In August 1967, the CIA created the Special Operations Groups within the Counter-lntelligence Division. Richard Ober, chosen to head the new project known as Operation CHAOS, was uniquely suited to the job. In early 1967, Ramparts magazine had exposed CIA secret funding of the National Student Association, causing acute embarrassment to the agency. In response, Ober was assigned to investigate members of the staff of the magazine and their friends, in an effort to discover any connection with hostile foreign intelligence agencies. (CIA also urged the IRS to open an investigation on the magazine’s tax-exempt status.) By the time Ober began work at Operation CHAOS headquarters, he had already proved his credentials by indexing several hundred names of American citizens, and creating almost fifty files.
From the beginning, the program was predicated on the belief that the foreign connection existed, and it was just a matter of finding it. CHAOS agents were to watch antiwar activists in their travels abroad for this purpose. The first action taken by the new Special Operations Group was to cable all CIA field offices abroad, outlining the need to keep tabs on “radical students and U.S. negro expatriots,” in order to find the extent to which “Soviet, Chicoms [Chinese Communists] and Cubans are exploiting our domestic problems in terms of espionage and subversion.
The agency thus monitored the overseas movements of countless antiwar activists as they traveled around the world, as well as ex-patriots. The CIA burglarized their hotel rooms and their homes, eavesdropped on their conversations and bugged their phones. The internal directives issued to provide “guidance” regarding who should be the targets for intelligence collection abroad reflected the confusion and frustration of the government effort as a whole. Field offices were instructed to look for connections between United States groups and “communist, communist front, or other anti-American foreign elements abroad. A November 1967 memo called on agents overseas to report on foreign relationships, which “might range from casual contacts based on mutual interest to clearly controlled channels for party directives. Two years later, a directive from Tom Huston, a White House assistant, explained that “support should be liberally construed to include all activities by foreign communists designed to encourage domestic groups in any way. The White House and the agency were grasping at straws. Enormous amounts of useless information were gathered because it was not clear when and how the intelligence might be used. Ober directed his agents to collect “any material, regardless of how innocuous the information may appear.
To deal with this massive influx of material, from other agencies as well from as the CIA, the agency set up a highly mechanized system. Whenever the name of an individual or organization showed up as a result of these efforts, it was analyzed, indexed, and filed in the CHAOS computer system known as HYDRA. By programming a specific name, an agent could instantly retrieve all cables, documents, or memoranda that even mentioned the target.
Due to pressure from President Nixon the CHAOS staff was increased to over fifty, and by i959, CHAOS began to develop its own agents abroad who would focus entirely on the task at hand. In order to track political activists abroad, these agents went through a process of establishing their “credentials” within the radical movement in this country. During their training period, they would be extensively debriefed by their advisers, and CIA gained purely domestic information. In fact, so much reporting went on that one agent was likened to a “vacuum cleaner.’ Another actually became an officer within his organization, while yet another became an adviser in a United States congressional campaign, and furnished CHAOS reports on behind-the-scenes activity of the campaign. In one instance, a CHAOS agent, on leave from his spying activities abroad, rejoined his unwitting friends in the radical community and reported extensively on their private lives and personal relationships.
Spying on radicals in this country was also an incidental result of agents being trained by the CIA to penetrate foreign intelligence agencies, as part of a program called “Project 2.” After a period of basic training, these agents would enroll at a university and feign involvement in some activist group. Although the trainees were told by their case officers not to gather domestic information, one agent, for example, submitted a sixty-page report over a three-week period, including information on a planned demonstration, groups meetings, and activities relating to the women’s movement. While abroad, these agents, although not specifically assigned to CHAOS, were valuable assets to the overall collection effort.
Throughout the CHAOS operation, the FBI was not only the major recipient of the massive flow of memos, reports, and clippings from the CIA, but also the most generous donor. By June 1970, the FBI was sending in reports to the CIA at the rate of 1,000 a month. In addition, the two agencies extensively briefed and debriefed each other’s agents, with the bureau submitting specific questions to be answered by CHAOS infiltrators. By 1972, some twenty FBI informants were actually working abroad under CIA direction and control.
As the purported expert on foreign ties to the American peace movement, the CIA prepared a number of major studies on the subject. One report, known as “Restless Youth,” was a thick volume analyzing the international student movement, including a long section on the Students for a Democratic Society. Another study’s very title, “Definition and Assessment of Existing Internal Security Threat-Foreign,” exemplifies the extent to which the CIA was operating outside its congressional charter. The Domestic Contact Service also produced a series of reports, including one on the background of certain individuals who had accused the CIA of involvement in the assassination of the black leader Malcolm X. Ironically, all these studies concluded that the domestic dissent was a product of social and political conditions in this country, and not the result of an international conspiracy. As late as 1971, when Operation CHAOS had grown to grand proportions, a report was issued confirming “there is no evidence . . . that foreign governments, organizations or intelligence services control U.S. new left movements. The program continued to expand its scope, not because its activities provided any leads, but in order to prove the opposite. Richard Ober explained the phenomenon:
. . . to respond with any degree of knowledge as to whether there is significant foreign involvement in a group . . . one has to know whether each and every one of these persons has any connection . . . having checked many, many names, and coming up with no significant directions, one can say with some degree of confidence that there is no significant involvement.
