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The Black Arts

1.

There are secrets and there are secrets, and it is distinguishing between the two that has challenged some of the best minds of our time—currently Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s—to come up with a workable commonsense approach to keeping secrets. Such an approach would grant the United States government power to remain silent about the few genuine secrets that matter, while compelling it to disgorge in reasonably good time the oceans of paper stamped “secret” solely in order to relieve officials of the awkward duty of explaining why they have done, predicted, or recommended something dumb.

What is a secret that matters? Answer: any undertaking of the state which requires for its success that it be unknown, unobserved, or unanticipated. Classic examples would be the time and place proposed for the Allied invasion of France in 1944, or Boris Yeltsin’s plan to devalue the ruble. But most official American secrets—roughly six million new classified documents a year, at last count—record the conversation of the government with itself. Now that we have the actual report in hand in Bay of Pigs Declassified we can see that the CIA’s Inspector General’s Survey of the Cuban Operation, printed in something like twenty copies and circulated in the fall of 1961 to a handful of high CIA and government officials, contained a bushel of legitimate secrets. The Survey was not only a devastating critique of the agency’s unrealistic and even reckless plans to overthrow Fidel Castro by invading Cuba, but it served as a kind of blueprint of the CIA’s Directorate of Plans and discussed frankly the conduct of a struggle while it was still underway. You could argue that the policy was unwise or unworkable, but you could hardly fault the Kennedy administration for trying to keep secret exactly where and how it went wrong in a first attempt to achieve a goal—the overthrow of Castro—to which it was redoubling its commitment.

What is a secret of convenience? Answer: any item of information which, if released, might invite non-trivial public criticism of policies, endeavors, or officials. Governments entertain rosy hopes, overlook imminent dangers, lie about their purposes, and do foolish things just as people do, and so long as these gaffes remain unknown they do not have to be explained, defended, or, sometimes most difficult of all, openly confessed. For more than twenty years, and certainly since the 1976 publication of many of the agency’s darkest and most embarrassing secrets in the numerous green-bound volumes of the Church Committee Report, the Inspector General’s Survey of the Cuban Operation has been an outstanding example of this sort of secret, too. “In unfriendly hands,” wrote the deputy director of the CIA, General Charles Cabell, back in 1961, “it [the Survey] can become a weapon unjustifiably [used] to attack the entire mission, organization, and functioning of the Agency.” Unfriendly hands have got it at last, but it took thirty-seven years, much water has since flowed under the bridge, and whatever critics might say of the “mission, organization, and functioning” of the CIA is now mainly the ho-hum stuff of graduate school seminar rooms.

The Inspector General who conducted the survey, Lyman Kirkpatrick, now dead, was one of the major figures in the early history of the CIA, and his unvarnished account of the Bay of Pigs bungling, which abandoned a thousand Cubans to be captured by Castro’s army and deeply embarrassed President Kennedy—Theodore Draper described the whole sorry episode as “a perfect failure”—bitterly stung the architects of the plan, CIA Director Alan Dulles and his deputy in charge of clandestine operations, Richard Bissell. Until he was stricken with polio in the 1950s Kirkpatrick had been a fair-haired boy with a shot at being named director, and many thought he orchestrated the Survey from his wheelchair in order to belittle his rivals and give new life to his own ambitions.

I well remember the red-faced, stuttering, snorting outrage when Bissell in an interview, furiously twisting paper clips as he spoke, described his deep sense of affront on learning that Kirkpatrick had committed the unpardonable discourtesy of giving a copy of his report (on November 21, 1961) to John McCone, Dulles’s successor as Director of Central Intelligence, before showing it (on November 24) to Dulles himself. In Peter Kornbluh’s edition of the Survey, recently pried loose from the keepers of secrets at the CIA, we may now read that Bissell went so far in a memorandum to McCone of January 27, 1962, as to say baldly that the IG’s report “constitutes a highly biased document and that the bias is of such a character that it must have been intentional.” And Bissell was not alone in this belief. McCone, in a spirit of fairness, ordered that a single copy of the Survey be preserved in the director’s office and that Bissell’s own vigorous defense be appended to it so that future readers, which now include us, would not accept Kirkpatrick’s attack before knowing what Bissell had to say in his own defense.

