Back To The CIA And The Peace Corps

The CIA and Peace Corps blog that I recently deleted by mistake was about SpyTalk, a column in The Washington Post, written by  Jeff Stein a longtime investigative reporter specializing in U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy issues. 

Stein was writing about a new spy drama on USA Network, and how the Smithsonian was used as ‘cover’ for a CIA agent.

He asked Melvin Gamble, a retired high-level CIA official, about that episode. And Gamble replied that it was ‘possible’ that the ‘cover’ with the Smithsonian.  Gamble spent four decades in the operations wing of the spy agency, retiring in 2008 as chief of the Africa division. However, Gamble said, the Smithsonian would have to agreed to the arrangement. He then went onto add that like any other U.S. government or quasi-government agency (with the exception of the Peace Corps), the venerable institution is fair game for use by the spooks.

Now another (nameless) source who ended his career as a station chief in a major capital, added, “I never heard of an incident where we ever considered using [the Smithsonian] as cover, for the same reasons we stay clear of the Peace Corps, whose value to U.S. foreign policy is too great to risk by entangling it with the CIA. ”

Now, that was my column which led RPCVs to have all sorts of comments….Now what do you have to think? Has (or is!) the Peace Corps Agency being used?

I do know from my four years of experience in Ethiopia that whenever an ‘incident’ happened in some town, i.e., a school strike or the alike, the Charge or someone of that elk, from the Embassy would drive out afterwards on a ‘sightseeing’ trip with the wife and kids, throw a small party at the local hotel, and inviting the PCVs in town over for a drink. And you know how PCVs like to talk, especially if someone else is buying the beer!

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  • In my 25 years with the State Departent abroad it never occurred to me to ask Peace Corps Volunteers about events in the countries where we were both serving.

  • In my 5 years on Peace Corps staff I never had the slightest indication that CIA (or the Embassy ‘intelligence guys’ ever came even close to approaching volunteers (or me or any other staff member).

    It was not because of lack of contact. My assigned seat at the Ambassador’s weekly meeting was right next to the Station Chief’s seat. I played tennis with a guy who later turned out to be an undercover operator, and, one night when a volunteer joke (at the CDs expense) went awry, I ended up in the inner sanctum of the CIA operations. WHOOPS! Everyone immediately realized that I was out of place and I was quickly moved out.

    Given all that contact, if they were using us you’d thinlk I’d be approached, Never happened!

  • No offense, but obviously if the CIA were using a few Peace Corps Volunteers as agents they wouln’t have to pump volunteers or staff for info . Before Peace Corps, I worked for Bechtel Corp. in the mail room and I can assure you guys that George Schultz never called me in for a conference to discuss policy in Saudi Arabia. But I digress, I was in Colombia from ’78 to ’80 and naturally I was accused by Colombians of being a CIA agent more than a few times. What I would tell the Colombians was that I certainly wasn’t CIA but I wasn’t going to vouch for anyone else. On the other hand, Colombia was so overrun by Americans back then, especially Americans looking to party, that it seemed absurd to me that the US government would need to use something as high profile as Peace Corps as a cover when they had so many other better options. Looking objectively, I guess you could say that Peace Corps served as a good distraction for Colombians while real agents could quietly do their work. That would be the bad side of the coin.

  • My uncle was a military officer who had a close friend who worked for the CIA. In 1964 or 1965, while I was working as a Peace Corps program evaluator, my uncle said his friend would love to have lunch with me sometime. I said no thanks, and it was never brought up again.

  • Leo’s and Craig’s point is well taken: what makes us think that PCVs know things which are of genuine interest to the State Department or the intelligence services. Teaching history in a village school or working with agricultural co-ops is hardly where foreign policy is made. PCVs often over estimate their value. It is also true that in most cases it would simply not make sense to send a CIA officer out under Peace Corps cover. It’s only a two year assignment, not long enough to develop a string of agents. PCVs are usually assigned to a remote towns. In most countries better cover is available. It would just not be an efficient use of personnel.

    That said, let me make a somewhat contradictory point. In my many years as a journalist working overseas I occasionally found it useful (and always enjoyable) to talk with PCVs. They often had interesting perspectives. So Embassy political officers (who, trust me, were usually not the CIA people in the embassy) might find the views of PCVs useful in assessing the mood of the country. And ditto for the CIA. And so why should we object if the political officer buys us beers for a nice chat? PCVs constantly say that Embassy people lead a sheltered lives and don’t REALLY know what’s happening. This would be a chance to set the dips straight. Recently when I was traveling in Eastern Europe an American ambassador, at my suggestion, invited several PCVs to dinner at the residence. The conversation was interesting to me — and to the ambassador as well. What’s the harm? Indeed it would be nice if the Embassy thought a bit more like Peace Corps.

  • To reiterate: I recall that when the infamous post card from Ghana raised such a fuss including accusations that PCVs were really working for the CIA, President Kennedy wrote an executive order stating that there had to be at a minimum of seven years between serving in the Peace Corps and working for the CIA.

    In all honesty, the vast majority of PCVs worked in situations where what they did would not even have been of interest to the intelligence community.

    I also recall one PCV from another country being approached by the Commercial Attache, reportedly a common position for the CIA operative in an Embassy, and when asked a question that she thought was too sensitive, told the person to go screw!

    Someone for whom I worked at ACTION had been Peace Corps staff somewhere in West Africa. He used to observe the CIA operative in the embassy just write up reports based on what in the local newspapers.

  • I live in DC now and attend occasional lunches at the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs…a geezer gathering of retired government, military and private sector types who have worked overseas. Sitting next to a man who identified himself as a former CIA ‘in-house historian’, long retired, I asked him where the CIA got its best information…agents, electronic snooping, etc.

    He said that most of the CIA’s information has always come from open sources….maybe 90%. A trained analyst covering the media, public speeches, etc., could put together information and see connections for a full picture that an uninformed reader would miss. Useful information came from informants/agents sometimes, but hearing something from a single source was often not trusted without confirmation from a second source.

    He said that the expansion of the internet has probably raised the percent of information from open sources.

    This doesn’t mean that tracking underpants bombers can be done that way, but it makes PCVs and others living and working in country X less valuable as sources except in the way Barry Hillenbrand suggested…getting a sense of the ground level mood in the sectors of life where the PCVs are living and working. That, too, is open source information. Lubricated with a few beers, it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

    I have been reading open sources on Ethiopia extensively for years, and find that the State Dept. guys I meet, and the experts in the think tanks, etc., don’t know more than I do except in the accidental ways of running across an article I haven’t seen. We share them and the gaps on both sides are filled without any recourse to anything exciting. It’s hard to keep secrets in the internet era…unless net neutrality is lost.

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