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Long-ago wiretap inspires a battle with the CIA for more information

by Ian Shapira

The Washington Post

Paul Scott, the late syndicated columnist, was so paranoid about the CIA wiretapping his home in the 1960s that he’d make important calls from his neighbor’s house. His teenage son Jim Scott figured his dad was either a shrewd reporter or totally nuts.

Not until nearly 45 years later did the son learn that his father’s worries were justified. The insight came in 2007 when the CIA declassified a trove of documents popularly called “the family jewels.” The papers detailed the agency’s unlawful activities from long ago, including wiretapping the Scott home in District Heights, Maryland. The operation even had a code name, “Project Mockingbird.”

Jim was floored: the CIA really did eavesdrop on Dad.

Now Jim, 64, a retired navy public relations officer who lives in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, is waging his own operation against the agency. For the past five years, he has sought to declassify and make public any documents Langley might still have on his father and why he was wiretapped.

So far, the CIA has released to Jim a handful of intriguing documents. But Jim has been trying to compel the agency to cough up more. A federal declassification review panel is now reviewing Jim’s case and could decide as soon as this month whether to direct the CIA to release more Mockingbird documents.

“I don’t have any animosity for the CIA,” said Jim, whose father died at the age of 80 in 2001. “I respect what they do. But they make it extremely difficult for the average citizen to interact with them. It makes me wonder what they are still trying to hide about my father.”

‘Bureaucracy and power’

It’s not easy penetrating one of the world’s most secretive organizations.

Tourists can’t just show up at its famous headquarters, let alone wander into its museum or browse the gift shop that sells CIA T-shirts and tchotchkes. Even former spies-turned-memoirists need agency approval for their manuscripts before publication and often can’t reveal seemingly harmless or boring details about their careers.

For ordinary people — academics, journalists, relatives of former employees — extracting agency information can be tough. They can file Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act requests or mandatory declassification review requests. But the CIA usually isn’t eager to part with much, said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

“I have a number of requests with the CIA that are more than 5 years old,” said Aftergood, who has sued the agency a handful of times for documents.

“The message they’re sending is, ‘if you want our attention, sue us,’ ” he said, calling it “a time-consuming and resource-demanding effort.” He usually loses.

Todd Ebitz, an agency spokesman, said the agency received more than 5,400 Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act requests, along with mandatory declassification review requests, in fiscal 2012 . The agency doesn’t keep track of how many of those requests come from ordinary citizens versus journalists, academics and nonprofit groups.

Since 1995, he said, the CIA has released more than 10 million pages of declassified material. The agency also has used its own discretion to release more than 100,000 pages of CIA material, including documents from the family jewels. But just because documents are old doesn’t mean they can be made public.

“CIA information that is decades-old may still be sensitive when it mentions methods, techniques or sources which, if they were revealed, could harm our nation’s security or place someone’s personal security at risk,” Ebitz said. “The agency works diligently to make public information no longer requiring protection, releasing what we can and withholding what we must in the interest of national security.”

The CIA declined to comment on the specifics of Jim Scott’s case. But Tom Blanton, director of the George Washington University-based National Security Archive, questioned the agency’s refusal to release the documents about Jim Scott’s father: “There’s nothing truly secret about the wiretapping of Paul Scott now.”

“What this is really about,” Blanton said, “is bureaucracy and power.”

Office, home bugged

In June 2007, Jim read about the CIA’s decision to release the family jewels. The collection of long-secret documents revealed new details about the agency’s activities from the 1960s and 1970s, including a failed assassination plan against Cuba’s Fidel Castro, a Watergate burglar’s search for an expert lock picker, and illegal wiretaps of reporters.

To Jim’s shock, two of the wiretapped journalists were his father, Paul, and his writing partner, Robert Allen, who died in 1981. The men once wrote a syndicated column in 300 newspapers called the “Allen-Scott Report.” Their column often contained national security scoops, including exclusives about Soviet aid to Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis.

Jim called his mother about the wiretap revelations. She reminded him about the time he complained about hearing strangers’ voices on a phone call with a classmate.

“I had heard some clicking in the background,” Jim said, laughing. “I heard someone say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just two kids talking about homework assignments.’ As a teenager, you kinda just blow that stuff off.”

Once the family jewels were posted online, “I couldn’t go to sleep that night, reading the documents,” Jim recalled. “What startled me was the level of seniority that approved this operation.”

