Inside the CIA Family Jewels

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In 1974, The CIA Family Jewels uncovered a program of illegal domestic surveillance, detention, and interrogation.
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"The Family Jewels," from John Prados, shows the frightening scope of domestic surveillance and the importance of open government.

The Family Jewels(University of Texas Press, 2013) documents an era of illegal domestic surveillance and programs of detention, interrogation, and political spying conducted by the CIA. In 1974, a top-secret document, named “The Family Jewels” by insiders who understood its importance to the CIA, became ground zero in a political maelstrom that became known as the Year of Intelligence. Author John Prados, a senior fellow of the National Security Archive, looks back at this time, and shows how key actors of these events continued their clandestine practices well into the 21st century. This excerpt from the introduction shows how the recent release of the CIA Family Jewels through the Freedom of Information Act spurred new insight into these remarkable documents.

The CIA Family Jewels and a Call for Open Government

In June of 2007 the mailman brought a large package to the National Security Archive, a public interest group that works for open government by advocating freedom of information and pressing for release of the sealed records of the United States government, which are then made available in several forms to anyone who is interested in them. The package contained a newly declassified document, a copy of the notorious Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) compilation called “The Family Jewels.” This material was explosive because it described abuses—illegal domestic activities carried out by the CIA over a period of decades. Agency insiders aware of its sensitivity dubbed the collection “The Family Jewels.” Revelation of some of its contents in the New York Times late in 1974 had ignited a firestorm of criticism in the United States, which in turn led to a series of investigations of intelligence activities by a presidential commission plus committees of both houses of the U.S. Congress. Those investigations progressed throughout the next year—and 1975 has come down in history as the “Year of Intelligence” in the United States.

The existence of the CIA Family Jewels documents—the original is really a compilation of items—had become known at the time but had forever been shrouded in secrecy. In 1991 the Archive filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for declassification of The Family Jewels. The CIA denied the request, the Archive appealed, and the agency finally relented. Thus the package that arrived at the National Security Archive’s front desk. We knew the significance of the Family Jewels documents from the storm of media coverage that followed. Archive director Thomas Blanton and I—as the senior fellow most knowledgeable on intelligence matters—spent literally seventy-two hours doing back-to-back interviews with print and broadcast journalists from all over the United States and dozens of foreign outlets spanning the globe from Latin America to Europe to Asia. The CIA itself, in the person of General Michael V. Hayden, its then-director, showed up at a conference of diplomatic historians to take credit for releasing The Family Jewels—as if this had been its idea, not the result of hard-fought pursuit of an FOIA case for nearly two decades.

The National Security Archive posted the Family Jewels documents on our website along with introductory material, plus an index that I compiled from the material. We wanted to do more. The first idea was for a document reader. Examination of the actual contents of The Family Jewels revealed them to be quite disappointing: we could see that a host of other materials?long-released documents, the CIA’s own papers—describe the abuses covered in The Family Jewels in much greater depth. But our idea for an expanded reader that melded the Jewels with this other material became lost in the press of other business.

The “Family Jewels” compilation proved as explosive as it was not for its actual contents but because of the real abuses that underlay this sparse reporting. Its impact was demonstrable in the flurry of investigations that followed the press revelation. That season of inquiry took its course and led to creation of the system of formal intelligence oversight that exists in the United States today. However, the issue of abuse in intelligence activities has not gone away in the years since 1975, and in the first decade of this century it mushroomed with the excesses of President George W. Bush’s war on terror. It was and still is important to engage with this problem if there is to be public confidence in the intelligence activities conducted by a democratic nation. It came to me that “The Family Jewels” really serves as a metaphor: Family Jewels designate a certain category of operations, ones that become sensitive as exuberance exceeds proper boundaries. Family Jewels are eternal. Only their specific content changes over time. I retrieved my notes and documents from the original project, and the result you see before you.

