On abolishing the CIA, Sanders is in some distinguished company

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. © Jonathan Ernst
Washington insiders were abuzz over a revelation that Bernie Sanders had once advocated abolishing the CIA. Blasting Sanders for his ancient argument, the Clinton campaign forgot to mention that many illustrious US leaders have shared the same intention.

While campaigning for the US Senate in 1974, a 33-year-old Sanders called the Central Intelligence Agency “a dangerous institution that has got to go,” describing it as a tool of US corporate interests accountable to no one “except right-wing lunatics who use it to prop up fascist dictatorships.”

This is according to a story in Politico, which called Sanders an “extreme leftist” and prominently featured a quote from one of Hillary Clinton campaign advisers – who also happens to be the former chief of staff to a CIA director.

“Abolishing the CIA in the 1970s would have unilaterally disarmed America during the height of the Cold War and at a time when terrorist networks across the Middle East were gaining strength,” the paper quoted Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff to Leon Panetta. Panetta was CIA director between 2009 and 2011 and Bill Clinton’s chief of staff in 1994-97. “If this is a window into Sanders’ thinking, it reinforces the conclusion that he’s not qualified to be commander in chief.”

Arguing that the CIA was a vital US weapon at the time does not match up with historical facts, however. The Agency was famously caught off-guard by the Cold War’s sudden and peaceful resolution – an end in which it played no part.

“We should not gloss over the enormity of this failure to forecast the magnitude of the Soviet crisis,” former CIA Director Stansfield Turner wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1991. “Yet I never heard a suggestion from the CIA, or the intelligence arms of the departments of Defense or State, that numerous Soviets recognized a growing, systemic economic problem.”

One of the CIA’s many dubious Cold War activities was to support Islamist rebels in Afghanistan, among them international volunteers that included a young Osama bin Laden. 

Wanting to dismantle the CIA was hardly a radical notion in 1974, Jon Schwarz of the Intercept pointed out. After the agency’s fiasco with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, President John F. Kennedy said he would like to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.” At the same time, the State Department proposed stripping the agency of its covert powers. 

Following JFK’s assassination in 1963, former president Harry Truman wrote that he would “like to see the CIA be restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President… and that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.”

In his 1969 memoir, Present at the Creation, Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, wrote that he had the “gravest forebodings” about the CIA when it was established, and warned the president that “as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it.”

While that may sound like ancient history, there is the matter of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic Senator from New York, who also called for abolition of the CIA and even sponsored a bill in 1995 to that effect. Hillary Clinton would be elected to Moynihan’s seat in 2000, and praised him upon his death in 2003 as a “man of passion and understanding about what really makes this country great,” Schwarz notes.

Mere months after Bernie Sanders made his “extremist” call for the elimination of the CIA, US lawmakers set up congressional committees to rein in runaway intelligence agencies. The Pike Committee on the House side and the Church Committee on the Senate side worked to tighten oversight on the CIA, NSA, and other parts of the US intelligence apparatus, which had, until then, been operating unchecked.