The Case Against the CIA
The Boston Phoenix,
April 24, 1987
In finding Amy Carter, Abbie Hoffman, and 13 Western Massachusetts college students not guilty April 15 of trespassing and disorderly conduct, a six member district court jury, whose members included a 77 year old man and 64 year old woman, in effect found the Central Intelligence Agency guilty as charged by the defendants and their many expert witnesses. And at its trial, the CIA stood charged with crimes a lot more serious than trespassing and disorderly conduct; it was charged with arranging assassinations, torturing and generally terrorizing the population of Nicaragua, and lying about its actions.
To be fair to the CIA, the prosecution felt it didn't have to defend the Agency. Hampshire County Assistant District Court Attorney Diane Fernaid, the prosecutor, held to the most narrow focus: "Whether or not the 12 defendants here before you are guilty of trespassing" and "Whether or not three of the defendants seated before you are guilty of sitting in front of buses carrying those people who are guilty of trespass." She wasn't about to tie herself and the state to the CIA.
Twelve of the 15 defendants were arrested November 24, 1986, for occupying Munson Hall, a University of Massachusetts administration building, after the university refused to meet seven demands, which included banning CIA recruiters from campus. The remaining three defendants were arrested the same evening for blocking buses carrying the other protesters away.
Leonard Weinglass, the mild-mannered lawyer who in 1968 had defended Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the Chicago Seven, had to explain the defense's case to a jury made of up average central Massachusetts citizens who, the prosecution ensured, knew almost nothing about the CIA and Nicaragua. "As you have obviously seen," Weinglass said, "this is not an ordinary case. By and large, the events of the day are agreed upon. The issue in this case is whether or not those actions are reasonable.... Was this lawlessness on the part of the defendants, or were they acting to stop the lawlessness? That is the crux of the question."
The necessity defense that was employed requires demonstrating that there was a "clear and imminent" threat to the defendants. Weinglass and his associates argued that even if the defendants were not in immediate danger from the CIA, the United States stood in "clear and imminent" danger of being drawn into a war with Nicaragua, and that represented a clear and imminent danger to the defendants.
Weinglass first called to the stand Ralph McGehee. McGehee had served for 25 years, six of them in Thailand and two in Vietnam. He retired in 1977 and began a second career: exposing his former employer. McGehee testified that the CIA had drawn the United States unwittingly into a war against North Vietnam. In March 1965, he said, the Agency loaded a Vietnamese ship with communist-made weapons, shot it up, and presented the incident in a white paper as evidence that the North Vietnamese were supporting the Vietcong. McGehee himself admitted to having lied to Congress about the number of Laotian platoons the CIA was training. Such covert operations, McGehee said, "very much harm the national security of the United States."
The next day former contra, Edgar Chamorro, was called to the stand: he told parallel stories of CIA support for the Nicaraguan contras. The CIA had given him money, he said, to bribe the Honduran press. The day Chamorro testified, another witness, Christie Clark, described her three-month stay in the Nicaraguan village of San Pedro de Lovago. The contras attacked her village twice while she was there, she said. After both attacks, Sandinista support in the village increased. "People became much more supportive of the people defending them," Clark said.
The defense also offered one glimpse of how the CIA had threatened United States citizens. Book publisher and lawyer William Schaap described CIA domestic crimes such as the 1950s operation MKULTRA, in which the Agency used prostitutes and homeless men to test the effects of LSD. The CIA had violated First Amendment rights in 1960s and early 1970s, Schaap argued, when it had tried to infiltrate student movements through its Operation CHAOS.
Fernaid tacitly dismissed the defense's expanded definition of "imminent threat." She asked McGehee only one question: "Were you present on the University of Massachusetts campus on November 24, 1986?"; of Chamorro, she asked only his current occupation and whether or not the CIA had been on campus the day of the protest.
The larger and more emotional portion of the defense was devoted to showing that the CIA had committed crimes in Central America and elsewhere, that Hoffman and the students sincerely believed they could prevent such crimes by protesting, and that their protest might indeed prove effective.
Weinglass's co-counsel Tom Lesser said the defense team was encouraged when a juror was brought to tears by McGehee's description of the atrocities he had committed on behalf of the CIA. The CIA had taught Vietnamese secret police how to torture, McGehee said, and through a program of assassination called Operation Phoenix, the CIA had killed 20,000 Vietnamese.
"Were innocent civilians killed?" Weinglass asked.
"Yes," McGehee answered.
The CIA was responsible, McGehee said, for the deaths of between 500,000 and one million Indonesians in 1965 when the Agency overthrew the government of Sukarno.
Chamorro updated the Agency's atrocities. The CIA hired hardened Argentinian soldiers to teach the contras how to commit atrocities against the civilian population, Chamorro said. "The philosophy was that you have to fight in ways that people will be really scared, or otherwise they will not respect you." Chamorro said the Agency asked him to translate a stack of blue mimeographed sheets that bore the title Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare. The manual, a copy of which was admitted as evidence, advises contra leaders to assassinate respected citizens of small towns, such as judges and doctors, and to make it appear as if the Sandinista government were responsible. Chamorro said the document also asked the contras to "create martyrs of our own followers, someone who is well-liked that gets killed in a way that looks like the government did it." The CIA also delivered to the contras mines powerful enough to maim but not kill civilians, Chamorro testified, in hopes of overburdening the Sandinista health-care system. "The CIA was telling us, in this kind of war, there is no difference between civilian and military," Chamorro said.
