The Rest of CREST
To celebrate the release of the CIA’s CREST database, we’ll be doing a daily deep dive into the weirdest corners of the Agency’s history.
Image via CIA’s Flickr
In 1985, citing concerns regarding “difficulty determining what has been publicly disclosed,” the CIA had a truly great idea that would serve both the Agency and the public’s interest in government transparency - a “proposal to establish a focal point to record CIA information released to the public.” The resulting Officially Released Information System, or ORIS, would take years to finally implement, and thanks to a recent FOIA, it might finally become the transparency tool it has the potential to be.
One of the dilemmas of reading declassified documents is that readers are constantly faced with the question of whether or not to take the exemptions at face value - after all, CIA redacts beer brands and cafeteria names while claiming to “protect sources and methods.” Doing so erodes faith in the Agency’s choices to redact certain pieces of information, creating a situation where one of two possibilities are likely: that the CIA chose to improperly redact information to protect itself from embarrassment regarding improper activities, or that some of those activities are still seen as at least potentially valid.
In 1982, former CIA Director Richard Helms was approached by Dragnet creator Jack Webb about a possible TV show regarding the Agency. Like Dragnet, which, it would focus on realism, and would be at least inspired by, if not based on, events that had happened.
The “friendly” rivalry between America’s East and West Coasts extends from hip-hop feuds to pizza bagels, and recently unearthed memos regarding California champagne from the CIA’s declassified archive shows that even the Agency isn’t immune.
A decade after Congresswoman Abzug had struggled with CIA Director George Bush over the destruction of evidence of CIA wrongdoing, the Agency’s Office of the Inspector General ignored the moratorium on destruction of relevant materials and destroyed several memos from the Iran-Contra investigation. When this was raised with the Agency’s Acting Director, it was played off as no big deal and the employees were praised for responding “remarkably well” to the investigation.
Police psychics have so saturated popular culture that the concept borders on the cliche. There was a time, however, when the Department of Justice took the matter very seriously - not only were instances reported of the police using psychics, there were studies on the matter, and even guidance issued by the DOJ.
A pair of declassified memos from January 4, 1975 reveal just how contentious things were in the lead-up to the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee, with recent exposés having rocked the American public’s faith in the government, already strained by the still-fresh memories of Watergate, and undermined CIA’s legitimacy.
A video produced by Stanford as part of its government funded research into psychic phenomena alleged to show Uri Geller performing various psychic and extrasensory feats. While some in the Agency were “humbled” by the film, others were quick to declare it ordinary trickery from a con artist using techniques from stage magic and mentalist.
A memo from the CIA’s declassified archive shows the Agency’s strong interest - and subsequent disillusionment - in investing in a device that purportedly warded off sharks with electric shocks.
Declassified CIA docs on Reagan’s “Star Wars” strategy show difficult balance between projecting power - and projecting too much power
Searching the CIA’s declassified document database for documents on the Cold War missile defense program nicknamed “Star Wars” shows that the Agency kept a close watch on public perception, but was wary of Soviets thinking that the program was too powerful - which might lead to an uptick in hostilities.
When J. Edgar Hoover forced William “Bill” Sullivan, the Bureau’s domestic intelligence chief, into retirement he set into motion a chain reaction which nearly forced him into retirement as well.
A formerly SECRET CIA memo found in the Kissinger archives shows the Agency’s lawyers arguing that they should consider dropping “the myth of presidential plausible deniability.”
In August 1970, J. Edgar Hoover discovered an apparent plan of the Soviet Union’s to buy an apartment building - and he knew they had to be stopped. The building, Highview Towers, was located next to the site of the future Soviet Embassy and was the only building in the area that would enable to the government to conduct surveillance operations. The result was a last-second rush by the Nixon Administration to purchase the building.
Soviet scientists joked that somebody had made a “political decision” to end UFO sightings in the USSR
Mostly redacted CIA records capture a rare Cold War commiseration between American and Soviet meteorologists over weather balloons being mistaken for aliens.
A formerly SECRET memo from the White House shows that not longer after Seymour Hersh published an expose in the New York Times about the domestic operations of CIA, President Ford met James Schlesinger, the Secretary of Defense and former CIA Director to discuss the allegations. When asked about the Agency’s role in Watergate, Schlesinger confessed “there is a layer in the Agency which you can never really find out what is going on.”
