Skip to main content

In 1974 former CIA officer Victor Marchetti and former State Department official John Marks published their book The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. This week I examine a file in the JFK archives that details what the CIA censored from the book, and why. I look at several categories of CIA operations that were removed from the manuscript, and examine the doublethink of information that is in the public domain still being considered classified by its parent agency.

Note:  Due to recent technical difficulties there will be no video version or transcript of this podcast.  I will endeavor to fix this in the coming weeks.


One of the more interesting parts of the CIA is the Publications Review Board or PRB. Former Agency employees who write books or screenplays or even storylines for comic books have to submit their manuscripts for review. The PRB then goes through, word by word, line by line, and decides what can and cannot be included in the finished piece of work. So, you cannot include the names or pictures of CIA officers, you can’t include details of how operations were carried out and in a lot of instances you cannot even say there was an operation.

Now, if you’re going to have a government and you’re going to have intelligence agencies then a certain amount of secrecy is necessary. Not just reasonable or justified – necessary to make the whole thing operate. But then, you look at something like the London bridge attack just before the election last year and there we had MI5 officers watching the guys load up the van and following them – presumably right up until they launched the attack, without doing anything to stop them. In such instances I really do wonder what is the point of these agencies, and if they’re accomplishing anything.

There have been plenty of complaints about the PRB from former officers, some who have waited over a year to get their manuscripts back, and often with dozens if not hundreds of deletions. This is what happened with Marks and Marchetti – the CIA came back demanded they delete 399 passages. Some of these were just a word or two in a sentence, but some were entire paragraphs or even more. As you can imagine, Marks and Marchetti were not happy, so they took the CIA to court.

Arguing passage by passage, paragraph by paragraph, the court mostly found in their favour – nearly two-thirds of the deletions were refused – leaving 168 passages where the court said the CIA had good reason to demand they be left out of the finished book. The publisher decided that the passages that had to be deleted would be left blank, so the reader could see there was additional information that had been censored by the CIA. For the sections where the CIA initially demanded they be deleted but the court said they could be published, these were printed in bold font.

As the veil of secrecy started to get peeled back by the Rockefeller Commission and particularly the Church Committee, along with the general post-Watergate climate in the US, other former CIA employees were emboldened. Several ignored the PRB’s demands and just published their books anyway, some published without even submitting their manuscripts to the PRB, like Phil Agee. Agee’s book is perhaps the greatest expose of the CIA ever written, he included dozens of secret operations including lethal black ops, and hundreds of names of CIA officers. The CIA had their revenge by throwing him out of the US, and getting most of Western Europe to refuse him entry to their countries, so he ended up living out his days in Cuba, essentially a defector.

In 1977, after these other books had been published and CIA directors had testified at the Church Committee, and other information had become public, Marks and Marchetti went back to the CIA. They asked for a re-review of the manuscript, to see which of the 168 censored passages were now declassified and could now be published in a second edition of the book.

I recently happened upon a 189 page CIA file in the JFK archives that details this re-review process, including some bits of the original manuscript showing what was censored by the PRB. It also shows the various discussions about which parts had now been declassified and could be published, which in the end was only about 13 passages, so there never was a second edition of The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. So today we’re going to look at what the CIA censored from the original book, the reasons why, and what all this means.


We will start with media and propaganda operations that were censored from The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. I picked these first because, as observed by Cambridge Analytica employees, propaganda only works if the audience don’t recognise it as such. Though I’m not sure that’s strictly true, it is broadly and generally true.

The CIA is not supposed to operate within the US, except in certain limited respects. So they didn’t want any references to a TV station in Jordan called RTV Inc, which was run by a CIA front company in New York. Front companies are one of the main ways covert organisations of all kinds get round certain legal problems and limitations.

There are quite a lot of references to RTV in the CIA file, because there were multiple references to it in the original draft of the book. One memo says that the information about RTV describes intelligence sources and methods of operations in Jordan, and is therefore still classified. Further down, another reference in the manuscript describes methods of operations ‘targeted against Egypt’ and hence was still classified.

