By Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Hundreds of pages of decades-old documents declassified and released by the CIA yesterday revealed a 1970s-era agency in the throes of unaccustomed self-examination, caught between its traditional secrecy and demands that it come clean on a history of unsavory activities.
Prompted by the then-unraveling Watergate affair, and by fears that CIA involvement in that scandal would be exposed along with other illegal operations, the agency combed its files for what it called "delicate" information with "flap potential." The result was a collection of documents the CIA called the "family jewels."
Partly disclosed yesterday, the documents chronicle activities including assassination plans, illegal wiretaps and hunts for spies at political conventions. One document spoke of a plan to poison an African leader. Another revealed that the CIA had offered a Mafia boss $150,000 to kill Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Agents set up surveillance in a hotel opposite The Washington Post to watch for possible sources of leaked intelligence information, and senior officials juggled requests from the Nixon White House to pay off the Watergate burglars.
As he prepared the agency's testimony for congressional committees investigating Watergate in May 1973, William E. Colby, then a senior CIA official, struggled with how much to reveal, according to one memo. What investigators wanted to know, one colleague warned after reviewing Colby's draft, was: "Did the CIA cooperate wittingly in [illegal] activities. . . . Or did it only respond supinely to higher authority even though it had some reason for suspecting illegal conduct?"
The colleague advised against a "minimal factual response" in favor of "candor." Colby, who became CIA director in September 1973, later turned the entire "family jewels" file over to Congress, an act some agency veterans still consider a betrayal.
Current CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said yesterday that the papers include "reminders of some things the CIA should not have done." He told agency staff members that the internal reforms and increased oversight after the Watergate disclosures gave the CIA "a far stronger place in our democratic system."
Hayden became CIA director last summer in the midst of new allegations that the intelligence community crossed legal lines by torturing terrorism suspects at secret prisons and by conducting warrantless surveillance involving Americans. His decision to release the "family jewels," responding to a 1992 Freedom of Information Act request, was meant to convince critics that the agency embraces openness when possible.
Some documents resonate with recent intelligence controversies. Several dealt with the agency's domestic spying on anti-Vietnam War groups during the Johnson and Nixon years. One described an operation, begun under President Richard M. Nixon in late 1972, to track telephone calls between people stateside and overseas, and foreign calls routed through the United States.
The documents provided few new details of CIA operations, most of which were revealed long ago, either by Congress or the media. Rather than being a comprehensive accounting of a quarter-century of agency history, they were a haphazard collection of internal memos, communications with Congress and press clippings. Many contained deletions, and a number of pages were blank.
Most revealing were the memos written in response to a May 1973 appeal by then-Director James R. Schlesinger to "report to me immediately on any activities now going on, or that have gone on in the past, which might be construed to be outside the legislative charter of this Agency."
The responses, sent by division heads, low-level bureaucrats and retired operatives, included lengthy explanations of illegal surveillance and pithy recollections of long-ago black operations.
A one-paragraph memo recounts planning for a "project involving the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, then premier of the Republic of Congo. According to [name deleted], poison was to have been the vehicle . . ." A Belgian commission later attributed Lumumba's 1961 death to local rivals who had imprisoned him.
In 1972, Colby offered a carefully worded disclaimer in response to a letter from Lloyd Shearer of Parade magazine, who asked about direct CIA involvement in assassinations. "I can say, under oath if need be, that the CIA has never carried out a political assassination, nor has it induced, employed or suggested one which occurred."
In October 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson requested an interagency survey of possible foreign connections to U.S. groups opposed to the Vietnam War and worldwide student movements with communist links. Then-Director Richard M. Helms tasked the agency to do it, and the main input came from "sensitive intercepts" produced by the National Security Agency, according to another memo.
Agency officials became nervous years later because CIA reports on this issue included material on the homegrown radical group Students for a Democratic Society, known as SDS. Under its charter, the CIA is not allowed to conduct domestic intelligence-gathering.
The memos also recount more mundane concerns. After Nixon's May 1970 speech defending an incursion into Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the White House received thousands of letters, and directed that the CIA fund replies. The agency's costs totaled $33,655 for printing and postage for replies sent out to Nixon supporters. Negative letters were handed to the State Department for reply.