The CIA “Family Jewels,” Then and Now

11.04.13 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In 1973, the Director of Central Intelligence ordered CIA officials to prepare a descriptive account of all CIA activities that were “outside the legislative charter of this Agency,” which is to say unauthorized or illegal.  The purpose of the exercise was to identify operations that had “flap potential,” meaning that they could embarrass the Agency or embroil it in controversy.

The resulting 700-page CIA compendium of unlawful domestic surveillance, wiretapping, mail opening and detention actions became known as “the family jewels.”  It helped to inform and to substantiate the investigations of intelligence in the 1970s.  The document was finally declassified (with some redactions) in 2007 and was released to the National Security Archive, which has posted it here.

In a new book entitled “The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power” (University of Texas Press, 2013), historian John Prados reviews the origins and consequences of the family jewels document and the operations described in it.

The thrust of Prados’ book is that the CIA family jewels are not simply relics of a discrete historical period, but rather that they are exemplars of a recurring pattern of intelligence misconduct. Many of the specific abuses of the 1970s, he argues, can be understood as archetypes that have been manifested repeatedly, up to the present day.

As a category, “family jewels,” then and now, involve violations of legal or moral norms, shielded by official secrecy. These operations tend to expand in scope until secrecy fails, for one reason or another, and then the public controversy which had been deferred explodes with redoubled force.

“Family Jewels are characterized by activity that goes beyond [legal] boundaries, refusal to rein in the operators, and then covering up the behavior.” (p. 57)  “One crucial aspect is that projects are relatively easy to initiate, but then very difficult to shut down.” (p. 321)

“Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all is that Family Jewels seem to have a tendency to replicate, suggesting that abuse fulfills some functional purpose.” (p. 322)

So, according to Prados, unlawful domestic surveillance in the Vietnam era returns as extralegal surveillance in the war on terror. The abusive interrogation of a suspected CIA mole in the 1960s finds an echo in the  CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation practices. All the while, secrecy and selective disclosure are used to shape and manage public perceptions.

“There was a logic to the way Family Jewels evolved,” he writes, and his interesting new book elaborates on that theme.

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Postscript:  It was startling to be reminded by Prados that the Federation of American Scientists was on the CIA “watch list” to have its mail intercepted and read by the Agency in the 1960s and early 1970s, along with the American Friends Service Committee, author John Steinbeck, and other questionable types (p. 75).

In 1971, then-FAS President Jeremy J. Stone triggered high-level anxiety at CIA when he wrote a letter to the Postal Service inquiring whether “any other agency” was being permitted to open U.S. mail. The letter generated intense deliberations among CIA leadership, and the program was terminated two years later.  Stone presented his account of that episode in a chapter of his memoirs here.  See also “The CIA’s Mail Cover: FAS Nearly Uncovered It,” by Robert Gillette, Science, June 27, 1975.