Patriotic Betrayal in the 1960s -- When the CIA Turned Students Into Spies

03/05/2015 12:50 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

Amid the furor over government surveillance and invasion of privacy in recent years, it's instructive to remember that such behavior is hardly new. And there is no better example than Patriotic Betrayal, a remarkable work of investigative history by Karen M. Paget that shows us how deeply-rooted such policies are in American society. While current revelations of computer-driven snooping are astonishing and unprecedented, Paget's account of the Central Intelligence Agency and its infiltration of the National Student Association in the 1950s and 1960s is no less eye-opening.

The author, a former staff member of the NSA, is a contributing editor to The American Prospect, and her book, just published by Yale University Press, is not only a prodigiously documented and compelling recollection of her own involvement in the story she tells; it is a cautionary tale for the digital age of how the CIA brazenly violated its own charter against domestic activities and turned a generation of college student leaders into Cold War spies.

Patriotic Betrayal documents the seduction meticulously, with names, dates and places that have never been revealed before. It's a sprawling account that begins innocently in 1965, when Paget and her husband were thrilled by his acceptance of a new salaried post on the NSA's international staff. Like other NSA members -- many of them student government officials -- they were drawn by the opportunity to travel abroad, debate politics with foreign students and represent U.S. interests at a time when America's crusade against communism was reaching its zenith. The NSA, formed in the aftermath of World War II, seemed high-minded enough. But as Paget quickly learned, it was hardly independent.

During a visit to Washington, D.C. she and her husband were approached one night by a group of former NSA officials who discreetly revealed that they worked for the CIA. They told the couple that the intelligence agency funded NSA programs, and heavily influenced its international agenda. Secrecy was paramount; Paget and her spouse learned they could face 20 years in prison for revealing this information. The two had been inducted as "witting" members of the NSA -- and were expected to play ball.

Her husband, Paget writes, "was deeply shaken by the revelation, which turned our time in Washington from a period of elation to one of confusion and, later, fear. We took the oath literally and seriously. We told no one. We sought no counsel. Aged twenty (me) and twenty-two (my husband) we felt isolated. And we kept asking ourselves: How could this have happened?"

At this point, skeptical readers may ask: Why would the CIA, up to its eyeballs in Cold War skullduggery, spend time and resources co-opting a wonky organization that sponsored and attended student meetings in cities around the world? The NSA posed no threat to U.S. foreign policy. Student opposition to the Vietnam War was several years away from becoming a potent force.

Paget offers a cogent answer: The CIA's infiltration of the NSA helped the U.S.:

... Counter Moscow-backed international organizations with pro-Western organizations that would offer an alternative to various constituencies -- youth, students, labor and intellectuals -- by undermining claims that the communists alone spoke for these groups...The CIA did not merely subsidize the NSA with a few travel grants as it later claimed; the CIA ran a covert operation through the NSA as part of its counteroffensive against Soviet-backed international organizations.

But why would NSA members be receptive to the overtures of CIA officials? Why would student leaders agree to become covert agents -- and keep that fact a secret? The answer can be found in the story of how the CIA's involvement in NSA affairs finally became public, leading to a public relations disaster.

It started, perhaps inevitably, with a disillusioned whistleblower within the NSA who quit his post and took boxes of incriminating documents with him. Michael Wood, who had just been fired as the organization's development director, began searching for a media outlet that would print an expose about the CIA's clandestine activities. He found his way to Ramparts, a storied, leftwing magazine published in the Bay Area that was a lightening rod for opposition to the Vietnam War. The crusading monthly had already published a story about CIA involvement in a $25 million Michigan State University project to train South Vietnamese police forces, and the editors jumped on Woods' bombshell.

At this point, Paget's account takes on the trappings of a thriller. The CIA got wind of Ramparts' plans and tried to suppress the story by blackmailing its editors. Meanwhile, the magazine learned of NSA's plan to pre-emptively reveal -- and denounce -- its forthcoming story at a February 14 press conference. "For several months Ramparts and the CIA pursued each other," the author writes.

One team relied on a group of budding journalists, slightly more seasoned editors, radical activists, and graduate student researchers. The other team had access to lavish governmental resources, including full-time professionals, and a secret but extensive network of contacts in the United States and abroad.

The high stakes cat and mouse game ended on the evening of February 13, 1967, when Ramparts took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, "scooped itself" and told the world its findings -- hours before NSA's planned counter-event. Former CIA director Richard Helms later recalled it as "one of my darker days." In the ensuing firestorm, the agency denied the charges. But its NSA operations essentially ended when the Ramparts article appeared.

The story, however, didn't simply excoriate the CIA. The students who were innocent victims or knowing participants in the scheme going back to the 1950s also came under the microscope: "For the young college graduate who was a 'student leader,' there was nothing quite as flattering as being approached by the CIA to help in the National Effort," wrote Marcus Raskin, co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., in a contributing essay.

Furthermore, it was the way up the status ladder, to success, travel, excitement, money and government or foundation jobs. By following that road, the student leaders of my generation -- a decade ago -- played it safe. As a result, they became instruments of the Cold War.

Paget's impressive work, 15 years in the making, illuminates a sobering period in the not too distant past that remains highly instructive. Great history informs the present, and as America's intelligence scandals continue to unfold, Patriotic Betrayal argues eloquently that, no matter how worthy its objectives, a democratic government that crosses the line and subverts the principles it's sworn to uphold forfeits any claim to higher ground.