CIA Airs Its Dirty Laundry

After fighting its release for more than a decade, the Central Intelligence Agency has published (foia.cia.gov) one of the most embarrassing accounts of its historical misdeeds on its website.

Much of the dirty laundry, which dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, has already been reported. But the 700-page compilation of internal documents, describing everything from plots to assassinate foreign leaders to surveillance operations of Washington reporters, is an uncomfortable reminder of the CIA's history of operating on the edge (or well over the precipice) of the law.

The most dramatic memo is the CIA's account--in typically dry, bureaucratese--of the attempt to hire mobsters to arrange the assassination of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Many of the documents remain widely redacted and some incidents are referred to only fleetingly, such as testing of drugs with unfavorable side effects using monkeys and mice.

The report was compiled in the wake of revelations that some of the Watergate burglars had ties to the CIA. Then CIA Director James Schlesinger ordered CIA officials to report any activities that conceivably exceeded the CIA's legal charter.

His successor, William Colby, called it an attempt to assemble all the "skeletons in the closet." Most CIA insiders preferred to call it the "family jewels," although others wrote memos referring more obliquely to "delicate matters." One memo simply outlined past operations with "flap potential."

The release is a sign of a new era at the CIA, which had been fighting a 15-year-old Freedom of Information Act request to release the report. New CIA Director Michael Hayden, who earned a reputation for openness during his stewardship of the National Security Agency, reminded CIA employees Tuesday that the report originated as an internal effort at self-examination.

"The documents truly do provide a glimpse of a very different era and a very different agency," he said. "What we do now to protect Americans we do within a powerful framework of law and review."

Some of the transgressions might seem relatively minor or bureaucratic, such as the CIA's providing occasional expertise, funding, or equipment to domestic agencies. Others reveal clearly illegal acts, such as breaking into the homes of defectors or former CIA employees.

Although today's CIA is a much more legalistic place, the "skeletons" have an eerie resonance with some of the U.S. government's more controversial counterterrorism tactics. Take the case of KGB defector Yuriy Nosenko, who was confined in a safe house in Clinton, Md., from 1964 to 1965 under suspicion of being a plant.

He was later moved to a specially constructed CIA jail in a remote wooded area where he was confined behind bars with nothing more than a cot. Eventually, Nosenko convinced his CIA handlers that he was a genuine defector.

"He has proven to be the most valuable and economic defector this agency has ever had and leads which were ignored by the [Special Resources] Division were explored and have resulted in the arrest and prosecution of [names redacted]," a newly declassified CIA memo reads.

Another controversial CIA operation was Project Mockingbird, back in 1963, when the CIA tapped the telephones of two Washington-based columnists, Robert Allen and Paul Scott, in an effort to determine who leaked them classified information.

Tellingly, the operation was conducted in coordination with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and other top officials.

In all, the telephone intercepts revealed a wealth of sources, including 12 senators, six House members, 21 congressional staffers, and 16 government employees, including high-level White House officials and an assistant attorney general.

"It was observed that through these contacts, the newsmen actually received more classified and official data than they could use, and passed some of the stries to other newsmen for release, establishing that many 'leaks appearing under other bylines were actually from the sources of the target newsmen," the CIA memo notes.

Other cases include:

*Reporters being put under physical surveillance, including Brit Hume (now at Fox News, but then working for legendary muckraker and perennial chronicler of CIA misdeeds Jack Anderson).

*CIA operatives recruiting agents to monitor "dissident" groups in the Washington area that were considered to be a threat to CIA personnel and installations.

*Project Westpointer, which was a CIA operation in San Francisco to open and review postal mail going to and from the People's Republic of China. A separate operation at JFK International Airport in New York targeted mail bound for and coming from the Soviet Union.

*A memo from the CIA inspector general that makes an oblique reference to an IG report that found that the CIA had "quite extensive" involvement with plots to assassinate Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. A separate memo notes that a top CIA official once launched an effort to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, a controversial prime minister of the Congo. (The CIA did plot against him, but was apparently not connected to his eventual assassination.


By Kevin Whitelaw
  • CBSNews

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