CIA & Freedom of Information Act
The Cover-up Begins
You Expose Us, We Spy on You
excerpted from the book
The CIA's War at Home
by Angus Mackenzie
University of California Press, 1997, paper
The CIA and the Origins of the Freedom of Information Act
Congressman Clare E. Hoffman's first reaction to the National
Security Act of I947 was exceedingly positive. Indeed, Hoffman,
a conservative Michigan Republican who chaired the House Committee
on Government Operations, agreed to introduce the legislation
in the U.S. House of Representatives. The surprise Japanese bombing
of Pearl Harbor in I94I had profoundly shaken American intelligence
officials, and it was generally agreed that the absence of a centralized
intelligence authority was at least partly to blame. Once the
war was over, Army Major General Lauris Norstad and Navy Vice
Admiral Forrest Sherman laid out a plan for the consolidation
of command and intelligence. The Joint Chiefs of Staff would oversee
military planning at the Pentagon; a National Security Council
would coordinate the conduct of foreign affairs and national security
matters at the White House; and, most important, a Central Intelligence
Agency, independent of both the Pentagon and the White House,
would function as a neutral repository of military intelligence.
Norstad and Sherman's plan was incorporated in the National
Security Act, and with Hoffman's support it was expected to sail
smoothly through Congress. The more Hoffman studied the legislation,
however, the more it troubled him. The proposed CIA was to advise
the National Security Council in matters concerning intelligence,
to make recommendations for the coordination of spying, to disseminate
intelligence, and to perform "other functions and duties
related to intelligence affecting the national security as the
National Security Council may from time to time direct."
Hoffman feared this open-ended authority.
Hoffman's concerns were shared by a fellow Midwestern conservative
Republican, Clarence J. Brown of Ohio, who also worried about
the seemingly unlimited power of the proposed director of Central
Intelligence. In open hearings, Brown confronted Secretary of
the Navy James Forrestal, a key advocate of the plan. "I
am not sure that I want to trust, unless it is just absolutely
necessary, any one individual or any one group with all-out power
over citizens of the United States," Brown remarked. "How
far does this central intelligence agency go in its authority
and scope?" He posed a hypothetical question: "Should
[the CIA director] decide he wants to go into my income tax reports,
I presume he could do so, could he not?"
"No, I do not assume he could," Forrestal replied.
Brown pressed on. "I am not interested in setting up
here, in the United States, any particular central policy agency
under any president, and I do not care what his name may be, and
just allowing him to have a Gestapo of his own if he wants to
have it." Forrestal argued that the CIA's authority would
be "limited definitely to purposes outside this country."
But when asked a key question-"Is that stated in the law?"-Forrestal
was stymied: "It is not; no sir."
Without protections for domestic liberties written into the
law, it was easy to imagine any number of situations in which
the power of the proposed CIA or its director could go unchecked:
the president could use the CIA to spy on Congress, could secretly
manipulate elections, or could undermine political opponents.
The greatest danger was that, once created, the CIA would be hard
to contain. Should Congress try in the future to legislate a change,
the president could veto such legislation and attack members of
Congress for being weak on national security. Hoffman said, "If
we are going to fix anything we had better do it now before we
turn over any blanket authority to anyone because we can never
get it back."
Admiral Sherman suggested a compromise. The CIA would not
have "police, law enforcement, or internal security functions,"
and it would be prohibited from "investigations inside the
continental limits of the United States and its possessions."
Once this bargain was struck, most opposition to the CIA faded
away. Little attention was given to a seemingly innocuous sentence
buried in the proposal: "The Director of Central Intelligence
shall be responsible for protecting sources and methods from unauthorized
Almost no one foresaw the sweeping secrecy powers that would
emanate from those few words. Almost no one had a hint that these
words would be taken by courts, twenty-five years later, as congressional
authorization for peacetime censorship in a nation that had been
free of such censorship for nearly two hundred years. Almost no
one, that is, except Hoffman, who had become convinced that the
new CIA was anathema to a democracy. Although he had introduced
the bill in the House, Hoffman at the end was speaking sharply
but unsuccessfully against it-virtually a solitary voice in the
In the decades that followed the passage of the I947 National
Security Act, the CIA would become increasingly involved in domestic
politics, abridging the First Amendment guarantees of free speech
and press; it would spy on law-abiding American dissidents, tell
the Internal Revenue Service to investigate political "enemies"
of the Agency, and attempt to silence news reporters and news
publications in order to keep the American public from learning
that the I947 law was being systematically violated. Moreover,
more than four million employees and contractors of the United
States government would be prevented from disclosing matters of
wrongdoing, large or small, because the I947 act would be interpreted
as an endorsement of widespread censorship.
