Thursday, November 1, 2012

My CIA File

As a career employee with the government, I must get periodic background checks, including interviews with government security investigators. It isn’t as if I deal with a lot of government secrets—this is just standard protocol for many civil servants to have their security clearance renewed. Whenever I am interviewed, I always convey one of my darkest secrets to the investigators—because my name probably appears in a CIA file somewhere. You see, I have had dealings in the past with a hostile foreign government.

I realize that many of you who know me find this news to be a surprise. I am hardly the James Bond type, and especially not a Benedict Arnold traitor. Yet it is important that I “fess up” to this experience whenever my investigation is due again. Not admitting to it is what supposedly gets you into trouble.

It all started so innocently. In the late ‘70s, as a young college student, I got involved with the student government on our campus. I was elected vice-president for my sophomore year and then president my junior year (I then did an internship in Washington during the fall semester of my senior year).

During this same time period, Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba published a weekly English newspaper entitled “Granma”—indeed, it is still the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party. This newspaper arrived each week in the student government mailbox even though we had not subscribed to it. Apparently the Cubans assumed that student government offices on college campuses were a hotbed for radical Marxism, and thus provided free subscriptions because they wanted to spread their “gospel according to Fidel.”

Our copy generally ended up in the trash without being looked at. However, when I became president, I decided that was wasteful. Perhaps some student doing research on Cuba—or on propaganda—could benefit from looking at this publication. It seemed to me that if they insisted on sending it to us, it was better for it to go to the library than to take up room in our mailbox. I must admit that I didn’t coordinate my idea with the library staff—I had already learned from other student government activities that it is often easier to ask forgiveness afterwards than to ask for permission beforehand.

So I took it upon myself to write a letter to the publisher at the address shown inside, explaining the desire for it to be re-routed to the library. I took it to the local post office and mailed it to Havana, Cuba. Soon the newspaper was no longer clogging our mailbox. It seemed as if I had done a good thing.

Later that year, our college hosted a special speaker*—I don’t remember his name but he had written a book about his experiences with the CIA, and was now working the campus lecture circuit. His talk made me think of my letter to Cuba, so I went up and asked him about it after his speech. He explained to me that all mail bound for Cuba gets routed through the Miami CIA office for “review.” While there was nothing sinister with what I had done, my interaction with the Cuban government would likely be recorded, in case I started getting more involved with them in the future.

He warned me that if I ever was interviewed by government or military officials for a job or whatever, a standard question is whether or not one has ever traveled to or had dealings with a hostile foreign government. He advised I must always remember to answer yes to this question, because if I am under oath and say that I have never done so, they have that information in my file to show that I am lying. One of the primary purposes for government investigations is to determine someone’s trustworthiness, and thus I would fail that test. What I did was not all that bad, but neglecting to acknowledge it would be bad. Such a failure could jeopardize my ability to get a government job, or a secret clearance, or whatever.

Thus, ever since my first civil service background check back in the ‘80s, I have always told investigators the story of my letter to Cuba. I don’t want to find out whether this college lecturer really knew what he was talking about—I just routinely trot out my story as soon as they ask the question. Honesty truly is the best policy. In conclusion, I trust that there is nothing else about my boring life that would be worthy of inclusion in my CIA file. I hope it is a very narrow binder!
*During my undergraduate years, I enjoyed attending a number of special speakers on the UC campus. These included then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, actor Jack Palance, former Nixon aide John Dean, theologian William Sloane Coffin, author Jeremy Rifkin, numerous state political figures, and others (such as the CIA guy) whom I have probably forgotten over the years.

No comments:

Post a Comment