Government Surveillance: U.S. Has Long History of Watching White House Critics and Journalists

Newsweek published this story about a presidential commission report on the C.I.A.'s domestic activities under the headline of "Who's Watching Whom" on June 23, 1975. In light of recent events, Newsweek is republishing the story.

Properly cautious in its restraint, frustratingly spotty in its detail and with a tone predictably more defensive than damning, the Rockfeller commission's long-awaited report on the CIA is clearly no whitewash. It does pull some punches, not always identifying responsible CIA officials or their prime domestic "targets," and accepting with apparent equanimity the absence or admitted destruction of important evidence. But the report also acknowledges serious violations of criminal law and congressional authority in the CIA's use of bugs, break-ins and wiretaps, the interception of mail and telephone communications, Secret experiments with drugs - and an ominous array of projects that fished for and filed away information on law-abiding U.S. citizens.

The report's most jolting disclosure is the story of Operation CHAOS and associated CIA snooping on domestic dissidents that flowered under the demands of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Both Presidents wanted to know more about the racial and antiwar disturbances that swept the nation in the late 1960s, and particularly whether the activists received foreign support or direction.Increasingly aggressive efforts by CIA undercover agents and analysts never turned up evidence of significant foreign influence, according to the Rockfeller report, but they did amass "a veritable mountain of material" on the doings of American dissidents.

CHAOS started quietly in August 1967, when CIA director Richard Helms ordered the creation of a small Special Operations Group to collect information on the overseas connections and activities of U.S. racial militants. It seemed a perfectly proper role for an agency authorized by Congress to gather foreign intelligence, and the unit began with a relatively passive approach, collating material that came in as a by-product of CIA field operations from other U.S. intelligence agencies, mainly the FBI. But, the Rockfeller report disclosed, the CIA officer chosen to direct the special program (unnamed, but known to tbe Richard Ober, now the CIA's liaison with the National Security Agency) had already begun to compile a computer-assisted file on domestic radicals.

As the White House concern over dissent increased in 1968, the special group adopted a more questionable approach. CIA foreign stations, with FBI approval, sought to have some U.S. citizens overseas "monitored" by cooperative foreign intelligence services. Then, under pressure from the Nixon White House, Helms set up a liaison - secret even from top CIA brass - between CHAOS and the Justice Department. And in mid-1969 CHAOS began sending agents of its own into the field - both at home and abroad. CHAOS by then had grown in size - total employees would ultimately reach 52 - burrowed into a basement vault and cloaked itself in a blanket of security that the Rockfeller report found "extreme, even by normally strict CIA standards."

More than 100 agents fed the operation, the report said, although fewer than 30 were actually on the CHAOS staff. The rest were controlled by other CIA departments (including the Office of Security) and outside agencies. Most of these agents were sent abroad to collect information on the foreign connections of U.S. radicals, but they were assigned to join domestic "New Left" groups in preparation for their overseas assignments - an exposure called "reddening" or "sheepdipping" - and then were debriefed, providing some highly detailed reports on radicals. This information, said the Rockfeller report, was passed to the FBI - thus apparently aiding in the law-enforcement and internal-security functions from which the CIA itself is legally barred.

Whom were the watchers watching? One well-placed CHAOS agent apparently participated in and reported on major antiwar demonstrations on the West Coast. Another provided regular reports on the "activities and views of high-level leadership in another of the dissident groups within the United States," the report said. A third was assigned to "get as close as possible" to prominent radical leaders in Washington, infiltrate secret meetings and report on their plans.A dozen Office of Security agents - most of them manual laborers and unemployed housewives - took photographs of White House demonstration leaders, recorded their auto license plates and sometimes even followed them home - generally for $100 a month or less.

In a parallel CIA operation called Project 2, between 1970 and 1974, one agent actually became a leader in a dissident group - not named by the committee's report. Another agent became an adviser to a Congressional candidate, also unidentified, and for a time provided CHAOS with "behind the scenes" reports on the campaign. The panel said it found no evidence that any congressman was placed under physical or electronic surveillance, as charged in the original newspaper disclosures by Seymour Hersh of The New York Times. But it did not mention the file, stretching back more than twenty years, on the peace activist who has since become Congresswoman Bella Abzug. The agency gave her the file last March.

