direct evidence that any foreign power was behind the anti-war movement. The New Left and black nationalism more or less collapsed when the war ended in 1973, and MH/CHAOS was folded.
A layman disagrees with a professional at his own peril, but the evidence amassed by SOG could be interpreted differently. To be sure, SDS and other elements of the New Left dismissed the Communist Party USA as a “bunch of old decrepit men,” which surely was true. But persons such as Bernadette Dohrn, Mr. Ayers‘ comrade-in-revolution, did advocate policies that drew heavily on Marxist revolutionary doctrine.
Further, the old Soviet Union certainly lavished money on front groups that pushed the Soviet anti-war line. The World Peace Council (“peace” on North Vietnamese terms, of course) was one of the largest and most active front groups. By CIA accounting cited by Mr. Rafalko, the council received more than 60 percent of an estimated $63 million the Soviets budgeted for political action and propaganda.
The state-owned Aeroflot supplied free tickets and hotel space to radicals who attended anti-war meetings around the world. The fact was that the Soviets and Cubans had extensive guerrilla, sabotage and political indoctrination training offered to radicals from the United States and elsewhere. Further, the old KGB and DGI, the Cuban intelligence service, provided means for clandestine communications.
As Mr. Rafalko correctly notes, “[M]ost American students were committed to lawful behavior [but] were caught in a duality between revolutionary methods and the adoption of reformist positions.” The radicals believed that inciting violence was the best means of attracting media and public attention.
No foreign role? Perhaps. In any event, MH/CHAOS showed that America is capable of producing homegrown political idiots - both during the Vietnam era and today.
Joseph C. Goulden’s expanded edition of “Spy-Speak: The Dictionary of Intelligence” will be published by Dover Books in January.
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