Get Smart: The despicable legacy of preventive intelligence was born in CHAOS 50 years ago

Dale M. Brumfield
Nov 30, 2018 · 15 min read
New York Times, Dec. 22, 1974

If history indeed repeats itself, then the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy towards the influx of Mexican and South American refugees into the United States, coupled with the recent revelations that the Department of Homeland Security is tracking “journalists and media influencers,” is creating a fertile opportunity for power-hungry government agencies to create covert preventive intelligence operations to inevitably overstep their authority under the auspices of flushing out terrorists and drug dealers.

“Preventive intelligence” is an appealing concept to American domestic and overseas law enforcement but is ultimately a dangerous one. Recent pre-emptive incursions on domestic civil liberties, including ICE “gang-suppression” databases, the Patriot Act, the NSA’s bulk interception and searching of Americans’ international Internet communications (which includes emails, chats, and web-browsing habits), the DHS database and the calls for more aggressive processes to screen, separate and track refugees at the Mexican border are a few examples of preventive intelligence that follow an alarming pattern dating back to the so-called “Slacker Raids” of 1918, when in a search for draft evaders thousands of innocent civilians were arrested and detained without probable cause.

A particularly egregious example of a government operation illegally trampling citizen’s rights in the pursuit of preventive intelligence blossomed 50 years ago, in the summer of 1968 with a CIA program with a name straight out of a Mel Brooks screenplay — Operation CHAOS.

CHAOS actually started in 1967, when CIA Director Richard Helms, at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson, created this super-secret program. CHAOS then embarked on an obsessive, ham-fisted initiative of spying, provocation, wire-tapping, crossing and double-crossing that — despite a charter clearly prohibiting it from doing so — illegally gathered data on hundreds of thousands of innocent American citizens out of concern for what they might do.

Courtesy History Teaching Institute, Ohio State University

Vietnam was Johnson’s war. Kennedy may have started it, and Nixon may have prolonged it, but Johnson was the true orchestrator. From 1965 into 1968, the destruction of Southeast Asia bore his unmistakable stamp as he clung to numerous disastrous delusions, including that it could actually be won if he just kept drafting and sending in thousands of young Americans, popular opinion be damned.

The New Left movement, which included especially vocal antiwar and anti-draft subdivisions, subsequently exploded in the American consciousness and they too, were solely Johnson’s responsibility. Large anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in New York, San Francisco and other cities caused great concern in the White House to the extent of American discontent toward the conflict in Southeast Asia. The media too was noticing that generally the war was going badly, and protests against it were occurring with alarming regularity.

Consequently, the responsibility to stop those movements also fell squarely on the president — so he looked to his old pals at the FBI and eventually, the CIA to bail him out.

In August, 1967, when CIA Director Helms was coordinating the CIA’s monitoring of American dissidents traveling overseas, Johnson started repeatedly pressuring him to also find examples of foreign influence on that expanding New Left peace movement — a movement causing the president and his advisors so much anxiety that he simply refused to believe it was growing so quickly without outside help.

Helms knew that when a U.S. President kept pushing on a daily basis for information related to a specific subject it didn’t necessarily constitute a direct order to create an investigating proposal, but it certainly ramped up the pressure to find ways to improve the agency’s performance addressing that subject. “The setting up of this unit was what I conceived to be a proper action in an effort to see if we couldn’t improve the Agency’s performance,” the Director said in 1976.

That pressure from Johnson — confirmed by The Deputy Director of Plans, Thomas Karamessines — led to the creation of the CIA’s massive flagship domestic anti-war program, Operation CHAOS.

It was not only discomforting but a completely illegal operation. Under its 1947 National Security Act charter, the CIA was forbidden to have “police, subpoena, law enforcement powers or internal security functions” inside the United States. Those duties fell instead under the auspices of the FBI, whose numerous COINTELPRO (for “Counterintelligence Program”) initiatives in place since the late 1950s to monitor, harass and disrupt such “extremist” groups as the communist party, the KKK, the Black Panthers and ultimately the New Left movement gave them domestic muscle to flex without the help of the CIA.

