Andrew Gasdaska, The CIA On Trial
College and University campuses have always been hotbeds of radical political activism, particularly in the years following the various largely student driven social movements of the 1960’s in the United States and abroad. Many of the accomplishments achieved during the era owed some credit to the organizing and activism efforts of students, and these efforts have served as inspiration for subsequent generations of student activists who have dedicated their time and efforts to working for causes intended to benefit other people suffering from social injustices. It just so happens that the United States Government, for all the good it’s done, has also been accused of committing and perpetuating a significant share of injustices across the world, and for this reason it has fairly frequently been the target of student activists and demonstrators over the years.
Taking a radical stance against the U.S. Government means potentially facing the prospect of a backlash from the citizens (especially the more politically conservative-oriented ones) for questioning the government’s intentions and authority. Radical activists have provoked the ire and wrath of the U.S. government and law enforcement in the past for doing what they felt was necessary, and some had to deal with extremely serious consequences for it. Occasionally, however, radical activists who felt the need to protest against what they considered unjust actions committed by the U.S. Government were able to achieve victories, and even win legal support for their actions. One such instance occurred here at UMass in the fall of 1986 when student activists decided to protest the presence of CIA recruiters on campus, due to the fact that they considered the CIA a criminal organization which had no place on a state university campus. (The Boston Phoenix) (Belknap)
Like most radical movements and protests, the UMass anti-CIA recruitment student protest and building occupation was controversial and of questionable legality. However it is particularly significant due to its outcome as well as the means by which this was achieved. In order to fully explain the protest’s outcome and how it occurred, this essay will first detail the background and history of events and controversies involving the CIA in the years leading up to the occurrence of the student protest and building occupation, and then will describe and summarize the actual protest as well as the subsequent trial, its outcome, and how this came to be.
During the late 1980’s in the years and months leading up to the student protest at UMass, the CIA had been receiving some negative publicity due to allegations of wrongdoing in relation to secret CIA war campaigns being conducted in Central and South America. Particularly in the Central American country of Nicaragua, the CIA continually backed and funded a terroristic rebel insurgent group known as the Contras, a name that reflected the fact that they opposed the legitimately elected Communist government. Even after the passage of the Boland Amendment, which was a congressional legislative amendment specifically intended to prohibit the CIA from supporting the Contras, the CIA continued to do just this by finding ways to circumvent the restrictions of the amendment or else simply ignoring them. The revelation of these illegal activities committed by the CIA was part of a larger and deeper political scandal that came to light in the mid to late 1980’s known as the Iran-Contra affair. (Webb) (The Boston Phoenix)
The Nicaraguan Contras connected to Iran through the U.S. government and the CIA in particular’s involvement in both countries. Throughout the Cold War, the CIA on behalf of the U.S. government had secretly been involved in helping to fund, arm, and support various anti-communist rebel groups and insurgencies in Communist or Communist-controlled countries all over the globe. The Contra rebels in Nicaragua were one such example of this. The U.S. government also had dealings in Middle-Eastern countries such as Lebanon and Iran, due to the ongoing hostage crisis involving these countries. This hostage crisis involved American and European citizens who were captured and held hostage in Lebanon by terrorists associated with the Lebanon-based Muslim militant organization Hezbollah, although it is also believed that the Iranian government played a role in orchestrating the plot. Due in part to this, Iran, which was in the midst of a war with neighboring Iraq, was subjected to an arms embargo by the U.S. government. (Webb) (The Boston Phoenix) (Committee)
The Iran-Contra affair was the result of a scheme formulated by top U.S. government and military officials that intended to secure the release of American hostages from the Middle East and simultaneously allow for funds to be secretly channeled to the Nicaraguan Contras. This was done by reaching a compromise to essentially barter weapon sales to Iran for the release of the hostages. In order to circumvent the arms embargo on Iran, the U.S. enlisted Israel to sell the weapons to Iran, which would then be reimbursed by the U.S. Eventually however, the CIA began providing weapons directly to the Iranians and using the profits to continue funding the Contra insurgency. This part of the scheme in particular was devised and supervised primarily by U.S. military aide Oliver North. (Webb) (Committee) (Walsh)
