The government keeps secrets. We all know this. Edward Snowden revealed a ton of American secrets to the world about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic spying program. The government says they keep secrets from us in the name of national security. Some would argue that some things governments do to ensure the safety and security of its citizens probably should be kept in the dark and the records of those dealings sealed. However, others believe in full disclosure to prevent abuses of civil liberties and human rights violations.
Sometimes labeling something “Top Secret,” or “Classified,” is just a bureaucratic mechanism to prevent knowledge of a pending operation or policy change. The pressure is on the media to uncover the truth about the government’s dealing as soon as possible and bring this information to the public masses. However, after many years of being locked away, security threats diminish and concerned parties pass away, leaving once-secret documents to be declassified and revealed. Some contain information that was long rumored or might today seem unexciting or boring. Other secrets, had they been revealed years prior, have the potential to rock nations to their very foundations.
This is a compilation of declassified secrets, some shocking and hard to believe, others long rumored to be true, even before the documented evidence was released. As more and more extraordinary records are declassified and revealed we learn what our governments were capable of in the past. Imagine what they are capable of doing now and just how long will it be before those are revealed.
15. Julia Child, Secret Agent
She was a beloved American author, acclaimed chef, and a famous television star; Julia Child brought French cuisine into the American consciousness. In August 2008, upon the release of thousands of classified files, Child would also be remembered for being a secret agent. The U.S. National Archives released all the personnel files for those who worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the CIA. One of the files belonged to Julia McWiliams, the maiden name of Child. The declassified documents revealed the vast intelligence network run by the OSS, created by President Franklin Roosevelt, as the nation’s first intelligence agency. Previous estimates were that the OSS employed 13,000, the new documents shown the numbers was more like 24,000.
Her work for American intelligence was never really a secret but now everyone could learn the details of her work during World War II. She was hired in the summer of 1942 as a clerk, and later worked directly for OSS Director General “Wild Bill” Donovan. She then transferred to a new role as a research assistant. In 1944, she was posted to Ceylon and was instrumental in developing a shark repellent for underwater explosives. She was so good at her job that she was awarded the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service for her work at her final post in Chunking, China. Julia Child died in 2004, before the details of her wartime service were made public.
14. The Secret of Grand Central Station
Grand Central Station is a landmark in New York City. It remains the busiest train station in the United States. Every day it sees many thousands of people going in and out of the terminal, eating at the many restaurants, drinking in the fancy bars, having photos snapped incessantly by tourists. What these thousands of people every day don’t know is that there are actually two areas in the station that few people will ever see.
A full nine stories below the lowest level is a secret bunker known only as M-42. They say that during World War II, guards had orders to shoot-to-kill any trespassers for fear of sabotage while the trains ferried troops in and out of New York. Also, in the secret levels of the station is Track 61. You won’t find it on any train map as it was built specifically for wealthy passengers and their private trains. The track even has a private freight elevator that rises to the garage level of the exclusive Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Track 61 was most often used President Franklin Roosevelt who, due to his polio, had to wear leg braces and was confined to a wheelchair. Roosevelt’s private train contained a specially outfitted car that carried his Pierce-Arrow presidential limousine. When he had to ride into Manhattan from his home in Hyde Park, he would be driven off the train in the limousine, onto the freight elevator and then directly into the hotel. The secretive entrance kept the public from seeing that President was unable to walk on his own.
13. The Plame Affair
Valerie Plame, aka Valerie E. Wilson, had spent twenty years working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). She had risen to top-level assignments all over the world and fulfilled her duties gathering intelligence, recruiting spies, and working many years undercover as a covert operative. By 2002, she had risen to chief of operations for the CIA’s Joint Task Force Iraq, trying to ascertain the truth about claims that Saddam Hussein had amassed weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s). It was decided that the U.S. would send Ambassador Joe Wilson, incidentally the husband of Valerie Plame, to Niger on a fact-finding mission. He concluded that any uranium sale from the region was “highly unlikely.” About a year later, during his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush announced that Hussein had sought significant amounts of uranium from Africa. Ambassador Wilson was livid and believed his intelligence had been twisted and exaggerated, publicly accusing the president and others of lying to justify an invasion.
Shortly after, around July 2003, Bush administration officials, including I. Lewis Libby and Karl Rove, began discussing publicly with reporters about a CIA employee named Valerie Wilson. Plame couldn’t believe it, her identity was secret, her role covert. In September 2003, the CIA informed the U.S. Department of Justice that Plame, aka Wilson, was an undercover operative and her identity classified. They requested a federal investigation into the leak. A grand jury was convened but did not result in the indictment of anyone in connection with the leak. However, I. Lewis Libby, Chief of Staff of Vice President Dick Cheney was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements. Libby resigned hours after the indictment. Plame believed her identity was leaked to the newspapers because her husband publicly accused the administration of lying.
