IN 1947, two quite different American institutions were formed: the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Students Association (NSA). Twenty years later, Ramparts magazine would reveal that for the previous 17 years, the CIA had been secretly using the NSA to conduct covert operations gathering foreign intelligence and funneling vast amounts of money through shell foundations to pay NSA salaries, travel expenses, and other costs.

In Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, Karen M. Paget, a contributing editor at The American Prospect, reveals this deeply troubling story, based on 150 interviews and access to scores of declassified documents. But the rare credential Paget brings to this project is that, in 1965, her husband became a salaried member of the NSA’s international staff and they both knew about the CIA operation for two years before it was publicly exposed.

At the outset of her book, like something out of a John le Carré spy novel, Paget tells the chilling story of an evening in October, 1965, when, after dinner with her husband and two men whom she understood to be former NSA officials (in fact they were CIA agents), the foursome drove to a house in northwest Washington, DC. As soon as they arrived, the phone rang and one of the men said he had to run an “urgent errand” and asked Paget’s husband to accompany him.

The other man ushered her into a sunroom, told her that her husband was “doing work of great importance to the United States government,” and handed her a document to sign. While her husband had tried to prepare her, since he had undergone a similar ritual a few weeks earlier, she still had trouble not looking too frightened. She glanced over the document. She knew only that she was never to reveal what she was about to learn. “As an apolitical twenty-year-old from a small town in Iowa, I had no reason to distrust the U.S. government. I signed.”

What Paget, her husband, and numerous other well-intentioned people associated with the NSA signed was a “security oath” under the Espionage Act, making it a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison to reveal anything about what the CIA was doing.

Her host told Paget that he worked for the CIA, that the CIA funded the NSA international program, and that he was her husband’s “case officer” (with the silly cloak-and-dagger code name “Aunt Alice”). Her dinner companions, Richard Kiley and Matthew Iverson, were indeed former NSA officials, but currently they were the director and deputy director, respectively, of CIA Covert Action, Branch Five: Youth and Students. In CIA-speak, Paget and her husband, and all the others who signed the security oath, were made “witting” — inducted into the secret knowledge of the CIA’s covert operation — to distinguish them from the “unwitting” NSA employees and student leaders, who naively thought they were working for a worthy private, independent nonprofit liberal institution that supported the civil rights movement, raised bail money for jailed activists, condemned the anticommunist witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee, debated supporting civil disobedience against the draft and the Vietnam War, ran extensive exchange programs with foreign students, and conducted international conferences all over the world on peace and mutual cooperation.

Paget’s book documents in copious detail how, from 1950 to 1967, the “CIA ran an operation through the NSA, global in scope, which disguised and protected the hand of the U.S. government — the very definition of covert action.” What began “as a straightforward operation to thwart Soviet influence at home and abroad grew, multiplied, and divided like a vast spider plant. Intelligence gathering and espionage — despite subsequent CIA denials — were integral to its nature.” In its later stages, Paget describes how the NSA funneled support to a wide variety of revolutionaries including, for example, Algerians, anti-Batista Cubans, Angolan and Mozambique liberationists, and anti-Shah Iranian activists.

Paget explains how the NSA, funded by the CIA, also meddled in the internal politics of foreign student bodies, but because the NSA was both liberal and a student organization, virtually no one suspected its connections with the CIA.

In the course of describing how the CIA systematically, year-after-year infiltrated the NSA and recruited ever more witting student leaders, some familiar names turn up. In 1959, the World Youth Festival (WYF) was to be held in Vienna. The CIA viewed the WYF as a Soviet-friendly organization, which would score a propaganda victory by holding its annual conference in a noncommunist country.

According to Paget,

The CIA went on the offensive, developing ambitious goals to “smash” the festival, “take over” the left-wing American delegation, and, most important, identify and recruit friendly foreign nationals from Africa and Asia to tie them more closely to the West, a plan later approved by the U.S. National Security Council.

The CIA launched a multilayered operation, combining a contingent of unwitting American students and handpicked young professionals. One witting recruit was a Smith College graduate named Gloria Steinem.

Long before she became a feminist icon, Steinem was one of the few witting women in the NSA-CIA operation. She knowingly cooperated with the CIA, working on clandestine activities in Vienna and Helsinki (which Paget documents in detail, likening Steinem to Mata Hari). At the time of the Ramparts exposé in 1967, Steinem emerged as a prominent defender. She told Newsweek: “In the CIA, I finally found a group of people who understood how important it was to represent the diversity of our government’s ideas at Communist festivals. If I had the choice, I would do it again.” Although Paget apparently interviewed Steinem, she only reports that Steinem is “sensitive today about her work with the Agency,” but does not indicate whether, on further reflection, she would do it again.

