America’s Secret Power: The CIA in a Democratic Society

by Loch K. Johnson

In 1975, after Seymour Hersh in The New York Times published a devastating critique of the CIA, three government panels–the Rockefeller, Church, and Pike Committees–were formed to examine these allegations in depth. What they uncovered–assassination plots, opened mail, drug experiments against unsuspecting subjects (two of whom died from side effects)–shocked the American people and moved Senator Frank Church to call the CIA “a rogue elephant rampaging out of control.” Clearly, America needs a strong, effective intelligence effort, but just as clearly, this effort must operate within the bounds of an open, democratic society.

Based on hundreds of interviews with CIA officials, national security experts, and legislators, as well as a thorough culling of the archival record, America’s Secret Power offers an illuminating and up-to-date picture of the Central Intelligence Agency, stressing the difficult balance between the genuine needs of national security and the protection of individual liberties. Loch Johnson, who has studied the workings of the CIA at first hand as a legislative overseer, presents a comprehensive examination of the Agency and its relations with other American institutions, including Congress and the White House (he offers particularly astute analyses of the CIA’s use of journalists and academics to gather intelligence) and he illuminates the CIA’s three major missions–intelligence analysis, counterintelligence, and covert action–providing vivid descriptions of their purpose and their pathologies. For example, he offers a fascinating analysis of the “Seven Sins” of intelligence work, revealing how the best intelligence reports can be distorted or ignored (in the mid-1960s, the evidence against a quick American victory in Vietnam was dismissed); how covert actions can spin out of control despite extensive safeguards, as in the Iran-Contra scandal; and how the CIA has spied on American citizens in clear violation of its charter. Further, he provides a thorough review of legislative efforts to curb these abuses, suggesting several important ways to achieve the delicate balance between national security and democratic ideals.

Vividly written and meticulously documented, America’s Secret Power draws the strands of a vast amount of research into a balanced critique of our intelligence networks. It is a work that stands alone in its thoroughness and objectivity, a thoughtful and sobering portrait of the contemporary CIA.


  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; First Edition edition (December 14, 1989)

Amazon Review:

The Shadow of the CIA…

“America’s Secret Power” is Loch Johnson’s 1989 study of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the premier U.S. intelligence agency. Johnson, an academic by trade, had extensive experience working as a staffer in Congress, most notably on the 1974-75 Church Committee investigations of CIA excesses.

The good news is that Johnson has compiled extensive unclassified research on the CIA, based on a variety of sources, and made a meaningful effort to analyze, for the general public, the attributes of an agency which by necessity conducts most of its business out of public view. Johnson discusses the many functions of the CIA, including its controversial responsibility for covert action and its contentious relationships with academia and the media. Johnson is to be commended for having gone the extra mile in trying to provide constructive criticism for the many faults he finds.

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