1. Archive

What was known but not revealed

In 1986 I was awarded the Seal Medallion of the Central Intelligence Agency after having served eight years on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. This was more than a routine acknowledgment, for my time on the committee had been turbulent.

On Jan. 7, 1984, the United States began mining harbors in Nicaragua. The fact of the mining was known; that we were doing it was not. Not, that is, until April 6, when it was reported in the Wall Street Journal.

On the Intelligence Committee we had sensed something going on; now we knew. And we had not, as required by statute, been told. Barry Goldwater, our chairman, was furious. We had built, or so we had supposed, a trusting relationship with the Reagan administration. Three days after the Journal report, Goldwater sent a letter to William J. Casey, director of the CIA, putting it plainly: "I am p----d off!" The president had asked us to back his foreign policy. How could we do so "when we don't know what the hell he is doing? . . . Mine the harbors in Nicaragua? This is an act violating international law. It is an act of war." This last was Goldwater's; I contributed the sentence on international law. It was in substance a joint letter, and it soon appeared in the Washington Post. Whereupon the national-security adviser to the president told an audience at the Naval Academy that the congressional committees had been fully informed; he could not account for Goldwater's contention. Others could. Word went out that Barry was, well, getting on. Memory and all that. As he was just then out of the country, I resigned as vice chairman.

Four years later Robert R. Simmons, Goldwater's staff director, recalled that "in 1984 the Agency engaged in what can only be called a domestic disinformation campaign" to conceal its concealment. Congress promptly cut off further aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. Whereupon a search for third-country funding began. Iran-Contra began.

On June 25 Secretary of State George P. Shultz told the National Security Planning Group that "Jim Baker . . . said that if we go out and try to get money from third countries, that is an impeachable offense." And it almost came to that.

These old memories have been newly aroused by Robert G. Kaiser's March 11 account in the Washington Post of a recent conference at Princeton University organized by the CIA, which for the occasion released 19,160 pages of Cold War intelligence documents. Alas, I fear that for all my bemedalled splendor, and Casey's subsequent apology to all of us, they are still after me. Kaiser reports that Fritz W. Ermarth, chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 1989 through 1993, was "among several former officials who rejected the criticism" made by me in the early 1990s that "a more timely appreciation" of Gorbachev would have been greatly to our advantage. Actually this critique began in the 1970s, when I became convinced the days of the Soviet Union were numbered.

It was one thing to miss their decline, another to assume the opposite, to assume we were being invaded via Central America and in the process to put a presidency in jeopardy.

Then came Gorbachev's address to the United Nations, Dec. 7, 1988. The world, he said, had reached a "new stage (that) requires the freeing of international relations from ideology." The world should seek "unity through diversity." Then this: "We in no way aspire to be the bearer of the ultimate truth." Which is to say that they were no longer what for a century they had claimed to be. It was over. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union dissolved.

The intelligence community simply missed it. In the Fall 1991 issue of Foreign Affairs, Stansfield Turner, director of central intelligence from 1977 to 1981, wrote:

"We should not gloss over the enormity of this failure. . . . Today we hear some revisionist rumblings that the CIA did in fact see the Soviet collapse emerging after all. If some individual CIA analysts were more prescient than the corporate view, their ideas were filtered out in the bureaucratic process; and it is the corporate view that counts because that is what reaches the president and his advisers. On this one, the corporate view missed by a mile."

These rumblings continue and gain currency. Conferences, conferences. Documents, documents (selected). One would plead with the new president's men: Protect him. Secrecy can put us all in harm's way, not least the commander in chief.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, is a former U.S. senator from New York.

Washington Post