Consider the following strategic dilemma. You are a superpower that hopes to convert other nations to principles you hold vital—these might be individual liberty, private property, and free markets. There is another superpower out there that is hoping to do the same thing, to persuade other nations to embrace its principles—for example, social equality, state ownership, and centralized planning.
One day, you realize that this rival superpower has been busy creating international organizations and staging world congresses and festivals in the name of peace and democracy, and inviting people from other nations to participate.
These organizations and festivals are fronts. Their membership, their programs, and the political positions they enthusiastically adopt are all clandestinely orchestrated by the rival superpower, which is pumping large amounts of money into them. What’s more, in your view that rival superpower is not a peace-loving democracy at all. It’s a totalitarian regime. Yet its slogans attract unwary writers and artists, intellectuals, students, organized labor—people who believe in world peace and international coöperation.
You believe in those things, too. But you think that the slogans are being used to advance your rival’s interests, one of which is to rob you of your superpowers. What do you do? Doing nothing is not an option. Remember, you are a superpower.
The obvious response is to create your own international organizations and sponsor your own world congresses and festivals, and use them to promote your interests. Sadly, however, you cannot do this in a public and transparent way. For it happens that your citizens are not all that taken with the ideals of world peace and international coöperation, and they would not be pleased to see you spend their tax dollars to support the kind of people who advance that agenda. They would prefer to see their tax dollars spent on defense. In fact, they would prefer for there to be no tax dollars at all.
There is also the problem that one of your principles as a superpower is the belief that governments should not interfere with the activities of voluntary associations, such as writers’ congresses and student groups. You don’t believe in fronts. This is a key point of difference between you and your rival superpower. So your hands appear to be tied.
Unless you could do it all in secret. Suppose you directed taxpayer dollars through back channels, disguised as gifts from private benefactors and foundations, to organizations that operated internationally, and that reached out to groups in other countries in the name of the principles you believe in. You would want to be sure that the people running those organizations either didn’t know where the money was coming from or could be trusted to keep it a secret. You might need to pull strings occasionally to get the right people in charge and the right positions enthusiastically adopted.
Wouldn’t that be like creating fronts? Sort of. But here’s the thing: fundamentally, everyone would be on the same page. They just might not be knowingly on the same page. No one would be forced to do or say anything. After you succeeded in stripping your rival of its superpowers, there would no longer be a need for secrecy. Until that day arrived, however, national security might demand this tiny bite out of the principle of transparency. The only people who could object would be people who were already on the wrong side.
After the Second World War, our superpower solved this dilemma in exactly this way and on exactly this line of reasoning. From the more or less official start of the Cold War, Harry Truman’s speech to Congress in March, 1947, announcing his policy “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”—that is, Communist aggression—the United States created fronts and secretly infiltrated existing nongovernmental organizations in order to advance American interests abroad.
Almost exactly twenty years after Truman’s speech, in February, 1967, the government’s cover was spectacularly blown by a college dropout. The dropout’s name was Michael Wood, and the operation he exposed was the C.I.A.’s covert use of an organization called the National Student Association. The revelation had a cascading effect, and helped to mark the end of the first phase of the Cold War.
The C.I.A. had its eye on the N.S.A. from the start—both were born in 1947, a few months after Truman’s speech—and the relationship gained steadily in strength and intimacy until the day the secret became public. Its story is now told in detail for the first time, in Karen M. Paget’s “Patriotic Betrayal” (Yale).
“Patriotic Betrayal” is an amazing piece of research. Paget has industriously combed the archives and interviewed many of the surviving players, including former C.I.A. officials. And Paget herself is part of the story she tells. In 1965, her husband, a student-body president at the University of Colorado, became an officer in the N.S.A., and, as a spouse, she was informed of the covert relationship by two former N.S.A. officials who had become C.I.A. agents.
She was sworn to secrecy. The penalty for violating the agreement was twenty years. Paget describes herself back then as “an apolitical twenty-year-old from a small town in Iowa,” and she says that she was terrified. Fifty years later, she is still angry. She has channelled her outrage into as scrupulous an investigation of the covert relationship as the circumstances allow.
