The Left is feeling pretty good about itself right now. After the disappointment of the 2014 midterms, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s release of the CIA “torture report” has given liberals a feeling of moral superiority, even as they lose their senatorial majority.
The New York Times editorial board, for example, intoned that the Feinstein Report is “a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach.”
Writing for The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus added that while the CIA’s activities in the Global War on Terror were a stain that “can never be erased,” the release of the report would prove to be “an essential step in minimizing it.” And The New Yorker‘s David Cole agreed: “The report’s depiction of the agency’s abuses and deceptions unquestionably does the American public a great service.”
Meanwhile, in The Los Angeles Times, law professor Erwin Chemerinsky called for the criminal prosecution of American “torturers.” And over in the UK, The Guardian helpfully noted some of the ways that Americans could be prosecuted around the world.
Moreover, The New Republic has opined that the US owes compensation to all the detainees at Guantánamo, even the guilty terrorists. And it’s a safe bet that the idea that “victims” should be compensated will accelerate in the wake of the report.
For its part, the lead editorial in The Washington Post conceded that the release of the report could cause a backlash around the world, but added, “In the long term, the United States will benefit by demonstrating a commitment to transparency and self-criticism.”
The long term, of course, is hard to know. But here’s a prediction, based on recent history, about the short term: The Democrats will pay a huge political price.
To this observer, Feinstein’s actions as the outgoing chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee have “Church Committee” written all over them. That’s as in former Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, whose committee of the 1970s–formally known as the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities–exposed Central Intelligence Agency activities in the Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
The Church Committee, stacked with ambitious liberal senators including Phil Hart of Michigan and Walter Mondale of Minnesota, made huge headlines in 1975 and 1976, exposing the CIA’s operational secrets in various parts of the world. In 1975, Church himself went on national TV to declare that the CIA was “a rogue elephant . . . on a rampage.”
Back in those days, in the mid-70s, the Church Committee was the vessel into which many Leftists–or, as they now call themselves, Progressives–poured their hopes and dreams. That is, in the Church Committee, the Left thought it had finally found a hammer with which it could smash American anti-communism. If the Church Committee could prove, for example, that the CIA had tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, then, by golly, the US could surely apologize and move on toward normalization of relations with communist Cuba.
That was the Progressive goal, at least.
For Church himself, the objective was more immediate: He wanted to run for president, and the Church Committee gave him a springboard. Church had first been elected to the Senate in 1956, and although he was a senior figure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was not the chairman of the full committee; the chair was held by the venerable John Sparkman of Alabama, born in 1899, first elected to the Senate in 1936. Sparkman had once been a widely respected figure in the Democratic Party–he was the Democrats’ 1952 vice-presidential nominee–but in the intervening decades, the party had changed, and the relatively conservative Sparkman was no longer valued. So Church maneuvered to create his own Select Committee, bypassing the Foreign Relations Committee, with himself as Chairman and star inquisitor.
Yes, even as Church geared up, there were some discordant, even tragic notes: It was in this muckraking environment that the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, was assassinated on December 23, 1975. Welch’s murder sent shockwaves around the world, but to the mission-driven Left, it was just a detail; the death of an American intelligence operative would do nothing to slow down the debunking momentum of the Church Committee.
In 1976, Frank Church did, in fact, run for the Democratic presidential nomination; he won four primaries before ultimately yielding to Jimmy Carter.
So while Church did not get the prize of the nomination, he at least had the satisfaction of influencing the 1976 Democratic Platform. The Preamble, for instance, promises a government “that is not afraid to admit its mistakes.” Later in the document, after the pledge to reduce military expenditures, we see a commitment to a permanent Church Committee-like regime:”There should be full and thorough congressional oversight of our intelligence agencies.”
Indeed, during the 1976 presidential election, Carter pledged a new commitment to “human rights”–defined as criticism of human-rights policies within countries allied to the US, such as South Korea and Nicaragua–and promised, in all ways, to vindicate the work of the Church Committee.
After his victory in November 1976, Carter named onetime JFK aide Theodore Sorensen to head the CIA, giving him a clear mandate to pursue Church Committee recommendations. But interestingly–and, for liberals, ominously–even the overwhelmingly Democratic Senate would not agree to confirm Sorensen’s appointment.
So what was happening? Why the Democratic trepidation? The assassination of Richard Welch had given many centrist Democrats a scare–or, one might say, a reality-check. Perhaps the CIA’s Cold War mission was too sensitive an issue to mess with.
Indeed, the increasing prominence of Ronald Reagan–who had sought the 1976 Republican nomination and came within a whisker of toppling President Gerald Ford–was taken by many as an indicator that the country was moving to the right, not the left.
Nevertheless, within the Carter administration, the dominant feeling was that this was a time to shrink the US role in the world and further dissociate America from nasty dictators–even if, or especially if, they happened to be on our side. In May 1977, Carter traveled to Indiana to give his commencement speech at Notre Dame in which he pronounced, “We are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” And the 39th President added with a chortle, “I’m glad that that’s being changed.”
The problem for Carter was that the communists–that is, the Soviets–hadn’t changed. In the late 70s, they were as fearsome as ever, and maybe more so. In 1979, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, and by then, it was clear to most Americans that there was nothing “inordinate” about fearing communism.
With help from Zbigniew Brzezinski–who had been a token anti-communist in the Carter administration all along–Carter tried to pivot in a more hawkish direction, but for him, it was too late. Carter was defeated for re-election in 1980.
Interestingly, so, too, was Frank Church, seeking a fifth term back in Idaho. Church had always been to the left of most Idahoans but had managed to clamber back to the middle in time to win three re-elections. But by 1980, thanks in part to the Church Committee, it was obvious that Sen. Church was too liberal for Idaho.
Also losing a re-election bid that year was Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the intellectual godfather of the neo-isolationist Democrats. Indeed, the Democrats lost a net of a dozen senate seats in the Reagan landslide. The Reagan Revolution had begun, and it was a complete and utter repudiation of Frank Church.
There were many factors in the Democrats’ 1980 nationwide debacle, but the excesses of the Church Committee proved to be a sore point with the voters. The Democrats of the Carter-Church era might have wished for an end to the Cold War–but the Soviets’ idea of ending it was winning it.
Yet before the Soviets could prevail, the American electorate removed Carter and Church from office and handed power to Ronald Reagan and the Republicans. And the Reaganites had their own ideas about who should win the Cold War. Importantly, the Reaganites enacted the Intelligence Identities Protection Act in 1982, to minimize the sorts of disclosures that cost Richard Welch his life.
Now back to the present-day: Many Democrats of the Feinstein ilk seem to think that the biggest problem in the Global War on Terror is the US role in it. Starting with President Obama, they have made it clear that they wish to pull the US back from the struggle. And while that idea might seem appealing to some, there’s a problem: The terrorists want to keep fighting. They don’t want peace, they want war. Like the communists of the seventies, the Islamists of the teens are not interested in our procedural reforms–their aim has always been to destroy us.
In which case, the Feinstein Report looks profoundly wrongheaded. The Democrats don’t agree, of course, and that’s why we need elections, to sort these questions out. For Frank Church and Jimmy Carter, their rendezvous with defeat came in 1980. For this generation of Democrats, we will have to wait till 2016.