From flying saucers to Castro, you can read CIA’s once-secret stash online

The CIA seal is seen on the floor during a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump on Jan. 21, 2017 at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)
The CIA seal is seen on the floor during a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump on Jan. 21, 2017 at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)

If you ever wanted to know the CIA’s secret recipe for invisible ink, how to spot spy messages hidden in suspicious fruit, or which top American spy was asked to appear in Penthouse magazine, you’re in luck. Millions of pages of once-classified agency documents are now available for the first time on your home computer after the agency moved one of its databases online.

The documents run the gamut from classic espionage (a Cold War mission to tunnel into East Germany to tap the Soviet Union’s military telephone system) to borderline-goofball research (trying to see if “psychic” Uri Geller could read the minds of intelligence officers half a mile away) to tediously mundane housekeeping tasks (the opening of the agency’s new child care center).

Most of the documents have been declassified for decades or even longer. But they were available for viewing only on a handful of computers at an outpost of the National Archives, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. After years of wrangling with open-government advocates, ranging from lawsuits to a mocking Kickstarter campaign to pay for photocopying that was intended to shame the CIA, the agency finally relented this month.

“Now you can access it from the comfort of your own home,” Joseph Lambert, the CIA’s longtime director of information management, said grandly as the database — known as the CIA Records Search Tool, or CREST — went online.

That may sound a bit overblown, but researchers across America saluted Lambert smartly. “I’ve been using that database for years, but it’s not easy flying to Washington and driving out to Maryland to get on their computers,” said Jeffrey T. Richelson, the Los Angeles-based author of several well-regarded academic studies of intelligence. “The last few days, I’ve been finding all kinds of things on it that I didn’t even know existed.”

None of them, at least so far, have been blockbusters, though the bits of intelligence run from the oddly fascinating (East Germany, in the summer of 1973, faced a daunting shortage of barbers) to the monumentally incorrect (a breezy pronouncement that Iran’s Muslim clergymen didn’t constitute “a well-organized threat to the regime,” made barely years before they toppled the government and put the country on a disastrous collision course with the United States that persists to this day).

There are even tantalizing hints of James Bond-ish bang-bang. Who drew that hand-drawn map of an explosives plant in Romania, including a diagram of the wiring of its electronic security gate, and why? Will an answer turn up as journalists and academics plow through the 12 million pages on the database?

But a few days spent sifting random documents reveals a couple of unexpected things. One is the indefinably vast expanse of the CIA’s interests. There are large numbers of documents about UFOs, psychic research and any number of other subjects that would excite a New Age wiccan priestess.

Some are so peculiar as to defy comprehension. What on Earth prompted a CIA officer to even pick up a leaflet advertising the (now defunct) Buffalo Bill Wax Museum and its “107 life-sized wax figures” of Bill, Wyatt Earp and Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall gang (“in living wax!”) — much less to preserve it in an agency file — will likely remain a cryptic secret for generations to come.

What is very clear is that the CIA’s declassification team has the come-on coquetry of a strip-tease dancer and the piquant sense of humor of the editors at The Onion. The title of one document — “Clarifying Statement to Fidel Castro Concerning Assassination” — sent journalistic hearts pounding across the world. It turns out to be an unremarkable 1977 exchange of notes between then-CIA director Stansfield Turner and an agency press public affairs officer about getting a transcript of a television interview of Fidel Castro by Barbara Walters.

At the bottom of the 26-page file, though, is a payoff of sorts: a letter from the porn magazine Penthouse, requesting an interview. Four decades later, the idea of Turner — a legendarily straight-laced Christian Scientist who didn’t drink, smoke or swear — agreeing to an interview to be sandwiched between Penthouse’s nakeder-than-naked photo displays still makes CIA veterans giggle four decades later. “It would have been hysterical, if he had done it, which I’m sure he didn’t,” said one former agency official. Apparently not; the letter got no reply.

Another wisecrack title is attached to a package of files on the CIA’s interest in UFOs: “Top 5 CIA Documents Mulder Would Love To Get His Hands On,” a reference to Fox Mulder, the FBI agent on TV’s The X-Files who believes the world is secretly governed by space aliens.

Those files, and many others, detail an interesting trajectory in CIA attitudes toward UFO reports. The minutes of a secret 1952 meeting of senior agency officials — conducted at a time when reports of flying saucer-sightings were popping up all over the world — recount a discussion about directing the CIA’s physics and electronic division to investigate.

CIA spies complied enthusiastically, filing report after report about flying saucer sightings around the world, including behind the Iron Curtain, where an East German defector reported having seen a UFO crew poking around on the ground — though, technically speaking, it was really a flying “frying pan” by his account.

But by the next year, a group of distinguished physicists convened by the CIA was dismissing tales of flying kitchen accoutrements of all types, arguing in a report that even talking about UFOs would result in “mass hysteria and greater vulnerability to possible enemy psychological warfare.”

Anyway, the report added, even if space aliens were prowling the skies and streets of America, so what? “Extraterrestrial artifacts, if they did exist, are not cause for alarm.” The report conceded that at least one member of the panel disagreed, arguing that any verified evidence of space invaders would be “of immediate and great concern not only to the U.S. but to all countries.” But the report dismissed him as a paranoid war hawk: “Nothing like a common threat to unite peoples!”

The real threat, concluded the report, was not from flying saucers but the people who reported seeing them, who might be pursuing “subversive purposes.” Groups that urged more serious government investigation of UFOs, the report added, “should be watched.”

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