Is the CIA above the law?

November 21, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- On the day that Alger Hiss' death was made known, the New York Times reported that Richard Nuccio, a senior State Department officer, has been threatened with criminal charges and faces the ruin of his government career because last year he made it known to a member of the House Intelligence Committee that the CIA had repeatedly lied to it, in defiance of the law, about its responsibility in the murders of an American citizen and the husband of another American in Guatemala.

The CIA argues that it is a crime (the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation of Mr. Nuccio) for an official of the government to privately inform an appropriate member of Congress -- properly cleared to receive classified information -- that the CIA had lied to Congress about illegal actions that included complicity in murder.

The State Department, after investigation, imposed a year's security probation on Mr. Nuccio. That decision was overruled by the CIA -- an unprecedented action -- and John Deutch, CIA director, now has appointed a special outside panel to advise him as to whether Mr. Nuccio should be forced out of government, and effectively out of a career in international relations.

Hiss would perhaps find the American government which would do this rather strange, by the standards of his time. He might even see in it confirmation that American democracy is corrupt, just as he and Whittaker Chambers had argued in the 1930s, in justifying their own actions.

Mr. Nuccio is punished for having reported CIA malfeasance -- what else can it be called? -- to the authority which was the victim of this malfeasance, the Congress. There seems to be no outcry over this -- no editorials, no protests in Washington.

White House indifference

The State Department has already given Mr. Nuccio administrative punishment. Sandy Berger, President Clinton's deputy national-security adviser, discussed the matter with Mr. Nuccio, but appears to have been indifferent to the fundamental issue, which is whether the United States has an intelligence agency that obeys the law.

The CIA, as its position is recounted by the Times, holds that ''it is acting not so much to punish Mr. Nuccio as to assert its control over the secrets it is sworn to protect. . . .'' The secret it was protecting in this case was the secret of its own illegal behavior, and the body from whom it was keeping this secret was the Congress.

The CIA's is secret-police reasoning, the reasoning of an agency not only out of control, but which the White House would seem unwilling to control. What it has done in this case is more subversive than anything done by Harold Nicholson or Aldrich Ames -- or by Alger Hiss.

It is perhaps comprehensible that the CIA should lock itself into an argument so tortured, and manifestly contrary to the intent of the law. It is incomprehensible and unacceptable that the White House tolerates this, or thinks an outside commission the appropriate response. Either the CIA tells the truth to the appropriate committees of Congress, or it is a rogue agency and needs to be suppressed.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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