A memo summing up the comments from the Covert Action staff on the 168 passages lists several items that remain classified, saying:

Specifically, these items name RTV, Inc. and describe it as a CIA proprietary that was used for clandestine operations in a variety of countries. In addition, items 55 and 56 are especially sensitive because they describe an opera— tion in Jordan, exposure of which could be harmful to United States relations in the Middle East.

Items 55 and 56 refer to operations against Egypt, so this isn’t just about Operational Security or OPSEC, it’s about politics in the here and now. Another of the items that was censored is included later in the file, with copies of some pages from the original manuscript. It describes RTV as an attempt to counter the influence of Radio Cairo, how the CIA funded the entire TV station and their front company in New York, also called RTV, ‘provided the technical expertise and management skills to put the station in operation’.

Another memo from the Covert Action Staff refers to CIA subsidies of various French and African magazines, which were published by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organisation partly funded by and deeply tied to the CIA. The memo notes how some of these publications had been the subject of press speculation tying them to the Agency, but none of the passages referring to any of them could be considered declassified.

It also notes how, ‘it is our understanding that French laws prohibit covert foreign subsidies to French publications, which makes it especially important to protect the former CIA tie to that magazine. Exposure of the two Africa magazines would be damaging to a number of prominent people and organizations in this country and in Africa that have worked for improved social conditions in Africa and for good relations between this country and Africa, which would be harmful to this country’s relations with Africa.’

However, another memo from the Chief of the European Division recorded how information about CIA funding to Encounter magazine had been released under the Freedom of Information Act. Despite this they considered that the passages about Encounter should remain classified and unpublishable.

Continuing this theme of information that is somewhat publicly known, or at least known to people outside of the Agency, still being considered classified comes a memo from the Near East Division. The CIA’s Covert Action Staff are separated into different divisions concerned with different geographical areas, so the different parts of the book concerned with different parts of the world were sent to different divisions. Most of the file consists of their assessments and responses.

The memo says, ‘Reference to CIA sponsorship of Forum World Features is still classified SECRET because both items describe intelligence sources and methods and identifies operations based in England. Forum World Features was referred to but not by name – in Book I of the Church Committee Final Report, page 199 – as follows: “Another example of the damages of ‘fallout’ involved two proprietary news services that the CIA maintained in Europe. The larger of the two was subscribed to by over thirty US newspapers. In an effort to reduce the problem of fallout, the CIA made a senior official at the major U.S. dailies aware that the CIA controlled these two press services.” While Forum World Features was not named in the Senate report and therefore continues to be protected, it is possible that CIA disclosure to newspaper editors may be considered as “official public disclosure”.’

This gets into the distinction between domestic PR and foreign propaganda, because under the law and the CIA’s charter they can do both, but they can’t do domestic propaganda. This is a problem when domestic news outlets subscribe to your overseas propaganda outfit, and cite your propaganda in their domestic news coverage. The Church Committee revealed how the CIA reached out to senior officials at the major news outlets to make them aware of this, to try to limit the amount of their foreign propaganda that found its way back into the US news coverage.

However, does the fact that they told newspaper editors that they were running Forum World Features (and another foreign press service) as propaganda outfits constitute declassification? The memo isn’t entirely clear, though this passage isn’t among the handful that the CIA did decide was declassified, so I guess even telling a newspaper editor something doesn’t count as putting it in the public domain.

Political Operations

Another set of operations revealed in Marks and Marchetti’s original draft but censored by the CIA concerned their involvement in politics. The Agency file notes how one redacted passage discusses political subsidies to Italian political parties – the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. While there’s no reference to Gladio, this appears to have been aimed at splitting off these parties from the Italian Community Party, the main target for Gladio operations in Italy. Naturally, this was considered still classified and unpublishable.

Another problem was information about the CIA support to the Dalai Lama, which was mentioned in the original draft, censored, but then referred to by another former CIA officer Harry Rositzke, who ignored the PRB’s demands and published anyway. A memo from the Near East division says that even though Rositzke published more details than the brief passage censored from Marchetti’s book, the Marchetti passage was still classified. Incidentally, Rositzke’s book talks about a CIA-trained radio operator being alongside the Dalai Lama when he fled from Tibet, keeping Washington updated about his progress in real-time.

