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Did the Bush Administration Use the CIA to Attack a Domestic Critic?

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James Risen reports in the New York Times about a White House–instigated effort to use the CIA to attack a prominent academic critic of its Middle East policies, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan:

[Retired CIA agent Glenn] Carle said his supervisor at the National Intelligence Council told him in 2005 that White House officials wanted “to get” Professor Cole, and made clear that he wanted Mr. Carle to collect information about him, an effort Mr. Carle rebuffed. Months later, Mr. Carle said, he confronted a C.I.A. official after learning of another attempt to collect information about Professor Cole. Mr. Carle said he contended at the time that such actions would have been unlawful…

Mr. Carle said that sometime that year, he was approached by his supervisor, David Low, about Professor Cole. Mr. Low and Mr. Carle have starkly different recollections of what happened. According to Mr. Carle, Mr. Low returned from a White House meeting one day and inquired who Juan Cole was, making clear that he wanted Mr. Carle to gather information on him. Mr. Carle recalled his boss saying, “The White House wants to get him.”

“‘What do you think we might know about him, or could find out that could discredit him?’ ” Mr. Low continued, according to Mr. Carle.

Mr. Carle said that he warned that it would be illegal to spy on Americans and refused to get involved, but that Mr. Low seemed to ignore him.

“But what might we know about him?” he said Mr. Low asked. “Does he drink? What are his views? Is he married?”

Mr. Carle said that he responded, “We don’t do those sorts of things,” but that Mr. Low appeared undeterred. “I was intensely disturbed by this,” Mr. Carle said.

As described by Carle, the inquiries were plainly illegal. The CIA’s own charter prohibits its involvement in domestic operations, and following the Church Committee inquiries, legislation and executive orders tightened these restrictions, specifically making American citizens off limits. The Church Committee documented the extensive and extraordinary networks the CIA had created inside major academic institutions across the country; it also noted CIA efforts to harass organizations that criticized the agency and its operations. A striking example involved Ramparts magazine. After the publication exposed the CIA’s use of the National Student Association as an on-campus front group, the CIA secured the magazine’s tax returns and attempted to instigate an IRS audit. CIA officials now assure us, however, that these practices were terminated in the post-Watergate era, and that the prohibition on targeting U.S. citizens is strictly enforced.

Glenn Carle’s statements give us reason to question such assurances. We should now be asking who inside the White House commissioned the “opposition research” on Cole, what information was actually delivered, and how it was used. During the time period in question, 2005–06, Cole was a candidate for a tenured appointment at Yale University. Although Yale’s history and sociology departments were solidly behind Cole, he was aggressively attacked by political conservatives elsewhere on the school’s faculty, who were in turn backed by a small army of bloggers and political commentators angered by Cole’s sharp criticism of the Bush Administration’s Middle East policies in general, and its war in Iraq in particular. As Yale historian John Merriman stated at the time, “Academic integrity clearly has been trumped by politics.” The proximity of the White House requests for information on Cole to the Yale appointment controversy is suspicious, particularly in light of the agency’s long and barely concealed special relationship with Yale.

At his Informed Comment blog, Professor Cole states:

Carle’s revelations come as a visceral shock. You had thought that with all the shenanigans of the CIA against anti–Vietnam War protesters and then Nixon’s use of the agency against critics like Daniel Ellsberg, that the Company and successive White Houses would have learned that the agency had no business spying on American citizens.

As the Times notes, the CIA is brushing off these allegations with predictable but not terribly credible denials. The agency lamely suggests that the only queries it made were about why Professor Cole was invited to speak at CIA events — echoing similar efforts to cover up the harassment campaign against CBS reporter Daniel Schorr.

This case presents another challenge to internal and congressional oversight of the agency. The activities Carle describes crossed lines designed to keep the CIA out of domestic politics, and particularly to block agency conduct that might chill domestic political discourse. Yet it appears that the CIA was being used for just that purpose.

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