12. Operation: Paperclip
Nearing the end of World War II, the British and American commands were jointly combing occupied Germany for any military or scientific research they could find. Certain units were tasked with confiscating any war-related documents and materials, as well as interrogating scientists. One lucky discovery was recovered from a toilet at Bonn University – the Osenberg List. It was a catalogue of engineers and scientists that been working for the Nazis. Convinced that these men could be invaluable to America’s Cold War efforts, President Harry Truman authorized Operation: Paperclip in September 1946. The goal was to bring approximately 1,600 German scientists, and their families, to America to work for the U.S. government. The project was run by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA), and although officially Truman forbid the recruiting of any Nazi party members, many JIOA officials eliminated any evidence of possible war crimes from the scientists’ records, believing their research and expertise outweighed any Nazi involvement.
One of the most well-known of these scientists was Wernher Von Braun, who was previously the technical director at the Peenemunde Research Center in Germany. He was instrumental in developing the deadly V-2 rockets that rained down upon England during the war. While working in America, Von Braun was officially a “War Department Special Employee,” and worked at Fort Bliss, Texas, and the White Sands Proving Grounds, New Mexico. He later became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief developer of the Saturn V rocket, which was instrumental in allowing U.S. astronauts to get to the moon.
11. The Dunblane Massacre
The Dunblane Massacre was one of the deadliest mass murders in Great Britain’s history. On March 13, 1996, gunman Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane Primary school, in Scotland, and proceeded to slaughter sixteen children and one teacher before killing himself. Public outrage over the killings drew renewed interest on gun control laws. Two new laws were passed which strictly restricted private ownership of firearms in Great Britain. An inquiry was made under the authority of Lord William Cullen and he ordered the resulting report be sealed for 100 years. The media was incensed and began to wonder what information was being hidden. In October 2004, former conservative party chairman Lord Tebbit spoke out against the sealing of the report and within a year, half of the files were released.
According to the released documents, killer Thomas Hamilton appeared to a classic paranoid obsessive. He would have been stripped of firearms license years earlier had prosecutors regarded the police reports that had been filed about Hamilton’s behavior towards children. The records show that in 1991, Paul Hughes, then detective sergeant with the Central Scotland Police, filed a report regarding suspected inappropriate behavior with young boys while at Loch Lomond summer camp. The claims were investigated by the Child Protection Unit and ten charges were recommended to the prosecutor, including assault, obstructing police and contravention of the Children and Young Persons Act of 1937. The prosecutors took no action against Hamilton. There were even claims that Hamilton was involved in a pedophile ring with some highly-connected officials, however, this was never substantiated. Prosecution for any of the charges would have resulted in revocation of his gun license.
10. The Thule Bomb
The Thule Air Base is the northernmost installation of the U.S. Air Force and lies on the northwest side of the island of Greenland, part of the Danish realm. It is home to a ballistic missile early-warning radar station. On January 21, 1968, a U.S. B-52G Statofortress from the 380th Strategic Bomber Wing was flying to the base from Plattsburgh Air Base in New York. The bomber, call sign Hobo 28, was flying a routine alert mission and was armed with four hydrogen bombs. Near the end of the mission, a fire broke out in the bomber’s cockpit. They were unable to make an emergency landing at Thule and ultimately crashed into sea ice in nearby North Star Bay. Most of the crew ejected safely and the hydrogen bombs did not detonate due to safety mechanisms. However, the bombs did fall into the sea.
A U.S. State Department document from August 31, 1968, stated that all onboard weapons from the crashed bomber had been accounted for but did not specifically mention if they had been recovered. Due to high winds and the temperature fluctuations of the icy water and the burning plane, it was believed that some radioactive material might have dispersed into the sea. The United States assured Denmark that clean-up action was completed. This led to some tension between the two countries as nuclear weapons were prohibited on Danish territory, including Greenland. Classified documents released in 2001, suggest that one of the four hydrogen bombs was never found and still lies on the seabed off Thule. Denmark was never officially informed.
9. The Tragedy of Iran Air 655
A year after the Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Iraq invaded the former United States ally. In the conflict, the United States chose to support Iraq and the war dragged on for eight long years, claiming millions of lives. On July 3, 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes was in a sea skirmish against two smaller Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf. During the battle, Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian passenger plane, took off from nearby Bandar Abbas International Airport, bound for Dubai. The airport was known for housing military as well as civilian aircraft. During the heat of battle, the U.S.S. Vincennes claimed it mistook the large Airbus A300 airliner for a smaller F-14 fighter jet. They reported that the plane failed to identify itself when challenged and fired two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 290 passengers and crew of the fated plane.
