The Central Intelligence Agency released hundreds of pages of documents Tuesday about past agency abuses that sparked outrage and investigations in the 1970s. The documents contain no startling new revelations. But, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, they paint a more detailed portrait of an agency under siege for some of its activities at home and abroad.
The documents, known collectively as the family jewels, detail plots by the CIA and other agencies to assassinate Fidel Castro and engage in domestic intelligence activities.
The CIA's questionable activities of the 1960s and 70s have long been known, and the documents contain no startling news. The initial revelations came in newspaper articles in 1974, sparking two congressional investigations and one independent commission probe.
But the documents lay out the activities in more detail, such as the CIA's attempts to get mobsters to kill Castro.
The documents also spell out CIA cooperation or assistance to domestic agencies. The law forbids the CIA from operating within the United States. It also contains a directive from then-CIA director James Schlesinger for all senior officers to report any activity that may have violated the CIA charter.
Schlesinger also demanded reports from any agency office that may have had dealings with any of the participants in the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. A flood of memos ensued outlining even the most fleeting contact with Watergate participants
Britt Snider was a legal counsel to the Senate committee investigating the CIA abuses in 1975. He says the committee, named the Church Committee after its chairman, Senator Frank Church, was shocked when it began sifting through the documents at the beginning of their investigation.
"Many of the activities that are described in there had been stopped by the time the family jewels actually came to light," said Snider. "But, nevertheless, just to have read that they had done so-and-so and thus-and-so was a shock, yeah."
Peter Earnest, who was a CIA officer at the time and now heads the International Spy Museum in Washington, says the CIA was not acting on its own in these activities, but on orders from White House or other executive branch officials.
"The great charge of Senator Church was, is this a rogue agency? And at the end of the committee hearings was the determination that this was not a rogue agency; in fact, it was highly responsive and disciplined, and so it sort of went where it was pointed," he said.
After the revelations, Congress moved to tighten its oversight of intelligence activities, creating permanent intelligence oversight committees in both the House and Senate.
"They instituted these new arrangements that were far more intrusive, far more intense, than what the agency had been through prior to that, both [committees] with large professional staffs, both with members whose jobs were really dedicated to the oversight of the intelligence world and the CIA in particular," said Snider.
However, the congressional investigations have become more controversial since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Critics say looser constraints on domestic surveillance might have prevented the attacks.