A unexpected fringe benefit of the CIA’s release of its declassified archive is the treasure trove of comic strips - mostly concerning the Agency’s activities - contained therein.
According to declassified meeting minutes from 1972 and an old article saved by CIA, the Agency’s Office of Medical Services had a drug abuse booth “originally created by CIA doctors for parents who work for the agency” - including a sniffable bag of “pseudo-marijuana.”
On April 20, 1995, just one day after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the received a tip from the unlikeliest source - Dr. Ed May, head of the CIA’s research into psychic phenomenon. May claimed one of his remote viewers had a lead on the people responsible: five Arab men and somebody named Carl.
During his Presidency, Jimmy Carter made a number of moves to nudge the federal government towards environmental friendly practices. One of these was a request that all executive agencies and departments begin recycling paper in accordance with EPA guidelines. For the CIA, and presumably other intelligence agencies, this posed some unexpected problems - as well as a valuable opportunity.
In the 1970s, various government agencies were asked to look into the feasibility of using recycled paper. When the request was received at the CIA, the Agency responded with a list of reasons why that wasn’t such a great idea.
We’ve written about the CIA’s frustrations with its cafeteria before, with grievances both petty and the stuff of nightmares. But as internal records unearthed in CREST reveal, at least once that frustration exploded into a full-on mealtime melee.
Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is the least famous, least exciting, and most prevalent form of intelligence, covering any sources that are theoretically open to anyone, such as newspaper articles, published books, or social media posts. With the ubiquity of the internet, the use of such commercial databases is beyond routine for both the Intelligence Community and the government at large, but there was a time, however, where the mere interest was not only cutting edge, but problematic.
Memo shows Kissinger and Rumsfeld in damage control mode following revelation of CIA domestic activities
In late December 1974, the New York Times published an article reporting a massive set of CIA operations conducted domestically and targeting American citizens. A memo marked CONFIDENTIAL in the Kissinger archives shows that Henry Kissinger and White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld were planning a public response to the article’s allegations almost immediately.
In 1951, the federal government began paying increased attention to emergency planning, both for natural disasters, warfare or even invasion of the United States. This included a plan to provide for short-term emergency funds for critical agencies like the CIA.
In 1976 and again in 1977, the Justice Department decided not to prosecute anyone for the CIA’s illegal surveillance and mail openings. The report issued in 1977 reveals the Justice Department’s highly flawed reasons, including claims that prosecution would not serve to prevent such questionable or outright illegal surveillance from happening again - ironically setting the stage for modern surveillance programs.
In 1983, cybermania would grip the nation: The movie WarGames is released over the summer, becoming a blockbuster hit for the time and intriguing President Ronald Reagan enough to summon his closest advisors to help study emerging cyberthreats and ultimately pass the first directive on cybersecurity. But according to declassified documents, made fully public thanks to MuckRock’s lawsuit, one intelligence agency made a hard pass on the computer craze.
Kissinger and the CIA discussed ways to limit Congressional access to information regarding the Agency’s activities
Leaks from the government and even Congress itself are nothing new. As shown by a declassified memo describing a meeting between Henry Kissinger and CIA Director William Colby, these concerns were among the very ones facing the White House, the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee in the mid-1970s. Topics included NSA spying on Americans, selectively leaking less damaging info, and how much blame could be shifted to the FBI.
In 1963, back when it was still known as the *Washington Post and Times-Herald,” DC’s paper of record profiled four teams in the local slow-pitch softball league. Unbeknownst to the author, one of those teams would go on to take home the trophy, and even more unbeknownst was that they’d be taking it home to Langley, as they were CIA’s official team.
While getting the cold shoulder from the FBI might had ended the CIA’s formal involvement in the Alaskan Stay-Behind plan, declassified documents show that several years later the Agency was looking at the Cold War contingency as a learning opportunity - particular in regards to burying weapons caches.
While the FBI’s Stay-Behind network in Alaska has been previously explored - including how it was partially driven to spite the CIA - the Agency’s role in the Cold War contingency has largely been kept secret. Previously classified records reveal that the military specifically sought to get the CIA involved in the earliest months of the program.
