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CIA's Chief Historian Gives Perspective on Newly Released Documents

The following appeared on the Blog on June 27, 2007:

Perspective on the Jewels From the C.I.A.'s Chief Historian
by David Robarge

For more than 30 years, the Family Jewels have clouded the C.I.A.'s reputation, even though most of their contents have long been known from official reports and ad hoc disclosures. William Colby -- who oversaw the compilation of the Jewels while serving as the agency's operations chief and director-designate -- is the source of some durable misconceptions about them. In his memoir, Honorable Men (p. 340), Colby says that the Jewels consist of "693 pages of possible violations of, or at least questionable activities in regard to, the C.I.A.'s legislative charter"; that among the contents are "bizarre and tragic cases wherein the Agency experimented with mind-control drugs"; and that accompanying them was "a separate and even more secret annex" that "summarized a 1967 survey of C.I.A.'s involvement in assassination attempts or plans against Castro, Lumumba and Trujillo."

These misstatements were repeated at least in part in several widely read works, including Thomas Powers's The Man Who Kept the Secrets, John Ranelagh's The Agency, G.J.A. O'Toole's Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage, and Norman Polmar and Thomas Allen's Spy Book. Less informed observers also have suggested that the Jewels include details about political and paramilitary covert actions and definitive proof that the C.I.A.'s controversial counterintelligence chief, James Angleton, was the mastermind behind the domestic spying program called MHCHAOS.

The release of the Jewels should end much of the mythology about them. For starters, the compendium is not a 693-page catalogue of crime and immorality. Repetitive reports, duplicate documents, blank pages, file dividers, cover sheets, distribution lists and news clippings comprise approximately 30 percent of the total. Among the remaining 500 or so pages of substance, except for an account of the use of Mafioso Johnny Roselli in a plot to kill Castro (12-16) -- of note is that the director of central intelligence at the time, Allen Dulles, approved it -- there are only passing references to already disclosed assassination plots and drug-testing programs and next to nothing of importance about purely foreign operations.

That may disappoint some expectant readers but should not be surprising because the whole point of an order by James Schlesinger, a later director of central intelligence, that produced the Jewels was to get information about activities that possibly violated the C.I.A.'s charter. Consequently, the collection is nearly all about activities involving American citizens or occurring inside the United States -- most of the latter, as an Agency officer noted, "completely innocent, although subject to misconstrual" in the political atmosphere of 1973 (36) -- and includes much about agency contact with the White House "Plumbers," the Watergate break-in perpetrators, and now-obscure characters such as the fugitive financier Robert Vesco. The hypersensitivity about anything that could be interpreted as having domestic political implications -- or perhaps simply the bureaucratic instinct for self-protection -- may explain the inclusion of the lengthy set of mundane documents about a small C.I.A. expenditure for postal services on behalf of the White House (83-104), and a memo about the Office of Logistics disposing of the National Security Council's classified trash (324).

Although put together haphazardly, the Jewels can be divided into several categories: dealings with Watergate-related figures, liaison with government agencies, administrative and support activities, collection operations, security investigations and counterintelligence programs. Pages 5 to37 probably will attract the most initial attention because they concern a list of activities specifically identified as "Family Jewels," but the unredacted items will be familiar to students of the Rockefeller Commission and Church Committee reports. The entry on the K.G.B. defector Yuri Nosenko (23-24) fails to mention that he was treated so harshly because of suspicions that he was hiding Soviet involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the remaining several hundred pages can be found occasional stray new details about well-worn stories.

In the context of Seymour Hersh's famous exposé about the Jewels in The New York Times on Dec. 22, 1974 -- in an article headlined "Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years" -- the long set of documents about C.I.A.'s involvement with United States Government activities targeting American dissidents suspected of receiving foreign assistance to help them disrupt the presidential nominating conventions in 1972 (549-74) is worth mentioning. Not only is Angleton's hand not prominent, but the extent to which MHCHAOS and related programs concentrated on the foreign angle becomes clear. As the records show, no evidence of anything more than political and moral support was ever found. The C.I.A. History Staff's recently declassified study of Richard Helms as director of central intelligence, available on the agency's public Web site in the F.O.I.A. reading room, has a thorough discussion of MHCHAOS based on materials other than the Jewels.

The Jewels close with two groups of documents that convey the tenor of the times. One series (634-58) deals with a leak about agency technical assistance to a suburban Washington police department. It was a good news story -- the C.I.A.-supplied device might have prevented a cop killing -- but a revelation of that sort could not be countenanced in 1973, and the incident was reported. Documents 659 to 693 involve an exchange between Colby and the Parade Magazine editor Lloyd Shearer over a charge in Shearer's publication that the agency "uses political assassination as a weapon," citing the Phoenix program in Vietnam. Colby, who managed Phoenix, replied that "C.I.A. has never carried out a political assassination, nor has it induced, employed or suggested one which occurred." Based on what is known about the agency's assassination planning and Phoenix, that carefully crafted answer was not only accurate, but an exemplar of the lawyerly intellect that Colby would put to good use during the Congressional investigations of 1975-76, when his policy of controlled disclosure may have saved the C.I.A. from dissolution. These final records -- several of them in Colby's own hand -- make an unintentionally fitting conclusion to the Jewels collection, the product of a process he orchestrated as a damage control exercise but which almost proved to be the agency's undoing.

Due to his current employment as the C.I.A.'s chief historian, the material in this post was reviewed by agency officials before publication.

Reprinted with the permission of The New York Times Company.

The collection is available online at

Historical Document
Posted: Jun 29, 2007 10:09 AM
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2008 09:03 AM