June 28, 2015–Watergate was a huge political scandal in the United States that began 43 years ago, in June 1972. It brought down a president (Richard Nixon). Due to a deadline and to preparations for the diplomatic historians conference just ended, I missed marking the occasion here. But a story in today’s Washington Post brings Watergate readily to mind, this time in the context of the CIA torture report.
The pundits made one of the lessons of Watergate out as: you get ahead of the scandal by letting all the information out, right away, as bad as it looks. Richard Nixon suffered grave political damage by sitting on the Watergate evidence and having it dragged out of him, piece by piece, until the Supreme Court compelled him to surrender the tape of a conversation–dubbed “the smoking gun” (and this is the origin of the phrase, at least in its political usage) conversation, that revealed the president actively engaged in an obstruction of justice. Mr. Nixon resigned in order to avoid impeachment.
Langley took some pretty bad political hits from Watergate. Despite the agency’s intention to steer clear, Nixon made some efforts to implicate the CIA in his growing deception campaign, plus by 1972 there were lots of Americans who had their doubts regarding the spooks. Add in the fact that some major characters in the scandal were former CIA operatives, and the way the agency had cooperated with the White House–innocently it maintained–when called on to furnish help to White House smear campaigns against Nixon critics, and you had the makings of a political problem for the CIA itself. Bill Colby, before becoming CIA director, had been employed full time on controlling the damage to the agency from Watergate, a struggle that no doubt influenced his course of action in 1975, when faced with public outcry resulting in demands for deep investigation of the CIA and other components of U.S. intelligence.
Where am I going with this? You guessed it! The CIA torture program. Today’s news is that there are photographs of the agency’s black prisons. A set that may contain as many as 14,000 shots, covering facilities, CIA persons, the notorious contract psychologists, pics of detainees, etc. Imagine what demands there are going to be to release this material! Word is that the photos became known in the course of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the torture program, but in this age of the selfie you know it had to be true–and it would have been just a matter of time before the same demands for release of such explosive evidence surfaced.
CIA mavens have already ignored–or actively evaded–multiple opportunities to get ahead of the scandal. Indeed they have added to the controversy. The destruction of videotapes of the torture (obstruction of justice), efforts to rein in their inspector general (a violation of the CIA oath), intrusions into computer networks belonging to Senate investigators (a criminal act), attempt to obtain the indictment of Senate investigators (a violation of the separation of powers clause of the Constitution), efforts to sit on–and to gut–the Senate torture report (a use of phony “national security” appeals to disguise participation in criminal activity); stalling release of the Senate report on secrecy grounds while using the time to prepare an insider/outsider public counterattack against the investigators and their report (at a minimum, the diversion of public resources and CIA work product to support private individuals’ defense against an official inquiry); and the conduct of a phony “accountability board” review, which predictably concluded that no one had done anything wrong.
Look at that long (and lengthening) list. Getting past “Photogate” is going to require yet another addition to it. And there’s the rub– how long does the list get before there’s a Watergate-type firestorm of public repudiation? The proverbial “First Casualty” may very well be the Central Intelligence Act of 1949, the agency’s statutory authority for using national security secrecy to evade the public, and indeed, all forms of accountability. That law has clearly outlived its usefulness, and now serves as an obstacle to democracy.
The first rule of holes is to stop digging.
I guess it’s not accurate to speak of the CIA’s “coming” Watergate. The agency is already embroiled in scandal, right up to its ears.