Documents declassified in 1993 reveal that the U.S. Navy vessel only used emergency radio frequencies when trying to contact the plane, not air traffic control frequencies. Also, Navy telemetry indicated that the plane was climbing in altitude at the time of the missile launch, not descending as an attacking plane would be. These facts were kept secret at the time as they would have shown what really happened: a significant and tragic blunder during battle that cost the lives of 290 civilians who died needlessly.
8. My Lai Massacre
The My Lai Massacre was the mass murder of approximately 500 unarmed civilians of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) that occurred on March 16, 1968. The massacre was conducted by U.S. Army soldiers. A majority of those killed were women and children, with some being raped and beaten. My Lai was a small village in the Quang Ngai province, believed to be a stronghold of the Viet Cong (VC). Company C of the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade was sent on a search-and-destroy mission to root out VC guerrillas in My Lai. Lieutenant William Calley was in command. Not a single shot was reported fired against his soldiers. The slaughter only stopped when an army helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, landed between the soldiers and the escaping villagers and threatened to open fire on the soldiers if they didn’t stand down.
Months later, a soldier wrote a letter to the headquarters of U.S. forces in Vietnam, accusing the Americal Division of brutality against civilians. Major Colin Powell was sent to investigate and found relations between the soldiers and Vietnamese citizens to be “excellent.” By 1970, details of My Lai had leaked and a wave of international outrage spread, causing an investigation to be opened. Fourteen officers were charged with crimes related to My Lai; only one was convicted. Lt. Calley was found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to ten years, ultimately paroled in 1974. In 1998, Hugh Thompson and two crewmen were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for their heroism in putting an end to the My Lai massacre. In 2004, Colin Powell remarked to CNN’s Larry King, “…I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai” and ”…in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”
7. U.S.S. Liberty Affair
On June 8, 1967, during the Six Day War, Israeli jets fired upon the American intelligence ship, U.S.S. Liberty, causing extensive damage and killing 34 American sailors. Israel claimed the ship was mistaken for the Egyptian horse carrier, El Quseir. According to released NSA documents, Israel knew all along that the ship they fired upon was an American vessel. Senior American officials, including President Lyndon Johnson, failed to act in order to protect Israel from embarrassment. Johnson’s administration ordered the inquiry into the attack on the Liberty to conclude it was an accident despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Retired Admiral Thomas Moorer, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it “one of the classic All-American cover-ups.” Moorer had spent a year investigating the attack as part of an independent panel.
In 1982, an Israeli pilot met with former Congressman Pete McCloskey and admitted that he instantly recognized the Liberty as an American vessel and informed his headquarters. He stated that he was told to follow orders and attack the ship. He refused and returned to base, upon which he was immediately arrested. Other pilots followed orders. Israeli officials insist that pilots were unable to verify any visible American flag; a statement refuted by all sailors aboard the ship that day, as well as the aforementioned Israeli pilot. An Israeli military court later acknowledged that headquarters knew at least three hours prior to the attack that the ship belonged to the U.S. Navy. Israel paid reparations of $6.7 million to the injured survivors and the families of those killed. They paid another $6 million to the government for the loss of the ship itself. It is believed that Israel had hoped that the attack could be blamed on Egypt, drawing America into the war.
6. Lord Mountbatten’s Ice Carrier
In 1942, due to a lack of sufficient air cover, Nazi submarine attacks in the Atlantic Ocean were costing the Allies greatly in merchant shipping. The flight range of available aircraft was inadequate to cover the mid-Atlantic and there weren’t enough aircraft carriers available to support Atlantic shipping. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British Chief of Combined Operations, was responsible for developing innovative tactics, technology, and equipment for Allied offensive operations. He tasked his team of engineers and scientists to come up with new and inventive ideas, most of which never got past the drawing boards, but others were completed and utilized in the war effort.
One such idea that was developed was the ice carrier, basically an aircraft carrier made out of an iceberg. This project was endorsed by both Lord Mountbatten and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Scientist Geoffrey Pyke came up with the idea. He believed that since ice was unsinkable, the ice carriers would impervious to attack. They could be easily repaired as all you would need was water to be frozen into any holes in the superstructure. Production would be cheap and the carriers could be as long as 4000 feet long, 600 feet wide, and 130 feet in depth. The carriers would be perfect for operations in the frigid mid-Atlantic. The project was christened Habakkuk and a prototype was built in 1943, on Patricia Lake in Canada. The Americans were sceptical and didn’t back the program. Project costs were skyrocketing and eventually Churchill pulled his backing when technical problems pushed the ice fleet’s completion back to 1945. The prototype was scuttled in 1943 and in the 1970s, the remains were found at the bottom of Patricia Lake. A plaque was placed on the shoreline to commemorate the unusual ship.
