The CIA and Me

When my daughter Lauren was born we lived in Philadelphia and nine of our best friends were secretly working for the CIA.

It was different then, in the early 60s: things were hopeful, the Vietnam war was a whisper, the government was not the enemy.  Working for the government wasn’t so…. suspect, wrong.  Government then was still ‘us,’ not yet ‘them,’ at least if you were a middle class white person.  John Kennedy and even Lyndon Johnson were generally seen as positive figures, and we were all working, we thought, for the same things.  Economic and social justice, civil rights, peace, progress.  But I certainly did not know that nine of my friends were secret agents, and that the office I shared with them was a CIA front, and that money I raised to support a national organization of campus newspapers was from the CIA too.  I thought my friends, while we had dinner, and they played with our baby daughter, and we traveled and argued and planned and shared, I thought we were all doing the same things.  I thought I knew them.

at Berkeley, about 1966
at Berkeley, about 1966
Yale Press has published my friend Karen Paget’s book, Patriotic Betrayal, about that time, and those people.   A history of the entanglement with CIA, why and how the lies were born and grew.  I have just a small piece, what happened to me. Because for three years or so, before I knew what was going on and after, it was a very large part of my life.

In 1963 I was editor of the campus paper, the Torch, at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  Those days news was still important and ‘news’ meant newspapers. Insofar as there was an alternative press in the US then, it included college newspapers.  It was, you understand, the early 1960s, the arrival of the Boomers to adult life. Very exciting.  Aggressive, politicized campus papers across the country adventured past cafeteria food and football to cover news of and about young people, and not just on campus. We covered nuclear testing. We sent reporters to the South to write about civil rights. We rejected the rules and demands of our own campus authorities just as we had rejected our parents’.  A number of student editors, including me, formed a national organization of college papers, raised money and hired a staff of one to run it, and to publish a news service that would circulate stories by mail and connect us all. The US Student Press Association. This was the beginning of my friendship with Roger Ebert and Jeff Greenfield, editors at Illinois and Wisconsin respectively, and with Dean Gottehrer at Tulane who became our first employee, based in Philadelphia.  There were many others, wonderful, brave, engaged journalists, at Colorado, Austin, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Albuquerque, Cambridge, LA, Tuscaloosa. Very heady. Very exciting.
In 1964, married and hence draft deferred, I went to work full-time for USSPA in Philadelphia, this time one of two staffers.  We cranked out a five page mimeographed set of news stories twice a week and mailed it to our couple of hundred members and we ran conferences of campus editors twice a year.  We worked out of a tiny office at the US National Student Association, in a crumbling town house across Chestnut Street from Penn.  It was NSA that was and had for years provided a front for the CIA, and it was significant amounts of secret CIA money that kept NSA afloat, money that, with our close relationship to NSA, indirectly kept USSPA going too.  Not that we knew about the secret part.  A CIA conduit foundation gave me $10,000 for an USSPA program for foreign student editors.  It was a lot of money, equal to $75,000 now, and it paid some of our overhead.
While we labored in happy, impoverished ignorance, the president of NSA that year, Steve Robbins, had divined the secret relationship with CIA, which was being conducted behind his back.  Robbins, who is irascible and very smart, deserves a book of his own.  He was aghast and offended as he learned the facts, that NSA was a Potemkin facade hiding a intelligence operation that, Paget’s book says, was virtually as old as NSA itself.  NSA, in other words, the national student union of the United States, was and always had been largely a front for American intelligence.  And, of course, my precious Press Association, in that little office just inside the front door, was for most purposes not distinguishable from NSA. Not that we or pretty much anybody else knew.
But some of my friends did know.  Mostly NSA international specialists, working up stairs, merrily asking ‘got a dime?’, on the way to call their Agency handlers from pay phones over at the Penn law school.  They were as I count them now the nine.  Selected, recruited, trained, by Langley operatives, doing whatever in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, wrapped in their respectable cover jobs at the US National Student Association.  For exactly what they did, read Paget’s book.  I didn’t know myself until I read her drafts over the last several years.
Would have been fine, I suppose, but secrets are hard to keep, and this one leaked…. well, more like blew up.  In 1966.  Guy named Mike Wood, a friend as well, worked for NSA the year after I was there, knew the secret and in moral pain told a reporter for Ramparts magazine.  USNSA is a CIA front. Good story.
