Where Gerald Ford Went Wrong
After replacing Richard Nixon in 1974, Gerald Ford turned his back on the imperial presidency that had reached new heights under Nixon. But facing political pressure from the Republican Right, Ford gradually reversed course putting the nation on track for even worse excesses under George W. Bush.
This mixed legacy has been missed amid the effusive eulogies that have followed Ford’s death on Dec. 26 at the age of 93. Ford has been showered with near universal praise for helping to bring the nation together in the wake of Nixon’s Watergate scandal and the U.S. military defeat in Vietnam.
Ford is depicted as a common man who toasted his own English muffins, respected the constitutional role of Congress, supported reform of the CIA and advocated negotiations with the Soviet Union, a process known as “détente.”
But this praise focuses on the first months of his 2 ½-year presidency. By late 1975 and early 1976, Ford began shifting direction when he found himself threatened by Ronald Reagan’s insurgent campaign for the Republican nomination.
To stave off Reagan’s challenge from the Right, Ford made a series of critical concessions, such as backpedaling on CIA reforms, forsaking détente, and compromising the integrity of the CIA’s analytical division to pacify hard-line Cold Warriors.
With George H.W. Bush as the new CIA director in 1976, Ford joined in blocking the release of a congressional report on past CIA abuses and went along with Bush’s cover-up of new CIA scandals, including a Chilean-sponsored terrorist attack in Washington, D.C., that killed a Chilean dissident and an American woman.
Ford gave another boost to the revival of the imperial presidency by credentialing Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who served as White House chiefs of staff. A quarter century later, Rumsfeld and Cheney would provide the intellectual framework for George W. Bush’s assertion of “plenary” – or unlimited – presidential powers.
But Ford began his presidency more inclined to dismantle than rebuild the imperial presidency. Having served a quarter century in Congress as a representative from Michigan, Ford valued the checks and balances that were at the heart of the Founders’ vision for a democratic Republic.
After Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, Ford cleared the decks of many political operatives who had been associated with Nixon’s presidency. For instance, Ford sent Nixon’s Republican National Committee chairman George H.W. Bush halfway around the world to be the U.S. envoy to China. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Ford also named a well-respected legal scholar, Edward Levi, to be Attorney General; Ford permitted investigations of historic CIA abuses; and he cooperated with Congress in negotiating new oversight procedures aimed at preventing future intelligence abuses, like warrantless spying on Americans.
Levi personally supported a congressional initiative called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that would require judicial approval for national security wiretaps against Americans.
Representing the reform faction of the Ford administration, Levi wrote a letter to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Edward Kennedy, agreeing that “the President [would] use procedures established by this bill for all national security electronic surveillance which falls within the scope of this legislation. …
“It will be the policy and intent of the Department of Justice, if this bill is to be enacted, to proceed exclusively pursuant to judicial warrant with respect to all electronic surveillance against domestic communications of American citizens or permanent resident aliens.”
Kennedy posted the Levi letter on the Internet in response to George W. Bush’s assertion that his “plenary” powers allowed him to ignore the FISA system, which was enacted in 1978 and which set the legal rules followed by four presidents before Bush.
The Long March
In many ways, the long march back for the imperial presidency can be traced to the latter half of 1975 and the start of 1976, roughly matching the time when Ford summoned George H.W. Bush back from China to become CIA director.
During the Watergate scandal, Nixon had put the CIA in the investigative crosshairs by citing its need for secrecy as a reason to curtail the Watergate probe. When that claim turned out to be bogus, government and journalistic investigators began examining other abuses that had been hidden under the cloak of CIA secrecy.
The strong political pressure for reform, which dominated during the early days of the Ford administration, also contributed to the flood of embarrassing secrets that soon gushed forth from the CIA.
The leaks began the month after Nixon’s resignation. New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh disclosed that the Nixon administration had authorized $8 million for a clandestine operation to “destabilize” the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile.
The CIA-sponsored chaos from 1970 to 1973 led to a bloody coup in which Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power and Allende was shot to death as Pinochet’s forces stormed the Presidential Palace. Thousands of political dissidents, including Americans and other foreigners, were rounded up and executed.
The CIA initially denied any role in the coup. But CIA Director William Colby revised that account, acknowledging that the agency had misled Congress about the destabilization project.
