Secrets and Lies

Ever since Harpagus conspired with Cyrus against his uncle, the King of Medea, by placing letters to Cyrus in the belly of a hare, secrecy has always been part of government—and particularly part of the conduct of foreign affairs. Secrecy is obviously an indispensable part of espionage and intelligence gathering, and there are times, to be sure, when even a nation's own people need to be kept (temporarily) in the dark if foreign policy interests are to be best served. But this is dangerous; secrecy can become an end in its own right, or a tool by which political leaders can arrogate more power to themselves than a democratic system warrants.

Throughout the Cold War era, secrecy in national security matters repeatedly threatened to undermine democratic freedoms at home. There were peak periods of this dynamic, most notably during the Mc Carthy era, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War, as well as during recurring inappropriate uses of the FBI, CIA, and IRS at the time of the Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals. In each case, a legitimate foreign policy objective, usually the containment of communism, became the justification for secret government actions that a democracy would not otherwise tolerate.

With the ending of the Cold War, the premium on secrecy ought to have diminished. And for a while it did. The high-stakes spying between the United States and the former Soviet Union has certainly lost its Le Carré-ish luster. But this being the case, why does it seem like so much of what's going on at the highest levels of government these days has everything to do with secrecy? Bill Clinton fails to hide his philandering but manages to conceal secret bombings in the Sudan and Afghanis tan. Kenneth Starr and his interrogators badger Mon ica Lew in sky in secrecy, deny her access to a lawyer, and then breach the confidentiality of the one legitimately secret institution intended to protect the rights of defendants—the grand jury. Meanwhile, Mad eline Albright declares a new "long-term battle" against terrorism that National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger says will be carried out largely by the undercover means of the Central Intelligence Agency. And Republicans allege that the Clinton re-election campaign made a secret deal with China in exchange for Chinese campaign contributions.

Intelligence gathering for foreign policy purposes keeps getting mixed up with intelligence gathering for political purposes. And the protection of secrets for reasons of national security has become conflated with the protection of privacy for political survival; conversely, the invasion of privacy appears to have become a staple of political opposition.

In all this there is an uncanny parallel with the early 1950s. Back then, the McCarthyite right used the pretext of national security concerns to ferret out and neutralize political enemies, invading their privacy and trampling their civil liberties; today's political culture uses the pretext of "ethics violations" [see Anthony Lewis, "The Prosecutorial State," page 26] to snoop into private lives for career-destroying personal secrets. (And in a choice irony, now it is the Democratic administration that must appeal to concerns about national security in order to invoke the authority-enhancing aura of the need for secrecy; under Truman, it was the Republicans in Congress who invoked national security in justifying their probes into the private lives of American citizens.) The ferocity of the Republican attack today, and the weakness of the Democratic response, is more than an accidental parallel with the 1950s. It is a powerful reminder of the beginning of the destruction of the traditional American foreign policy establishment and its replacement by its former nemesis, the hard right.

Secrecy and the Establishment

In the United States, concerns with secrecy and intelligence gathering gave rise to the American Estab lishment. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson, alarmed by the successful Bolshevik revolution, ordered a special commission to be set up to begin planning for the postwar future. It was called, like something out of David Mamet, the Inquiry. The Inquiry secretly met in New York at the American Geo graphical Society, and included Walter Lippmann. The State Department members and Ivy League academics who were guided by Lippmann actually accompanied Wilson to France on the USS George Washington. In The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, Burton Hersh writes that their delegation was "overbalanced with careerists hastily primed in counterespionage techniques," including Joseph Grew, who would later become ambassador to Japan. Wilson ended up largely ignoring their counsel. But the Inquiry had made clear America's need for a foreign policy elite and intelligence capabilities.

The members of the fledgling establishment, many with careers on Wall Street or in legal work, created the Council on Foreign Relations to serve as a conduit between Wash ington and New York. War and the threat of Bolshevism naturally gave rise to conspiracy theories. Had the munitions industry dragged America into World War I? (Extensive congressional hearings in the 1930s probed this question.) And why had communism triumphed in Russia? In the interwar period, communist conspiracies and anticommunist counter-conspiracies became staples of secret political culture, though for the most part these concerns were confined to the far left and the far right—the Red Web conspiracy theorists and the Brown Web conspiracy theorists.


