JFK’s Sorensen Could Tell Pelosi a Thing or Two About the CIA
By Jeff Stein, CQ Staff
Nancy Pelosi and Ted Sorensen should have lunch next week and trade stories about the CIA.
Sorensen, of course, is the best known presidential speechwriter of the 20th century, if only on the strength of “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
But I was reminded by reading Sorensen’s engaging new autobiography this week that the speechwriter also became one of President John F. Kennedy’s closest national security advisers in the wake of the CIA’s disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.
“Long after the operation’s failure,” Sorensen writes, “secret minutes emerged of a November 15, 1960, CIA meeting — prior to briefing the new president-elect — in which the CIA’s own reviewers concluded that the invasion was ‘unachievable — [with no] internal unrest earlier believed possible — nor will [Castro’s] defense permit the type [of] strike planned,’ the minutes said.”
Of course, CIA bosses were telling Kennedy the invasion was a slam-dunk.
“To me,” Sorensen writes, “that fiasco earned for the CIA the motto frequently ascribed to it: ‘Often wrong, but never in doubt.’”
Such parts of Sorensen’s memoir, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” proved timely in light of the CIA ambush sprung on Speaker Pelosi a few days ago. A report it gave the “Senate Intelligence Committee and other Capitol Hill officials,” according to news reports, evidently showed that the California congresswoman knew a lot more about CIA enhanced interrogation techniques than she’s been saying.
Of course, if it turns out that Pelosi, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee in 2002, has been lying about what she knew and when about the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, i.e., water boarding and other favorites of Middle Age dungeons, then she can’t complain too much about dirty tricks.
So on Friday I imagined Sorensen inviting Pelosi out for a commiserating drink.
“I know, I know,” Sorensen could murmur, patting the stylish Speaker’s hand over a drink at The Palm.
“Let me tell you what happened to me.”
In 1976, he recalls in his memoir, President-elect Jimmy Carter talked Sorensen into taking the head job at the CIA, only to have the nomination blow up in both of their faces.
Sorensen says he had been hoping for a job in the new administration — he’d gilded Carter with Kennedy glamour early on — but not that one.
“In a conversation with Senator Ted Kennedy, I told him I had grave doubts about my own suitability,” Sorensen writes.
For starters, Sorensen, the son of righteous Nebraska pacifists, had planned to enter military service in World War Two as a conscientious objector.
For another starter, in 1973 Sorensen had signed an affidavit in support of Daniel Ellsberg, saying that the Defense Department’s secret history of U.S. dirty tricks in Vietnam weren’t properly classified.
There were other things in his background that the Carter transition team failed to check out — Sorensen had not tried to hide anything, he says — but in the riptides of Washington politics, those two things were enough to do him in.
“What began as a trickle of objections from the right swelled to a flood tide,” Sorensen recalls.
CIA old boys got into the act, too.
“Retired CIA covert action operatives feared that I would strengthen the ongoing trend to oppose covert operations (true),” he writes.
“Some old-time employees of the agency even opposed me because of JFK’s negative statements about the CIA after the Bay of Pigs,” he says.
“Another remote possibility briefly crossed my mind — perhaps these operatives were acting to make certain I never got access to the agency files on President Kennedy’s assassination.”
Zing! Sorensen obviously picked up a few tricks of his own along the way.
Years later, he writes, “a stranger who introduced himself as a former (was he?) covert operations agent . . . acknowledged that some of the ‘dirty tricks’ and other opposition to my nomination had come from within the agency.”
Indeed, Sorensen had “always wondered about” a newspaper column penned by “a conservative representative of the AFL-CIO, which worked closely with the CIA overseas.”
The article portrayed Sorensen speaking in support of a dissident worker at a Steelworkers Union meeting in Pittsburgh, “implying that it demonstrated anti-union sentiments” on his part.
“I had never heard of the dissident candidate,” Sorensen writes, “never attended the meeting, and never made the speech.”
At this, I can see Pelosi shake her head at Sorensen’s tale, drink up, and announce, “I gotta get back to work.”
Sorensen would be left to wonder, again, what kind of CIA director he might have been.
Looking back at who took his place in ensuing years, I can’t see how he could have been any worse — and he might possibly have been better — than all the others who came after.
But Carter never stood up for Sorensen, his own reluctant pick. After a melancholy effort to clear his name at a perfunctory nomination hearing, he withdrew.
It makes you wonder: Who’s got Nancy Pelosi ’s back?