CIA Censors Books

Bush Perfects the Cover-up

excerpted from the book


The CIA's War at Home

by Angus Mackenzie

University of California Press, 1997, paper


In March 1972, a typescript of an article and a related book proposal were purloined by a CIA agent from a New York publisher and forwarded to Langley. For Richard Ober, the manuscript was right out of a bad dream. A former senior CIA official, Victor Marchetti, was planning to write a book exposing CIA deceptions. Marchetti had been the executive assistant to the deputy director of Central Intelligence and had attended regular planning and intelligence meetings attended by Richard Helms. He had also been a courier for the Agency group that approves covert operations. The most carefully guarded CIA information was called Sensitive Compartmented Information, or SCI, and was distributed to officials strictly on a need-to-know basis. But his position had allowed Marchetti an overview of the Agency purposely denied to most CIA officers.

Over time, Marchetti had become troubled by the Agency's role in the overthrow of democracies on behalf of dictators and by CIA manipulation of other nations' internal policies. He saw evidence of corruption in overseas operations. Marchetti's intellectual honesty was also offended by intrigue inside CIA headquarters that disrupted the accuracy of intelligence estimates. Furthermore, the Vietnam War had disillusioned Marchetti, whose sons would soon reach draft age. And when Eagle Scouts from a troop he served as scoutmaster began dodging the draft, Marchetti began to feel his CIA job was isolating him.

Upon quitting the Agency at age thirty-nine, after a highly successful fourteen-year career, Marchetti wrote a novel called The Rope Dancer. Prior to its publication by Grosset and Dunlap in I97I, a CIA officer read a version of the manuscript at Marchetti's home, in keeping with the rules set out in the CIA secrecy contract Marchetti had signed. The CIA officer found no security breaches, and publication went forward.

What troubled Ober and Ober's immediate supervisor, Thomas Karamessines, was one particular line in the novel. Marchetti's central character is speaking with jaundiced anger about the fictional CIA: "Somebody should publicize the Agency's mistakes." Suppose Marchetti got it in his head to write about MHCHAOS? Concerned, Helms himself ordered Marchetti placed under surveillance beginning on March 23, I972.

Within days, an article written by Marchetti appeared in the April 3 Nation under the headline "CIA: The President's Loyal Tool." Marchetti wrote that the CIA was using the news media to create myths about the Agency and was fooling such influential publications as the New York Times and Newsweek. Additionally, he claimed, the CIA had continued to control youth, labor, and cultural organizations in the United States, notwithstanding the scandals triggered by the report in Ramparts. Marchetti also castigated Helms for spending too little time engaged with the intricacies of intelligence analysis, satirically calling him a "master spy" who conducted his most important weekly meetings in less than twenty minutes. Marchetti concluded: "Secrecy, like power, tends to corrupt, and it will not be easy to persuade those who rule in the United States to change their ways."

Even while MHCHAOS was surviving the Marchetti scare, the CIA inspector general, an internal cop, was the focal point of a second emergency. Worried that the inspector general might discover MHCHAOS and expose it, Helms called in Colby, Ober, and Karamessines for a meeting on December 5, I972. Helms emphasized the importance of running a cleaner, less dubious-looking operation. There was a need to proceed cautiously, he said, to avoid a showdown with "some CIA personnel." Nonetheless, Helms was adamant that MHCHAOS not be abandoned. It will not be "stopped simply because some members of the organization do not like this activity," he insisted.

Helms cautioned Ober against attending meetings of the Justice Department Intelligence Evaluation Committee, because security was lax and its role in domestic politics might lead investigative reporters to MHCHAOS. Helms had come up with a solution to the problem of CIA officers who doubted the legality of MHCHAOS. Henceforth, it would be described within the Agency as an operation against international terrorism. "To a [sic] maximum extent possible, Ober should become identified with the subject of terrorism inside the Agency as well as in the Intelligence Community," Helms ordered. Afterward, Colby sent Karamessines a summary of the meeting: "A clear priority is to be given in this general field to the subject of terrorism. This should bring about a reduction in the intensity of attention to political dissidents in the United States not apt to be involved in terrorism." The change in label was evidently intended to improve the Agency's image and cover, on the assumption that "terrorists" were more believable as a genuine threat than "dissidents."