Other embarrassing CIA disclosures followed, including articles about assassination plots against foreign leaders and reports of drug experimentation on unwitting subjects. In December 1974, the New York Times published another Hersh exposé about illegal CIA spying on U.S. anti-war protesters and other dissidents.
Hersh reported that the CIA collected files on 10,000 American citizens and engaged in break-ins, wiretaps and mail openings, despite its charter prohibiting domestic operations.
Colby’s strategy of relative openness with Congress in acknowledging CIA misdeeds distressed many conservative Republicans and prompted Ford to fire Colby as CIA director. Rumsfeld, who had become Ford’s Secretary of Defense, recommended George H.W. Bush as Colby’s replacement.
In a July 1975 memo to Ford, Rumsfeld praised Bush’s qualifications as a man with a keen political sense and friends in the intelligence community. The Defense Secretary said Bush’s political savvy could prove useful in fending off attacks on the CIA.
Ford accepted Rumsfeld’s recommendation and nominated Bush. But the choice of Bush ran into immediate opposition from Democrats.
Since Bush’s biggest political job had been to protect Nixon’s flanks in Watergate, Democrats questioned whether Bush would manipulate the CIA to protect Ford from damaging disclosures during an expected presidential campaign in 1976.
Democrats worried, too, that Bush would use his position at the CIA to shape intelligence analyses in ways pleasing to his political allies.
“We need a CIA that can resist all the partisan pressures, which may be brought to bear by various groups inside and outside government,” said Senator Frank Church of Idaho, who was then spearheading the Senate’s CIA investigations. The Democratic concerns proved prescient.
Returning from China, Bush assured senators that he would put politics aside and uphold the duties of running the nation’s wide-ranging intelligence community. Bush’s nomination was approved on a 64-27 vote.
At his January 1976 swearing in, however, Bush told an audience of CIA officers that he was on their side. He vowed to rein in public disclosures about the CIA and go on the offensive against political enemies who exposed secrets that damaged CIA operations.
Bush rallied CIA supporters on Capitol Hill to block the release of classified sections of a report on the CIA by a panel headed by Rep. Otis Pike. The Ford administration warned that Congress was endangering CIA “sources and methods” by publishing the report. The strategy worked, leading to a rejection of the report’s release by a 2-to-1 margin in the Democratic-controlled House.
Repudiated even by many members of his own party, Pike called the vote a “travesty of the whole doctrine of separation of powers.” Bitterly, he said the vote made the panel’s work “an exercise in futility.”
In the months that followed, the Ford administration pressed its advantage. Ford announced an intelligence reorganization that incorporated only limited reforms, such as a prohibition on assassinations. Church and Pike criticized Ford’s CIA reform package as a move in the wrong direction.
Ford also proposed a bill, strongly supported by Bush, seeking jail terms for government employees who disclosed intelligence “sources and methods” to journalists and other people unauthorized to have the information.
The Presidential Race
While Bush quieted criticism of the CIA, Ford still recognized the daunting political challenges ahead. The plain-talking former college football player had hurt his political standing with many voters by issuing an unconditional pardon of Nixon.
But Ford was reasonably well positioned to overcome any Democrat who might emerge from a generally weak field of candidates. That field included the brainy former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter; Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a hard-line Cold Warrior; and Church.
Another threat, however, loomed from the Republican Right, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, an ex-movie star who viewed the Nixon-Ford détente strategy toward the Soviet Union as foolhardy.
In the opinion of the Reagan Republicans and many of the rising neoconservatives around the Scoop Jackson campaign, the Soviet Union was not the foundering superpower seeking any port in the storm, as some CIA analysts believed.
Instead, to these conservatives, the Soviet Union was an ascendant colossus pursuing a ruthless strategy of paralyzing the United States with an offensive nuclear threat while deploying guerrillas, terrorists and other "asymmetrical" forces to weaken, surround and ultimately defeat the United States.
In 1976, the old Cold Warriors and the young neocons understood that the CIA’s tempered analysis of Soviet power was the underpinning of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s détente strategy, the gradual normalizing of relations with the Soviet Union.
Détente was, in effect, a plan to negotiate an end to the Cold War or at least its most dangerous elements. It signaled not only a possible reduction in East-West tensions but held out the promise of budget savings by eliminating the need for expensive new weapons programs.
