A Season of Inquiry

Title:                    A Season of Inquiry

Author:                 Loch K Johnson

Johnson, Loch K. (1985). A Season of Inquiry: The Senate Intelligence Investigation. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

LCCN:    84022106

JK468.I6 J64 1985


Date Posted:      January 31, 2013

Loch Johnson is one of the best writers on intelligence matters. A Season of Inquiry deals mainly with congressional investigations after the debacle of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities and the circus that surrounded the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. However spying on Americans was no new thing.

After WWI a witch’s brew was boiling and bubbling over concern about “subversive activities,” that is, any activities deemed by the government as tending to “subvert” the American way of live. The American intelligence agencies knew of Soviet activities but had little understanding of them or how far reaching they might be.


In the Army’s table of organization, G-2 refers to General Staff 2, or intelligence gathering. G-2 during WWI and the early 1920s had done quite a bit of domestic intelligence gathering in the United States against organizations that were actually subversive, and others that were simply viewed as subversive. Targets of investigation included the early Communist Party organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World (I. W. W.), other labor unions, and pro-German groups. During the 1920s, some Army intelligence officers who were in the reserves continued to supply such information through a special intelligence section of the Quartermaster Reserve Corps. These informal efforts continued without official sanction.

In 1931, Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur gave permission to G-2 to report on various communist groups, and authorized Corps Area commanders in the United States to report on subversive activities in their areas. When WWI veterans began to organize spontaneous marches on Washington, the so-called “Bonus Marchers” in 1932, MacArthur stepped up surveillance. However, when MacArthur used Army troops to disperse the marchers, he was widely criticized. Henceforth, G-2 domestic activities were conducted very quietly. Army Intelligence chief Ralph Van Deman had retired in 1929, but he continued to keep up an informal network that reported to G-2 in Washington.

President Roosevelt appointed General Marlin Craig as Army Chief of Staff in 1935, and Craig increased domestic surveillance through the next few years, mostly focused on labor union groups and Communist Party organizations.

Bootlegger Codes

After working in Signals Intelligence with her husband in 1921-22 Elizebeth Friedman worked for the U. S. Navy in 1923, and later was employed by the U. S. Treasury Bureaus of Prohibition and Customs. She spent most of her professional code-breaking career working against liquor smugglers and drug runners.


In August 1936, President Roosevelt called J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, to the White House. Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull approved a general survey by the FBI of subversive activities in the United States, and Hoover followed up on September 5 , with a secret order to all his agents to begin to supply information on subversive organizations. The investigations bore fruit when, in February 1938, the Justice Department got indictments against 18 Germans in New York for violating the Espionage Act. Only two were convicted.

Church Committee

Many, including me, believe that, however well intentioned, this spying on Americans was more intrusive than beneficial. It did not stop with the end of prohibition and led to more and more abuses until Senator Frank Church led a committee investigating what came to be called “rogue elephant” behavior by intelligence agencies.

Although Senator Church, chairman of the Senate committee formed in 1975 to investigate the intelligence agencies, used the term “rogue elephant” early in the investigation to describe the CIA, that characterization had been generally abandoned by the time the investigation was completed. In the view of Loch Johnson, a Church Committee staffer sympathetic to Senator Church, the chairman’s use of the term “derived from a sense that the evidence needed ot be dramatized to have an effect upon the public,” whereas the final report of the committee “carefully steered clear of the ‘rogue elephant’ theory.”

The results were published by the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate (1976). Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans. Book II. Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate : Together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office. The report is available online at Intellligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book II.

Loch K. Johnson[1], [2], [3] looks at what he calls “shock theory” regarding how Congress gives oversight to intelligence activities in “A Shock Theory of Congressional Accountability for Intelligence,” the final chapter, chapter 26 in Handbook of Intelligence Studies of which he was editor.

Scholars who have focused on intelligence accountability by lawmakers have found a system far less effective than reformers had hoped for. Prominent members of Congress have conceded current inadequacies in their monitoring of government’s hidden side. The warrantless wiretap by NSA (2005) was yet another surprise to Congress. Since 1974 lawmakers have been trying to conduct intelligence oversight.

Shock as a Stimulus for Intelligence Accountability, 1974-2006

The metaphor for oversight contrast “police patrolling” with “firefighting.” Patrolling regularly reviews the executive branch programs, like a policeman on a beat. Firefighters classically respond to alarms after a fire has broken out.

Studies show that efforts to patrol the secret agencies have been “sporadic, spotty, and essentially uncritical.”[4] The chief cause of this inattentiveness derives from the nature of Congress. Lawmakers seek re-election and they usually conclude that passing bills and raising campaign funds are more important.

Since review of intelligence must take place behind closed doors, out of public view, there is little or no public awareness, thus no credit claiming.