Director Helms and Karamessines tasked Counterintelligence Staff Chief James J. Angleton with setting up this extremely secretive Special Operations Group within the Counterintelligence Staff, and appointed Richard Ober to head it. A specialist in wiretaps, break-ins and other “dirty tricks,” Ober had not just the technological know-how, but more importantly the remorseless talent and gut instincts to construct a secret domestic “deep snow” spy operation outside of the influence (and knowledge) of the American people and the White House — even keeping it shielded from other units within the CIA.

Ramparts, June 1969 edition

A petulant Ober had in fact already begun illegally collecting and collating files on a CIA computer named HYDRA on persons associated with Ramparts magazine after a March, 1967 article in that magazine reported clandestine CIA activities within private American institutions. By the time he received the Operation CHAOS assignment, he had already indexed several hundred Americans on HYDRA, mostly staff, friends and family of Ramparts.

His boss Angleton, on the other hand, was more well-known for his conspiratorial, McCarthy-era “spook mentality,” and was famously suspicious of anyone who wrote anything remotely positive about the Soviets.

While the operation was initially set up by Ober and Angleton under a Special Operations Group (SOG) moniker, the name was formalized to (MH)CHAOS in late August. The MH stood for the world-wide scope of operations, but the CHAOS was not an acronym — it simply stood for chaos.

Strangely enough, CIA General Counsel was never consulted or asked to render an opinion if CHAOS was legally within the agency’s charter. “Sometimes we did [consult the General Counsel]; sometimes we did not,” Helms later testified to the Rockefeller Commission on September 10, 1975. “I think the record on that is rather spotty, quite frankly.”

In the fall of 1967, Ober’s initial targets included a few antiwar activists, student radicals and black nationalists. Then, following the October, 1967 demonstration at the Pentagon, President Johnson asked the CIA to redouble their efforts investigating potential international connections of the entire U.S. peace movement.

It was a study for the President in mid-November that firmly made Vietnam protestors a significant target of CHAOS’s unlawful efforts. With the approval of Angleton. Karamessines and Helms, Ober defined “peace movement” and “foreign connections” very broadly so as to include associations, however tentative, with organizations such as the American Communist Party and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a purely American organization formed in 1962 in Port Huron, Michigan.

“International Connections of the U.S. Peace Movement” (released 11/15/1967) was a disappointment to the President and especially to the cloak and dagger crowd. Initial results found virtually no evidence of foreign influence in the New Left movement, and there was no proof that any international dialogue went beyond casual conversation.

Seeking possibly to mitigate the results, Director Helms’ uneasy letter of transmittal to the President explained the conclusions were very provisional, and stated reservations about the adequacy of the intelligence community’s ability to uncover funding sources for dissident overseas travel. “From this intimate review of the bulk of the material on hand in Washington,” he wrote, “we conclude that there are significant holes in the story.”

Apparently frustrated by the findings, and convinced the CIA section simply was not looking hard enough, President Johnson suggested expanding the scope of the operation’s methods. A total of 80 full-time agents were eventually hired and charged with participating in various radical activities stateside as part of their preparation for eventual overseas deployment.

After this tweaking, in June, 1968 CHAOS went full bore, receiving intelligence not just on American foreign travel but the domestic activities of individual activists and groups at the staggering rate of 1,000 reports per month.

Coinciding with the creation of CHAOS were two more shady CIA initiatives, Projects MERRIMAC and RESISTANCE. RESISTANCE was a broad effort to use information from cooperating police departments and college campus officials to predict threats to CIA installations, recruiters or contractors by home-grown radical groups. MERRIMAC involved the actual infiltration of Washington D.C.-based peace groups, collectives and black activist groups by CIA agents to obtain early warning of demonstrations and other physical threats to the agency.

All of the information flowing into CHAOS was indexed, analyzed and filed in HYDRA. By checking a name in HYDRA, an agent could find all the cables, memoranda or any other documents referring to that individual. The index also broke down the information into whether that individual was the subject of the material or merely mentioned in passing. Eventually there were over 300,000 Americans indexed in HYDRA, only about 7,500 had actual files maintained.

CHAOS’s final report to Johnson, filed in September, 1968 and titled “Restless Youth,” stubbornly concluded that in each nation, including America, student dissent was essentially the result of home-grown social and political alienation, and not stimulated by an international conspiracy. That report also contained a warning to the president from Helms that the CIA may be dangerously treading out of bounds: “…You will, of course, be aware of the peculiar sensitivity which attached to the fact that CIA has prepared a report on student activities both here and abroad.”

