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Radioactive Agents: the CIA and the Problem of Identity

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Like other agencies of the U.S. government back in the 1950s, the CIA saw rich promise in the idea of injecting radioactive materials into humans. But whereas documents recently released by the Department of Energy show radioactivated recipients usually to have been either unwitting (schoolchildren told they were getting “vitamin supplements”) or in unfortunate circumstances (lifers in prison, terminally ill patients), the Agency planned to inject radioactive matter into the bodies of its own agents, or personnel.

The CIA took the prudent course of destroying almost all its files on biological and chemical research back in 1973, on the orders of Richard Helms. The Agency now says piously it can find no record of any such activities. But researchers in the 1970s managed to unearth some bizarre and revealing documents, including one—never to our knowledge published—on “Establishing and substantiating the ‘bona fides’ of agent and/or staff personnel through techniques and methods other than interrogation.”

The three-page Memorandum for the Record, with signatory deleted, shows the CIA to have been deeply influenced by the Fifties SF obsession with alien invaders of the human form assuming the exact lineaments of the host. Of course the SF writers were in their turn reacting to Cold War obsessions about the Enemy Within, fostered by propagandists backed by the CIA.

From the days of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond who wrote the mission statement for the CIA and later sugested to the Kennedy brothers ways to poison Castro, show business and secret intelligence have always cross-fertilized each other vigorously.

The CIA officer authoring the memorandum opens with a discussion of the methodological problems caused by the need for secrecy—”problems which are so tough as to be almost insolvable and in their unsolved state are a perpetual source of inefficiency.” The author correctly pointed out that methodological obsession with secrecy, if unchecked, “destroys its own reason for existence.”

“How can the ‘bona fides’ of an agent or staff individual be established?” the author asks. “Today, because of rapid changes and reassignments of our overseas case officers and the continuing operation of agents…[words redacted by CIA censor] for long periods of time, the paramount question arises upon the exfiltration of the agent(s). Is the agent ‘bona fide’; is he the same person we started with?”

The deleted words clearly refer to an agent planted in hostile territory or under deep cover. Hence the CIA’s nightmare. Is our agent really and truly the genuine article, or some clone fixed up by the plastic surgeons of the KGB?

The CIA author then reviews existing technology and techniques. Polygraphing (“now used extensively in attempts to establish ‘bona fides’), needs to be refined, with miniaturizing of equipment and improvements of “ruggedness”; present methods of “psychological measurements” need to be modified and refined, “e.g. utilizing a small strain gage in lieu of the cumbersome pneumatic tube, utilizing an optical or impedance type plethysmograph in place of the sphygmograph” (these were types of pulse-takers); better ways of detecting emotional stress through voice harmonics or a myclograph.

Other ways of establishing identity are then reviewed: “dactylography or finger printing” is regarded as reliable but “in clandestine operations it is at times impossible to obtain finger print specimens for future reference”; “anthropometry or Bertillon’s system of identification—exact physical measurements” has the disadvantage of being liable to human error.

Blood grouping is also discussed, but such groupings “can only positively exclude, but cannot positively identify.”- The same is alleged of specific substances in the organs, body fluids and saliva.

“Mendelian Law of inheritance and derivation of off- spring,” the CIA man continues with a scholarly harrumph, “holds true for group specific substances [blood, fluids etc]. On this basis then, screening and identification of displaced persons, immigrants and line crossers claiming familial relationships and direct linage [sic] can be greatly expedited.”

With existing methods for positively establishing identity thus laid open to question, the CIA man arrives at “artificial means of establishing positive identification.”

“1. Radioisotopes, with predetermined half lives, selectively implanted and/or injected.

“2. Radiologically opaque foreign bodies selectively implanted and/or injected into predetermined sites in the human body.

“3. Specific circulating antibodies artificially produced by selective antigen sensitization that are alien to the habitat in question.”

Aside from the health implications, the whole scheme was mad and illogical even on its own premises. How would it be easier to implant isotopes in the agent, when earlier fingerprinting had been rejected as sometimes impossible to obtain in clandestine operations?

Radioisotopes are used in medicine, under sophisticated constraints that can easily go awry, but the Russians could have copied the radioisotope signature in their own substitute for America’s man. The idea of a “radiologically opaque” ID card lodged internally could similarly be copied. The antibody idea was more interesting, in the sense that an agent with antibodies, say from the Ozarks, would be harder to match.

But then, the CIA author, plainly entranced by his own learning and literary style—perhaps he was James Angleton, the Yale literary man—was not so much concerned with realism, as with the aesthetics of harnessing radioactive materials to the oldest conundrum in espionage—how can you be sure the messenger is the right man?

The memorandum called for “a definitive program of research,” with what consequences we do not know.

This article is excerpted from “An Orgy of Thieves: Scenes from the Counter-Revolution” by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, forthcoming this spring from CounterPunch Books.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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