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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 June 2007, 22:45 GMT 23:45 UK
CIA documents reflect troubled times
By Andy Gallacher
BBC News, Washington

Fidel Castro in 1959
The papers reveal the CIA tried to hire mobsters to kill Fidel Castro
The newly released documents known within the Central Intelligence Agency as the "Family Jewels" give a history of the agency's misdeeds covering several decades.

There is nothing revelatory within the tome, but the American media have already picked up on something that has been an obsession here since 1959.

While it has never been a secret that the American government wanted Fidel Castro dead, now we know that at one point agents from the CIA attempted to hire mobsters to assassinate the Cuban leader.

At times the report reads like a cheap American detective novel: meetings with crime syndicates in Las Vegas, a bounty of $150,000 and a memo outlining how the US government should remain ignorant of the attempt to kill President Castro.

As for the other misdeeds, there is the confinement of a Russian defector, surveillance of journalists who were thought to be leaking sensitive information, break-ins, wiretapping, and experiments on unwitting members of the public to change their behaviour.

The list seems endless and for the most part of highly dubious legality.

'Unflattering history'

The documents were compiled in 1974 and much of the information has since been leaked and written about in great detail.

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A headline in the New York Times that year read: "Huge CIA Operation reported in the US against anti-war forces, other dissidents in Nixon years."

The CIA's current chief, Michael Hayden, has referred to the "Family Jewels" documents as an "unflattering part of CIA history" and a reflection of how much the agency has now changed.

For the most part, these events took place in the 1960s and early 70s, decades that witnessed a deeply unpopular war in Vietnam, a scandal that brought down a president and a Cold War that increasingly took up much of the intelligence community's time and resources.

The documents reveal a period of aggressive and often illegal CIA activities, perhaps reflecting the then administration's worries about an unpopular war and the activities of journalists determined to uncover the truth.

For some people in the US, all this sounds very familiar - and comparisons are being drawn with today, despite the agency's insistence that it has reformed and no longer operates above the law.

'Myth and speculation'

Under President George W Bush's administration, American citizens have been held without charge or legal representation.

CIA Director General Michael Hayden
Michael Hayden wants to change the CIA's tradition of secrecy

The Patriot Act, passed just days after the attacks of 11 September, 2001, gave law enforcement agencies sweeping powers, including searching telephone, e-mail and banking records without the need for court orders.

A great deal of attention has also been paid to secret CIA flights over Europe, with reports that more than 1,000 covert CIA flights crossed European airspace carrying terrorism suspects to prisons in other countries for questioning in the four years after 9/11.

But Michael Hayden, himself a history buff, claims that myth and speculation fill the vacuum of information from the CIA, something he wants to change.

He says the agency has detained fewer than 100 people in its secret overseas detention programme since 2001.

In the course of this programme, Mr Hayden says, the CIA has acted lawfully and prisoners have been treated in keeping with Western values.

Very little of the information in these latest documents will come as a surprise to most Americans, since much of the information is already well documented.

But as the US and its intelligence community face ever more pressing problems, its citizens may speculate that it will be many years before they know exactly what the CIA - or any other agency - is doing in the name of the American people today.

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