Kornbluh has also included Bissell’s rebuttal in Bay of Pigs Declassified, along with a useful chronology and other materials. Among these is a previously unpublished interview with two Bay of Pigs planners, Jacob Esterline and Colonel Jack Hawkins. But it is the 130-page Survey that makes Bay of Pigs Declassified one of the half- dozen basic texts on the United States and Cuba in the 1960s, and that makes it required reading for anyone who wants to understand what happened to the United States after World War II.

But there comes a time in the life of any secret when it has been talked to death, and this is surely the case with the Bay of Pigs. What the Survey adds to the record is an intimate portrait of the CIA arguing furiously with itself, and, interesting as this can be, it is nevertheless hard to imagine that the book will get many readers not somehow professionally compelled to take an interest, such as graduate students working in the La Brea tar pits of cold war studies—the alarms, excesses, and miseries of the 1960s: Cuba, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, “the missile gap,” “mutual assured destruction,” the domestic upheavals encompassed by “the civil rights movement” and “the student revolution.” The ordinary citizen of a certain age begs to be delivered from yet another slog into the sticky morass.

What this says about the declassifiers at the CIA is that they have got their timing down about perfectly—nothing to be released until interest has faded away practically to zero (the Bay of Pigs), or until the participants who might usefully amend and amplify the story are dead or doddering, like the patient US Army (later National Security Agency) codebreakers who forced their way into the Soviet cable traffic of the 1930s and 1940s and deciphered the Soviet secret messages collectively known as VENONA. It’s a made-up word and the principal significance now of the 2900 messages read in whole or in part is the light they cast on a handful of notorious spy cases of the 1950s. It was VENONA that first directed official suspicions to the Rosenbergs and offered a degree of confirmation to the charges of Whittaker Chambers that Alger Hiss had been a spy for Russia.

In Secrecy: The American Experience, an oddly disjointed book redeemed by frequent flashes of the senator’s wit, Moynihan “reveals” that President Truman, who angrily dismissed Republican charges of wholesale Communist spying within the United States, was in fact “never told of the VENONA decryptions.” I put quotes around the word “reveals” because Moynihan’s evidence—an FBI memo of a conversation with General Carter W. Clarke, in 1949 chief of the Army Security Agency—merely reports an interagency dispute over whether to tell “the President and Admiral Hillenkoetter” about VENONA. Clarke told the FBI that General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “wanted…to make sure that the Bureau does not handle the material in such a way that Admiral Hillenkoetter or anyone else outside the Army Security Agency, [deleted], and the Bureau are aware of the contents of these messages and the activity being conducted at Arlington Hall [in Virginia, site of the early work on VENONA].”

It is a fact that the CIA was not told of VENONA at the time, but whether Truman was told then or later during his remaining fifteen months in office is not established by the memo Moynihan quotes. Presidents like to know what’s going on and their advisors like to tell them. Perhaps Bradley wanted to preserve the honor and pleasure for himself. Perhaps he didn’t want to confide in General Clarke. Perhaps he changed his mind on reflection later the same day. Before accepting Truman’s ignorance as proven I would want to see a lot more evidence. What is certain is that the Soviet Union soon learned its cable traffic had been broken in one of two ways—from William Weisband, a Soviet spy working for the Armed Forces Security Agency who had the run of Arlington Hall; or from the intelligence officer for [deleted] who was handling liaison with American intelligence organizations in Washington, the infamous Harold Adrian Russell Philby. Among the small ironies of cold war history are the facts that Kim Philby knew about VENONA before the CIA, and that the CIA and its fraternal organizations, now routinely required to disgorge their own secrets, still faithfully protect those of [deleted], no matter how anciently acquired.

