At this point in our history, most Americans are quite familiar with the Central Intelligence Agency's habit of being creative with (or, depending on your ideological leanings, outright contemptuous of) the rule of law. But although it was certainly the case by the late 1960s that Americans were beginning to look askance on their government like never before, a bombshell report from Ramparts Magazine in 1967, which found that the CIA had infiltrated and co-opted the National Student Association (NSA), still came to many as a shock. In a post-"enhanced interrogation" world, that might seem a little quaint; but a better angle might be to see it as a warning, unheeded, of worse things to come.
The CIA's relationship with the NSA has not been as widely remembered as other government scandals of the era, but in her new book "Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA's Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism," political scientist and the American Prospect contributing editor Karen Paget shows that there's much about the CIA's meddling with the NSA that we still don't fully grasp. Moreover, what Paget found after years of meticulous research is that much of what we've been told about the controversy in the decades since has been incomplete — or outright untrue.
Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Paget to discuss the NSA, the CIA's involvement, and how the relationship between the two organizations evolved with and reflected the changing currents of the Cold War. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you tell me a little bit about what the USNSA was and what kind of work they did? What kind of person was drawn to that organization?
It was founded in 1947 and it was structured so that student governments belonged to the National Student Association, not individual students on campus. That was very deliberate in its founding because anti-Communist attitudes were very crucial in the formation of the NSA. It claimed, however, to speak for all American students. Probably between 400 and 1,000 of any given year attended huge NSA congresses which mimicked political party conventions and where both domestic and international issues were debated, where the officers were elected.
NSA presented itself as kind of an exemplar of student self-government, which was sort of new after the war. There were many colleges and universities that didn't have a student government, including Yale, as a matter of fact. I think from '47 to '67, one thing that was true for just about all generations is how exciting it was to meet people from other parts of the country. Remember, no social media, no cell phones; most people didn't read the New York Times; you didn't really have access to other American students and very few people had access to foreign students. You find people talking about how exciting it was.
This was also a period of time in which very smart people were attracted to student government. Many of the people that I listened to in the mid-60s were unbelievable orators; if you made a list of the people that came out of NSA, many of them would be familiar to younger generations even today — Barney Frank, or the journalist Jeff Greenfield — so these annual gatherings were a real induction into political debate on the issues of one's time. The composition of the delegations changed over time. One fact very salient to the unfolding of this story is that just after World War 2, 50 percent of all students on campus were returned veterans, so that made it a very unique student population.
What was it about this organization that also drew the CIA's attention?
The very simple answer is that the Soviets were interested in students. In fact, the National Student Association was really created in response to an international event, which was the 1946 founding of the International Union of Students based in Prague. At that point, IUS represented about 70 countries and it was very broadly based. Most European unions joined and there was a big debate over whether it was Communist-dominated because of the location— although Czechoslovakia was not then a Communist country.
There was an American delegation that attended in 1946 but it was ad-hoc, drawn from both campuses and other student and youth groups. They were very diverse, politically, from the left to the center to even some of the conservative Catholics, but the one thing that they could agree on was that if American students were to have any influence in this organization they had to found a national student organization of their own.
So the story really starts well before the actual founding of the USNSA?
I tried for almost five years to start the story in 1947 — I thought it was logical because that's when the Constitutional Convention was held and that's when the CIA was founded— but I kept seeing all these hidden hands. At that point, I knew I had to knit everything backwards, which I did do. To foreshadow a much more complicated story, I think the sheer number of agencies and organizations behind the scenes prior to the formation of the NSA is stunning: it ranges from the American Catholic Bishops to the Vatican to the State Department to multiple intelligence agencies.
I would also distinguish this early period from the covert operation that was run through and with NSA. Initially, the CIA had determined that covert actions were outside the charter that Congress had granted them. The first covert office was not really up and running until 1948, and then over the next few years the relationship with NSA became more and more clandestine; more and more secret; more and more formal, and then it grows and morphs into many different operations.
How much did the student members of the NSA know that they were working with the CIA?
There were absolutely two distinct groups of NSA students. The people who worked consciously, knowingly, with the CIA were made witting. Students who were going to fill the roles that the CIA wanted filled within the NSA were recruited through different means and each person underwent this ritual where any person who had passed the security background examination was either taken out to some posh place, usually with a former NSA person who had gone inside the agency to be a career staff, often helping to oversee the relationship.
Let's just say they were an elected officer; they were told that there were aspects of their new position that were important to the United States government and the older NSA person would say, I'd like to tell you about those aspects. Neither I nor most of the students who entered this way knew why the US government was interested, didn't know what they were going to learn, but after they signed, they learned that the CIA funded and ran the international program of the United States National Student Association. Anyone who crossed that boundary not only knew but reported to a CIA case officer, had code names, reporting requirements, and ops meetings.
Could you be a higher-up in the NSA and not be brought into the fold?
