For more than 15 years, Jim Scott, a retired Navy public relations official and son of columnist Paul J. Scott, has been seeking details on “Project Mockingbird,” a CIA wiretapping operation in the early 1960s against his father. The CIA produced some material in 2020 but a sizable chunk of the actual wiretap transcripts are still in the agency’s vaults. In response to Scott’s request for the rest of the documents, the CIA informed him that the case was closed and the agency’s search had been “reasonably calculated and adequate.”
Undaunted, Scott wrote an open letter in March to CIA Director William J. Burns in the Annapolis Capital-Gazette, asking that the agency reopen the matter and recommending that the agency appoint CIA Chief Historian David Robarge and his staff to assist in the search. Scott also reached out to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for possible help.
Well, we recently learned we may not have to jump in, as Burns himself wrote to Scott saying that he personally would look into the matter. Plaudits are warranted.
Indeed, Project Mockingbird is a particularly important episode in what we call “leak law,” as it was one of the earliest and most intrusive CIA leak hunts in the days before Congress finally put the brakes on domestic surveillance activity by the Intelligence Community in the 1970s.
The actual story behind it is incredible. Paul Scott, Jim’s father, was partnered with Col. Robert S. Allen, who famously wrote “Washington Merry-Go-Round” with Drew Pearson (the book, its sequel, and the nationally syndicated column). Pearson’s later reporting partner Jack Anderson would also be the target of improper CIA surveillance.
Jim Scott believes that stories in the “Allen-Scott Report” about the Cuban Missile Crisis led Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to ask then-CIA Director John McCone to order the wiretapping of their offices and homes, which lasted for 90 days. Notably, the operation — codenamed Project Mockingbird — was unusually successful. Among others, it identified members of Congress, including the Speaker of the House; prominent figures in the executive branch; and former CIA officials as confidential sources of the pair.
Mockingbird is one of at least four CIA operations against members of the news media geared toward covertly identifying confidential sources, which were included in the “Family Jewels,” a dossier of material collected at the behest of then-CIA Director James Schlesinger during Watergate on secret operations by the CIA that may have violated its charter. The other press targets were Washington Post national security reporter Michael Getler (“Operation Celotex I”), Jack Anderson (“Operation Celotex II”) and Victor Marchetti, the disaffected CIA officer who co-wrote “The CIA and The Cult of Intelligence” (“Operation Butane”). Following a Freedom of Information Act case by the nonprofit National Security Archive – one that spanned a decade and a half – the CIA declassified the Family Jewels in 2007.
The CIA leak hunts are particularly interesting to anyone who follows this stuff because they predated the reforms in the late 1970s that, for lack of a better term, “criminalized” investigations into the unauthorized disclosure of national defense secrets. Those reforms moved national security leak investigations to the Justice Department, which, in the last decade and a half, has brought far more criminal cases against journalistic sources than have ever been brought in the rest of the country’s history.
In any event, we will be following this development closely. If Burns can finally bring the details of this unfortunate event fully into the light, it will be a rare but positive moment in the annals of Intelligence Community transparency.
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The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with RCFP Staff Attorney Grayson Clary and Technology and Press Freedom Project Fellow Emily Hockett.