But Moynihan reveals no doubts and makes vigorous rhetorical use of General Bradley’s refusal to tell Truman about VENONA.

What decisions would Truman have made had the information in the VENONA intercepts not been withheld from him?… If only he had known this—known for real, that is, from the likes of Bradley. If only political liberals had known. If only those in the universities had known.

All the bitter divisions of the McCarthy years, the exaggerated Republican charges of “twenty years of treason” and the Democratic countercharges of witch-hunting, might have been avoided, Moynihan suggests, with who knows what profound consequences. There might have been no fight to the death over who lost China, no lingering nightmares at the outset of the Kennedy administration that hands-off realism in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia would inexorably summon up new howling mobs demanding to know: Who lost Cuba? Who lost Vietnam?

Maybe, and maybe not. The VENONA documents included evidence of “Hiss’s guilt” as Moynihan writes, but I very much doubt that its publication would have impressed, much less silenced, Hiss’s defenders, who have proved over the years that they can explain away just about anything. The VENONA document incriminating Hiss, a translation of a Soviet cable of March 30, 1945, alleges that “ALES” had been “working with the NEIGHBORS [i.e., Soviet military intelligence] continuously since 1935” and that he “and his whole group were awarded Soviet decorations.” American counterintelligence experts identified ALES as “probably Alger Hiss” because both passed through Moscow following the Yalta conference.

This conclusion strikes me as completely likely, and it has been amply supported by recent discoveries in the archives of the former Communist world.* But it would have been hard to prove what the ALES message meant in a court of law in the 1950s, when Hiss was on trial. No witnesses would have been available to testify who wrote the document, how its claims were known to be true, what “military information” had been obtained, or even whether it represented a true copy of what had been radioed from Washington to Moscow at the time. Hiss’s defenders, who claimed the FBI fabricated a typewriter to “prove” that State Department documents kept by Whittaker Chambers had been copied by Hiss’s wife on the family portable, would have encountered little trouble in spinning out a conspiratorial explanation of the embarrassments of the VENONA traffic.

There is a vast gulf separating the sort of evidence a prosecutor needs for a court case and the fragmentary and ambiguous materials of uncertain provenance which may be all that counterintelligence sleuths have to work with. VENONA is full of clues—some 200 cryptonyms of probable agents and enough bits and pieces of information to let investigators identify perhaps half of them. Moynihan did the country a service in pressing for declassification of VENONA. There is no operational reason to keep this stuff secret any longer. The men and women who conducted the extraordinary feat of breaking communications enciphered with a “one-time pad”—i.e., with a code specific to each message—deserve public recognition and thanks for their efforts, and historians of the cold war will make solid use of VENONA to help explain the nationwide panic known as McCarthyism.

But I very much doubt that prompt exposure at the time would have changed the course of events significantly, and it might have done a good deal of damage. Uncertainty is not merely a fact but a tool of intelligence. The VENONA messages were read piecemeal over many years, some as late as the 1970s. In the late 1940s and 1950s they were an important aid to FBI spy hunters, and the fact that the Soviet Union learned that a number of its messages had been decoded was less important than the alarm which must have swept Moscow at the ghastly prospect that the American codebreakers might succeed in reading all of the traffic. Hundreds of spies and operations would have been compromised. What intelligence organizations do when discovery looms is burn paper, shut operations down, roll up agent networks, pull people back to home base, abandon safe houses and meeting places, change phone numbers and the location of message drops—in short, disappear. The point in a global conflict is not to put miscreants into jail (except pour encourager les autres) but to keep track of what the other guys are up to, and to give a convincing impression of always knowing a good deal more than is overtly let on. What that means, among other things, is never revealing how you know what you know. Keeping VENONA secret—from the public and, insofar as possible, from the Russians—was not Boy Scout stuff but an important part of the Great Game. Naturally at some point the secret ceases to matter but knowing when that point arrives is easier in retrospect than at the time, which explains why the CIA errs vigorously on the side of caution.

2.

