WASHINGTON — After fighting to keep them secret for more than three decades, the CIA released hundreds of documents Tuesday 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 inquiry of potentially embarrassing or illegal activities, the records were subsequently turned over to Congress, prompting 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 Tuesday in remarks to the agency's workforce. "The documents truly do provide a glimpse of a very different era and a very different agency."
Indeed, many of the episodes detailed in the 693 pages of newly declassified text read like relics from another time, including elaborate attempts to enlist Mafia operatives to poison Cuban President Fidel Castro.
But other documents seem remarkably relevant today, as the nation grapples anew with questions of how much latitude U.S. intelligence agencies should be given, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The documents describe secret CIA holding cells and the possibly illegal detention of a suspected Soviet spy who was held without trial for years at a CIA lockup facility in Maryland before it was determined he was a legitimate defector. They also detail plans to eavesdrop on international phone calls of U.S. residents, and aggressive efforts to root out leaks of classified information to reporters.
Watchdog groups praised the release of the records, and said it was a remarkable step for a secretive organization under no legal obligation to declassify the documents.
"It allows the agency to simultaneously distance itself from its questionable past and portray itself as open and forthcoming," said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.
Even so, the released records 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 its first paragraph. A separate memo that is supposed to summarize the "unusual activities" of the CIA's domestic branch includes just three paragraphs followed by 17 blacked-out pages.
The records that are complete do not appear to contain major revelations of CIA misdeeds, but provide extensive new detail from internal CIA accounts on episodes that have fascinated 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 R. Schlesinger for employees to report activities they thought might violate the agency's charter.
Arguably the most exceptional operation detailed is a plot to enlist organized crime figures to assassinate Castro shortly after he came to power. 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 subsequently seeing his photo in a most-wanted list in Parade magazine.
"Sam suggested that they not resort to firearms but, if he could be furnished some type of potent pill, that could be placed in Castro's food or drink, it would be a much more effective operation," the memo said.
But after several failed attempts, the Cuban operative selected by the Mafia "got cold feet and asked out of the assignment." The Mafia suggested another candidate, but the operation was canceled when the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion exposed the Kennedy administration to criticism for its anti-Castro policies.
The CIA's first Mafia contact in the plot was Johnny Roselli, a Las Vegas mobster later convicted of cheating Friars Club members out of $400,000 in a "rigged gin rummy game." Years later, he threatened to expose the Castro plot if the agency didn't halt his deportation proceedings. Then-Director Richard Helms refused, and the episode was splashed across news pages by columnist Jack Anderson.
The records also shed extensive light on the CIA's involvement in efforts to spy on Americans, including student antiwar activists, Black Power group leaders, pro-Castro sympathizers and Soviet dissidents.