The Arkansas Times

Friday, June 6, 1997

Spooks with erasers

By Mara Leveritt
Did you read that the CIA now admits having destroyed its own records about its role in the 1953 coup in Iran? Well, what did we expect? The budget of the CIA is secret. The number of people it employs is a secret. Where it operates and what it does is a secret. And now we know that even big chunks of its history have been consigned to the black hole of oblivion.
News reports last week said that the agency is now trying to find out what other sensitive records were destroyed during the 1960s.
I love it when the CIA tries to find out something, especially something that it itself did. It's always so difficult for them.
(I mean, we're not asking them to do something hard, like gather the necessary documentation to renew their Arkansas car tags. Lord, if the CIA had to try to do that, they'd probably have to hire another 700 researchers -- a number which, of course, they could never report, at salaries which they could never reveal, either. And then, the agency could never tell us whether they had found their tax records, assessment sheets, proof of insurance, and so forth. National security, you understand. We'd be left to guess and speculate.)
What we're left to wonder about now is how many historical records the CIA has shredded -- and presumably swallowed. Maybe every one of its gazillion unreported employees is required to chew up a certain amount of sensitive, shredded paper every week. Or maybe they have a big cook-out every Fourth of July, where they grill hamburgers over briquettes made of documents that might have reshaped our view of history, had they managed to escape the fire. Or maybe by now the CIA has developed a paper-eating bug that works its way through files, systematically seeking out and destroying any sensitive, embarrassing, or even criminal information.
Anything is possible. The point is, we'll never know. It's hard for the public even to ask, "Do you still have files on this episode?" or, "Where are your records on that?" because most of the time, we never found out in the first place in which this and that's the CIA has been involved. We can only surmise.
Usually if events take a peculiar turn, or if a situation goes from bad to worse, or if the way is suddenly paved for some multi-national corporation to swoop in and start extracting resources from some third-worId country, we can pretty well be sure that we're seeing the CIA's handiwork. CIA officials now say that the Iran files and who knows how many others were apparently destroyed as part of a routine paring down of classified documents that were stored in CIA safes.
You can appreciate their problem. If almost everything you do is top-secret and potentially explosive, you're going to want to store the records of those deeds in a highly secure safe. But even if you're the CIA, the amount of space in your safes is limited. So what choice do you have?
You can't just box up your records of liaisons with some of the world's most unsavory characters and haul them to the attic. And what of those reports linking the CIA to torturers in the jungle? Even dry financial records, about the people to whom we paid money -- and the services they performed for it could be a mite disturbing. You could hardly find enough safes for that kind of information.
So one could understand why the agency might come to think that frequent house-cleanings might be a good idea. It's only our country's need for an informed democracy that takes a beating in the process. That, and the right of future generations to have access to crucial archival records.
A CIA spokesman said last week that the agency no longer allows the destruction of historical documents. That news would come as some relief, if we could believe anything that comes out of the mouth of an agency that specializes in words like "disinformation" and "deniability."
Not surprisingly, a former member of the CIA's history staff disputed the spokesman's contention, saying that the destruction of critical documents continues to this day.
This news might explain a lot about why the agency has not been able to tell us more about what went on in Mena, particularly as that related to the drug smuggler Barry Seal. Last year, the CIA told Congress that it could “find no evidence” that it knew that Seal, with whom it has admitted working, was actually a drug trafficker himself.
Well, duh. That's the nice thing about evidence that's been destroyed. It tends to be hard to find.

Reproduced with Permission
Copyright © 1996 Arkansas Writers' Project, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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