Wednesday, June 27, 2007

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Open family jewels thread

Comment away on anything interesting contained in the CIA's family jewels, released yesterday.

In the New York Times, Mark Mazzetti and Tim Weiner sum up the document dump:

Known inside the agency as the “family jewels,” the 702 pages of documents catalog domestic wiretapping operations, failed assassination plots, mind-control experiments and spying on journalists from the early years of the C.I.A.

The papers provide evidence of paranoia and occasional incompetence as the agency began a string of illegal spying operations in the 1960s and 1970s, often to hunt links between Communist governments and the domestic protests that roiled the nation in that period.

Yet the long-awaited documents leave out a great deal. Large sections are censored, showing that the C.I.A. still cannot bring itself to expose all the skeletons in its closet. And many activities about overseas operations disclosed years ago by journalists, Congressional investigators and a presidential commission — which led to reforms of the nation’s intelligence agencies — are not detailed in the papers.

The Times has also set up a blog by intellligence experts -- including's Official Go-To Person for All Things Intelligent, Ms. Amy Zegart.

Another contributor, Philip Taubman, concludes:

Reading through the litany of C.I.A. domestic spying abuses and other questionable activities during the cold war years, including plots to assassinate foreign leaders, it’s hard not to wonder what the men and women of the C.I.A. (mostly men, in those days) were thinking as they wandered far afield from the C.I.A.’s own charter.

posted by Dan on 06.27.07 at 09:38 AM


They were thinking that they were defending America, of course. Mr Taubman has Alzheimer, may be.

posted by: jaim klein on 06.27.07 at 09:38 AM [permalink]

I heard an old CIA hand defend these wild activities by asking they be placed in context, a context of fear.

Okay. Were there real threats out there to worry about? And if so, were the CIA's activities well aimed at these threats, and well designed to remove them?

Was Castro a sufficient threat to American interests to justify an attempt to assassinate him? Or was it better to have respect international norms and domestic law?

The CIA disregarded the legal rights and privacy interests of domestic dissidents. Could its resources have better been directed against more dangerous threats? I should think so.

posted by: Careful on 06.27.07 at 09:38 AM [permalink]

Fear, yeah - but was it that pathological? Those of us born in the 1960s sometimes wonder about our elders. Did they *really* believe the world was going to blow up? Did they *really* believe that communism was working all that well? Did they *really* believe that the kind of people who ran the CPUSA were a threat? Or were they all drinking like the folks we see in movies of the era?

posted by: Michael Tinkler on 06.27.07 at 09:38 AM [permalink]

Careful: "International norms" were (arguably still are) worthless, especially in the face of international communism.

Domestic law is something I'd be more interested in the CIA respecting than nebulous norms that are irrelevant to US law or the decisions of democratic American government.

(On another topic, the article says "to hunt links between Communist governments and the domestic protests that roiled the nation in that period." ... My impression had been that post-1991 Soviet records revealed that the Kremlin had in fact been funding American anti-war groups and protestors.

So I can't imagine the CIA thinking they might be as evidence that they were paranoid, though the method may have been incompetent. Still doesn't excuse operating in the US outside of their remit, though at least [as a reason to believe they'd find it easy to self-justify without any great dissonance] a KGB connection is a bona-fide "international" and "national security" concern.

Doesn't change anything else, but it makes it easier to see how someone in the CIA could feel perfectly justified in doing such an investigation, even if it broke the law.)

posted by: Sigivald on 06.27.07 at 09:38 AM [permalink]

Did they *really* believe the world was going to blow up?

The nuclear capability to pull it off certainly existed. Whether anyone is insane enough to do it willingly, or incompetent enough to do it unwillingly, is another matter.

Did they *really* believe that communism was working all that well?

The issue with Communism was not whether it worked, if one means "worked" in the sense of economic efficiency. It was a system of totalitarian slavery that was spreading and that had to be stopped.

Did they *really* believe that the kind of people who ran the CPUSA were a threat?

Apparently so. While as a political party CPUSA was and is quite impotent, the Wikipedia entry suggests that it could still aid Soviet espionage.

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 06.27.07 at 09:38 AM [permalink]

Really, how far afield was it? And how far-fetched is it that an institution with the CIA's roots would develop a culture where such wandering was actually the status quo?

Not that there's anything wrong with that...

My takeaway: This isn't so bad. I mean, the CIA looked into assasinating Lumumba and Castro? We didn't know this?

Brit Hume himself yesterday - one of the journalists being tracked in the Nixon year - when asked about the timeliness of the release amongst contemporary wire-tapping: 'what the Bush administration is doing is nothing compared to what was going on in the 60s/70s' (something to that effect).

So, now that we see what was going on in the 60s/70s and it's nothing worse than what we expected (and after all, Brit Hume survived just fine), there's a sense in which are confidence in the CIA can be restored by the jewels and that the Agency can renew its license for hubris.

posted by: Drew on 06.27.07 at 09:38 AM [permalink]

Yes, I was born before we entered WWII and in the 50's many really believed things were bad and getting worse. The "missile gap" that JFK ran on was preceded by a "bomber gap" in the early 50's. The USSR seemed to be growing faster than the US, both in tons of steel and GDP. (Steel was a big, big economic metric then.) Sputnik just confirmed our education system was no damn good, and Elvis was the topping on the cake.

Europe was old (even then) and losing all its colonies. All you had to do was project the lines on the graphs into the future and you could agree with Nikita--we'd be buried.

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 06.27.07 at 09:38 AM [permalink]

It's worth remembering that the second volume of the Mitrokhin archive was titled "The World Was Going Our Way." There was a definite feeling in the early 1970s that things were sliding awy - the defeatism of the post-Vietnam War era is hard to recapture now, but I can vividly remember how suprising the success of the Gulf War was - we expected, if not a botch, something considerably less impressive than the victory we got.

posted by: Nanonymous on 06.27.07 at 09:38 AM [permalink]

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