Library:Interview with former CIA agent John Stockwell

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This is a transcript of a video taped interview of former CIA case officer John Stockwell. He is interviewed by journalist Clete Roberts in 1983 at the University of Southern California's Vietnam Reconsidered Conference. The interview describes the various functions of the CIA, especially its role in disseminating false information to the press and funding authors to promote CIA propaganda in the US literary sphere. Stockwell describes how he and his team would disseminate false stories in the news about the Angolan Civil War and create "totally false" atrocity propaganda about Cubans, recruit journalists to knowingly plant false stories in the press, and described how a CIA Director gave false testimony in Congress that claimed that the CIA does not target the US public with its propaganda and false stories.

The video referenced to create this transcript was uploaded to YouTube by the account Witness To War, under the title "Former CIA Agent John Stockwell Talks about How the CIA Worked in Vietnam and Elsewhere".[1]

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Interviewer: John, you were in Vietnam for the CIA, and as I understand you were up country. What years were you there?

Stockwell: '73 to '75, right after the troop evacuation, and I came out in the evacuation of April of '75.

Interviewer: How long were you with the CIA?

Stockwell: 13 years. I was a field case officer, served in Africa and Vietnam and then, eventually, on a subcommittee of the National Security Council in Washington.

Interviewer: You were in Angola, were you not?

Stockwell: Well, I ran the Angolan covert action. But I ran it from Washington. These things are global, and as chief of the Angola task force, my office was in Washington.

Interviewer: When did you leave the CIA?

Stockwell: March 1977. I left to testify to the Senate and go public and try to write a book, which I did.

Interviewer: I'll get into that a little later. I'd like to talk to you about what kind of experiences one has when one leaves the CIA and begins to talk. It must be very, very interesting. Let's talk about the function of the CIA. I think a lot of us have an impression that all the CIA does is gather intelligence. Intelligence is information, of course. Now, one would think that if you obtained information that was based upon fact, and if that is so, what did you do with it?

Stockwell: Well, one of the four principal functions of the CIA is to gather intelligence, and, ideally, forward it to the president--the users of information, the policymakers as they say.

There are other functions, however, some of them more legitimate than others. One is to run secret wars, the covert action that's written and talked about so much, like what's happening in Nicaragua today from Honduras.

Another thing is to disseminate propaganda to influence people's minds, and this is a major function of the CIA. And unfortunately, of course, it overlaps into the gathering of information. You have contact with a journalist, you will give him true stories, you'll get information from him, you'll also give him false stories.

Interviewer: Do you buy his confidence with true stories?

Stockwell: You buy his confidence and set him up. We've seen this happen and recently with Jack Anderson, for example, who has his intelligence sources, and he has also admitted that he's been set up by them, every fifth story just simply being false.

You also work on their human vulnerabilities to recruit them, in a classic sense, to make them your agent, so that you can control what they do so you don't have to set them up. Sort of, you know, by putting one over on them, so you can say, "Here, plant this one next Tuesday."

Interviewer: Can you do this with responsible reporters?

Stockwell: Yes. The Church Committee brought it out in 1975, and then Woodward and Bernstein put an article in Rolling Stone a couple of years later. Four hundred journalists cooperating with the CIA, including some of the biggest names in the business, to consciously introduce the stories into the press.

Interviewer: Well, give me a concrete example of how you used the press this way, how a false story is planted and how you got it published?

Stockwell: Well for example, in my war, the Angola war, that I helped to manage, one third of my staff was propaganda. Ironically it's called "covert action" inside the CIA. Outside, that means the violent part. I had propagandists all over the world, principally in London, Kinshasa, and Zambia. We would take stories which we would write and put them in the Zambia Times, and then pulled them out and sent them to a journalist on our payroll in Europe. But his cover story, you see, would be what he had gotten from his stringer in Lusaka, who had gotten them from the Zambia Times. We had the complicity of the government of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda if you will, to put these false stories into his newspapers. But after that point, the journalists, Reuters and AFP, the management was not witting of it. Now, our contact man in Europe was. And we pumped just dozens of stories about Cuban atrocities, Cuban rapists--in one case we had the Cuban rapists caught and tried by the Ovimbundu maidens who had been their victims, and then we ran photographs that made almost every newspaper in the country of the Cubans being executed by the Ovimbundu women who supposedly had been their victims.

