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Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., is an ardent critic of what he’s called the “deep state,” a name for the secret security state that became a bête noire of supporters of Donald Trump as investigations against the former president mounted.

Now Grothman, along with a clutch of other Republicans, have emerged as unlikely champions of legislation to support the so-called deep state — by doling out money to former employees of the CIA’s covertly owned airline, Air America.

The Air America Act — introduced by Grothman to the House of Representatives in October and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in the Senate — seeks to guarantee retirement benefits and official recognition for the 1,000 U.S. citizens who worked for the airline. Some would be included on the CIA’s “Wall of Stars,” which memorializes agency employees who died in the line of service.

Hired as covert operatives, Air America employees were not provided standard government forms and are unable to prove their federal employment status, which is necessary to qualify for retirement benefits.

“These patriots risked their lives,” Grothman said in a statement announcing the legislation, “fighting communism in the same way members of the Air Force did.” 

Air America has been accused of running weapons and even, according to the historian Alfred McCoy, drugs in Southeast Asia — charges that the CIA and Air America veterans denied so vigorously that it set off a First Amendment battle between the agency and McCoy.

“The whole point of Air America was to kill Communists.”

During the Vietnam War, Air America played a vital but murky role in supporting CIA activities in Laos, a staging ground for operations against the North Vietnamese and, along with Cambodia, the site of an extensive, secret war led by the agency against Communists in both countries.

If ever there was a time when the intelligence community resembled something like a “deep state” — an unaccountable security state made up of unelected officials — it would have been in the Vietnam years, before congressional investigations reined in the CIA. 

Tim Weiner, author of the National Book Award-winning “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” told The Intercept, “The whole point of Air America was to kill Communists.”

Before Church

Owned and operated by the CIA until 1976, Air America was used as cover for agency operations in the agency’s wild west days. Until 1975, when the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, set up his famous investigative committee, the intelligence community ran amok, facing few outside checks.

“There was no congressional oversight of the CIA before the Church Committee,” said Weiner. “What would happen is that the director of central intelligence — Allen Dulles, for example — would come before Congress and talk to the chairman of the armed services committee and the chairman would say, ‘Y’all have everything you need?’ And Dulles would say, ‘Yes sir, it’s alright.’”

With practically nonexistent oversight, this era saw some of the CIA’s worst scandals, from attempts to assassinate foreign leaders like Fidel Castro to involvement in coups. The period coincided with the heyday of Air America operations until its dissolution in 1976, the same year that the Church Committee established the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

In 1990, an action movie titled “Air America” starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. portrayed the airline as a cynical operation to smuggle heroin, an impression that persists in the popular imagination to this day. 

“There were rogue Air America pilots, but the story that the CIA was smuggling dope for profit or political advantage is almost entirely a canard,” Weiner said.

“Air America’s public image has fared poorly,” aviation historian William M. Leary wrote in the CIA-published journal Studies in Intelligence, lamenting the airline’s “bum rap,” which it attributes to the 1990 movie.

That bum rap hasn’t taken hold in Congress, where a bipartisan group of 35 House members co-sponsored Grothman’s legislation. Rubio, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, introduced the Senate version of the bill with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee’s chair.

“I’m proud to introduce this legislation,” Warner said of the bill in a press release, “to provide well-earned benefits and formally recognize the courage of Air Americans during the U.S. war effort in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.”

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This content originally appeared on The Intercept and was authored by Ken Klippenstein.

Citations

[1] 'Deep State' is protecting Joe Biden: Glenn Grothman | Carl Higbie FRONTLINE - YouTube ➤ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0T0yQqtpFk[2] Grothman Introduces Bipartisan Air America Act | U.S. Representative Glenn Grothman ➤ https://grothman.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=3705[3]https://www.nytimes.com/1972/07/22/archives/cia-aides-assail-asia-drug-charge-agency-fights-reports-that-it.html[4]https://www.cia.gov/resources/csi/studies-in-intelligence/studies-in-intelligence-winter-1999-2000/cia-air-operations-in-laos-1955-1974/[5] x.com ➤ https://twitter.com/TheIntercept