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In a 1954 speech to the Conservative Society of Yale Law School, Felix Morley, a founder of the conservative weekly newspaper Human Events, indicted United States foreign policy as “imperial.” The U.S. policy, he said, “demands that concentration and centralization of power which has characterized every empire since the days of Nebuchadnezzar.” The “enormous expense” of that policy, he continued, impinges an our constitutional structure.

“In the second place, foreign policy, when it develops complicated alliances, cannot lay all the cards on the table. Agencies like the C.I.A. … furthermore operate in deepest secrecy, making no report on how their money is spent. Thus, Congress tends to become more and more of a rubber stamp for undisclosed executive policy…. What you have now, in short, is a foreign policy that demands a centralization which our organic law attempts to deny. It is a situation in which either the Constitution or the policy must give way. To my thinking there is little doubt that from now on it is our republican institutions, rather than our imperial policy, which will be modified.”

There, in a nutshell, from an impeccable “right-wing” source, is the case against postwar U.S. foreign policy and its centerpiece, the Central Intelligence Agency. In the years since 1954, one of the darker periods of the Cold War, criticism of the CIA, and the foreign policy for which it stands, has been monopolized by left-wing commentators. But Morley’s words remind us that the case against a secretive, imperial national-security apparatus was first articulated by limited-government conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians. Their concern was the same one that they brought to all public-policy issues: the need to defend freedom from threats posed not by some vague and distant enemy, but by those who sought to build an all-powerful, secret government in Washington.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and with the end of the Cold War, there is far wider interest in reconsidering the necessity for the domineering national-security apparatus under which our nation has labored for over half a century. But those with an interest in perpetuating that apparatus are not lapsing into passivity; they have too much at stake. A recent page-one New York Times headline heralded, “C.I.A. Casting About for New Missions.” The loss of its official enemy — the Soviet Union — has panicked the agency and its boosters, not least because the intelligence community’s $30 billion budget is at stake.

Some have suggested that the agency turn to espionage in the service of American economic competitiveness. But many inside the CIA think it is premature to talk of changing the agency’s mission. Still others think there is plenty for the CIA to do. As John L. Helgerson, the deputy director for intelligence, said, “It’s a growth industry at the moment. We could put everyone in the agency in [nuclear] proliferation and narcotics, and we still wouldn’t solve the problems.”

But the real question is, should there be a CIA at all?

That is better answered after a reminder of what the CIA has been doing all these years. The CIA was founded in 1947 as part of a Cold War revamping of the national-security apparatus. After World War II, the American people naturally wanted a major scaling back of the military and a return to what Warren Harding, after World War I, called “normalcy.”

But the national-security elite had other ideas. Several motives impelled that elite, but a major one was the belief that unless government spent large sums of the people’s money, the economy would return to the pre-war depression. It was widely thought that spending in the name of national security would neutralize opposition to the required high taxes. That view was known as “military Keynesianism.”

But such large-scale governmental spending could not be pulled off without persuading the people that they were threatened by a foreign power. Hence, the Cold War. the state propaganda effort aimed at, as Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg put it at the time, “scaring hell out of the American people” to justify a big “defense establishment.”

Another major motive was to assure that countries and resources (such as oil) stayed in hands friendly to the American power elite; the United States, so that elite thought, could not remain the “leader of the free world” if countries pursued neutrality or if resources were not available on terms favorable to politically connected corporate executives.

Thus, the CIA was instrumental in overthrowing political leaders around the world and helping to install friendly, often brutal, regimes. This was done in the name of fighting communism, even when the connection with indigenous (as opposed to Soviet or Chinese) communists was remote. In 1953, for “ample, the CIA helped topple the popularly elected Iranian nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and reinstall the Shah of Iran, who had been driven from the country. The CIA, along with the Israeli Mossad, proceeded to help the Shah set up his vicious secret police, SAVAK, which tortured dissidents until the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeni overthrew the Shah in 1979. The damage done as a result of the anti-Americanism created by the CIA in Iran is still being calculated.

Other operations, some successful, some failed, were staged against Jacobo Arbenz Guzman of Guatemala (overthrown in 1954), Sukarno of Indonesia (target of a coup in 1957-58), Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic (assassinated in 1961), Fidel Castro of Cuba (target of invasion and assassination in 1961-62), Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam (assassinated in 1963), Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana (target of subversion in 1963-1964), and the Sandinista government of Nicaragua (target of overthrow in the 1980s). In recent years, the CIA, under the direction of Ronald Reagan’s friend, the late William Casey, was involved in the Iran-Contra affair and the Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI) scandal. What other interventions and scandals the CIA has participated in may be learned if the agency opens its files, as current CIA Director Robert Gates has promised to do.

Two important points about those adventures must be stressed. First, the targeted regimes were no threat to the American people, their freedom, or their prosperity. When did it become a proper function of the U.S. government to determine the character of other nations’ governments? Second, the American people had no idea that an agency they were forced to finance was involved in overthrowing governments and assassinating foreign leaders. They were never consulted — they were not even allowed to know how much the CIA was spending. It is no answer to say that some Congressmen knew some of what the CIA was up to — Congress is not the people. At any rate, when Congress asked if the CIA had any connection to BCCI, the agency refused to reply.

The damage inflicted by the CIA was not confined to foreign affairs, although it is expressly forbidden to operate domestically. As Christopher Hitchens wrote recently in Harper’s:

“Beginning at the beginning, we find the agency secretly finding homes and jobs in the U.S. for several hundred prominent Nazis and Nazi collaborators. Soon after begin the operational pacts with notorious American crime families. Drugs have had a special place in the CIA; it has, over the years, financed experiments with LSD and other hallucinogens and toxins on unwitting civilians, and worked in concert with pilots and middlemen who trafficked not only in information but in heroin and cocaine that wound up on the American market.”

Hitchens goes on to recount how the CIA “bought and suborned senior American journalists and editors, and planted knowing falsehoods in the press. It has established itself, by means of ‘deniable’ funds and foundations, in the belly of the American academy.”

The CIA also affected governmental policy by consistently estimating that the Soviet economy was growing vigorously and by distorting the extent and meaning of Soviet military spending. Whether this was based on authentic ignorance of economic theory (particularly Ludwig von Mises’s demonstration that central planning is impossible) or cynical ambition to keep the national-security apparatus intact is ultimately unimportant. Regardless, the CIA was indispensable to the propaganda campaign that snookered the American people into placing their faith and hundreds of billions of dollars into the national-security apparatus. It was the CIA that enabled presidents to shut down debate and dissent with the magic words, “You don’t have all the facts that I have.”

It turns out that Felix Morley was right. He said there is a fundamental conflict between the institutions of a republic and the agencies of empire. He said that one or the other would have to go. America’s decline has been largely caused by the agencies of empire. With the Cold War over, there may now be a second chance to save the republic by ending the empire.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.