But there was in fact to be little change in targets. MHCHAOS continued to hold radicals in its sights, specifically radical youths, Blacks, women, and antiwar militants. The label "international terrorist" was designed to replace "political dissident" as the ongoing justification for illegal domestic operations. And in the final move to clean up Ober's act, in December Helms put an end to the operation of the five-year-old MHCHAOS by formally transforming it into the International Terrorism Group-with Ober still in charge.

Only seventeen days later, Helms and Karamessines announced their resignations from the CIA. Nixon named James Schlesinger to replace Helms as director, and Schlesinger in turn replaced Karamessines with Colby as deputy director for plans. In a euphemistic change, Schlesinger and Colby renamed the Directorate for Plans as the Directorate for Operations, which was the CIA's way of saying, "Let's call domestic spying a response to terrorism."

One of the most productive agents, Sal Ferrera, was at this stage operating overseas, where his targets were Americans. Upon first landing in Europe in the summer of I97I, Ferrera had moved fast. He was in Zurich on July 7 and in Rome on July I,. In September he was in Copenhagen, spying on peace activists who were involved in an underground railroad for U.S. GIs who had deserted because of qualms over Vietnam. Ferrera then based himself in Paris, site of the Vietnamese embassies, where unofficial and official peaceseekers from the United States and Vietnam were trying to negotiate an end to the war. In his nice guy role, Ferrera sought out and befriended Americans sympathetic to the peace effort. He introduced himself to the five-member youth contingent attending the Versailles Peace Assembly, an international conference of antiwar activists.

Ferrera's cover was the same as it had been in the United States, that of a leftist journalist. College Press Service distributed his writings to its U.S. campus subscribers. In one article, Ferrera wrote about German radical political groups and the divisions between them. Another article, syndicated by the Alternative Features Service to underground newspapers in the United States, was headlined "Just Another Day in Derry" and analyzed the ideological conflicts within the Irish Republican Army.

Ferrera had proved adept at penetrating the CIA's political opponents in the United States. He was well established as a MHCHAOS star. But his new assignment was his most sensitive yet. He was to befriend former CIA officer Philip Agee, who was writing a book filled with one CIA secret after another-revealing far more than those divulged by Sheinbaum, Wood, Marchetti, and McCoy put together. Because Agee had served as a CIA case officer on the streets in South America, he had been privy to more intelligence work than the office-bound Marchetti. But, like Marchetti, Agee had grown disenchanted, responding to a general cultural wave of doubts about the U.S. imperial role in Vietnam. Agee had moved to Paris, out of the reach of U.S. courts. In France, the CIA could not enforce the secrecy contract Agee had signed.

Living in the same expatriate community, however, was Ferrera, who began to frequent the Paris cafe Le Yams, where Agee often sipped coffee and socialized. Ferrera introduced himself as a reporter for College Press Service. Once he had become a familiar fixture at the cafe, Ferrera introduced Agee to a young woman he invitingly described as an "heiress." Agee had spent all his savings while at work on his book and was desperately poor. When the woman expressed an interest in financing him while he finished the book, Agee allowed her to read the unfinished manuscript over a weekend. She responded with enthusiastic support, giving Agee enough money to see him through several months of writing.

Of course, Ferrera now had the perfect rationalization to see Agee's manuscript at any point. As Agee grew more and more dependent on Ferrera, he began using Ferrera's address as his own. One of the letters that came to Ferrera's apartment was from Agee's father, and it described CIA Counsel John Greaney's visit to the Agee family home in the United States. Greaney had given Agee's father a copy of his son's secrecy contract, along with a copy of the recent Marchetti court decision.