Like most books about secrecy, Moynihan’s is largely concerned with secret history—things that happened wholly or in part beyond public view, why the government wanted it that way, the policies and methods used to keep secrets secret. The principal tools of the US government are the definition of treason in the US Constitution and the Espionage Act of 1917, amended in 1933 to protect American codebreaking efforts and again in 1950 to protect “national defense information,” mainly the scientific knowledge involved in the design and manufacture of atomic and hydrogen bombs. The British Official Secrets Act, which grants virtually unlimited power to the government on security matters and provides for no release of certain official secrets, ever, also has its origins in the First World War.

Richard Gid Powers (who bears a noble name but is no relation of mine) has contributed a long and extremely useful introduction to Moynihan’s book recounting the recent history of American popular thinking about government secrets, from the blank check of the early 1950s through the discoveries of the 1960s and 1970s—the FBI’s campaign against leftists, the CIA’s aggressive meddling in other countries—to the delicate modern balance of skepticism with realism one finds in the work of many recent commentators: they concede the reality of the war within the cold war but darkly suspect simultaneous government manipulation of secrecy for reasons of political advantage and corporate gain. Was Kennedy obsessed with Castro because he feared a Russian military base in the Caribbean, or worried he would be clobbered in the 1964 presidential election? Did the Pentagon want more nuclear missile submarines to protect American retaliatory capacity against a Soviet first strike, or to ensure the prosperity of the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Connecticut? Who can imagine that such questions have clear and simple answers?

The meat and potatoes of Secrecy is to be found largely in Powers’s introduction. It explains and places Moynihan’s argument, which would otherwise seem half-finished. Moynihan contributes the flavor and personality of the book—a rambling history of our times, some flashes of insight (“secrecy is a form of regulation”), and a discussion of the relentless growth in Washington over the decades of the cold war of a “culture of secrecy,” by which he means the habit of exaggerated classification (those six million secret documents each year), the temptation to hide failure behind a screen of bogus national security, and the all-thumbs international bumbling which comes from thinking some information too secret to share with the people making decisions. How did we know the Russians had a slew of agents operating inside the American government? How did we know a Communist victory in the Italian elections of 1948 might be followed by a Stalinist coup? How did we know Castro was a client of the Russians? How did we know North Vietnam was running the war in the South? How did we know Allende was a Stalinist in social democratic garb? How did we know the Soviet Union was building a first-strike capability? How did we know the Sandinista government in Nicaragua was running the revolution in El Salvador? How did we know the Soviet economy was 60 percent as big as the American economy?

To these and many similar questions over the last fifty years American intelligence organizations have had secret answers, and the details, on which all depends, were very often considered too secret to share with other members of government except in the bland form of national intelligence estimates prognosticating X with a probability of Y based on sources with a reliability of Z. Who can make head or tail of that? Moynihan thinks a lot of dumb decisions have been made over the years by people trying to play cards with half a deck, and he is probably right.

But can excessive secrecy be blamed for the really big mistakes? The biggest of all was probably Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to be the first American president to lose a war. The way things turned out tells us all we need to know about the wisdom of drawing the line in Vietnam, and it is certainly clear now that one of the principal rationales for going to war—the idea that Hanoi was doing the bidding of Red China—was just utterly wrong, no matter what the secret evidence might have said. Moynihan might argue that a vigorous public debate based on all-source intelligence in 1964 and 1965 might have convinced American leaders that Hanoi and Saigon were approaching the climax of a Vietnamese civil war of no concern to us, and Moynihan might be right.

But taking Red China out of the equation wouldn’t have changed some basic facts—the fact that Hanoi was Red, too; and the fact that the United States under President Kennedy had sent more than 16,000 American troops to make sure Saigon didn’t lose; and the fact that Hanoi in 1965 was about to whip Saigon’s ass and send American troops scuttling for safety; and the fact that the men in the White House were all serenely certain that, as Dean Rusk expressed it at the time, when a mighty nation like the United States puts its shoulder to the wheel, that wheel is going to move. The disaster of the Vietnam War wasn’t the fault of secrecy-obsessed intelligence officers putting the wrong stuff, or not enough stuff, into the briefing books. Major disasters are never the result of small mistakes and overlooked details, but of men in positions of relative safety choosing by gradual stages to postpone first the inconvenience and then the pain of failure by doubling and redoubling the number of chips pushed to the center of the table.

