With Protectors Like These....


The slow-motion coup d'état continues. Anyone who compares the Congressional Resolution of September 12, 2001, with the German Reichstag's Enabling Act of April 1933 might come away with the impression that, taking the two texts literally, George W. Bush got a bigger grant of unspecified power than did the Austrian immigrant politician, Adolf Hitler.

Well maybe it isn't a coup d'état per se. After all, the imperial process might be expected to raise up succeeding generations of world-savers and proconsuls who, on returning home, long to use here the methods which worked so well in the overseas provinces. The English Manchester liberal Richard Cobden, asked in 1850: "Is it not just possible that we may become corrupted at home by the reaction of arbitrary political maxims in the East upon our domestic politics, just as Greece and Rome were demoralised by their contact with Asia?" Others warned of such things.

What a gloomy lot – and why should 21st-century Americans, heirs to that historical exceptionalism, which lifts us above the normal human condition, worry about such idle warnings? Didn't Cobden realize that empire improves us, by bringing us new ideas, people, diseases, etc.? Didn't he know that diversity is strength, or that peace is war?

In the manner of a literary historian, I pose the question, "Who now listens to Buck Owen's Live at Carnegie Hall album?" I ask this only because in the course of introducing the band members, Owens characterized one of them as not only not knowing anything but not even suspecting anything. This is to the point, if in reverse, because there are many things one might have suspected of our federal masters, despite their oft-proclaimed loving kindness, even if we did not know the details or have proof.

Now comes Mr. James Bamford to confirm, nay, to go beyond, our wildest suspicions in his biography (so to speak) of the mysterious National Security Agency, Body of Secrets (New York: Random House, 2002). I do not propose to review the whole book here, but to notice a few highlights, chiefly those in chapter four. These alone are worth the price of admission.

While Bamford's earlier book on the NSA, The Puzzle Palace (New York: Penguin, 1983) was well received, he has come under some fire for writing the sequel. This is because chapter seven deals with the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty – an NSA asset – during the 1967 war. In some quarters, a realistic account of those events is still not welcome.

A general conclusion to be drawn from the book is that U.S. operatives always pushed the limits and poked their Cold War opponents with a stick. It was great fun to taunt the commies with their relative weakness and lack of effective international sovereignty. These deliberate provocations also led to some famous incidents and disasters, when various "enemies" – with whom we were not legally at war – reacted rudely to the violation of their airspace or territorial waters, e.g., the U-2, the RB-47, the Pueblo, and the Maddox.

These ships and planes were all involved in "Sigint" (Signal Intelligence) work. Their various tribulations played a role in making the Cold War hotter. Worse luck, the North Vietnamese attack on the Maddox was sold to Congress as proof of that power's ruthless "aggression" on its own shoreline.


Perhaps the most disturbing revelations in the Body of Secrets come in chapter four, which deals with the hellbent planning brainstorms of General Lyman L. Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs from 1961 to 1963. The outgoing Eisenhower incoming Kennedy administrations, alike, were unhappy about the revolutionary government in Cuba, which had taken power in1959. What is truly astounding is the lengths to which highly placed protectors of the American people were ready to go in order to destabilize and eliminate a government with which we were not at war.

In the last year of the Eisenhower administration, the CIA had developed plans to for "sparking an internal revolution" in Cuba by inserting "a thousand anti-Castro rebels onto the island." At the same time, "Lemnitzer and the Join Chiefs were pressing for all-out war – a Pentagon-led overt military invasion of Cuba from the air, sea, and ground" (Body of Secrets, p. 70). The second line of attack presented certain political problems.

It just looks bad to invade countries that aren't at war with you. It would bring the whole notion of the "good neighbor policy" toward Latin America into doubt. World opinion had to be considered, as much as the war party derided the concept. Even the High Cold War dogma that we were "at war" with communism every minute of every day might not be enough to persuade the American public, much less foreign nations, of the need to invade Cuba.

Finally, there were still a few sentimentalists around, who believed that international law and the foreign policies of the United States might not always be in agreement. The Cold Warriors' automatic response was, So much the worse for international law. Nevertheless, the doubters had to be humored. Hence, the need for deceit and subterfuge.

In late January 1961, JFK held a series of meetings with Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs. At one of these meetings, CIA Director Allen Dulles, a holdover from the Eisenhower administration, pushed the CIA plan for a small-scale invasion by Cuban exiles, which would spark an uprising against the Castro regime. This was of course the ill-starred plan which led to the Bay of Pigs.

The CIA's spectacular failure emboldened those who wanted a full-bore U.S. invasion of Cuba. But that would run up against all the problems named above. In November 1961, Kennedy, still "obsess[ed] with Castro" (p. 78), handed the torch to the Pentagon. The gung-ho Air Force General Edward G. Lansdale came up with Operation Mongoose, which is sufficiently well-known – exploding cigars and all that – that Bamford gives no details on it. He does comment that it was soon seen as "simply becoming more outrageous and going nowhere" (p. 83).


