Files on Illegal Spying Show CIA Skeletons From Cold War


Secret documents provide new details about how the CIA illegally spied on Americans decades agoSecret documents provide new details about how the CIA illegally spied on Americans decades ago
by Mark Mazzetti and Tim Weiner 

Left, Richard Helms with President Richard M. Nixon at the White House in 1973.  

WASHINGTON— Long-secret documents released Tuesday provide new details about how the Central Intelligence Agency illegally spied on Americans decades ago, including trying to bug a Las Vegas hotel room for evidence of infidelity and tracking down an expert lock-picker for a Watergate conspirator.

Known inside the agency as the “family jewels,” the 702 pages of documents released Tuesday catalog domestic wiretapping operations, failed assassination plots, mind-control experiments and spying on journalists from the early years of the C.I.A.

The papers provide evidence of paranoia and occasional incompetence as the agency began a string of illegal spying operations in the 1960s and 1970s, often to hunt links between Communist governments and the domestic protests that roiled the nation in that period…


Yet the long-awaited documents leave out a great deal. Large sections are censored, showing that the C.I.A. still cannot bring itself to expose all the skeletons in its closet. And many activities about overseas operations disclosed years ago by journalists, Congressional investigators and a presidential commission — which led to reforms of the nation’s intelligence agencies — are not detailed in the papers.

In a note to agency employees, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director, said that Tuesday’s release of documents was part of the agency’s “social contract” with the American public, “to give those we serve a window into the complexities of intelligence.”

General Hayden drew a contrast between the illegal activities of the past and current C.I.A. practices, which he insists are lawful.

The 60-year-old agency has been under fire, though, by critics who object to the secret prisons and harsh interrogation practices it has adopted since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some intelligence experts suggested on Tuesday that the release of the documents was intended to distract from the current controversies.

And they and historians expressed disappointment that the documents were so heavily censored. (The agency said it had to protect its intelligence “sources and methods.”)

Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive, the research group that filed the Freedom of Information request in 1992 that led to the documents’ becoming public, said he was initially underwhelmed by them because they contained little about the agency’s foreign operations.

But Mr. Blanton said what was striking was the scope of the C.I.A’s domestic spying efforts — what he called the “C.I.A. doing its Stasi imitation” — and the “confessional” nature of so many of the documents.

“Reading these memos is like sitting in a confessional booth and having a string of former top C.I.A. officials say ‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.’ ” Mr. Blanton said.

The broad outlines of the C.I.A.’s illegal activities have been known for some time. Still, the public has never seen most of the documents, contemporary memorandums and reports from an agency that zealously guards its files and almost never permits outsiders to examine its internal records.

More than anything, the papers provide a dark history of the climate both at the C.I.A. and in Washington during the cold war and the Vietnam era, when fears about the Soviet threat created a no-holds-barred culture at the spy agency.

Some of the documents provide insight into the mundane workings of a bureaucracy — tedious correspondence about reimbursement for stationery, references to insurance benefits for E. Howard Hunt, the Watergate conspirator, and a document noting “the high degree of resentment” among C.I.A. officers who had to grow long hair to pose as hippie radicals to infiltrate the peace movement at home and overseas.

And some of the language in the papers reflects the sanitized jargon of officialdom: “gangster-type action” refers to an assassination plot against Fidel Castro, for example.

The internal C.I.A. investigation into covert operations during the agency’s first three decades — the inquiry that produced the “family jewels” documents — was begun in 1973 by James R. Schlesinger, then director of central intelligence.

Mr. Schlesinger had been appalled to learn that operatives had carried out domestic break-ins on behalf of the Nixon White House, and ordered an investigation into past operations “outside the C.I.A.’s charter.” 

Because the documents were compiled as the Watergate investigation was gathering steam, the agency’s concern about the extent that it could be tied to the crimes of the Nixon administration is palpable throughout.  

Internal memorandums detail C.I.A. contacts with Mr. Hunt and James W. McCord Jr., a retired operative who was one of the Watergate burglars. One has the heading “Hunt Requests a Lockpicker” and reveals that in spring 1972, a C.I.A. official helped Mr. Hunt, the mastermind of the Watergate break-in, track someone “accomplished in picking locks.” It is unclear exactly what lock Mr. Hunt was trying to open.

Historians have generally concluded that far from being a rogue agency, the C.I.A. was following orders from the White House or top officials. In 1967, for instance, President Lyndon B. Johnson became convinced that the American antiwar movement was controlled and financed by Communist governments, and he ordered the C.I.A. to produce evidence.