But the intelligence failure at the top of Moynihan’s list in Secrecy is not Vietnam but the Soviet Union, which at one moment was challenging American might in every corner of the globe, according to supersecret information regularly provided to the White House by the CIA, and the next moment had collapsed in five kinds of bankruptcy—moral, social, political, military, and above all financial. “These were the best people we had, the CIA so-called experts,” said President Gerald Ford in 1997, years after the curtain had come down and longstanding Soviet weaknesses were revealed. “How they could be so in error, I don’t understand, but they were.”

Moynihan has much to say about the reasons for this error, which go back to the earliest days of the cold war and reached full bloom in the 1957 report “Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age,” known by the name of the chairman of the committee which wrote it, H. Rowen Gaither, Jr. Delivered to President Eisenhower not long after the successful Soviet launching of the world’s first satellite, the Gaither Report grimly concluded that “the Gross National Product (GNP) of the USSR is now more than one-third that of the United States and is increasing half again as fast.” Half again as fast, Moynihan points out, would have meant Soviet growth at a rate of 8.25 percent a year, and that promised a crossover point, the moment when the USSR forged into the lead, in 1998. Talk about error.

As things turned out, the Soviet GNP in 1990, the year before the USSR’s collapse, was only a third of the American GNP. In the years since that collapse the CIA and some former intelligence officers have tried to suggest they weren’t really all that wrong but it won’t wash. Moynihan has got this right; the CIA not only failed to note, much less predict, the early signs of the Soviet collapse, but for decades it persistently exaggerated the economic strength which lay behind Soviet military programs.

But what if the CIA had got the Soviet GNP numbers right? That would have had no direct or necessary effect on agency estimates of Soviet military strength, which had to do largely with existing hardware and the rate at which more was being added. Counting things—planes, tanks, ships, missile silos—is one of the things the CIA has been good at since the advent of satellites and overhead reconnaissance in the early 1960s. If the Soviet economy was only half the size of CIA estimates, then the percentage of it devoted to military programs was double the estimate. In fact, during the last two decades of the cold war, when the Soviet Union was embarked on a massive buildup of strategic missiles, the percentage of its GNP devoted to the military was at levels approaching those of World War II, and was far greater than the Pentagon’s slice of the American GNP.

Why this was so—what drove the Kremlin to sacrifice so much for military power—remains a troubling and unanswered question. It may have been habit, or paranoia, or the simple result of efforts by the Soviet military to consume ever more of the pie, or it may have been the fruit of the darker intentions so often imputed by Washington hard-liners who argued that nothing would make the Russians feel safe short of global dominance. An explanation for this extraordinary Soviet effort doubtless lies hidden in the archives. But one thing is sure: the CIA, and the men it advised, would not have been reassured by the discovery that Moscow was willing to outspend Washington in preparation for war by two or three times the proportion of its available wealth. The analysts would have wanted to know why the Soviets were behaving like a nation at war, and they would not have relaxed and kicked back on being told not to worry, it’s only habit, paranoia, or elbowing at the public trough.

3.

The culture of secrecy, the routinization of secrecy, and the use of secrecy as a form of regulation discussed by Moynihan are all genuine features of the ballooning of American intelligence capacity since the end of World War II. The remedy for these excesses, Moynihan feels, is openness. As chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, Moynihan led an important battle to open up government files and give the American people access to their own history. The commission’s report, published in 1997, recommended an overhaul of American secrecy regulations intended to reduce the number of needless and pointless secrets in order to protect those that really mattered, and to speed the process of declassification. In theory, ten years would be the maximum life of new secrets, but secret-keepers don’t give up easily; they know what they want, and they extracted from Moynihan’s commission an agreement to extend classification from ten to thirty years if the custodian says it’s necessary, and beyond thirty years if the custodian can show (whom?) that harm (to whom? of what sort?) will result.