In its continuing search for that illusive connection, the CIA worked in concert with every intelligence agency of the federal government. The Justice Department gave the CIA thousands of names to be put on file, while army intelligence officers briefed CIA agents on domestic radicals. Other federal agencies submitted names to be placed on the “watch list” for ClA’s mail-opening program, while the CIA submitted its targets for the National Security Agency’s program of intercepting cable traffic. Even friendly intelligence agencies of other countries were asked to assist. At times, the agencies even put pressure on each other to step up their activities against the peace movement. In a letter from CIA Director Helms to FBI Director Hoover in 1970, Helms encouraged the FBI to reinstate its domestic mail-opening program, which had been discontinued in 1966. Helms, stressing the need for expanded coverage of the Soviet bloc, the New Left, and foreign agents, urged continued cooperation in gathering intelligence on “bombings, hijackings, assassination, and the demeaning of law enforcement officers.
The CIA was well aware that it had violated its charter by becoming so intimately involved in the internal security apparatus of America. A cover letter from Helms to Henry Kissinger, accompanying the Operation CHAOS report “Restless Youth,” warned that “this is an area not within the charter of this Agency, and I need not emphasize how extremely sensitive this makes the paper. As domestic operations expanded, there was increasing discomfort among those being asked to carry them out. Some area division chiefs wanted nothing to do with Operation CHAOS. In fact, the reaction was so negative at times that CIA Director Helms was forced to send out a memo in 1969 calling for full support of the program, and assuring the stations that this was within the statutory authority of the agency. An inspector general’s report on CHAOS written in 1972 reflects the growing uneasiness:
We also encountered general concern over what appeared to constitute a monitoring of the political views and activities of Americans not known to be or suspected of being involved in espionage…. stations were asked to report on the whereabouts and activities of prominent persons . . . whose comings and goings were not only in the public domain, but for whom allegations of subversion seemed sufficiently nebulous to raise renewed doubts as to the nature and legitimacy of the CHAOS program.
Agency officials, however, refused to acknowledge illegality either to the public or to their own personnel. In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 1971, CIA Director Helms totally denied rumors that the CIA was involved in domestic spying. Referring to the 1947 ban on the exercise of police and law enforcement powers, Helms declared, “We do not have any such powers and functions; we have never sought any; we do not exercise any; . . . in short, we do not target on American citizens. Helms was later to refer to this public assertion in a talk given to his own employees, when he added, “. . . you can rely on these denials. Helms’s statements dramatically demonstrate how breaking the law forces endless lying, deceit, and cover-up.
Before it came to an end, Project CHAOS compiled what the Rockefeller Commission described as a veritable mountain of material. It had created personality files on over 13,000 people, including some 7,000 American citizens, and subject files on 1,000 domestic organizations.
The CIA spied on the whole spectrum of peace activist and civil rights groups. CHAOS agents followed the activities of the organizations’ leaders abroad, spied on their meetings, broke into their hotel rooms, and sent thousands of cables back to headquarters detailing their activities. Three hundred thousand names of American citizens were cross-indexed within agency files, and thousands of Americans were placed on “watch lists” to have their mail opened and their telegrams read.
Operation CHAOS finally came to an end in 1974, as part of the winding down of the massive surveillance programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In general, specific programs were ended either because public dissent was in fact subsiding, or out of fear that the programs would be exposed. There was never a reevaluation of the ClA’s domestic role, and in fact, the agency continues its operations at home and against Americans abroad. On February 17, 1976, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order that claims to place restraints on the intelligence agencies’ illegal activities, but in fact authorizes and ratifies their continuation.
In that order, the CIA is authorized to conduct clandestine operations to gather foreign intelligence information from foreigners in the United States, as well as Americans believed to be acting on behalf of a “foreign power.” The order reaffirms ClA’s broad mandate to conduct investigations of Americans who are potential recruits, or whose activities pose a threat to agency security. The most alarming charter given to CIA is the power to infiltrate, “for the purpose of reporting on or influencing activities,” organizations primarily composed of foreign nationals. The obvious targets for such disruption are immigrant groups and foreign student organizations. Here for the first time, CIA is officially allowed to conduct covert operations in America. The agency still spies on Americans abroad, still accepts requests from the FBI to put traveling citizens under surveillance, and claims the right to wiretap and burglarize American homes and apartments overseas.
The 1947 ban on domestic involvement remains inoperative.
Excerpted from the book ‘The Lawless State: The crimes of the U.S. Intelligence Agencies’ by Morton Halperin, Jerry Berman, Robert Borosage, Christine Marwick