Reviews — From the March 2015 issue

The Fourth Branch

How the CIA infiltrated student politics

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Discussed in this essay:
Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, by Karen M. Paget. Yale University Press. 552 pages. $35.

The revelations that the National Security Agency secretly gathered information on millions of us at home while the Central Intelligence Agency systematically tortured prisoners overseas have made it tempting to assume that such arrogant excesses are somehow novel. But Karen Paget’s Patriotic Betrayal brings to life a similar scandal from half a century ago. It’s a scandal that has great relevance today, and one for which, as it happened, I had something of a ringside seat.

Paget met her husband when they were undergraduates at the University of Colorado, where he became student-body president. Together they attended the 1964 conference of the National Student Association, in Minnesota. Delegates came from all over the country, as if for a presidential nominating convention. Paget, who grew up in a small town, says the experience opened up an “astonishing world” for her: “I was riveted by the political speeches,” she writes. “I had never seen or heard anything like it. I had grown up more devoted to cheerleading and baton twirling than political or intellectual pursuits.”

Photograph of a National Student Association meeting, September 1966 © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Photograph of a National Student Association meeting, September 1966 © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

For several decades after the Second World War, national student unions were where the young and ambitious tried out their political wings. Barney Frank, Olof Palme, and Kofi Annan were all active in their countries’ organizations. In the United States, the National Student Association represented some 400 American campuses at its peak during the Cold War, when the role of such groups was greatly magnified. Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.

In 1965, Paget and her husband attended a National Student Association seminar that was far more exclusive than the conference in Minnesota had been: only a dozen other students, sessions with experts on student politics in Africa and Latin America, and a visit to the State Department. When the seminar ended, the association offered Paget’s husband a job on its international staff in Washington. He was given a good salary, they were living in the nation’s capital, and at the next national conference of the group she got to sit on the dais while Vice President Hubert Humphrey gave a speech. “Our new life seemed almost magical,” she writes. But then one day Paget found herself alone with a man who “told me that my husband was ‘doing work of great importance to the United States government,’ and handed me a document to sign. . . . My host then revealed that he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency . . . and that he was my husband’s case officer.” The National Student Association, Paget discovered, was underwritten by the CIA.

Her husband had signed a similar document, a national-security oath. He had been, she writes, “deeply shaken by the revelation, which turned our time in Washington from a period of elation to one of confusion and, later, fear. . . . We told no one . . . we felt isolated.” The couple soon learned that revealing the association’s CIA ties would be a felony violation of the Espionage Act, and punishable by twenty years in prison. Suddenly they were in far over their heads; he was twenty-two, she was twenty, and they had a baby. What they had believed to be a democratically controlled student organization turned out to be something much darker. “We kept asking ourselves: How could this have happened?” Paget has spent many years working to answer that question, and the result is an important and carefully researched book about events that eerily foreshadow the Snowden era.

Paget has looked at what seems like every available written record, published and unpublished. The more than 150 people she interviewed include scores of former association officials, both witting and unwitting about the CIA relationship, as well as retired CIA men, some repentant and some defiant. The CIA was less than cooperative in response to her requests, and she found that it had reclassified documents that had been previously available to the public; her quest to get two reports from 1949, for example, took nine years.

Patriotic Betrayal is an impressive evening of the score by a woman who felt unfairly trapped and violated fifty years ago. It is not, I have to say, easy bedtime reading. A blizzard of names, initials, and acronyms sometimes overwhelms the reader. A glossary, timeline, and cast of characters all offer some help, though the snow remains thick. Still, Paget has done a true service by putting together a comprehensive history of the relationship between the CIA and the National Student Association, including much that has not been disclosed before. Her book offers a sobering lesson about what happens when a country loses control of its intelligence apparatus.

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is the author of seven books, including To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Tug of War,” appeared in the February 2011 issue.

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