Bernie Sanders called the CIA “a dangerous institution that has got to go” at a debate in 1974. The democratic socialist has since backed down from that stance. Today, as he mounts his insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination, the Vermont senator merely seeks to increase oversight of the agency. But according to Politico, several Democratic insiders believe that abolishing the CIA is such a radical notion, Sanders’s 40-year-old quote disqualifies him from the presidency.
“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,” Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff to CIA director Leon Panetta and current adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, told Politico. “If this is a window into Sanders’ thinking, it reinforces the conclusion that he’s not qualified to be commander in chief.”
Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson — the president and secretary of State who oversaw the agency’s creation — would beg to differ.
"I 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," Acheson wrote in his 1969 memoir, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department.
In 1963, that president came around to Acheson’s view of things. One month after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Truman wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “For some time I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its original assignment … It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas.” Truman called for the agency’s covert-operations dimension to be “terminated.”
Sanders’s critique of the CIA in the mid-’70s was essentially the same as Truman’s, only less euphemistically worded. Running as the Liberty Union Party candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1974, Sanders complained that the CIA wasn’t accountable to anyone “except right-wing lunatics who use it to prop up fascist dictatorships.”
As Politico notes, shortly after Sanders’s remarks, a special congressional panel — popularly known as the Church Committee — found that the CIA had been assassinating foreign leaders and illegally spying on Vietnam War protesters. The committee argued that, unless such abuses of power could be eliminated, “covert action should be abandoned as an instrument of foreign policy.”
Such abuses were not eliminated. Two decades later, former Nixon adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan reached Sanders’s conclusion. As a New York senator, Moynihan introduced bills in 1991 and 1995 to abolish the CIA and assign its functions to the State Department.
Moynihan’s call for abolition was revived in the mid-aughts, by The New Republic’s John Judis. In early 2002, the CIA had allowed its Egyptian partners to torture Al Qaeda commander Ibn Shaykh Al Libi until he “confessed” that bin Laden’s terrorist network had extensive ties with Saddam Hussein. Al Libi later recanted, and the CIA withdrew its support for the assertions in 2004 — one year after American soldiers marched into Baghdad.
“Al Libi’s case, combining gross incompetence with the violation of international law, shows that the problems Moynihan and others cited have, if anything, gotten worse under George W. Bush,” Judis wrote. “What is clear is that the CIA is broken. And to repair it, we may have to start from scratch.”
Judis’s analysis was featured on the website of the mainstream foreign-policy think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Sanders no longer stands by his 40-year-old call to abolish the CIA. But even if he did, it’s not clear that the proposal is any more radical than the multi-trillion-dollar tax hikes he’s already campaigning on. As opposition research, Sanders’s 1974 stance on the CIA is barely worth noting. But as an idea for reforming our intelligence operations, it may be worth another look.