It’s days like this that make my geeky habit of reading Church Committee testimony worthwhile. All of you should read the Church Committee’s report on mail opening. It’s especially relevant today because the program was run by James Jesus Angleton and he is the subject of a movie currently in the theaters, The Good Shepherd. Yes, he was a quite an unsavory fellow.
It’s also relevant today because the New York Daily News is reporting that the President has asserted his authority to read our mail with a signing statement.
President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans’ mail without a judge’s warrant, the Daily News has learned.
The President asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law on Dec. 20. Bush then issued a “signing statement” that declared his right to open people’s mail under emergency conditions.
That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it.
Bush’s move came during the winter congressional recess and a year after his secret domestic electronic eavesdropping program was first revealed. It caught Capitol Hill by surprise.
I have developed a theory that Dick Cheney has made it a personal mission to eliminate every piece of legislation that was enacted post-Watergate to rein in the intelligence community. The Church Committee did a report on the NSA called The National Security Agency and Fourth Amendment Rights that led directly to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). FISA was the law the administration ignored when they decided to spy on domestic electronic communications without obtaining a warrant. The Church Committee also did a report called Mail Opening. It has never been legal to open the mail without a warrant. Below the fold I have excerpted some of James Angleton’s testimony about the CIA’s mail opening program. His testimony occurred, somewhat strangely, in a different Church Committee report, called Huston Plan.
The first segment here has Curtis R. Smothers, Counsel to the Minority (Republicans), questioning Angleton about why the CIA would open the people’s mail and who would authorize such an operation.
Mr. SMOTHERS. All right. With respect to the question then of mail opening, is it your experience that this kind of operation by the CIA
would have been discussed in interagency working group meetings among persons who would otherwise have been uninformed of such operations?
Mr. ANGLETON. No, we would not raise such an operation.
Mr. SMOTHERS. In the normal course of things, would there have been an approval channel other than such interagency groups for securing
Presidential advice and consent to such operations?
Mr. ANGLETON. I am not aware of any other channel.
Mr. SMOTHERS. Would such channels as the Special Group or the Intelligence Board have been a proper place for such matters to be raised?
Mr. ANGLETON. I do not believe that an operation of this sensitivity would have been raised in any body. It would have been-if there was going to be submission for Presidential approval, it would have been raised either by the Director of the FBI or the Director of Central Intelligence.
Mr. SMOTHERS. But in any event, it would not have been raised with this working group involved with the Huston plan?
Mr. ANGLETON. That is correct. That is correct.
Here is the Chairman, Senator Frank Church asking Angleton why the CIA would open people’s mail without any Presidential authority to do so. It should be kept in mind that the CIA might have actually had Presidential approval at one time (originating with Eisenhower) but their official story was that they did not. The CIA might have felt that if they ratted out prior Presidents no future Presidents would trust them. Or they might have been, as Senator Franck Church called them, acting like rogue elephants. In any case, here’s Angleton’s response.
The CHAIRMAN. But the CIA was the agency principally involved in the mail openings.
Mr. ANGLETON. That is correct for all foreign mail, not for domestic.
The CHAIRMAN. Yes; and we will explore the whole breadth of that program in due course. Did not the CIA have an affirmative duty to inform the President about such a program?
Mr. ANGLETON. I believe so, without any question.
The CHAIRMAN. But it apparently was not done. You did not inform the President. Director Helms did not inform the President?
Mr. ANGLETON. I would say, sir, not by way of any excuse, but those were very turbulent periods for the intelligence community and particularly for the FBI, and I think that all of us had enormous
respect for Mr. Hoover and understood the problems which he had in sustaining the reputation of the FBI.
The CHAIRMAN. But the fact that the times were turbulent, the fact that illegal operations were being conducted by the very agencies we entrust to uphold and enforce the law makes it all the more incumbent that the President be informed of what is going on, does it not? It is really not an excuse.
Mr. ANGLETON. I do not think there was ever the forum in which these matters could be raised at that level. I think that has been one of the troubles in domestic counterintelligence and foreign counterintelligence that the issues never do get beyond the parochial circle of those engaged in that activity.
The CHAIRMAN. But you have said that there was an affirmative duty on the CIA to inform the President.
Mr. ANGLETON. I don’t dispute that.
The CHAIRMAN. And he was not informed, so that was a failure of duty to the Commander in Chief; is that correct?
Mr. ANOLETON. Mr. Chairman, I don’t think anyone would have hesitated to inform the President if he had at any moment asked for a review of intelligence operations.
The CHAIRMAN. That is what he did do. That is the very thing he asked Huston to do. That is the very reason that these agencies got together to make recommendations to him, and when they made their
recommendations, they misrepresented the facts.
Mr. AXGLETON. I was referring, sir, to a much more restricted forum.
The CHAIRMAN. I am referring to the mail, and what I have said is solidly based upon the evidence. The President wanted to be informed. He wanted recommendations. He wanted to decide what
should be done, and he was misinformed. Not only was he misinformed, but when he reconsidered authorizing the opening of the mail 5 days later and revoked it, the CIA did not pay the slightest bit of attention to him, the Commander in Chief, as you say. Is that so?
Mr. ANGLETON. I have no satisfactory answer for that.
The CHAIRMAN. You have no satisfactory answer?
Mr. ANGLETON. No, I do not.
I’ve always found this exchange both chilling and humorous. To really understand the context I’d have to write a diary about the Huston Plan, and Watergate, etc. But it is important to remember that, at the time of this testimony, Dick Cheney was the chief-of-staff to President Gerald Ford and Donald Rumsfeld was his Defense Secretary. And they did not like the Church Committee. They did not like the exposure of all the country’s dirty secrets. They didn’t like the resulting oversight and reforms. And when they came back into power in 2001, they set about rolling back all those reforms, piece by piece. Bush’s latest signing statement is a case in point.
“Despite the President’s statement that he may be able to circumvent a basic privacy protection, the new postal law continues to prohibit the government from snooping into people’s mail without a warrant,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the incoming House Government Reform Committee chairman, who co-sponsored the bill.
Experts said the new powers could be easily abused and used to vacuum up large amounts of mail.
“The [Bush] signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington.
“The danger is they’re reading Americans’ mail,” she said.
“You have to be concerned,” agreed a career senior U.S. official who reviewed the legal underpinnings of Bush’s claim. “It takes Executive Branch authority beyond anything we’ve ever known.”
A top Senate Intelligence Committee aide promised, “It’s something we’re going to look into.”
Yeah! Why don’t you look into that? That’d be real cool.