The Spooks Love Their Secrecy

October 22, 2014–Fifty-two years ago today President John F. Kennedy made a nationwide television address from the Oval Office to reveal that U.S. intelligence had discovered the Soviet Union was sending nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba. The news was stunning, and inaugurated one of the most dangerous crises of the Cold War. President Kennedy and those around him knew that dangers lurked, so for over a week after receiving the critical intelligence they took measures to keep it a secret. That secrecy had a point. It helped Kennedy craft a response to the Soviet move before the political pressures of the crisis began to mount.

There are secrets that are important, that are legitimate, that serve to protect United States national security. The discovery of missiles in Cuba, until the president chose to reveal them, was one. But in the years since the secrecy system has gotten out of control. Readers of this space will know that I write often of this. Today I am driven to do so again. The morning papers report that Leon Panetta, erstwhile director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who has just published a memoir, had to fight the agency to get his book into print. The Panetta book, called Worthy Fights, has now become an example of secrecy with no point, of the CIA’s addiction to cloaking its dagger, and its delusion that it can hide behind classification regulations.

In point of fact Panetta was a light touch. He has nothing bad to say about the CIA, supported its activities as director, and avoids going near such controversies as Langley’s fight with Senate overseers seeking to examine its torture projects–a fight that began on Leon Panetta’s watch. Worthy Fights is complimentary to the agency and its people. Why should former director Panetta have had a problem?

As the holder of a security clearance that entitled him to view top secret information Leon Panetta signed a contract that bound him to submit things he writes about the agency to a CIA unit called the Publications Review Board. This board operates under regulations that specifically prohibit it from withholding its approval on any grounds other than dangers to national security–but as I showed at great length in my book The Family Jewels those rules are often honored in the breach.

The Publications Review Board (PRB) was created in the late 1970s during the Carter administration. The only CIA director writing a memoir at the time was Bill Colby and he ended up with a $10,000 fine levied against him for going to press before the board had approved. Admiral Stansfield Turner was the director at the time PRB emerged. When Turner wrote his own memoir later, the PRB obstructed him at every turn. The admiral estimated that he spent as much as fifteen percent of his time on that project just dealing with the Review Board. Much of Stan Turner’s text ended up on the cutting room floor.

Only two of the eight CIA directors between Turner and Panetta ever attempted memoirs (Robert M. Gates, George J. Tenet), plus there was Richard Helms, whose tenure had preceded the existence of this system. All of them went through the PRB wringer. All of them have commented on the Review Board’s work as usually helpful and courteous. What happened? The war on terror.

All the memoirs just mentioned were far more substantive than Leon Panetta’s panegyric. Panetta might have been critical of Barack Obama but of CIA he is very complementary. But the PRB sat on his manuscript, risking his publication schedule. The Washington Post reports that the former director finally appealed the delays to his present successor, John Brennan. On specifics of the text Panetta complained to a Brennan deputy that the Review Board demanded excessive changes. He failed. The Post reports, “even signature moments of [Panetta’s] tenure that were covered extensively in the press are obscured.”

As a result, you won’t get the low down on CIA drones, or on its torture projects, from Leon Panetta. Nor, as discussed here previously (“Senate Torture Report 1.75,” July 27, 2014), will you get it from John Brennan. The agency whose mission is to tell the truth is heavily invested in an effort to mislead the public at any cost. Regulations be damned. That is the Publications Review Board doing its job.

The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War

June 10, 2014–Back in print today is a book that, if you’re interested in the Phoenix Program, is a must read. During the Vietnam war Phoenix was a U.S. effort to aim directly at the leadership of the Vietnamese insurgency, what American officials called the “Viet Cong Infrastructure.” There have been few books that zeroed in directly on this subject, and of them, Douglas Valentine’s The Phoenix Program is the only book based on extensive interviews with Phoenix operatives. Indeed, the CIA, which furnished much of the staff for the program, tried to suppress this book when it was written in the 1980s.

You should read that story in my own work The Family Jewels. It is among the actions which show how the CIA, for its parochial purposes of the moment, has so thoroughly manipulated the standard rules for secrecy that it is not to be trusted as an honest broker in a legitimate process. In the case of the Valentine book the CIA used its Publications Review Board, which–as the name indicates–is an entity supposed to approve the writings of CIA employees, in an effort to prevent Valentine from obtaining information for his book.

This maneuver fails the smell test on at least two counts. First, Valentine was not an agency employee and its Review Board had no jurisdiction over him whatever. Second, the Board exists to approve written works and has no authority over speech. CIA officials exhorted colleagues to come to them if approached by Valentine, and congratulated those who did so. To give their intervention a patina of legality they encouraged employees to write down Valentine’s questions and the employees’ proposed answers–which could then be considered written materials that the Board could reject.

Just to add insult to injury, the CIA had initially assisted Valentine, with its personnel retiree section forwarding letters from him to former agency officers as he sought interviews. It was when one of the interviewees, unsure of which particular Phoenix-related issues were classified, asked the agency’s general counsel’s office, that the latter involved the Publications Review Board. From that moment forward CIA’s whole approach changed. In his initial note on the subject, by the way, the lawyer dealing with it acknowledged the CIA had no standing in the matter.

Doug Valentine eventually discovered that the CIA was actively dissuading its former employees from talking to him. At that point Valentine used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request the agency release the documentation that covered how it had handled his case. The CIA denied the FOIA request.

Let me just emphasize that for a moment– there was a category of information about the Phoenix program that was secret and could be denied under FOIA. But Doug Valentine’s approaches to retirees for interviews were, by definition, not secret. Derivatively, talks inside CIA about how to deal with Valentine’s interviews were also not secret. But CIA rejected the FOIA on national security grounds. You can see why I talk about the agency’s parochial interest.

I first became acquainted with Valentine’s Phoenix program book when a publisher asked me to take a look at the draft manuscript. I saw immediately that it was a major advance in our knowledge. As it happened, in my own research I had taken a long look at French pacification methods during the French war. I knew things about that which I saw Valentine here relate. He was the only writer who had taken the trouble to include that.

Valentine’s text on the French did not survive into the published work, but it does serve as an example of the thoroughness of this book, which I commend to you. –And despite CIA’s obstacles, Douglas Valentine’s interviews yielded a plethora of material which permitted him to tell the Phoenix story in great detail. The National Security Archive was happy to accept the donation of his papers, which are available there to scholars. In the meantime you can read his e-book.