Oh, What Tangled Webs We Weave . . .

GARRY WILLS

November 22, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- Of all the memorials this November of John Kennedy's assassination, Newsweek's treatment of conspiracy theory makes the most sense. The magazine concludes that there was a cover-up -- or rather cover-ups -- but that the thing being hidden was not a shadowy network of co-conspirators who acted with Oswald.

The investigation of Kennedy's death ran up against the desire of the FBI and the CIA to keep secret their own activities in adjacent areas. The FBI, concerned with maintaining its myth of omniscience under J. Edgar Hoover, could not admit what it knew of Oswald before the assassination (and had failed to act on). A Dallas agent destroyed evidence -- a letter he had received from Oswald.

The CIA had multiple secrets to keep. Its assassination attempts on Fidel Castro obstructed the investigation of Oswald's ties with Cuba. Its use of Mafia hitmen obstructed the investigation of Jack Ruby's contacts with mobsters. The first instinct of both agencies, even in a crisis like the president's assassina- tion, was to protect their own tainted past. Their covert operations were supposed to be sources of power. But they had been draining the nation's strength for decades.

Michael Beschloss, writing for the Newsweek investigative team, concludes: ''In the long reach of American history, the rewards of full disclosure tower over its immediate perils.'' Because the agencies were less than candid in their own reports and investigations, public distrust of evasion and misrepresentation will forever cause doubts about John Kennedy's death.

One can go further, and note how the poison of FBI and CIA secrecy has repeatedly weakened our whole governmental system. When Fidel Castro got missiles on his island -- a dangerous gift from the Soviet Union -- he claimed it was an act of self-protection. He knew what we did not, that the Kennedy administration had been trying to assassinate him. The Kennedys had to hide that fact, which meant that they lied to the world, saying there was no offensive threat to Cuba. An absurd situation occurred, in which a so-called open system was lying and the secret and totalitarian systems were telling the truth.

Over and over we have lied -- to ourselves as well as to the world -- about things such as mining harbors, plotting to kill leaders, rigging elections, overthrowing governments. It is a surreal world we manufacture, in which our enemies know what Americans do not.

The ''secret bombing of Cambodia'' was no secret to Cambodians. It was a secret only on Capitol Hill. Our overthrow of the government in Iran was known there, and came back to haunt us when the shah we put on his throne became the reason for taking American hostages during President Carter's administration.

By using various secret operations, we create a pool of people with compromising knowledge, from Mafiosi to soldiers of fortune. These people have to be humored, or threatened, or used in new operations. There is a wash of underground types that shows up from activity to activity. Veterans of the anti-Castro effort ended up breaking into the Watergate under their old CIA contact, E. Howard Hunt.

When the Watergate break-in occurred, President Nixon covered up, even though it is likely he did not know about that particular enormity when it happened. Why did he offer the perpetrators vast sums in hush money? Because they knew about other secrets that Nixon did not want to come out -- the secret teams set up to discredit with dirty tricks Edward Kennedy and Daniel Ellsberg and war protesters and Democratic candidates.

J. Edgar Hoover used presidential secrets to blackmail his own government. He, in turn, had secrets he had to keep covered up -- like the effort to force Martin Luther King into suicide, or to smear civil-rights protesters.

Most of these secrets come out, but their revelation does not clear the air. They just throw into doubt more activities that bordered on the secret illegalities. The whole concept of covert action is profoundly mistaken. In the CIA's case, such acts are unconstitutional, since the Constitution requires open accounting of the expenditures of government money -- a thing impossible in the case of covert action.

Hard-nosed pragmatists tell us that we have to be realistic in the tainted world of power. But they are the unrealistic men. Their fumblings in the dark undo themselves. Their record is one of almost perfect failure. Given enough rope, they could hang us all.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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