The report does find "improper" what it terms a "paper trail" of 13,000 CHAOS files on other subjects and organizations - including 7,200 "personality" reports on Americans - and a computer listing of 300,000 U.S. citizens and groups mentioned at one time or another in the flood of CHAOS reports from the FBI, CIA's own mail intercept program and another agency's monitoring of international communications. "Little judgment could be, or was, exercised in this process," the report said. An extreme example of over overzealous record-keeping, mentioned in the report, was the file on New York's unorthodox Grove Press, Inc., which once published a book by British double agent Kim Philby. Once the file was begun, agents began collecting all available information on Grove - including such trivia as reviews of the popular X-rated film "I Am Curious: Yelloe," which the company helped distribute.

The panel found that this and all other information in the file was "closely guarded" by CHAOS. But it also reported that the mass of data was used to prepare 3,500 memos for internal use and another 3,000 for transmission to the FBI. In addition, 37 "highly sensitive" memoranda based on CHAOS files were forwarded over Helm's signature to the White House, the Secretary of State, the director of the FBI and the Secret Service.


At least one secret-surveillance technique used by CHAOS - the wholesale interception and opening of Americans' mail had been a CIA tactic for years, despite explicit fears that the illegal operation might cause the agency "the worst possible publicity and embarrassment" if discovered. The Rockfeller report traced the program back to the cold-war '50s and placed the operation primarily in New York City, with short-term interceptions also taking place in San Francisco, Hawaii and New Orleans. Three Postmasters General and one Attorney General were told about the CIA program of mail "covers" - in which information on selected envelopes was recorded - but did not necessarily know of the illegal opening of mail, the report said. And it quoted Kennedy Administration postmaster J. Edward Day as saying he would rather not know about the secret. No evidence could be found that any President had ever been briefed on the project.

The program was apparently first sold to postal authorities as a way of keeping track of mail to and from the Soviet Union, but it was always intended to go much further. By 1959 the New York operation was opening more than 13,000 letters a year, guided by a "watch list" of names that were of interest - for whatever reason - to other CIA departments and the FBI. In the 1970-71 San Francisco intercept, CIA agents promised that they would look only at envelopes. In reality, they hid selected pieces of mail in handbags or equipment cases and removed them from the Post Office to a CIA facility where they were opened, photographed and rescaled, later to be surreptitiously returned to the normal flow of mail. The larger mail-intercept program eventually produced more than 2 million entries for the project's computerized record system. It was finally abandoned in 1973 after the chief postal inspector, ironically a former CIA officer, demanded that full authority for the mail opening be obtained from top-level Post Office authorities.

For six months in 1973, the CIA's Plans Directorate also monitored telephone calls between the U.S. and Latin American countries as part of an interagency task force on narcotics traffic. While this intercept was focused on foreign nationals, the Rockfeller report said, "it is clear that American citizens were parties to many of the monitored calls." Once the CIA's general counsel got wind of the project, in fact, he promptly ruled it illegal and the program was discontinued.

Another long-standing CIA domestic program involved the agency's friendly relations with local police departments around the country. In exchange for training courses, limited quantities of police equipment and gratuities including candy, liquor and Christmas gift certificates, these local departments have supplied "a great deal of routine assistance," according to the Rockfeller report. Primarily this involves investigating criminal records, checking on auto registrations, helping to protect CIA properly and personnel - and notifying the agency immediately of the arrest of any CIA employee.

The commission found evidence of only one instance in which legal police participated in a domestic CIA activity - an illegal break-in - although rumors of close cooperation in such cases have circulated for years. But the panel did criticize the use by CIA agents of badges and credentials given to them by local police departments for cover. "While not strictly speaking a violation of the Agency's statutory authority as long as no police function is performed, [the practice] is . . . subject to misunderstanding and should be avoided," the report says.