In early 1983, FBI agent Don Levy went to the CIA’s Polygraph Training School to deliver a speech on “Terrorism in the U.S.,” with a large focus on violent unrest in Puerto Rico. A copy of the speech, released through CREST, gives us new insight into the history of FBI’s counterterrorism views and approaches - recognizing the U.S.’ role in fostering terrorism, if not its responsibility.
In most professions, all it takes to form an after-work bowling league is an overly long email chain and some beer money. As a declassified memo unearthed in CREST shows, in the CIA, it’s a lot more complicated. Like, “cover story and security briefing” complicated.
An unclassified excerpt from the DIA parapsychological monograph on “Soviet Offensive Behavior” from 1972 outlines some of the Agency’s fears over reports of Soviet psychic abilities - specifically, “Telepathic Hypnosis.” The section claims that Soviets had managed to telepathically put people to sleep and wake them up from over a thousand miles away, with Kotkov, a star Soviet psychologist, able to “telepathically obliterate an experimental subject’s consciousness.”
A few years after the Nixon administration first re-opened communication with the People’s Republic of China, the CIA found itself having to field persistent requests from the Navy to enlist Kissinger’s help in substantiating rumors that the Soviets had deployed a laser weapon against the PRC.
In 1981, CIA’s Director of Public Affairs took exception with newspapers reporting that Frank Sturgis was a former CIA employee - such a problem, in fact, that he wrote to the editors of several newspapers to try to issue a correction. There was just one problem: recently declassified records show that it was the truth.
As CIA Director, George Bush waffled on promise to not destroy records of Agency’s illegal activities
Declassified records recently unearthed in CREST show the CIA waffled on a promise to obey the law in not destroying records of Agency’s illegal activities and wrongdoing
When Ronald Reagan signed the controversial Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 into law, he did so with panache, holding the ceremony at CIA HQ. Before an assembled crowd of friendly members of the Intelligence Community, Reagan felt comfortable enough to start with what he called “an ethnic joke:” the one about Murphy the spy.
The Senate’s final report on Iran-Contra showed extent to which the investigation had been stonewalled
While some of the inherent problems in the Tower Commission, such as Senator Tower’s conflict of interest and family ties to CIA, have been documented, the fact is that none of the government’s investigations into the matter were able to proceed without obstruction. The final report on Iran-Contra, which has rarely been seen but was found in the CREST archive, makes this explicitly clear.
In 1988, as part of the Agency’s ongoing research into weaponized ESP, CIA psychics were tasked with identifying a photo of a famous individual inside of an opaque folder. That individual was Albert Einstein. The individual they came up was a moody hippie pharmacist named Alfer Aferman.
In early December 1981, the CIA was preparing to go before a Senate Judiciary Committee with the goal of adding additional restrictions to FOIA. A memo released through CREST shows that there were concerns that in making its case, the CIA might overshare the nature of its work, which would lead to leaks, embarrassment, and even worse, a call for stronger transparency laws.
A memo in the CREST database shows that 30 years ago, an as-yet still redacted incident prompted the CIA and NSA to have a meeting about ways the agencies could prevent computer hackers from infiltrating the government’s data.
Back when it was still just Women’s History Week, the CIA decided to commemorate the occasion with a day-long symposium on “the role of women in intelligence,” including a brief history lesson on pivotal female spies. Harriet Tubman made top billing.
In late 1989, the Rockefeller family faced an unusual dilemma: they wanted to give a barn away. For most people with their money and resources, this would be a relatively minor headache, but for the Rockefellers, the problem was a bit more complicated - inside the barn was a vault, which contained locked file cabinets that were filled with classified information, some belonging to the CIA.
In 1980, it appeared to activists as if a small bit of progress was finally being made in the push for LGBT civil rights, with the Democratic Party becoming the first major political party to endorse a gay-rights platform. That same year, the CIA appears to have released a three-page memorandum on how to recognize and ferret out homosexuals during investigations, perhaps for the purposes of blackmail.
In October of 1982, the CIA’s crack team of psychics set their second sights on New Orleans, to catch the city in the height of bacchanalian revelry. What they got were squiggles. A lot of squiggles.
The annual Bilderberg Conference is shrouded in nearly as much mystery as CIA itself, with a number of conspiracy theories that seeing these meetings of the elite as where the strings of the world are pulled. Mike Best reviewed references to Bilderberg in the CREST archive, and while there weren’t many, they were enlightening.