Subscribe to The American Prospect


But it was not until 1949, when China went communist and North Korea subsequently invaded the South, that right-wing conspiracy theories entered the mainstream. The American establishment—pro-business but consisting mainly of moderate Democrats and liberal Republicans—became the main foe of the burgeoning McCarthyite right. The establishment was attacked for communist leanings, conducting foreign policy behind the scenes in close connection with secret agencies like the CIA. Staffed largely by Ivy League liberals (Yale predominated), it was a red flag for right-wing populists like McCarthy.

No figure attracted right-wing ire more and epitomized the establishment better than Dean Gooder ham Acheson. "I look at that fellow. I watch his smart-aleck manner and his British clothes and that New Dealism in everything he says and does, and I want to shout, 'Get out, get out. You stand for everything that has been wrong with the United States for years!'" fulminated Republican Senator Hugh Butler of Nebraska. "When this pom pous diplomat in striped pants, with the phony British accent, proclaimed to the American people that Christ on the Mount endorsed Communism, high treason, and betrayal of sacred trust, the blasphemy was so great that it awakened the dormant indignation of the American people," said Joseph McCarthy.

In Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the World, James Chace provides the first truly complete biography of Harry Truman's secretary of state. The subtitle is overblown; Harry Truman was more important than Acheson. But this is solid fare. Chace, the editor of World Policy Journal, is a veteran writer on foreign policy, and at a moment when Republicans are smearing the reputations of leading Democrats, his work offers a reminder that this behavior is old hat for the GOP.

Born in 1893 the son of Edward Acheson, a bishop in the Epis copal Church who maintained an Olympian detachment from his children, young Dean became a rebel. Sent to Groton at age 12 where the legendary Endicott Peabody ruled over his boys, Acheson was a poor student, graduating last in his class. After going to work on the railroad in Canada, he spent four years at Yale, where he maintained a C average. His sharp tongue caused him problems. After calling his father a "fool" during his sophomore year, Dean found himself banished from the family home for a full year.

Harvard Law School saved him. There he learned, in his own words, that "excellence counted, a sloppy try wasn't enough," and upon graduation, he secured a clerkship with Louis Brandeis. According to Chace, Acheson came to share Brandeis's suspicion of universalistic schemes for peace and world order: he was gravitating toward "realism," a doctrine he would hew to closely in foreign policy throughout most of his life. To Acheson, realism meant avoiding excessive ideology in foreign policy in favor of dealing with other nations in terms of national interests. The moralistic fervor of a John Foster Dulles was repugnant to him. Acheson, of course, was staunchly opposed to communism, but he was not above contemplating a deal with the Chinese communists, and he did not agree with most of his contemporaries that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable.

Indeed, as Chace shows, Acheson initially hoped to work out a deal with the Soviet Union to head off a nuclear arms race. In 1946 he drew up a plan to create an international atomic energy control board, believing that "Washington could not—and should not—pursue a policy of atomic exclusion." It is important to remember that at this time, the Truman administration had no fixed strategy for dealing with the Soviets. As Chace puts it, "Amer ican foreign policy fluctuated like a compass needle seeking the right azimuth." Acheson himself wrote in his memoirs that "only slowly did it dawn upon us that the whole world structure and order that we had inherited from the nineteenth century was gone and that the struggle to replace it would be directed from two bitterly opposed and ideologically irreconcilable power centers."

What led to this gradual dawning? What brought Tru man and Acheson around to a dimmer view of Soviet intentions? At first, Soviet incursions into Eastern Europe were not a special cause for alarm, because the area was seen as a Soviet sphere of influence. But the Soviet push into Iran, from which it ultimately retreated, then Turkey, where it sought to take joint control of the Dar danelles, and finally the Czech coup of 1948, set off warning bells: the Soviet Union did not seem content with its own sphere, but was seeking to challenge the United States. George F. Kennan's famous "Long Telegram" warning of ceaseless Soviet expansionism advised the administration to brace for a long twilight struggle. Like Truman, Acheson began to focus less on seeking good relations with Moscow than on foreclosing potential Soviet aggrandizement. As Truman's secretary of state, it was Acheson who formulated the grand strategy for containing communism.

