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 disclosure."

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 wilderness.

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 executive branch.

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 the magazine.

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 them.

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.

Secrets - The CIA's War at Home

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