CIA History of DCI William Colby

CIA Director Distinguishes bad/good/lesser and non-secrets. – Published on The National Security Archive NSA, by John Prados, October 28, 2011.

… White House pressures on CIA to act in Angola and with the Kurds in Iraq helped set the context in which subsequent events occurred, along with White House attitudes toward the agency as well as Colby’s sense of how his problems would be perceived by presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and their associates.  

The CIA history does a good job of sketching Nixon’s animosities toward the agency-and clearly its historian made use of Nixon administration official records-which makes it striking that apparently no such effort was made to consult equivalent Ford administration documents. Hal Ford quotes Colby himself to the effect that it never occurred to anyone at CIA-starting with then-director James R. Schlesinger-to tell the White House about the internal document collection known as the “Family Jewels,” which contained a number of the revelations that would explode in “Black December.” But Schlesinger was feuding with Kissinger, and when Colby took over Kissinger continued to keep the agency at arms’ length, and in any case the Family Jewels had been created for the private use of the CIA director. The Colby history does not make this clear.

It was Seymour Hersh again, in the New York Times of December 22, 1974, who set off the explosion that led to the Year of Intelligence, by revealing agency illegal domestic activity, followed over subsequent days by further revelations.4 During the months which led up to this Black December, Hersh was already onto the story of the CIA in Chile, as well as Glomar. Hersh’s investigative reporting had been discussed in Gerald Ford’s White House, and even in Richard Helms’s morning staff meetings before he left the agency. The CIA’s Colby history repeats the conventional wisdom that the director blind-sided the White House by not providing advance notice. The suggestion that White House officials needed any warning from Bill Colby to be on notice that Hersh had more agency revelations up his sleeve strains credulity. Consulting Ford administration records should clarify this problem.

The most troublesome aspect of that oversight arises in the CIA history’s treatment of the months that followed, including the creation of and investigations by the Rockefeller Commission and the Church and Pike Committees. By narrating these events solely from the agency’s side the history overstates Director Colby’s freedom of action in responding to the inquiries and neglects to treat White House efforts to constrain the investigations. For example, from CIA records the history relates several conversations between agency officials and White House aide John O. (”Jack”) Marsh, all of which are to the effect of President Ford’s emissary cautioning against exposing too much of the CIA’s secret world. The history leaves the impression this was simply an attitude, casually expressed. In fact, White House records make clear that Marsh, and Ford counsel Phil Buchen, played the key roles in shaping the administration’s response. Ford officials made specific decisions on what materials would be provided to investigators, they forced a fight on what would be revealed about the covert action policymaking unit known as the 40 Committee, formed a working group specifically to deal with the CIA political crisis, coordinated with Colby on the basic ground rules the agency set with the Church committee, backed the CIA director in his later fights with the Pike committee, and stonewalled on the release of material until achieving an understanding with Congress that recognized White House primacy in this area.5

Both of Colby’s two substantive one-on-one meetings with President Ford during 1975 concerned the CIA troubles. At the first, Ford informed the CIA that he was about to set up a presidential commission to head off congressional action. At the second, Ford reviewed with Colby the testimony on covert operations the CIA director would present the next day at the Church committee (this latter presidential action goes entirely unrecorded in the CIA internal history). Without engaging the question of the legality of information denials, in the face of long-standing law that recognized Congress had an absolute right to investigate government affairs, and an unlimited entitlement to such information as necessary for such inquiries, the CIA’s Colby history treats this entire period somewhat mechanically, as a bureaucratic dispute over who got access to what and when and whether Congressional disclosures damaged national security …
… (full long text, Notes 1.5 and Links for Docs 1-4).

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