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Morality and Conscience versus the CIA


In 2007 American Robert A. Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a spy mission for the CIA. The New York Times learned that he was a CIA agent in late 2007 but, at the request of the CIA, kept the information secret until now so as not to jeopardize the life of the agent, who is presumed to be in the custody of Iranian officials.

The controversy provides another reason why the American people should abolish the CIA, not reform it.

Look at the position in which the CIA placed the New York Times. Out of a sense of nationalism and deference to authority, the Times was manipulated into deferring to the wishes of the CIA without even knowing what the CIA agent was up to.

There is no indication that the Times asked the CIA what Levinson was doing in Iran. It apparently doesn’t ask whether the agent was kidnapping, torturing, rendering, or assassinating people. Whatever the agent was doing was apparently considered irrelevant. All that matters is that he is an American working for the CIA, an agency with the omnipotent power to do whatever is necessary to protect “national security.” That’s all the information that’s needed to squelch the story.

Of course, even if the Times had asked for such information, the CIA would have either lied about it or refused to furnish it.

But let’s face it: Even if the Times were to learn that a CIA agent was assassinating people or kidnapping and torturing them, the Times would likely sit on the story anyway, so as not to jeopardize the life or liberty of a CIA agent or endanger “national security.” What matters is getting the agent out of jail, presumably so that he can continue assassinating people or kidnapping and torturing them in order to “keep us safe” and protect “national security.”

Suppose the New York Times acquired information that an Iranian who was taken into custody here in the United States was actually an intelligence agent for the Iranian government. If the Iranian government asked the Times to sit on the story so as not to jeopardize the life and liberty of its agent, would the Times take the same action as it did in the Levinson case? Of course not. It would immediately publish the story. What matters is not what the respective intelligence agents are up to. That’s considered irrelevant. What matters is that the Times is owned and run by Americans, not Iranians.

This is what the existence of a secret intelligence force does to a citizenry. It induces them to abandon any commitment to moral or religious principles in favor of blindly supporting whatever the secret intelligence agency is doing in the name of “keeping us safe” and protecting “national security.” As such, it inevitably makes the citizenry an implicit partner in its nefarious activities.

As it turns out, Levinson might have been in Iran to acquire embarrassing information about Iranian officials. According to the Times article on the Levinson case, that’s what U.S. officials want. What’s that all about? They want to acquire such information for the same reason that former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the Mafia, and the NSA have wanted to acquire such information — to blackmail people into doing what the CIA wants them to do, in this case putting Iranian officials in a position of betraying their country and becoming spies for the CIA.

Should America be involved in this type of sordid activity? Should it be involved in assassinations? Kidnappings? Torture? Coups? Regime-change operations? Spying? Blackmail? Aren’t these the types of things committed by totalitarian regimes? Should a free country be adopting totalitarian methods as a way to fight totalitarianism? Or should it be fighting totalitarianism with freedom principles instead?

Keep in mind, after all, that the United States and Iran are not in a state of war. Iran is just the most recent official enemy that the CIA and the rest of the U.S. national-security state have targeted for regime change and spy games.

Obviously, the CIA conducts its sordid activity in secret. Does that relieve the citizenry of moral responsibility for it? I don’t think so, especially since everyone knows the types of things the CIA secretly does.

During the past few years, people have been assassinated in Iran. Suppose the New York Times acquired information that a CIA agent was preparing to assassinate an Iranian. Would it sit on that information and let the assassination go forth? Or would it publish the story even if it meant the arrest of the CIA agent? What’s the proper thing to do — prevent the assassination or defer to the CIA and its claim of “national security”?

Consider the CIA kidnapping, rendition, and torture that took place in Italy a few years ago. The CIA didn’t consider what its agents had done as criminal because they were supposedly doing it to protect “national security.” The Italian courts disagreed and convicted the CIA agents of kidnapping.

If the New York Times had acquired information about the CIA’s plans to kidnap that person in Italy, would it have sat on the story if the CIA had asked it to, so as not to jeopardize the operation? My hunch is that the answer would be yes, out of a mindset of deference to the authority of the CIA and a deep sense of nationalism.

Consider the CIA’s many assassination plots against the likes of Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, or Jacobo Arbenz. Or its kidnapping plot against Chilean military official Rene Schneider, a kidnapping that resulted in his murder. Or the CIA coup and assassination against the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Or the CIA’s assassinations of Americans Anwar al Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman. If the CIA had asked the Times to sit on information that would disclose these assassinations, kidnappings, or coups before they happened, would the Times have sat on the information? My guess is yes, again out of deference to authority and a sense of nationalism.

The Levinson episode provides one more reason why Americans should abolish, not reform or rein in, the CIA. For one thing, a secret agency like the CIA has no place in a genuinely free society. For another thing, it is not a good thing to place citizens in a position of having to choose between moral and religious principles and a governmental agency committing evil and immoral acts in the name of “keeping us safe” and protecting “national security.”


This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.