The American Police State


The American Police State, by David Wise, New York: Random House, 1976, 438 pp., $12.95.

First a few words about your faithful reviewer. For five years and a butt (1966-72) I was a CIA intelligence officer (not an "agent," as the media—and the author of the book under review here—are so fond of mistagging "Company" employees). I worked on "both sides of the house"—the Clandestine Services, which is just what the name implies, spies and such; and the Directorate of Intelligence, which is a bit more than the name implies but essentially the analytical arm of the outfit, where the bits and pieces of "raw" information are fitted together and interpreted. During my CIA years, I came to know a number of the people who show up in the pages of The American Police State.

I believe that intelligence gathering is a legitimate—more than that, essential—function of any defense agency, government or private. I believe that certain kinds of "covert action" operations are perfectly acceptable activities for defense agencies to undertake. And I believe that both sorts of work can be carried out without the perpetration of aggression. These matters need careful consideration, of course. The point here is simply to issue a forewarning.

The American Police State, subtitled "The Government against the People," is the latest effort of David Wise, author of The Politics of Lying and coauthor of The Invisible Government, the 1964 bestseller about the Central Intelligence Agency. It is a big (438 pages) and not very well written or copyedited grab bag of horror stories, facts and pseudofacts, and snide, superficial "liberal" commentary. Wise's writing is deadly dull, guaranteed to put any confirmed insomniac to sleep in jig time—although the substance of the book would likely conjure up nightmares in the bargain.

The book's main focus—if such a rambling work can be said to have a focus—is the abuses of the Nixon gang. Its main Bad Guys, apart from Nixon's personal minions, are the FBI (largely in the person of J. Edgar Hoover), the CIA, and the IRS. Although, unlike others, Wise does not claim that American police-state abuses began and ended with Nixon & Co., his consideration of such activities under Johnson, Kennedy, Truman, and Franklin Roosevelt is sketchy, to say the least. And he bends over backward in an attempt to make the abuses of power under these presidents (with the unsurprising exception of LBJ) seem insignificant when compared to the supposedly wholesale nastiness under Nixon.

Wise also seeks to demonstrate that the political dirty tricks and related operations of Nixon's CREEP were somehow unique, the product of a peculiar megalomaniacal paranoia that infected Nixon's inner circle. Of course, anyone—including Wise—who knows anything about politics knows better. Dirty tricks are part of the political game. But Wise wants us to believe that the Nixon gang was worse than the usual run of political rotters, which is not so—except, perhaps, in terms of competence.

(An aside: If you want the low-down on police-state abuses under presidents other than Nixon and on political dirty trickery in general, pick up a copy of Victor Lasky's It Didn't Start with Watergate. Lasky puts everything in perspective and does so in very readable fashion.)

For all its size, The American Police State contains nothing new of importance. Anyone who has kept up with the Watergate scandals will find Wise's accounts of the wiretap operations, the break-ins at the office of Ellsberg's shrink and the Watergate, etc., to be slightly embellished reruns.

Similarly, the chapter on the IRS is little more than a rehash of media reports on (1) the Nixon gang's efforts to manipulate and harass its enemies through (and to shield its friends against) IRS audits and (2) the IRS's efforts to sniff out (and encourage?) dissipation and sexual "deviance" among high officials in Florida. As if no other presidential administration used the files and power of the IRS in attempts to destroy its enemies. As if the Hank Hohenstein and Karl Bray cases never happened. As if the IRS did not routinely violate the constitutional rights of thousands of Americans.

The stories of CIA hugger-mugger are more of the same: the plots to kill Castro with Mafia help, domestic spying in violation of the law, secret experiments with mind-altering drugs using unwitting human subjects, and so on. All bad and disturbing, to say the least; but unless you have been completely out of touch with the world for the past four years, you have read and heard it all before.

In connection with CIA domestic operations, Wise incorrectly claims that all such activities are illegal and improper. The CIA quite properly is prohibited from running operations against domestic targets. It is not, however, prohibited from carrying out activities within the United States that are directed at targets abroad—again, quite properly. Many legitimate foreign operations require domestic support outside the usual headquarters bureaucracy. Much foreign intelligence information can be most effectively collected right here at home, without in any way infringing anyone's rights. Wise and others conveniently ignore the important distinction between, for example, the illegal CIA support for Nixon's Plumbers and a CIA interview of an American scientist who has volunteered to provide information he picked up while visiting the Soviet Union.

Wise purports to tell the story of "the government against the people," yet he completely ignores the depredations of such statist monstrosities as OSHA, FDA, DEA, and FTC. Apparently only those agencies involved in "national security" work are capable of police-state abuses. Apparently only those politicians who justify their illicit activities as being in the interest of "national security" are in the wrong. Trampling on the rights of individuals is perfectly okay if it is done for "humanitarian" reasons.

None of this is to defend the very real and dangerous abuses of power, the sins of commission and omission, the malversation, the mis- and malfeasance in high places that have come, inevitably, with the rampant growth of the American State. Nor is it to suggest that all this be shrugged off as being "just the way things are." But it is to warn you away from wasting your time and money. If you have kept up with the Watergate and related investigations, don't bother with The American Police State. If not, it might be worth your while—read critically and with a pot of strong coffee at hand.

Mr. Pflock is a free-lance writer and editor and a contributing editor to REASON.