This week, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released a tranche of several thousand formerly redacted secrets about the Kennedy Assassination. Reading through hundreds of them, which is how I spent my Omicron worry week, I learned little about 1963 I didn’t already know. But I found a lot that points to the architecture of the modern national security state.
To understand why, note that the National Archives does not normally have the power to dip deep into the FBI or CIA’s reservoir of documents and declassify them; there’s a long process for that. The one exception: the federal law, passed in 1992, requiring the regular review and the eventual declassification of ALL documents related to the Kennedy assassination and its subsequent investigations. That law supersedes any administrative exemption that agencies can and do claim when processing mandatory declassification reviews or Freedom of Information Act requests. Usually, the agencies can get the Archives and its board of classification overseers to bend in the favor of redactions and withdrawals. Here, the presumption is in favor of revealing everything, including sources, methods, code words, operations, administrative caveats, private comments, investigative leads that didn’t pan out, even the ways its scientists analyze handwriting.
Spycraft has evolved over six decades, but the CIA and FBI have tenaciously fought NARA over these document releases because many of the techniques used to collect information, to recruit and cajole sources, to categorize and assess raw intelligence, to deceive adversaries and detect propaganda, remain pretty much the same. The CIA still uses the many of the same country cryptonyms, for example. Anything US-related, for example, given a cryptonym that began with “OD” in the 1960s. Today, the cryptonyms for programs run domestically by the CIA still begin with OD. It costs a lot of money to change this stuff – and the CIA considers it very sensitive. (The CIA’s cryptonym for the FBI is…. ODENVY.)
Here are three secrets from the documents that inform our understanding of how intelligence works today.
1. The State Department Was (and is) Heavily Involved In Covert Action. By statute, the CIA carries out covert action on behalf of the government – that is, deniable subversion, paramilitary activities, or deception designed to influence the politics of a country that are visible but whose attribution can never be traced back to the agency. The State Department does, well, diplomacy.
But in truth, the two are joined at the hip, and not just because CIA case officers serve under State Department cover in embassies around the world. In fact, the State Department often helps set the priorities for specific covert operations. One document bears this out. It’s my favorite in the lot. Operation Mongoose was the cover name given to CIA efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, beginning with the Bay of Pigs and lasting through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. NARA has released a 1962 task order for Mongoose that outlines both its goals and the sponsoring government agencies. For example, the State Department wants to “Obtain some special and significant action within the OAS organization against the Castro-Communist regime.” The Organization of American States, of course, was (and is) an ally of the U.S., working primarily with the State Department. The document shows that State used the CIA’s covert policy channel to influence OAS. It also shows that State has for years fought a particular redaction: one where they wish for the CIA to “Cause a major political action to take place in an influential Latin American country to worsen sharply that country’s relations with Cuba, to open [sic] rupture and criticism. Brazil is nominated.”
The task order enumerates the CIA’s often mundane requirements, like radio broadcasts, balloon deliveries of propaganda and sneaking mail into Cuba. The Defense Department, in contrast, wanted Mongoose money to “Intensify psychological operations at Guantanamo,” the slip of Cuba that the U.S. occupied after the Spanish-American war.
2. Extensive close surveillance of overseas embassies by the CIA (and other agencies.) The CIA’s Mexico City operations were extremely productive sources of intelligence on Russia and Cuba, and after the Kennedy assassination, the agency was eager to protect its sources. It was also embarrassed by an inconvenient trip that Lee Harvey Oswald took two months before the assassination. He turned up at the Russian embassy and then at the Cuban consulate in Mexico City asking, variously, to see intelligence officers, and to obtain a visa for travel back to Russia. His activities were picked up by at least three separate CIA surveillance operations: (a) telephone taps on the main lines leading into the diplomatic premises (b) automatic photographic surveillance of the entrances to these buildings and (c) human source reports from what the CIA calls its “liaison” branch – that is, the cooperative Mexican police authorities who helped the agency tap phones and investigate leads. Each of these “methods” is considered a classified secret today in any context other than the JFK assassination, because the CIA still co-opts local police officials and technology abroad, they conduct extensive photographic and electronic surveillance of foreign embassies, and they use the same interpretive techniques to figure out who is important and who isn’t. One document lays out, in rich detail, a proposed surveillance operation against a target, PBRUMEN, which is the Cuban embassy. The name of the operation would be LIONION – LI being the crypt for CIA operations in Mexico City.
3. The FBI and the CIA didn’t see eye to eye but cooperated on domestic surveillance – and still do! Forget about September 11th and information sharing – actually, don’t – that was bad! – but it’s easy, and often amusing, to see, on national security Twitter, the tension that crops up between former FBI agents and former CIA officers whenever they discuss the news of the day. (My Spycraft colleague John Sipher has some views on the FBI and domestic intelligence gathering.) Obviously, the bureau and the agency work well together – at times. But the different skill sets, mindsets, and statutes each operates under often produces irreconcilable conflicts. The parsimoniousness and paranoia of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover hurt, a lot, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and there were times when the two organizations simply did not communicate at all except through telegrams and couriered mail. And when they did, though, it was often for dubious purposes: the CIA helped the FBI keep tabs on the activities of the Black Panthers overseas at a time when the Nixon administration wanted to keep the Panthers isolated. Some folks in the Nixon administration would try to take advantage of the mistrust between national security agencies to propose a centralized, beefed-up domestic spying regime in 1970. The “Huston Plan,” named after the young White House whippersnapper who compiled a draft of it, would have formally sanctioned intrusive surveillance against communists, Black political leaders, and – really – anyone who found themselves on the wrong side of the President. A long document reveals the FBI’s attempts to keep some of these powers to itself.
Bottom line: don’t read the Kennedy documents if you want to learn about the Kennedy assassination. Read them if you want to learn about how the national security state grew into the multi-headed secrets machine it has become.