MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Today, the CIA declassified hundreds of pages of documents that describe abuses in the agency's history. They are internal reports from the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and they document such activities as a plot to kill Fidel Castro with poison pills, the secret testing of LSD on citizens, and illegal surveillance of Vietnam War protesters and American journalists.
We're going to spend this segment digging through the documents. In a few minutes, we'll talk about some specifics with Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research institute. And with Michael Getler who is now the ombudsman for PBS, but when he was a Washington Post reporter, he was a target of CIA surveillance.
First, we're going to get an overview from our intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. And Mary Louise, I understand that this document drop really includes two specific collections. What are they?
MARY LOUISE KELLY: That's right. Two sets. The first one is massive - 11,000 pages and this is Cold War era documents looking at the Soviet Union and China. So that's one. That is not the one people are talking about today.
The one that is drawing attention today is the so-called "Family Jewels." This is a relatively short release - a mere 700 pages to make our way through. This is the skeletons in the closet as one former CIA director put it. This is the ones that chronicle domestic spying, assassination attempts, kidnapping, et cetera.
SIEGEL: These developments were the subject of news stories and congressional investigations 30 years ago. Is there anything new in the documents?
KELLY: I think there is, yes. There are no great bombshells here because, as you say, this has been going over through congressional hearings and press reports so much. But there is some great colors, some fascinating details that we did not know about how some very secret operations played out.
A couple examples - there's a detailed accounting of the role played by a man named Johnny Roselli who is in the mafia. He was enlisted by the CIA in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. Now, this much we knew. We knew the name. We knew that this happened. We got some great details here, though, about his life in the mob, how he controlled all the ice-making machines on the Las Vegas strip, how he was recruited the night of September 14, 1960 at the Hilton, in New York, how he thought poison pills are really the way to go if you're going to try to take out Castro, some of these things.
There's also a lot on Watergate, which will obviously be of tremendous interest to historians of that era. Among some of the things we learned are on spring of 1972, Howard Hunt called a CIA contact and asked maybe if he could recommend a good luck picker. And they gave him a name and there he go. We, of course, know what happened a couple of months afterwards. So a lot of interesting nuggets here.
SIEGEL: Yeah. These documents obviously don't cast the CIA in a flattering light. And it's a little puzzling as to why they've all been released today. Why did the CIA release them?
KELLY: Well, this is apparently very much the work of General Michael Hayden, who is now head of the CIA. He was perhaps urged along in his thinking by the fact that there have been a number of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed to try to get hold of these documents, but those have been in place for years. And Hayden is apparently been in the job for about a year and has decided that - to the extent possible, when you're dealing with a secret spy agency - you should try to be transparent and get stuff out there.
So he has said he sent an internal note around to CIA staffers just this afternoon, explaining that these documents were going out and saying, yes, these are not the CIA at its best. These are reminders of some things that the agency shouldn't have done. But - and this, I think, is important. He said, these provide a glimpse of a very different era, a very different agency.
So this is General Hayden trying to draw a line between the CIA of yore and the CIA of present. A line that some will find persuasive and others, of course, will not, given the current accounts of CIA activities - secret prisons, renditions, interrogations, et cetera - activities that you could argue, make these past activities look pretty mild.
SIEGEL: Well, stick around, Mary Louise. I want to bring in now our guests now. Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, and Michael Getler, now with PBS, but a former Washington Post reporter. Welcome to both of you.
Mr. TOM BLANTON (Director, National Security Archive): Nice to be here, Robert.
Mr. MICHAEL GETLER (Ombudsman, PBS): Nice to be here.
SIEGEL: Tom Blanton, first of all, what's your understanding of why all these documents were released today?
Mr. BLANTON: I think General Hayden does get some credit, but we've had a Freedom of Information request filed since 1992. And when we got our box of secret documents - hot documents delivered, hand-delivered by CIA this morning at Gelman Library at G.W. - the cover letter said we're filling our oldest pending Freedom of Information request. It's yours and here they are.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BLANTON: So, the law really helped.
SIEGEL: You won, finally, even if it took 15 years. These are documents of things that happened, as Mary Louise was saying, at the latest in the early 1970s. And yet, there'll be passages blocked, entire pages that are blocked out and redacted, why? What's - what do you think is missing from all of this?
Mr. BLANTON: Some of them are just not justified. I mean, the Office of Security at the CIA - on really the second page of the whole release has a set of bullet points - the title is "Family Jewels," it's including the Michael Getler surveillance, but the very first bullet point completely blacked out.
There are sections that are more justifiable, the whole section in the pages 400, 500. That clearly is how they create fake driver's license, fake social security numbers. Clearly, methods they use today to give cover to their agents. You can understand why that selection won't be released. I think it's really ridiculous to have an original number one "Family Jewel" still blacked out.
SIEGEL: On your outfit's Web site, the National Security Archives Web site today, you have side by side a document released today and then the same document as it was released in 1977. It describes how the CIA set up safe houses near those 1972 political conventions. And there were more excisions - more things blacked out this time than they were 30 years ago.
Mr. BLANTON: The whole top section of the document is whited out by CIA, I think, to disguise the fact that a marine general who was the deputy CIA director had set up this safe house for them. I suspect it's sort of a privacy issue rather than a national security one because the actual substance is still there in the document. But it's the kind of silly secrecy that our government does over and over and over.
