... for our purposes here it is enough to say that no one can understand, much less predict, the behavior of the CIA who does not understand that the agency works for the president. I know of no exceptions to this general rule. In practice it means that in the end the CIA will always bend to the wishes of the president, and as long as the director of central intelligence serves at the pleasure of the president this will continue to be the case. The general rule applies to both intelligence and operations: what the CIA says, as well as what it does, will shape itself over time to what the president wants. When presidents don't like what they are being told they ignore it. When they want something done they press until it happens. As a disciplined organization the agency does not complain about the one, or long resist the other. In a word, it is responsive. ...
The first time a Senate investigating committee seriously looked into the way presidents use the CIA was in 1975, following discovery by the public that the CIA had made serious and sustained efforts to assassinate Cuba's Communist leader, Fidel Castro. The existence of the plots raised the obvious question: Who authorized them? Efforts to kill Castro had begun under President Eisenhower, were actively pursued under President Kennedy, and were not abandoned until after the election of President Johnson in 1964. It was not only presidents and their defenders who denied that the White House had plotted murder; the chief of the CIA during the years when the plotting was at its height, John McCone, also insisted he knew nothing of these schemes and as a Catholic would never have agreed to them. At the outset of the investigation the committee's chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho, in effect accepted these denials at face value and said he thought the CIA had behaved like "a rogue elephant on a rampage" during the years when Castro's overthrow was a principal goal of American foreign policy. A "rogue elephant," of course, listens to no one.
But all talk of a "rogue" CIA had disappeared before the Senate investigating committee finally published its 350-page report on Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders in November 1975. This extraordinary document recounted in meticulous detail the CIA's many attempts, some with the help of notorious Mafia gangsters, to kill Castro, along with its involvement in other plots to kill Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and Salvador Allende in Chile. The Church Committee report was unprecedented; no other nation had ever conducted a comparable investigation of its own intelligence activities, and the report's release was preceded by intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering. An increasingly alarmed President Ford, horrified as news of the plots leaked out during the months of the committee's investigation, reversed his initial support for an inquiry and urged members of Church's committee to keep their findings under wraps.
The pressure was so great that the Senate itself, fearful of taking a stand, refused either to support or oppose publication of the report. In the end committee members agreed to go ahead only after Senator Church threatened to resign in protest if they repudiated their own work. The result when the report appeared was a predictable nine-day-wonder in the news media and something like a crash course in political realism for reporters, scholars, historians, and the general public. In the past, when American officials had stoutly denied that the United States would ever stoop to secret murder, outsiders could never be really sure if they were being told the truth or a fairy tale. The Church Committee report introduced all who cared to know to the secret world as it is.
But what about the awkward question of authorization—did Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson approve the murder plots or not? The general rule leaves no room for doubt on this score; of course authority came from the White House—where else? Laymen need not agonize over this question; the absence of an explosion of official anger at the discovery of murder plots provides all the evidence anybody really needs.
The Church Committee did not have the ordinary citizen's luxury of addressing this question on the merits. The defenders of presidents were ready for a bare-knuckle fight to the death, and of course the surviving evidence was never quite 1,000 percent conclusive. Senator Church was a political man in a political town. What to do? In this painful situation the testimony of Robert McNamara unexpectedly offered the Church Committee and its chairman a soft resolution of their dilemma. As the secretary of defense under Kennedy, McNamara was in the government's innermost circle —not just intimately familiar with efforts to overthrow Castro but to some degree even their author. If anyone knew who gave the go-ahead it was McNamara, but he circled the matter with great care. He told the Church Committee that White House approval of assassination attempts would have been "totally inconsistent with everything I know about" President Kennedy and his brother Bobby, who had been placed in charge of efforts to get rid of Castro after the failure of the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. At the same time, McNamara told the committee, he knew the CIA well—the agency would never go off on its own. He wasn't denying that the efforts to kill Castro took place, he wasn't saying that those efforts were duly authorized, and he wasn't saying that the CIA was out of control. "I understand the contradiction that this carries with respect to the facts," he concluded. The McNamara formula was intellectually weak but it offered a way out. Church accordingly chose caution over glory, followed McNamara's lead, and said in effect that the committee had been unable to establish exactly who authorized the plots.
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