The Shadow War

By Parrini, Michelle; Williams, Charles F. | Social Education, September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Shadow War


Parrini, Michelle, Williams, Charles F., Social Education


"There is always a possibility that a secret police may become a menace to flee government and free institutions because it carries with it the possibility of abuses of power which are not always quickly apprehended or understood."

--The Church Committee Report, 19767 (1)

The recent London subway bombings drew renewed attention to the difficulties facing government attempts to uncover and intercept terror plots; though there may now be more awareness of the issue, nations have been trying to learn their enemy's secrets since the beginning of recorded history. Spies appear in Homer's Greek epic, the Iliad. Ancient Roman writings are filled with accounts of intrigue and assassination plots. Caesar's secret agents looked out for his interests in Rome. Sun Tzu's The Art of War (500 BC) describes espionage and the use of human intelligence as key to successful warfare. An extensive political intelligence system served Elizabeth I. And both British and American forces employed secret agents, ciphers, and codes, during the Revolutionary War. George Washington's coordination of spies and evaluation of their intelligence information is credited with giving the Americans the strategic advantage to overcome the superior military power of the British.

However, it wasn't until the twentieth century that the United States established a single independent government agency devoted to gathering human intelligence. American support for both intelligence and counterintelligence efforts has waxed and waned, depending on the perceived national-security threats. A poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund of the United States found that public support for increased spending to gather intelligence on other countries increased 39 percent between 1998-2002. (2) Public and congressional opinion about the appropriate scope of covert government activities, and perceptions that intelligence practices have at times been excessive, have also influenced voters' support for intelligence methods. For instance, in the mid-seventies, congressional inquiries uncovered the FBI's COINTELPRO (an acronym for "COunter INTELligence PROgram") and the CIA's "Operation CHAOS" domestic intelligence practices, marring the reputation of both agencies. According to the congressional report known as the Church Report:

   COINTELPRO began in 1956,
   in part because of frustration
   with Supreme Court rulings
   limiting the Government's
   power to proceed overtly
   against dissident groups; it
   ended in 1971 with the threat
   of public exposure. In the intervening
   15 years, the Bureau
   conducted a sophisticated vigilante
   operation aimed squarely
   at preventing the exercise of
   First Amendment rights of
   speech and association, on
   the theory that preventing the
   growth of dangerous groups
   and the propagation of dangerous
   ideas would protect the
   national security and deter violence
   ... Many of the techniques
   used would be intolerable
   in a democratic society even
   if all of the targets had been
   involved in violent activity,
   but COINTELPRO went far
   beyond that. The unexpressed
   major premise of the programs
   was that a law enforcement
   agency has the duty to do whatever
   is necessary to combat perceived
   threats to the existing
   social and political order. (3)

Congressional investigations also revealed CIA covert operations to help overthrow elected left-wing governments in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973). U.S. intelligence agencies were allegedly involved in attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic), and Ngo Dinh Diem (Vietnam). According to the Church Report:

* The CIA illegally opened and photographed mail to or from American citizens for 20 years (1953-1973), generating a computer database of 1. …

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