08/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CIA, Pelosi, Dems, Repubs, Media: All Guilty

Watching the hot potato of intelligence abuses get tossed from the CIA to the Democrats to the Republicans and back is a hoot for anyone who has monitored intelligence agency abuses and political repression.

Abuse and repression happens in both Republican and Democratic Administrations, and the CIA has lied to the elected politicians in charge of "oversight" since it was founded.

What is really happening here is that nobody wants to be caught holding the hot potato when it squishes into a mealy cold mess and soils their carefully-crafted public image.

The CIA, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats, the Republicans and the commercial media all share responsibility for what happened during the Bush Administration. The commercial media now is reporting on one hot potato and missing the big story of a history of institutionalized deception, denial, and dirty tricks that would reveal a huge barrel of rotting spuds.

When Democrats and Republicans see the American public running scared about threats to their safety -- real or imaginary, foreign or domestic -- the House and Senate committees assigned oversight of government intelligence agencies look the other way. They don't want to know what is really happening -- don't ask don't tell; just do what needs to be done. So the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies trample over the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and international law. In more cautious prose, this is basically what scholar William W. Keller found in his classic book The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover. It is liberal denial that gives silent permission to authoritarian aggression and violence by our government. The bogeyman has shifted from communism to terrorism, but the dynamics remain the same.

And it has all happened before. Many of the lawsuits against intelligence agency abuses in the 1960s and 1970s were finally coming to a close in the late 1970s. The civil liberties lawyers in the Chicago cases proposed a settlement that included having the local police Red Squad, FBI, CIA, and Military Intelligence agree that in the future they would not violate First Amendment guarantees. This was rejected as outrageous. Does that tell you something about spy mentality and systemic problems?

I worked as a paralegal investigator in several of those lawsuits including the ones in Chicago and my main task was reading and analyzing hundreds of thousands of pages of spy files. Here is my short summary:

The intelligence agents filing spy reports ranged from brilliant and perceptive analysts to the scary equivalent of a bunch of drunken super-ideological frat boys with microphones and guns. The officials at the top of the information chain seldom could tell the difference. The outcome in terms of covert operations ranged from nuanced surgical manipulation to ham-handed bloody murder.

This remains a systemic problem. Progressives fuel scapegoating rather than structural changes when they talk about a "Secret Team" or describe intelligence agency abuses and domestic political repression as "aberrations" that imply they can be fixed by pillorying a few agency factotums as scapegoats. Sure, there are officials in the Bush Administration and the federal agencies during his term that probably broke the law and deserve to be indicted. Go for it. Enforce the laws. This makes politicians, public officials, and government employees pay attention for a few years. But it is the system of bipartisan collaboration with intelligence abuses and domestic political repression that needs to be reformed.

The reforms that reined in the intelligence agencies after the media and Congressional exposures of the 1970s didn't last long, and it was both Republicans and Democrats who gutted these safeguards.

I don't know what super-secret god-awful program the CIA is trying to hide. I do know that it is not an aberration in terms of historic agency plots. I don't know what the CIA told Nancy Pelosi and selected House Intelligence Committee members. I do know that if she wanted to know, she could have demanded answers. Consciously or unconsciously she looked the other way. Her attempts to claim she was fooled are sadly pathetic and woefully unconstructive.

We should not repeat her mistakes. We should not be satisfied with political mudslinging and bipartisan cover-ups that end with a public exorcism aimed at a handful of pitiful scapegoats. We need to raise hell and focus on the institutionalized problems. Speak out. Here are four simple points to make when contacting your federal Representatives and Senators. Tell them:

1. Secrecy is the enemy of democracy
2. Find your backbone and stand up
3. Demand public answers.
4 Seek major institutional reforms.

Change the system not the scapegoat.

How to contact your elected officials:

Note: Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates is a vice president of the Defending Dissent Foundation. His cantankerous views here are his own.