“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Undercover for the CIA
November 4, 1958
Dear Dr. Blackburn:
Thanks very much for allowing me to read your journal or diary of your field work in Yugoslavia. I enjoyed it tremendously. It was just like taking the trip and enduring some of the hardships as well as sharing some of the pleasures.
You are an excellent observer and a very graphic writer. If you have similar documentation of your more recent trip, I would appreciate very much the opportunity of perusing it. This one is full of very useful bits of information as I am sure others will be.
I will try to contact you soon after you return.
354 Midland Bank Bldg
To go back in the story, I was in the field some three months a year during the late 50s and 60s, as project officer for the Seven Countries Study. Paul Austin, I learned later than this letter, was Minneapolis bureau chief for the CIA, his office located in that somber, old-fashioned Midland Bank Building in downtown Minneapolis.
When he first called, and before I figured it all out, I wondered how he had obtained my name and had such uncanny knowledge of my trips behind the Iron Curtain. Mr. A never actually told me for whom he worked. It was clear, however, from his quiet demeanor that he worked for a government agency and that I shouldn’t ask him about it. On his first contact, I agreed to an interview after my return from a prolonged trip to Yugoslavia for the first formal survey of the Seven Countries Study in fall 1958. I assumed that he had access to my passport and visa application and that they had been the source of his knowledge of my whereabouts.
It all started so innocently with this bland little man, a seemingly harmless functionary if ever there was one. He assured me that his function and that of his agency was simply to gather information, every bit of which, he stressed, was important. It was eventually all brought together, he explained, “sifted and stirred, and boiled down to a highly useful source.” And, he went on to say, my small part would fit, along with a thousand other small parts contributed by others, to paint eventually an accurate picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. That, he said, was the ultimate goal of his bureau.
“May I now just ask you a few general questions about your trip, Dr. Blackburn?”
“Shoot,” I said.
He assiduously took notes during my replies, and occasionally asked a specific question such as the name of the director of the Public Health Institute in Zagreb, and of his wife, one of our field team directors. He always expressed great interest in specific names, titles, places, and specific functions the people performed in their institutions. Finally, it seemed to me that I would be better off loaning him my field journals than carrying out such extended interviews. This is what led to the note of thanks with which this tale commenced. It was written on plain, watermark-free typing paper.
For a while, these quiet visits from Mr. A became routine. Then, just as in the spy thrillers, Mr. A began to turn the screws on me, until then the unquestioning, compliant young researcher. He had flattered me in his note as a “sharp observer and graphic writer,” and in time we had become comfortable with each other. But one day he walked in after I had returned from a trip and asked me cheerily, “How was your trip to Prague?”
A little bell went off in my head. Before this day, he had always asked me, “How was your trip, Dr. Blackburn? What countries did you visit this time?”
I replied, “So, Mr. A, where else did I go besides Prague?”
He rattled away, “Well, after Prague you touched down in Budapest and Vienna, and in Geneva for WHO meetings, and then came home via London and the School of Hygiene.”
I realized then that it was not my visa applications or plane tickets that were sources of his information. Rather, he was repeating the destinations and purposes of my journey almost word for word as I had written them on my travel request to the university. Then it dawned on me. Our dean, or someone in his office, must be sending copies of travel requests to Mr. A’s CIA office. I had heretofore regarded our dean, Gaylord Anderson, as a liberal-thinking and fair-minded person. Here I was learning that he was in cahoots with the CIA. Without my knowledge or consent, he had allowed them to determine the dates, purpose, and destination of my overseas trips, taken as a private citizen and university faculty member.
That day, I asked no further questions of Mr. A, and we went ahead with the detailed interview about my latest trip to Prague and beyond.
The next call from Mr. A came some months later, and exceptionally, it was prior to, rather than after, an extensive trip I was to take. Once again, my travel included Iron Curtain countries. In his usual clipped manner on the phone, he asked if he might stop by. I gave him an appointment for the following day.
Arriving precisely on time, he said he was just stopping by to leave me a list of things his bureau would be interested in my observations about on my next trip to the Dalmatian coast or the interior of Yugoslavia. I regret now that I didn’t keep that list. As I recall, they were interested in such mundane details as the availability and price of a vial of penicillin.