The heroes of Patriotic Betrayal are a few courageous NSA officials who blew the whistle and the enterprising journalists at Ramparts. Philip Sherburne, a witting NSA vice president for National Affairs (1964–’65) and NSA president (1965–’66), began to question the entire CIA operation. In March 1966, at the Sirloin and Saddle restaurant in Washington, DC, he decided to breach his security oath and confide in Michael Wood, an unwitting NSA Development Director. Wood was astounded and felt the CIA’s involvement to be “a basic perversion of the democratic processes of the organization.” Sherburne stressed the confidential nature of his disclosures, but Wood couldn’t bear the burden of this huge secret and told his best friend, in strict confidence, who proceeded to tell his best friend, in strict confidence.

Sherburne began to fear for his safety. On his way to a student conference in Vietnam, in a stopover in Los Angeles, he confided in his brother and his sister-in-law. In case he didn’t return, he decided they should know the whole story.

Wood eventually decided that the only way to get the CIA out of the NSA was to go public. Meanwhile, his witting superiors had become increasingly irritated with his behavior and fired him. But he did not leave empty handed. He had a cache of financial and other documents. He assessed a number of news outlets and decided to approach Ramparts, a small San Francisco–based magazine founded by Edward Keating, a liberal Catholic, who had become more radical, especially over Vietnam.

Unbeknownst to Wood, the CIA was already secretly investigating the magazine and its reporters, including editor Robert Scheer and Stanley Sheinbaum, a Michigan State University professor and the source for an upcoming article that would expose the CIA’s involvement in a university project.

Paget is at her best in describing how Ramparts reached out to freelance journalists and researchers across the country and painstakingly pieced together evidence of the CIA’s covert operation. The CIA in turn launched a separate covert operation to sabotage the Ramparts story, including triggering an IRS audit of the magazine and its financial contributors. Years later, one of the CIA agents charged with discrediting Ramparts told a reporter he had “all sorts of dirty tricks to hurt their circulation and financing.”

When Ramparts learned that the CIA was preparing to hold a preemptive press conference to try to blunt the forthcoming exposé, the magazine decided to scoop itself and, on February 14, 1967, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times promising that its March issue would “document how the CIA has infiltrated and subverted the world of American student leaders over the past fifteen years.” CIA director Richard Helms recalled it as “one of my darkest days.”

The day after the ad appeared, President Johnson announced that he had requested the CIA “to cease all aid to youth and student programs and to review other agency-funded anti-Communist programs housed in nongovernment organization,” and he appointed a three-member commission to investigate, headed by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach.

Unbowed, the CIA initiated an elaborate campaign of damage control, including gathering 12 former NSA presidents to issue a press release scoffing at the idea that they had been “duped” or that the CIA had interfered with NSA’s activities. Of course, what the press release failed to disclose was that all the former presidents had signed the security oath and were either career CIA agents or had worked for the CIA beyond their terms as NSA presidents.

Paget covers the aftermath of the Ramparts exposé, including the Katzenbach commission report and closed-door hearings held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but she reports that heads did not roll and, in many ways, the CIA continued with business as usual. Although in March 1967 President Johnson issued an executive order prohibiting CIA use of private-sector organizations, a CIA memo reassured agents that the “new ground rules will be restrictive but not prohibitive.”

According to Paget,

The CIA operation that began with a vendetta against Ramparts and expanded to include antiwar groups had significant long-term consequences. It set in motion an even larger catastrophe for the CIA. One may draw a straight line from the Ramparts exposures in 1967 to the 1975 congressional hearings on the CIA activities and the revelation of the so-called Family Jewels, a collection of documents containing the deepest Agency secrets, including its part in assassinations. Many say the Agency never recovered.

It’s hard to accept that rosy assessment, and Paget doesn’t appear to. The CIA seems to have recovered very nicely from the NSA exposé. Today, with little or no congressional oversight and the willing cooperation of President Obama, the CIA is using armed drones to assassinate alleged terrorists, resulting in the shameful deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians. The short-lived scandal of infiltrating a student organization seems very tame in comparison.

Yet Patriotic Betrayal is a very important cautionary tale that deserves to be read by anyone who cares about the corrosive effect of how our government operates in secret and compromises well-meaning people in the name of fighting “our enemies.” The extent of detail in Paget’s book, as she covers the most minute activities of the over 80 individuals listed in her “Cast of Characters,” tends to bog down the narrative at several points and distract the reader from seeing the larger consequences of what is taking place, but no one can doubt that this is the definitive work on a very dark chapter in American history.

Paget ends by paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt’s admonition from the early 1940’s: “The problem with hidden allegiances is that they close off a critical element of democracy, persuasion and debate, and to recognize that they carry an even more dangerous risk for a free society — the suppression of dissent and the pursuit of dissenters.”

One could add these words from the 1975 Church Commission report on the CIA, which need to be heeded today as much as — if not more than — 40 years ago:

The United States must not adopt the tactics of the enemy. Means are as important as ends. Crisis makes it tempting to ignore the wise restraints that make [us] free. But each time we do so, each time the means we use are wrong, our inner strength, the strength which makes us free, is lessened.

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Stephen Rohde is a constitutional lawyer, lecturer, writer, and political activist.