This month, a two-year-long investigation into CIA records on Noam Chomsky concluded with a surprising result: Despite a half-century of brazen anti-war activism and countless overseas speaking engagements, the Central Intelligence Agency has no file on the legendary MIT professor.
"Our searches were thorough and diligent, and it is highly unlikely that repeating those searches would change the result," reads an agency reply to a Freedom of Information Act request for any and all CIA records on Chomsky. The request, obtained by Foreign Policy, was submitted by Portland-based writer Frederic Maxwell, who's writing a book about the renowned linguist.
At stake is not so much the CIA's reputation (the agency's forays into domestic spying in the 60s and 70s are well-documented), but Chomsky's: For what's a towering leftist dissident without a lengthy CIA file -- that ultimate rite of passage for 60s-era dissenters?
Was Chomsky maybe even a little disappointed by the lack of a CIA file? Last, week, I presented him with the CIA's findings, which he hadn't been privy to.
"I don't care," said Chomsky, refusing to take the bait during a phone interview. "I had nothing to do with the request." While not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of being seen as envious of CIA surveillance, he did insist that he was the focus of another federal entity's dragnet. "I'm sure the FBI has a big file," he said.
But hold on. No CIA file? And Chomsky's not suspicious? I reminded him of his impeccable qualifications for such surveillance.
Over the years, Chomsky's broad criticisms of the U.S. government (a "terrorist state") made him the only person on both Richard Nixon's Enemies List and the Unabomber's kill list. In the 60s and 70s, he undertook frequent overseas speaking engagements in countries that included Cambodia and Vietnam. He contributed to the leftist political magazine Ramparts, itself a target of CIA surveillance. Detailing the agency's obsession with the magazine's writers, former CIA director Stansfield Turner wrote in his 2006 book Burn Before Reading that "the CIA investigation of the staff of Ramparts was definitely illegal." He added: "It was also just a small part of a much larger [President Lyndon] Johnson-initiated project that went by the codeword CHAOS."
Indeed, that program, initiated in 1967 under Johnson and expanded under Nixon, targeted the anti-war movement on U.S. college campuses, in which Chomsky was a major player. In total, the CIA program collected files on at least 10,000 American citizens. But nothing on Chomsky?
Kel McClanahan, a seasoned national security lawyer who submitted the FOIA request on behalf of Maxwell, was surprised by the CIA's final findings. It was "not a Glomar response, not 'we can't tell you if we have records,' an actual 'no records' response," he told me. In fact, the CIA's first denial about a Chomsky file came back in September 2011. McClanahan then appealed the outcome and received another denial letter this month.
"The Agency Release Panel (ARP) considered Mr. Maxwell's appeal and determined that despite thorough and diligent searches of the appropriate records systems, we were unable to locate any records responsive to his requests," read the Feb. 1 CIA letter.
Interestingly, Chomsky, a man forever mistrustful of U.S. government statements, actually believes the CIA's denial. But it's not because he's warming to the agency as he grows older: It's because he's convinced of its incompetence.
"These agencies are good at killing people, targeted assassinations and overthrowing governments," he told me. "But if anyone were to honestly look at intelligence records, they'd find it all to be a very dubious affair as far as competence is concerned." That is to say, the agency may have had no ethical qualms about spying on Chomsky, but whether it did, and successfully organized that information into its databases, is another story. "We shouldn't be overwhelmed at their pretense of superhuman knowledge," he added. "That's mainly for spy novels."