“The paper Restless Youth is sensitive because of the subject matter,” stated an unsigned memo to the Inspector General dated September 7, 1968. “… because the author included in his text a study of student radicals in the United States, thereby exceeding the agency’s charter.”

In an updated version to President Richard Nixon in March, 1969, Helms re-stated his concerns in the transmittal letter even more explicitly:

Herewith is a survey of student dissidence worldwide as requested … In an effort to round out our discussion of this subject, we have included a section on American students. This is an area not within the charter of this Agency, so I need not emphasize how extremely sensitive this makes the paper. Should anyone learn of its existence, it would prove most embarrassing for all concerned.

“Restless Youth, 2nd edition”

An updated version to Nixon via Kissinger was also issued in June, 1970, and apparently left out all incidents of domestic dissidence. A telling statement by Staff Assistant Tom Huston to Nixon Aid H. R. Haldeman in a 6/16/70 memo praising the program summed up the acrimonious CIA-FBI relationship when he noted “Dick Helms has submerged his personal hostility to Mr. Hoover and has afforded a degree of cooperation unexpected from CIA.”

It seemed the further into the operation CHAOS got, the more paranoid the cold war-obsessed Angleton became. Former CIA official Victor Marchetti wrote in 1973 that the “counterintelligence staff operates on the assumption that the agency — as well as other elements of the United States Government — is penetrated by the KGB.”

Unbelievably, the paranoid Angleton was so convinced the Soviets were behind all American dissent he suspected they probably even infiltrated the Nixon White House, so he charged Richard Ober to also spy on the White House as he worked closely on CHAOS with the President and his aides Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, whose “Plumbers” unit was also receiving CHAOS’ anti-war intelligence.

“This wasn’t a series of isolated events,” an anonymous agent told Seymour Hersh of Angleton and Ober’s super-secret maneuvers. “It was highly coordinated. People were targeted, information was collected on them, and it was all put on [computer] tape, just like the agency does with information about KGB [Soviet] agents.”

“Every one of these acts was blatantly illegal.”

In 1969 the D.C.-based underground newspaper Quicksilver Times was notoriously victimized by an undercover CIA agent named Salvatore John “Sal” Ferrera, who successfully infiltrated the paper for over 18 months as a writer and photographer. Some Quicksilver collective members harbored suspicions of Ferrera’s comparatively comfortable lifestyle, since he had his own swanky apartment, the latest camera equipment and more money than he should have, but no one pegged him as a plant.

As the New Left movement began fragmenting into dozens of more militant and frequently antagonistic initiatives, Helms, Angleton (and President Nixon) not only doggedly refused to shut CHAOS down but mutated it even more from its original inception, escalating the domestic activities to include break-ins, wiretaps and other illegal counterintelligence operations to sniff out something, anything to justify it. “They [started out] looking for evidence of foreign involvement in the anti-war movement,” an anonymous agent told Hersh. “But that’s not how it ended up. This just grew and mushroomed internally.”

By 1970, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had enough of the encroachment on his domestic turf, and ordered his agency to break off all but formal liaison contact with the CIA. This intelligence “cold war” forced lower-level agents from both agencies to arrange clandestine meetings in parking decks just to exchange basic information.

After infiltrating the Mayday anti-Vietnam organizing committee in spring, 1971 and relaying detailed information back to the agency, Sal Ferrera left the Quicksilver Times collective and was later hired by College Press Service Editor Chip Berlet as a European correspondent for a monthly stipend of $21. In Paris, Ferrera teamed with a mysterious woman named Leslie Donegan and together they befriended former CIA agent Philip Agee, who had sold all his belongings and moved to Paris (outside of his secrecy contract) to write a tell-all book about his tenure at the agency.

Agee’s book, showing Ferrera’s typewriter

Gaining Agee’s trust, Ferrera told the desperately poor ex-agent that Donegan was an heiress, and may be interested in financing his book, titled “Inside the Company: CIA Diary.”

Agee took the opportunity, and Donegan gave him enough money to live for several months while he completed it. She and Ferrera also convinced Agee his typewriter was crap, so they traded their newer Royal typewriter for his old one. Sometime later Agee discovered that his new portable typewriter’s case was filled with microphones and transmitters, which pinpointed his location straight to the CIA. A picture of this bugged typewriter appears on the cover of his book.