Abbie Hoffman, defending himself, questioned Harvard Medical School instructor Paul R. Epstein, MD, about the war the contras were waging against the Sandinista's health-care system. Epstein said he'd visited Nicaragua twice, in 1983 and in 1987; in the time between his visits, the contras had destroyed at least 15 community health centers built by the Sandinistas and had assassinated doctors. Reed Brody, a former assistant attorney general of New York State who had documented atrocities in Nicaragua, also testified that the contra war was aimed at civilians. "The contras target the socio-economic structure of Nicaragua," Brody said.
After finishing with the CIA, the defense sought to convince the jury that the defendants were sincerely motivated, patriotic Americans. On the penultimate day of the trial, Amy Carter took the stand for the first time. Carter, 19, said she was sensitive to the parallels between American involvement in Nicaragua and Vietnam. She was arrested November 24 while blocking buses that were supposed to carry the students who'd occupied Munson Hall to the Hampshire County Courthouse for arraignment. "I was certain that the police would get the buses moving," she said, "but that wasn't the issue at all. The issue was state police on campus, the CIA on campus, and the students in the building."
Finally, the defense tried to show that the students were right to believe their actions would bring about a change. They relied on two witnesses: Boston University professor of history Howard Zinn and former Defense Department employee Daniel Ellsberg.
Zinn, author of Disobedience and Democracy, cited examples of American social movements that had started with student protests. In 1960, Zinn reminded the jury, four black students held a sit-in against segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina and were arrested; the protest helped spark the civil rights movement. Protests against the Vietnam War, Zinn said, kept the Johnson administration from raising the number of troops in Vietnam from 200,000 to 500,000. "They said, 'We can't do this. There's going to be too much trouble in the country,'" Zinn said. Protests were especially important in changing foreign policy because Congress, Zinn said, was not active in formulating it. "Simply going to the polls and voting, simply writing to your congressman, that didn't work," Zinn said.
Following Zinn to the witness stand, Daniel Ellsberg described the circumstances that had made him decide to release 43 volumes of government documents listing U.S. atrocities in Vietnam -- which became known as the Pentagon Papers -- to The New York Times in 1971. Ellsberg said during his career in the Defense Department he had been caught up in the bureaucratic mentality that only determined whether campaigns were cost-effective, not whether they were moral. Then, in 1969, Ellsberg said he had attended a conference on non-violent protest. There he saw Randall Kehler, an anti-draft protester, speak against the draft. "I was thinking that I was glad that foreigners from all over the United States were seeing this man," Ellsberg said. "He was very attractive, bright, and intelligent. Then I heard, to my amazement, that he was going to prison."
"I cried for about an hour," Ellsberg said. "I was sitting on the floor in the men's room, because I had realized that this [protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam] was the right thing to do."
Fernaid did not cross-examine Ellsberg.
The necessity defense required proving that, in order to stop and prevent greater illegal action (in this case by the CIA), Hoffman and the student protesters had no recourse other than illegal action -- that they had no alternative but to occupy Munson Hall. To accomplish this, Weinglass called on academics, lawyers, and former government officials whose testimony painted a portrait of the CIA as a pirate organization operating in the name, but not in the sight, of the American people.
McGehee told a CIA joke comparing the Agency's treatment of Congress to mushrooms. "You're kept in the dark and you're fed manure," he said. Morton Halperin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under Lyndon Johnson, said the CIA had consistently violated the Congressional Oversight Act of 1980 and the Boland Amendment of 1984, which banned the CIA from operating in Nicaragua. The summer the CIA began smuggling anti-tank missiles to Iran, then-CIA Director William Casey had pledged to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) that the CIA would not act without Congress's approval, Halperin said.
Schaap, the lawyer/publisher, said he had tried four major cases in which members of Congress were the plaintiffs against the CIA. The cases criticized the Agency for violating both the Neutrality Acts (by training mercenaries in Florida) and the Ethics in Government Act.
All four cases had been thrown out of the court for being too political, Schaap said. "I think it would be completely futile to raise that within the courts," Schaap said.
"In your opinion, do you think Congress has been able to keep the CIA under control?" Weinglass asked. "No," Schaap replied. "I don't think it has tried very hard, but when it has, it certainly hasn't been able to."
In their closing arguments, both the defense and prosecution called on the jury to press for accountability -- the prosecution for accountability from the protesters and the defense for accountability from the CIA. Massachusetts law, the defense argued, provides protection for legitimate, sincere, anti-government protesters.
"I don't think that we are operating outside the system at all," Hoffman told reporters gathered outside the defendant's dock before the closing arguments began. "In fact, our point is that the CIA is operating outside the system." Defense attorney Tom Lesser said in his closing remarks that the protesters had taken over Munson Hall because "they were legitimately worried that we might end up in a war, that their friends, their brothers, might end up in a war, not because 'we the people' decided to end up in a war, but because a few people were doing it in secret, and when we started to find out about it, they lied to us."
Weinglass, in his final statement, argued that stopping CIA recruitment on American college campuses was the only means available to the students to put a halt to the crimes the Agency was committing. "By ending recruitment, they helped to take a step to ending illegal activity," he stated.
As the CIA was found guilty, the defendants were freed to take their case to the American people, this time with the support of a middle-American jury that, when the trial started, had known little about these matters. Despite its best efforts to keep America ignorant of its activities, the CIA may now find itself in the defendant's dock.