The scandal started quietly last week when Sen. Mark Udall wrote a letter to President Obama, alleging that the CIA had taken “unprecedented action” against investigators who wrote the Senate Intelligence Committee’s still-classified report on the U.S. torture program.
Then McClatchy News reported that the CIA monitored a Senate computer system after staffers allegedly removed records from agency’s headquarters without authorization.
When Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein went public with more of the details on Tuesday the story mushroomed into a quasi-constitutional confrontation.
“Independent observers were unaware of a precedent for the CIA spying on the congressional committees established in the 1970s to check abuses by the intelligence agencies,” said the Guardian.
In fact, there is a precedent. While electronic surveillance may be new, the CIA has used its espionage techniques to thwart Hill scrutiny before. In 1978, the CIA went so far as to plant a spy in Congress’ inquiry into the murder of a sitting president.
The proof emerged in 2010 when a top CIA official stated in a sworn affidavit that the agency planted an “undercover” officer into the House of Representatives investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The House investigators came away feeling much like the Senate Intelligence Committee does today: deceived and manipulated. Then as now, it seems the threat of exposure and embarrassment on a sensational issue of the day — be it torture or assassination — prompted senior CIA officials to subvert Congress’s efforts to hold the agency accountable for its actions.
Now Washington is asking why agency officials thought they had the right to spy on a congressional investigation. The answer is that history has shown they can get away with it.
Just as the National Security Agency feels under siege today, so the Central Intelligence Agency felt in the mid-1970s. A string of revelations coming out of the Watergate scandal showed senior agency officials had supported the Watergate burglars as well as engaged in assassination of foreign leaders, torture, and mind-control experiments. Particularly appalling to the public and the Congress was the revelation that senior CIA officials had been plotting to assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro at the very moment JFK was gunned down in Dallas.
In 1978, the House of Representatives reopened the investigation of Kennedy’s assassination. Soon investigators from the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) were aggressively asking for specific records held in CIA files.
In response, the CIA General Counsel Office assigned George Joannides, a dapper lawyer from New York City who had spent 28 years in the clandestine service, to serve as liaison to the investigators. Unbeknownst to Congress, Joannides “served undercover” when acting as the agency’s representative to the HSCA, according to a sworn affidavit (p. 10) from Information Coordinator Delores Nelson, filed in Washington federal court in 2010.
Joannides was, in essence, a spy. To the Congress, he presented himself as a staff attorney who would facilitate the investigation by retrieving documents and arranging interviews with former CIA personnel.
In fact, Joannides was a former undercover operations officer who had run Cuban agents in 1963 while living in Miami and New Orleans. Indeed, he had a connection to the JFK story. Some of his agents had taken an interest in accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the summer of 1963.
The CIA never told Congress about Joannides’s role in the events of 1963.
‘Perfect man for the job’
When the agency’s deception was revealed in 2003, G. Robert Blakey, the former organized crime prosecutor who served as General Counsel for the HSCA, repudiated the CIA as a trustworthy partner in government.
Blakey told PBS Frontline:
“That the Agency would put a ‘material witness’ in as a ‘filter’ between the committee and its quests for documents was a flat out breach of the understanding the committee had with the Agency that it would co-operate with the investigation.”
Blakey said the impact of the CIA’s actions on Congress’s ability to get at the truth was profound.
“I no longer believe that we were able to conduct an appropriate investigation of the Agency and its relationship to Oswald,” he said. “Anything that the Agency told us that incriminated, in some fashion, the Agency may well be reliable as far as it goes, but the truth could well be that it materially understates the matter.”
Now retired from teaching law, Blakey told me in a phone call that the latest allegations about CIA spying on Senate staffers “give a whole new dimension to what they were doing with Joannides and our investigation. Were they [the CIA] in our computers too? ”
By contrast, the CIA was pleased with the outcome. When Joannides retired in 1979, his boss lauded him as the “perfect man for the job” who deflected the “aggressive harassment” of House investigators. Two years later, Joannides received a CIA medal for career performance. He died in 1990, having never been questioned by JFK investigators.
The issue in 2014
Good luck to investigators trying to figure out how and why the CIA targeted the Congress .
When the Assassination Records Review Board, an independent civilian panel, started asking questions about Joannides, the agency responded with “inaccurate representations,” according to ARRB chair, John Tunheim, a federal judge in Minnesota.
Via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, I have learned that the many records related to Joannides’s undercover mission against the HSCA 35 years ago remain classified to this day. Unless Congress responds more effectively, the records of the Agency’s actions against the Senate Intelligence Committee may stay secret until 2049.
The JFK assassination story is old news but the issued posed by the CIA spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee is not. What is Congress to do if it cannot count on the CIA to act in good faith when it seeks to hold the agency accountable?
Defenders of the CIA are saying that the Senate investigators did not act in good faith when they removed documents from CIA headquarters without authorization. So Langley will pose its own question: What is the CIA to do if it cannot trust Congress to keep the secrets that is the Agency’s duty to keep?
No matter how you answer those questions, though, the CIA’s actions in regard to the Senate Intelligence Committee are not ‘unprecedented.’ They are all too familiar.