WASHINGTON -- After fighting to keep them secret for more than three decades, the CIA released hundreds of documents yesterday that catalog some of the most egregious intelligence abuses of the Cold War, including assassination plots against foreign leaders and illegal efforts to spy on Americans.
The records are part of a trove of jealously guarded documents long known within the agency as "the family jewels." Assembled in the early 1970s as part of an internal probe of potentially embarrassing or illegal activities, the records were subsequently turned over to Congress, prompting multiple investigations and sweeping intelligence reforms.
The records were ordered released by CIA Director Michael V. Hayden as part of what he characterized as an effort to close an embarrassing chapter in the agency's history.
The documents serve as "reminders of some things the CIA should not have done," Hayden said in remarks to the agency's workers yesterday. "The documents truly do provide a glimpse of a very different era and a very different agency."
Many of the episodes detailed in the 693 pages of newly declassified text read like relics from another era, including the elaborate attempts by the CIA to enlist Mafia operatives to poison Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
But others seem remarkably relevant today.
The documents describe secret CIA holding cells and the possibly illegal detention of a suspected Soviet spy who was held without trial at a CIA facility in Maryland for years before it was determined that he was a legitimate defector.
They also document plans to eavesdrop on international phone calls of U.S. residents and aggressive efforts to root out leaks of classified information to reporters.
The records that were released are incomplete, with dozens of pages blacked out by CIA censors. One memo that lists the most damaging secrets contained in "the family jewels" is missing the first paragraph.
A separate memo that is supposed to summarize the "unusual activities" of the CIA's domestic branch includes just three intact paragraphs followed by 17 blank pages.
The records that are complete do not appear to contain major revelations of CIA misdeeds, but they provide extensive new detail from internal CIA accounts on episodes that have occupied Cold War historians for decades.
Most of the records are memos written by agency officials in response to a 1973 order from then-CIA Director James Schlesinger for employees to report activities they thought might violate the CIA's charter.
Arguably the most exceptional operation detailed is a plot to enlist known organized crime figures to assassinate Castro in the early 1960s.
Although the machinations were uncovered more than 35 years ago, the newly released reports show that the CIA director at the time, Allen W. Dulles, "was briefed and gave his approval" to the operation.
According to a five-page memo, a private investigator contracted by the CIA worked directly with Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana to come up with the assassination plan. In an almost comical aside, the CIA only realized it was dealing with Giancana after an employee subsequently saw his photo in a most-wanted listing in Parade magazine.
The records also shed extensive light on the CIA's involvement in efforts to spy on Americans, including student anti-war activists, black-power group leaders, pro-Castro sympathizers and Soviet dissidents.
That surveillance turned up financial connections between Beatle John Lennon, described only as "a British subject," and a project linked to anti-war activist Rennie Davis, one of the Chicago Seven.
The CIA's relationship with the Nixon administration was complex. In one series of documents, the CIA said it reimbursed the White House more than $33,600 for the "postage, stationary and addressing" of thank-you notes to supporters who wrote in praising President Richard M. Nixon's 1970 speech on his decision to invade Cambodia.
The documents also describe a panicked internal investigation to find out whether the CIA might be implicated in the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon's resignation.
Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.