Détente, therefore, threatened many powerful interests around Washington.
In March 1976, with Reagan gaining ground in Republican primaries, Ford ordered his White House aides “to forget the use of the word détente.” Putting another scare into the Ford campaign, Reagan pulled off an upset in the North Carolina primary on March 23.
Ford was ready to toss the conservatives a bone by giving them access to the CIA’s raw data and permission to prepare a competing analysis of Soviet power. But the project represented a test for George H.W. Bush.
As a CIA director who considered himself a defender of the agency’s interests, he would have to undercut the proud analytical division. But as a Republican with political ambitions, he – like Ford – needed to win some points with an increasingly influential bloc of Republicans, those who wanted to aggressively confront the Soviet Union.
“Although his top analysts argued against such an undertaking, Bush checked with the White House, obtained an O.K. and by May 26  signed off on the experiment with the notation, ‘Let her fly!!’” wrote Anne Hessing Cahn in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Bush offered the rationale that the conservative analysts, known as “Team B,” would represent an intellectual challenge to the CIA’s official assessments. His rationale, however, assumed that “Team B” didn’t have a pre-set agenda to fashion a worst-case scenario for launching a new and intensified Cold War.
Not surprisingly, “Team B,” which included a young neoconservative academic named Paul Wolfowitz, denounced the CIA for a consistent underestimation of the “intensity, scope and implicit threat” from the Soviet Union.
Though the analysis of the Soviet Union as a rising power on the verge of overwhelming the United States is now recognized by intelligence professionals and many historians as a wild fantasy, “Team B” helped shape the national security debate in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.
The CIA’s concessions to the Right also made political sense for Ford, buying him some protection from Reagan’s sniping. Reagan came on strong in the later rounds of Republican primaries, but his challenge to the incumbent President fell short.
After winning the Republican nomination, however, Ford still saw the need to appease the Republican Right, so he dumped Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate Republican, and selected a more hard-line running mate, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
Trailing Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter in the polls, Ford also realized that he couldn’t afford any new scandals.
Bush assured Ford that all was quiet at the Langley front. On Aug. 3, 1976, Bush reported to Ford that “the CIA is a disciplined organization – trained to support the director.” Bush observed, too, that it was important to “get the CIA off the front pages and at some point out of the papers altogether.”
So far, Bush had made good on that goal. Having stopped the hemorrhaging of the CIA’s reputation, Bush simply had to make sure the agency avoided any new wounds before the November elections.
During George H.W. Bush’s year in charge of the CIA, however, a major intelligence scandal bubbled beneath the surface threatening to erupt. After a series of anticommunist military coups in South America’s Southern Cone, right-wing forces were stepping up violent operations across Latin America against their enemies on the Left.
This cross-border project of assassinations and bombings – called “Operation Condor” – presented a political danger to Ford’s election campaign because it could put the CIA back on the front pages and remind the nation of the dark days of the Nixon presidency.
In Bush’s first few months at CIA, right-wing violence across the Southern Cone had surged. On March 24, 1976, the Argentine military staged a coup, ousting the ineffectual President Isabel Peron and escalating a brutal internal security campaign against both violent and non-violent opponents on the Left.
The Argentine security forces became especially well-known for grisly methods of torture and the practice of “disappearing” political dissidents who would be snatched from the streets or from their homes, undergo torture and never be seen again.
Like Chile’s dictator Pinochet, the new Argentine dictators saw themselves on a mission to save Western Civilization from the clutches of leftist thought. They took pride in the “scientific” nature of their repression.
The Argentine coup allowed the pace of cross-border executions under Operation Condor to quicken. On May 21, gunmen killed two Uruguayan congressmen on a street in Buenos Aires. On June 4, former Bolivian President Juan Jose Torres was slain also in Buenos Aires.
Pinochet also had his eye on Washington, where his government was facing condemnation for its human rights violations. One of the most eloquent critics was Chile’s former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, who was operating out of a liberal think tank in Washington, the Institute for Policy Studies.
Letelier was doubly infuriating to Pinochet because Letelier was regarded as a man of intellect and charm, even impressing CIA officers who called him “a personable, socially pleasant man” and “a reasonable, mature democrat,” according to biographical sketches.