In I954 Congressman John Emerson Moss, a Democrat from California,
tried to find out if supervisors at federal agencies were using
allegations of security violations as an excuse to fire federal
employees who were not well liked or who had contrary political
views. Moss wrote to the Civil Service Commission, asking for
a review of dozens of firings, but he was not afforded even the
courtesy of a reply. "No response, no letter, no nothing,"
he said. Moss realized that certain members of the executive branch
had little more than contempt for congressional prerogatives.
His response was to introduce the Freedom of Information Act,
known as the FOIA. The FOIA was designed as a legal means of access
for members of Congress, as well as for citizens at large, to
obtain a wide array of documentary information from inside the
At earlier times in American history not only would the FOIA
have been enacted as a matter of course by Congress, it would
have been perceived as part of mainstream political tradition.
The American government's dedication to a policy of openness had
been one of its hallmarks since the War of Independence. In the
panic and self-doubt that followed the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor,
however, a different attitude had begun to prevail in the corridors
of government. During World War II new regulations were instituted,
imposing an unprecedented regime of secrecy in Washington, and
with the onset of the cold war many high-ranking government officials
believed that the wartime rules should continue in force.
As the Eisenhower administration gave way to the Kennedy administration
and in turn to the Johnson administration, Moss still did not
have enough votes in Congress for his bill to pass. Even though
by no stretch of the imagination would the FOIA have caused the
release of legitimate secrets-plans for nuclear weaponry, for
instance, or private communiqués between heads of state-it
was construed as a threat by a new school of political thought.
For the first time in American history, the combined wisdom of
official Washington leaned toward advocating secrecy and restricting
openness as much as possible. This school of thought, which had
been codified in the I947 National Security Act, ran counter to
the very foundation of American democracy, and yet in the atmosphere
of the cold war it passed for patriotism.
In I966 Moss achieved a political breakthrough, and the FOIA
became law. The essential conflict, however, was far from resolved.
In fact, the conflict was merely formalized. The Freedom of Information
Act's requirements of openness placed it on a collision course
with the National Security Act and its provisions for secrecy.
For the next three decades there would be a series of confrontations
between those devoted to reducing governmental secrecy and those
bent on adding more layers to it.
Conservatives Worry and the Cover-up Begins
Late at night in the watering holes of American intelligence
agents, the mention of Stanley K. Sheinbaum's name can still arouse
a muttering of anger. Sheinbaum was the first person to go public
with his experience of CIA activity in the United States-a story
about the Agency's infiltration of a legitimate civilian institution.
Sheinbaum so embarrassed senior officials of the CIA that they
set in motion an elaborate internal operation intended to prevent
anyone else from ever doing what he had done.
Sheinbaum's connection with the CIA began in the I9505, a
period when security officers at the rapidly expanding Agency
were sometimes overworked. On occasion they neglected to ask someone
to sign a secrecy contract, which was normally a prerequisite
of employment. Once signed, it committed a CIA agent to complete
secrecy, beginning with the first day on the job and continuing
until death. But Sheinbaum's association with the CIA was indirect,
through a university that turned out to be working under contract
with the Agency. He was never a CIA employee and, as far as he
can remember, was never asked to sign a secrecy agreement.' During
his days as a doctoral student at Stanford University and as a
Fulbright fellow in Paris, Sheinbaum developed a strong interest
in helping the economies of underdeveloped nations expand. When
his Fulbright ran out in the summer of I955, he landed a position
at Michigan State University, working on a $25 million government
project to advise South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. By
I957, Sheinbaum was coordinator of the project.
His new responsibilities included inspecting work in Vietnam.
Before he went on a trip there in I957, university officials told
him about the general CIA connection; once there, Vietnamese officials
informed him that his project staff included CIA officers. The
revelation bothered him. He thought it inappropriate that he and
other legitimate academic advisers were being used as cover for
U.S. government manipulation. Sheinbaum left Vietnam feeling that
his work and his program had been compromised. Upon his return
to the United States, he was further entangled when he was called
upon to meet with four top South Vietnamese officials in San Francisco.
"Within an hour of their arrival," Sheinbaum later recalled,
"the youngest, a nephew of Ngo Dinh Diem, conspiratorially
drew me aside and informed me that one of the others was going
to kill the eldest of the group." While taking steps to thwart
the plot, Sheinbaum realized that his original goal, the economic
improvement of impoverished nations, was getting lost in his administrative
work as coordinator. His growing dismay-at what he later called
the "unhealthy" CIA component and "the general
U.S. policy . . . in Vietnam"-led him to resign from the
project in I959.
By this stage, however, Sheinbaum had information that was
confidential. Following the buildup of U.S. troops in Vietnam
and the assassination of Diem, Sheinbaum decided it was his patriotic
duty to publicize information that he hoped might put the brakes
on U.S. involvement. Writing about the connections between Michigan
State University, the CIA, and the Saigon police (with the help
of Robert Scheer, a young investigative reporter), the Sheinbaum
story was to appear in the June I966 issue of Ramparts magazine.