CIA memos shows that nearly a decade after scandal forced the Counterintelligence Chief into early retirement, the Agency and the President’s advisors were still seeking the counsel of the legendary James Angleton.
A classified government document warns of the possibility of psychics nuking cities so that they became lost in time and space. If this sounds like a plot out of science fiction, it is - but it’s also an NSA memo from 1977.
While most people with an interest in the history of CIA will have heard of “Operation Mockingbird,” which weaponized the press for propaganda purposes through the “Office of Policy Coordination,” there is another side to program that’s much less well-known. A declassified memo from 1965 reveals a network of journalists that regularly received intelligence from Ray S. Cline, one of CIA’s senior analysts and at that time the Deputy Director of the Directorate of Intelligence.
In the early ’70s, in the wake of ongoing controversy in Vietnam and increased public scrutiny, the CIA found itself facing a morale crisis. And as records released through CREST reveal, the Agency turned to a solution that should be familiar to anybody who’s worked in an office environment - a mandatory corporate retreat.
Buried in the STARGATE section of the CREST release is a letter from Congressman Charlie Rose, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Evaluation, regarding the Intelligence Community’s psychic program. Although short, the letter highlights a concern that was to be repeated by many outside of government for decades - that the program was part of CIA “mind control” activities, where in some cases “the rights of individuals were violated.”
The sudden showdown between longtime President Marcos and Corazon Aquino, widow of an outspoken critic, had the Agency anxious for a result they couldn’t predict.
While a CIA’s CREST database entry enticingly entitled CLARIFYING STATEMENT TO FIDEL CASTRO CONCERNING ASSASSINATION turned out to be nothing more salacious than a Barbara Walters interview, included in the same file is something you’ll never believe, reader, but it’s true - a letter from Penthouse.
The now-infamous Remote Viewing program run by the U.S. Army during the Carter and Reagan years was one of the U.S. government’s most extreme examples of magical thinking. Under the impression that psychic powers might aid the American war effort, individuals were recruited to attempt long-distance exploration of enemy offices and operations. Art skills, apparently, were not a requirement.
Between 1975 and 1976, Senator Frank Church carried out a televised campaign to reign in the U.S. intelligence community. The “Church Committee,“ as it was later known, held hundreds of hearings, published hundreds of pages of reports, and revealed some of the CIA, NSA, and FBI’s most sinister and illegal plots. Now, internal documents released in the recent CREST deluge reveal that even after his 1984 death, Frank Church was still trolling the CIA.
A considerable chunk of the CIA’s declassified archives consists of newspaper and magazine clippings. Some are stories relevant to Agency interest, others - typically critical - concern the CIA directly, and then there’s the ones that don’t immediately make sense - like cookie recipes.
Documents released through the CIA’s CREST archive offer new insights into American psychic spy programs. These documents claim specific successes by both the American and Russian/Soviet programs, as well as outline fears of a widening “psychic gap.”
Planning materials for the CIA’s 40th anniversary celebration released as part of the CREST database include a list of potential party themes and slogans. And while most of them are fairly straightforward, a few - like “We Have Met The Enemy, And He Is Still There” - stand out as downright bizarre.
In a 1981 letter to an unidentified Ambassador, former CIA Director Willam Casey thanked him for the surprise gift of two cases of beer. If you’re wondering what kind of beer gets you on a spook’s good side, keep wondering - the brand is redacted on “confidential source” grounds.
One of the gems uncovered so far amid the 13 million pages of declassified CIA records released this week is a list of Soviet jokes prepared for the Agency’s Deputy Director. One joke in particular, poking fun at Ronald Reagan, stands out - and apparently, Reagan agreed, working it into his “stories from Russia” routine.
Kel McClanahan, the lawyer who represented MuckRock in our lawsuit against the CIA, outlines the three-year fight to get the agency to release its declassified database — and all the excuses the agency used for why it couldn’t be done.
Back in December, we wrote about how the CIA, in response to our lawsuit and Mike Best’s diligence, would be placing its previously-inaccessible CREST database online. Today, we’re happy to announce that all 25 years worth of declassified documents are now available - no trip to the National Archives required.