At the end of 1972 CHAOS was subject to a comprehensive review by Assistant Deputy Director of Plans Cord Meyer and Inspector General William Broe, who raised questions about its legality. While left unscathed by budgetary cutbacks, Helms’ solution to those doubting the program’s legality was to suddenly start calling it an operation against international terrorism. Soon, Helms transferred it from the Counterintelligence Staff to the newly formed Operations Staff within the Plans Directorate, with a priority on combating international terrorism, He, however, kept Richard Ober in charge.

Two weeks later, under intense pressure, Helms and Karamessines resigned, and Nixon appointed James Schlesinger (who later described CHAOS in an historic understatement as one of the agency’s “questionable programs”) as Agency Director. CHAOS was finally terminated as a specified collection program in March 5, 1974, by order of President Gerald Ford and Director William Colby, who succeeded Schlesinger.

After this pronouncement, Richard Ober was abruptly transferred from the CIA to a staff position with the National Security Council. “They didn’t fire him,” a high-level source told Seymour Hersh, “but they didn’t want him around. The CIA had to get rid of him, he was too embarrassing, too hot.”

Helms, Ober and especially Angleton justified surveillance and infiltration of American student protests by stubbornly insisting there had to be an underlying international conspiracy manipulating them. Yet Helms admitted that a section of the “Restless Youth” report analyzing American student unrest went far beyond the agency’s authority. Thus, whether or not the primary interest of the CHAOS mission was characterized as “foreign intelligence,” the very nature of the inquiry took the agency into domestic matters. The ultimate objective transcended any effort to limit the CIA’s role to “foreign intelligence” alone.

On December 22, 1974, an unnamed agent opened the worm can to New York Times writer Seymour Hersh in an exposé headlined “Huge CIA Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years.”

New York Times, Dec. 22, 1974

The story was met with anger and astonishment by even veteran FBI operatives. “We had an agreement with [the CIA] that they weren’t to do anything unless they checked with us,” a former high-level Bureau domestic counterintelligence chief told Hersh. “They double-crossed me all along.”

Reached at home by Hersh, Angleton denied that his counterintelligence department conducted any domestic operations. “We know our jurisdiction,” he yawned.

On January 4, 1975 President Gerald Ford issued executive order 11828: Establishing a Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States, chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, to report on all illegal intelligence operations. The Rockefeller Commission was widely considered a whitewash, as the Vice President was too closely aligned with Henry Kissinger (who was aware of the secret program), Richard Ober and Director Colby to be objective. In fact, Rockefeller pulled Colby aside at one point during the proceedings and informed him he did not have to reveal so much information.

That commission’s flaccid recommendation to the President said only that “The CIA should resist any efforts, whatever their origin, to involve it again in such improper activities.”

But because of CHAOS, the Watergate break-in, and numerous other agency misconducts, Congress convened the Church Committee on September 16, 1975 to formally investigate intelligence offenses. The comprehensive six volume report found dozens and dozens of civil liberty violations and numerous criminal acts committed by both the FBI and the CIA just during the sixties alone.

The lesson learned from CHAOS and other operations like it is that nothing is learned. Like clockwork, the CIA, FBI, ICE, NSA and others create spy programs, mutate out of control then inevitably violate the law. Impotent investigating committees are created, witnesses duck, dodge and obfuscate, representatives bluster for the television cameras, a token head might roll, then everyone goes back to their old habits, with few penalties and less accountability.

The CIA has claimed, through CHAOS and other operations, that they were practicing preventive intelligence solely for American interests. Exactly whose interests is debatable — the wealthy ruling class, whose financial well-being they routinely shielded and promoted, or the middle, poor and immigrant class, whose constitutional rights they characteristically trampled?

Government agencies above critical oversight are unable and unwilling to assess their own moral conduct, allowing their lack of accountability to proceed unchecked. It happened before, and is happening again.




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Blum, William. Personal interview, July 7, 2014

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Commission on CIA Activities Within The United States. Report to the President by the Commission on CIA Activities within the United States. By N.A Rockefeller. Cong. Rept. N.p., 1975. Print.

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