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SA Book Festival Interview: Dr. John Prados, military intelligence expert



I was honored to be asked to moderate a panel on domestic surveillance with two leading authors on the subject: Dr. John Prados, senior fellow at the National Security Archive and author of The Family Jewels: CIA, Secrecy and Presidential Power and Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild and author of Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance. I was able to speak with Prados about his research into military intelligence and his book, which documents the so-called “Year of Intelligence” in 1975, when journalist Seymour Hersh shocked the nation with revelations of expansive and blatantly illegal surveillance of American citizens. Sound familiar?

Where were you during the Year of Intelligence?

In 1975, I was a graduate student at Columbia University. I was interested in intelligence, but I was interested in international relations and I was studying US/Soviet stuff, in particular nuclear warfare and rockets and missiles and all that kind of thing. Intelligence was important to me because the American estimates of what the Russian nuclear forces were going to be were key to looking at the evolution of U.S. nuclear programs and defense budgets and technological developments .... Actually, when the Hersh revelations first came out ... I thought that they were really a distraction from what the main problem was, which was Soviet-American relations. As the Year of Intelligence went on, I became much more impressed with all the things that were happening, the revelations that were coming out and everything that that entailed.

Was there an intersection between your studies of Vietnam [Prados has also written extensively on the Vietnam War] and the CIA and military intelligence's involvement in the conflict?

That's a very good question. When I said before that I was thinking of all of that stuff as a distraction, I was coming from this perspective of having been, having had the feeling in opposing the Vietnam War that people like the CIA and the FBI were sort of chasing us around and all that kind of thing. So, my initial perspective on Hersh's revelations and the whole thing that led to the Year of Intelligence was like, sort of, resisting that feeling that I had left over from the Vietnam War.

It seems like, from what you covered in The Family Jewels, some people in those opposition groups did feel that there was probably a CIA presence but up until the revelations, they probably didn't know for sure whether they were being spied upon or infiltrated. Was that a common feeling among people opposed to the war? Were people concerned about being infiltrated before these revelations came about?

Oh yes, very much so. Today, just to put this in the current context, you look at the Snowden revelations about the NSA eavesdropping and a lot of people that you mention this to will tell you 'oh yeah, they intercept everything all the time.' That kind of, sort of universal-type feeling about government surveillance ... applied to anti-war protesters at that time thinking about the government. Have you looked at my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War? In that book you will actually see a narrative of some of my experiences in the anti-war movement and you'll see that I ended up working with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Unwinnable War mentions this thing that VVAW did in Detroit in 1971 called the Winter Soldier investigation. If you looked at the transcript of the Winter Soldier investigation, you would see one of the VVAW people there specifically and explicitly saying 'Well, yes, CIA is in here. In here somewhere, you'll find them.' It's definitely true that they had that feeling. No question.

What then lead to your involvement with the National Security Archive?

Very straightforward story. I told you I was working on Soviet-American relations. I was working on nuclear forces and I wanted to do a dissertation about US intelligence estimates on Russian nuclear forces and what impact those had ... on American nuclear forces and programs. Lots of the information that was necessary to that study was locked up in secret documents. So, I started filing Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests looking to get the documents that I needed to write that book (it eventually became a book called The Soviet Estimate) and as I went along and filed more and more FOIA requests and got some documents back, I discovered other people who were also filing FOIA requests and getting documents from the government and trying to shed light on various aspects of US policy. In any case, in the early 1980s, a bunch of these people just like me, we started a sort of coffee klatch, and we would get together once a month at somebody's house and trade stories of dealing with government declassifiers and what was the latest great document that we had gotten released and what were good arguments to use in the requests themselves. At a certain point in the mid-80s, shortly before the Iran-Contra affair, a couple of the members of this group thought that they would get all this mass of paper that they were getting declassified, get it out of the house. ... So they applied for grant money and they got some money from the Ford Foundation and they set up the National Security Archive. All the people in that group donated some documents to get them started and whatnot. At that time, I was not a senior fellow of the archive or had any formal connection with it. It was in the late 1990s, when the archive was helping Brown University to prepare a conference on the Vietnam War that they came to me and asked me to put together for them the briefing materials that they needed to do this conference project and that led to my association with the archive.

Can you tell me about the FOIA process for getting the documents mentioned in The Family Jewels?

A bunch of the materials that are in the Family Jewels book came out during the Year of Intelligence as a result of the Church Committee's investigative efforts. The Family Jewels documents themselves were secret up until I think 2006 despite repeated FOIA requests, the final request that actually broke them open was a 17-year-long case. Other documents that are in that book took 10-12 years to get declassified when I applied for them. So there's a range of different material reflected in that.

As someone who's been filing FOIAs since the early 1980s or before, has the environment changed any? Today is it more difficult, just as difficult or less difficult to gain access to the documents you're interested in?

That's a good question. The current administration has issued an executive order governing declassification which is supposed to represent an improvement in so-called liberalization of the system. But, a lot of the government agencies seem to be behaving as if nothing has happened and it was business as usual. So the sort of short answer to your question is that it's still difficult, but it's supposed to be easier, if that makes any sense [laughs].