But Acheson's anti-Soviet turn was too little, too late for the Re pub licans. Ever since the fall of China, the Republicans had seen Acheson and Truman as appeasers. Not even Truman's constitutionally dubious 1947 order establishing a Loyalty Review Board could satisfy the GOP. For the Republicans, Chace observes, the charge of subversion "was a whip with which to lash a president who had so destroyed their hopes for power with his 'give 'em hell' campaign of 1948." It is impossible not to admire Acheson's refusal to give in to the Repub licans. During his last weeks in office, Chace notes, Acheson refused to hand over to the Senate Internal Security Sub committee a list of Americans employed by the United Nations.

But what sent the GOP into paroxysms was Acheson's famous declaration that he would not turn his back on the accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss, erstwhile man of the establishment. Acheson did not mean to say that he believed Hiss's protestations of innocence. But, as a man of the establishment, he was not ready to abandon Hiss. It was the end of Acheson's effectiveness.

Moynihan's

Secret Hisstory

So tainted was Acheson by the Hiss episode that the Democratic Party shunned him in the 1950s as a pariah. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan observes in his excellent Secrecy: The American Experience, the Hiss case was a turning point in the Cold War. Moynihan's book is written with his trademark flair, though it is a little galling to read him decrying the CIA for exaggerating the Soviet threat—after all, Moynihan himself rose to fame in the 1970s by sounding alarms about communism. But Moynihan retains his credibility because in the 1980s he was one of the few who correctly distinguished between communist intentions and actual capabilities.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of Moynihan's book deals with communist infiltration of the United States. Moynihan notes that "in the more balanced history of this period that is emerging, the first fact is that a significant Communist constituency was in place in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, but in the main those involved systematically denied their involvement." But these were simply Communist Party members; some of them had connections to Moscow, but there is little credible evidence that most were spying, or that they posed any threat to American national security. The political investigations of them were little more than a partisan gambit by hard-right Republicans who wanted to tar liberals, as well as genuine reds, with Bolshevism. As Moynihan writes, "many of those who came to prominence by denouncing Communist conspiracy and by accusing suspected Communists and 'Comsymps' clearly knew little or nothing of such matters and often just as clearly couldn't care less. Hence the dubious character of the accusers ironically served to lend credibility to the accused."

All this, says Moynihan, could have been avoided. How? The astonishing fact, according to Moynihan's research, is that Truman was never informed of the most important So viet cables. The Venona transcripts, cables between intelligence operations in Moscow and secret handlers in the U.S., had been decrypted by American analysts and, among other things, implicated Alger Hiss and other highly placed figures as spies. But, reluctant to reveal to the Soviets that their code had been cracked, the U.S. government never produced the Venona cables as evidence in the Hiss trial. (Only after Moyn ihan sent an aggrieved letter to FBI director Louis Freeh did the bureau produce the documents Moyn ihan hoped to examine.) Though surely Truman must have been apprised fairly regularly of the apprehension of spies (after all, this was one of the most espionage-intensive phases of the Cold War), Moynihan writes that "It gives one pause to think now that all Truman ever 'learned' about Communist espionage came from the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the speeches of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and the like."

While perhaps overstated, Moynihan's assertion can be instructively read as a critique of bureaucratic secrecy, in this case at the expense of the president of the United States. Gen eral Omar Nel son Bradley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, simply decided that the president did not need to be told of the Venona decryptions—they were army "property." It may seem incredible, but apparently "Truman was never told. . . . Here we have government secrecy in its essence. Depart ments and agencies hoard information, and the government becomes a kind of market. Secrets become organizational assets, never to be shared save in exchange for another organization's assets. What decisions would Truman have made had the information in the Venona intercepts not been withheld from him?"