SIEGEL: Some things, Michael Getler, that are described here are far from silly. One of them was you're a defense writer back in the '70s, you're doing news stories, and you and a couple of other American journalists find yourself being surveilled by the CIA as is detailed here.
Mr. GETLER: Well, I had no knowledge of it, of course. The surveillance on me took place in - from the fall of '71 until January '72. I had no idea that I was under surveillance at all. I found out about it in 1975 when Colby acknowledged…
SIEGEL: He was the director of CIA.
Mr. GETLER: Right. William Colby was the new director of CIA - acknowledged this to the Congress that they had done some things that were questionable and illegal.
SIEGEL: Mary Louise Kelly contrasted or raised the question of a comparison between those days and these days. Take us back to those days for a moment being a journalist, getting leaks out of the agency or the Defense Department back in those days.
Mr. GETLER: Well, it, actually, is an - it's a good question because, you know, people forget but - the early 1970s - that's happened in '71 and early '72 -were actually very tensed. I mean, there was still a hot war in Vietnam. There was a pretty strong Cold War with the Soviet Union. There was an assault on the press by Vice President Agnew in particular. The Pentagon Papers had been published. There was a lot of political tension and there was a great emphasis and concerns about privacy and secrecy at the time because the Nixon administration was very concerned about leaks and very intent upon shutting them down. We now know, of course, that the plumbers were operating in those days against - or they were plumbers because they were meant to plug leaks.
SIEGEL: To plug the leaks. A generation of younger Americans who consult these documents online should have a lesson at who Jack Anderson was right now. remind us of who Jack Anderson was.
Mr. GETLER: Well, he was one of the great muckraking columnist of a - and he had a lot of terrific information. He had a lot of very good sources and he used to drive, not just the Nixon administration, but all administrations crazy. There was one thing I remember, too, that was - is very appropriate…
SIEGEL: I should say that many of these columns are reprinted in the "Family Jewels."
Mr. GETLER: Yes, they are. They are. But there was also - there were motions in those days in the Senate to set a timetable for withdrawal of American troops on Vietnam. I mean there was that kind of era, which even though 35 years ago, was quite tense and had some similarities to today.
SIEGEL: Some of the things, Tom Blanton, that are included in the "Family Jewels" are their descriptions of how the CIA was assisting law enforcement, distributing vests or various kinds of protective gear to police departments, or helping out the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. All these stuff was out of bounds, wasn't it?
Mr. BLANTON: Totally. And, in fact, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs - CIA was actually running a covert operation inside that bureau to prevent corruption and to use informants and to tease out inside information. On the local police forces, there's items in here like 36 chemical batons provided from the CIA's own supply to help some police department whack some demonstrators against the war.
To me, the more interesting police training, though, comes at the very end of the "Family Jewels" in the memos from James Angleton. Some of the only declassified memos by this legendary counterintelligence guy really went off the reservation.
And he talks about training foreign police in incendiary devices, sabotage and terrorism, so they can counteract what the communists are up to. Sounds a lot like the training we've done for the Iraqi security forces in the last few years is now being used against American troops.
SIEGEL: I'd like to hear, too, from both of you, our guests, and then from Mary Louise Kelly, what are the pictures that you see emerging from the CIA in these documents or the vocabulary or the way it's presented whether it significantly changes your view of things? Tom Blanton, I mean, you've made a career off this. Does it kind of really alter that much?
Mr. BLANTON: What's amazing about this is how much effort they put into this spin. It's amazing they almost care more about the headlines and how they're treated in the papers than they do about the substance of the illegal activities. There's multiple versions of letters they're going to send to some columnist to deny the assassination plot, and everybody is pitching in about the right way to say it.
There's this wonderful memo about one of the drug experimentations on unwilling Americans, where the recommendations from the assistant is, quote, "the director would be ill-advised to say he is acquainted with this program," unquote. I just love it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: As in, don't admit it. Mike Getler, what's the impression you come away with it? Is it altered in some way by all these documents?
Mr. GETLER: Well, actually I've known about this for 30 years. I found out, as I said in 1975, and then when it was published in the Post that I was under surveillance. Joe Califano, who is one of the Post lawyers, and I went to seek Colby. And he actually apologized. He said this was a mistake. They shouldn't have done it. It won't happen again. And he told us a lot about what had happen. We found out that they had taken pictures of - right through the picture window in our home. That's my wife and I inside - and there were pictures of us in the backyard. They were parked down in the schoolyard with cameras, and so it was…
SIEGEL: Had they examined your garbage and things like it?
Mr. GETLER: I don't know. There was - there were no wiretaps or mail intercepts, so they say, or…
Mr. BLANTON: As far as you know.
Mr. GETLER: …as far as I know. But it was - they also rented a hotel room across from the Washington Post in the Statler Hilton. And they had teams of people…
Mr. BLANTON: Nice place for a stakeout.
Mr. GETLER: …24 hours a day, sort of, watching who I came and left with and who I had lunch with.
SIEGEL: Well, Mary Louise, I'm sorry I lied to you. I've run out of time.
Ms. KELLY: Not to worry.
SIEGEL: Mike Getler, Tom Blanton and Mary Louise Kelly. Thanks a lot for talking with us about the release today by the CIA of the "Family Jewels."
Mr. BLANTON: Thank you, Robert.
BLOCK: And you can find a link to those newly released CIA documents we've hearing about at our Web site, npr.org.
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.