Although this plan was successful in facilitating the release of American hostages, details of the scheme were eventually leaked to the Iranian press and made public in 1986, which resulted in a scandal erupting. Military officials and members of the Reagan Administration involved in the scandal were subjected to considerable media scrutiny, and fourteen administration officials, including then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, were indicted and charged with crimes. However, all were either acquitted or eventually received pardons during the final days of the presidency of George H. W. Bush, who was the vice-president at the time the scandal erupted. Some of those who were pardoned even managed to later become members of the administration of President George W. Bush, Jr. President Reagan was ultimately cleared of any responsibility for the fiasco, although it is questionable whether or not he did in fact play a role or at least have knowledge of it. Accounts vary, but this is difficult to verify due to the secrecy that still surrounds the scandal as well as the fact that large volumes of documents relating to it were destroyed or withheld from investigators by Reagan administration officials. (Webb) (Walsh) (Johnston) (Committee)
The scandal took an even darker turn when it was alleged that the CIA played a role in starting the crack-cocaine addiction epidemic that was ravaging American cities at the time, due to its involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. It was alleged that the Contras were heavily involved in trafficking drugs into the U.S., and that Oliver North and other U.S. officials involved in the affair were fully aware of it yet chose to withhold this information from the DEA and other U.S. law enforcement. Some accounts even suggest that U.S. airplanes used to supply arms to the Nicaraguan Contras were being flown back to the U.S. with Contras personnel aboard carrying cocaine. This is entirely possible; as subsequent investigations by a Congressional committee headed by Senator John Kerry as well as independent journalists confirmed that CIA personnel were aware of cocaine transactions and large shipments of drugs into the U.S. by the Contra personnel and directly aided drug dealers to raise money for the Contras. (Webb) (Committee) (Walsh)
The CIA’s connections to drug trafficking and the crack epidemic were further highlighted following the arrest of a Los Angeles drug distributer named Ricky ‘Freeway’ Ross in 1996. Ross, an African-American, had built and operated the largest, most sophisticated and profitable crack-cocaine distribution network in the United States throughout the 1980’s and early ‘90s. After his arrest, it was revealed that his cocaine supply source was a Nicaraguan Contra supporter who was also on the CIA’s payroll. These connections were detailed extensively in the mid-‘90s by journalist Gary Webb, in an investigative report series-turned-book entitled ‘Dark Alliance’. (Webb) (Committee) (Johnston)
As these scandals were unfolding in the late 1980’s, some U.S. citizens took it upon themselves to protest and demonstrate against the actions of the CIA. In light of the allegations of wrongdoing by the CIA, college students at UMass Amherst and other schools throughout the country took issue with the fact that representatives for the CIA were permitted to hold recruitment sessions on college and university campuses. Four members of the Radical Student Union at UMass started the anti-CIA recruitment protest movement here on October 4th 1986 by forming the Stop CIA Recruitment Organizing Committee in response to seeing CIA recruitment ads on campus. They charged that the CIA was an evil criminal enterprise that had no business recruiting students on college campuses because university policy forbade criminal organizations from doing so. Demonstrations and protests were organized to coincide with the arrival of CIA recruiters on campus and advertized in collegiate newspapers and bulletins. These protests gained considerable support and occurred on campuses across the country, including the University of Colorado and University of Central Florida, however the UMass protest garnered the most attention due to the participation and arrests of famed radical activist Abbie Hoffman and daughter of former President Carter, Amy Carter. (Belknap) (The Harvard Crimson) (Massachusetts Daily Collegian)
The UMass protests began with a candlelight vigil for people killed in Nicaragua on November 13th 1986, followed on November 14th by the occupation of the affirmative action office by demonstrators in an attempt to negotiate with the Chancellor, which resulted in eleven arrests. The protest culminated on November 24th with the occupation of Munson Hall, which resulted in the arrests of 68 protestors, including Hoffman and Carter. The plan for the protest on the 24th was to occupy the building in which the CIA recruitment session was to take place in order to prevent it from being allowed to occur. The demonstrators occupied the building for over seven hours and were successful in disrupting the planned CIA recruitment session. They were eventually forcibly removed from the building by state police who were called in from surrounding areas, arrested for trespassing, and loaded onto buses to be transported to the local jail in Northampton. As the buses tried to leave, their path was blocked by a group of yet more protesters that included Amy Carter, who were all subsequently arrested themselves and charged with disorderly conduct. All together, 68 protestors were arrested, and of these thirteen of them, including Hoffman and Carter, chose to fight the charges in court. (The Boston Phoenix) (The Harvard Crimson) (Massachusetts Daily Collegian)
