Cheney, Rumsfeld: Old Hands at Misleading Congress

By Margie Burns

The first time Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld pressured CIA to mislead Congress was in 1975 and 1976, through then-CIA director George H. W. Bush, when Cheney was Chief of Staff to President Gerald Ford and Rumsfeld was Ford’s secretary of defense. Ford made George Bush Sr. the head of the CIA at the same time he appointed Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Rumsfeld, a former naval aviator who didn’t see combat was the youngest person ever to have held that position and was promoted over a generation of World War II heroes. Cheney was promoted to White House Chief of Staff to replace Rumsfeld.

The three men, viscerally opposed to transparency and accountability, had a mission to protect the Ford presidency and some elements in the CIA from the Senate committee headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) that investigated intelligence abuses in 1975. According to researcher Lamar Waldron, they succeeded.

Waldron is co-author with Thomas Hartmann of Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination, an exhaustively documented 800 pages compiling three decades of research on the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. In two recent interviews of more than an hour each, Waldron discussed how much some things haven’t changed since before Watergate.

In 1975, reacting to public outrage over a series of intelligence abuses—including domestic surveillance—exposed during Watergate, the Nixon impeachment and the winding down of the Vietnam War, Congress authorized a special senate committee chaired by Church to look into the CIA and FBI. When the Church committee began investigating, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush knew they had to circle the wagons. Predictably if ironically, they did so by intensifying the same efforts that had drawn investigation in the first place—continuing unauthorized operations in secret and manipulating the news media to prevent exposure.

The committee—actually, the US Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities—got off to a slow start and was under steady CIA-friendly fire from the media from the beginning, but its multiple reports were the fullest revelation of behind-the-scenes malfeasance to that date, even if the committee was to some extent playing catch-up ball with some reporters and with much of the general public.

As Waldron points out, we now know from thousands of documents declassified since the 1970s that a massive amount of vital information was withheld by Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush from the committee. The White House and CIA withheld information about the CIA’s manipulation of the news media and domestic spying. Also withheld was material about Cuba including JFK’s plan to topple Fidel Castro on Dec. 1, 1963, the Mafia’s infiltration of the anti-Castro plan, and the CIA’s unauthorized continuation of agency plotting to use the Mafia to assassinate Castro.

The back story is that from 1960 to 1963 Mafia participation in plots to assassinate Castro became, tragically for the US, a powerful Mafia participation in plots to assassinate President Kennedy. The CIA picked up too lethal a tool in choosing the Mob to carry out its plans to remove Castro. Declassified archives show that Richard Helms, number-4 man in the CIA under Kennedy, withheld even from his CIA chief and from the president the CIA’s unauthorized continuation of plots to kill Fidel Castro and remove the Cuban government. Helms continued to withhold this crucial information under two more presidents, a task aided by his being appointed Director of Central Intelligence under Johnson and Nixon.

The legacy of secrecy continued—often for political or career reasons, depending on the individual, or for bureaucratic self-protection—throughout the ’60s and ’70s to the Church investigation. Some particularly flashy and sensational material was shared with the committee, garnering headlines. Elements of the Castro assassination plots like those “exploding cigars” to be given to Fidel, for example, were divulged by CIA with much fanfare. But the deeper concern of intensive Mafia participation in the anti-Castro plots was never fully investigated—not even by the later House Select Committee on Assassinations, and certainly not by the Church committee.