Even the name of FOIA is somewhat of a misnomer. I feel like the FOIA process is used almost as much to prevent access as to grant access. 

I understand your feeling

When you do get access to these documents, do you find a great amount has been redacted or that you've been purposefully given a flood of information that is either not very helpful or would take an incredible amount of time just to pore over to find what you'd originally requested?

All of those things. It depends very much on the subject and, actually (just to be facetious), on what they had for breakfast that day, because a lot of the people who are making the judgements, the approvals on what to release and what not to release are persons who don't have any real knowledge of what it is that they’re dealing with. Or, on the contrary, they are people who were directly involved with the events and are now being asked to release the truth about what they did and didn't do at the time. So you get cases where people are desperate to suppress the information. You get other cases where people don't know really what's important about the documents that they're looking at and they feel they should redact something, so they sort of pick something that looks kind of secret but really might or might not be, or they say 'well, you know, there really isn't anything secret about this, I'll let it out.' So, the responses vary from case to case and document to document and even from one month to the next.


Do you find these data dumps, like Wikileaks, to be helpful or hurtful to researchers such as yourself who are trying to utilize the government channels to get access to these kinds of documents? 

I would say this is kind of a double-edged sword thing. When the Wikileaks happened and Assange came out with that whole pile of documents that he got from the young man (now woman), the government's response was directly negative and fairly powerful in terms of taking new measures to secure their information and blah, blah, blah. And that was a hinderance to the Freedom of Information. There has been that in play in the Snowden affair as well, no question, however, I would say that the weight of the revelations and the extent of the misbehavior that the revelations are continuing to document is forcing any number of government officials to say 'you know, a lot of our problem here is because we were trying to keep too many things secret.' You've got the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in fact, who made the point to a ... reporter that 'gee, you know, if we had only said what we were doing and told them all about it at the beginning, we wouldn’t be having this problem.' There you go, you've got the Director of National Intelligence saying that they should have let out more information, so, unlike the other situation, now you're getting both sides of this, where there's the instinctive reaction to impose more secrecy and then there's the more considered response of 'oh my, the real solution of this is to keep fewer things secret.'

In your book, you discuss the roles that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld played in the White House's response to the Hersh revelations [in the 1970s], and also to September 11. I'm curious if when those two particular actors are in power if that changes the dynamic within the executive branch and its response to questions about the CIA and military intelligence's mandate.

I would say that this was Cheney's education. Rumsfeld, I think his response was, 'let someone else deal with this.' So he sort of tried to keep out of it. But Cheney was sort of the chief manager of the White House end and if you looked through the documents that show where the White House is being asked by the CIA 'Is it OK for us to give this document or that document to the Church Committee?' all those memos are being sent to Cheney in addition to the White House's line managers for this.... Cheney and Rumsfeld are the head addressees for every one of these approval memos. So, here you've got this guy and he's in a senior political position in the White House and his interest is to protect the president, but he's exposed to a range of CIA secrets over the course of a year and the reason why he's being exposed to them is to defend the president against these charges of CIA abuse that are coming from all over the place. I think, basically, the lesson that Dick Cheney took away from that is what formed his position later on during the Iran-Contra affair, during the Gulf War and after 9/11. So, he learned from the Year of Intelligence to keep everything secret all the time.

How is the current administration handling Wikileaks and Snowden?

Let me put it this way: I conclude in that book, which by the way was completed before any of this happened, that something was going to happen and I argued that the pattern of the Year of Intelligence and the Iran-contra and Watergate and these things was similar, i.e., that when something starts, a president will work to shield the intelligence community until the point where he perceives political dangers in doing so. I think that what's happening now with the CIA and the NSA and Obama is actually precisely that, that Obama has so far protected the intelligence community, refused to prosecute anybody for the torture thing when he took office—Holder shut down those investigations, they only investigated some outside contractor guy for the CIA torture thing despite the more than 100 cases. So they protected the intelligence community, but now they're at the point where it doesn't seem possible any more. The CIA is off the reservation attacking the Congress and accusing it of stealing documents. The NSA is constantly the subject of revelations in terms of what they did, in terms of people's information. I think you're starting to see a pattern of the administration stepping back. Holder made a comment on Snowden maybe six weeks ago where he did not reject on the face of it immediately the possibility of amnesty for this person. In the subject of the CIA controversy with Congress, he said just the other day 'well, you know there's a lot of criminal referrals [that] the Department of Justice gets [that] we choose never to investigate or to prosecute, which is a suggestion that [John] Brennan's [Director of the CIA] sending to them this criminal referral against Congress is gonna bounce and that is a signal that the administration is withdrawing its support.

Are you currently working on a book? 

I'm always working on a book, sure. Right now I'm finishing a short book on special operations forces. It's got nothing to do with all this stuff we're talking about. It's sort of a 'what do you want to know about special forces' kind of a book for a series that Oxford Press is doing. I'm getting ready to write about WWII. .. I had a book a couple years ago it was called Islands of Destiny about the Solomons campaign and this thing that I'm going to start writing is basically the sequel to that.

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