Deception as Art

Richard Nixon presented the reverse problem. Instead of having information withheld from him, Nixon withheld it from the country. William P. Bundy's A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency takes a close look at the domestic origins of Nixon's foreign policy. Bundy, himself a charter member of the establishment, emphasizes that Nixon began his career as a red-baiter, working for Joe McCarthy. "Nixon," Bundy notes, "was in the lead in linking the celebrated Hiss case to alleged Communist influence on American policy in China during and after World War II."

Bundy's principal theme is that both Nixon and Kissinger ended up subverting their own foreign policy through their emphasis on secret diplomacy and bombing: "Deception, including frequent concealment and resort to covert operations, as well as misleading the public in larger ways, was a hallmark of Nixon's handling of foreign policy throughout his presidency."

Bundy's is a very establishment-type book. The author never raises his voice, never shakes his fist. He is a master of the art of inference and of letting judgments appear as facts. One of the points Bundy makes quite effectively is that both Nixon and Kissinger deeply feared and loathed the foreign policy establishment, and felt they had to circumvent it. Kissinger wrote in his memoirs about Nixon that "the Foreign Service had disdained him as Vice President and ignored him the moment he was out of office," while the CIA "was staffed by Ivy League liberals who behind the facade of analytical objectivity were usually pushing their own preferences."

When Kissinger's appointment as national security adviser was announced, Bundy writes, "Nixon piously rejected any intent to make the new man a 'wall' between the White House and the Department of State, but this was in fact exactly what he had told Kissinger he wanted him to be." Nixon and Kissinger saw themselves as realists and seemed to have taken a quiet pride in their deviousness. Reasons of state, they believed, demanded that they act as they did.

But as Bundy points out again and again, the brand of "realism" practiced by these two men was not very realistic. In dealing with the Soviet Union, they only increased suspicions on the home front about what they were actually agreeing to and, as Bundy shows, bungled negotiations about arms control. They signed agreements with the Soviet Union that did nothing to stop the threat of placing multiple warheads on missiles and allowed the country to increase its submarine missiles. In Cambodia, Nixon and Kiss inger bombed secretly for several years until Congress intervened. But there is no evidence that the bombing did anything but help bring the Khmer Rouge to power. Of Nixon's claim that bombing Cambodia was like the battle of Stalingrad, Bundy says: "Nixon's position in Cambodia was less like that of the heroic Russian defenders at Stalingrad in 1942 than like the plight of the attacking Germans—overextended and increasingly difficult to defend."

Truman, Bundy notes in contrast, had not needed to resort to such secrecy to achieve détente: "Truman laid out his proposals candidly and fought successfully to win the approval of Congress." Willy Brandt, too, the chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974, reached détente with the Soviet Union without recourse to secrecy or deception: "He announced his proposed policy in advance when he was in opposition, pursued it openly and at once when he became Chancellor, conducted the major negotiations as publicly as their nature permitted, and finally submitted the resulting package for the approval of his country's legislative body, the Bundestag." Nixon's obsession with secrecy was neither necessary nor ultimately constructive. And of course it was his secret exploits that ultimately ruined his presidency.

Who Speaks for America?

If Nixon saw the Georgetown salons, epitomized by the Bundys, as his nemesis, the establishment has also been a bête noire for the left. Eric Alterman, a writer for the Nation, makes the case against the establishment in his pro vocative Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy. Alter man, part of a young er generation at the Nation that is seeking to carve out a post–Cold War platform that sheds some leftist dogmas, wants to democratize American foreign policy. In the beginning, Alterman says, the United States was a republic that shunned great-power politics. But commerce and war dragged American statesmen, despite their best intentions, into sacrificing the old republic in favor of creating an empire based on avarice. "The final nail in the coffin of republican political culture in America," Alterman says, "proved to be the degree to which the inexorable dynamic of expansion and empire came to strangle the sinews of democratic practice."