This is roughly the system in place now. The custodian gets to keep the secret until he is good and ready to let it go, and the rule of thumb is that if anybody is interested, then it’s too soon to let it go. My own proposal for routine declassification might be called a fifteen/thirty rule—any document retained by the government at the end of fifteen years must be released after thirty. Exceptions would be granted only after public submission to Congress of a specific request for continuance executed by the President in his own hand—place, date, request for continuance of classification of such-and-such document, generated by such-and-such agency on blank date, under authority granted to me by public law such-and-such, for an additional period of blank years on such-and-such grounds (the lengthier the better), signed in the presence of the secretary of state (name) and the vice president of the United States (name)—the whole damned thing handwritten, no typing and no auto-pens. That would open the files on schedule.

It’s nice to think about, but it’s not going to happen. The reason is what Moynihan’s book about secrecy fails to say about secrets—what they are for.

Think of intelligence organizations as the instrument of a nation’s id—the desire of a government to do certain things without having to explain, defend, or justify them. Fairness, justice, restraint, and respect for the rights of others may be important terms in the public language of international politics, but when a foreign government takes action that seems seriously hostile—when Fidel Castro nationalizes American business in Cuba, when Nikita Khrushchev puts nuclear missiles into Cuba, when Hanoi thumbs its nose at American military might, when other nations want what they want and won’t ask by-your-leave—then the United States government, or any other government with its back up, may decline to turn the other cheek, may seek recourse outside the limits of official remonstrance and international law, and may attempt to impose its will in secret with methods it would never confess in public. The range of methods is wide—theft of secrets is of course a main one, but there are also slander, forgery, blackmail, bribery, sabotage, terrorism, and assassination. The black arts are called black for a reason, and their common feature is the fact they work only in secret, and exposure brings them to a halt.

Think of modern intelligence organizations as being like a modern army—huge and sprawling, bureaucratic, just about everybody involved in some sort of prosaic support activity, maybe one in ten assigned to an actual combat unit, or to clandestine activity in the field. What the 10 percent does is carefully shielded from public scrutiny, but it’s what the 10 percent does that makes governments willing to pay for the whole. Following the Bay of Pigs disaster President Kennedy said he’d like to scatter the CIA to the winds, but on reflection he settled for firing Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell. Far from turning his back on secret intelligence, Kennedy drew it more intimately under White House control. No other Western leader shared Kennedy’s intense interest in secret operations, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill. For a time Kennedy even considered naming his brother Bobby to run the agency, and he did put Bobby in charge of Operation Mongoose, the CIA’s renewed effort to get rid of Castro. Only the President’s own murder brought a halt to CIA plots known to have included many plans for the killing of the Cuban leader.

Neither of the two serious investigations of the Bay of Pigs disaster begun under Kennedy—Lyman Kirkpatrick’s as Inspector General, and a second conducted by General Maxwell Taylor—included a reference of any kind to the assassination plots and Kennedy’s closest advisors at the time still stoutly deny that the President or his brother Bobby authorized or even knew about the various attempts to poison, shoot, or blow up the leader of the Cuban revolution. The fact that many historians still elect to treat this question as open demonstrates just how secret the secret operations of an intelligence organization can be.

The fundamental cause of the disaster,” Kirkpatrick wrote in the Survey, “was the Agency’s failure to give the project…the topflight handling which it required….” This conclusion, kept under lock and key by the CIA for decades, is clearly the self-serving argument of a man insisting he could have done the job better, and still might, given a chance. The real cause of the failure was prosaic and obvious—the impossible hope that an invasion force of a thousand might successfully defeat opposing forces of scores of thousands. Dulles and Bissell were not stupid men; they knew our Cubans couldn’t beat their Cubans. What gave them confidence to go ahead were two calculations never explicitly confided to paper—the hope that Castro’s murder at the outset of the invasion might panic and demoralize his government, and the hope that President Kennedy, despite his robust desire to keep the whole operation at arm’s length, would be forced in the event to intervene directly with American troops to end the ghastly spectacle of the slaughter on the beach at the Bay of Pigs.

