17. Editorial Note

On December 20, 1974, Director of Central Intelligence William E. Colby met with journalist Seymour Hersh of the New York Times in his office at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. Colby wrote in his memoirs that Hersh informed him that “he had learned from several sources that the CIA had been engaged in a ‘massive’ operation against the antiwar movement involving wiretaps, break-ins, mail intercepts, and surveillances of American citizens” and that he intended to print the story. From Hersh’s description, Colby recalled that he “realized immediately that [Hersh] had come upon some disjointed and distorted accounts of several items on our highly secret ‘family jewels’ [Page 30]list.” Colby’s main concern “was not to try to identify the leakers but to deal in some sane and rational way with the exaggerated way Hersh had put together the information leaked.” (Colby, Honorable Men, pages 389–390)

In his memoirs, Colby wrote, “‘Look, Sy,’ I began, ‘what you are onto here are two very separate and distinct matters you’ve gotten mixed up and distorted.’ I went on to try to explain—and put into some proper perspective—the two matters that his sources had confused and exaggerated for him. First, I said, there was an operation that the Agency had conducted to discover whether the American antiwar movement was being supported or manipulated by foreign powers, and that such matters were properly within the CIA’s charter. Moreover, I stressed, after having concluded that no foreign power was involved with the antiwar movement, the operation had been terminated. As for the talk of mail intercepts, wiretaps, and surveillance of American citizens, that something was entirely different and in no way connected with the antiwar movement. What he had come upon here, I explained, were some cases in which the CIA had acted under its responsibility to protect intelligence sources and techniques against leaks, and on some few occasions in its twenty-eight year history it had used some surveillance techniques in the United States and in doing had overstepped the boundaries of its charter. But the important point, I emphasized, was that the Agency had conducted its own review of such activities in 1973 and had issued a series of clear directives making plain that the Agency henceforth must and would stay within the law. ‘So, you see, Sy, you would be wrong if you went ahead with your story in the way you’ve laid it out. What you have are a few incidents of the Agency straying from the straight and narrow. There certainly was never anything like a “massive illegal domestic intelligence operation.” What few mistakes we made in the past have long before this been corrected. And there is certainly nothing like that going on now.’” (Ibid., pages 390–391)

Nevertheless, on December 22, Hersh’s article appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Hersh wrote that the Times investigation “established that intelligence files on at least 10,000 American citizens were maintained by a special unit of the C.I.A. that was reporting directly to Richard Helms” in an effort to determine if links existed between the antiwar movement and a foreign power. Moreover, he revealed, James R. Schlesinger’s ordered check of CIA domestic files (see Document 6) “produced evidence of dozens of other illegal activities by members of the C.I.A. inside the United States, beginning in the nineteen-fifties.” Hersh reported on the mail opening operations and on surveillance of antiwar activists, journalists, and former employees, including Victor Marchetti, a former CIA official who in 1974 published [Page 31] CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, an exposé of Intelligence Community activities and practices. Drawing upon the assessment of unnamed former CIA officials, Hersh focused particularly on the roles of James J. Angleton, Chief of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff since 1954, as overseer of the operations, and Richard Ober, the official responsible for “assembling a large staff of people who acquired enormous amounts of data.” (Seymour M. Hersh, “Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years,” New York Times, December 22, 1974, page 1)

Following the story’s publication, Colby recalled, a “press and political firestorm immediately erupted.” “All the tensions and suspicions and hostilities that had been building about the CIA since the Bay of Pigs and had risen to a combustible level during the Vietnam and Watergate years, now exploded.” (Colby, Honorable Men, page 391) Following calls for an investigation from Senator William Proxmire (D–Wisconsin), former Director of Central Intelligence John A. McCone, and former CIA Executive Director Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, Jr., among others, the Department of Justice announced on December 23 that it would investigate the charges. Similarly, Senator John J. Sparkman, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Senator John C. Stennis, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Representative Lucien N. Nedzi, Chairman of the Intelligence Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, announced hearings on the CIA activities would begin when Congress reconvened in January. (Hersh, “President Tells Colby to Speed Report on C.I.A.,” New York Times, December 24, 1974, page 1; Robert P. Hey, “Watchdog for CIA?,” Christian Science Monitor, December 24, 1974, page 1)

