In his 2004 memoir A Look Over My Shoulder, former CIA Director Richard Helms singled out Feb. 13, 1967, as the bleakest day of his career.
After a morning spent inspecting nuclear labs at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Helms received a message calling him back to Washington at once. The order came directly from President Johnson, who was about to brief him on the most disastrous scandal to hit the CIA since its founding in 1947.
The scoop—which appeared in the liberal magazine Ramparts—revealed that from 1950 to 1967 the CIA had been running a series of international covert operations through the U.S. National Student Association (with the now-ironic acronym NSA).
Just two years before, Karen M. Paget had been an eager and active member of the NSA, where her husband also worked as a member of the international staff based in Washington.
One night, shortly after she moved there, Paget met two men who informed her they were working for the CIA. And, it turned out, so too was her husband, because the agency entirely funded the NSA’s international program.
This meant the CIA was paying for the apartment where Paget was living. And the money coming into her joint bank account? Well, that was secretly deposited by the organization, too. So, technically, Paget was on the CIA’s payroll.
Then a naïve 20-year-old, she was promptly told to sign a document swearing complete secrecy about the information to which she had just been exposed. She willingly put pen to paper. But before the ink was even dry, Paget realized she was part of a security oath that was covered under the Espionage Act. This meant she could face up to 20 years in prison if she spoke out.
She wouldn’t need to. The Ramparts article published in April 1967 disclosed everything.
The CIA was infiltrating the NSA to monitor Soviet initiatives to influence students around the world who were interested in Marxist and communist ideas. And due to its combination of liberalism, anticommunism, and internationalism, the NSA, in espionage terms, was the perfect disguise.
The Ramparts article opened a massive can of worms for the CIA, setting in motion a long line of exposures that put the agency’s reputation at risk. If mutual trust had previously existed between government agencies and the American public, it would, from here on in, be forever tarnished.
By December 1974, Seymour M. Hersh published in The New York Times an article detailing numerous operations the CIA had been involved in.
The documents Hersh’s piece referred to became known as the “Family Jewels.” Spanning hundreds of pages, they contained the agency’s deepest secrets, including assassination plots against foreign leaders.
This led in 1975 to the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities—better known as the Church Committee.
After he retired from the CIA, Richard Helms cited the 1967 Ramparts article, along with the 1972 break-in at the Watergate Hotel—where several burglars caught in the offices of the Democratic Party headquarters were revealed to have CIA backgrounds—as the two most important factors leading to the Church Committee.
Despite the numerous revelations in that 1967 Ramparts exposé, there has never been a conclusive analysis of just how widespread the CIA’s activity was in the National Student Association. Until now that is.
Five decades after she was first threatened with a lengthy prison sentence, Karen M. Paget has recently published a book investigating the CIA’s 17-year operation.
Patriotic Betrayal begins in the early 1940s, tracing the origins of the NSA itself. It then takes the reader right up to 1967, when the revelations were exposed by Ramparts.
The author must be given credit for the meticulous research she has carried out here. The book is drawn almost entirely from original sources, most of which come from the international papers of the NSA, which are housed at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Paget also conducted more than 150 interviews with various CIA and NSA officials, providing credible backup to the documents she has gleaned most of her information from.
The narrative has all the dodgy dealings, various hoodwinks, and secret handshakes one might expect from an Ian Fleming or John le Carré novel. Checks seemed to constantly arrive—often for several thousands of dollars—unannounced at the NSA’s offices, where the benefactors were always concealed.
The CIA’s main mission within the NSA was fairly simple: to completely crush even the faintest sniff of communist or Marxist ideas from spreading around in libraries, student assemblies, or campuses anywhere in the world. Many “witting” students were heavily involved in espionage activity.
And no ideological threat was too great that a big fat suitcase full of cash couldn’t sort things out fairly promptly.
Although the involvement of the NSA would span five continents, the CIA was most prominent on university campuses throughout Asia during these years—particularly following the outbreak of the Korean War, when the Cold War heated up considerably amid fears that any number of countries in the region could ignite a worldwide communist revolution.
This was exacerbated in American public life by the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who seemed to equate communism with Satan himself.
If conservative politics dominated the 1950s, Paget then traces how students began to move further to the left during the 1960s, as the Vietnam War dragged on. Consequently, students’ voices increasingly seemed to threaten the status quo of uninterrupted American imperial dominance in the Cold War era.
As early as 1964, when David Wise and Thomas B. Ross published The Invisible Government, which explored the CIA’s role in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam, many radical intellectuals of the day began to engage in a worthwhile debate—even if they were predominately kept out of the mainstream media—about the secret arm of U.S. intelligence that was gaining more traction with each passing year.
