Kathryn Olmsted thought she wanted to be a journalist but after one year at a community newspaper in the Bay area she decided to study journalism history instead.
The result of her history dissertation at UC Davis is "Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI" (University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
"When I was an undergraduate (at Stanford) I thought I was going to be a journalist," she said in a recent interview. "I held just about every position there was at the Stanford Daily but when I got to my senior year I decided that what I really wanted to do was go to school my whole life...continue learning and studying history."
So she came up to the UCD history department. Still interested in the role of the press, particularly the investigative role played by reporters in 1974, Olmsted began to look at a period in recent U.S. history marked by rare questioning and introspection by both the press and the public, brought about by frustration with the Watergate scandal and the unpopular Vietnam War.
Watergate, a scandal made public by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, began with the burglary and wiretapping of the Democratic Party's campaign headquarters in the Watergate apartment and office complex. This burglary later engulfed President Richard M. Nixon and members of his administration and resulted in Nixon's resignation in August of 1974.
In December of 1974 New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh further revealed that the CIA had undertaken a domestic surveillance program against dissidents during the Vietnam War. Investigations also revealed that the CIA had plotted to kill foreign leaders and that the FBI had harassed Martin Luther King, other civil rights leaders and student activists.
The time was right for the press, the public and Congress to press for reforms that would pull the secret government back in line. But that never happened. For one thing, the press as an establishment failed to support its best investigators. The New York Times editors got tired of Hersh when he continued coming up with troublesome stories.
"The post-Watergate press has a heroic reputation that it doesn't deserve," said Olmsted. "The image was a myth. The people with power, the editors and publishers and owners of broadcast networks, were afraid of a popular backlash."
The owners did not support feisty reporters like Hersh and TV reporter Daniel Schorr. Schorr was eventually fired by CBS after revealing CIA attempted assassination plots.
"The mood of the country changed over the course of the investigations (by Sen. Frank Church in the Senate and Otis Pike in the House)," said Olmsted. "It takes a lot of time to investigate these matters...and 18 months later when the investigation ended...people were tired of hearing about it."
In fact, the final Pike committee report was suppressed at the request of President Ford who claimed national security was at stake. When Schorr released a leaked copy of the report, he was vilified and chastised for being irresponsible.
"The executive branch had been very shrewd in counterattacking (the press) and a substantial portion of the press and public didn't want to think about (FBI and CIA abuses) anymore," she said.
Olmsted also interviewed former directors of the CIA Richard Helms and William Colby. She described them as being very accessible (their numbers are listed in the D.C. phone book) very charming and helpful. They also are "consummate bureaucrats."
"Helms believed he was badly treated," said Olmsted. He believed that the American public was hypocritical in its objections to methods used by the CIA in achieving American goals.
Olmsted also reviewed formerly classified documents, discovering that at one time the Ford administration considered prosecuting Sy Hersh under the Espionage Act of 1917 in order to stop his stories. But Attorney General Edward Levi put a stop to the plan.
"I showed (those papers) to Hersh when I interviewed him and he was quite shocked," she said.
Olmsted said the work she undertook researching her book made her realize that citizens in a democracy have a great deal of responsibility and need to hold the government accountable. And she can't say for certain that abuses aren't continuing to take place today.
"The FBI in the 1980s was found to be spying on the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, Central American activists, and Physicians for Social Responsibility. So spying on people for political reasons has not stopped. Also the CIA is again under fire for its connections to death squads in Guatemala and Haiti and its complete incompetence in Aldrich Ames (Soviet spy) case."
It makes you wonder....