There were such people; I can't say for sure but it looks like most of the people had something in their background that made the agency balk at making them witting. The president was always made witting and the international affairs vice-president was always made witting. In 1967, as part of the constructed cover-up, the agency tried to say they only made two officials witting but that is misleading. The word "officials" means elected officials, because by then there was a large international staff and there were overseas NSA representatives.
You were made witting if you were those elected positions but you could be recruited by several other mechanisms. One was in 1953, a six-week seminar called the International Student Relations Seminar. People were very carefully selected for that seminar and while they were learning about international student politics in eye-glazing detail they were undergoing background security investigations.
At the end of the summer, a number of the students would be offered jobs on the international side of NSA, which is what happened with my husband; he did not know anything about the CIA or the U.S. government when he took the job. To my surprise, there were also career agents— particularly in the 60s— that came out of Langley headquarters and became NSA overseas representatives. Part of the explanation for that is that NSA was operating on so many continents and so many countries in the 60s, and it was such a time of seething anti-colonial sentiment that they were just desperate for students who could operate.
Some of the officers were only involved for the one year that they were elected officials of the NSA. Others spent five years with the agency because if you did that, apart from basic training, you got an exemption from the draft. That had great meaning during the Korean War, as several former participants explained to me. They said, look, it kept me out of Korea! Others still stayed far longer and became career officers.
Is there any truth to the various explanations given by the government of the CIA's operations within the NSA?
The cover story that was constructed in 1967, which has four crucial elements. One of them is essentially a denial that these were operations. The claim people still try to stick to is that the CIA just gave NSA "a few travel grants" but I don't think you can read this book and conclude that that was the case. A lot of the agents argued that they never exercised any control over the students, but that's a complicated question. Most participants were hardened Cold Warriors who, once they learned of it, were true believers in the anti-Communist cause.
In terms of the construction of a cover-up in '67, the third was that they never compromised the independence of NSA; again, I don't think you can read this book and come to that conclusion. They always claimed that there was Presidential approval of these operations but the evidence is mixed and I now have declassified documents that show how the State Department, the CIA, and the White House all scrambled to find that Presidential authority in 1967 — and they could not find specific authority in any of their files. The then-Senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy, saved them by coming out and saying that all the past presidents had approved, but he had no way of knowing that, really. He himself was an advocate of these kinds of operations so he did have first-hand information about NSA and had met, in fact, with some of their officers during that time.
What I'm trying to say is that the critical elements of the cover story are absolutely refuted by this book.
Why has it been so difficult for you to find information from this time period? Why is there still a desire to sweep this under the rug?
There are two different answers. One is this claim that the documents would reveal sources and methods, which is a generic national security claim. I found three 1948 reports that had been reclassified in 2001 and it took nine years to get two of the three declassified. There was just nothing in them... The two that got declassified were about what the "bad boys" were doing to us and the one that didn't get declassified a second time I think was about what we were doing to the bad guys. In that broad-brush national security claim, there is a lot of instinct to protect people or to not be embarrassed.
There is also a grey area, as one of the career people said to me; it's not clear these were legal operations. His first reaction was, how can they possible be legal? since the agency was forbidden to operate domestically. He found people inside the agency defensive about the question and finally concluded that it was definitely a grey area.
What criticism did you hear about the CIA's operations from NSA members?
The early Cold Warriors, up to the mid- to late 50's are pretty unambiguous about still supporting what they did, but they don't particularly look at the strategies. When you get into the time between '58 and '67, these are the participants who offer a much more nuanced and often devastatingly critical analysis of the strategies they used, even if they might defend their attempt. It's a distinction between motivation and consequences.
For example, one of the people who surprised me the most was one of the two people that was involved in making me witting: Robert Kiley. However much he might have believed in the Algerian revolutionaries' right to self-determination, he said specifically that none of those people amounted to a hill of beans. He also criticized the policy of not having any contact with the Communist international organization; he actually said that he felt it was a truly paranoid view within the agency.
There was a massive amount of intelligence reporting that came into the agency from specific countries or the International Student Conference, but who else in the agency besides the Covert Action Unit got to see all this reporting? Where did those reports go? That really bothers a lot of participants because nobody knows. It deeply troubles them.
Did you have assumptions about the program that became complicated by your research?
I didn't really have too many assumptions because my knowledge was very rough-hewn. I knew it wasn't what people said in 1967 who were defending the agency; I knew there was more to it, but I didn't know what the more to it meant. Absolutely critical to my process is this ginormous collection of international NSA papers at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University...
I couldn't help but be surprised at the high-level attention the CIA gave; there is a declassified memo that detailed the conservative influence in the National Student Association in the early 60s when the Young Americans for Freedom was formed. First they tried to take over NSA and then they tried to destroy it by having campus-by-campus disaffiliation votes. This was the highest levels of the CIA worrying about the conservatives, and the reason they were so concerned is that it was crucial for international credibility that NSA always be able to speak int he name of American students.