- - Sunday, February 4, 2018


By Loch K. Johnson

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 632 pages

In 1984, author Loch K. Johnson took advantage of a dinner encounter to ask a question of William Casey, then the director of central intelligence: “What is the role of Congress in intelligence?”

One can imagine the snort that came with Mr. Casey’s reply: “The business of Congress is to stay the [expletive deleted] out of my business.”

Although the political correctness of the times dictates that few persons in the intelligence community would publicly agree with Mr. Casey, such a sentiment exists, even if sub rosa.

Mr. Johnson, a professor at the University of Georgia, has been pushing for enhanced intelligence oversight for more than 40 years, commencing with his staff work with the Senate’s Church Committee in 1975.

The intelligence community was reeling about disclosure of programs that, in Mr. Johnson’s understated words, “strayed outside the boundaries of law” — most notably, operations aimed at discrediting the Vietnam War peace movement and the struggle for civil rights.

Sen. Frank Church, Idaho Democrat, the presidency in his eyes, picked up on a comment he attributed to McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to President Kennedy, that the CIA was a “rogue elephant on a rampage.”

Mr. Church set out to prove such a case and opened uncountable drawers filled with dirty linen. But as testimony brought out, many of CIA’s claimed misdeeds were performed on presidential orders, and Mr. Church had to sidle away from his key charge.

Nonetheless, his crusade resulted in the creation of intelligence oversight committees in both houses of Congress.

In the opinion of many retired and present officers, the result is that intelligence now is run by hypercautious lawyers, rather than professionals. Officers shy away from risky (but important) operations rather risk grilling by hostile congressmen in public hearings.

Hmmmm. Yet the point that Mr. Johnson makes (in far too many pages, to this reader) is that congressional oversight, although a vast improvement over past neglect, has not worked as well as he and other reformers intended.

He complains that lawmakers “devote only a small amount of time to intelligence oversight activities.” He cites a “preoccupation with re-election and the raising of campaign funds.” Committee members tend to be “moderates” rather than “radicals.” (He shows a clear preference for the latter.)

His solution? Create a “broadly based Citizens Intelligence Advisory Board,” composed of nine members and a staff of “a dozen specialists.” Membership would include three members from the congressional oversight panels, two “private citizens” chosen by the Supreme Court, two by the president and a chairperson selected by the deans of the top-ranked schools of international schools of international and public affairs.

The “citizens board” would hold hearings and issue reports. Mr. Johnson contends that lawmakers “simply lack the time and expertise to manage intelligence accountability by themselves.”

Just how this board would be more effective is not stated. Given that the congressmen are already overworked, why give them an additional burden?

Elsewhere, Mr. Johnson writes at length about “CIA failures.” Some claims deserve scrutiny. For instance, he blames CIA for not warning of the outbreak of war in Korea in 1950. In fact, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, U.S. military commander in the Far East, had banned CIA from his zone (just as he excluded the Office of Strategic Services during World War II).

Thus any war warning was up to Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence chief. His officers reported a strong North Korean military build-up along the border, heavy tank deployments, and evacuation of most civilians. It was Gen. Willoughby, not CIA, who failed to sound an alert.

Mr. Johnson makes liberal use of the accusation “CIA murders.” A more accurate term would be “White House murders,” for such is where many of the orders originated.

Concerning Fidel Castro, the assassination impetus came first, from the Eisenhower White House, then from President Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Several officers involved in Operation Mongoose, the CIA’s anti-Castro effort, had identical accounts. “Bob Kennedy droves us nuts with his orders that we ‘get tougher,’” recollected the late Sam Halpern.

The Church Committee’s report on assassinations skipped around presidential responsibility, citing lack of firm evidence. (“Deniability” is an intelligence term that comes to mind.)

David A. Phillips, who retired as head of CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division, once told me, “When I was a student, I wondered about the origin of the British term ‘whipping boy.’ In the Agency, I learned it meant taking the blame for some politician’s decisions, and especially the unspeakable ones.”

Soon after Lyndon Johnson succeeded JFK as president, he said he found “we had been operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.” (The quote is not in Loch Johnson’s book.)

“Deniability” continues as a useful function.

Joseph C. Goulden’s 19 books include “Korea: The Untold Story of the War.”

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