Intelligence accountability indicates a pattern:

  1. A major intelligence scandal or failure (shock);
  2. A burst of firefighting;
  3. A period of dedicated patrolling, yielding remedial legislation or other reforms;
  4. Once the firestorm has subsided and reforms are in place, lawmakers return to inattention.

To reach shock level, an allegation or intelligence wrongdoing must have sustained coverage in the media. This sets the stage for a strong public (thus political) reaction. The press, it seems, with all its problems, remains the chief accountability enforcer. Congress has far more power but the media evidently have more will.

The Shocks and Alarms

Since 1974, most of congressional effort has been in firefighting. Patrolling has been of a perfunctory nature.

Alarm No. 1, 1974: A domestic spy scandal. The New York Times exposed extensive spying at home. The Church Committee investigated and proposed extensive reforms, including a permanent Oversight Committee in the Senate.

Alarm No. 2, 1986: The Iran-Contra Scandal. Congress established a combined Senate-House investigating panel that revealed unlawful intelligence activities by the NSC and a few officials in the CIA, including secret arms sales to Iran and covert support for the Contras in Nicaragua. The panel issued a detailed report.

Iran-Contra is surely the gold standard of Washington scandals. A hilarious saga of venality and government dysfunction, Iran-Contra centered on a cabal of White House ultra-patriots and private arms dealers who sold weapons to Iran (even though it supported terrorism) and diverted the profits to the Nicaraguan contras (even though Congress had banned U.S. aid). Their ultimate goal was to set up an off-budget covert action capacity that could escape congressional oversight; they also wanted to skim millions of dollars for themselves. In the end, their hare-brained scheme empowered terrorists, humiliated the United States, and almost brought down President Ronald Reagan, who escaped impeachment only because he didn’t know what was going on in his own White House.

The book, Men of Zeal[5], focuses on the Congressional[6] hearings and on the spies, crooks, and zealots who gave testimony. It was written by two Senators, William S. Cohen and George J. Mitchell, a Democrat and a Republican, who served on the Congressional Committee that probed Iran-Contra. Their book is not a comprehensive, chronological history of the scandal, and it was written before many extra details were disclosed in criminal trials.

Incredibly, the central figure in the plot, a Marine Lieutenant, Oliver North, almost derailed the investigation. He was a fantasist and serial liar, yet TV audiences thrilled to his defiant pose as a gung-ho Marine and flag-waving patriot. “Ollie-mania” swept the nation, hate-mail poured in on the committee, and conservative Republicans jumped to attack the investigation as an encroachment on presidential power. Ominously, the episode revealed that Republican loathing of Democratic control of Congress had turned into a loathing of Congress itself. No one came out of Iran-Contra looking good, least of all the American public, which clearly knew nothing about the U.S. constitution.

Alarm No. 3, 1994: The Ames Counterintelligence failure (see Chapter 19). Lawmakers were concerned about a spy case that revealed how the Soviets were able to recruit Aldrich Ames. A report[7] was issued calling for counterintelligence improvements, and in all intelligence activities.

Alarm No. 4, 2001. The 9/11 Attacks. The failure of intelligence agencies to warn about the terrorist attacks led Congress to form another committee of inquiry, and to urge a presidential investigation to further examine the issue[8]. There was also a congressional probe into the CIA HUMINT and HUMINT inadequacies.

The authors are candid about the tactical mistakes made by the investigators (such as giving North substantial control over the manner of his appearance before the committee). The book has a narrow focus and requires considerable background knowledge of Iran-Contra to be fully appreciated[9].

Alarm No. 3, 1994: The Ames Counterintelligence Failure. Lawmakers were concerned about a spy case that revealed how the Soviets were able to recruit Aldrich Ames. A report was issued calling for counterintelligence improvements, and in all intelligence activities.

Alarm No. 4, 2001: The 9/11 Attacks. The failure of intelligence agencies to warn about the terrorist attacks led Congress to form another committee of inquiry, and to urge a presidential investigation to further examine the issue. There was also a congressional probe into the CIA HUMINT and HUMINT inadequacies.

Alarm No. 5, 2003: Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. No WMD were found in spite of intelligence (obviously erroneous) of their likely presence. Yet another presidential commissioln was set up to investigate the analytic failure.

In the time span 1974-2006, Congress produced several key legislative proposals related to intelligence. Of the 12 major initiatives, only one occurred outside the context of a major fire alarm response. That was the Intelligence Identities Act of 1982, which produced a law providing stiff penalties against anyone who revealed, without proper authorization, the name of a U. S. intelligence officer or asset. The rest were the result of shocks.