The Rockefeller panel also confirmed earlier disclosures of a once-widespread, now-diminished complex of CIA "proprietary" companies set up to provide cover and support for secret operations (NEWSWEEK, May 19). Tied to these, the report said, are trust funds worth $20 million that were set up to pay insurance and other benefits to CIA officers and contract employees without direct attribution to the agency. Invested largely in overseas accounts and interest-bearing securities, these funds "have generated significant profits" - but the use of this additional cash by the agency is not explained.


Of all the CIA's excesses, the most clearly illegal, were directed against his own employees, former employees and others whom the agency considered a threat to its own security. Beyond simple physical surveillance (96 cases), the commission found evidence of at least 32 unauthorized wiretaps, a similar number of electronic buggings and twelve break-ins.The agency also obtained information improperly on the individual income-tax records of sixteen persons. Most of the cases involved people connected with the agency. One employee, for example, was watched, wiretapped and bugged on and off for eight years before being fired. After another employee attended meetings of a group that the CIA considered suspicious, agents cut through the walls of his apartment and installed seven microphones to pick up conversations in every room.

The commission also found evidence of two cases in which the CIA's Office of Security tapped the telephone of three newsmen in order to discover their sources of "sensitive" information. One incident occurred in 1959, the report says, and the other in 1962 - with the approval of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The CIA also followed newsmen in 1967, 1971 and 1972 in order to identify their sources. Nine other U.S. citizens were subjected to "special coverage" by the agency over the years, the Rockefeller commission reports, including two employees in sensitive posts at other U.S. government agencies and six Americans linked in 1971 with an alleged plot to assassinate the CIA director and kidnap the Vice President.

The most disclosures in last week's report involved experiments conducted by the CIA's Division of Science and Technology - to protect agents against mind-altering drugs such as LSD. As early as the late 1940s, the agency began studying drugs that it feared were being used against CIA men captured behind the Iron Curtain, and in 1953 an unsuspecting subject died after being given LSD. An Army employee, according to the report, he had apparently agreed in principle to the idea of testing such substances without prior warning - and was told that he had been given LSD within twenty minutes after swallowing it. But he developed serious side effects, was sent to New York for psychiatric treatment and several days later jumped to his death from a tenth-floor window.

The CIA's general counsel ruled it a death in the line of duty, so that the man's family could collect benefits, and CIA director Allen W. Dulles reprimanded two employees responsible for the incident. But the program continued for ten years, until the agency's inspector general caught wind of it in 1963. Over the years, some subjects became ill for hours or days and one was hospitalized. But the commission could say little more, explaining simply that all records of the drug program were destroyed in 1973 - and giving no indication that witnesses had been asked to fill the gaps. The report sheds even less light on what it calls a much larger CIA study of methods to control human behavior - including "radiation, electric-shock, psychology, psychiatry, sociology and harassment substances." And it is equally vague about the "extremely spartan living conditions" under which a defector was held in solitary confinement for approximately three years because the CIA had doubts about his true intentions. He was later released and became a U.S. citizen.


What led the CIA astray? Irresistible White House Pressures clearly contributed to the ever-escalating campaign against U.S. dissidents and the periodic surveillance of well-sourced newsmen. But a reading of the Rockefeller report suggests that the very clandestine nature of the agency itself also played a key role. It was so compartmentalized that few of its officials were aware of all the operations under way. The CIA's inspector general was often kept most deeply in the dark, and the agency's general counsel was not always asked for opinions on the legality of sensitive projects. Moreover, the report charged that the Justice Department for over twenty years had agreed to let the CIA investigate all crimes involving its own employees or agents and decide whether they should be prosecuted. Justice officials said they had no knowledge of such an agreement, but no prosecutions of CIA agents have actually occurred - and the Rockefeller panel called the arrangement an "abdication" of responsibility by Justice that gave the CIA improper law-enforcement responsibilities.

The CIA's excesses were also fueled by weaknesses and reluctance elsewhere in the government - particularly in the FBI in the last years of director of J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI had never been set up to analyze intelligence, and Hoover was increasingly uncooperative about his agency taking a role in the aggressive investigations demanded by the White House. Not surprisingly, the CIA soon moved into the vacuum thus created.

