A con­stant crav­ing for in­tel­li­gence

Amer­ica’s suc­cess has de­pended on ac­cess to se­cret in­for­ma­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Thomas V. DiBacco IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY HUNTER Thomas V. DiBacco is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

This sum­mer marks the 40th an­niver­sary of the House Per­ma­nent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence, one of the first achieve­ments of Demo­cratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill in his newly elected post in 1977. To be sure, the Se­nate had al­ready es­tab­lished such a com­mit­tee more than a year ear­lier. But the cre­ation of both per­ma­nent or­gans should be seen against the back­ground of tem­po­rary, con­tro­ver­sial in­ves­tiga­tive ef­forts by Congress in the mid-1970s to keep abreast of what was right or good or wrong and bad in in­tel­li­gence ef­forts in­volv­ing the na­tion.

The irony of these mile­stones is that they rep­re­sented a big break from the na­tion’s past. From ear­li­est times, in­tel­li­gence was pur­sued ei­ther by Congress or the pres­i­dent, mostly, the lat­ter — about which the leg­is­la­ture had no re­view or in­put.

For ex­am­ple, dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, there was no pres­i­dent for the colonies. The Con­ti­nen­tal Congress was both ex­ec­u­tive and leg­is­la­ture, and early on in the war it cre­ated se­cret com­mit­tees that pur­sued in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing on Bri­tain. It used bribes, agents, codes, pro­pa­ganda and the like against the mother coun­try. It or­ga­nized staff for that pur­pose, in­clud­ing the fa­mous Thomas Paine, au­thor of “Com­mon Sense,” which helped to pro­voke the re­volt. In 1777, Paine be­came sec­re­tary to the Com­mit­tee on For­eign Af­fairs, which han­dled — and put a lid on — se­cret ne­go­ti­a­tions with France for as­sis­tance. Later on, Paine leaked all this in one of his pam­phlets. Par­ti­sans who dif­fered with Paine over other mat­ters raised a furor. It was a “their word” against “Paine’s word” sit­u­a­tion. Out­num­bered, Paine be­came in­fa­mous and was forced to re­sign in 1779.

In­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing was cru­cial — keep­ing tabs, for in­stance, on in­for­ma­tion from al­lies Spain and France, as well as in Bri­tain where, it was ru­mored, King Ge­orge III in­tended to em­ploy Ger­man mer­ce­nar­ies in Amer­ica.

Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton as the first pres­i­dent un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion set up a se­cret fund in the State De­part­ment for in­tel­li­gence ac­tiv­i­ties. Al­though it had a non-con­tro­ver­sial ti­tle (Con­tin­gency Fund for the Con­duct of For­eign In­ter­course), it was big, amount­ing to 12 per­cent of the fed­eral bud­get by 1792. The funds were used to fo­ment re­bel­lion in Span­ish-Florida so as to make it even­tu­ally pos­si­ble to re­lieve the Ibe­rian na­tion of its prob­lems by Amer­ica’s ac­qui­si­tion. Only Wash­ing­ton had con­trol over the monies — and Congress was left out of the re­view­ing loop.

Sub­se­quent pres­i­dents, es­pe­cially James Madi­son in the War of 1812 and An­drew Jack­son in deal­ing with western ex­pan­sion is­sues, em­ployed sim­i­lar strate­gies, but the chief ex­ec­u­tive who shut out con­gres­sional re­view un­til the post-World War pe­riod when the CIA came into fo­cus was James K. Polk (1845-1849).

Polk was an ar­dent ex­pan­sion­ist, ab­so­lutely in­tent on tak­ing over western ar­eas. Se­cret ne­go­ti­a­tions — along with in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing — were used to get the Brits to di­vide the Ore­gon Coun­try at the 49th par­al­lel, with the Amer­i­can half be­com­ing the states of Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon and Idaho.

Then the pres­i­dent tried the same tac­tics with Mex­ico in an ef­fort to ac­quire New Mex­ico and Cal­i­for­nia. Agents John Stock­ton and John Charles Fre­mont were paid se­cret dough to fo­ment strife in Mex­ico, and a covert order went out to a naval unit to stay near the Cal­i­for­nia coast in the event of war. Not sur­pris­ingly, Polk was suc­cess­ful in get­ting Congress to ap­prove a war res­o­lu­tion, and the end re­sult was a bumper crop of ter­ri­tory from Mex­ico,

Even be­fore the Mex­i­can War, how­ever, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives wanted the low­down from Polk on Sec­re­tary of State Daniel Web­ster’s se­cret funds dur­ing his ser­vice un­der pre­de­ces­sor pres­i­dents Wil­liam Henry Har­ri­son and John Tyler. Polk’s an­swer would keep Congress at bay for al­most a cen­tury: “The ex­pe­ri­ence of ev­ery na­tion on earth,” wrote Polk, “has de­mon­strated that emer­gen­cies may arise in which it be­comes ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary for the pub­lic safety or the pub­lic good to make ex­pen­di­tures, the very sub­ject of which would be de­feated by pub­lic­ity ... . In no na­tion is the ap­pli­ca­tion of such funds to be made pub­lic. In time of war or im­pend­ing dan­ger, the sit­u­a­tion of the coun­try will make it nec­es­sary to em­ploy in­di­vid­u­als for the pur­pose of ob­tain­ing or ren­der­ing other im­por­tant ser­vices who could never be pre­vailed upon to act if they en­ter­tained the least ap­pre­hen­sion that their names or their agency in any con­tin­gency be di­vulged.”

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