SA Book Festival Interview: Dr. John Prados, military intelligence expert
I was honored to be asked to moderate a panel on domestic surveillance with two leading authors on the subject: Dr. John Prados, senior fellow at the National Security Archive and author of The Family Jewels: CIA, Secrecy and Presidential Power and Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild and author of Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance. I was able to speak with Prados about his research into military intelligence and his book, which documents the so-called “Year of Intelligence” in 1975, when journalist Seymour Hersh shocked the nation with revelations of expansive and blatantly illegal surveillance of American citizens. Sound familiar?
Where were you during the Year of Intelligence?
In 1975, I was a graduate student at Columbia University. I was interested in intelligence, but I was interested in international relations and I was studying US/Soviet stuff, in particular nuclear warfare and rockets and missiles and all that kind of thing. Intelligence was important to me because the American estimates of what the Russian nuclear forces were going to be were key to looking at the evolution of U.S. nuclear programs and defense budgets and technological developments …. Actually, when the Hersh revelations first came out … I thought that they were really a distraction from what the main problem was, which was Soviet-American relations. As the Year of Intelligence went on, I became much more impressed with all the things that were happening, the revelations that were coming out and everything that that entailed.
Was there an intersection between your studies of Vietnam [Prados has also written extensively on the Vietnam War] and the CIA and military intelligence’s involvement in the conflict?
That’s a very good question. When I said before that I was thinking of all of that stuff as a distraction, I was coming from this perspective of having been, having had the feeling in opposing the Vietnam War that people like the CIA and the FBI were sort of chasing us around and all that kind of thing. So, my initial perspective on Hersh’s revelations and the whole thing that led to the Year of Intelligence was like, sort of, resisting that feeling that I had left over from the Vietnam War.
It seems like, from what you covered in The Family Jewels, some people in those opposition groups did feel that there was probably a CIA presence but up until the revelations, they probably didn’t know for sure whether they were being spied upon or infiltrated. Was that a common feeling among people opposed to the war? Were people concerned about being infiltrated before these revelations came about?
Oh yes, very much so. Today, just to put this in the current context, you look at the Snowden revelations about the NSA eavesdropping and a lot of people that you mention this to will tell you ‘oh yeah, they intercept everything all the time.’ That kind of, sort of universal-type feeling about government surveillance … applied to anti-war protesters at that time thinking about the government. Have you looked at my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War? In that book you will actually see a narrative of some of my experiences in the anti-war movement and you’ll see that I ended up working with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Unwinnable War mentions this thing that VVAW did in Detroit in 1971 called the Winter Soldier investigation. If you looked at the transcript of the Winter Soldier investigation, you would see one of the VVAW people there specifically and explicitly saying ‘Well, yes, CIA is in here. In here somewhere, you’ll find them.’ It’s definitely true that they had that feeling. No question.