15:11 GMT29 September 2020
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    Newly-discovered CIA documents in the JFK files have provided fresh details on exactly what the Agency censored from ex-CIA officer Victor Marchetti’s book, and why.

    The new documents reveal previously-unknown CIA operations involving nuclear-powered spy drones, political subsidies to foreign parties, surveillance of a US ambassador and the use of front companies, including sponsorship of media outlets for propaganda purposes. Many of these details were included in original drafts of The CIA and The Cult of Intelligence, but were removed by the Agency for political reasons.

    In 1974 former special assistant to the deputy director of the CIA Victor Marchetti and former State Department officer John Marks published The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, one of the first inside accounts of the US spy community. When they submitted it to the CIA’s Publications Review Board the Agency demanded that they delete 399 passages, so Marks and Marchetti took them to court. Arguing paragraph-by-paragraph the court partly upheld their right to publish, though the CIA successfully argued against 168 passages. When the book was finally published the deleted passages were left in as blank spaces, while the other sections that the CIA tried to delete were in bold typeface.

    In 1977, following the revelations about CIA activities by the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee, Marks and Marchetti went back to the Agency and asked them to review the 168 censored passages to see which were no longer classified. A nearly 200 page batch of documents recently discovered in the JFK files details the CIA’s re-review of their book, including some of the censored passages that have never before seen the light of day.

    Declassifying the CIA's Front Companies

    After months of deliberation the CIA decided that a handful of the 168 passages had been declassified and could be published. These included paragraphs saying that the airline Intermountain Aviation – who loaned a plane with a skyhook to the producers of the James Bond film Thunderball – were a CIA front company.

    However, when it came to a similar company, Fairways Corporation, the files record how in 1975 then-CIA director William Colby had told an NBC reporter information that, “could have been construed as admission of CIA sponsorship of Fairways.” Engaging in a surprisingly degree of doublethink the CIA concluded that this didn’t mean the information had been declassified, and so Marks and Marchetti still couldn’t publish it.

    Sputnik spoke with Simon Willmetts of the University of Hull, a historian who specialises in the CIA, who commented on this ambiguity regarding classified information in the public domain, saying, “Often you could have operations that were unofficially avowed but officially still disavowed.” Willmetts pointed to the 1953 CIA coup in Iran, noting the, “reluctance of US government to officially avow [the operation] even though it was common knowledge.”

    Similarly, even though former CIA officers Ray Cline and Harry Rositzke had published details of CIA operations in their books, because they did so without CIA’s permission the Agency considered that information to still be classified. Willmetts observed, “The CIA were quite canny throughout its history in aiding loyal memoirists, such as former DCIs like Richard Helms, whilst clamping down on apostates like Marchetti.”

    Politically Motivated Censorship

    Despite a handful of exceptions, most of the 168 passages that the CIA refused to let Marks and Marchetti publish in 1974 remained censored after the Agency’s re-review in 1977. While the CIA maintains that this is necessary for operational security, the documents make clear that political concerns and potential embarrasment were more prominent factors.

    When it came to RTV Inc, a CIA-funded television station in Jordan run by a CIA front in New York, one memo notes how disclosure of the CIA’s backing of RTV, “could be harmful to United States relations in the Middle East.” Likewise the CIA’s presence in the Congo could not be mentioned despite having been recorded by the Church Committee because, “This would have an adverse effect on our relations with the government of Zaire.”

    The CIA’s backing of various political magazines both in France and across Africa was also protected from exposure due to French laws prohibiting foreign sponsorship of domestic French propaganda, and because it, “would be harmful to this country's relations with Africa.” Ditto the political subsidies paid by the CIA to the Italian Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, to try to split them off from the Italian Communist Party.

    Sputnik asked Willmetts whether it was reasonable or democratic for a government agency to have such a strong control over the publicly-available information about them. He replied, “A degree of secrecy is reasonable, but the CIA routinely abused their power of declassification and were committed to a cult of secrecy as Marchetti points out. The KGB, MI6, and Mossad were much worse though in this respect.”

    Nuclear Drones and Spying on Their Own Ambassador

    Perhaps the most revealing of the paragraphs that the CIA censored from Marks and Marchetti’s book are about potentially embarrassing covert operations. One of these concerned an officer identified only as Bob X, which The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence describes as, “one of these ordinary looking people who mow their lawn, love their wives, and do some very nasty things for the CIA.”

    Among Bob X’s greatest hits was spying on the US ambassador to Iran, Armin Meyer. One censored passage from the book reads, “Bob and his cohorts at FI/D were one step ahead of Ambassador Meyer. They had figured out a way to intercept his cables and the replies he received from Washington. Shortly after each State message was sent, Bob would appear in the CIA executive suite with a copy of the message for the personal inspection of the Director. Written on top of each intercepted cable was a warning that the contents of the cable should be kept especially confident because State was unaware that the CIA had a copy.”

    The most ludicrous, and pointless, CIA operation that was censored from Marks and Marchetti’s book centered around spying on a Chinese missile testing site. Several paragraphs that were deleted by the Agency detail how they initially built a nuclear-powered monitoring station that they placed in the Himalayas, at over 25,000 feet, with the help of local Sherpas. Within months the spy station stopped working, and when the CIA investigated they found it had been knocked over by a snow slide, so they trekked up the mountain again to replace it. However, the second station stopped working within weeks, which was attributed to a mechanical malfunction.

    The CIA then gave up on mountain-top surveillance and spent several million dollars, developing a nuclear-powered drone to fly over China and monitor the missile site. Another redacted passage explains that the chief advantage to this kind of surveillance was that if the drone was shot down there would be no pilot to confess to being part of a CIA covert mission, as in the Gary Powers case. The health and environmental risks of having their nuclear-powered drone crashing down onto the Chinese countryside was apparently never considered in the development of this plan.

    Willmetts concluded, “The CIA would deem it in the interests of national security to keep their covert ops covert, but ‘national security’ is a capacious category that can be stretched to incorporate activities that in reality are just politically embarrassing.”

    The views of the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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