The CIA Has a Museum?
Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.
Five years ago, traveling on the Capital Limited overnight to Chicago, I chanced into a conversation that was remarkable even by Amtrak's usual high standards. After leaving DC at 4:05PM, we journeyed along the Potomac to Harpers Ferry. That part of the ride is so scenic that I always savor it with a craft beer in the "Viewliner Lounge," which boasts an all-glass upper level. At 6PM I walked to the diner (not the cafe car, no, a real dining car with selections like steak, fish, pasta, etc.). As usual, Amtrak seated me with other passengers.
First to sit opposite me was a man who introduced himself as Bert Sacks, the founder of IraqiKids.org, an organization devoted to making Americans aware of the plight of the children of Iraq before and during our second War on Iraq. He was going back home to Seattle (a three-day trip!) and inquired where I was going. I told him to a speaking engagement in Milwaukee, and he asked what about. I told him about my bestseller, Lies My Teacher Told Me, and he replied, "No kidding? You wrote that book? I love that book."
I actually get that a lot, so it no longer embarrasses me, and I thanked him. In the meantime, another man had joined us, seated next to me. He looked like a classic spy, complete with black eye patch on a black elastic strap over his head.
Mr. Sacks then bent my ear about his "favorite" lie in American history: a lone gunman killed JFK. He said no, it was the CIA. He cited a book by the chair of his board, James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. This book "proves the CIA did it," Sacks insisted.
I was not so sure. "I don't think Oswald acted all alone, and then Jack Ruby acted all alone in killing him," I replied agreeably, "but I'm not sure it was the CIA. Oswald and Ruby both had ties to the Mafia — indeed, to the same branch of the Mafia, I understand. Or it might have been Castro. Certainly he had motive, since Kennedy kept trying to kill him."
At this point my seatmate broke in. "The CIA didn't kill Kennedy," he said quietly. "The CIA isn't competent to kill Kennedy and get away with it. And I should know, because I retired last month as Inspector General of the National Reconnaissance Office of the CIA."
I was impressed, though Sacks was not. The former Inspector General, who turned out to be named Eric Feldman, said to me, "You need to see the material on JFK in the CIA Museum." But then he corrected himself: "Oh, but then you won't be able to see the CIA Museum."
Later in the conversation, realizing that I had academic credentials, Feldman said I might be able to see the CIA Museum after all. He suggested I try.
Last fall, I finally got around to doing so. I emailed the Office of Public Affairs, which the CIA's website emphasizes is "the single point of contact for all inquiries about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)." Molly Hale of the OPA replied on November 26, 2013, telling me my message had been received, giving me a confirmation number, and saying she had forwarded my request and would get back to me about it.
"I let a month pass, and then a few more days, to allow for the holidays," I emailed to Ms. Hale, following up on January 3, 2014. "It is appropriate for the CIA to respond to my request, and to respond favorably," I continued. "I am an honored sociologist and a 'Distinguished Lecturer' of the Organization of American Historians."
And I am! The American Sociological Association has given me no less than three awards, including in 2012 its Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award for "outstanding achievement in research, teaching, and service with ... particular focus on human rights and social justice."
That made no difference. Hale never got back to me.
So on April 28, 2014, I phoned the OPA. A woman answered; I repeated my request and referenced my earlier email from "Molly Hale." She said she would look into it and get back to me. As she was about to hang up, I said, "Wait a minute: who am I talking with? Please give me your name." "Molly Hale," she replied, with some embarrassment.
It being the CIA, it's possible that all their female employees use the name "Molly Hale," doubtless descendants of Nathan.1 If not, it was surprising that she had not identified herself earlier, when I'd told her about my e-correspondence with "Molly Hale."
Ten days later, on May 8, Molly called me back. The museum is not open, she said — not to anyone, except CIA employees. "We do have an exhibit," currently in Seattle, she went on, "60 Treasures of the CIA."2
"That's interesting," I replied, "but it's not about the Kennedy assassination."
"We do not have an exhibit on President Kennedy or his assassination," Hale replied. "Maybe you were thinking of another museum?"
So I told her of my meeting up with Inspector General Feldman. Of course, I did not have another museum in mind.
It made no difference; I was not getting into the CIA Museum. And neither are you. Yet our tax dollars pay for the museum.
That's too bad, not only for me (and you), but also for our country. The CIA Museum should be open to the public, or at least to the vetted public. After all, it's our museum. We paid for it.
