WASHINGTON – The CIA recently declassified and put on display thousands of secret documents from investigations and surveillance conducted 35 years ago. Dubbed the "family jewels," the massive file included some details on the surveillance of Brit Hume.
Hume, now the managing editor of FOX News' Washington, D.C., bureau and host of "Special Report With Brit Hume," offered his take on being the subject of an investigation by the spy agency during the height of Nixon administration paranoia.
Q: What were you doing at the time that attracted the CIA's attention to you?
BRIT HUME: I was working for Jack Anderson, the syndicated columnist, who had received a large collection, a really large collection, of highly-classified documents, among which were documents that made it clear that the Nixon administration, while publicly neutral in the conflict that was then ongoing between India and Pakistan, had secretly tilted toward Pakistan, which was a very controversial development and was obviously not known to the public, and these papers disclosed a number of things, but they disclosed that.
And, um, there was considerable alarm about these documents. I actually hadn't had any role in the story but they didn't know that, so everybody in the office, not everybody but I think all of us who were reporters and Jack himself got spied on.
Q: Did you know at the time that you were being watched?
HUME: I had no idea.
Q: And when did you find out?
HUME: We found out about the outlines of it sometime thereafter, and then we found out a lot of details when there was a production of documents pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act suit that somebody filed. I didn't, I wasn't party to it, but when the stuff came out I saw the documents, and there were photographs that the CIA operatives had taken from a nest across the street from Jack's office on K Street, and there were pictures.
We found out they surveilled my house and followed my wife and kids when my wife was driving them to school and they followed me to work apparently. And I guess they tapped the phone although I don't remember the details well enough to know that.
But I was leading a pretty humdrum life in those days, and I didn't have any skeletons in my closet or any girlfriends on the side or any secret drug habits or anything so I was not much alarmed when I heard about it. It seemed so farcical, in a way, and I knew I wasn't the guy who — that they couldn't have learned anything about it from me because I didn't know how he got those documents.
Q: Do you think they were trying to get dirt on you?
HUME: No, I think they were trying to find out how this leak, where this leak was that led to Jack Anderson having possession of this stack of classified documents. I mean it was a security hemorrhage there's no doubt about that.
Q: Did the CIA ever catch the guy who gave out the documents?
HUME: I don't recall they ever got the leaker. I don't think they ever found out.
Q: Do you know what was your code name?
Yes, my code name was "egg nog." The pattern was that everyone was named after a drink. Somebody was "champagne." Somebody was "brandy." I think somebody was "cordial," and I was "egg nog." Go figure.
Q: (Laughing) Do you have any idea how you got that one?
HUME: I don't, and I think if memory serves, the overall operation was called Operation Mud Hen, and I am not even sure about that, which is equally absurd.
Q: So you were the egg in the hen?
HUME: Yeah, I guess so.
Q: So what was the overriding atmosphere at the time for political reporters?
HUME: The atmosphere in 1972, '73 was pretty tense in Washington because the Nixon administration had a distinct, dark, paranoid side, and, you know, they kept an enemies list, and they weren't always wrong about the media being against them, but their response to it was pretty rough and I think, you know, they went farther than other administrations have gone in trying to combat this and they were pretty aggressive about it. And also I was a young reporter and there was something exciting and melodramatic about being in Washington at the time the media was standing up against the great dark powers of the government. They were tense times.
Q: Did you ever feel afraid because of the work you were doing?
A: Not really, although it was, it was all sort of fun, exciting, romantic even.
Q: Did anyone you knew or in your circle, did they have any run-ins with the CIA other than being surveilled?
HUME: No, not that I know of.
Q: Do you believe it was justifiable for the CIA to spy on you or others?
HUME: No, it was illegal. You see, the problem was ...
Q: Was taking those classified documents, was that legal?
HUME: Well, I think so, but it was probably illegal for somebody to give it to us, but not illegal for us to receive it because of the First Amendment. But the other problem was the CIA is pretty well forbidden by its charter and by law, by the National Security Act of 1947, from any domestic surveillance or spying operations. I mean that was — the tenor of the law was very clear. The CIA was to have no internal security function and it was, therefore, not legal for the CIA to do this.
And then of course, this all came to sort of a head in a later edition of "Nightline" when they had Richard Helms, who had been the director at the time, on as a guest and I did the set-up piece, and I described this operation and we showed pictures of the street and we described the setting outside Jack Anderson's office, and I finally said at the end that this was of interest to me because this is my house and the CIA was spying on me and my family.
