After fighting to keep them secret for more than three decades, the CIA released hundreds of documents Tuesday that catalog some of the most egregious intelligence abuses of the Cold War, including assassination plots against foreign leaders and illegal efforts to spy on Americans.
The records are part of a trove of jealously guarded documents long known within the agency as "the family jewels." Assembled in the early 1970s as part of an internal investigation of potentially embarrassing or illegal activities, the records were subsequently turned over to Congress, prompting multiple investigations and sweeping intelligence reforms.
The records were ordered released by CIA Director Michael Hayden as part of what he characterized as an effort to close an embarrassing chapter in the agency's history.
The documents serve as "reminders of some things the CIA should not have done," Hayden said in remarks to the agency's work force Tuesday. "The documents truly do provide a glimpse of a very different era and a very different agency."
Indeed, many of the episodes detailed in the 693 pages of newly declassified text read like relics from another era, including the elaborate attempts by the CIA to enlist mafia operatives to poison Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
But other documents seem remarkably relevant today, as the nation grapples anew with questions of how much latitude U.S. intelligence agencies should be given in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The documents describe secret CIA holding cells and the possibly illegal detention of a suspected Soviet spy who was held without trial at a CIA facility in Maryland for years before it was determined he was a legitimate defector. They also document plans to eavesdrop on international phone calls of U.S. residents, and aggressive efforts to root out leaks of classified information to reporters.
Watchdog groups praised the release of the records, and said it was a remarkable step for a secretive organization under no legal obligation to declassify the documents.
"It allows the agency to simultaneously distance itself from its questionable past and portray itself as open and forthcoming," said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.
Even so, the records that were released are incomplete, with dozens of pages blacked out by CIA censors. One memo that lists the most damaging secrets contained in "the family jewels" is missing the first paragraph. A separate memo that is supposed to summarize the "unusual activities" of the CIA's domestic branch includes just three intact paragraphs followed by 17 blank pages.
The records that are complete do not appear to contain major revelations of CIA misdeeds, but instead provide extensive new detail from internal CIA accounts on episodes that have occupied Cold War historians for decades. Most of the records are memos written by agency officials in response to a 1973 order from then-CIA Director James Schlesinger for employees to report activities they thought might violate the CIA's charter.
Arguably the most exceptional operation detailed was a plot to enlist known organized-crime figures to assassinate Castro in the early 1960s. Although the machinations were uncovered more than 35 years ago, the newly released reports show that the CIA director at the time, Allen W. Dulles, "was briefed and gave his approval" to the operation.
According to a five-page memo, a private investigator contracted by the CIA worked directly with Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana to come up with the assassination plan. In an almost comical aside, the CIA realized it was dealing with Giancana after subsequently seeing his photo in a most-wanted listing in Parade magazine.
"Sam suggested that they not resort to firearms but, if he could be furnished some type of potent pill, that could be placed in Castro's food or drink, it would be a much more effective operation," the memo said.
But after several failed attempts, the Cuban operative selected by the mafia to carry out the assassination "got cold feet and asked out of the assignment." The mafia suggested another candidate, but the operation was canceled when the botched Bay of Pigs invasion exposed the Kennedy administration to criticism for its anti-Castro policies.
The records also shed extensive light on the CIA's involvement in efforts to spy on Americans, including student anti-war activists, Black Power group leaders, pro-Castro sympathizers and Soviet dissidents.
CIA operatives worked closely with local police to gather intelligence against groups planning protests at the presidential conventions in 1972. The agency also worked with the Secret Service at the conventions that year.
Anti-war activists were followed &
some all the way to Paris, where they attended summit meetings with Viet Cong representatives. The surveillance turned up financial connections between John Lennon of The Beatles, described only as "a British subject," and a project linked to anti-war activist Rennie Davis, one of the Chicago Seven.
In a program code-named MHCHAOS, the CIA recruited, tested and dispatched Americans with "existing extremist credentials" abroad so they could gather intelligence on efforts by Cuba, China, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union, North Korea and "the Arab fedayeen" to foment domestic extremism in the United States.
As part of an effort to combat drug trafficking, the CIA asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to plant a field of opium poppies in Washington state to be used to test "photo-recognition systems" designed to detect illicit crops from overhead.
But the agency refused a request from federal "Alcohol Tobacco" authorities to use infrared scanners to locate moonshine stills.
The CIA's relationship with the Nixon administration was varied and complex. In one series of documents, the CIA said it reimbursed the White House more than $33,600 for the "postage, stationery and addressing" of thank-you notes to supporters who wrote in praising Nixon's 1970 speech on his decision to invade Cambodia.
The documents also describe a panicked internal investigation to find out whether the CIA might be implicated in the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon's resignation. E. Howard Hunt, who organized the Watergate break-in, was a former CIA agent, as was James McCord, one of the "plumbers" arrested during the attempted bugging of the Democratic Party headquarters.
CIA Director Helms ordered agency officials to report all contacts with Hunt and McCord. The inquiry didn't turn up any evidence that implicated CIA officials. But one official reported getting a call from Hunt in spring 1972, months before the break-in, asking for a referral of "a retiree or resignee who was accomplished at picking locks."
The documents released Tuesday portray a CIA obsessed with news coverage that is either too negative or simply too accurate. In one case, the agency conducted physical surveillance of muckraker Jack Anderson and his associates, including Brit Hume, now a Fox News anchor.
In Project Mockingbird, the agency in 1963 wiretapped the office and homes of two Washington-based syndicated news columnists, Paul Scott and Robert Allen, who had published articles that cited "top secret" classified information, according to an undated, unsigned memo.
The memo said John A. McCone, then director of central intelligence, authorized the telephone intercepts in coordination with Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, Robert McNamara, the secretary of Defense, and other senior U.S. officials.
The wiretaps were "particularly productive in identifying contacts of the newsmen," the memo said, including 18 members of Congress and 16 staff members from the White House and other government offices. Indeed, the investigation concluded that the columnists "received more classified and official data than they could use."
CIA's 'Family Jewels' still guard some secrets