Of course, you might reply, especially those of you who are with the CIA, if the CIA Museum were open to the public, and if it were any good, then anyone could learn secrets of the CIA. That would endanger the nation, including the very public that the CIA is supposed to protect.
Perhaps. I used to think like that, until events of the 1960s changed my mind. I recall television coverage from Hanoi in 1966, showing how the Vietnamese government had dropped off concrete sewer pipes in front of homes in nice tree-leaved neighborhoods. Residents were then supposed to bury them in their yards as makeshift bomb shelters, in case the United States bombed them. I snorted at North Vietnam's paranoia — as if the United States would actually bomb their residential neighborhoods. Doing so was a war crime. Moreover, I knew it would only unite the populace against us.
Then came New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury's pathbreaking trip to Hanoi later that year. On Christmas Day, he reported on residential areas the United States had bombed in Hanoi, giving the lie to American claims to have struck only military targets.3 The next day, the Pentagon conceded they had "accidentally struck civilian areas in North Vietnam."4
This process — events kept from the American public, events even directly denied, then proven to be true — kept happening. Over and over, in the 1960s and beyond, the United States government has been caught doing terrible things, usually after denying them. Nixon's "secret" war against Cambodia, one of his escalations of the war against Vietnam, provided another example. From whom was he keeping this war "secret?" Surely not from the Khmer people — they knew we were bombing them! Our war on Cambodia was secret only from the American public — again, the people paying for it. Most recently, we have the NSA spying, probably not secret from true cyberspies, but certainly unknown to the American people, who were paying for it.
Many Americans agree with Bert Sacks and James Douglass and blame the CIA for killing Kennedy. On the fortieth anniversary of his assassination, 37% of a Gallup poll sample chose my tentative thesis, the mafia, while 34% said the CIA. (Lyndon Johnson trailed with 18%, followed by the Soviet Union and Cuba tied at 15% each.) Another 37% did not believe any of the above; presumably most of them think Oswald acted alone.5 It would interest all Americans to know what the CIA thinks about the assassination, or at least what it says in its museum. I asked officials of the estimable Museum of the Sixth Floor, which provides a nuanced discussion of the various theories of Kennedy's and Oswald's deaths. They had not known that the CIA has a museum, let alone that it had an exhibit on their topic. Does Oliver Stone know? Did you? I did not — until Amtrak.
To summarize, let's see how this works. On the one hand, maybe the CIA has real knowledge about who killed Kennedy. At the very least, it certainly had a file on Lee Harvey Oswald. It certainly testified to the Warren Commission. It must know something. If so, if it speaks with authority and has important information to impart, then it should do so! People like Sacks, Douglass, Oliver Stone, the staff of the Sixth Floor Museum, and you and me, need to know! (Of course CIA museum staff would redact names of people who might still be endangered by exposure. The CIA leads the world in redaction! Of course they would not display material that might disclose how the Agency learned some things. And of course they would vet who gets in.)
On the other hand, maybe the CIA did it! If so, surely its exhibit would obfuscate its involvement. In that case, if its interpretation is fraudulent, then people like Sacks, Douglass, and the rest of us need to see it so we can critique it. It certainly is not in our national interest for the CIA to make its own agents stupid by showing them wrong information in its own museum. For that matter, if the CIA didn't do it but its interpretation is nevertheless incompetent, then we all — including our best historians and political scientists — need to see and critique it, to help keep the CIA from misleading its own staff.
Either way, this is our museum, not "theirs" — the CIA's. For that matter, it's our CIA, not the CIA's CIA. Woody Guthrie once wrote a song about something like that.
1 After all, years ago every Pullman porter was required to identify as "George," taking the first name of CEO George Pullman.
2 In an email accompanying her phone call, Hale wrote, "Thank you for your interest in the CIA Museum. We are not open to the public. If you are in Seattle between now and 1 September we have 60 of our treasures traveling with 'Spy The Secret World of Espionage', currently at the Pacific Science Museum."
Maybe some of you have seen it and will comment on this article, describing and assessing it. From the CIA's announcement, it seems to be celebratory and self-congratulatory.
3 Harrison E. Salisbury, "A Visitor to Hanoi Inspects Damage Laid to U.S. Raids," NY Times, 12/25/1966.
4 Neil Sheehan, "Washington Concedes Bombs Hit Civilian Areas in North Vietnam," NY Times, 12/26/1966.
5 Obviously, respondents could choose more than one.
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