All these pressures seemed to peak during the years when Richard Nixon was in the White House and Richard Helms was running the CIA. Helms, now U.S. ambassador to Iran, first took over the agency under Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and soon felt White House pressure to look into the domestic dissidents. Helms himself acknowledged crossing the line of illegality when he sent a report on student unrest, including a chapter on revolutionary activities of U.S. students, to national security adviser Henry Kissinger in 1969. "This is an area not within the charter of his agency, "Helms wrote in a covering memo. "Should anyone learn of its existence, it would prove embarrassing for all concerned."

Helms has said he was not aware of many of his agency's later excesses in domestic spying, and he told the Rockefeller commission that counterintelligence chief James Angleton - not Helms himself - was responsible for the controversial CHAOS operation. But the testimony of CHAOS chief Ober and Angleton largely contradicted Helms. And the commission seemed to back them up; the report cited one memo by Helms that directed Ober to keep Angleton in the dark, and it noted that Helms defended the program even after CIA staff members themselves began complaining about its domestic improprieties in 1969. "CHAOS ia a legitimate counterintelligence function," Helms wrote in a memo," and cannot be stopped simply because some members of the organization do not like this activity."

In the Nixon years, the CIA also succumbed to a kind of Presidential pressure unrelated to domestic disturbances. The agency provided equipment and assistance to the White House plumbers in their campaign against Daniel Ellsberg. It hindered the FBI's Watergate investigation, albeit briefly, and frustrated the subsequent Senate probe by destroying Watergate-related documents in CIA files. It came up with a secret contribution of $33,655.68 to pay what the Rockefeller commission said were the stationery and postage costs Nixon's replies to letters after the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. * And it turned over the White House politically useful files on CIA secrets, mainly the Bay of Pigs invasion and operations in Vietnam. It seems clear, however, that the Helms wasn't happy about these disclosures. A memo written for the CIA files quotes him telling the President and White House aide John Ehrlichman at a meeting in the Oval Office that he worked "for only one President at a time." Then, the memo says, Helms handed Nixon it slipped into his desk drawer.

* The report expressed no doubts this explanation but some skeptics suggested that the money was actually used to pay not for replies, but for phony letters and telegrams to the White House expressing support for Nixon's actions.


The Rockefeller commission made 30 recommendation aimed at preventing any recurrence of operations that are "plainly unlawful," in excess of authority or simply unwise. Some were internal reforms, including an upgrading of the watchdog roles of the CIA's inspector general and general counsel, the addition of new deputy director in charge of administration and the selection of independent CIA directors who are not necessarily agency veterans. Other recommendations envisioned tighter external controls - such as a move powerful Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board at the White House, a new joint Congressional oversight committee and could devote full time to the CIA and the disclosure of at least some details of the agency's estimated $750 million budget. The commission also proposed amending the 1947 National Security Act, which established the CIA, to specify that the agency's activities are limited to "foreign" intelligence.

But many of the panel's recommendations rested on the confident assumption that the President and the CIA director could themselves keep the agency on the straight and narrow with a system of written guidelines and authorizations in questionable areas. That, of course, would continue the basic arrangement that had failed so conspicuously in the past. Beyond that, some of the commission's proposed "clarifications" of CIA functions might actually broaden the agency's specific authority to conduct controversial surveillance activities inside the United States.

Under the recommended rules, for instance, domestic investigations in cases of suspected espionage - up to now the responsibility of the FBI - might be undertaken by the CIA itself, "provided that proper coordination with the FBI is accomplished." The CIA would also be able to provide "guidance and government agencies protect against "unauthorized disclosures" of information - which might mean anything from nuclear plans to evidence of bureaucratic foul-ups and outright corruption. And the panal proposed legislation, long sought by current CIA director William E. Colby, to make disclosures of his own agency's secrets by past or present CIA employees a criminal offense.

Thus the commission's report was one of the CIA could live with reasonably comfortably. For all its painful reminders of past sins, it was at heart a reassuring endorsement of the agency's usefulness and even of most of the unconventional methods that have become its unavoidable stock in the world's most secret trade.