Photo Credit: Michael Vadon
The 2016 presidential primary has featured a whole host of new lows. From a neo-fascist, crony-capitalist Republican front-runner, to the repeated attempts at red-baiting on the Democratic side against a Democratic socialist, no less, we’re on track for a Super Tuesday race to the bottom.
A little over a week before 12 states hold Republican and Democratic primaries, the Beltway insiders at Politico dropped their own bombshell of sorts on the Sanders campaign. Michael Crowley, the publication’s senior foreign affairs correspondent, reported that a 23-year-old Bernie Sanders—then an anti-war activist—told a crowd in Burlington, Vt., that the CIA is “a dangerous institution that has got to go.” Politico, in a tone reminiscent of anti-Communist finger-pointing of yore, continues,
[Sanders] described the agency as a tool of American corporate interests that repeatedly toppled democratically elected leaders — including, he said, Mosaddegh. The agency was accountable to no one, he fumed, “except right-wing lunatics who use it to prop up fascist dictatorships.”
Politico makes little effort to connect these statements to the political climate of the day. Throughout the 1970s, the agency found itself in the hot seat—and not just because of opposition from the left. From John F. Kennedy’s self-described urge to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces,” to Harry Truman’s 1963 Washington Post op-ed pressing the agency to return to its “original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President,” evidence that the agency had turned into a globetrotting force for cloak-and-dagger operations throughout the world was, in the minds of many in Washington, a problem to be taken seriously.
Two months after the young activist’s speech, Seymour Hersh, then a reporter at The New York Times, shed light on the Nixon administration’s sprawling domestic intelligence operation against the American antiwar movement. Spurred by Hersh’s reporting and a number of other alarming revelations, the Rockefeller Commission—established under President Gerald Ford—kickstarted a government investigation into Hersh’s and others’ allegations of domestic spying and experiments on U.S. citizens. That same year, Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) established the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Even the agency itself admitted in the ’90s that, “Had Seymour Hersh not written his CIA domestic surveillance stories for the New York Times in December 1974 . . ., there seems little doubt that there never would have been a Rockefeller Commission, a Pike ‘Report,’ a Church Committee, or an Executive Order 11905.”
The agency’s days of gallivanting about lawlessly in the name of curbing Communism came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with that came a renewed debate about the CIA’s purpose—and in some cases, the need for its continuance.
In 1991 and 1995, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), the former vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, introduced legislation to do away with the agency and assign its intelligence operations to the Department of State. For all the agency’s successes, charged Moynihan, there was an even grander array of failures.
By 1995, in the words of The New York Times editorial board, “whatever thin justification the Cold War provided for reckless adventures is gone.” Moynihan’s adjuration to shutter the agency had managed to pick up some odd bedfellows—namely right-wingers who viewed the agency’s current iteration as “too liberal.” Still, due to his friendly relationship with the Clinton administration and the cross-partisan appeal of his message, he played an integral role in the mid-1990s debate over the future of the agency. In the end, the tinkerers, not Moynihan’s abolitionists, won out.
Although agency operations expanded significantly in the aftermath of 9/11—thanks in part to pressure from politicians and the public on the agency to do whatever it might take to prevent another attack—Moynihan’s abolitionist mentality never quite disappeared. In 2005, New Republic senior editor John B. Judis argued “The Case For Abolishing The CIA.” The agency’s incompetence and outright refusal to abide by international law, emphasized Judis, had only been exacerbated under the Bush administration. “What is clear is that the CIA is broken,” he wrote. “And to repair it, we may have to start from scratch.”
So, while Sanders’s 1974 statements may be a testament to his “extreme leftist past,” they’re only truly radical for unimaginative Washington hacks. It takes a spectacular degree of obstinateness for weak-tea liberal pundits to overlook the countless historic events that cause the American left to look less-than-kindly on the agency. Perpetrators of this inanity even went so far as to suggest the extra-judicial knavery paled in comparison to more modern ordeals. “In retrospect, CIA-backed coups look great compared to Iraq-style invasions,” quipped Vox’s duhsplainer-in-chief, Matt Yglesias. (He later backpedaled wildly, saying it was a joke.) How convenient that Sanders is on the record opposing such hijinks!
Such baseless red-baiting is not just dishonest and lazy (no brownie points for creativity, Politico)—it’s also indicative of the sad state of national security policy. When an opinion shared once by John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, and, hell, David H. Koch is ostracized as suspiciously Communist jiggery-pokery, then, to borrow an old Saturday Night Live turn of phrase, “the show has reached a new low.”
Hannah Gais is the associate digital editor at The Washington Spectator.