So in a burst of High Cold War craziness calling to mind Seven Days in May and Dr. Strangelove, the Joint Chiefs "drew up and approved plans for the most corrupt plan ever created by the U.S. government. In the name of anticommunism, they proposed launching a secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public into supporting an ill-conceived war they intended to launch against Cuba" (p. 82).

Better the Chiefs should have smoked a joint, as a famous rock album cover once suggested….

Anyway, this new plan, code-named Operation Northwoods, "which had the written approval of the Chairman [Lemnitzer] and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro…." (p. 82, my italics).

Another gambit suggested by Lemnitzer and the J.C.s, was to blow up the Mercury spacecraft, with John Glenn in it. This would slow down the U.S. space program. On the other hand, it could be blamed on Cuban "electronic interference" (p. 84).

Further, Cubans working for the U.S. could stir up riots at the U.S. Guantanamo navy base in Cuba and some could be found inside undertaking "sabotage." My personal favorite is the following (Bamford is quoting original documents): "u2018We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba'"; "u2018casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation'" (p. 84).

This last stroke of genius of course alluded to the battleship Maine, which exploded in 1898. It is nice to see that our protectors actually study American history. Bamford adds, quoting from the documents, "u2018Hijacking attempts against civil air and surface craft could appear to continue as harassing measures condoned by the Government of Cuba'" (p. 85).

Another proposal involved registering U.S. citizens on a civil flight and then substituting for it a drone, which would be shot down over Cuba – the Cubans being touchy about their airspace, unlike normal countries (p. 86). As late as 1963, U.S. attacks on Caribbean nations like Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago, which could be blamed on Cuba, were considered (p. 89).


All these efforts, none of them exactly legal, were thought reasonable in order to establish a bogus casus belli against Cuba. Fortunately, for once, the civilian higher-ups, including, presumably, the president, had the good sense to rein in the overheated brass hats. Never let it be said that an imperial president can never do something good. And even Robert McNamara deserves credit for rejecting these lunatic notions.

The whole thing seems quite unbelievable. But given other revelations of Cold War capers – misshapen sheep in Utah, guys jumping out of hotel windows in Toronto after U.S. operatives made them say "yes" to LSD without their knowledge, or chemicals sprayed on the civil population and U.S. soldiers used as unwitting radiation-experiment guinea pigs – one begins to wonder who our protectors are protecting. One begins to wonder if they are the least bit sane.

Such incidents might well make one believe that the X-Files series is just a pale reflection of what actually happened.

Certainly, these all-too-clever exercises in Big Science put a new angle on empirical studies, as well as on what these great geniuses saw as the purpose of scientific inquiry. The reader will doubtless remember other cases, revealed over the last couple of decades. Taken together, this style of testing and falsification suggests a modification of the Hippocratic Oath: "Do no harm, unless the U.S. Government sponsors your research."

So was the entire Cold War a scam? Were we had for over forty years? It would seem so. Are we now to be had for perhaps another forty years?

I suppose we could draw sundry lessons from Bamford's account. One I draw is that we may need to broaden our translation of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? into something like, "With protectors like these, who will protect us from our u2018protectors'?" I think this is worth bringing up now that we are being offered an endless semi-secret struggle against vaguely outlined enemies, a struggle of the scale and unforeseeable duration (according to some its advocates) of the much-missed Cold War itself.

People my age lived through the first damned Cold War. I don't know why we should sign on for another one, just so that the ruling elites may be relieved of rethinking their foreign policy. But are they making us an offer we can't refuse? Maybe the libertarian Space Cadets can tell us.


Bamford writes that his book was made possible by the NSA, which, wishing to have a more favorable image, gave him access to hitherto classified materials. If anything, he is entirely too sympathetic to the NSA and its mission. Nowhere in his important book does he question the imperial assumptions on which U.S. policy rests.

Bamford does question the spooks' and policy-makers' "excesses." Thus, he writes as a member of the critical wing of the Establishment. There is much to learn from such critics.

The NSA employs the most fantastic array of equipment and trained scientific personnel to listen to everything. This raises, once again, the whole problem of naïve empiricism, which I discussed in another column. Does the endless accumulation of "information" about everything actually give the perpetrators – I'm sorry "protectors" – anything useful with which they can do their work, whatever that might be, and even if we approved of it?

Congress is just now making some small show of looking into "intelligence failures." Better they should look into epistemological and moral failures. Meanwhile, in what may be a sign of the demented times, the national leadership of the Libertarian Party – self-proclaimed "party of principle" – has altered the LP platform by removing language calling for the abolition of the CIA and the National Security Agency.

July 23, 2002