The wiretap on his father was described in only three released pages, each stamped with the words “SECRET” and “EYES ONLY.” Every sentence seemed more tantalizing than the next.

Between March 12, 1963, and June 15, 1963, phone bugs were installed at both the Allen and Scott homes and their Capitol Hill office. But this was no rogue operation: CIA Director John McCone approved the operation “under pressure,” the documents said, from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. And Kennedy planned it with Robert McNamara, the defense secretary and Vietnam War architect.

The wiretap identified many of the reporting team’s sources: a dozen senators; six congressmen; 11 congressional staffers; 16 “government employees,” including staffers at the White House and in the vice president’s office; and “other well-placed individuals,” the documents said.

The journalists actually got more classified information than they could use, the documents noted, and passed along the leftovers to rival reporters.

But several pages were fully or partly redacted. Jim felt teased. Why, he wondered, did the CIA keep those pages secret after so many years? Are the names of all their sources hidden behind the redactions?

“It felt like a half-written Vince Flynn or Michael Connelly novel,” Jim said. “I wondered how much my dad knew about being surveilled. What was going through his mind? He had to be fearful. It felt like this was a chapter in his life we knew little about, and the release of (more) documents could shed some light.”

So, in 2008, the son filed his first Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA.

Questioning the spies

Twelve months later, the agency mailed Jim a packet of partially redacted memos about Paul. None touched on the 1963 Mockingbird wiretap, though there was an intriguing account of a visit his father made to South Africa in 1968 to interview a captured Russian spy.

“The CIA gave me stuff that I didn’t know even existed,” Jim said, “but I just wanted to know what articles triggered the wiretap.”

In early 2009, Jim requested the wiretap documents for a second time. “Isn’t it safe to assume that most, if not all, of the key players complicit in this operation are deceased?” he asked in a letter to the CIA.

That summer, the CIA rejected his appeal, ruling that the information still required secrecy. Meanwhile, Jim had pursued a second route: the FBI.

To his surprise, the bureau was more than happy to play along. Throughout 2011, FBI documents arrived at Jim’s home in waves, packed with new revelations.

Jim learned, according to one FBI memo, that his dad truly alarmed the government at a Feb. 6, 1963, news conference in which he asked Defense Secretary McNamara several questions about Cuban weapons. Paul used precisely the same information in his questions that was contained in secret navy documents. And the navy, according to the bureau memos, wanted the FBI to find out who his source was.

But someone very senior at the bureau expressed reservations in a letter to Robert Kennedy that referenced his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Although the FBI official seemed alarmed by “Allen-Scott Report” pieces — published from December 1962 to February 1963 in, of all places, the now-defunct Northern Virginia Sun — he didn’t want the bureau involved.

“(A) covert investigation will become known and I understood the President does not want it to become known. (I)t would be far more effective to have the Defense agencies interview people in their own agencies rather than an outside civilian agency do it because there is always a certain amount of resentment . . .

Very truly yours, JEH, John Edgar Hoover, Director”

Jim appeared to be on the right track.

“I was elated when I read all this. These are some heavyweight people,” Jim said. “I figured that I am getting this from the FBI, and it’ll just be a matter of time before the CIA sheds some light as well.”

Appeal to authority

But Jim never got any traction with the CIA. He has taken his fight to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, a Supreme Court-like body made up of officials from agencies such as the CIA, State, Defense and Justice departments. The group, which decides declassification requests, has already discussed Jim’s appeal. The soonest the panel could make its decision would be this month. If it rules in Jim’s favor, the CIA could appeal the decision to President Barack Obama or release the documents.

Even he wins, Jim won’t be satisfied. He plans to file a new request for the transcripts of the bugged conversations between his father and his sources.

It’s unclear how the appeals panel will rule on the Scott case. Ebitz, the CIA spokesman, said that the CIA hasn’t unveiled anything new from the family jewels collection since 2007 “because we released everything we could. The information we withheld is properly classified.”

Jim, his four sisters, and their 88-year-old mother wish Paul were still alive so he could fill in the holes. Jane Cobis, who was married to Paul for 55 years, said she remembers sources dropping by their home. One was from the CIA.

“He was a good friend of Paul’s,” said Cobis, who has since remarried. “He would talk to him frequently and give him a lot of information. He was probably the reason we were wiretapped. He and his wife came out to the house a lot. He felt there were certain things the press should know.”

Though the source and his wife are deceased, she’d rather keep their identities secret. The Scotts have their own family jewels to protect.