Faster, Please!

The CIA Keeps (Our Enemies') Secrets Secret

My heart goes out to Jeffrey Scudder, who was thrown out of CIA after trying to get some documents declassified.  His story, captivatingly told in the WaPo by Greg Miller, will be incomprehensible to those who have been spared the Kafkaesque experience of trying to get the agency to cough up important old stories.  I’ve been there, and Mr. Scudder’s story, albeit very unusual, rings true.

He’d had a promising career in various overseas postings, and he had the sort of personality that you’d think CIA would cherish:  intense, tenacious, highly patriotic.  Sounds like a great dinner guest.  In one of those personnel moves driven by the intelligence and foreign policy establishment’s managerial gurus, he was moved to a sleepy corner of the CIA forest:  the unit charged with reviewing material for possible declassification and public release.  There he found more than a thousand files, mostly from long ago, that he felt should be released.  Some were.  Many weren’t.  So when he moved on, to a position in counterintelligence, he filed an FOIA request for some of those still-classified stories.

At that point, the agency fired him, after an “investigation” that normal people would call harassment, that involved a 6 a.m. search of his house and interrogation of his family, seizure of his child’s and wife’s computers, etcetera etcetera and so forth.

The WaPo story dutifully reproduces the agency’s explanation, involving Mr. Scudder’s alleged mishandling of classified documents, but you can pretty much ignore that stuff.  The CIA often invents things about documents it want to retain.  Or maybe even destroy, as I found out over many years.

In the late 1970s I learned of the existence of an operation conducted by the U.S. government in Italy shortly after the end of the Second World War.  The operation was called “gyre” (from “Jabberwocky,” which led me to believe that James Jesus Angleton, the head of U.S. military intelligence in Italy during the war, had been involved).  The “gyre” file had a lot of material on the Italian Communist Party, going back to its founding (1921).  According to what I was told, that material documented the true nature of the party, which was very closely linked to Soviet intelligence.  As it had both a public and a clandestine component (known to adepts as the “armed party”), the structure was designed to deceive outsiders.  They could only see the public party, but not the clandestine part, and certainly not the close cooperation with the Soviet spooks.

I requested the file, but was told that the documents were properly classified, and thus not available.  I asked why documents from the early 1920s, dealing with our enemies, were properly classified.  I was told that the source was still alive.  So that was that…until 1981, when I became special adviser to the secretary of state, and had plenty of security clearances. One day I told this story to Bill Casey, who arranged for me to read the file, albeit with a caveat:  I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  It seemed redundant to me (I was  bound by an agreement to keep ALL secrets secret, right?) but I signed.  And I read it.

It’s a very important file for anyone who wants to fully understand Soviet espionage, and of course for anyone curious about the Italian Communist Party.  I can’t say much more about the contents except that the description given to me was very accurate.  I waited about ten years, when I learned that the source had died, and again requested the file.  Rejected again!  This time on the grounds that “there were no such documents.”

I pointed out that I knew they existed.  Indeed I had read them, so I was in a plight similar to Mr Scudder’s:  trying to make public documents I had actually seen, convinced they were important, knowing they did not involve any secrets that could damage American interests.  But CIA just said there were no such documents, so what could they do?

Then came the Mitrokin files…  Vasili Mitrokhin, a top KGB archivist, defected to Great Britain in 1992 with thousands of pages of KGB documents he had hand-copied and hidden for decades.  British intelligence organized the material, and gave copies to all the allied countries in which the documents showed KGB activity, including descriptions of recruited agents and some of their names.  As you can imagine, this was quite an explosive story, and countries like Italy and India made the material public.

The release of the Mitrokhin documents had some interesting consequences.  In Italy, for example, several journalists wrote “confessions” in advance of the release, saying “yes, I spent lots of time with Soviet spies, and they may have claimed I was working for them, but I really wasn’t.”  Funnily, most of those journalists were not named by the KGB officers in Italy, but the evidence of guilt was suggestive.

The CIA got the Mitrokhin files on Americans, which interested me and other writers, and I filed a joint FOIA request along with Steven Engelberg, now running ProPublica and then a reporter at the New York Times.  The CIA refused to release the material, claiming it belonged to a “third party” (presumably the Brits).  And they haven’t budged in the past twenty years.  The Brits are now publishing translations, but our guys are still stiffing those of us who think the Mitrokhin documents should be in the public arena.

Maybe the CIA is still ashamed that they sent Mitrokhin away when he tried to give us the file.

So that’s why I’m totally on Mr. Scudder’s side.  And yet another reason why I take a dim view of our so-called intelligence community.