Covert Action Rides Again

In May 57-year-old New Englander and former chemistry professor John Deutch breezed through Senate confirmation hearings to become the country's new director of the embattled Central Intelligence Agency. Deutch's confirmation by an unprecedented 98-0 vote was based on his pledge to clean out the scandal-ridden CIA "all the way down to the bare bone." Deutch's precise title is director of central intelligence, which underscores his real job: reviewing and analyzing data from all U.S. intelligence-gathering operations, both international and domestic. But the CIA has often been far more involved in criminal subversion than in information gathering. Coup-making and international law-breaking have been CIA specialties since the agency was created in 1947. Nearly 30 years of agency-supported or -engineered coups have left millions of people dead worldwide and have created oceans of ill will toward the United States (see "Hall of Shame," below). After the wide-ranging scandal involving CIA officer Aldridge Ames, who was convicted in 1994 of selling government secrets to the Russians -- actions that the CIA said led to the death of U.S. undercover agents abroad -- public and government support for the agency had reached its lowest point in 20 years. In September, news reports revealed that Deutch had disciplined a small number of CIA personnel who he said failed to properly inform Congress about Julio Roberto Alpirez, a Guatemalan army colonel who was on the CIA payroll as an informer. Alpirez was recently implicated by Guatemalan prosecutors and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in investigations of narcotics trafficking and the 1990 murder of Michael DeVine, a U.S. innkeeper in Guatemala. Deutch's move gave the appearance that the new director was making good on his promise to reinvent the agency. Newspaper editorials in both left-wing and right-wing publications cheered the action. But despite the occasional hand-slapping since taking office, Deutch has in fact spent more time paving the way for a return to the same corrupt policies of the past. His zealous support for expanded covert action and his appointment of Reagan-era cold-war warriors to key agency posts are troubling indicators that the kind of revolution going on in the CIA has nothing to do with cleaning house.Cowboys in control "The U.S. needs to maintain, and perhaps even expand, covert action as a policy tool," Deutch said in a Sept. 12 speech at Washington, D.C.'s National Press Club, citing economic espionage and drug cartels as key targets. "Let me be clear: we will continue to work with unsavory people," Deutch declared. But he reassured the press that this time around there will be full disclosure of all such operations (to the extent required by law) and that Congress (which he described as his new board of directors) would be kept fully abreast of the situation. "That's the same old snow they've been using for years," said Ralph McGehee, a former CIA case officer with 25 years of experience who recently created the CIABASE site on the Internet ( "As soon as they [get] an increased budget from Congress they'll be back to the same old-boy tricks," he said. "To them, oversight is the enemy." Deutch's own old-boy credentials are impeccable. He was first drafted into the intelligence community in 1975 by then-CIA director George Bush. The former provost of MIT, Deutch had a reputation as an extreme conservative with deep roots in the national security and defense establishments. He has had corporate relationships with more than a dozen major U.S. defense contractors, including New York-based Martin Marietta, the influential RAND think-tank based in Santa Monica, and TRW in southern California. Martin Marietta and TRW build key components of advanced weapons-delivery systems and U.S. surveillance technology. Bush appointed Deutch to the CIA's Science and Technology Panel, which recommends the purchase of new weapons systems for the U.S. military. In 1990, at the invitation of then-president George Bush, Deutch joined Bush's highly influential Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which gave him full access to CIA spying activities and covert information. It was widely reported that Deutch accepted his current CIA post with the agreement that it would be elevated to a policy- making cabinet-level position. As McGehee pointed out, the only previous precedent for bumping up a CIA boss to cabinet status was in the disastrous case of William Casey, the Iran- contra scandal mastermind. "The overwhelming temptation was then, and will be now, to tailor information to fit policy," McGehee said. The CIA's fatal flaw "has been that its policy of implementing covert operations has dictated its intelligence. The CIA sustained the Vietnam War by refusing to acknowledge the obvious, while its intelligence focused on policy-supporting or nonsubstantial issues." Deutch did not return repeated phone calls for comment. "We will not undertake covert action to support policy objectives unless there is approval at the highest levels of government, only if the president authorizes such action," Deutch told the National Press Club. The problem with such assurances, said Scott Armstrong of the Washington, D.C.-based Information Trust, which advocates for openness in government, is that while the president may approve certain "clean-looking" policies, by the time they're implemented in the field, such covert orders can get very ugly. "They go off the shelf and become unaccountable," Armstrong said. As a result, "they discredit our involvement in other international affairs, [and] they often put us on the wrong side of issues for long periods of time." And secrecy, the fundamental trait of cover action, he said, "is fundamentally contrary" to the tenets of democracy. SIDEBAR: Covert Action Hall of ShameFor more than four decades the CIA has supported the overthrowing of democracies and has empowered U.S.-friendly despots, narco-traffickers, and arms dealers from New Zealand to Nicaragua to carry on with impunity. Here are but a few sterling examples:GUATEMALA, 1954: The CIA and the United Fruit Company, which democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz planned to nationalize, decided that Guatemala under Arbenz "was in the grip of a Russian-controlled dictatorship"; therefore they engineered a coup by the Guatemalan military in 1954. The country has been controlled by military strongmen ever since and has a long record of torture and other human-rights abuses. In 1982 under U.S.-trained general Rios Mont, 10,000 Indians were slaughtered, according to the New York-based human-rights group Americas Watch. More than 100,000 more Indians were forced into exile by the dictator's forces that same year.INDONESIA, 1965: With the help of Indonesian army colonel Sarwo Eddie, the CIA micromanaged the installation of General Suharto in Indonesia. The bloody purge of alleged communists that followed the coup turned the rivers of Indonesia red. Using machetes and other crude weapons, anticommunist vigilante groups hacked alleged subversives to death. More than a half-million people were put to death that year. Today Suharto's reign of terror continues in East Timor.EL SALVADOR, 1976-88: The late Salvadoran army major Roberto D'Aubuisson, founder of El Salvador's powerful ARENA party, was on the CIA payroll for many years. D'Aubuisson, who trained at military schools in the United States and Taiwan, referred to Jesuit priests as "the worst scum" and once reportedly told a German reporter: "You Germans were very intelligent. You realized that the Jews were responsible for the spread of communism, so you killed them." According to State Department cables, D'Aubuisson "planned and ordered the assassination of the late archbishop [of San Salvador] Oscar Arnulfo Romero" in 1980.-- Dennis Bernstein

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.