is not now nor has it ever been a central intelligence agency. It is the covert
action arm of the President's foreign policy advisers. In that capacity it
overthrows or supports foreign governments while reporting
"intelligence" justifying those activities. It shapes its
intelligence, even in such critical areas as Soviet nuclear weapon capability,
to support presidential policy. Disinformation is a large part of its covert
action responsibility, and the American people are the primary target audience
of its lies.”
heard of Ralph McGehee when he donated his books and papers to John Judge,
believing that he would provide them with safe keeping, which they were until
the death of John and the removal of the COPA and Hidden History Museum
archives out of Wasington, where John wanted them.
is sad to learn that McGehee has also passed away, a victim of the Covid virus.
I wish I had known that he was still alive and I would have contacted him and
interviewed him for the record. His remarkable careeer in the CIA was very much
like Phil Agee, as they were both recruited out of Notre Dame, and both turned
on the agency when they realized what they were doing.
Anyone interested in following up on McGehee can visit the Hidden History Museum in York, Pennsylvania.
was born in 1928 at Moline,
father, originally from Kentwood, Louisiana, where his family had lived
for three generations, was of Scotch-Irish descent, and had moved to Illinois
when a teenager. His mother was from neighboring Osyka, Mississippi. Along with his older sister,
they then had moved from Moline to Chicago about 1930. While a student at
Tilden Tech, a "working class" high school in south Chicago now known
as Tilden High School, he was All State
in football, and class president. Although a Baptist, he attended the University of Notre Dame where he was
a starting tackle on the football team. For the four seasons 1946 to 1949, they
never lost a game, and won three national championships. McGehee
obtained a B.S. in Business Administration, cum laude.
married Norma Galbreath in 1948. He
had met her at a Presbyterian Church in south Chicago while
home on vacation from Notre Dame. They had four children, two girls followed by
two boys. Often but not always, his wife and children would move their family
home to accompany him, while on foreign assignments with the CIA. After
graduation from Notre Dame, he tried professional football with the Green Bay Packers. Then he coached the offensive
line in the football program at the University of Dayton for a year.
Returning to Chicago, circa 1951, he took a job as a management trainee
at Montgomery Ward.
by the CIA
January 1952, McGehee was recruited by the CIA. Decades later, he would
describe himself, and his political outlook then, as "gung ho"
America, a young cold warrior, ready to go.
it was an important government job with foreign travel, McGehee first was
interviewed at the courthouse. The recruiters declined to name the federal
agency that might be his new employer. He traveled from Chicago to Washington,
D.C., where he joined a pool of over a 100 candidates, men and women. Several
weeks of extensive testing and lectures followed. Having survived this shake
out, he began a month-long orientation, which featured cold war rhetoric and
films. With 50 men he entered a "basic operations" course on
espionage, to fit them for the CIA's Directorate for Plans. Then with 30
others he attended a six-week paramilitary course at the CIA's Camp Peary
(known as the "farm") near Williamsburg, Virginia. Many there were
former college football players. The curriculum included parachute jumping,
demolition, weapons, and a "hellish obstacle course".
he was posted to his initial CIA post.
and the Philippines, 1953–1956
was sent to Japan, where he went to work for the China operations group. The
group's task was, in conjunction with allied governments, to gather
intelligence on the PRC. The group in the Tokyo area
supervised and supported four other offices or bases in East Asia (Seoul,
Taiwan, Hong Kong, Okinawa). His job "unfortunately" was as a file
checker. Yet he appreciated being involved in "the immense and noble
effort to save the world from the International Communist Conspiracy".
with his wife and daughters in a beautiful home in Hayama. They had
a maid and a gardener, and a view of Mt. Fuji.
Husband and wife "became intoxicated with the romance of being
overseas." There was "a close knit community of Agency
families". A son was born to them. Yet his wife would repeat her
complaints about CIA rules which prohibited any talk of company business, even
within families; she insisted that the "marital bonds and trust"
should be the stronger.
two and a half years, the China operations group moved to Subic Bay in
the Philippines. Desmond FitzGerald, the
CIA's Chief of Station (COS) there, would become one
of the Agency's top leaders. He was a long-time friend of William
Colby (the CIA Director in the 1970s). Yet
because of CIA secrecy, and its "need to know" policy, McGehee knew
comparatively little about its operations worldwide. The CIA's China operations
at Subic Bay were then terminated, and the McGehees returned home.
headquarters near the Washington Monument, McGehee became chief of records for
counterintelligence at China activities, basically supervising the work he had
been doing in Japan. His office had a staff of 15 women; he admitted that some
"could do a better job" than him. Two requests routinely came in: for
a "file trace" (a search for records about a person, e.g., a
candidate for doing business with the Agency); and a "clearance" (a
more thorough check, often for potential CIA employees). Yet
in general CIA records were in a deplorable condition. Huge piles of backorders
were common. An expert proposed working criteria for selecting files to
destroy, e.g., duplicates, nonsense, useless. Other problems were addressed,
such as carding information. In McGehee's unit, the Chinese characters (often ambiguous to
non-Chinese) could be variously 'transliterated' into different roman
letters, making for file repetition and much confusion. Instead, each
character was reduced to a 4-digit number.
Saigon a former Chinese politician claimed that his contacts back in China had
excellent intelligence, which they sent him by short-wave radio. The politician
sought "financial support" in return for current political
information. His reports appeared to be very valuable. But an allied
intelligence agency told CIA that a "newspaper clipping service" in
Saigon was the probable source. When CIA tried to listen in to transmissions,
there was silence. Instead, his "intelligence" was being fabricated from bits and pieces of
local Chinese press coverage, rewritten to make the incidents more significant
to CIA. Yet the "germ of truth" in each gave it verisimilitude.
Later, CIA discovered that the operation was run by a Taiwan intelligence
agency. The rewrites told a story about mainland China that Taiwan wanted to
many applications for a change in status, McGehee was promoted. Following a
3-months training course, he'd be a CIA case officer.\\
a case officer his work involved liaison with his
Chinese counterparts in various Nationalist intelligence services. Their common
purpose was collecting information on the PRC. The CIA worked with Taiwan "to
train and drop teams of Chinese on the mainland to develop resistance movements
and gather intelligence." When mainland fishermen were detained on Chinmen Island
[aka Quemoy], McGehee would go out for the debriefing. The PRC shelled the
island on certain hours every other day, hitting only barren spots according to
a "gentleman's agreement". The 1958 Quemoy-Matsu Crisis was still
had great difficulty recruiting agents for espionage activity on the mainland.
Hence its intelligence on what it then called 'Red China' was very patchy.
Apparently the CIA missed the great extent of the famine in China caused by
the Great Leap Forward.
offered to share one of its best agents. American officers taught him the CIA
system on many espionage subjects, marveling that he was "the best agent
they had ever trained." He was to stay in radio contact daily while on the
mainland. After four months away, he returned. Yet when away he seldom made
radio contact. His excuses for this didn't add up. McGehee could not be sure if
he was a duplicitous Nationalist, "playing games with us", or was
working for the Communists.
soon to become a major figure in American intelligence, was the COS in
a friend of the COS, Chiang
Ching-kuo, son of the Generalisimo,
would visit the CIA club. For an upcoming CIA "hail and farewell"
gathering, a particularly lavish costume party was planned, with an Indian
tribe theme. The COS and McGehee's "clique" of eight couples
attended. During his late night drive home, McGehee saw "hovels of
Taiwanese people" who were dressed in rags, in "a struggle to stay
because of its Bay of Pigs disaster, CIA headquarters was
"rife with despair and upheaval". Based on news reports, McGehee
thought "the Agency had relied too much on an anticipated uprising by the
Cuban people." The CIA's move into its new 7-story headquarters building
in Langley, Virginia, began in late 1961. It was
located 9 miles from Washington on 219 acres and "resembled a college
campus". But excitement was curtailed by a cut in personnel, one in five
to be fired. The survivors celebrated. The new offices for China activities
were on the third floor. After 9 months, he was offered an overseas position in
Northeast border Thailand is hill country. McGehee had set up a home/office
there. He worked on his Thai.
On the wall he placed a poster featuring an evil-looking Mao and Ho.
Contributing to cold war tension was fear of a bloodbath in event of a
takeover. CIA liaison work dealt with the local Thai Border Patrol Police (BPP).
interpreter, Captain Song (as McGehee calls him), also headed the Thai
counterinsurgency operations. Song had good rapport with the locals and hill
tribes, but "took an immediate dislike to anyone with direct authority over
him." There were many minority ethnic groups in the rugged terrain, with
several plotting for political independence from neighboring Burma. The remote
hill tribes practiced a slash-and-burn agriculture,
necessitating frequent relocations; their "major cash crop was opium from
the poppy." At the moment the border was quiescent. China apparently
failed to notice when the CIA's airplane accidentally crossed the border.
unintentionally, political infighting developed among some Americans. Yet the
CIA station chief was naturally gregarious, avoiding conflict. He'd nurtured a
close relationship with Prime Minister Sarit
American ambassador, however, did not get along well with Sarit. At a
well-attended state ceremony, Sarit avoided the ambassador in favor of
the Chief of Station (COS). This exacerbated
ill-feelings at the top. McGehee called the COS "Rod Johnson".
the deputy COS of CIA in Bangkok had called on McGehee (now back in the north)
to report to the station. Also given a fictitious name, the deputy had acquired
a bad reputation (bullying, manipulation, grudge holding). The COS and his
deputy made a good cop, bad cop pair. As McGehee listened
in the deputy's office, he eventually came to the point where, McGehee writes,
he "was tearing down my superiors in my presence and asking me to spy on
them for him!" Consequently, McGehee's ethics disappointed the ambitious
deputy. McGehee figured he became the latest addition to the deputy's enemy
list; he then thought that people like this deputy COS, who put his career
above the mission, were "aberrations" among otherwise dedicated CIA
agents. Rather McGehee continued to idealize CIA activities as "somewhere
between the Peace Corps and missionary work".
3-week hike to visit remote villages in the Northeast highlands, McGehee lost
20 pounds. Delivery of medical goods and agricultural implements to the tribes
furthered the civil development side of counterinsurgency work. To further both
objectives, "small mountain airstrips" would facilitate transport to
the more isolated areas. The first Yao village
had about "two dozen bamboo houses with roofs of thatch" spread out
on the hillside. The "gentle, intelligent" village headman agreed, at
an evening meal, to build the airstrips. That morning a CIA plane had dropped
supplies by parachute, scattering them over the mountain forest. A location for
the airstrip was found, and young men selected to be trained. Other airstrips
were arranged at other villages. Yet a few years later, because of
"communist influence on the Lao border" the villages were "bombed
by Thai warplanes. It was a bitter end for the hill tribes.
Thai desk in Langley, McGehee's job was to keep track of the continuations of
the work he'd done in Thailand. He called it paper pushing. The general advise
was not to be harsh, which seemed to encourage platitudes. Many of the reports
from Bangkok station concerned the Communist Party of Thailand. Once a
week William Colby, the Far East division chief (and
later DCI), would review the reports
(with Langley comments) and pass on "rating sheets" that'd been
written up. These would be sent back to the reporting stations around the
world, where they'd be read with gravitas as the view from
announced that Colby would brief a Congressional committee about the
'secret war' in Laos. He wanted approval for new plans of CIA. At first McGehee
was pleased to be part of the team doing the preparation work. Colby stressed
the importance of using the right word. In finding the best name for Hmong tribal
groups that fought against communists guerillas, the middle path between
"Hunter-Killer Teams" and "Home Defense Units" was agreed
to be "Mobile Strike Forces". Facts seemed open to be tweaked into
what might make a better argument. An 'ineffective' present situation could
become 'what it might be'. McGehee considered it "duping Congress".
Colby obtained approval.
Johnson began to escalate the war in Vietnam. In Thailand a China-based group
announced the start of the revolution. McGehee asked his desk chief to help him
arrange a return to Thailand.
Thailand McGehee's first assignment was assisting in liaison work with "a
small Thai counterinsurgency force" that the CIA
itself had created. These Thai agents gathered information on communist
activities; they also acted as a secret police. McGehee doubted the quality of
information gathered by "untrained interrogators"
from poorly vetted sources, yet at first he wrote it up for CIA reports. Then
he co-wrote a review of this large accumulation of counterinsurgency data. He
concluded that without detailed processing, e.g., carding the information into
"geographic and subject files", the "inchoate mess remained just
that". Thus, here in Thailand or back at CIA HQ in Washington, an analyst
collating it "could make of it just about anything he wanted to".
came across an ambitious CIA case officer who guarded his field data in a
locked file room. He claimed to be running, as a paid CIA spy, the important
leader of a Communist splinter group. After this case officer left Thailand, it
was discovered that his paid spy was a phony, a "fabricator" of useless,
so-called intelligence. So unmasked, the 'spy' then wrote a book attacking the
the departure of the disagreeable deputy Chief of Station (COS), the
CIA station offered McGehee the job of "establishing an
intelligence-collection program" for "the 50,000-man national police". After questioning the
criteria and support available (especially his status per the American AID program), McGehee
welcomed this "difficult and challenging" task. He characterized it
as "my Mission Impossible: convert a
bunch of unschooled patrolmen into sophisticated intelligence gatherers and
do it without money and the authority that comes with it." His subsequent
work here to develop the intelligence Survey program would define his
second tour in Thailand.
met with Colonel Chat Chai, head of police intelligence. Its personnel knew little
about Communist organization and had no intelligence training. Overcoming the
Colonel's initial suspicion, they toured police HQ in Bangkok and later the
provinces. Since 1963 a budding insurgency in Thailand had received some local
support and had mounted some assassinations and ambushes. Although little was
clearly understood, the CIA thought several thousand Communists in guerrilla
bands hid out in the highlands, chiefly in the Thai northeast, and raided
lowland villages for "rice, money and recruits".
literature on intelligence gathering in counterinsurgency situations, McGehee
initially adopted a 'mail box' technique. It functioned like the 'suggestion
box' in civilian life. The literate villager could provide information
anonymously, about local insurgent activities, and about the identities and
whereabouts of communist 'jungle soldiers' and supporters ... yet remain safe
Government agents, however, could not confirm the data so
sourced, nor ask follow-up questions. This "germ of an idea I was later to
develop into a full-scale, effective intelligence-counterinsurgency
operation," wrote McGehee. Eventually, in-person interviews of the local
villager and farmer (called taking a "census") was appraised to
provide better information and results. Joining
the team was Lieutenant Somboon, a university graduate with "a
remarkable intitive feel for the esoteric art of intelligence gathering."
He was serving then as a local deputy nai amphur (sheriff).
proposed to develop a "pilot project" and to first concentrate on one
district. A thorough Survey of the views of the rural villagers
and farmers would be made. The province governor helped recruit a select group
of twenty-five agents with which to start. Beside police, it included military
officers, several administrators, and a high-ranking educator. Also part of the
team were four translators and a PAT armed force for protection against
communist guerrillas. Questionnaires were developed and the Survey's interrogators
trained in their use "out of hearing range of other[s]". Also started
were village networks for community support and for ongoing intelligence
sources. As an coordinate result, some villagers confessed to being
"duped" by the Communists, named other members, then quit the
'movement' and joined the government side.
Somboon gave a motivating speech at a meeting of villagers called by their
headman, which successfully countered Communist propaganda. He and others,
however, also used aggressive techniques involving simulated threats of death
and other cruel ruses to obtain information from suspected guerrillas, or
"to sow dissension" in enemy ranks. Such methods raised human
rights issues for McGehee. Counterinsurgency, if not careful, could
descend into a barbarous business. Yet he was then persuaded that an efficient
intelligence process, even if somewhat flawed, which also threw light on murky
shadows where the guerrillas hid, would save lives in the long run of a
counterinsurgency war. In fact, the Survey and police presence itself
resulted in many villagers abandoning the armed communist insurgency.
so collected then translated, was carded into categories, and collated, and
digested, then written up. From the bits and pieces of "vague, partial,
shifting, incomplete, fragmentary intelligence", it provided a hitherto "unknown
total picture." It revealed, among other things, that the communist
insurgency in northeast Thailand was considerably stronger than originally
supposed. It also struck a blow. The Survey was distributed
nationwide to government and police officials, who praised the CIA case officer
responsible. The COS 'Rod Johnson' called him to CIA in Bangkok where his work
was celebrated; he was promoted to a 2-year command in Thailand. Ralph McGehee
felt he had hit his stride, and was reaching new levels of professional skill
Colby's visit and ends of Survey.
Colby, then chief of the CIA's Far East division, came to the province in
1967. McGehee proudly told him of his teams' work on the district Survey and
its findings, showing him the file cabinets with the carded and collated
intelligence information. The Communists in Thailand, he explained, were far
more numerous than assumed. They also enjoyed substantial support among rural
people. Communist agents concentrated on "winning the cooperation of the
peasants," citing the example of a specific village. Yet the Survey had,
by throwing light on the insurgent violence, caused villagers to re-think the
issues and many to desert the Communist cause. McGehee naturally expected some
appreciation from Colby and interest in furthering the Survey work.
But Colby kept his silence.
described the enemy's Farmers' Liberation Association (FLA). It
recruited rural villagers, who were then secretly indoctrinated about Communist
plans for widespread armed struggle in Thailand. Local guerrilla cadres were
already launching minor terrorist assaults. In retaliation the Thai government
ordered unfocused, brutal attacks that often fell on innocent farmers, creating
an "atmosphere of hate" that the Communists were eager to exploit
politically. To the contrary, McGehee's Survey teams had "used
our intelligence to penetrate the Communists' crucial shield of secrecy"
and accordingly had broken their grip on the villagers. Farmers had confessed,
given information, and quit the FLA. Here, McGehee felt he was presenting to
Colby a counterinsurgency program that worked. Otherwise, Communists insurgents
would multiply in Thailand, as had happened in Vietnam.
response, Colby appeared puzzled. He was non-committal, evasive, eventually
saying only, "We always seem to be losing." Later McGehee realized
that Colby was "probably weighing the broader ramifications." Colby
and his entourage then quickly left for the airport in jeeps and land rovers.
Two months later the COS offered McGehee a plum CIA job in Taiwan on a career
channel ensuring rapid promotions. But McGehee wanted to continue his work in
Thailand. Au contraire the COS told him. He had to leave Thailand in
three weeks, and the Survey project would be terminated. Despite
local protests by involved Thai officials and by the American consul, it
happened that way.
arrived at headquarters still mystified by the surprising and unexplained
decision, which must have been made by Colby,
to terminate the Survey program. It had achieved significant results,
and received high praise. During his last months in Thailand McGehee had
labored on it with an intense dedication. Unexpectedly the COS ordered him out
of Thailand. The plum job in Taiwan, that had been dangled before him, proved to
be a ruse to get him out of the way; upon his arrival at the Langley, it was
already cancelled. McGehee writes that he was "having a difficult time
justifying my previously idealistic view of the Agency."
of China activities offered him a desk job. Judging by past results, repetitive
failure seemed to be the story about the job's major task: "recruiting a
Chinese official to be our spy." The track record showed a repeating cycle
of fruitless attempts: new idea, enthusiasm, field action, failure; new idea,
enthusiasm... . E.g.,
after the war it became known that CIA estimates of the Chinese military in
Vietnam were egregiously low.
the Sino-Soviet split, McGehee thought, some in the
China desk seemed to have a "vested interest" in keeping China as a
major enemy. The CIA had obtained a recent, 40-page China document that
detailed the PRC's long-range foreign policy and
short-range moves. Nonetheless, China desk decided not to circulate it, McGehee
reasoned, because the PRC's plans were reasonable, not belligerent.
a memorandum to put the Thailand Survey program back in play. First
he sent it to Colby's new replacement at the Far East division (without
success), then to a suggestion committee. The China desk leader then told him
that he'd ruffled the new Far East division chief, whose anger was jeopardizing
his career. McGehee wrote later about his "awakening" to see the CIA
in a new, cynical way. Vietnam was in a situation somewhat similar to Thailand.
He volunteered to serve CIA in Vietnam, something nobody with an eye on their
career was doing in 1968. Then, out of the blue, the CIA's office of training
told him how good the Thailand Survey program looked. They were
already teaching this "McGehee method" as a major part of
counterinsurgency training at the CIA "farm" in Virginia. Yet the Far
East division remained uninterested.
arrived at Tan Son Nhut airport
outside of Saigon in October 1968. The Viet Cong's Tet
offensive had struck at cities the previous January. He'd
last visited Saigon in 1960, which then seemed "a peaceful city
with tree-lined boulevards," with herbal aromas and flower markets, and
"Vietnamese women wearing the flowing ao-dai".
Now in the downtown he was unpleasantly surprised by Tu Do Street, where
"an atmosphere of hate permeated the air" like "the clouds of
[vehicle] exhaust". Bars, massage parlors, and rock music catered to
American G.I.s. In a very much larger, congested Saigon, the Vietnamese shared
their streets also with Chinese merchants and Indian Sikhs.
with the CIA
1983 book, McGehee at this point describes the institutional history of the CIA
and counterinsurgency in Vietnam, in caustic terms
informed by his later turn to the left. Yet in 1968 he remained "still
fiercely anti-communist". From his own experience in Thailand, however,
McGehee was already convinced that "intelligence reports ... had nothing
to do with reality". Immediately he wrote a memorandum to the Saigon station
chief suggesting incorporation of the learning from his Thailand
first assignment was as "regional officer in charge" (ROIC) at Gia Dinh province
near Saigon. As expected, he found its intelligence and field operations
seriously flawed. After a useless meeting headed by Bill
Colby the newly appointed head of Civil Operations
and Rural Development Support (CORDS), he spoke with Colby. McGehee
hid his harsh criticism and contempt, figuring that a cocktail party was the
wrong forum, and that surely Colby already knew what McGehee wanted to say.
six weeks McGehee started work in charge of liaison with the chief of South
Vietnam's Special Police. His CIA boss, who was new to Asia, listened to
McGehee after getting his memorandum. "Ralph, the rest of the world sees
things differently," he said, "How can you be right?" Slowly,
McGehee had came to conclude that "the vast majority of the Vietnamese
people were fighting against the U.S. troops and for the NLF." He became
isolated and tense.
qualifying for home leave after six months, his wife listened only so long to
his repetitive monologue. Ironically, DCIRichard
Helms now gave him an award for his Survey work, presented
by his nemesis the Far East Division chief. McGehee began to identify
with anti-war protestors. Seeking release,
he considered changing jobs, but realized his career experience was a CIA
secret. With four children in school and a mortgage, he returned to Vietnam.
a spy ring
Saigon, he followed Special Police reports apparently about "a North
Vietnamese spy net that had penetrated the highest levels of the Thieu government
of South Vietnam." Called Operation Projectile, its dubious sources and
flimsy information caused widespread doubt. Yet further investigation seemed to
verify its explosive charges. CIA
headquarters delayed authorization for making arrests, as many
suspects were high South Vietnamese government officials. McGehee then
reorganized and 'carded' the office files on the putative spy net. He was a
past master at interpreting information from field reports. He exhumed and
deciphered a cock-eyed old document. It turned out to record a similar spy ring
from the Diem era, with many matches to current espionage
activity and agents. It proved convincing.
apprehensive, CIA HQ gave the ok for a mass arrest of suspects. When President
Thieu was solicited, he became "extremely upset" and suggested delay
until he could dismiss the spies from his government. Finally, he agreed. Great
caution was exercised to prevent leaks. "At midnight the police fanned out
through Saigon" in three-man arrest teams. 50 were arrested, 41 were later
tried and convicted. Huynh Van Trong held the highest government office, but
his communist superior Vu Ngoc
Nha was a close friend of Thieu. Trong had recently made a high-level
trip to Washington. McGehee comments that while we were not able to recruit a
single "clear-cut, high-ranking Viet Cong agent", the communists made
"thousands of penetrations".
fortunate coincidence the arrests also brought in Van Khien, an officer at
North Vietnam military intelligence. He was leading a penetration "into
command elements of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN)." Further
investigations turned up ten more spies, and its unraveling resulted in further
arrests. McGehee's liaison office had become a high-performance operation, with
quality intelligence work and a steady stream of reports. Yet McGehee was not
promoted, despite his pro-active insistence. Another CIA agent, however, who
McGehee thought an "incompetent flake" later gained advancement
because of his loyalty to the station chief. When his tour ended, the Special
Police gave McGehee a medal.
flight home, McGehee reflected on his last few years in Vietnam. "The
reality that I had seen and reported and urged my superiors to recognize had
been totally rejected." It had cost him his ideals. "Full of anger,
hatred, and fear, I bitterly contemplated a dismal future." He recalled
that when at Gia Dinh province early in his tour, he had considered suicide, in
despair at the horrible events of the war: the deaths, the napalm, the
children and the old people in refugee camps. Instead he'd vowed to
"expose the Agency's role in Vietnam" due to its fantasies and
illusions. When McGehee was in despair at Gia Dinh, "the seed of [his]
book was first planted."
was set to return for another tour of duty in Thailand. At headquarters he
attended several briefings, yet he was growing increasingly dissatisfied with
the CIA as an institution. While back in Washington, he looked for another job;
yet his lack of any work history (due to his inability to list his CIA
employment) sank his efforts. In addition, his transforming state of mind made
it difficult for him to effectively communicate, with anyone. He could not talk
to his children about his changing attitudes toward the CIA and the cold war.
On campus at Georgetown he noticed young dissenters.
He wanted the war to
stop, too, but felt paralyzed by internal conflicts.
Thailand station was a large installation. McGehee
performed as "deputy chief of the anti-Communist Party operations
branch". He supervised many case officers working in liaison. Yet he
realized that with the CIA nothing had changed—except his own views. U.S.
policy goals determined what intelligence was collected. In support of a
military dictatorship the CIA "never reported derogatory
information". American intelligence often came from Thai leaders or liaison
counterparts. Agency case officers were forbidden to "maintain direct
contact with the general population". 80% of Thais were farmers, but their
issues were seldom addressed. For a case officer to get information from the
working classes, he risked getting the label "gone native" followed
by a ticket home. McGehee mentions the secret war in Laos, but he did not
directly participate. Although remaining committed "to stop the spread of
the Communist Party of Thailand" he opposed what he considered the CIA's
false testimony and counterproductive operations.
north Thailand, McGehee met with the police colonel, Chat Chai, he'd worked
with on the Survey program. McGehee noticed he'd changed, from a hard
working, no non-sense leader, to a more relaxed cynic. They spoke together for
hours at a hotel's roof-top restaurant. McGehee found the Survey deputy nai
amphur, Lieutenant Somboon, in Bangkok.
Stationed in south Thailand, he now faced an insurgency, and spoke up about how
good the Survey project went. Confused about why it'd been dropped,
McGehee replied that it'd been overruled by higher-ups. Latter
in a coffee shop McGehee spotted a classmate, Jimmy Moe, from the CIA
paramilitary course at its farm in Virginia almost 20 years ago. He'd fought in
the secret war in Laos, where the CIA had led the Hmong tribe
to defeat. "We contemplated each other, and a thousand thoughts passed
unspoken between us.".\
to get a promised promotion McGehee wrote "a long, bitter memorandum"
that he routed to the COS. McGehee
claimed that the current, unnamed COS "let his secretary run the
station". The touring CIA Inspector General had then put McGehee on
"special probation". Yet very soon McGehee required back surgery. He
was flown to Georgetown Hospital in
arrived at the East Asia Division, where
the personnel manager told him he'd been recommended for counseling. After
McGehee mentioned his last memo to Shackley,
he got the label of a "malcontent". Shackley became the head of East
Asia Division. McGehee was then turned down by all East Asia branch offices.
His request to transfer from CIA Operations to its Intelligence
Directorate as an analysts, had been declined. While on
temporary assignment at an obscure records office, he wrote a memorandum
to Colby detailing the CIA's intelligence flaws in
Vietnam. Unexpectedly, he was then sent back to Thailand for a few months. In
the meantime, the new DCIJames Schlesinger (Feb. 2 to July 2, 1973)
had been blindsided by Watergate revelations. The CIA got bad press.
Schlesinger then sought information about any other illegal or unsavory
activity committed by the Agency. The result was a list known to CIA as
the Skeletons, but to outsiders as the Family Jewels. McGehee
in Thailand didn't get news of it until the deadline had passed.
McGehee was placed as the Far East Division's "referent"
(representative) to the 'international communism branch' (ICB) of the
Directorate's notorious 'counterintelligence staff'. He became
isolated, which lasted for his remaining four years. "Everything now
angered me. I openly laughed at the serious pronouncements made by Agency leaders,
pointing out the fallacies behind the rhetoric." He endured the
"silent treatment" from the Directorate's leadership. "Former
friends avoided me and I them," McGehee writes. His assigned duties,
however, took only "about one hour a day." It required him to review
incoming paper: cables from the CIA, State, and Defense; communist publications
and transcripts of communist radio broadcasts; a few newspapers. Each day
selections were mounted on a "clipboard". Apart from this, he charted
his own course. Eventually he obtained approval for his chosen research.
then CIA's practice to anonymously place stories in news publications, stories
written to spread ideas favorable to CIA goals. Accordingly, stories were
edited which created a likelihood of misdirecting some readers. Stories that
CIA planted might be further spread by third parties, in a slightly altered
form, or even picked up as news and then rewritten by a journalist. McGehee
himself, in doing his assigned duties, followed news stories in the
international press, communist
affairs in particular. He also monitored incoming intelligence reports
for such topics.
McGehee began to notice a subtle congruence in content between the planted
stories and the incoming intelligence. Propaganda the CIA generated to shape
world opinion, he conjectured or realized, could circle back and contaminate
the CIA's own information files. McGehee gives an example. CIA in 1965
fabricated a story about weapon shipments sent by sea to the Viet Cong (to show
foreign support). CIA even staged its discovery for the press. The story had
legs. The Marines later began to patrol the
coast to intercept the reported contraband.
stress his experience of CIA's disregard for the truth of an event, McGehee
refers to Orwell's duplicitous 'Ministry of Truth' from the
it was Communist duplicity during the Spanish Civil War which inspired Orwell. The Soviets were
early masters at disinformation. Such
deceptions have also been used by renegade agents to turn a profit. The
intelligence trade has developed terms for a wider category of fact
manipulation, which range from black
propaganda, to grey,
Thailand and Vietnam
tipping point was reached for McGehee when in 1975 he learned about the prior
work of CIA analyst Sam
1966–1967 Adams had, without success, challenged the then prevailing
intelligence reports regarding the count of communist combatants in
South Vietnam, asserting that it was too low. Although
Adams had supporters within the CIA, the Army's MACV insisted on its
lower numbers. The dispute became somewhat notorious. MACV then directed
American combat forces fighting in Vietnam, and considered the issue its turf.
Ultimately, per the 1967 SNIE, the CIA politically
acquiesced. To Adams, the CIA here betrayed its mission by agreeing to doctored
saw parallels between Adams' situation and his own mid-1960s Thailand Survey.
There he had uncovered greater numbers of communists active in the Thai
countryside than previously reported. Yet in 1967 the Survey was
halted and its results suppressed by the CIA's Far East division chief William
also considered his critical views confirmed in the 1975–1976 Congressional
investigations of the CIA, by Pike's
House committee, and by Church's Senate
committee. Both committees had faulted the CIA for its handling of specific
covert operations, and for several intelligence failures.
CIA's information on certain of its political strategic enemies, McGehee wrote:
"Totally ignored by the Agency were four [sources] about Asian communism:
French writings ... ; State Department 'China hands' ... ; American
scholars and newsmen ... ; [and] writings on revolution" authored by
1977, McGehee, by a recent change in CIA policy, became eligible for early
retirement. He took it.
was then awarded the CIA's Career Intelligence Medal. "My wife,
my four children, one son-in-law, and a grandson all gathered for the awards
ceremony." William W. Wells presented
the medal to him. McGehee's views on the Agency began with an idealist's
appreciation of its principles, when cold war tensions were high. During the
second half of his 25 years of service, however, his view of the CIA had
markedly declined, until reaching a bitterness. He gave his reasons why he accepted
to accept it for three reasons: to give my children an occasion to be proud of
their father, not to embarrass Jake [his supervisor at CIA who recommended
McGehee for the Medal], and to lend credibility to any criticisms of the Agency
I might make in the future. Otherwise, I very much wanted to say, 'Take your
medal and shove it.'
Career Intelligence Medal is awarded by the Central Intelligence Agency for a
cumulative record of service which reflects exceptional achievements that
substantially contributed to the mission of the Agency.
after CIA service
1983 book, Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA, McGehee
recounts his duties as an intelligence agent. For several decades he was
assigned to East Asia, performing in the field and at CIA stations in Japan,
the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Details of the practices and
techniques of a CIA case officer are given. He shows how he gradually
changed his opinion of the Agency. He arrived at the view that CIA operations
in many cases damage the people affected, and overall results are often
negative for America, our allies, or the world. CIA intelligence can be altered
or pitched so that political purposes frequently trump the accurate
transmission of information.
book proceeds in a chronological fashion. It describes his first-hand
experiences and his contemporaneous reflections. Yet there are several
exceptions, lengthy digressions inserted into the narrative. These provide the reader
with information from McGehee's subsequent research, research done often many
years after. The inserts are not easy to distinguish from the narrative text by
just flipping through the book. Among them are: CIA activities in the 1950s,
pp. 22–31; CIA activities in the 1960s, pp. 56–63; America in the
Vietnam conflict (from the French to 1968), pp. 128–141. Three other long
inserts are of a somewhat different nature: American counterinsurgency
activities in Thailand, pp. 165–172; planting
news, politicized intelligence, Asian communism, and Congress investigating the
CIA, pp. 185–190; and
his critical summary regarding the CIA, pp. 192–195.
chapter "Conclusion" is a critical summary of his views on the CIA.
It begins with a sharp attack on the Agency he came to know by his 25 years on
the job, and by his later research. The CIA's chief purpose "is not now
nor has it ever been" to gather intelligence, McGehee argues, but to
engineer results by clandestine means. "It is the covert
action arm of the President's foreign policy advisers." In this
context, whatever information it advances is calculated to support its
political objectives. A cold war, anti-communist agenda, in short, has repurposed
its intelligence function. If its content was not thus nefariously politicized,
the CIA would view differently the third
world, where angry peoples are not lackeys of communist subversion,
but peoples whose egalitarian defiance motivates their own struggles.
of such clarity, the CIA's intelligence product misinforms. Accordingly, the
CIA backs a United States which often supports a privileged local strata whose
rule works to abuse and impoverish the majority of its subject people. He
describes the CIA's operational malfeasance in Vietnam, El
Salvador, Iran, Nicaragua, Laos, Indonesia, Libya. McGehee recommends that the
CIA be abolished, and a new intelligence agency created, free of links to
covert operations. A separate Agency that acts clandestinely may be necessary,
but not favored. For reason stated in his book, McGehee has reversed many of
his original 'gung ho' views.
Deceits has some peculiarities. CIA policy required its personnel to sign
a contract stipulating CIA pre-publication approval for writings about their
Agency experience. McGehee makes the case that CIA's review was meant to
harass, and to delay or stonewall publication, not protect secrets. By
persistence he eventually got around CIA objections, yet: deleted passages are
marked, occurring throughout the book as published; aliases
are used for most people (listed in the index with quotation marks); and
McGehee, because he himself could not mention certain facts based on his own
experience due to CIA claims that such were still classified, quotes from
published books to convey the same or similar material. The CIA's tactics did
delay publication. Among books written by former CIA, it was "the last of
the major exposés of the era.”
leaving the Central Intelligence Agency, McGehee brought to the public his
highly critical views, based on his experience. He discussed and illustrated
how the CIA's covert actions and interventionist policies can produce
unfavorable outcomes. His
articles on CIA activities have appeared in the Washington
Post, The Nation, The
Progressive, Harper's Magazine and Gannet News
Service among others. He also developed CIABASE, a website containing
information on events, people, and programs concerning the CIA or American
intelligence, including links to other texts available to the public.
as an advocate of reform, was invited to speak at political events, rallies,
and at colleges and universities. He gave interviews to the press, television,
and other media.
discussed his time spent in Vietnam and
claimed that the CIA supported anti-Communist counterinsurgency in the
downside of his book, Deadly Deceits, was McGehee's personal knowledge of
the extent to which the famed physician, Thomas Anthony Dooley III, was involved
in CIA warfare across Indochina. This included awareness that the atrocities
alleged in the best seller, "Deliver Us From Evil", 1956, were
fabricated for the beginning of a psywar campaign
(later revealed by the Church
Committee in 1975).
allegation by McGehee about CIA involvement in the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966 was
censored by the CIA, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to
sue on his behalf. The
CIA prevailed. McGehee
described the terror of Suharto's takeover in 1965–66 as "the model
operation" for the US-backed coup that got rid of Salvador
Allende in Chile seven years later: "The CIA forged a document
purporting to reveal a leftist plot to murder Chilean military leaders, just
like what happened in Indonesia in 1965."
he also filed a Freedom of Information request,
claiming that he had been harassed since 1993, suspected to be because of his
criticisms. Asking for a halt of the actions, he sent a letter to the president
of the United States, the director of the CIA, and his town council,
documenting many of the incidents. He asserted his intention to pursue the
issue through the FOIA process because of receiving no response to earlier