The conversation included rhetorical questions like: What were the links between the CIA and the power structures within the military-industrial complex? Were the counteroffensive strategies the CIA used against Soviet regimes effective, and if so, who exactly did they benefit? And who was the real enemy at home?
Paget’s bulky tome gives these questions a brief mention in passing. She provides more than the necessary research required here to help explain how the CIA went about its operations within the NSA. However, her final argument lacks a firm conclusion, or the intellectual curiosity to properly sink her teeth into a very pertinent question: Why did the clandestine operations she writes about here—for over 400 pages—actually take place?
Paget’s refusal to confront the totalitarian ideology that’s always been intrinsic to the the CIA’s central ethos is this book’s biggest downfall. I suspect there may be a curious case of Stockholm Syndrome going on here though.
In the introduction, Paget claims that “beyond keeping silent, my burden was minimal, since I didn’t work for the NSA.”
Willing participant or not, Paget was, in effect, for many years, a paid lackey for the CIA. And the reader gets the sense here that, subconsciously, there is some strange, if somewhat distant allegiance she feels toward the agency. This prevents Paget from really putting the boot into the CIA, which most authors in her position would naturally do.
It would be unfair to suggest that Paget defends the actions of the CIA. But she doesn’t wholly condemn them either.
On the book’s final page, she asks the reader: “What then were the contributions of CIA domestic covert operations to the Cold War?”
But just like any safe-betting agnostic who is asked their opinion on the existence of God, Paget sheepishly sits on the fence, and refuses to put forward a thesis that firmly nails its colors to the mast. She concludes with a warning: “We must look more closely at specific objectives and specific goals before making any pronouncements.”
This centrist, noncommittal worldview that Paget exudes throughout the book, and in her final analysis, is a severely disappointing end to what could have been a book of real distinction.
Nor does Paget properly address how the CIA’s infiltration of the NSA fits into a greater argument about how the U.S. government committed vast resources to a secret program of cultural propaganda in Western Europe during the Cold War.
Crucially, a key feature of this program was the illusion that it didn’t exist. This is something Frances Stonor Saunders explores in great detail in her spellbinding book, The Cultural War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.
Saunders touches upon a number of key concepts that Paget would really do well to cross reference, or incorporate into her own book if she wants to conclude her argument with the kind of execution that might actually leave the reader with something substantial to chew on.
One idea that Saunders zones in on is the notion of Militant Liberty, a multi-agency propaganda campaign devised in 1954 with the aim of embedding American-style democratic values in foreign cultures.
As Saunders eloquently puts it in her book:
The Cold War was frightening real. But it produced false realities and [the question is]: to what degree intellectuals became embroiled in these counterfeits and enlarged in them?
The answer, of course, is most of them. Books such as The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, The Lonely Crowd by David Riseman, and The End of Ideology by Daniel Bell were all works that the CIA helped to promote and build an international audience with, all in the name of propaganda, even if those authors may not have been aware of it at the time.
The CIA’s main mission during the Cold War may have been to steer the left-leaning intelligentsia of Western Europe and the United States away from its constant flirtation with Marxist and communist ideology. However, the method in which it did this was always underhanded, deceitful, and usually illegal.
Paget, who I suspect may not even be aware of it, is caught somewhere in the middle of this hypocritical value system, which allows one to turn a blind eye to actions of the CIA when it suits them.
This is a dangerous position for any society that wants to promote pluralistic values and credible intellectual freedom to find itself in.
McCarthyism and the Red Scare, with a slight touch of irony, reached for totalitarian tools when attempting to quash Soviet communism, the most disastrous and yet equally ambitious experiment in social engineering that mankind had ever seen.
In his 1977 book The Armies of Ignorance, historian William Corson claimed the CIA was working with 5,000 academics who recruited between 200 and 300 foreign students studying in the U.S. each year. Corson said that as much as 60 percent of the college professors and staff involved in this recruiting process were contract CIA employees.
Corson estimated that from the late 1940s onward, about 40 of these foreign students who were recruited later committed suicide once they returned home. The reason? A constant fear of being exposed for the relationship they had with the American intelligence services.
Patriotic Betrayal certainly opens up a half-decent conversation about how omnipresent the CIA has been in global affairs since World War II.
But the discussion isn’t critical enough. A more thorough and braver book would have confronted these issues head-on.
The CIA’s underhanded methods have always shown contempt for the concept of democracy. And yet, it consistently has the audacity to justify its own existence in the name of it.