His director of central intelligence, Richard Helms, reminded him that the C.I.A. was barred from spying on Americans.

In his posthumous memoir, Mr. Helms said Johnson told him: “I’m quite aware of that. What I want for you is to pursue this matter, and to do what is necessary to track down the foreign Communists who are behind this intolerable interference in our domestic affairs.”

Though it was a violation of the C.I.A.’s charter, Mr. Helms obeyed the president’s orders.

The C.I.A. undertook a domestic surveillance operation code-named Chaos that went on for almost seven years under Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Mr. Helms created a Special Operations Group to conduct the spying. A squad of C.I.A. officers grew their hair long, learned the jargon of the New Left, and went off to infiltrate peace groups in the United States and Europe.

The agency compiled a computer index of 300,000 names of American people and organizations, and extensive files on 7,200 citizens. It began working in secret with police departments all over the United States.

The documents released on Tuesday provided details. One said the agency “recruited, tested and dispatched” as foreign agents overseas “Americans with existing extremist credentials.” It also used “new and old Agency assets” — in other words, people and sources of information — who had worked against China, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea.

These were people and businesses that had “connections with and/or knowledge of” the American antiwar movement. They were as far-flung as Paris, Stockholm, Mexico City, Ottawa and Hong Kong.

One document, entitled “Foreign Support for Activities Planned to Disrupt or Harass the Republican National Convention” in 1972, lists the Beatles singer John Lennon, “a British subject,” as someone who had given money to a protest group.

A rare gem among the documents for C.I.A. buffs is a pair of detailed reports signed by James J. Angleton, the legendary chief of the agency’s counterintelligence staff from 1954 to 1974. They describe an American program to create and exploit foreign police forces, internal-security services and counterterrorism squads overseas.

The documents explain that the C.I.A. and other American agencies trained and equipped foreigners to serve their countries — and, in secret, the United States. Once the Americans had set up a foreign service, it could help carry out American foreign policy by suppressing communists and leftists, and gather intelligence on behalf of the C.I.A.

The documents evidently were included in the “family jewels” because one part of the program in April 1973 included training of the foreigners by the bomb squad of the Dade County Police in Florida.

Mr. Angleton, who was dismissed from the C.I.A. the following year, after disclosures that he had overseen the opening of first-class mail in the United States since the early 1950s, was the C.I.A.’s man in charge of the overseas training program.

The program, according to recently declassified government documents, trained hundreds of thousands of foreign military and police officers in 25 countries by the early 1960s.

It put the C.I.A. on “dangerous ground,” Robert Amory Jr., chief of the C.I.A.’s intelligence analysis directorate under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, said in an oral history interview for the Kennedy presidential library. “You can get into Gestapo-type tactics.”

Some anecdotes reveal just how far outside the law some C.I.A. agents strayed. One technician was arrested in 1960 after trying to bug a Las Vegas hotel room. The operation had been requested by Sam Giancana, the Chicago mobster, who was then helping the C.I.A. in a plot to assassinate Mr. Castro.

Mr. Giancana had been concerned that his girlfriend, the singer Phyllis McGuire, was having an affair with the comedian Dan Rowan, and surveillance was ordered to “determine the extent of his intimacy” with her.

In one episode that has echoes of a current controversy, the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program, a May 1973 memorandum details a C.I.A. wiretapping operation that monitored calls between the United States and Latin America to learn about drug trafficking.

The surveillance, conducted by a C.I.A. unit called Division D, was ended after the agency’s general counsel issued an opinion that it violated the agency’s charter and “should be carried on by appropriate law-enforcement agencies.”

Some of the activities detailed, while lawful, would have been embarrassing had they emerged at the time. One document revealed that John McCone, director of central intelligence during Kennedy’s presidency, authorized an Air Force plane to fly the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis and the soprano Maria Callas from Rome to Athens, a favor that led to media inquiries.

The documents were compiled in the early 1970s but remained classified because of concern by C.I.A. directors that public exposure of a litany of illegal acts by their operatives would do indelible damage to the agency’s reputation — possibly even bring an end to the agency itself.

“The shock effect of an exposure of the ‘family jewels,’ I urged, could, in the climate of 1973, inflict mortal wounds on the C.I.A. and deprive the nation of all the good the agency could do in the future,” wrote William E. Colby, a former director of central intelligence, in his memoir.


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