On September 24, 1975, James Angleton testified about illegal CIA mail opening to the Church Committee. There is no cut-and-pasteable version of his testimony, but you can read it by going to Volume Two: Huston Plan. From there, you can open the Angleton file. But the testimony I want you to see is his discussion with future vice-president Walter Mondale that begins on page 29. You can start reading there, or you can skip ahead to pages 33 and 34. I am going to transcribe just a small piece of it, but you need the fuller impact of the surrounding material to truly get the feel for what happened and what it meant.
To introduce this material I need to tell you that the CIA opened almost all U.S. mail that was sent to the Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc between 1952 and the early 1970’s. For a full discussion of that topic you can read Volume 4: Mail Opening. The point man in the program was the CIA’s notorious chief of counterintelligence James Angleton. His life is loosly profiled in the movie The Good Shepherd. He was a spyhunter. Under previous questioning from chairman Frank Church, Angleton had revealed that President Nixon was never told about the mail opening because there was never a sufficiently ‘restricted forum’ for telling him. This caused an awkward situation when Tom Huston made recommendations to Nixon that he embark on just the kind of mail opening program that was already going on without his knowledge. Nixon approved the program for about five days before he thought better of it and canceled it. However, the CIA did not discontinue their mail opening plan and Nixon remained unaware of it. This is the setting for Mondale’s questioning.
MONDALE: All right. What was your understanding of the legality of the covert mail opening operation?
ANGLETON: That is was illegal.
MONDALE: It was illegal. Now, you are an attorney?
ANGLETON: No, I am not sir.
MONDALE: Well, that might be an asset.
ANGLETON: That is my cover, Senator.
MONDALE: How do you rationalize conducting an operation which you believe to be illegal?
ANGLETON: …From the counterintelligence point of view, we believe it was extremely important to know everything possible regarding contacts of American citizens with Communist countries.
And, second, that we believe that the security of the operation was such that the Soviets were unaware of such a program and therefore many of the interests that the Soviets would have in the United States, subversive and otherwise, would be through the open mails, when their own adjudication was that the mails could not be violated.
MONDALE: So, that a judgment was made, with which you concurred, that although covert mail opening was illegal, the good that came from it, in terms of anticipating threats to this country through the use of this counterintelligence technique, made it worthwhile nevertheless.
ANGLETON: That is correct.
So, here Mondale was confronted by a man who thought that the CIA is and should remain above the law. Angleton and the Agency had not even seen fit to tell Nixon that they were reading all the mail going to the Soviet Bloc. He knew it was illegal and he didn’t care.
MONDALE: How do you recommend that this committee deal with this profound crisis between political and legal responsibility in government, a nation that believes in the laws, and what you regard to be the counterintelligence imperative of illegal activity? What do we do about it?
ANGLETON: My own belief has always been that high authority, whether it be on the Hill, the Congress, or the Executive, needs to examine very closely the counterintelligence content available to this Government regarding its adversaries, and regarding the Soviet, and the Soviet Bloc.
To my knowledge, there has never been such an examination. I believe very much in a statement made by Director of the FBI, Mr. Kelley, that it his firm view, which he expressed in Canada at a bar association convention, that certain individual rights have to be sacrificed for the national security.
MONDALE: Do you believe that national security cannot be protected except through the sacrifice of these rights?
ANGLETON: I believe that all matters dealing with counterespionage require very sophisticated handling and require considerable latitude.
James Angleton was a very slippery witness, but Mondale had nailed him down. Congress ultimately decided that we are a nation of laws and that a judge must make the determination of whether an American citizen’s communications can be intercepted and read by a government employee. They passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in response to Angleton’s revelations. But Dick Cheney and many other Nixonites felt that Angleton had been right. And whether it is excesses at that NSA, or abiding by the Geneva Conventions, or asserting that the vice-presidency is a fourth branch of government, or that we can suspend habeas corpus, the Bush administration behaved as though this testimony had never occurred and Congress had never responded.
That is why we need a new commission to look at the crimes of the Bush administration.