American Assassination History for Dummies
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In his first year in office, Carter purged nearly 20% of the Agency’s 4500 employees, gutting the ranks of clandestine operatives, sending hundreds of dirty trickster vets into the private sector to seethe for the next few years. Carter signed an executive order worked out with Frank Church and the Senate committee on intelligence putting more serious limits on the CIA’s powers — unequivocally banning assassinations, restricting the CIA’s ability to spy domestically, and putting their covert operations under strict oversight under the president, Congressional committees and the attorney general. The CIA’s paramilitary was even disbanded, though not banned.
Carter’s people understood that real fundamental change in the CIA and national security state would only come through democratic politics — through passing laws. He and Sen. Church tried, but they were outmaneuvered and ground into mulch.
A Washington Post article from the summer of 1978 captured the changing mood, and the first early wave of gloom setting in with Democrat reformers that their days were over and their chance was missed:
Two years ago, when David Atlee Phillips and like-minded defenders of the Central Intelligence Agency set out on the college lecture circuit, they were routinely confronted by hecklers and protesters denouncing them as "assassins."
The climate has changed. The investigations are over. The recriminations have subsided. The apologists have turned into advocates, urging, even demanding a stronger hand for the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community despite the record of abuses.
A comprehensive piece of legislation, the National Intelligence Reorganization and Reform Act of 1978 (S.2525), has been drafted and debated at Senate hearings for months now, but all sides dismiss it as nothing more than a talking paper, a starting point.
Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), who served as the chairman of the original Senate Intelligence Committee and its unprecedented investigations, thinks it is already too late.
"Reforms have been delayed to death," he said in an interview. "This has been the defense mechanism of the agency and it could easily have been foreseen . . . Memories are very short. I think the shrewd operators, the friends of the CIA, recognized that time was on their side, that they could hold out against legislative action."
And yet even as comparatively progressive as Carter’s and Church’s proposed reforms were — this was the brief high point for civil liberties, it’s all downhill from here — nevertheless, pretty much everyone across the spectrum hated Carter’s and Church’s reforms for their own reasons, and Carter did little to inspire.
Carter’s gutting of the CIA and his new guidelines restricting domestic surveillance by the FBI and other agencies won him few friends among grandstanding professional liberals. If anything the country turned against Carter as the world went to shit around him — Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Jonestown — paving the way for Reagan to "restore" American power.
Which brings us to early 1981, and Reagan’s executive order 12333 which has been falsely described as "banning assassinations" by critics of Bush and now Obama.
Scott Horton, writing in Harpers last year, has a good description:
But as with so much U.S. national-security legislation, this order turns out to be far less than meets the eye. Simplified, [Reagan’s EO] could be summarized this way: "No one shall be assassinated—unless the president authorizes it, in which case we will refrain from calling it an assassination."
But it’s much worse than that.
From the minute Reagan’s team took power, they went to work rewriting the rules to give themselves enormous unlimited power to re-animate the empire and the national-security state. In early 1981, it didn’t seem possible that the political culture could slide back so far after all those hard-won battles; by the end of the year, it was as if there’d never been a Church Committee or reforms of any kind.