One circumstance is the fact that a good deal of material is classified. Paget was able to fish up bits and pieces using the Freedom of Information Act. But most of the iceberg is still underwater, and will probably remain there. So there is sometimes an aura of vagueness around who was calling the tune and why.
The vagueness was also there by design. It was baked into the covert relationship. There was a lot of winking and nodding; that’s what helped people believe they were on the same page. But it means that much of the history of what passed between the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. is irrecoverable. Still, “Patriotic Betrayal” is a conscientious attempt to take the full measure of an iconic piece of Cold War subterfuge.
It’s a dense book. Readers will be glad for the three-page guide in the back to abbreviations and acronyms. (There are also nearly ninety pages of endnotes, with more references accessible online.) Organizationally, the N.S.A.-C.I.A. affair was quite complex. There were a number of quasi-independent parts—another reason, besides the secrecy, that it was hard to see what was really going on.
The parts included the World Federation of Democratic Youth, or W.F.D.Y., a Soviet front organization created right after the war; the International Union of Students, or I.U.S., formed at a world congress of students in Prague in 1946, with a Czech Communist elected president; and the N.S.A. itself, which was founded at a student convention in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1947, in order to represent the United States in the I.U.S.
The Madison convention also created an N.S.A. subcommittee on international affairs and gave it authority to deal with international issues. The key move was the separation of the main N.S.A. office, which was in Madison, from the international division, which was housed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the Cambridge branch of the N.S.A. that received most of the C.I.A.’s funding and did most of the C.I.A.’s bidding. Madison was kept out of the loop.
In 1948, there was a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, a crucial event in the hardening of postwar relations. When the I.U.S. refused to condemn the coup, the N.S.A. withdrew and set about forming a rival group, the International Student Conference, or I.S.C. These two organizations, the I.U.S. and the I.S.C., became superpower proxies in the looking-glass war that was the Cold War. Through the N.S.A., the C.I.A. tried to orchestrate what happened in the I.S.C., just as the I.U.S. was responsive to the demands of the Kremlin.
The N.S.A. was never a virgin. Paget reveals that, even before Prague, American students were subject to surveillance and scheming by three groups of grownups: the State Department, the F.B.I., and the Catholic Church. It can be forgotten how influential a role the Church’s highly disciplined anti-Communism played in Cold War affairs. The Holy Father took a personal interest in the danger of Communist infiltration of youth organizations, including the N.S.A.; the bishops kept a close eye on Catholic student leaders; and Catholics usually voted as a bloc in N.S.A. and I.S.C. meetings.
The Pope’s anti-Communism was too rigid for the C.I.A. The agency also had little use for J. Edgar Hoover, with whom the Church collaborated in investigating students’ backgrounds, or for Senator Joseph McCarthy and his hunt for Communists in the government. Agency politics—or, rather, the politics of agency policies—were farther to the left.
The N.S.A., for example, was a forthrightly liberal organization. Civil rights was part of the agenda early on. The N.S.A.’s second president (1948-49), James (Ted) Harris, was an African-American (and a Catholic). Its fourth president (1950-51) was the future civil-rights and antiwar activist Allard Lowenstein (not a Catholic). The N.S.A. helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a principal organizer of the march from Selma that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, in 1965. And the N.S.A.’s politics were typical of most of the organizations in the C.I.A.’s covert network: they were socially progressive, anti-colonialist, and sometimes even socialist.
One customary explanation is that the people who ran covert operations at the C.I.A. from 1947 to 1967 were not right-wing jingoists. They were liberal anti-Communists, veterans of Roosevelt’s Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the C.I.A. They were good guys who despised the Soviet Union as a traitor to progressive principles.
If people held this belief about the C.I.A., the agency exploited it. C.I.A. officials used to tell N.S.A. students who were in the know—the agency’s term for them was “witting” (or “witty”)—that, while the State Department supported authoritarian dictatorships, the C.I.A. supported foreign students who were involved in democratic resistance and national liberation movements. This was supposed to make the N.S.A. students feel that they had bargained with the right devil.