By this time, I was mildly exercised; first that my dean was working with the CIA without informing his faculty, but mainly that a CIA official was now sufficiently emboldened by my past cooperation to call me before rather than after a trip, and even to present me with lists of information he would like me to seek out and collect.
Still attempting to stay cool, I said to Mr. A, “What do we pay our scientific attaché at the Belgrade embassy for, if it’s not for this sort of routine information?”
Again, I heard his litany about “every little piece of information, from every source and little piece of geography, collated and compared with every other little bit, all contributing to a whole fabric….,” and so on.
I accepted Mr. A’s questionnaire, but jettisoned it shortly after he left. I felt I had about enough of being a “CIA informant.” And on the next trip I collected none of the details he asked me to provide. I had no intention of deliberately gathering information, with malice aforethought, on Yugoslavian colleagues, their lives, or their society.
Returning from the trip, I again agreed to an appointment when Austin called, but this time I notified my office mate, Burt Hamrell, of my intended strategy. I would carry out the interview with Mr. A in Burt’s presence, not informing the CIA beforehand. And I would keep my dictaphone running on my desk, since A had now begun to tape our interviews. I thought it would be a lark to tape him taping me.
When the secretary escorted A into my cubicle, Burt Hamrell, sitting at the desk opposite, made as if he were busy. A seemed uncomfortable, cleared his throat several times, and finally blurted, “As you know, Dr. Blackburn, it has been our custom in the past to conduct these interviews in privacy. Who is this with you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. A, I assumed you knew my office mate, Dr. Burt Hamrell.”
Burt said, “Hello, Mr. A. I also assumed that you already knew all about me — for example, that my father was an immigrant to this country, and that my Polish grandfather was a notorious horse thief!”
Mr. A didn’t crack a smile. Rather, he turned on his tape recorder and, looking squarely at Hamrell, inquired, “Now, Dr. Hamrell, please tell me your full name and title and what you do in this laboratory.”
Burt gave me a wide-eyed look, as if to say, “What gives? I want no part of this!”
My subsequent interview with Mr. A that day was short indeed. He realized that we were having fun with him. In fact, that was the last I saw of Mr. A. After my next overseas trip, he left a message that another agent from the bureau would be stopping in to see me.
By this time, I had decided that I wanted nothing more to do with the CIA, but, mistakenly, I said nothing to them about it. They continued to request that I serve as an information-gathering agent, and sent me lists of specific questions to explore with particular peoples. Moreover, the bureau continued to insist, foolishly I thought, on maintaining the hush-hush secrecy of our interviews.
When the agent replacing Mr. A was ushered in, let’s call him George, I started my tape recorder, continuing my puerile prank of taping the CIA taping me. George was much less cool than Mr. A. For instance, he liked my new London Fog MacIntosh hung on a hanger in my office and actually asked me, crudely, “How much you take for it?”
That day, in my interview, I managed very little recollection of anything I had observed on a recent trip to Moscow. This interview, too, terminated early. My “undercover days” with the CIA were over.
I have often thought of asking for my FBI files, using the Freedom of Information Act, to see whether I was considered an uncooperative citizen after this behavior, but I have resisted the temptation. I did take up the issue with Dean Anderson later. He did not admit directly to forwarding my travel requests to the CIA but did say that he considered there was nothing wrong with the CIA knowing when members of the faculty were going to “politically interesting areas.” He did not respond when I suggested it might be better if faculty knew their travel requests were being released in this fashion. I told him how disconcerting it had been for me to have a gentleman from the CIA request secret interviews, then walk into my office and rattle off places I’d visited, and for what reason. I got no satisfaction from the dean and dropped the matter.
Some time later, on a flight returning from a hard day of committee meetings in Washington, I was seated next to a former colleague from the medicine service of the Minneapolis Veterans Hospital. For some reason, I got into the story about my “victimization” by the CIA and the pranks I had played on the agents. I was brought up short when my travel companion suddenly asked: “Whose side are you on, anyway, Henry?” It abruptly ended our conversation about the CIA.