The day after Chris Hitchens passed away in December, I dropped a note to Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, an Arlington, Va. outfit that specializes in prying documents from the vaults of the CIA, NSA, FBI and other spook outfits.
“I feel a huge hole with the passing of my friend...” I told McClanahan. “That said, it may now be time to FOIA records on him held by the usual suspects.”
And so McClanahan did, filing Freedom of Information Act requests for me with the CIA, FBI and State Department. I promptly forgot about it.
(Full disclosure: Last year I signed up as NSC’s “news media counselor,” an unpaid role in which I occasionally offer advice that McClanahan has no need for.)
In February, the CIA responded.
Nothing, the spy agency said, could be released about the peripatetic and prolific writer, whose move from from left to right in the last decade of his life enraged and confounded many of his friends, because it might reveal the identity of people (or electronic methods) watching him.
Now that was interesting, considering the journalist’s four decades of global travel, including to Cuba in the 1960s, during his radical leftist phase.
“CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request," it said.
"The fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified and is intelligence sources and methods information that is protected from disclosure by section 6 of the CIA Act of 1949, as amended, and section 102A(I) of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended.”
That’s the so-called “Glomar Explorer exception," originating in the CIA’s refusal to acknowledge ties to a mining ship of that name, owned by the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, which raised the wreckage of a Soviet nuclear sub from the bottom of the Pacific in 1968.
McClanahan decided it was futile to appeal. As in the CIA’s refusal today to acknowledge its stewardship of the drone program, even though White House officials brag about it, the CIA will not officially confirm its role in an event that has not been secret for 40-plus years.
Then, a few days ago, came the FBI’s response (to myself and then the Historiographic Anarchy site) on Hitchens.
As has been widely and amply noted elsewhere, the records revealed that Hitchens was the subject of government snooping as far back as 1970, when the FBI, most likely relying on British intelligence, noted he was “a member” of two Trotskyist groups who “took an active part in several demonstrations and was arrested and fined twice”--a record replicated by thousands of other antiwar activists.
But there was also this “Secret” July 5, 1970 memo, which reads like it was provided by a British spy agency for the FBI:
“I enclose a self-explanatory note from my Head Office about HITCHENS. As the information in the report derives from a secret and delicate source it is requested that no action be taken which might compromise the source. In addition it is requested that the note is given no further dissemination without reference to us.”
Whatever was in the note, however, is entirely blacked out.
Perhaps more intriguing is the revelation in the records that Hitchens was caught up in, or even the subject of, a deeply classified FBI foreign counterintelligence operation in the early 1980s.
It remains that way. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union--the FBI's Moby Dick--much is blacked out. Many of the three-decades-old documents remain classified “Secret” in their entirety.The FBI maintains that their release could cause “serious damage to the national security.”
Really? What possibly could still be so sensitive all these years later, especially since Hitchens is now dead?
Could it be the names of pals who were ratting on him? Names could be blacked out without censoring an entire file. The same goes for the existence of old bugs or other eavesdropping operations directed at Hitchens. The same for “friends” of the FBI or CIA in foreign intelligence services where the late Hitchens travelled.
Not one word can be released? Whole files suppressed? What's in them?
We may never know. Much like Hitchens himself, they may remain a mystery.
We're appealing, nevertheless.