The students were being misled. The C.I.A. is part of the executive branch. Its director reports to the President; its operations and expenditures are subject to congressional oversight. The director of the C.I.A. during the nineteen-fifties, Allen Dulles, was the Secretary of State’s brother. The notion that the C.I.A. was running its own foreign policy, or that it was a “rogue elephant,” as one senator later called it, is absurd.
After the revelations of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, when many of the C.I.A.’s undercover operations were exposed, people began talking about the agency as though it were some kind of underground cell, an organization with no accountability, up to its own dirty tricks. But a report on the C.I.A.’s covert operations made immediately after the 1967 revelations concluded that the agency “did not act on its own initiative.” In 1976, a more critical congressional report, which was never officially released, stated, “All evidence in hand suggests that the CIA, far from being out of control, has been utterly responsive to the instructions of the President and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.”
It’s true that the C.I.A. did not always fully inform Administrations about what it was up to, but the agency had reason to believe that there were some things Administrations preferred not to know. Deniability is a crucial ingredient of covert operations. The C.I.A. used the N.S.A. to further the policies of the American government. If it had been found doing anything contrary to the wishes of the President, its plug would have been pulled very fast.
So what, exactly, was the N.S.A. useful for? This is where things get murky. According to Paget’s account, the N.S.A. was apparently not used for what the C.I.A. called “political warfare.” The agency did create a front organization called the Independent Research Service (inventing titles that are as meaningless as possible is part of the spy game) for the purpose of recruiting American students to disrupt Soviet-controlled World Youth Festivals in Vienna, in 1959, and Helsinki, in 1962. The person in charge was the future feminist Gloria Steinem, who knew perfectly well where the money was coming from and never regretted taking it. “If I had a choice I would do it again,” she later said.
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But that operation did not involve the N.S.A. Nor was the N.S.A. used only to promote American principles abroad, although that was part of the reason for funding it. The C.I.A. embedded agents in the N.S.A., and it worked behind the scenes to insure that pliable students got elected to run the association and that the desired policy positions got adopted. It took the extra precaution of starting up a covertly funded summer program, called the International Student Relations Seminar, and using it to groom future N.S.A. leaders. A number of N.S.A. members who went through the seminar went on to have careers at the agency.
Essentially, the N.S.A. functioned as a glove that concealed the American government’s hand and allowed it to do business with people who would never knowingly have done business with the American government. These people thought that they were dealing with a student group that was independent of the government. They had no idea that the N.S.A. was a front.
And what did this permit the C.I.A. to do? First, the N.S.A. was used as a cutout. The C.I.A. funnelled financial support to favored foreign-student groups by means of grants ostensibly coming from the N.S.A. Second, the N.S.A. was a recruitment device. It enabled the agency to identify potential intelligence sources among student leaders in other countries. And, third, N.S.A. members who attended international conferences filed written reports or were debriefed afterward, giving the C.I.A. a huge database of information.
The C.I.A. did not buy into the adage that the student leader of today is the student leader of tomorrow. It calculated that the heads of national student organizations were likely some day to become important figures in their countries’ governments. When that happened (and it often did), the American government had a file on them. “Over time, witting staff reported on thousands of foreign students’ political tendencies, personality traits, and future aspirations,” Paget writes. “They submitted detailed analyses of political dynamics within foreign student unions and countries.”
This may seem benign enough, but there was a problem. It had to do with the “State Department bad guys, C.I.A. good guys” routine. The State Department deals with nations with which the United States has diplomatic relations. Having diplomatic relations with a foreign government prohibits you from negotiating with, or acknowledging the legitimacy of, groups committed to that government’s overthrow. This is why it’s convenient to have an agency that operates clandestinely. The C.I.A. could cultivate relations with opposition groups secretly, and this permitted the American government to work both sides of the street.
Paget thinks that, in some cases, the information the C.I.A. gathered about students who were political opponents of a regime may have ended up in the hands of that regime, which could then have used the information to arrest and execute its enemies. She suspects that this may have happened in several countries where the American government was involved in regime change, including Iraq, Iran, and South Africa.
But it’s all speculation. There are no smoking guns in Paget’s book—no specific cases in which the C.I.A. made students’ names available to a foreign government. And the reason, of course, has to do with the classified material. No intelligence agency will ever release documents that reveal the identities of people with whom it had contacts. That information is at the very bottom of the iceberg.