Then there is the bribery of the President of Cyprus. In the 1960s the new president, Archishop Makarios, wasn’t a big fan of the CIA and the Pentagon’s (i.e. the NSA’s) massive listening posts on the island, which were vital to the US global surveillance network. According to the original manuscript, ‘The View in the intelligence ccmmunity was that Makarios had to be mollified at practically all costs.’

So government negotiators were sent in and negotiated a payment of $10 million dollars – a hell of a bribe in the 1960s – in return for allowing the bases to remain on Cyprus. The CIA put up half of the money using the ‘Director’s Contingency Fund’, a secret slush fund for this sort of thing. In another censored passage the book talks about the CIA providing millions in ‘black bag’ funds to the President of South Vietnam. The CIA is obviously awash with dirty money and untraceable funding.

When it came to the CIA’s involvement in the Congo things were a little more complicated. The Church Committee had referenced the Congo as one of several countries where the CIA were involved in a covert action. So the fact of the CIA’s presence in the country was not still a classified secret in 1977, but as a CIA memo says:

It may be argued therefore that to agree to declassification of the reference to the Congo would have the effect of singling out the Congo in the Third World as an alleged target of CIA operations, This would have an adverse effect on our relations with the government of Zaire.

The problem was that the Church Committee listed the Congo among several nations, including Cambodia and Vietnam, where the CIA had a covert presence. The fear was that singling out the Congo, as Marchetti’s book did, would damage the relationship with the government of the country, now renamed Zaire. Though another memo to the Deputy Director for Operations says:

‘What adverse effect could be expected now by another public reference to CIA presence in-the Congo as of the original 1974 publication date of the Marchetti/Marks book, is difficult to comprehend. Since the government of Zaire has not changed since the 1975 release of the information by the Church Committee, it would seem that whatever effects there might be have already occurred.’

Nonetheless, this passage is among those listed by the Africa division as still classified and therefore censored from publication. So even after information is listed in a Senate report into CIA covert activities, that same information is still considered classified for political reasons.

Black Operations and Surveillance

Saving some of the best for last, we’ve got surveillance and black operations. One figure that comes up repeatedly in the book is Bob X, described as ‘one of these ordinary looking people who mow their lawn, love their wives, and do some very nasty things for the CIA.’ He worked for FI/D, which I think must be the Foreign Intelligence Division.

One story about Bob X concerns the US ambasador to Iran Armin Meyer, who was in the position from 1965-69. The CIA didn’t trust him, so Bob basically tapped the cables sent between the US embassy in Tehran and the State Department in Washington. A censored passage of the book reads:

But Bob and his cohorts at FI/D were one step ahead of Ambassador Meyer. They had figured out a way to intercept his cables and the replies he received from Washington. Shortly after each State message was sent, Bob wodld appear in the CIA executive suite with a copy of the message for the personal inspection of the Director. written on top of each intercepted cable was a warning that the contents of the cable should be kept especially confident because State was unaware that the CIA had a copy.

Bob X was also involved in a scheme with a ‘certain South American government’ where they worked out a liaison arrangement to help the country decode messages sent by other countries in the region. However, FI/D took advantage of this to intercept the secret communications of the host country’s government. This went on for years before relations between the US and the country went sour.

Not to be deterred, Bob came up with the idea of having the CIA help the country obtain a channel in the international satellite communications network, Comsat. He didn’t explain why they were doing this so it officially got knocked back, as ‘the CIA aren’t the US foreign aid program’. The guy who opposed the plan later found out that Bob had negotiated with the country a deal in which liaison over decryption would be restored in return for the country getting its own Comsat channel (which the CIA would intercept). Another censored paragraph comments:

Eventually, the South American country received the Comsat channel; the country restored liaison with FI/D; and CIA again had access to all of that country’s secret messages.

