HOW TO BEGIN? How to begin a column about the CIA's secret study of the effect of circumcision? You see my problem. You understand. Therefore, it will come as no surprise if I begin slowly, sort of backing into the subject, telling you that I first learned of the CIA program in The Washington Post. There was a small story of exactly four paragraphs and it was pointed out to me by my wife who said, if I recall correctly, "Look at this." I pretended to be indignant.
I read the story. It said that the CIA in the early 1960s "funded" experiments on circumcised children "to determine if the operation left any emotional after-effects . . . The aim was to determine if circumcision at a significant stage of a child's development produced anxieties such as fear of castration . . ." It went on a bit more and ended with the news that the conclusions, if any, were not revealed. I waited.
I waited for the other shoe to drop. I waited for some senator or congressman or anybody to yell bloody murder. Nothing, I waited for someone to ask for an investigation. Nothing. I waited for an editorial, somebody maybe asking what business it was of the CIA's to find out anything about circumcision. Nothing. I waited for a press release from the ACLU, pointing out that there is nothing in the CIA's charter allowing it to do this kind of research. Nothing.
I kept waiting. Surely someone would say something. Surely someone would write something. Surely, this was an outrage - the CIA finally going completly bonkers. I mean, even its wildest programs on mind control had to do, in a loose way, with intelligence. But this - what had this to do with anything? I waited. Nothing.
So I started to ask people if they had read the story. I asked because after a while I thought maybe I was the only one who had seen it. Most people said they didn't see it, but a few said they did. They had nothing to say about it. Every once in a while, I would sneak a look at the story, as if reassuring myself that it had really been in the paper. Then one day someone wrote something about it. It was James A. Wechsler of the New York Post and he wrote a column.
He wrote about how he had seen the same story I had seen, only he had seen it in the New York Times. He wrote how no one else had seen it and he, too, kept wondering why nothing was being done - no one saying anything, no calls for a congressional investigation, nothing but a deafening silence. He wrote about how after a while he doubted that he had seen the story, how he searched his desk for it, how it was suddenly missing. I read that and was yelling in my head. "You read it, Jimmy, you read it. Just you and me. Jimmy, we read it. We know. No one else knows. Just you and me."
Anyway, Wechsler's column didn't advance the story any, didn't tell you anything that wasn't in the first newspaper accounts of the experiments, and so I continued to wait for someone to give it the full treatment. It never happened, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the ball, so to speak, was in my court.
I would do a column and in this column I would say that this story about the circumcision experiments was a commentary on our times - a commentary on now blase and jaded we've become about CIA abuses. The story, after all, cmae after several years of disclosures about CIA abuses and cockamamy schemes - everything from an attempt to hand Fidel Castro a poison cigar ("Have, have one of mine") to enlisting the Mafia in the war on Castro to recent stories about the agency's mind-control program in which it dropped more mickeys into more drinks than Mickey Spillane has done in a life-time of stories. It was our CIA, after all, that opened a bordello of sorts in San Francisco where, in the name of intelligence, it drugged unsuspecting men and watched through a two-way mirror as they engaged in sex with a presumably patriotic prostitute. After that, a circumcision study pales by comparison.
You read that kind of stuff and you can understand how people could become blase, shrug their shoulders at the news. You could understand that and you could write a column about that and you would not be wrong. But you would not be telling the truth, either. For what vexed me more than anything about that original story was that business about the conclusions not being revealed. After all, let's face it - it's not a bad question. It's a question debated for generations. I wanted to know the answer.
So I called the CIA, acting very reportorial and somber, and I told my business to a woman who answered the phone and she volunteered that the agency had gotten lots of letters from people who also wanted to know what the CIA had learned about circumcision. Well. I asked slyly, what do you tell them? She giggled. No comment, she said.Then I got a public information officer on the phone. Very pleasant. Very nice. He explained that the existence of the program had been deduced from financial records but the study and its conclusion, if any, were no longer available. It had been destroyed in 1973. I hung up depressed, but then I thought of something that gave me hope. I mean, you never know anymore.
Maybe the Department of Agriculture will get interested.