To this day, the general public—which never bought the “lone nut” theory that the manipulated Lee Harvey Oswald, a beginning-level marksman, singlehandedly brought off the miracle shot of the assassination—still has not been permitted to know the full extent of the powerful arsenal of resources trained against President Kennedy by the wealthiest Mafia clans in the US. Coordinated by Carlos Marcello, head of the oldest Mafia family in the US (dating from the 19th century) and Gulf Coast kingpin in control of Louisiana and Texas, they had planned since 1962 to take out the Kennedy brothers—either Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was pursuing the Mob, or more effectively, the brother in the White House who had appointed him as AG. When John Kennedy came down South they took him out—just as they had previously threatened—having tried twice before in November 1963 to get JFK, once in Tampa and once in Chicago. The hapless Oswald—seen drinking a Coke in the Texas Book Depository two minutes after Kennedy’s murder—was then taken out himself, by heavily mob-connected “nightclub owner” (actually, mob gnome) Jack Ruby, who was given basically full run of the Dallas police station. The general public also has not been permitted to know the full extent of Ruby’s Mafia involvement, despite extensive information detailing his mob connections.

One continuing consequence is the effect on US relations with Cuba to this day, something Waldron and Hartmann deplore. As Waldron says, no national security reason justifies hiding the JFK assassination archives in 2009. Congress intended them to be revealed years ago; the Cuban official implicated in the anti-Castro plots—Gen. Juan Almeida—has long since been outed and forgiven; and both the US and Cuba would benefit from expanded trade and cultural relationships.

Releasing a million pages of documents, still held by the CIA in spite of the congressional act of 1992 saying that they should be declassified and released, would illuminate one of the defining events of the 20th century. Waldron says, in the wake of current controversy about Dick Cheney, that he would like very much to see Cheney testify under oath—about the material withheld from the Church committee.

According to Waldron, there are parallels between what happened in the 1970s, including what happened when Democrat Jimmy Carter replaced the GOP in the White House, and what is happening now. Stansfield Turner, Carter’s CIA chief, came into the agency determined to clean it up. To some extent Turner did so—but when he got rid of some “bad apples,” he unleashed a backlash from CIA-friendly media outlets and from that era’s version of the rightwing noise machine. When Turner began firing people in CIA, he and the administration were in short order accused of going too far and of making America less safe. Anonymous charges of undermining American security began turning up in major media outlets. The GOP and the right seized another weapon in Cold War tensions to bring down the first Democratic administration since 1968, and Carter lost his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan.

Neither the noise machine nor the CIA grip on media outlets is what it was in previous decades. Even now, however, Waldron says that the material about CIA manipulation of the news media has “definitely not” all been released. Much information about CIA manipulation of the press was withheld from the Church committee—this while the CIA and the White House, controlled by alumni of the Nixon administration and Watergate, were stonewalling the committee on other topics as well. “Church uncovered a lot,” Waldron comments, but Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld stonewalling preserved the essential secrets.

One irony demonstrated by the successful stonewalling of the Church committee and other investigations is that there seems to be no “wall” between intelligence agencies, when it comes to cover-up. Nothing concealed by the CIA was exposed by the FBI, for example. There may be a “wall” between foreign and domestic information gathering, between CIA and FBI—as we are repeatedly told—covering the thousands of employees of both huge agencies, that prevents coordinating efforts to protect our country. But there is no wall that prevents coordinating efforts to protect the bureaucracy or to protect individual careers.

Cheney and Rumsfeld were minor figures in the Nixon White House and not top people, as Lamar Waldron points out, but still in a position to observe and absorb the lessons of Watergate. According to Waldron, one lesson they learned was key: Don’t put anything in writing. It was those secret tape recordings, including the exposure of Nixon’s four-letter words behind the scenes with aides (in light of his public sanctimoniousness), that did Nixon in politically.

Another lesson learned from Watergate was to control the press. Nixon made the mistake of antagonizing two of the most powerful dailies in the US, the New York Times and the Washington Post, going so far as to pursue them in court, where he lost. Judicial restraint in advance of publication is seldom granted in this country. Bush Sr. was more subtle. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward was allowed to extend contacts with the CIA and became increasingly helpful to it in his reporting. The other half of “Woodstein,” Carl Bernstein, who at published an excellent and forceful article on the limitations of the Church investigation, had to go other ways. Judicial restraint of the press does not work. Injudicious restraint by other means does.

Margie Burns is a Texas native who now writes from Washington, D.C. Email See her blog at

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2009

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