The trial began the following spring in the Northampton District Court, and drew considerable media attention. It was a particularly noteworthy trial due to the participants as well as the unconventional strategy of the defense and ultimate outcome. The defendants were represented by attorney Leonard Weinglass, who had previously defended Abbie Hoffman during the famous Chicago Seven Trial. The strategy of the defense was unusual in that it didn’t deny that the defendants had committed a crime, but rather employed a ‘necessity defense’. In employing a necessity defense, the defense argues that the defendant(s) should not be held liable for their actions as a crime because their conduct was necessary in order to prevent some greater harm. An example of an appropriate use for this would be trespassing into a burning building in order to save someone trapped inside. Hoffman, Carter, and the rest of the demonstrators/defendants essentially argued that their actions were necessary in order to attempt to prevent more serious crimes from being committed by the CIA. Although it is unusual for defendants to be allowed to employ this type of defense, the prosecution allowed it in order to avoid being perceived as unfair by the predominantly liberal community of Northampton. However the prosecutor’s one condition for allowing the use of the necessity defense was that the prosecution be allowed to hand-pick the jurors, whom they ensured were all average middle-Americans who knew nothing about the CIA or Nicaragua. (The Boston Phoenix) (The Harvard Crimson) (Massachusetts Daily Collegian) (Belknap)
The necessity defense strategy allowed the defendants to shift the focus of the trial from the question of ‘whether or not the demonstrators had broken the law’ to the question of ‘whether or not the CIA had committed crimes that warranted such actions’. The prosecution had no stake in defending the CIA, and made it clear that they had no intention of doing so; their focus was simply on whether or not the protesters were legally justified in occupying the building in an attempt to prevent the CIA from committing crimes. Of course, the demonstrators didn’t literally believe that their occupation and arrests would actually stop the CIA, and they didn’t really think they had a chance of being acquitted, but this wasn’t the point. The intention of the demonstration was to raise awareness and get press coverage for the crimes of the CIA, and to get people to at least think and talk about the issues, and the demonstrators were willing to be convicted in order to have a chance to make their case. In order to do this as effectively as possible, the defense enlisted several prominent figures to serve as witnesses to testify regarding the crimes alleged to have been committed by the CIA. (Massachusetts Daily Collegian) (Phoenix)
The first of these witnesses was a former CIA operative named Ralph McGhee, who testified that the CIA routinely deceived both Congress and the American public in order to justify and maintain covert operations in foreign countries. He brought one of the jurors to tears with his description of the atrocities he had committed on behalf of the CIA, which was an encouraging sign for the defense. This testimony was followed by that of a former Nicaraguan Contra named Edgar Chamorro who further detailed and updated the Agency’s atrocities, explaining that the CIA had hired hardened Argentinean soldiers to teach the contras how to commit atrocities against the civilian population and that, “The philosophy was that you have to fight in ways that people will be really scared, or otherwise they will not respect you.” (Phoenix) He said the Agency asked him to translate a manual, a copy of which was admitted as evidence, titled Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, which advises contra leaders to assassinate respected citizens of small towns, such as judges and doctors, and to make it appear as if the Sandinista government was responsible. Chamorro supported the claim that the CIA had continually funded the Contras and spoke of attacks on civilians by the Contras, asserting that, “The CIA was telling us, in this kind of war, there is no difference between civilian and military.” (Phoenix) Next, two doctors who had visited Nicaragua on humanitarian missions testified to the fact that the contra war was indeed targeting civilians, destroying health centers, and assassinating doctors. These witnesses served to prove that the CIA had presented a ‘clear and imminent threat’ to the defendants, which was a requirement for the necessity defense. (Belknap) (Phoenix)