Okay, so I was hired on by the Peace Corps after USSPA, moved to DC, split up with my wife, and got new things to worry about. NSA too moved to DC so I still hung out, partied, gossiped — and why not?  I’ll tell you why not.  It begins in the summer of 1966.  I was scheduled to go to Japan for Peace Corps, to attend some international youth conference.  An acquaintance at the State Department, a Texan named Olin Robison, asked me to come over.  He had, he said, some things that would help me on the trip.  Robison, part of Bill Moyers’ posse, worked then for U. Alexis Johnson, the Deputy Undersecretary of State.  Robison sat me in a conference room and gave me a classified file.  The first paper I looked at was a secret memo to Moyers in the White House. It was signed by Robert Kiley, a man I thought I knew well, who worked at US-AID.  Except that the memo said Kiley was at CIA, not AID.  Kiley had been president of NSA in 1959.  A friend, old-timer, an advisor.  He attended NSA conferences.  And he actually, secretly, worked for US intelligence. In fact Kiley ran Covert Action Division 5, the office that managed the National Student Association.  CAD-5.  An unarmed Bourne Conspiracy leaping off a page into my small, unwitting, unprepared life.
I can’t remember anything else that happened that day.  Or that week. Except that every few days I’d think, ‘whoa, if Kiley’s CIA, then…. that means….’  Kind of existential, really, to discover that much of what you assumed was not that way at all. Maybe like learning as an adult that you’re adopted. Unsettling. Confusing.
Went to Japan in a fog.  I was contacted immediately in Tokyo, taken to diner, by two suits from the Embassy who were certainly Agency.  Don’t know why they were on me, but most of the possible explanations are weird. Saw them around the youth conference too.  I flew home with David Baad, another spook, though I didn’t know that yet.  I really should have.  We argued about Vietnam much of the flight to San Francisco.
Around Christmas week that year the remarkable Allard Lowenstein came to my office at Peace Corps. (Allard often simply appeared.  Years later in San Francisco he would show up in my newsroom at a TV station.  Usually the only notice, in those days before pagers and mobile phones, was that for a couple of days ahead I’d get phone calls at my desk, people looking for Allard.) That day in 1966 he told me that Ramparts magazine was working a story that the CIA had taken over the National Student Association.
A couple of afternoons later, at his house, I told Gene Groves, the skinny U of Chicago guy then president of NSA, about the coming Ramparts story.  He went into the bathroom and threw up.
Paget book again.  USNSA itself, beginning with Steve Robbins, was desperately trying to break the hold CIA had on the student organization. Legally, practically and financially, it was very difficult.  There had been progress over the three years, but the break wasn’t complete.  The Ramparts story was a bombshell.  You can look it up.  Lots of headlines. Lots of stories on TV.  I was much involved with those on the non-CIA side, those trying to break away. Consulted, consoled, met, advised.  I had an angry fight in a basement hallway at the Shoreham Hotel with an agent I knew, he defending and I on some moral high horse.  It was simply awful, and I was naive, and young, and completely in the right, not a place I’d ever be again.
Of course I worked for Peace Corps which had a particular abhorrence for intelligence. There was to be no contact.  No hints. No rumors. But NSA was in trouble and I had loyalties.  There were meetings at my apartment in DC, folks trying to untangle and unwind and react. Dark and scary times.  And one day, my boss, Jack Vaughn, director of the Peace Corps, summoned me and gave me a Not Really choice.  Stay away from your friends at NSA or quit your job at Peace Corps.  And I was fired.  As I recall, I signed a piece of paper agreeing to resign for ‘personal reasons.’  Really.
There’s good news here.  In the shit storm of it all, mine, CIA’s, National Student Association’s, a fine thing happened.  Mike Wood, the leaker to Ramparts, and I, frightened, fled to Greensboro, North Carolina along with a couple of senior NSA officials, Rick Stearns and Ed Schwartz.  I’d met Judy Herrick, a college student there, earlier, but now, jobless and shaken, I went back to her.  Mike and I holed up in Greensboro for a time and repaired.  I was rescued by Peter Goldmark who hired me to work for the mayor of New York and Judy I moved there when she graduated. Later we moved to San Francisco and married.  USNSA, and USSPA did not survive, but I did.
There might be a lesson.  Mine is simple: by and large, secrets are really bad for you.

One thought on “The CIA and Me

  1. Thanks for sharing – fascinating bit of history that I wasn't familiar with. Speaking of history, a friend shared an article written by a Tom DeVries the other day called “Mother Lode” about the Four Tears Ranch development in Ahwahnee. The article isn't dated but I'm guessing it was written in maybe 1980…? Did you write that article? If so I'd love to speak with you about it as I try to understand the history of what is now Sierra Meadows Country Club in Ahwahnee. If you're open to talking just give a ring at the club and ask for Reid. Thanks!


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