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CIA Reports Describe Illegal Activity

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The CIA released hundreds of classified documents, known as the "Family Jewels." The internal reports detail its activities from the 1950s to the 1970s. The 5-inch thick stack of papers is an internal accounting of a quarter century of questionable, often outright illegal, activities. The documents also raise questions about the CIA today.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

The Central Intelligence Agency has released a long-awaited account of its most clandestine and, at times, illegal activities. These documents are known internally as the family jewels, and they chronicle events from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Their release is also raising questions about the CIA today.

Here's NPR Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: The folder that came to be known as the family jewels was born back in 1973. James Schlesinger had just arrived at Langley as the CIA's new director. Schlesinger was alarmed by reports of CIA complicity in the Watergate scandal so he sent out a memo directing CIA staffers to tell him about any operations outside the agency's legal charter. Milt Bearden, who later rose to become a CIA station chief, remembers it well.

Mr. MILT BEARDEN (Former Station Chief, Central Intelligence Agency): I was actually overseas at that time, but we all received a cable that said, if you know anything deep and dark, we should tell him. It was a moment in the CIA when people were saying, what's this all about?

KELLY: What it was about was kidnapping, assassination plots, illegal surveillance of American journalists and Vietnam War protesters. The reports that rolled in in response to Schlesinger's request have remained classified until now. CIA spokesman George Little(ph) says his boss, current CIA director Michael Hayden, decided it was time to put the information out there, even if it doesn't paint the CIA in a flattering light.

Mr. GEORGE LITTLE (Spokesman, Central Intelligence Agency): It's important to remember that these documents portrayed a very different agency at a very different time. So it is part of the CIA's history and the documents reflect them.

KELLY: There's a lot the documents don't reflect - a full 15 percent of them are completely whited-out, and many of the remaining documents are heavily edited. That's drawing criticism, as is the effort to distance today's CIA from the organization of a generation ago.

James Bamford has written extensively about U.S. spy agencies. He says it's ironic that, back in the '70s, people were aghast as word of CIA misdeeds leaked out.

Mr. JAMES BAMFORD (Author): But now, looking back, it seems so minor compared to what the CIA is doing today. They have a whole section here on how the CIA held a Russian defector in a jail that was created by the CIA, a mini-prison for this person. Now you have the CIA keeping people in prisons all over the world.

KELLY: Bamford also points to parallels between domestic spying documented in the old reports and revelations of recent domestic spying under the Bush administration.

Mr. LITTLE: Well, I think that's an inappropriate analogy to draw.

KELLY: Again, CIA spokesman George Little.

Mr. LITTLE: It's important to note that CIA activities now undergo much more rigorous review not only within the agency, but also by other entities in the U.S. government and congressional oversight mechanisms that were established in the 1970s.

KELLY: That may be true, but Milt Bearden, the retired CIA spy, says he does see a disturbing trend. For him, it's a pattern of interaction between the CIA and the White House that began early on and, he says, continues today.

Mr. BEARDEN: Every one of these activities that are called the family jewels was at the direction of a president. So if I see a lesson coming out of this, it's that CIA has been abused by so many administrations going all the way back to Eisenhower and Kennedy and everybody since.

KELLY: Another CIA veteran, Richard Kerr, says he fears this release of documents will raise questions all over again about the CIA operating as a rogue agency. Kerr says, yes, there were abuses, but you have to remember the times.

Mr. RICHARD KERR (Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency): Think about what was happening in 1964, 1965, '67 and '68: the assassination of a president, assassination of an attorney general, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Vietnam. I mean there was great fear. You really had to be very careful, I think, about putting this in context of the time.

KELLY: Kerr argues that releasing a chronicle of past misdeeds without this necessary context will spell trouble for the CIA. But today's CIA leaders see things differently. General Hayden's spokesman says, quote, "to the extent that we can, he's willing to share information, both historical and recent, that would be of interest to Americans."

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Some of the CIA documents are at npr.org

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