It’s odd that the relationship remained secret as long as it did. The N.S.A. was one of many organizations covertly funded by the C.I.A. Over the life of those relationships, hundreds of people must have been in the know. But until Michael Wood spilled the beans no one ever spoke up publicly. This is a testament to something: in the case of the N.S.A., the naïveté of the students; the arrogance of the grownups (at the C.I.A., N.S.A. students were referred to as “the kiddies”); the power of anti-Communism to trump every scruple.
One thing it is not a testament to is the C.I.A.’s tradecraft. The evidence of the agency’s covert funding system was hidden in plain sight. The world got a peek in 1964, when a House of Representatives subcommittee ran an investigation into the tax-exempt status of philanthropic foundations. The committee had trouble getting information from the I.R.S. about a certain New York-based charitable foundation, the J. M. Kaplan Fund.
The chair of the committee, a Texas congressman named Wright Patman, surmised that the reason the I.R.S. was not coöperating was that the C.I.A. was preventing it. Patman didn’t appreciate the disrespect; in retaliation, he made public a list of eight foundations that, between 1961 and 1963, had given almost a million dollars to the J. M. Kaplan Fund.
“PATMAN ATTACKS ‘SECRET’ C.I.A. LINK: Says Agency Gave Money to Private Group Acting as Its Sub-Rosa ‘Conduit’ ” was the headline in the Times, which published the names of the eight “conduit” foundations. After a closed-door meeting with representatives from the C.I.A. and the I.R.S., Patman emerged to announce that if there was a C.I.A. connection it was no longer of interest to his subcommittee, and that he was dropping the matter.
But the cat was partway out of the bag. As their transparently invented names suggest—the Gotham Foundation, the Borden Trust, the Andrew Hamilton Fund, and so on—these eight foundations were C.I.A. cutouts. The agency had approached wealthy people it knew to be sympathetic and asked them to head dummy foundations. Those people were then put on a masthead, a name for the foundation was invented, sometimes an office was rented to provide an address, and a conduit came into being. The members of the phony boards even held annual meetings, at which “business” was discussed, expenses paid by the agency.
The dummy foundations were used to channel money to groups the agency wanted to support. Sometimes the C.I.A. passed funds through the dummies to legitimate charitable foundations, like the Kaplan Fund, which in turn passed it along to groups like the National Student Association. Sometimes the cutouts existed solely to write checks to the C.I.A.’s beneficiaries.
The C.I.A.’s name did not appear anywhere. The giveaway was the dollar-for-dollar equivalence of the amount received from the dummy and the amount granted to the target group. If the expenses side of Kaplan’s books showed a two-hundred-thousand-dollar grant to the N.S.A., the income side would show a two-hundred-thousand-dollar donation from one of the agency’s dummy foundations.
The Times published an editorial saying that “the practice ought to stop. . . . The use of Government intelligence funds to get foundations to underwrite institutions, organizations, magazines and newspapers abroad is a distortion of C.I.A.’s mission on gathering and evaluating information.” In 1966, the paper ran a series of articles on the C.I.A.’s spying operations, in which it revealed that the C.I.A. was funding the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its many European-based magazines. The paper also reported that the agency had funded some American academics when they travelled abroad. The C.I.A. seems to have done nothing in response to these stories, and nothing came of them.
Then Michael Wood made his appearance. Wood was from Glendale, California. In 1964, he had dropped out of Pomona College to become a civil-rights organizer in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His work there attracted the attention of the National Student Association, and it offered him a job.
By then, the N.S.A. represented about a million students from more than four hundred American colleges. It had just moved its offices (with help from the C.I.A.) to Washington, D.C., to adjoining four-story town houses near Dupont Circle. Wood was soon promoted to the position of director of development—fund-raising.
He discovered something strange. No one at the N.S.A. seemed terribly interested in raising money. Grant proposals were perfunctory, and Wood learned that the president of the N.S.A., Philip Sherburne, the man who had hired him, was negotiating for donations on his own. Wood confronted Sherburne and told him that unless he was given control of all fund-raising activities he would have to resign. Sherburne invited him to lunch. This was in March, 1966.
