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Coverage Of The CIA’s Document Release: A Critique

June 28, 2007

This has been all over the news today, but I want to look closely the Chicago Tribune‘s story with a self-explanatory title: “CIA Airs Dirty Laundry.” What follows are excerpts from the piece composed by the Tribune‘s Washington reporters, Stephen J. Hedges and John Crewdson. My comments are interspersed.

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– “The Central Intelligence Agency shined an unaccustomed light on its dark side Tuesday, making public a 693-page report that documents some of its worst historical abuses, from failed assassination plots against world leaders and illegal spying on Americans to its links with the hapless Watergate burglars whose arrests eventually toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon.”

TL: I wonder what motivated the declassification? And what of the timing? What was the significance of yesterday?

– “Known inside the agency as the “family jewels,” the collection of memos, investigative reports and handwritten jottings confirms many details of the CIA’s troubled past from the 1960s and ’70s. It reveals the determined work of the American espionage bureaucracy to conceal some of its worst deeds behind its sizable cloak of government secrecy.”

TL: This just has to be a double entendre: those who know your secrets have you by the &@!!$.

– “Many of the allegations addressed by the documents have been reported before. But Tuesday’s disclosure was the first widespread release of the original records. The CIA’s darker deeds generated enormous interest, overwhelming the CIA’s Web site, which posted the documents.”

TL: This discrepancy between “reported” and actual documents highlights the problematic nature of writings histories like James T. Patterson’s Grand Expectations (NY: Oxford, 1997).

– “Some episodes, such as the CIA’s enlisting of Chicago mob boss Sam ‘Momo’ Giancana to help with an ill-fated assassination plot against Cuban leader Fidel Castro using CIA-manufactured poison pills, have become the stuff of popular legend.”
– “The plot was almost exposed because of Giancana’s concern that his then-companion, singer Phyllis McGuire of the McGuire Sisters, was seeing comedian Dan Rowan on the side while both were appearing at the same Las Vegas hotel. Giancana persuaded the CIA to send one of its technicians to bug Rowan’s hotel room, but the technician was surprised in the act and arrested. The U.S. Justice Department signaled its intention to prosecute the technician and also Robert Maheu, the Las Vegas public-relations executive who had served as liaison between the CIA and the Mafia. The CIA intervened, the documents show, and ‘at our request, the prosecution was dropped.’ “
– “In the end, the CIA’s attempt to get mobsters to arrange for Castro’s assassination came to nothing. Giancana and fellow mobster Santo Trafficante tried unsuccessfully to get several people to drop poison pills in the Cuban leader’s food or drink. The plot was dropped after the failed CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.”

TL: This is completely news to me. I always thought those plots involved Cuban expatriates, not Italians who might accidentally resemble some Cubans.

“Unsuccessful attempts to assassinate other heads of state, such as Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, also are discussed in the documents.”

TL: This is another one that’s news to me.

– “The CIA’s peripheral involvement in Watergate led then-CIA Director James Schlesinger to compile the ‘family jewels’ file in 1973, asking each CIA component to send him a summary of activities it thought might have violated the law. Schlesinger’s goal was to learn of activities that had the greatest potential for embarrassing the agency. Much of the ‘family jewels’ file was leaked to The New York Times in December of 1974. Though now declassified, the document contains numerous deletions and many pages that are entirely whited-out.”

TL: The relation of the phrase ‘family jewels’ to the Nixon administration affirms my double entendre assertion: Nixon and his plotters – err plumbers – were notorious for their salty language.

– “The 1974 leak prompted Congress to launch two long-running investigations that unearthed volumes of information about the intelligence agency’s illicit history, including the surreptitious opening of letters mailed from the U.S. to the Soviet Union and China and break-ins by CIA operatives at the homes of past and present employees suspected of disloyalty.”

TL: If I had sent mail to the USSR or China in the 1960s, I would’ve assumed it was being looked at. This seems like penny-ante, spying 101 stuff.

“In the 1970s, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), who presided over one of the investigations, famously termed the CIA a ‘rogue elephant on a rampage.’ “

TL: That’s not a particularly creative phrase. Now if he’d said the CIA was “a rogue elephant rampaging in closet,” that would’ve been poetic – or at least funny.

– “Even today, the documents provide a compelling record of government gone awry when the course of an unpopular war and the role of intelligence-gathering were called in question. The parallels to the current national mood over the war in Iraq, and accusations that CIA intelligence was manipulated to justify that war, make the timing of the CIA’s disclosure, and the records themselves, all the more sobering.”

TL: This first sentence seems like a random insertion: it begs for an elaboration. And the second one feels like a gratuitous (even if true) slap at the administration. Perhaps these next paragraphs/sentences will help.

– “One disclosure concerns the former Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which worried that it had been infiltrated by ‘dishonest and corrupt elements’ with ties to drug smugglers. The BNDD asked the CIA to supply some of its trusted agents who could infiltrate BNDD offices around the country to look for corrupt behavior. While a seemingly worthwhile endeavor, the fact that CIA agents were effectively working as federal law-enforcement officers was deemed a potential violation of law, since the CIA has no police powers.”

TL: But doesn’t smuggling make it an international issue, and therefore one relevant to the CIA?

– “A document describes the agency’s overnight efforts in a mailroom at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Officers opened letters mailed from the U.S. to the former Soviet Union and China. From 1953 to 1973, the CIA opened and photographed almost 250,000 letters and produced an index of nearly 1.5 million names, the Church committee found.”

TL: I’m somewhat surprised here by the aggregate numbers. Of course this was a twenty-year period, but I wouldn’t have guessed that many total letters and people. Some quick math shows a rate of about 34 letters opened per day. I’d need to know that number’s relevance to Chinese and Russian immigrants and defectors living in the U.S., but 34 per day, or 17 per country per day, doesn’t seem outrageous. The number of names indexed, however, does seem crazy. That works out to 205 new names a day indexed, or 102 per country. I wonder if there were clusters in years, say in 1968? It seems certain that ’68 would a year of suspicion.

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This article stinks. It raises more questions than it answers. And reading the rest of the piece reveals the Bush administration line as gratuitous.

There’s got to be better coverage in another paper. Any suggestions?

The one thing this article does, even if accidentally, is show the problems of using archives and writing well-informed histories. Archives hold back a lot of material, and getting a grasp on history that’s less than 50 years in the past is extremely difficult. Of course I’m not saying that those early drafts of history shouldn’t be written. There are some fantastic histories out there covering the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It’s just that “if” all history is subjective (it is), then histories of the recent past are both subjective AND often fragmentary. The buyer should beware. – TL

Update, 6/28, 9 am: The AHA’s weblog reports that the best coverage is in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

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