This is a half-truth, based on a Marxist conception of economic expansionism. The extent to which American statesmen followed the counsel of realpolitik has been soft-pedaled even by most mainstream American historians. Nineteenth-century Amer ica, like Prussia, was expansionist, but not simply on economic grounds. Manifest Destiny was more nationalistic, even missionary, than capitalistic. During the Civil War, Lincoln was rightly worried that England might recognize the South. There were multiple sources of American expansionism, some of them idealistic, some mercenary.

But Alterman gets really zany when he turns to the present. He believes that American democracy has become hostage to Wall Street: "While the media treated the budget battle between Clinton, Greenspan, and Republican leaders as political psychodrama," he writes, its true lesson was the "irrelevance of the 1992 election and of democracy itself to the fundamental direction of the U.S. economy." So far, so good. But Alter man fails to distinguish among elites. "From Dean Acheson and Harry Truman," Alterman says, "it is only a short road to Richard Nixon and Ollie North."

How short is that road, really? Iran-Contra was certainly a malignant sign of how a secret foreign policy can boomerang. And Nixon didn't exactly observe constitutional niceties in his secret expansion of the war in Southeast Asia. But Iran-Contra wasn't so much a case of elites running amok as a narrower right-wing cabal bent on undermining the Con stitution. Alterman somehow forgets that the Democrats, notwithstanding their own foreign policy centrism in the 1980s, made the abuses of Iran-Contra a major public issue.

The truth is that foreign policy, or diplomacy, often has to be conducted in some secrecy. And there is a distinction between necessary secrecy and the duplicity practiced by Nixon. Take the recent summit meeting between the Israelis and Palestinians supervised by Pres ident Clinton. The summit was a success, but it was necessary to conduct it out of the glare of the public spotlight, away from the clamoring constituencies that would have prevented an agreement. If all agreements and negotiations were "openly arrived at," as Wilson naively insisted, the result would be chaos. The more trenchant criticism seems to be Moynihan's: that the bureaucracy has turned secrecy into a fetish.

To return America to its republican origins, Alterman wants to overturn what he sees as an elite-controlled foreign policy. He is skeptical, for example, of the zeal with which Democratic and Republican administrations alike have pursued free trade; he advocates a global workers' protection bill. Alterman is also skeptical of current immigration politics; the suggestion that will raise most hackles among Nation readers is his call for curtailing immigration. Alterman's most ambitious—and downright weirdest—proposal is to establish a foreign policy jury that would be statistically representative of the population. Alterman would create a voting system in which voters could divide their votes into percentages: "gay supporters of ballistic missile defense, for instance, would no longer be forced to vote for a person who profoundly disagrees with them on a core political issue. Such a system would significantly increase the number of women and minorities making foreign policy decisions without resorting to racial, ethnic, or sexual quotas."

There are many obvious problems with Alterman's proposal. To begin with, it assumes that the American public agrees with his politics. But what if it doesn't? What if the right-wing populist sentiments that manifested themselves in the McCarthy era were given the chance to flourish under his system? And what if the public did agree with his politics? Any sensible student of foreign policy could tell you that a plebiscitary foreign policy is wildly impractical. What's more, there is no evidence that the American public feels shut out of foreign policy. Alterman would argue that this is because elites are mystifying the issues, but the public certainly seems quick to anger when American soldiers are placed in foreign combat situations and killed. When that happens, the elite policymakers that Alterman sees as wielding the levers of power respond to public wrath very quickly indeed. So fixated is Alterman on the malign influence of the foreign policy establishment, which is a shadow of its former self, that he completely overlooks its replacement on the right—the network of magazines (from First Things and the Weekly Standard to the National Interest), the talk show hosts, and the think tanks (from the Heritage Found ation to the American Enterprise Institute). There is no liberal or moderate equivalent to this advance guard.

Does this amount to an immense, secret conspiracy to bring down the President? Not quite. But there is clearly more coordination on the right than has been acknowledged by the mainstream press. It is conservatives, once again, who are using secret inquiries into private matters for political gain. What is no longer a secret is that the right has become the new elitist establishment.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement