On June 18, in response to Freedom of Information Act provisions and in an attempt to comply with the requirements of an Executive Order, the Central Intelligence Agency released over 700 pages of its most closely held secrets, called
'The Family Jewels' and posted them on its FOIA Electronic Reading Roomwebsite.
Despite the fears of many in the intelligence community, it is becoming clear that the release of the files -- the contents of which are often of only lukewarm interest now, as many as 50 years after the events they describe -- will not trigger the agency's self-destruction. If anything, the files paint a stark picture of the differences between then and now, bringing into sharp relief the considerable abuses (think extraordinary rendition) of which the agency and its 'puppets' are routinely suspected of being guilty today.
Intelligence community observer James Bamford, author of Body of Secrets told National Public Radio:
"They have a whole section … on how the CIA held a Russian defector in a jail that was created by the CIA, a mini-prison for this person...now, you have the CIA keeping people in prisons all over the world"
Perhaps another reason that the CIA Family Jewels didn't reveal fatal fault lines in the spy organization is that the truth is more multi-faceted than 702 heavily censored pages can cover, due in no small part to the agency's penchant for creating shell companies, operating companies and agency-friendly cut-outs in order to keep its own role in the dirty work covert.
Air America: From Flying Tigers to Flying Drug Runners?
The CIA has long used both shell companies (or dummy 'front' companies) and operating companies (and there is a difference). Shell companies are corporate entities in name only, hollow false-fronts which own no real assets. They're essentially an exercise in fraud designed to keep the CIA's involvement a secret from at least cursory prying eyes. Operating companies, on the other hand, are actual entities owned and operated by the agency. The most notorious of these would be Air America, the company whose forebear, Civil Air Transport was created by war hero Claire Chennault of Flying Tigers fame, and which allegedly ended its days running drugs in exchange for arms in support of various right-wing guerilla causes.
Another source of corporate cover is available to the CIA in the form of companies that are privately (or even sometimes publicly) owned and directed by individuals sympathetic to the agency's aims. One of the most notorious examples would be that of the late Howard Hughes, whose Glomar Explorer deep sea research vessel was one of the most thinly disguised intelligence-gathering tools of all time. More recently, we have the instructive example of former Senator Paul Laxalt (a close friend of Ronald Reagan's), whose law firm has been linked to aircraft used by the CIA to conduct extraordinary renditions.
Is Social Networking the Killer App for Intel Gathering?
As this last example shows, shell companies, false fronts and friendly corporate cover are not techniques that the CIA stopped doing back in the dark old days that serve as the subject matter of the 'Family Jewels' document. In fact, today, they would appear to be more multi-faceted (and even web-friendly) than ever. One of the most recent cases of apparent CIA cover would appear to be the rather troubling possibility that the incredibly popular Facebook social networking application is in fact a CIA intelligence gathering tool. Part of this yet-to-be-proven 'internet rumour' is based on the a demonstrated connection -- however tenuous -- between the Pentagon's abortive (yet creepy) Information Awareness Office . Add in Facebook's venture capital funding sources having demonstrated links to In-Q-Tel, which is itself a CIA technology incubator, and you have more than enough smoke for an internet conspiracy theory fire.
If the Facebook issue were the only Web 2.0 link to crop up in the last couple of months, it would be enough -- particularly when you think about what a massive wealth of data people are freely providing (and how easily it could be misused by an intelligence outfit with massive budgets). But out of the blue earlier this month came the revelation that the owner of the influential Daily KOS website, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, is a former CIA employee who would have "no problem working for them" even today.
The CIA's Secret Air Force...and More
Just as disturbing and lucrative are the persistent rumours that one of the military's largest and most technologically savvy integration contractors, Science Applications International (SAIC) may have shadowy Central Intelligence Roots. SAIC, co-prime contractor on the U.S. Army's multi-billion dollar centrepiece modernization program, the Future Combat System (FCS) has had numerous oversight issues, and has been noted for possessing a virtual revolving door for CIA and Pentagon officials at its board table. The 'in-joke' concerning SAIC asks "what is SAIC spelled backward?" The joke becomes less amusing when it is revealed that SAIC has been involved as a contractor certifying the incorruptability of Diebold voting machines, and is also the current owner of the company which manages internet domain names.
We touched briefly on extraordinary renditions earlier. This topic is worth returning to, since this is where some of the most egregious use of CIA shell and operating companies is occurring, in an effort to hide the true paymasters behind the massive fleet of aircraft that even today are spiriting so-called terror suspects around the world, most often to jurisdictions where maximum physical 'persuasion' can be applied free from the constraints imposed by most 'Western' nations. One of the oldest of the agency's operating airlines includes Caribe Airwhich was the focus of some conspiracy theories examining the pilot training of the 9/11 hijackers, but more modern examples (in addition to the Laxalt submission, above) include Keeler and Tate Management, LLC(shell company), and an motley assortment of aviation operating companies including Premier Executive; Stevens Express Leasing; Devon Holding and Leasing; Bayard Foreign Marketing; Aero Contractor; Crowell Aviation Technologies Inc; Path Corporation; Rapid Air Trans Inc; Pegasus Technologies; and Tepper Aviation.
Another CIA front company that bubbled to the surface recently was the firm of Brewster-Jennings and Associates which achieved notoriety in 2003 as the employer of covert CIA asset Valerie Plame. The leak that blew Plame's cover didn't just expose her, it also brought Brewster-Jennings' espionage usefulness to an end, as well.
Spies Without Borders
Another area said to be well exploited by the CIA for its ability to explain the presence of U.S. nationals in all corners of the globe is that of charities and non-governmental agencies. For many years now it has been all but accepted that USAID is "the humanitarian arm of the CIA". and Americares has been singled out as well. Moving a little closer to the fringe, the well-known relief organization World Vision is also a CIA front, "providing cover for the agency's experiments in mind control". These theories weave a tapestry in which John Lennon assassin John Hinckley and would-be Reagan assassin Mark David Chapman are 'Manchurian Candidate' mind-controlled puppets with demonstrable ties not only to World Vision, but also to the Bush family.
Silicon Valley's Top Secret Sugar Daddy
Fringe theories aside, it's clear that the CIA has not only a
long history of creating and exploiting literally hundreds of corporate entities, both real and imagined, for its own covert ends. In fact, in many ways it might be considered to be one of the agencies main core competencies.
So much so, in fact, that the CIA funded a front company whose sole purpose for existence was to set up yet more companies -- any or all of whom could serve as incubators for further CIA cover. Called In-Q-Tel, the company was created as the agency's 'venture arm' in 2000, and has since become so active that according to a 2005 Washington Post article within five years it had "invested in more than 75 companies and delivered more than 100 technologies to the CIA, most of which otherwise would never have been considered by the intelligence agency." It was In-Q-Tel money being found connected with the Facebook startup that first ignited speculation about the wildly popular social networking application's status as an intelligence gathering tool.
Perhaps most frightening of all is the notion that the Central Intelligence Agency has infiltrated the financial community, even going so far as to create (or at least exploit) entire banks dedicated to the covert funnelling of funds. But that is a story entirely unto itself, with dozens of tentacles leading every possible direction, and as such, is perhaps best left to another article.