Ferrera also apparently arranged a typewriter swap, allowing him to introduce into Agee's apartment a portable Royal typewriter and a case crammed with microphones and transmitters. Agee soon discovered the surveillance device and had it photographed; eventually the photo of the bugged typewriter would appear on the cover of his book. In the meantime, though, Ferrera had learned that Agee was about to identify CIA operatives in South America. This advance notice enabled the Agency to move the operatives, as well as to take preventive measures to reduce the embarrassment from a host of other stories in Agee's book.

The book itself, Inside the Company: CIA Diary, was published in I975 without prior censorship. In a twenty-two-page appendix, Agee named scores of individuals and organizations controlled, supported, or used by the CIA. Agee had by this time realized that Ferrera was an undercover operative, and Ferrera's name was included in the appendix, linked to the impressively wired typewriter case pictured on the cover. The book jacket excerpted a Washington Post reference to Marchetti's blank-filled book and boasted, "There are no blanks in Philip Agee's." Seizing on the Agee case, CIA officials in Washington began to agitate for a law to imprison anyone who publicly identified intelligence agents.


Bush Perfects the Cover-up

Amid the numerous scandals of the Nixon administration and under particular pressure from partisans of Ralph Nader, Congress was moving toward a new openness. Amendments to strengthen the I966 Freedom of Information Act were drafted. The FOIA had been reduced to near uselessness by bureaucratic intransigence and judicial refusals to restrain executive secrecy. The U.S. Supreme Court, in deciding the I973 FOIA case Environmental Protection Agency v Mink, had said the courts should not be allowed to inspect classified national security records unless Congress directed otherwise. By rejecting judicial review, the Supreme Court had in the Mink case adopted basically the same line of reasoning as had Chief Judge Haynsworth in the Marchetti case.

In the fall of I974, however, Congress amended the FOIA to reverse the Mink decision. The main proponents of the amendment were Edward Kennedy in the Senate and John E. Moss in the House. The amendment explicitly authorized federal judges to inspect classified records in chambers in order to determine whether the government was warranted in withholding them from public release. In addition, Congress added teeth to the FOIA in several other ways. In the future, the government would have to prove why secrecy was necessary for each specific case. Government agencies would have to publish indexes identifying information that had been made public, as a means of assisting citizens in locating government documents. And the fees charged to citizens for copies of government records, which sometimes were prohibitively high, could be waived under a new range of circumstances, thus ensuring that fees could not be used as barriers to disclosures. Bureaucratic delays in the release of data also were sharply curtailed. A new deadline of ten working days was imposed on the government for all FOIA requests. In a case in which the government denied a request, a twenty-day appeal period was established, after which the case could be taken to court.

The CIA would spend the next two decades fighting the release of documents to citizens who requested them under the FOIA. For CIA officials, whose lives were dedicated to secrecy, the logic behind the checks and balances of the three-branch system of government may have been incomprehensible. The idea that federal judges not trained in espionage could inspect CIA files and even order their release was enough to curdle the blood of secret operatives like Richard Ober. CIA officers felt that neither Congress nor the courts could comprehend the perils that faced secret agents. Their instinctive reaction, therefore, was to find any avenue by which they could avoid judicial or journalistic scrutiny.

A month after Congress enacted the new FOIA amendments, someone at the CIA leaked the news of MHCHAOS to Seymour Hersh at the New York Times. Hersh's article appeared on the front page of the December 22, I974, issue under the headline "Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years." Although sparse in detail, the article revealed that the CIA had spied on U.S. citizens in a massive domestic operation, keeping 10,000 dossiers on individuals and groups and violating the I947 National Security Act. Hersh reported that intelligence officials were claiming the domestic operations began as legitimate spying to investigate overseas connections to dissenters.

