Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
What's the missing jewel?
Today, the CIA released its infamous "Family Jewels" file. This is a set of internal memos compiled in the mid-1970s after press reports revealed numerous CIA dirty tricks. In 1973, CIA director James Schlessinger, having learned that Watergate burglars E. Howard Hunt and James McCord (each a CIA veteran) had been in contact with the Agency while carrying out illegal activities for President Richard Nixon's reelection campaign, ordered divisions within the CIA to report any activities they had engaged in since 1959 that might be outside the CIA's authority. Deputy Director William Colby then assembled a loose-leaf notebook of the memos that poured in. The whole package totaled 700 pages. And though its existence has been known for years--congressional investigators of the 1970s had access to these documents--this secret file has never before been made public. It was considered to hold the agency's darkest secrets.
Many of these secrets did emerge during the congressional investigations of the 1970s: the joint CIA-Mafia attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro; CIA surveillance of American reporters and political dissidents; the CIA's secret jailing for three years of a suspected Soviet agent (who was not a Soviet agent). The newly-released documents are full of fresh details about some of these notorious episodes. But at least one of the "Family Jewels" seems to be missing.
The first document in the packet is a 1973 memo from Howard Osborn, then the CIA's director of security, to the CIA top management, and it summarizes the "jewels" compiled by his office. It lists eight problems--including the recruitment of mobster Johnny Roselli for the Castro hit. But blacked out from this document is the first item on Osborn's list. And a two-and-a-half page description of this operation is also redacted from the "Family Jewels" file.
In a recent speech, General Michael Hayden, the CIA's director, hailed the declassification of the "Family Jewels." He remarked, "The documents provide a glimpse of a very different time and very different Agency." Yet the very first secret in these papers has been deleted.
"The No. 1 jewel of the CIA's Office of Security is probably a pretty good one--especially since the second jewel in this list is the Roselli/Castro assassination program," says Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a public interest outfit that filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the "Family Jewels" fifteen years ago. There are many other deletions in the "Family Jewels" file, and in most instances there's no telling exactly what has been excised. But much of the censored material seems to be related to how the CIA has created cover and fake documents. "This is probably justifiable," says Blanton, because such operational secrets may still be relevant today. But the missing jewel? Assassination? Domestic spying? Something unimaginable? "We just don't know," says Blanton.
All in all, Blanton notes, the file is not as explosive as CIA-watchers might have anticipated. "These are the 'Family Jewels'?" he asks sarcastically. "Much of this came out years ago. So how could the CIA justify keeping this stuff secret for 30 years? This is not really as informative as the [previously released] inspector general's report on the Castro assassination plots."
There are, however, intriguing tidbits scattered throughout these hundreds of pages. Here are a few:
* In a June 1, 1973 memo written to Colby, Walter Elder, who had been executive assistant for John McCone, the CIA director in the early 1960s, outlined "activities which to hostile observers or to someone without complete knowledge...could be interpreted as examples of activities exceeding CIA's charters." One such activity, he noted, "involved chemical warfare operations against...." The target is redacted. This operation, according to Elder, never went beyond the planning stage.
* In the same memo, Elder reports that discussions within the CIA chief's offices were recorded and transcribed: "I know that any one who has worked in the Director's office has worried about the fact that conversations within the offices and over the telephones were transcribed. During McCone's tenure, there were microphones in his regular office, his inner office, his dining room, his office in East Building, and his study at his residence on White Haven Street. I do not know who would be willing to raise such an issue, but knowledge of such operations tends to spread, and certainly the Agency is vulnerable on this score." Secret transcripts of conversations involving CIA directors? According to Blanton, there's never been any public indication that McCone or other CIA directors bugged themselves. Transcripts of such discussions could contain plenty of jewels. The National Security Archive is already filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
* One memo notes that CIA had a Project OFTEN that collected "data on dangerous drugs from U.S. firms" until the program was terminated in the fall of 1972. Another memo reports that commercial drug manufacturers "passed on" to the CIA drugs "rejected because of unfavorable side effects" These drugs were then tested using volunteers from the U.S. military.
* During the internal review that led to the creation of the "Family Jewels" file, a top CIA official suggested that the CIA director keep himself in the dark about MKULTRA--the Agency's mind control program run by Sidney Gottlieb, a psychiatrist and chemist. As part of this program, the CIA slipped LSD and other psychoactive drugs to unwitting subjects. (Gottlieb, according to another document in the file, was supposed to have provided poison in for an assassination attempt against Patrice Lumumba, the anti-colonial prime minister of the Republic of Congo. After being deposed in a 1960 coup, Lumumba was shot and killed by Kantangan forces.)
* CIA employees assigned to MHCHAOS--the operation that conducted surveillance against American opponents of the Vietnam war and other political dissidents--expressed a "high degree of resentment" about being given such a mission.
* The CIA "performed image enhancement techniques" on video footage of the television show of columnist Jack Anderson, who had received leaks of top-secret CIA documents. "The purpose was to try to identify serial numbers of CIA documents in Anderson's possession"--presumably documents he held up or that were on his desk. The memo on this operation does not say if the effort succeeded.
Hayden, the CIA chief, deserves some credit for releasing the "Family Jewels," and he wants the public to believe that his CIA is not your father's CIA, which plotted assassinations, illegally opened mail, and spied on American political dissidents. But the CIA in recent days has run secret prisons and used interrogation methods that either involve torture or border on torture. (The details are sketchy.) And the National Security Agency has used warrantless wiretaps to eavesdrop on American citizens and residents. Moreover, as the release of the "Family Jewels" demonstrates, there still are secrets from the past the CIA will not disclose. Are these legitimate secrets that ought to be kept from the public to protect national security, or are they embarrassments the Agency is not willing to face? Only the secret-keepers of the CIA know which jewels remain buried.
The entire "Family Jewels" file and related documents can be found at the website of the National Security Archive.
JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.