The article disclosed that Michigan State University had been
secretly used by the CIA to train Saigon police and to keep an
inventory of ammunition for grenade launchers, Browning automatic
rifles, and .,o caliber machine guns, as well as to write the
South Vietnamese constitution.
The problem, in Sheinbaum's view, was that such secret funding
of academics to execute government programs undercut scholarly
integrity. When scholars are forced into a conflict of interest,
he wrote, "where is the source of serious intellectual criticism
that would help us avoid future Vietnams?"
Word of Sheinbaum's forthcoming article caused consternation
on the seventh floor of CIA headquarters. On April I8, I966, Director
of Central Intelligence William F. Raborn Jr. notified his director
of security that he wanted a "run down" on Ramparts
magazine on a "high priority basis." This strongly worded
order would prove to be a turning point for the Agency. To "run
down" a domestic news publication because it had exposed
questionable practices of the CIA was dearly in violation of the
I947 National Security Act's prohibition on domestic operations
and meant the CIA eventually would have to engage in a cover-up.
The CIA director of security, Howard J. Osborn, was also-told:
"The Director [Raborn] is particularly interested in the
authors of the article, namely, Stanley Sheinbaum and Robert Scheer.
He is also interested in any other individuals who worked for
Osborn's deputies had just two days to prepare a special briefing
on Ramparts for the director. By searching existing CIA files
they were able to assemble dossiers on approximately twenty-two
of the fifty-five Ramparts writers and editors, which itself indicates
the Agency's penchant for collecting information on American critics
of government policies. Osborn was able to tell Raborn that Ramparts
had grown from a Catholic lay journal into a publication with
a staff of more than fifty people in New York, Paris, and Munich,
including two active members of the U.S. Communist Party. The
most outspoken of the CIA critics at the magazine was not a Communist
but a former Green Beret veteran, Donald Duncan. Duncan had written,
according to then CIA Deputy Director Richard Helms, "We
will continue to be in danger as long as the CIA is deciding policy
and manipulating nations." Of immediate concern to Raborn,
however, was Osborn's finding that Sheinbaum was in the process
of exposing more CIA domestic organizations. The investigation
of Ramparts was to be intensified, Raborn told Osborn.
At the same time, Helms passed information to President Lyndon
Johnson's aide, William D. Moyers, about the plans of two Ramparts
editors to run for Congress on an antiwar platform. Within days,
the CIA had progressed from investigating a news publication to
sending domestic political intelligence to the White House, just
as a few members of Congress had feared nineteen years earlier.
Upon publication, Sheinbaum's article triggered a storm of
protests from academicians and legislators across the country
who saw the CIA's infiltration of a college campus as a threat
to academic freedom. The outcry grew so loud that President Johnson
felt he had to make a reassuring public statement and establish
a task force to review any government activities that might endanger
the integrity of the educational community. The task force was
a collection of political statesmen-such as Attorney General Nicholas
Katzenbach and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare John
Gardner-but also included Richard Helms, the CIA official who
himself had been dealing in political espionage. The purpose of
the task force, it soon became clear, was to forestall further
embarrassment and preclude any congressional investigation of
CIA operations. Helms, furthermore, organized an internal task
force of directorate chiefs to examine all CIA relationships with
academic institutions-but that review, from all appearances, was
designed only to ensure that these operations remained secret.
Meanwhile, CIA officers spent April and May of I966 identifying
the source of Ramparts's money. Their target was executive editor
Warren Hinckle, the magazine's chief fund-raiser and a man easy
to track. He wore a black patch over one eye and made no secret
of the difficult state of the magazine's finances as he continually
begged a network of rich donors for operating funds. The agents
also reported that Hinckle had launched a $2.5 million lawsuit
against Alabama Governor George Wallace for calling the magazine
pro-Communist (information that Osborn dutifully passed on to
Raborn).The real point of the CIA investigation, however, was
to place Ramparts reporters under such close surveillance that
any CIA officials involved in domestic operations would have time
to rehearse cover stories before the reporters arrived to question
Next, Raborn broadened the scope of his investigation of Ramparts's
staff by recruiting help from other agencies. On June I6, I966,
he ordered Osborn to "urge" the FBI to "investigate
these people as a subversive unit." Osborn forwarded this
request to the FBI, expressing the CIA's interest in anything
the FBI might develop "of a derogatory nature." One
CIA officer, who later inspected the CIA file of the Ramparts
investigation, said that the Agency was trying to find a way of
shutting down the magazine that would stand up in court, notwithstanding
the constraints of the First Amendment.