Gerald Ford, who only four and a half months earlier had assumed the presidency in the wake of Nixon's resignation, took the public position that the CIA would be ordered to cease and desist. William Colby, who had replaced James Schlesinger as CIA director, was told to issue a report on MHCHAOS to Henry Kissinger. Apparently Ford was not informed that Kissinger was well aware of the operation. A few days later, after Helms categorically denied that the CIA had conducted "illegal" spying, Ford named Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to head a commission that would be charged with making a more comprehensive report. Ford's choice of Rockefeller to head the probe was most fortunate for Ober. Rockefeller was closely allied with Kissinger, who had been a central figure in the former New York governor's I968 presidential primary campaign. Although Rockefeller was well regarded in media and political circles for his streak of independence, it was all but certain from the beginning that his report would amount to a cover-up.

A continuing series of scandals had eroded the CIA's public credibility. In November I975, Frank Church's Senate committee reported that the CIA had tried to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro and had engineered the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of the new Republic of the Congo. The Church Committee also contradicted the sworn testimony of Richard Helms by revealing that the CIA had helped engineer the I973 coup in Chile. Moreover, several former CIA operatives-Victor Marchetti, Philip Agee, and Stanley Sheinbaum-had joined the CounterSpy advisory board to help consolidate the outside pressure against the CIA.'

The CIA was not without resources, of course. In I975, former CIA officers, including David Atlee Phillips, organized the Association of Retired Intelligence Officers to undertake a public relations campaign to enhance the Agency's image. Phillips also operated behind the scenes. He told Marchetti, whose name was on the CounterSpy masthead, "Get your name off. We're going to land on them." Marchetti respected the CIA's power and took the warning to heart. He withdrew from the magazine and talked others into leaving with him.

Just before Christmas I975, a tragedy had provided an opportunity to shift the scrutiny away from the CIA scandals. In Athens, Greece, the CIA chief of station Richard Skeffington Welch was assassinated on December 23, gunned down as he returned to his house from a party at the U.S. ambassador's residence. His death focused attention on the danger inherent in publishing the names of CIA agents. Welch had been identified as a CIA officer in a letter to the editor published by the Athens News a month earlier on November 25. The letter, signed by the "Committee of Greeks and Greek Americans to Prevent Their Country, Their Fatherland, from Being Perverted to the Uses of the CIA," denounced the CIA for its role in the installation of a reactionary Greek government. While Welch's assassins most likely learned about his CIA affiliation from this letter (or from his decision to live in an Athens house well known as a CIA residence), most of the blame for his death was aimed at CounterSpy, which also had printed Welch's name.

In the midst of the Senate vote to confirm George Bush in January I976, intelligence officials were making no secret of their outrage over Welch's death and their fury at CounterSpy. A well-known reporter told editor Tim Butz that his own life had been threatened by angry former intelligence officers, and Butz began to carry a gun. Members of the New York intelligentsia, who had been drawn to CounterSpy by Norman Mailer, began to keep their distance. It was unseemly to be contributing money to a magazine accused of having blood on its hands.

Even though CIA critics were put on the defensive by the Welch assassination, it did not take Bush long to appreciate that he had his work cut out for him when it came to casting the Agency in a positive light. Less than a month after taking over, he had to answer questions about a report by the House Select Committee on Intelligence. Although the House had voted to suppress the report at President Ford's request, someone leaked it. The whole report, known as the Pike Report after U.S. Representative Otis Pike, Democrat of New York, was reprinted in the Village Voice issues of February I6 and z3, I976.

The Pike Report was shocking because it provided the first official overview of CIA excesses: the Agency ran large propaganda operations, bankrolled armies of its own, and incurred billions in unsupervised expenses. The report revealed that top CIA officials had tolerated cost overruns nearly 400 percent beyond the Agency budget for foreign operations and 500 percent beyond the budget for domestic operations, for years concealing their profligacy from Congress. The CIA also was said to have secretly built up a military capacity larger than most foreign armies; the CIA and FBI between them had spent $I0 billion with little independent supervision. Further, the CIA's single biggest category of overseas covert projects involved the news media: it supported friendly news publications, planted articles in newspapers, and distributed ClA-sponsored books and leaflets. The phony CIA dispatches had often found their way into domestic news stories, thus polluting with inaccuracies the news received by Americans.

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