Upon establishing that the CIA did present a legitimate threat to the defendants, the defense was then required to prove that the CIA had in fact committed crimes in Nicaragua and elsewhere, and also that the protestors sincerely believed that their actions could prevent such crimes from continuing to occur. During this portion of the trial, McGhee, Chamorro, and others including the doctors who had visited Nicaragua all testified that they had witnessed the CIA commit these atrocities in Nicaragua, including but not limited to the systematic kidnapping, torture, and murder of civilians. Next, William Schaap , a lawyer/publisher who had authored books critical of the CIA, testified that he had tried four major cases in which members of Congress were the plaintiffs against the CIA, which were all thrown out of court on the grounds of being ‘too political’. This served to prove that legal options for preventing CIA crimes had been exhausted. (Phoenix)
The final condition of the defense was to prove to the jury that the defendants were sincerely motivated, patriotic Americans who were correct and justified in believing that their actions could bring about change. For this they relied on two prominent witnesses; Howard Zinn, a well respected and renowned political activist, intellectual, and author known for writing A People’s History of The United States, as well as for his near-lifetime involvement in civil rights, civil liberties, and anti-war movements, and Daniel Ellsberg, a government insider-turned-activist who achieved fame and notoriety for leaking the ‘Pentagon Papers’ to the press, which played a major role in ending U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. (Belknap) (Ellsberg)
Zinn, who at the time was a professor of history at Boston University, listed in his testimony examples of various important social movements which had initially begun as student protests, such as the Greensboro, NC student sit-in protest that helped spark the civil rights movement, and also cited examples of student protests which eventually resulted in significant political decisions with far-reaching ramifications, such as anti-war protests which eventually led to the Johnson administration scrapping a plan to raise the number of troops in Vietnam from the existing 535,000 to 735,000. Zinn also cited a book that he himself had written, entitled Disobedience and Democracy, which he originally wrote in 1968 as a direct response to a stance against civil disobedience articulated by Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas entitled ‘Concerning dissent and civil disobedience’. Disobedience and Democracy outlines examples of nine fallacies where democracy fails and civil disobedience is the only option, and basically serves as a manifesto in a sense for laying out the justifications, guidelines, and principles necessary in practicing and carrying out civil disobedience as a means of enacting social and political change when all other traditional options have been exhausted. Zinn’s testimony was followed by that of Ellsberg, who explained that the government’s lack of morality made him seriously disillusioned and motivated him to leak the pentagon papers to the press. (Ellsberg) (Zinn) (Belknap) (The Boston Phoenix)
The fate of the defendants hinged on whether or not the defense could convince the jury that the student protesters had no recourse other than illegal action in order to stop and prevent greater illegal action (in this case by the CIA), and therefore had no alternative but to occupy Munson Hall. The nature of the necessity defense meant that finding the defendants guilty would simultaneously imply that the CIA was innocent, and vice-versa. Many people, including both the prosecution and defense, initially doubted that average middle-Americans would acknowledge that the CIA had committed serious crimes and agree that protestors were justified in peacefully breaking the law in order to stop them. With the testimony of the various witnesses, however, the defense was successfully able to paint a portrait of the CIA as a rogue organization operating in the name, but not in the sight, of the American people. This was enough to convince the jury that the defendants were not guilty, meaning that they also in effect found the Central Intelligence Agency guilty as charged of much more serious crimes, including but not limited to arranging assassinations, torturing and generally terrorizing Nicaraguan civilians, and lying about its actions. Needless to say, supporters of both sides were surprised by the verdict. (The Boston Phoenix) (The Harvard Crimson)
The circumstances leading up to these protests, the strategy employed by the defense, and outcome of the trial all make the topic of the UMass anti-CIA recruitment protest and building occupation notable and worthy of re-examination. It was a unique occurrence in history, in that there are very few (if any) other examples of instances in which protestors, or for that matter anyone else, charged with a crime were allowed to employ a necessity defense and were successful in beating the charges. Perhaps this related to the outcome of the UMass trial. Other factors that likely influenced the outcome of the trial were the historical context, the location, and the considerable resources made available at the defense’s disposal. Although the outcome of the trial was both unprecedented and unlikely, it serves as an ideal example of what can be accomplished through the proper and successful use of civil disobedience, and serves as inspiration in proving that relatively powerless individuals still can make a difference by protesting, and stand up against the authority and might of the U.S. Government and win, so long as they’re morally justified in their actions. (Belknap) (The Harvard Crimson)
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