Interviewer: These were fake photos?

Stockwell: Oh, absolutely. We didn't know of one single atrocity committed by the Cubans. It was pure, raw, false propaganda to create an illusion of communists, you know eating babies for breakfast and the sort. Totally false propaganda.

Interviewer: John, was this sort of thing practiced in Vietnam?

Stockwell: Oh, endlessly. A massive propaganda effort in Vietnam in the '50s and in the '60s, including the thousand books that were published--several hundred in English--that were also propaganda books sponsored by the CIA. Give some money to a writer, "Write this book for us, write anything you want, but on these matters, make sure, you know, you have this line."

Interviewer: Writers in this country? Books sold and distributed in this culture?

Stockwell: Sure. Yeah. English language books, meaning an American audience as a target, on the subject of Vietnam and the history of Vietnam, and the history of Marxism, and supporting the domino theory, et cetera.

Interviewer: Without opening us up to a lawsuit, could you name one of them?

Stockwell: No, I could not. The Church Committee, when they found this out, demanded that they be given the titles so that the university libraries could at least go and stamp inside "Central Intelligence Agency's version of history," and the CIA refused because it's been commissioned to protect its sources and methods, and the sources would be the authors who wrote these false propaganda books, some of whom are now distinguished scholars and journalists.

Interviewer: Well, doesn't the CIA flatly deny--they've admitted that there is some propaganda at first--but, their position is that those are all outside the United States, not in the United States. Isn't that true?

Stockwell: Absolutely. While we were running this Angolan operation and pumping these stories into the world and US press, exactly that time, Bill Colby, the CIA Director, was testifying to Congress, assuring them that we were extremely careful to make sure that none of our propaganda spilled back into the United States. And the very days that he was he was giving this false testimony, we were planting stories in The Washington Post. By that I mean not through Lusaka, but we actually flew a journalist from Paris to Washington to plant a false story. I mentioned it, I give the text of the story in my book.

Interviewer: So, you planted the story in The Washington Post by bringing a man from abroad, and he had no difficulty, got right past the editor with it?

Stockwell: Yeah.

Interviewer: Is this common? Is it easy?

Stockwell: It's easier than then you would think, yes. Yes. If it's on the line of, for example, if it's on the line of Grenada being radical today, we've had articles in The Washington Post, The Star before it closed, Time Magazine, that could only have been written by, originally by the CIA. Soviet submarine base, terrorist training. There's a little island where the major source of income is selling spice to the West, Western tourism, and a large United States Medical School. Tiny little island, 15 miles by 10 miles across, with 70,000 people with US medical students and their cutaways and sandals, and the noses in books wandering all over the island, and yet, major press organs--Time magazine--running stories about their being so radical.

Interviewer: In Vietnam, John, what was your relationship, what was your role, in relation to the press?

Stockwell: Well, mind, being the CIA's role it was multifaceted. There were officers in the embassy, CIA officers, high-ranking officers, Frank Snip was one--not high-ranking, but he was at the in the chief of stations office--who met with the press regularly, and shared information with them, gave them information, and got information from them, and then periodically would put some story into that that would be false. But also, in other cases, very valuable to the journalist.

So, even hard-nosed journalists who would never willfully cooperate with the CIA would consider it a useful source. At the same time, there are all kinds of people, you know, as journalists, and case officers, many other case officers, are really quite afraid of the press. We up country, when journalists would come up nosing around, we would hide and let the AID officer talk to them. We were simply afraid they would photograph us and write some article and have some allusion to what we were doing that would be unfortunate to our careers.

Interviewer: They knew who you were, they knew you were CIA?

Stockwell: Everyone always knows who the CIA people are, let there be no doubt whatsoever. This is one of the biggest farces that the CIA and Congress have put on the American people. We--as Moynihan said, Patrick Moynihan said, in testifying against this Official Secrets Act recently--he said at the UN, he said, they swaggered around like Texas cowboys in 10-gallon hats and high-heeled boots.