The Family Jewels is not the story of the Year of Intelligence. My aims are broader than that. Its core is also not a review of the investigations themselves—although interactions between investigators, spooks, and presidential emissaries are central to the narrative. Nor is this book about the CIA documents known as The Family Jewels, although evidence from those figures in what is presented here. Rather, this tale begins with the sudden revelation of CIA domestic operations—the original Family Jewels—and continues through White House efforts to craft a response. The narrative then describes certain intelligence activities. The focus is the Jewels—the operations, the spooks who conducted them, the efforts to uncover them, the politicos who ordered them or attempted to stymie inquiry. Finally, the focus settles on the techniques the CIA and other intelligence agencies have used to protect their image. All of this is based on real records. None of it is made up. Viewed as a whole, the resulting picture of the Family Jewels in play is stunning.

This is the story of an attitude, a private presumption of superiority based on the possession of secret, and supposedly superior, knowledge. That attitude led dedicated and conscientious men and women to reach too far, do too much, and dispense with limits to follow misguided orders. Their cohorts worked equally assiduously to prevent the public from learning what was happening. The result is the creation of Family Jewels?legal and political time bombs, which can lie dormant for years or even decades, but which eventually explode with a force that not only ends careers but can threaten institutions and even governments. These are the real Family Jewels. Individually, the epics each have their discrete details, but the trajectories of the histories become disturbingly familiar. For the sake of proper governance, it is necessary to shine a spotlight on the Family Jewels.

In the intelligence business the standard response to revelations is to invoke national security and appeal to responsible people not to touch the emergent scandal for fear of damaging important interests. The argument here is that the true damage to the nation is wrought by the operations themselves—and by efforts to evade investigation of them. The attempt to prevent public knowledge, suppress inquiry, and avoid accountability harms essential elements of the system for oversight and control—and ultimately public confidence in the enterprise. Evasion corrodes the legal framework erected to govern intelligence activities—which protects the agencies themselves—and it undermines the political support necessary when issues of growth, reform, or mission require forging a fresh consensus. Evasion subverts internal morale by creating cleavages that divide officers implicated in abusive activities from those who follow the rules, and by throwing factions of rank-and-file and management into what is fundamentally a conspiracy, sometimes to obstruct justice, other times simply to avoid responsibility. Depending on the provenance of the original operations, evasion also pulls other institutions—whether different intelligence units, the Justice Department, or the White House—into the obstruction conspiracy. The political dangers are real. What is false is the idea that activities cannot be scrutinized.

In a democracy the rule of law is central. This creates special tensions with respect to intelligence activities, which by nature work to the edge of or beyond the law. That makes public confidence vital. The uneasy relationship between secret agencies and public order requires that intelligence maintains the highest standards of discipline and accountability. Anything that challenges public confidence is harmful.

Two points are axiomatic. First, the potential for abuse is perennial. Intelligence covers a global range of concerns, and it utilizes a broad spectrum of methods. Political, military, social, and even economic concerns change over time and drive demands for action. Events alter previous perceptions of the state of nature. Presidents demand countervailing efforts. Directors devise projects. Operational logic can push projects across boundaries. The combination of purpose and circumstance leaves original goals behind. Thus are Jewels created. The Family Jewels illustrates this by taking a range of the abuses of the 1970s as archetypes, detailing the operations, and then showing how the same kind of activity has been replicated. Authorities sought different purposes in the later operations, they were conducted for the most part by different individuals, and the regulatory regime changed and tightened, but still the projects crossed the line.

Equally important, the temptation to avoid scrutiny has remained a constant. Both presidents and agencies succumbed. Here the narrative explores the efforts of several presidents and their intelligence agencies to prevent, curtail, or outflank investigations of Family Jewels as they are revealed. As part of this exploration I devote significant attention to the CIA’s use of the media, not, as usually conceived, for such purposes as disguising agents, but as tool and object to be manipulated for the purpose of controlling knowledge?and not in foreign countries. A related subject, the CIA’s creation and use of an apparatus to manage what its own employees can write about their experiences, is also treated in considerable detail. Manipulations of the record are made in the name of national security but in practice serve political and institutional goals.

Excerpt from The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power by John Prados (Copyright © 2013 by John Prados) used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit

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