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.
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.
Moreover, William Casey, the director of central intelligence in the Reagan administration, had already ordered thousands of documents from the period sent to the archives, she says. According to the archivist Taylor, Casey believed the OSS records had such great historical value that he authorized the release of over 5,000 feet of records—a process that consumed most of the 1980s and 1990s. From those records in the National Archives, Charlotte Dennett already knew a great deal of her father’s sources and methods.
“It’s not like the U.S. has collapsed or suffered at all from the voluminous and detailed documents that already have been released,” she says.
The CIA responded to her appeal by saying there was a backlog of 380 appeals in front of hers, and that she would have to wait her turn. She would be an old woman before she saw another page.
“That was ridiculous,” she says. “Come on—I’ve waited two years. “ (Little, the CIA spokesman, said the agency received 2,900 FOIA and Privacy Act requests last year. He said the agency has reduced the older case backlog by 74 percent in recent years.)
In January 2004, now almost five years after her initial request, Dennett complained about the time it was taking to process her request. The CIA did nothing.
Finally, in early 2005, she sued the CIA, encouraged by her husband Gerard Colby, who is also the co-author for the project. (Dennett never went to law school, but she was able to pass the bar exam in Vermont and had been a practicing lawyer for some years.)
Once she filed the lawsuit—some six years after her initial request for the 60-year-old records—the CIA seemed to take more of an interest and gave her additional documents, including some “gems,” as she puts it. Still, the agency wouldn’t turn over everything it had, or even tell her what else was there.
“I have no idea what they are withholding,” Dennett says. “I suspect a lot more records are available. Some people are amazed that I got as much as I did, but it’s just been extremely frustrating.”
The CIA asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying that it had done everything it could do. The judge agreed. Dennett then mistakenly sent her notice of appeal to the wrong post-office box in the same federal building that houses the District Court and the clerk for the Court of Appeals. The same judge refused to give her more time to file her appeal.
That decision created one huge irony: The government was holding her to a procedural miscue, when it had delayed, ignored, and fought her FOIA requests for eight years.
In its appellate brief, the government dwells on Dennett’s clerical error for four pages. Dennett’s error, the government argues, doesn’t meet the standard for “excusable neglect.”
But what about the government’s handling of her Freedom of Information Act request? Wasn’t that in itself inexcusable neglect?
If the Appeals Court grants her motion for additional time to file, Dennett plans to ask the judges to examine the documents behind closed doors to see if any more records can be released.
“I want them to look at these records as an independent body to see if the records constitute a threat to national security or are of sufficient public interest and historical value to be released,” she says.
Of her appearance in federal court, Dennett says: “It’s a little embarrassing to have to stand up in front of all those people and admit a mistake.”