The documents detail assassination plots against foreign leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro, the testing of mind- and behavior-altering drugs like LSD on unwitting citizens, wiretapping of U.S. journalists, spying on civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protesters, opening mail between the United States and the Soviet Union and China, break-ins at the homes of ex-CIA employees and others.
All of the activities described in the documents occurred during the Cold War, a very different time when Communism not terrorism was the main enemy, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.
It's been fifteen years since Tom Blanton, the director of the private National Security Archive, sued to make these files available under the Freedom of Information Act.
"The CIA is finally coming clean on its own skeleton in the closet," says Blanton.
Well, sort of, says Martin. Number one on the list has been blanked out as still too sensitive to release.
The documents reveal the name "Johnny Roselli" and the CIA's failed attempt to use the mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro in 1960. While Castro is still alive and kicking, Johnny Roselli is not. His body was found stuffed in an oil drum floating in a Florida canal.
The CIA's failure to get Castro prompted one senator to label them, "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."
The 693 pages, mostly drawn from the memories of active CIA officers in 1973, were turned over at that time to three different investigative panels — President Gerald Ford's Rockefeller Commission, the Senate's Church committee and the House's Pike committee.
The panels spent years investigating and amplifying on these documents. And their public reports in the mid-1970s filled tens of thousands of pages. The scandal sullied the reputation of the intelligence community and led to new rules for the CIA, FBI and other spy agencies and new permanent committees in Congress to oversee them.
These documents also were one of the products of the Watergate scandal. Then-CIA Director James Schlesinger was angered to read in the newspapers that the CIA had provided support to ex-CIA agents E. Howard Hunt and James McCord, who were convicted in the Watergate break-in, which led to President Richard Nixon's resignation.
The CAESAR, POLO, and ESAU Papers
This collection of declassified analytic monographs and reference aids, designated within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Directorate of Intelligence (DI) as the CAESAR, ESAU, and POLO series, highlights the CIA's efforts from the 1950s through the mid-1970s to pursue in-depth research on Soviet and Chinese internal politics and Sino-Soviet relations.
The Family Jewels
Almost 700 pages of responses from CIA employees to a 1973 directive from Director of Central Intelligence James Schlesinger asking them to report activities they thought might be inconsistent with the Agency's charter.
Hunt had worked for a secret "plumbers unit" in Nixon's White House. The unit originally was tasked to investigate and end leaks of classified information but ultimately engaged in a wide range of misconduct.
In May 1973, Schlesinger ordered "all senior operating officials of this agency to report to me immediately on any activities now going on, or that have gone on the past, which might be construed to be outside the legislative charter of this agency." The law establishing the CIA barred it from conducting spying inside the United States.
The result was 693 pages of memos that arrived after Schlesinger had moved to the Pentagon and been replaced as CIA chief by William Colby. Colby ultimately reported the contents to the Justice Department.
Former CIA Counterintelligence official James Jesus Angleton admitted to opening letters that American citizens had mailed to the Soviet Union.
"We believe that it was extremely important to know everything possible regarding contacts of American citizens with Communist countries," Angleton told an investigative panel.
"These are the top CIA officers all going into the confessional and saying, `Forgive me father, for I have sinned,'" says Blanton.
Inside the CIA, Colby referred to the documents as the "skeletons." But another name quickly caught on and stuck: "family jewels."
Some will read the documents and conclude that the CIA was a 'rogue elephant;' others will read the same material and decide it was doing exactly what the White House wanted it to, says Martin.
They first spilled into public view on Dec. 22, 1974, with a story by Seymour Hersh in The New York Times on the CIA's spying against antiwar and other dissidents inside this country. The agency assembled files on some 10,000 people.