My favourite story – and I had never heard this anywhere before – that was cut out of the book by the CIA concerns their attempts to spy on a Chinese missile base and testing facility. Initially they built a nuclear-powered remote monitoring station which had to be placed 25,000 feet up in the Himalayas so it had direct line of sight down into China. The Indian government not only agreed, but were enthusiastic and fully participated in this plot.

So a CIA officer, the famous mountaineer Ben Bishop, a group of Indian mountaineers and a few Sherpas got together, and cover was provided by leaking a story that an Indian-American group were attempting to scale one of the more difficult routes up the mountain. They set off and had no end of problems, particularly when the Indian contingent started complaining that they were carrying too much weight. They eventually get up the hill and install the nuclear-powered spy station and get down again.

Within a few months it stopped working, and a spy plane showed that it had been knocked over by a snow slide, as you might expect. So they set off up the hill again to recover the equipment and set up another monitoring station, which was accomplished fairly easily though they couldn’t find the atomic generator from the first station. The Indian government found out, and were worried about contamination of the Ganges river, which flows from the Himalayas. Though the book says they were worried about ‘spiritual pollution, not ecological’. After only a few weeks the second monitoring station stopped working.

So the bright ideas department came up with another winner – a nuclear powered micro drone the size of a condor. Why not? What could possibly go wrong? This was after considering and rejecting other ludicrous plans. One called for a single agent with a small plane packed into two suitcases to infiltrate into the country and attempt to spy on the base and then use the plane to escape. Another idea was to drop a spy station shaped like a rocket that would pierce into the ground and then collect data from the missile site nearby, before relaying it to a plane circling overhead. The clever people behind this plan were, according to the book, ‘oblivious to the dangers involved in secretly flying near a Chinese missile installation and dropping an object in an action that could quite easily appear to a startled radar operator as a lone bomber engaging in a surprise nuclear attack.’

So they spent millions of dollars developing a ‘baby U-2’ nuclear-powered drone, which they thought was a good idea because it had no pilot, so if it got shot down there’d be no one to confess to being a CIA spy, like with Gary Powers. The problem of flaming nuclear material raining down on the Chinese countryside, or on the missile installation, doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone. By the time this plan got anywhere near ready it had been superceded by spy satellites, rendering the whole thing a massive waste of time and money.

There are other examples, but that’s enough for one day I’m sure. All of these things were censored from the original manuscript, and then censored again when the CIA re-reviewed the 168 items a few years later. Repeatedly there is this ambiguity where just because a former employee published something in a book or said something in a speech, or even when a director told a news reporter something, it didn’t count as official declassification. The result was that some facts that were widespread public knowledge were still considered classified.

Which begs the question, just because these facts I’ve outlined today are now in the public domain thanks to the publishing of the JFK files, are they still classified? Could I get into trouble for making this podcast?

The doublethink inherent in how secret services censor their own history is almost exhausting to try to to untangle, but I’ll give it a go. You cannot, realistically, hope to absolutely control the flow of information. The main problem is former employees – as former employees they have the ability to say or write things that the Agency cannot hope to completely control, even with the ability to sue them after the fact. They have the same knowledge they had when they were employees, they are the same people, and as such some leaks are inevitable.

Therefore, the only practical strategy is to try to maintain the illusion of authority – that leaks by former employees are not as reliable or somehow are less true and important than official statements by the Agency. Thus, even if the agency in question – whether it be the CIA, KGB, MI6, Mossad, whoever – don’t say much in public, what they do say commands much more attention and authority. Or so they hope. By acknowledging that they are still inside the secret knowledge gold circle club they appear more authoritative than people who’ve left that club and are blowing the whistle. They have to concede something to maintain their authority.

Knowledge is power, supposedly. But if that’s true, why are there so many pig-ignorant politicians? Because the true seats of power are the most secretive parts of the government, not the photo-opportunity-addicted philanderers we see on TV. The bad news is that in deriving their power from secrecy, while developing means to reduce our privacy to a fraction of what we once had, they have a strong position. The good news is that to maintain their authority they have had to step out of the shadows to a significant degree, and this provides new angles from which to attack them in the ongoing intelligence war.