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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Details of some of the CIA's most secret operations from the 1950s to the 1970s will be made public next week. The agency is declassifying hundred of pages of documents, documents that shed light on illegal activities including assassination attempts, kidnappings, domestic spying and infiltration of leftist groups.

To learn more, we're joined by Tom Blanton in our studio. He is the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington. Good morning.

Mr. TOM BLANTON (Director, National Security Archive, George Washington University): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Why is the CIA releasing this material now?

Mr. BLANTON: Well, General Hayden, the CIA director, was speaking yesterday to a conference of diplomatic historians, and I think he had to deliver something or else the historians weren't going to applaud at the end of his speech. And so he brought in some nice news on some declassified documents, including these so-called family jewels that people have been trying to get released for 30 years now, which were the kind of the skeletons in the closet, the whole book of all the dirty tricks for decades.

MONTAGNE: It's some nice news about some not so very nice goings on at the CIA. Now you have a summary report that was prepared for President Ford in 1975, and it details 18 CIA operations that, quote, "presented legal questions." What was the CIA doing?

Mr. BLANTON: Well, here you have the CIA director going in to talk to the top Justice Department lawyers and saying, well, here's the bad news, guys. Here's where our potential liability is, and Justice Department does this really nice summary for us. It's six pages long of what's going to be coming out next week that's about - over 600 pages.

So it gives you the greatest hits, so to speak. The assassination attempts on Castro and Trujillo, and the wiretapping, the domestic surveillance, files on 10,000 Americans, you name it. But what's really going on here is damage control. You've got Seymour Hersh on the front page of New York Times here in December of 1974 rolling out…

MONTAGNE: New York Times reporter…

Mr. BLANTON: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: (Unintelligible). Yeah.

Mr. BLANTON: And there's a little interesting resonance with today. Here you've got Seymour Hersh today breaking news in the New Yorker about things like warrantless wiretapping and the like.

MONTAGNE: But back then…

Mr. BLANTON: Yeah, back then it sent them into damage control mode. You had the CIA director going, oh, my gosh, congressional investigation is about to happen, the White House having these panic meetings with the CIA director coming in. So they wrote up this summary to try to get ahead of the curve, to figure out what was going to be on the front pages before it actually hit.

MONTAGNE: Now some of these activities are widely known, such as -you've just mentioned the assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. Give us a few details of what's new here.

Mr. BLANTON: What's really new is the damage control, the panic at the White House and the highest levels of the government. Sy Hersh started publishing the stuff in 1974, '75, '76. There were congressional hearings. Whole volumes have been published; books have been published. We've known a lot, but just in this summary document right now we have new details about how they surveilled journalists - Jack Anderson and his staff. Brit Hume, who is now with Fox News, was one of the people under CIA surveillance. Now that's outright illegal, against the law for CIA to do that kind of thing here in this country. Mike Getler, a Washington Post reporter, also under surveillance.

Now what's interesting here, I think, in these documents is we see what President Ford actually says, we see what Henry Kissinger actually says, and we see the way that they try to spin it for Congress, push back against investigations, and spin it for the rest of us. Next week is when we're going to find out the dirty details.

MONTAGNE: You also see then-CIA Director William Colby expressing what appears to be real concern about the goings on and some apologies.

Mr. BLANTON: That's right. They had put together all these documents because Colby's predecessor was shocked to find out two of the Watergate burglars were old CIA hands being helped by the agency. And so he said to every senior official in the agency, send me a memo, every bad thing you can think of present or past. I don't want to see this on the front page of the paper before I know about it. So they put this thing together.

Colby later said he sent out directives to try to stop the bad stuff, and they did put a stop. President Ford did an executive order saying no more assassinations. And so I think what's interesting is CIA is trying to draw a line with the past. Except if you look at the first two items on these documents, they're warrantless wiretapping and kidnapping; and I tell you, that sounds like today's headlines.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. BLANTON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tom Blanton is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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