Secrecy News

Intelligence Reform in the Jimmy Carter Era

“Public trust and confidence in the Intelligence Community have been seriously undermined by disclosures of activities in the past that were illegal, injudicious or otherwise improper by today’s standards,” according to a 1977 interagency memorandum circulated by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

“Moreover, many disillusioned persons who have come to believe the worst of their government tend to accept at face value exaggerated imputations of impropriety to legitimate foreign intelligence activities. In some quarters there is a persistent belief that U.S. foreign intelligence activities have still not been brought under adequate control. Clearly the Intelligence Community must earn wider acceptance of its legitimacy and role within our democratic form of government if a viable U.S. foreign intelligence effort is to be sustained over the longer term.”

These observations were included in an impressive collection of declassified documents on intelligence reform in the Jimmy Carter administration that was published by the State Department yesterday as part of a new volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series (Organization and Management of Foreign Policy: 1977-80, volume 28).

The 365-page section on Intelligence Policy and Reform presents often-candid discussion of topics such as: the role and authority of the Director of Central Intelligence, the perennial problem of leaks of classified information, the vexed relations between ambassadors and CIA chiefs of station abroad, covert action, the role of PFIAB and the Intelligence Oversight Board, and more. While some of the documents have appeared previously, many of them were declassified for this volume in 2012-2014.

A few samples:

A 1977 memorandum from CIA General Counsel Anthony Lapham stated that when it comes to prosecuting leaks of classified information to the press, “It is extremely doubtful that the provisions [of the Espionage Act] were intended to have application in such situations, and as a matter of historical fact, leaving aside the unsuccessful Ellsberg prosecution and possibly one or two other cases, they never have been so applied.”

Moreover, added Lapham, “Under current Justice Department procedures, unauthorized disclosures of national security information, in other than espionage situations, are almost never even investigated, let alone prosecuted.”

“It seems to us that the universe of classified information is quite simply too large, and encompasses such a great variety of material of so many different degrees of importance to the national security, as to make impractical the idea of extending criminal sanctions to the unauthorized disclosure of all such information,” he wrote (document 34, pp. 156, 159).

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In one particularly thoughtful and reflective document in the new collection, NSC staffer Paul Henze observed: “While we now enjoy nearly real-time photography from satellites [less than 1 line not declassified] we are not much closer than we were thirty years ago to knowing what goes on in the minds of the top men in Moscow or Madrid, Peking, Algeria or Brasilia, what Arab leaders say to each other when they get together or how French elections are going to come out.”

“CIA greeted the Carter Administration with a keen expectation that with new leadership it would leave behind a period of strain and controversy and be able to rebuild its own capabilities and redirect its energies to real USG priorities. . . . Eight months later all this sense of excitement and optimism has dissipated. The prevailing mood of CIA, both on the operational and analytical sides of the agency is apprehension, depression, frustration,” Henze wrote (document 63 at p. 321).

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In a remarkable 1978 memorandum “On the Psychology of President Power,” National Security Advisor Brzezinski advised President Carter that he should demonstrate a capacity for irrational and impulsive behavior (document 13, page 45).

“I suspect that an impression has developed that the Administration (and you personally) operates very cerebrally, quite unemotionally. In most instances this is an advantage; however, occasionally emotion and even a touch of irrationality can be an asset. Those who wish to take advantage of us ought to fear that, at some point, we might act unpredictably, in anger, and decisively. If they do not feel this way, they will calculate that simply pressing, probing, or delaying will serve their ends. I see this quite clearly in [Israeli prime minister Menachem] Begin’s behavior, and I suspect that Brezhnev is beginning to act similarly.”

“This is why I think the time may be right for you to pick some controversial subject on which you will deliberately choose to act with a degree of anger and even roughness, designed to have a shock effect,” Brzezinski suggested.

According to the new book “Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War” by Nancy Mitchell of North Carolina State University, this advice was prompted by Brzezinski’s alarm at the scale of Soviet and Cuban intervention in Ethiopia.