Sherburne had grown up on a dairy farm in Oregon. Wood liked him. They met in a restaurant on Connecticut Avenue called the Sirloin and Saddle, where Sherburne violated his secrecy agreement and told Wood about the C.I.A. He told Wood that he was desperately trying to terminate the relationship (which was true), and asked him to keep their conversation secret.
Wood knew that if he revealed the contents of the conversation Sherburne could go to jail. But he hated the thought that the C.I.A. had financial leverage over the N.S.A. That fall, Wood was fired from the N.S.A. Paget reports that he was not getting along with people at the office. But he had already decided to go public, and had begun surreptitiously making copies of N.S.A. financial records.
Paget doesn’t explain how Wood contacted the press. The story is that he met Marc Stone, a public-relations man who happened to be the brother of the investigative journalist I. F. Stone, and who represented a West Coast magazine called Ramparts. Though only four years old, Ramparts had become a slick muckraker with a New Left slant and a rapidly growing circulation under its young editor, Warren Hinckle.
The magazine began looking into Wood’s story, which seemed hard to believe and impossible to confirm. But its researchers discovered records showing that some of the eight dummy foundations named by Patman two years before were donors to the N.S.A. The C.I.A. had not even bothered to change their names. By February, 1967, the magazine had a story ready to go.
The C.I.A. got wind of the magazine’s investigation. It gathered past presidents of the N.S.A. and scheduled a news conference at which the presidents were to admit receiving C.I.A. money but swear that the C.I.A. had never influenced N.S.A. policy. They thought this would defuse any story that the magazine eventually published.
Ramparts, in turn, got wind of the C.I.A.’s plan to scoop its scoop. Hinckle bought ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post. These ran on February 14th, Valentine’s Day; they announced, “In its March issue, Ramparts magazine will document how the CIA has infiltrated and subverted the world of American student leaders.” Placing the ad tipped off the Times and the Post, and their reporters called the C.I.A. for comment. And so, on the same day the Ramparts ads appeared, both newspapers ran articles on the C.I.A.’s covert funding of the N.S.A.
This time, the story caught fire. Wood went on ABC’s “Issues and Answers,” where he was asked whether he thought that he had destroyed the C.I.A. as an effective instrument in the Cold War. CBS News broadcast an hour-long program, hosted by Mike Wallace, called “In the Pay of the CIA.” The major news magazines ran cover stories.
Once the N.S.A. thread had been pulled, the whole tapestry of C.I.A. covert operations started to unravel. Reporters discovered that the money trail wound through some eighteen dummy foundations and twenty-one legitimate foundations. The Los Angeles Times found more than fifty grantees. The agency gave money to the National Council of Churches, the United Auto Workers, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Marketing Institute, the American Friends of the Middle East, the Pan American Foundation, the American Newspaper Guild, the National Education Association, the Communications Workers of America, and the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Outside Russia.
Some of the funded groups were creatures of the C.I.A. Radio Free Europe and the Free Russia Fund, which regularly appealed to the public for contributions, had actually been created by the government and were funded by the C.I.A. Other organizations had C.I.A. agents planted in them. A few groups had no idea about the real source of the funds they lived on. An organization headed by the socialist Norman Thomas got money from the C.I.A.
The Ramparts story effectively killed the covert-funding system. As Hinckle put it in his delightful memoir, “If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade,” “It is a rare thing in this business when you say bang and somebody says I’m dead.” More than that, the revelations meant that the whole covert-funding operation had backfired. An effort to curry the allegiance of foreign élites ended up alienating them almost completely. After 1967, every American venture in international cultural relations, official or unofficial, became suspect. The cultural Cold War came apart.
Paget struggles at the end of her book to find an upside to the story she tells, some case in which C.I.A. involvement in the N.S.A. helped the United States win the Cold War. The record, she concludes, “is mixed at best and frequently dismal.” There is no evidence, for example, that the N.S.A. ever persuaded anyone to renounce Communism. The most that can be said, she thinks, is that the Soviet Union did not get to have the field of international student affairs all to itself. There was another front in the game.
A Critic at Large MARCH 23, 2015 ISSUE
BY LOUIS MENAND