The story came as a surprise to the White House, which had never been briefed on the existence of the catalogue of CIA misdeeds, the so-called “Family Jewels,” that Schlesinger had commissioned the year before. After the story broke, Colby telephoned President Ford aboard Air Force One en route to Vail, Colorado, where Ford was to spend the holidays. Colby assured the President that “nothing comparable to the article’s allegations is going on in the Agency at this time” and offered to make a full report. (Colby, Honorable Men, pages 392–393) The following morning, December 23, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger, telephoned White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld in Vail to talk about the “Helms matter.” Kissinger told Rumsfeld, “I don’t know the facts remotely. I have no knowledge whatever to what body of fact [the Hersh article] refers. If there were any such activities they were not reported to the NSC office but I do know that Sy Hersh is a son-of-a-bitch and I think for a senior official to get vilified without opposition from the Administration on the [Page 32]basis of such an article is dangerous business.” Kissinger recommended asking Colby for a full written report “on the body of fact to which this refers, whatever it is.” (Transcript of telephone conversation, December 23; Department of State, Freedom of Information Reading Room, Kissinger Telephone Transcripts) In his memoirs, Kissinger recalled that he asked Colby himself, “on behalf of the President,” for a “full report on the subjects covered by the Hersh article.” (Kissinger, Years of Renewal, pages 320–321)

At 10:30 a.m. Washington time, Kissinger dispatched to Rumsfeld via LDX a memorandum outlining recommendations for managing the White House’s public posture, suggesting that the White House not issue a statement, but rather address the issue in the usual press conference procedure. “We are concerned that we not act in such a way as to give credence to the allegations of the New York Times story and create an impression that a major problem actually exists and that the Ford Administration is actually confronted with a scandal of major proportions. We should act in such a way as to make it perfectly clear that these activities ante-dated the current Administration and that this Administration is acting forthrightly to insure that no such activities will occur during President Ford’s Administration.” Kissinger provided a list of answers to possible press questions regarding Hersh’s article, stating that “the answers provided are drafted to indicate that the Administration is acting decisively on the matter and to keep the matter within the Administration and head off, if possible, a full blown Congressional investigation outside of the normal legislative oversight channels.” (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Kissinger–Scowcroft West Wing Office Files, Box 3, CIA—Domestic Spying)

Kissinger also cabled former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms in Tehran on December 23. After assuring Helms that “you continue to have my complete confidence,” he cautioned that there was “little doubt in my mind that the Hersh charges will not soon fade away and that, in fact, there may be a call for some form of Congressional investigation.” Kissinger told Helms that he had authorized the press spokesman to say today that if a “duly constituted Congressional committee” called for his testimony, he, Helms, would “naturally return for this purpose.” Lastly, Kissinger asked that Helms provide “on the basis of your own knowledge and recollection, your own report on the charges contained in the Hersh article.” (Telegram 280175 to Tehran, December 23; ibid.) Helms responded on December 24, stating, “I remember no illegal or unauthorized quote break-ins, telephone taps, or inspections,” and questioning the identity of those who made those charges. “I do not know what Schlesinger and Colby have done,” he added, “to dredge up material designed, if not carefully explained, to hurt me. I still feel I had a lot of unnecessary grief over Wa[Page 33]tergate. In any event, someone or some group seems to have it in for me and does not want to give up.” He concluded by informing Kissinger that he would return to the United States on January 2. (Telegram 10841 from Tehran, December 24; ibid.) In fact, Helms left Tehran on December 24. (Telegram 10842 from Tehran, December 24; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, D740373–0839)