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David Atlee Phillips and the Association of Retired Intelligence Officers

David Andrews

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Recently – I mean over the past three months – I have been reading the latest two volumes in Rick Perlstein’s ongoing history of the American Conservative movement, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. Each of these is over 800 pages, and is as much a history of its political and cultural times as it is of Conservatism, and that’s generally a good thing – though harder-edged writing on American Conservatism would be valuable. (I haven’t read Perlstein’s first volume, on Barry Goldwater, yet, so maybe I’m selling him short. And the latter two books are essential reads regardless.)

Though judiciously avoiding conspiracy analysis, Perlstein is careful to cover its appearance in American thought and politics, and in The Invisible Bridge devotes considerable space to the Church Committee. Perlstein's reflection ends in 1976, when Senator Frank Church – an erstwhile presidential candidate – faces a backlash of mainstream media stories protesting that the Watergate-inspired investigations of government and the intelligence services have gone too far for the nation’s good, and are revealing secrets detrimental to intelligence work. The impetus was reaction to the assassination in Athens of CIA station chief Richard Welch, briefly blamed on his outing as the Lima, Peru station chief in Philip Agee’s book, and used as election campaign fodder by Gerald Ford.

I’ll let Perlstein pick up the story from here, as its upshot is the creation of the Association of Retired Intelligence Officers (ARIO) – later to become the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) – under the guidance of David Atlee Phillips.

Perlstein: "A supposedly adversarial press piled on [...], especially the Washington Post. In 1974 it brought down a president; now it ran thirteen stories in the week after Welch's death following the [Ford] administration line, and an editorial labeling the death '[t]he entirely predictable result of the disclosure tactics chosen by certain American critics of the Agency.' Wrote the Post's admirably independent ombudsman, Charles Seib, 'The press was used to publicize what in its broad effect was an attack on itself.'

“Church, thrown on the defensive, called for criminal sanctions against those who identified secret agents. And it all happened just as the committees were drawing up their final reports and recommendations regarding intelligence reform – terrified, now, that further disclosure of any secret would discredit the entirety of their work.

“That was no accident. It was an orchestrated campaign – one taking advantage, not of the committees’ recklessness (in fact they were remarkably free of leaks) but of their very deliberateness, the months of quiet investigation and backroom executive sessions that provided an opening for White House propaganda to utterly blindside these earnest tribunes of reform. A high-ranking CIA official named David Atlee Phillips, who had specialized in propaganda, quit the agency to organize retirees into an apparently independent lobby. Though they were in the shadowlands of espionage, nothing could be so straightforward. They actually worked in harness with a president who used words like 'crippling' and 'dismantling' in his every reference to the intelligence investigations. And by the time the White House began all but dancing on Richard Welch’s grave, Phillips’ six-hundred-member Association of Retired intelligence Officers was ready to wave the bloody shirt on the president’s behalf – in speeches, letters to the editor, and canned op-eds from a forty-page guide, all pressing the message that the expansion of the suspicious circles into the sacred precincts of intelligence was putting the nation’s heroes in danger. Hardly three weeks after Welch’s death, the momentum for reining in the intelligence community was at all but a standstill – just as planned. ‘Revamping the CIA: Easier Said Than Done,’ as the New York Times headlined on January 18 [1976].” -- pp. 577-578. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014)

The full extent of the ARIO as a "lobby" for the intelligence community's profile, and its participation in the activities that we traditionally associate with "lobbyists," is unknown to me and unexplored by Perlstein. "Lobby" is perhaps meant more metaphorically here.

Perlstein's source notes:

577 “[t]he entirely predictable” “Richard S. Welch,” WP, December 29. 1975, p. A16. “The press was used”: Charles B. Seib, “The News Business: Media Manipulation,” WP, January 16, 1976, p. A19.

577 called for criminal Olmsted, Challenging the Secret Government, p. 153.

577 That was no accident Ibid., p. 143-146.

Edited by David Andrews
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Good stuff David, that certainly supports the idea that Phillips resigned only to take on a mission. I'd give a pretty penny to know how who was playing liaison back at CIA Headquarters. I wonder if some FOIA work on Agency records pertaining to the organization would expose anything? Also, if true this would make a great section in a book about the CIA's domestic media activities.

Edited by Larry Hancock
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