And I said in the course of it that it had been "hopelessly illegal," to which I think it clearly was. So Ted Koppel turns to Helms, who is in — another studio is where they set it up, and asked him the question, and there was no answer. Helms just sat there, and they thought it was a technical problem that he couldn't hear. And Helms finally said, "No, I can hear you." He said, "I am just so ... " — I don't remember what it was, some words to the effect of — "I am just so speechless at what Mr. Hume has just said that I find it hard to respond."
And he then argued that it wasn't illegal, that because the CIA charter also requires him as the director of Central Intelligence to protect sources and methods, that he had to do what he had to do to try to find out where the security leak had come from. I don't think it was a very powerful argument, but that's the argument that he made. But it made for a very tense moment there when the question was first asked and there was no answer.
Q: Have you seen details of your CIA file?
HUME: As I recall there were some details in there, and they had a bunch of stuff in there as I recall about at one time I applied but never followed through with joining the Marine Corps when I was in college and I ended up not doing it and they had information based on that, and some other stuff.
But they didn't really have anything that was very telling or anything very secret about me. My life was pretty straightforward. I was never very alarmed by this for some reason. Maybe I should have been but I wasn't. I mean I regard it as more farcical than anything else. After all, I wasn't the person who had anything to do with the story. It was a waste of their effort to follow me around. The code names were ludicrous. The whole thing just seemed kind of silly.
But it was kinda cool too. In those days, you know, it was great cachet to have been thought of as a journalist who was at odds with the evil Nixon administration. You know, if you were somebody who was spied on by the CIA, well, that was worth a few feathers in your cap. And of course, you know, to have even had a code name was all kind of fun. The only thing was I was never on the Nixon enemies list. Jack was but I don't believe I was and that would have helped the career a little bit too.
Q: I think you did all right anyway. Do you think the CIA's declassifying this material or other materials serves a meaningful purpose?
HUME: Well, I haven't seen anything really new in it. You know they declassified all this, but all this stuff has come out before.
Q: So what do you think the purpose is?
HUME: I don't know. I guess they figured it was old, it was time to declassify it. It gave everybody a chance to re-plow some old ground, and I was surprised that it got as much coverage as it has because some of this stuff is really old, and there was less detail about this operation involving me, from what I can tell, than we got the first time around in that Freedom of Information Act suit.
Q: But all the material you saw was duplicative or no?
HUME: I haven't really looked at it yet. The truth is that I am happy enough to talk about it but it really isn't very interesting to me. It happened a long time ago and nothing came of it.
Q: Do you think that the Bush administration's warrantless wiretap program out of the NSA is arguably different than what the CIA was doing at the time?
HUME: Well, first of all, they really didn't have a warrantless wiretap program. What they had was they had a surveillance program, which from time to time involved conversations with people inside this country where there were no warrants. But that program is now gone, it's been folded into the overall operation they do in concert with that FISA court.
So, no I don't think that is very different. After all, there's no doubt about what the intention of this administration has been with the surveillance that they've done, and that is they are trying to catch Al Qaeda operatives.
With too much of what happened during the Nixon administration was they were trying to do things for their domestic political protection. I wouldn't say that was necessarily true of this particular operation, which was a CIA operation, but a lot of the other stuff that they did was — this whole business with the enemies list and breaking into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and all that. They had guys that didn't have anything to do with the CIA or who were not affiliated with the CIA, in the person of E. Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, who were part of that so-called plumbers unit that started out as an operation intended to plug leaks but ended up being used for other purposes.
I broke the story about ITT in the Nixon adminsitration which caused a big controversy on Capitol Hill and later the reopening of the nomination hearing of Richard Kleindienst to be the attorney general and they used the plumbers to spirit the witness out of town.
There was a lot of domestic stuff going on that was pretty irregular then that was purely political. This atmosphere now is pretty dumb, a lot of people like to wring their hands and pretend that the bad old days are back but I don't think it's even remotely comparable.
Q: I guess then based on your earlier answer, there's nothing that you want to reveal about yourself that you've done that the CIA doesn't already know about?
HUME: Not that I can think of now. My life, as I said, was pretty humdrum in those days. And it may have gotten a little less humdrum later, but I am certainly not going to talk about that.