By summer 1976, Bush’s CIA was hearing a lot about Operation Condor from South American sources who had attended a second organizational conference of Southern Cone intelligence services.
These CIA sources reported that the military regimes were preparing “to engage in ‘executive action’ outside the territory of member countries.” In intelligence circles, “executive action” is a euphemism for assassination.
While information about the larger Condor strategy was spreading through the upper levels of the Ford administration, Pinochet and Gen. Manuel Contreras, chief of Chile’s intelligence agency, DINA, were putting in motion their most audacious assassination plan yet: to eliminate Orlando Letelier in his safe haven in Washington, D.C.
In July 1976, two Chilean intelligence operatives – Michael Townley and Armando Fernandez Larios – went to Paraguay where DINA had arranged for them to get false passports and visas for a trip to the United States.
Townley and Larios were using the false names Juan Williams and Alejandro Romeral and a cover story claiming they were investigating suspected leftists working for Chile’s state copper company in New York. Townley and Larios said their project had been cleared with the CIA’s Station Chief in Santiago.
A senior Paraguayan official, Conrado Pappalardo, urged U.S. Ambassador George Landau to cooperate, citing a direct appeal from Pinochet in support of the mission. Supposedly, the Paraguayan government claimed, the two Chileans were to meet with CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters.
An alarmed Landau recognized that the visa request was highly unusual, since such operations are normally coordinated with the CIA station in the host country and are cleared with CIA headquarters.
Though granting the visas, Landau took the precaution of sending an urgent cable to Walters and photostatic copies of the fake passports to the CIA. Landau said he received an urgent cable back signed by CIA Director Bush, reporting that Walters, who was in the process of retiring, was out of town.
When Walters returned a few days later, he cabled Landau that he had “nothing to do with this” mission. Landau immediately canceled the visas. Landau also alerted senior State Department officials.
But the Ford administration dithered over delivering a formal demarche demanding that Pinochet’s government cease and desist in its cross-border assassinations.
Assassination on Embassy Row
As for the Letelier operation, DINA sent Townley under a different alias to carry out the murder. After arriving in New York on Sept. 9, Townley connected with Cuban National Movement leader Guillermo Novo in Union City, New Jersey, and then headed to Washington. Townley assembled a remote-controlled bomb that used pieces bought at Radio Shack and Sears.
On Sept. 18, joined by Cuban extremists Virgilio Paz and Dionisio Suarez, Townley went to Letelier’s home in Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington. The assassination team attached the bomb underneath Letelier’s Chevrolet Chevelle.
Three days later, on the morning of Sept. 21, Paz and Suarez followed Letelier as he drove to work with two associates, Ronni Moffitt and her husband Michael. As the Chevelle proceeded down Massachusetts Avenue, through an area known as Embassy Row because many of the city’s embassies line the street, the assassins detonated the bomb.
The blast ripped off Letelier’s legs and punctured a hole in Ronni Moffitt’s jugular vein. She drowned in her own blood at the scene; Letelier died after being taken to George Washington University Hospital. Michael Moffitt survived.
At the time, the attack represented the worst act of international terrorism on U.S. soil. Adding to the potential for scandal, the terrorism had been carried out by a regime that was an ostensible ally of the United States, one that had gained power with the help of the Nixon administration and the CIA.
Senior officials in the Ford administration, including Secretary of State Kissinger, were implicated in those events. Though initially treated in the press as a murder mystery, the Letelier bombing threatened to unleash a major political scandal at just the wrong time for President Ford’s campaign.
Within hours of the bombing, Letelier’s associates accused the Pinochet regime, citing its hatred of Letelier and its record for brutality. The Chilean government, however, heatedly denied any responsibility.
That night at a dinner at the Jordanian Embassy, Senator James Abourezk, a South Dakota Democrat, spotted Bush and approached the CIA director. Abourezk said he was a friend of Letelier’s and beseeched Bush to get the CIA “to find the bastards who killed him.” Abourezk said Bush responded: “I’ll see what I can do. We are not without assets in Chile.”
A problem, however, was that one of the CIA’s best-placed assets – DINA chief Contreras – would turn out to be a mastermind of the assassination. Wiley Gilstrap, the CIA’s Santiago Station Chief, did approach Contreras with questions about the Letelier bombing and wired back to Langley Contreras’s assurance that the Chilean government wasn’t involved.
