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Remember When Liberals Despised the National Security State?

The media and Hollywood always fancied themselves watchdogs of FBI and CIA corruption—until now.

Character Joe Turner (played by Robert Redford) pointing gun at rogue CIA Middle East director Leonard Atwood (played by Addison Powell) in a scene from the film 'Three Days Of The Condor', 1975. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

In April 1975, former director of national intelligence Richard Helms, then the U.S. ambassador to Iran, left a hearing room where he had been grilled for three hours about CIA misdeeds then coming to light in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Seeing CBS reporter Daniel Schorr waiting outside, the normally controlled spymaster lashed out with breathtaking venom.

“Killer Schorr! Killer Schorr!” he  shouted at the newsman, who had just aired a story alleging CIA assassination attempts against various foreign leaders. At a subsequent news conference, he responded to a Schorr question by saying, “I don’t like the lies you’ve been putting on the air.” 

At the time of Helms’ outburst, Dan Schorr was known by serious viewers of television news as a man of undisguised liberalism, an identity that would become more pronounced when he later became an on-air commentator for CNN and NPR. But even as early as 1964, during the Lyndon Johnson-Barry Goldwater presidential campaign, he’d revealed his political bias by reporting falsely from Germany that Goldwater planned to kick off his fall campaign in, of all places, Bavaria, “center of Germany’s right wing” and “Hitler’s one-time stomping ground.” He said Goldwater had given an interview to the magazine Der Spiegel “appealing to right-wing elements in Germany.” There were even signs “that the American and German right wings are joining up.”

It was all bogus. Goldwater had no plans to campaign in Germany and in fact had not mentioned Germany in any way suggested by Schorr. The Der Spiegel interview was a reprint that had originally been published elsewhere and didn’t appeal to German political sensibilities at all. It should have been a firing offense, but Schorr survived it. Hence, in 1975, he was in Washington covering national security matters and filling the CBS airwaves with abundant scoops laying bare security agency abuses then tumbling out of two congressional investigations and another promulgated by the Gerald Ford administration. 

Schorr’s relentless reporting on these matters reflected a fundamental reality of American politics in those times. If you worked within the national security establishment and involved yourself in abuses of power, you would do well to beware the forces of American liberalism, for they would assuredly come after you. Liberalism was, in those days, the watchdog of American politics, rooting out abuses of power at the CIA, the FBI, and other law enforcement and national security agencies. 

Conservatives back then tended to defend those agencies or at least warn ominously against undermining their ability to do their jobs. Liberals seemed more motivated by the age-old warning—often embraced by conservatives in other contexts—that power corrupts and that especially those holding stealthy power needed to be watched closely and reined in. 

Thinking back on those days, one wonders about today’s liberal establishment. How could it be so blasé about what are clear abuses of power by law enforcement and intelligence officials in the now-infamous Russian collusion probe? How could it be so aggressive in defending those actions even as their abusive nature becomes increasingly clear? Where are the Dan Schorrs of today?

And it wasn’t just liberals in journalism and the political arena who raised warnings about corruption in the national security state. Consider the popular culture of that time. Even as the Cold War lingered as a specter of danger to America and the West, the liberal moviemakers of Hollywood often ignored all that in preference of their favorite boogeymen—bad guys at the upper levels of government agencies.

In 1975, the same year that “Killer Schorr” was bedeviling Richard Helms, director Sydney Pollack brought out Three Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. It tells the story of Joe Turner (Redford), a studious CIA researcher who works at a clandestine New York front organization. He returns to his office from a lunch carryout errand one day to find all his colleagues slaughtered. Seeking help from CIA officials, he soon discovers that his agency handlers are complicit in ongoing efforts to get him killed. After an intense and suspenseful cat-and-mouse drama, we learn that the CIA’s deputy director of operations for the Middle East had grown agitated when he’d learned that a Turner research report had provided links to a rogue operation bent on seizing Middle Eastern oil fields. Fearing its disclosure, he had privately ordered Turner’s New York section to be killed off. 

It’s a slick and engaging romp of a movie, but think about its message—even amidst the dangers of Cold War diplomacy, the real threat resided in the CIA. Power corrupts. Beware the unaccountable official with cloak and dagger. 

And consider how Joe Turner manages to expose the CIA corruption and finally extract himself from danger. He gives the story to The New York Times, that cathedral of journalistic liberalism. That may have been a clever move back in 1975, but it wouldn’t work today. The Times is now hermetically aligned with the national security establishment. The leaks it publishes all come from that establishment and are usually self-protective in nature, rather than from those who wish to expose wayward corruption.

Later, after the Cold War had ended, liberal moviemakers continued to focus on treachery in the national security labyrinth. In the 1986 thriller F/X, the bad guys are Justice Department officials maneuvering in a dark underworld of intrigue and corruption. In The Pelican Brief (1993), the villain is an oil tycoon willing to assassinate Supreme Court justices who could thwart his drilling plans, which he gets away with for a considerable time in part because he’d wormed his way into the inner circle of the president and his chief of staff. When Tom Cruise, as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible (1996), seeks to extricate himself from a frame-up, he discovers that his tormenter is his boss, the head of the fabled Mission Impossible Force, who had faked his own death in furtherance of his dastardly aims.  

More recently, in the post-9/11 era, a 2013 British-American movie called Closed Circuit begins with a bombing that appears to be a product of Islamist fundamentalism. But as the drama unfolds, it turns out the evildoers are—you guessed it—officials of MI5. 

And don’t forget Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), which suggests roundly that the man behind the John Kennedy assassination was his own vice president, Lyndon Johnson—despite the total lack of any evidence of Johnson complicity. Although Stone’s biopic is entertaining and often authentic in its rendition of events, it nonetheless rises to ridiculous and disturbing heights in pressing the popular culture obsession with what might be called “the enemy within.” 

How do we account for this obsession on the part of American liberalism? Perhaps it can be attributed in part to the fact that most liberals were civil libertarians, fearful of threats to individualism from any quarter, even from elements of big government (other government agencies didn’t seem to bother them much). That was, after all, the post-Vietnam era, when antiwar activists embraced a kind of liberal isolationism that began with the proposition that America was a rogue nation likely to spread pain and suffering whenever it ventured out into the world. That being the case (in this view), it followed that those who wanted to take America into the world were particularly susceptible to villainy. 

Taken to extremes, this was not a healthy attitude, for it undermined confidence in American institutions. But in a general sense, it served to remind people of a fundamental reality of any civic structure—that governmental power needs to be curtailed and monitored lest it be abused. And this is particularly true in the area of national security, shrouded in secrecy as it is. 

And yet here we are, with more revelations trickling out regularly about the origins of this mysterious Russia probe and an initiative on the part of the outgoing administration to spy on the people of the incoming administration. You don’t have to be Sean Hannity to ask the question: what in the world was going on here? And yet the presumed paragons of the liberal establishment media—The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, various web outlets—simply refused to accept that there might be a story there. They joined the national security establishment in declaring that the only investigation worth pursuing centered on Russian collusion and likely treason at the highest levels of the Donald Trump entourage.  

That’s getting harder and harder to sustain as new revelations raise new questions and as more pieces of the puzzle come together. It now appears likely that the mystery will be unraveled in the end. 

But the mystery of today’s liberal media will linger on. Daniel Schorr of CBS wasn’t an unblemished reporter, as his egregious report on Goldwater attests. But he could smell a story when it was under his nose, and he never aligned himself with unaccountable power cloaked in secrecy. He also never lost sight of an immutable fact of political life: power corrupts. 

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).

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