Year Stimulus Oversight Purpose of Response
1974 FA (#1) Hughes-Ryan Act Controls over covert action


1976-77 FA (#1) Est. oversight committees; critical reports[10] More robust oversight
1978 FA (#1) FISA Warrants for electronic surveillance
1980 FA (#1) Intel. Oversight Act Tighten oversight rules
1982 P Intel. Identities Act Protect intel. officers/agents
1987 FA (#2) Critical report[11] Improve intelligence oversight
1989 FA (#2) Inspector General Act Improve internal CIA oversight
1991 FA (#2) Intel. Oversight Act Further tighten oversight rules
1996 FA (#3) Est. DCI assistants; critical reports[12] IC management improvements; strengthening CI
2001 FA (#4) Patriot Act; authorization of war against Al Qaeda and Taliban regime; increases in counterterrorism funding Surveillance of suspected terrorists; paramilitary counterattacks against Al Qaeda and Taliban
2004 FA(#4) Critical reports[13] Improve HUMINT, and analysis
2004 FA (#4, #5) Intel. Reform & Terrorism Prevention Act Strengthening CT, IC coordination


The Frequency of Intense Intelligence Accountability

Pearl Harbor was the most important intelligence “wake-up call” for congressional overseers before creation of the CIA. The intelligence portions of the National Security Act of 1947 were a delayed response to that intelligence failure, coupled with growing concern about the rise of the Soviet Union.

Following establishment of the modern intelligence community in 1947, several low-threshhold fire alarms sounded in the early years of the Cold War.

  • Outbreak of the Korean War (1950)
  • Bay of Pigs disaster (1961)
  • CIA ties to National Student Association, and other domestic groups (1966)
  • Alleged CIA connection to Watergate burglars (1973)

The later, more significant alarms caught the attention of the U. S. population, which led lawmakers to focus on events causing the alarms to sound.

The Frequency of Low- and High-Threshold Intelligence Alarms, 1941-2006

(with high-threshold in bold)

Year 1941   1950   1961   1966   1974   1987   1994   2001   2003  
Alarm F F F S S S S F F
Interval (yrs) 9 11 5 7 1 13[14] 7 7 2

                                                                                                                                                                                Average = 7.6

The events

Year Event Thresholds
1941 Pearl Harbor attack High
1950 Outbreak of war on Korean Peninsula Low
1961 Bay of Pigs Low
1966 CIA-National Student Association Scandal Low
1973 CIA-Watergage “scandal” Low
1974 Domestic spying scandal High
1987 Iran-Contra scandal High
1994 Ames counterintelligence failure High
2001 9/11 attacks High
2003 Faulty WMD analysis (Iraq) High



  • F = failure of collection or analysis
  • S = scandal or impropriety
  • WMD = weapons of mass destruction


Intelligence Failures and Scandals

There is a significant contrast between intelligence failures and scandals. Failures are frequently inadvertent, resulting from the lack of a well placed agent, a satellite, rapid translation of intercepted communication, or lack of an experienced analyst. Less excusable events result from poor performance or incompetence. They result form human fallibility, and thus are inevitable. Some of this can be mitigated, but the possibility can never be fully eliminated.

Some things are simply “unknowable” in advance. These are “mysteries” as opposed to “secrets,” e.g. Who will follow Putin? No one can know until it happens.

Scandals and improprieties are usually intentional. They might be eliminated by better recruiting. Yet, intelligence scandals are as inevitable as any other failure.

Steps can be taken to decrease the odds of mistakes and wrongdoing, but improving methods of collection and analysis, carefully selecting personnel, and steadfastly patrolling the secret agencies.

Taking the Shock out of the Shock Theory

Better and consistent oversight and attention to providing resources and setting agendas may help uncover threats in advance. This must be carefully analyzed, and not mere “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”


[1] Loch K. Johnson is Regents Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, and author of numerous books on U. S. intelligence and national security.

[2] As a general reference, see Hans Born (2005), et al. Who’s Watching the Spies?

[3] See also Loch K. Johnson (1985). A Season of Inquiry

[4] See Joel D. Aberbach (1991). Keeping A Watchful Eye: The Politics of Congressional Oversight

[5] William S. Cohen (1988) and George J. Mitchell. Men of Zeal: A Candid Inside Story of the Iran-Contra Hearings

[6] U. S. Congress (1987). Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition and House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transaction with Iran. Hearings and Final Report. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office

[7] See Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “An Assessment of the Aldrich H. Ames Espionage Case and Its Implications for U.S. Intelligence” (01 November 1994), at http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1994_rpt/ssci_ames.htm

[8] See “Report of The Joint Inquiry into The Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001” –by The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence And The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence


[9] For a full history of Iran-Contra, see Theodore Draper (1992) A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs. Clearwater, FL: Touchstone. [LCCN: 90021751]

[10] The Church Committee Report (1976); Rockefeller Commission Report (1975); Pike Committee Report

[11] See The Inouye-Hamilton Report (1987)

[12] Aspin-Brown Commission Report (1996); Staff Study (1996), IC21: Intelligence Community in the 21st Century

[13] The Graham-Goss Committees Report (2002). Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001; Goss Committee Report (2004); Roberts Committee Report (2004).

[14] Excluding the CIA-Watergate case


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4 Responses to A Season of Inquiry

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