The Ford administration had plenty of evidence that Contreras was lying. There were signs everywhere in September 1976 that DINA had been plotting some kind of attack inside the United States, including the suspicious mission through Paraguay. Bush’s CIA even had in its files a photograph of the leader of the terrorist squad, Michael Townley.
Rather than fulfilling his promise to Abourezk to “see what I can do,” Bush ignored leads that would have taken him into a confrontation with Pinochet. Any publicity might have opened up the Ford administration to another round of political damage for coddling a terrorist regime.
Bush’s CIA chose to accept Contreras’s denials and even began leaking information that pointed away from the real killers. Newsweek’s Periscope reported in the magazine’s Oct. 11, 1976, issue that “the Chilean secret police were not involved. …. The [Central Intelligence] agency reached its decision because the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts and because the murder, coming while Chile’s rulers were wooing U.S. support, could only damage the Santiago regime.”
Similar stories ran in other newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Though Bush managed to stonewall the Letelier investigation until after the Nov. 2 election, containment of the scandal was not enough to put Ford over the top. Despite carving into Carter’s once-formidable lead, Ford lost in one of the closest elections in U.S. history.
Yet, despite Ford’s narrow defeat, the seeds for a Republican resurgence – and a revival of the imperial presidency – had been planted.
By late 1976, it was clear that the GOP would not be the party favoring a constrained executive and government openness; it would resist congressional oversight of the CIA and other intelligence agencies; it would push a hard-line against the Soviet menace even if the threat was really in steep decline.
CIA Director Bush further advanced that cause when he embraced the alarmist “Team B” analysis of Soviet power. In November 1976, Bush approved a new National Intelligence Estimate, entitled “Soviet Forces for Intercontinental Conflict Through the Mid-1980s.”
Bush’s cover letter declared that “to the extent that this Estimate presents a starker appreciation of Soviet strategic capabilities and objectives, it is but the latest in a series of estimates that have done so as evidence has accumulated on the continuing persistence and vigor of Soviet programs in the strategic offensive and defensive fields.”
In many ways, the course of the next three decades had been set. The imperial presidency was on the road back.
Four years later, Ronald Reagan would wrest the White House from Jimmy Carter. With George H.W. Bush as his Vice President, Reagan would challenge the post-Watergate constraints on executive powers.
When Congress sought to impose legal restrictions on waging war in Nicaragua or requiring notification about weapons shipments to foreign countries like Iran, Reagan simply went outside the law, hid the operations and misled Congress about the facts.
Reagan’s extralegal activities eventually were exposed in the Iran-Contra scandal, but key Republicans, including then-Rep. Dick Cheney, fought back and achieved a strategic victory for the imperial presidency when congressional Democrats shied away from a constitutional confrontation with the White House.
The imperial presidency was fully restored in 2001 when George W. Bush, with Cheney as his Vice President, took office, broadening the notion of executive secrecy and – after the 9/11 attacks – asserting Bush’s “plenary” powers as Commander in Chief for the duration of the interminable “war on terror.”
Cheney, who staffed his vice presidential office with neoconservatives and advocates of unrestrained executive authority, seemed to take particular delight in brushing aside the remnants of the post-Watergate reforms, which he had disdained from his days as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff.
Rumsfeld was back, too, in his Ford-era job as Defense Secretary, along with other neoconservative ideologues, such as his deputy Paul Wolfowitz.
Befitting the mixed legacy of his presidency, Ford held personal doubts about the direction that the Republican Party had followed and particularly George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
But Ford kept his criticisms secret, even embargoing a 2004 interview about the Iraq War until after his death. In other words, Ford stayed silent during the run-up to the invasion in 2003 and then withheld his critical judgments for another three years, while 3,000 American soldiers and possibly a half million or more Iraqis died.
Only after Ford’s death did the American people learn that this respected ex-President had told the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward that “I don’t think I would have ordered the Iraq war. … I think I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer.” [Washington Post, Dec. 28, 2006]
In his death as in his life, Ford exercised the caution, even timidity, that marked a man of decent instincts who shied from battles needed to restore the principles of the American Republic. His ambiguity of purpose may be Ford’s true legacy as the 38th U.S. President.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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