CIA Paranoia and the Lady from Vermont

9/11 hysteria, even surrounding 60-year-old documents about American spies

On October 9, Charlotte Dennett, a prim Vermont woman uneasily holding her handbag, stood up in federal court in Manhattan to try yet again to pry the 60-year-old secrets about her father’s death from the U.S. government.

Daniel Dennett was an American spy working in the Middle East during and after World War II, at a time when the world powers were jockeying for control of oil in the region. He died in a mystery-shrouded 1947 plane crash in Ethiopia, when Charlotte was just six weeks old.

Now a 60-year-old journalist, Charlotte Dennett traveled to the stately federal appellate courtroom at 500 Pearl Street from tiny Cambridge, Vermont, this month to try to convince a three-judge panel to let her continue her lawsuit against the CIA for records surrounding her father’s work.

Details

RELATED: Though Charlotte Dennett is still waging a battle to get her father's papers released by the federal government, she shared some of the documents that she managed to successfully pry from the CIA, as well as government papers she found in archives:

This map, according to Dennett, is from the office of the Petroleum Administrator for the War, a federal organization set up by the Roosevelt administration to coordinate activities between oil companies and the government. The map, produced in 1944, begins with the observation "World War II is largely a war by and for oil."

This CIA memo, produced by CIA operative Daniel Dennett, is basically a spy frankly discussing the intelligence operations of other countries and their efforts to destabilize U.S. interests in the Middle East, including America's own supposed allies. At the bottom of the page, he notes that Axis and Allied powers made a deliberate effort to undermine U.S. prestige in the region.

On page two of the memo Dennett notes that the French tried to "belittle" the U.S. and issued anti-American propaganda. And he writes that the oil reserves in the region are so great that the U.S. must maintain control at all costs.

The final page of the memo gives an idea of just how much these documents can be redacted before they are released.

Even though the records pre-date the Eisenhower administration and most of the people named in them are dead, the CIA has blocked, resisted, and delayed her Freedom of Information Act requests for over eight long years. CIA spokesman George Little declined to comment on the pending litigation. In court papers, the agency argues that the release of the records could compromise national security and expose intelligence “sources and methods.”

To Dennett, also a self-taught lawyer, the case speaks volumes about the government’s post-9/11 obsession with secrecy.

“It’s hard enough to get documents from the CIA, but post-9/11, it’s 10 times more difficult,” she says. “I am concerned that there is an effort to secretize our history. This lawsuit has been a struggle to prevent that.”

John Taylor, a legendary archivist specializing in intelligence at the National Archives who assisted Dennett in her research, says he’s puzzled by the agency’s stubbornness. “The CIA is very reluctant to release anything on the Middle East regardless of date,” the 87-year-old Taylor says. “It’s not clear to me why, especially since these records are from the 1940s.”

Charlotte Dennett’s odyssey began 15 years ago, when she decided to learn everything she could about her father and write a book about that era. In 1943, she learned, the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of today’s CIA, sent her father, then 37, to the Middle East. Based in Lebanon, Daniel Dennett specialized in counterintelligence, or keeping an eye on other spies. His code name was “Carat,” and his working cover was as a cultural attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

Among his projects, his daughter says, were weakening French influence in Lebanon and tracking Soviet penetration in the region, as well as a secret effort to determine the route of an oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean. “Oil from Saudi Arabia was a great prize, and the overland route that was going to be chosen had huge political implications,” his daughter says.

One of Daniel’s competitors in the region was Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent. Running a network of 25 agents was dangerous work. On a visit home in 1945, Daniel told his family that he wasn’t sure he would come back alive, his daughter says.

On March 20, 1947, Daniel Dennett died in a plane crash along with five other U.S. intelligence officials. The plane was carrying sophisticated radio gear and an aerial camera. At the time, Charlotte Dennett says, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was negotiating a major oil deal with a U.S. company.

Dennett got her hands on the records of the official plane-crash investigation, which revealed that the cause of the crash had never been determined. Her interest grew when she ran into a retired intelligence officer who had known her father. The man told her that some agents believed the plane had been sabotaged, but they couldn’t prove it.

“If this wasn’t an accident, then most likely they were among the first American victims of what would be called the great game for oil,” Dennett says. “This is important because one of the problems in looking at Middle East conflicts today is that people don’t know their history.”

In 1995, Dennett first began to scour the National Archives for records on her father. Eventually, archivists there told her that she would have to make a request to the CIA, where the OSS records had been transferred just after World War II. In 1999, she filed her first Freedom of Information Act request with the agency.

The CIA took three months just to send a boilerplate letter acknowledging her 1999 request, and more than two years to send her any records at all. That batch of records—300 documents in all—was heavily redacted and consisted mainly of standard personnel material, she says. There were no operational files. None of the documents dealt with the plane crash or the last months of her father’s life. Among the redactions were Daniel Dennett’s own analysis of his work in Lebanon.

The agency insisted that releasing all of the information would compromise “sources and methods” and damage national security. Dennett appealed in September 2001. Most of the people named in the records, she argued, were either dead or very old, and there was no national-security threat posed by their release.

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