In Vietnam we had yellow Datsuns and sequential license plates. So if you had a yellow Datsun and "144" on your license plate, you had to be CIA, and everybody knew it. Up country, we had emerald green Jeeps, and the army had olive drab and AID had gray Jeeps. And if you had a green, green Jeep, you had to be CIA. And any denial of that was only tongue-in-cheek, perfunctory. Certainly, journalists knew the difference.

Interviewer: What a disillusionment. You're telling us that a spook is not a spook.

Stockwell: Allen Dulles wrote in his book The Craft of Intelligence, you know, the famous CIA Director, in the foreword of his book he says an intelligence agent, contrary to popular opinion, has to be known as such, otherwise people with secrets won't know where to take them. He set up the policy, the precedent of traveling the world each year and assembling his case officers in hotels, and having what you could only describe as a sales conference. Meetings in the hotel rooms, breakfast, lunch, and dinner and drinks together in the hotel rooms.

Interviewer: John--

Stockwell:  So, you're talking--so, you're talking about not an underworld, you're talking about ranking privileged members of the police brotherhood of the world. CIA officers are not in danger. Tourists don't hit them. In every country where they can, they establish liaison with the local police. And inside the veils of, you know, their secrecy and protection, they're not fearful and they're not playing cover games. They're having lunch with the police chief.

Interviewer: John, I'd like to I'd like to find out what makes a man like John Stockwell tick. One, why were you in the CIA? Two, why did you quit the CIA? And I'd like to find out what has happened since you quit the CIA and began speaking as openly as you've spoken to us.

Stockwell: Well certainly that's a question as complicated as the dilemma facing the society about the CIA today. I went in Marine, Army, Marine captain. Conservative background, my father was an engineer in Africa contracting to build for a Presbyterian mission. And I grew up in the Belgian Congo. About as conservative as you can get, I guess.

Interviewer: A missionary atmosphere?

Stockwell: On a mission station with an engineering father. But, uh, humanist principles, high ideals, false, unrealistic ideals for the world. Education at the University of Texas. My service in the Marine Corps active duty, all very exciting between wars. I was in a force reconnaissance company parachuting and locking out of submarines. Very glamorous, but between wars no one getting shot. No moral issues, if you will.

And then the CIA recruited me right at the end of the Kennedy era. He'd just been shot. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." And all of the propaganda that had been put out on the American people against communism, the height of the domino theory, and my my own naiveté, thinking I was educated when in fact I was not. And I thought going into the CIA, that I was doing the best thing I possibly could with my life, and the noblest ideals of our society. Thinking I was bettering mankind by making the world free for democracy. It just took me 13 years and three secret wars to realize how absolutely false that was--and the church committee's revelation, simultaneously to the Vietnam, and then the Angolan thing--it just took me that long to see the thing from a totally different light. And my basic ideals have certainly never changed, in terms of basic humanism, basic sympathy for the people of the world.

A service to this country that goes back so far I don't even have to deal with detractors, I feel who say I'm a traitor or whatnot. That's silly. With, you know, with the things that I've done with my life. But I think we are drifting from the values that we we teach ourselves in school, of democracy, of freedoms. I think we're selling out to a very small police organization who is absorbing American principals about as fast as the judicial and legislative processes can absorb them--freedoms of speech and press--and at the same time or continuing policies of killing in every corner of the world. Right now in Nicaragua and El Salvador. I think I deplore that morally, but I also think it's extremely dangerous because it could flash so easily into a world confrontation, and with the Soviet--to the Holocaust, to the nuclear war.

Interviewer: Well, what has happened to you since you left the CIA and started speaking like this?

Stockwell: Well, I've been sued by the CIA. I've been threatened by the FBI. I have not been beaten or mauled. I have exercised my right as I see it to speak out, and lectured at length. They've made it very clear they don't appreciate it. And, like I say, I've been warned that dire things could happen to me. But, uh, I don't know if these were bluffs or not. Nothing has yet. I've been sued for damages by the CIA, which has a certain irony when you think about it.