You Expose Us, We Spy on You
In response to President Johnson's rising anxiety about Vietnam,
CIA interest in the dissident press dramatically expanded in the
summer of I967. In July, Director Helms appointed Thomas H. Karamessines,
an admirer of Helms, one of four deputy directors in the Agency.
As deputy director of operations, Karamessines was in charge of
all espionage, counterespionage, and covert action worldwide-including,
of course, such activities within the United States.
Karamessines's twenty-three years in the CIA had included,
most recently, the top job in foreign intelligence. He began as
a desk officer in Greece at the end of World War II, when Greece
was a focal point in the developing cold war. He did similar duty
in Vienna and Rome, attended the prestigious National War College
in the mid-I950s, and later was deeply involved in often deadly
operations to bring down nationalist leaders such as Salvador
Allende, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Patrice Lumumba.
Less than a month after Karamessines was promoted, he started
an operation to handle the antiwar press. The new campaign was
evidently sprung on August 4, I967, when a "telegram [went
out] to a great many field stations talking about high level interest
in this activity," according to Richard Ober, in testimony
before the Rockefeller Commission years later. The new operation,
called Special Operations Group (SOG), was to be part of counterintelligence,
and as such in the domain of the counterintelligence chief, James
Jesus Angleton, then working under Karamessines. When Angleton
learned of the new group, he was also given the names of two candidates
to head it. He chose Ober.
On or about August I,, Angleton called a small meeting to
announce Ober's new title and responsibilities. Ober's job was
to coordinate SOG and expand his Ramparts investigation to encompass
the entire antiwar underground press, numbering some five hundred
newspapers. He was to use the same plausible denial-"foreign
funding"-that was used to justify the Ramparts operation.
The special operation was later designated MHCHAOS: "MH"
for the worldwide area of operations, "CHAOS" for, well,
chaos. The Ramparts Task Force had been "high priority."
MHCHAOS was above that: "operational priority in the field
is in the highest category, ranking with Soviet and Chinese"
operations. In twenty years, from I947 to I967, the CIA had moved
from forswearing internal security functions to assigning domestic
political espionage the highest level of priority.
The underground press was the spinal column of the antiwar movement.
In California, Max Scheer had founded the Berkeley Bar/o on Friday,
August I3, I965. The front page of the Barb's first issue had
a report on antiwar demonstrators attempting to stop a troop train
carrying soldiers to a deployment point for Vietnam. Subsequent
issues contained regular reports from the front lines of the movement.
Barb's staffers left their offices on Friday afternoons to hawk
papers on street corners. Circulation grew to 85,000 copies a
week. In Washington, D.C., the Washington Free Press distributed
antiwar polemics on the streets outside the White House and the
State Department. One of the Free Press editors was Frank Speltz,
a white student at predominantly black Howard University. He had
started the paper as a newsletter meant to carry civil rights
news to nearby white campuses, but he then broadened its focus
to include reporting on antiwar demonstrations. In Chicago, Los
Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York, similar papers
sold for twenty-five cents a copy. By I967, there were hundreds
of antiwar, counterculture newspapers-some of them in towns as
small as Grinnell, Iowa, and Lubbock, Texas. They had their own
news service, the equivalent of an underground Associated Press.
Their combined circulation would peak at seven million a month.
In conjunction with the campus press, the underground press was
a mighty antiwar propaganda machine.
The CIA was not alone in its mission. Ober coordinated efforts
with agents of the army, the local police, and the FBI. At the
U.S. Army Intelligence Command, Ralph Stein was assigned to a
similar underground newspaper desk. Stein soon figured out that
antiwar publications were being financed by change collected on
the street, not by the KGB or the Chinese secret service. When
Stein was called from his office to brief Ober's team at CIA headquarters,
he was shocked to find that the CIA officers had knowledge about
the lives of underground editors so intimate that it could only
have come from infiltrators. Concerned that Ober's task force
was operating in violation of the I947 National Security Act,
Stein returned to his office and registered an official objection
with his commanders. The next thing he knew, he had been relieved
of his liaison duties with the CIA.
In some respects Ober was a fugitive within his own agency,
but the very illegality of MHCHAOS gave him power. Because he
had been ordered to carry out an illegal mission, he had certain
leverage over his bosses, as long as he kept his operation secret.
Indeed, he had leverage over not only Karamessines but also CIA
Director Helms, as well as anyone at the White House and the National
Security Council who received his domestic intelligence reports.
In time these would include Henry Kissinger and Nixon's counsel,
John Dean. Ober was a man walking on the edge of a razor. As long
as everything remained secret, he was not only safe but powerful:
he had the ear of presidents.
With Richard Nixon in the White House, the demands on Ober
for more political espionage became louder and clearer. Ober's
sixty agents became the Nixon administration's primary source
of intelligence about the antiwar leadership.
- The CIA's War at Home