It hasn’t happened yet, but Moynihan’s efforts to reform the keeping of American secrets may still bring useful results—a reduction in the number of classified documents generated every year, from the mad to the merely ridiculous, and a brisker pace in the rate at which they are shipped to the open shelves of the National Archives. At the moment the pace is zero, with something like a billion pages still awaiting declassification, according to the Secrecy and Government Bulletin published by the Federation of American Scientists. Congress has called for a dead halt pending creation of a plan to prevent the inadvertent release of “restricted data” about nuclear weapons. If the files are declassified, working through them will usefully occupy future generations of graduate students, it will keep our history honest, it will make apparent what American policy at any given moment really was, and it will tell us, not everything that intelligence organizations may have done, but what they are like.

But that’s it. The secrets at the heart of secrets are rarely confided to official paper or the appropriate files. The deepest secrets of all have nothing to do with the burn time of ballistic missiles, the configuration of fissionable material in nuclear weapons, or other technical matters, but rather with what presidents want, and what official agencies do to give them what they want. Those are what the ancient Chinese writer about war and statecraft Sun Tzu called “mouth-to-ear” matters.

One such surfaced recently when the Assassination Records Review Board released a two-page “Memorandum of Conversation” from the Gerald Ford Presidential Library recording some comments of Henry Kissinger on January 4, 1975, during a discussion of news stories by Seymour Hersh claiming extensive wrongdoing by the CIA. According to Max Holland, who is writing a book about the Warren Commission, Kissinger, then serving as both Ford’s secretary of state and his national security advisor, had sought a blanket denial from the agency but had been informed by William Colby that some major secrets remained hidden. A former director, Richard Helms, was summoned back to Washington from his post as ambassador to Iran to fill in the details for Kissinger at a breakfast meeting shortly before Kissinger met in the White House with President Ford and Brent Scowcroft, who was taking notes.

Helms said all these stories are just the tip of the iceberg,” Kissinger said, as recorded by Scowcroft during the meeting with Ford. “If they come out, blood will flow. For example, Robert Kennedy personally managed the operation on the assassination of Castro.”

The friends and defenders of the Kennedy brothers say it isn’t so; but there it is on paper, written down in the heat of a government crisis, the words of a man in a position to know, recorded on the day, perhaps even within the very hour, they were uttered.

Holland and Hersh, still on the case, also learned recently the name of the CIA intelligence officer named to serve as liaison with the attorney general during the year in which he continually pressed the CIA for results in getting rid of Castro—a career intelligence officer, now dead, named Charles Ford. According to Ford’soffice-mate Sam Halpern, a CIA officer also assigned to Task Force W in the agency’s effort to get rid of Castro, Ford traveled hither-and-yon about the country on Robert Kennedy’s business, but there public knowledge comes to an end. Hersh’s book The Dark Side of Camelot, published last year, includes some additional ancillary detail. Whether still-classified CIA files can fill out the story of Ford’s work for Bobby remains unknown but it’s likely, just as it is likely no one will be given free range of the files until many, many additional years have passed, if then.

Think of the CIA’s files as the nation’s unconscious. There you may find the evidence, like the gouges on rock where a glacier has passed, of what American leaders really thought, really wanted, and really did. Does this eternal battle over access to the files make sense when most people have quit caring what happened at the Bay of Pigs? Does it matter whether we are permitted to haul up the last piece of paper to the light of day before letting it rest? There is no right answer, just personal preference: some would rather know, and some would rather not.

  1. *

    See, for example, Whittaker Chambers (Random House, 1997), Sam Tanenhaus’s brilliant and exhaustive biography; the 1997 Random House edition of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein; and The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—The Stalin Era, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, just published by Random House.

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