In 1974 Call to Abolish CIA, Sanders Followed in Footsteps of JFK, Truman

John F. Kennedy famously described his desire to "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds" after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

Bernard Sanders takes the oath of office to become the mayor of Vermont's largest city, Burlington, on April 6, 1981. Sanders formerly headed Vermont's only major third party, the socialistic Liberty Union. (AP Photo/Donna Light)
Photo: AP/Donna Light

According to an article in Politico, Bernie Sanders, during his 1974 campaign for the Senate on Vermont’s Liberty Union Party ticket, called the Central Intelligence Agency “a dangerous institution that has got to go.” Sanders complained that the CIA was only accountable to “right-wing lunatics who use it to prop up fascist dictatorships.”

Jeremy Bash, a former CIA chief of staff who is now an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, told reporter Michael Crowley that Sanders’ comment “reinforces the conclusion that he’s not qualified to be commander in chief.” Bash explained: “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.” Bash was chief of staff for Leon Panetta at both the CIA and Defense Department, and now runs a consulting firm called Beacon Global Strategies.

But Sanders’ position is not that radical: Many prominent politicians, including two previous Democratic commanders in chief, have called for the CIA to be dismantled or severely constrained.

John F. Kennedy famously described his desire to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds” after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Peter Kornbluh points out in his book Bay of Pigs Declassified that the State Department at that same time proposed the CIA be stripped of its covert action capacity and renamed. However, the CIA escaped any serious repercussions — partly because, as Kornbluh explains, the CIA’s then-director, John McCone, made sure that most of the copies of a damning report on the Bay of Pigs by the agency’s own inspector general were literally burned.

Then in 1963, after Kennedy’s assassination, Harry Truman wrote a newspaper column explaining that “I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. … I, therefore, 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.”

Beyond the two presidents, Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote in his 1969 memoirs that upon the CIA’s creation he “had the gravest forebodings about this organization 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.”

In 1975 — that is, after Sanders’ statement — a congressional investigation of the CIA by senators including Walter Mondale and Gary Hart declared that “policy and procedural barriers are presently inadequate to insure that any covert operation is absolutely essential to the national security. These barriers must be tightened and raised or covert action should be abandoned as an instrument of foreign policy.” (My italics. The Politico article does mention and quote the investigation’s findings.)

In both 1991 and 1995, then-Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., called for the CIA to be abolished. Hillary Clinton would later be elected to Moynihan’s senate seat, and on his death she stated, “We have lost a great American, an extraordinary senator, an intellectual and a man of passion and understanding about what really makes this country great.”

So is it starting to sound to you a bit less like a scandal, and a bit more like effective oppo research?

It’s unclear how Crowley, Politicos senior foreign affairs correspondent, obtained Sanders’ 1974 remarks. In a phone conversation, I asked him several times whether he had received them from anyone connected with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Crowley responded: “I had primary sources for everything I wrote about in that story. … I’ve written several stories about Bernie’s foreign policy and national security views. This is something I’ve been digging into independently for almost a month now. … I would just refer you to the stories I’ve been writing the last several weeks, I’m not going to talk about how I report my articles.”

If in fact the Clinton campaign is distributing Sanders’ remarks from many years ago, there’s obviously nothing wrong with that — just as there would be nothing wrong with the Sanders campaign distributing hers. Moreover, it’s standard operating procedure for campaigns to disseminate information they believe will make their opponents look bad while trying to keep their fingerprints off it. But that doesn’t mean reporters should collude with them to make it possible.

Top photo: Bernie Sanders takes the oath of office to become mayor of Burlington in 1981. Sanders formerly headed Vermont’s only major third party, the socialistic Liberty Union.

Join The Conversation