5. Churchill’s Plan for Hitler
Sir Winston Churchill, British statesman, prime minister, the man who rallied his people to victory in World War II. He’s considered an iconic figure by many, and yet his plans for a deposed dictator after the war were less dignified. In 2006, declassified documents came to light that depicted Churchill’s plans for Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler should he be captured after the war. Reportedly he was opposed to Allied plans for war crimes trials and was in favor of summarily executing ranking Nazi leaders, including Hitler, who he referred to as “the mainspring of evil.” The documents also reflect that Churchill was perfectly willing to utterly destroy defenceless German villages in retaliation for Nazi carnage in Czechoslovakia, even if it meant going against the advice of his cabinet.
These shocking revelations were uncovered in the notebooks of Sir Norman Brook, former wartime deputy cabinet secretary, who kept shorthand accounts of meetings and discussions with Churchill. According to these notes, on July 6, 1942, Churchill wanted to execute Hitler with an electric chair, even though such a device had never before been used in Britain. Sir Norman’s notebooks were made public by The British National Archives at Kew. They reveal that Churchill was a ruthless leader who found no issue with going against ethical and legal concerns to defeat Nazi Germany.
4. Operation: Gladio
In the 1970s, declassified U.S. documents revealed that, in November 1956, General Giovanni de Lorenzo, chief of Italian Military Intelligence, conspired with the United States via the CIA in preparing a plan to halt any Communist attempt to takeover Italy. However, the Italian government was not informed. Then plan was called Gladio (Italian for “Sword”) and involved forming a skilled force of 1000 men trained in guerrilla warfare and espionage. A training base was established in Sardinia and numerous weapons caches were hidden throughout Northern Italy. Gladio was run by NATO’s Clandestine Planning Committee overseen by the CIA, along with British MI6 and SAS operators. The plan was implemented and instrumental in many covert actions, including a silent coup d’état when General de Lorenzo quietly forced Italian Socialist Ministers to leave the government. Gladio was also implicated in the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, due to his role in attempting to reconcile Communist involvement in Italian government.
In 1990, Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti confirmed to the Italian Senate that Gladio was real. The Italian press referred to it as “the best kept, and most damaging, political-military secret since World War II.” Andreotti spoke of Gladio being Italy’s “stay behind” army, which only Italy’s three secret services and high-ranking members of the Italian government were privy. It was deemed a pre-emptive attack against Communism in Italy
3. Operation: Northwoods
During the 1960s, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff approved a project called Operation: Northwoods, with a goal of striking terror in the hearts of the U.S. public by launching faux terrorist attacks against their own citizens. Why would the U.S. government do such a thing? The overall objective was to be able to assign blame on Cuban Communists giving U.S. military forces the reason they needed to invade the island nation. In 1998, long-secret documents were released by the National Security Agency (NSA) that showed just how serious General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and his staff were set on taking out Fidel Castro and ridding Cuba of Communism.
Eventually rejected as a viable option, Northwoods called for refugee boats to be sunk, planes to be hijacked, the bombing of a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay, and shooting down of U.S. military and civilian aircraft. Sure, steps would be taken to try to ensure no actual U.S. civilians were harmed during these attacks but the scope of the panic instilled on the citizenry was incalculable, as was the anger. Innocent people would be framed for crimes they did not commit so long as it could be linked via false evidence back to Cuba. Only in this manner, they believed, could the U.S. gain the public and international backing it needed to launch full-scale war.
2. Sabotage of Vietnam Peace Talks
In 1968, Richard Nixon was running a tough race for the presidency of the United States. His entire campaign revolved around the Vietnam War. When President Lyndon Johnson announced, just days prior to the election, that he had ordered a cessation to the bombing of North Vietnam to help progress ongoing peace negotiations, the Republicans believed their election hopes were crushed. In classified documents brought to light in 2008, Tom C. Huston, a former aide to Nixon, revealed that other campaign aides contacted South Vietnam and promised them a better deal if they hindered the peace negotiations and helped get Nixon elected into office.
Senior campaign advisor Anna Chennault, a Republican activist with close ties to the South Vietnamese government, contacted Saigon and explained how Humphrey losing the election in favor of Nixon could result in better terms in peace negotiations. The South Vietnamese took the bait and dragged out the peace talks, which greatly angered President Lyndon Johnson. In a released taped conversation Johnson denounced Nixon for “treason.” Huston was sure Nixon’s campaign manager, John Mitchell, was involved but he was not sure if Nixon himself was complicit. However, he believed that it was doubtful that Mitchell acted on his own. The South Vietnamese eventually withdrew from negotiations altogether, Nixon won the election by 1%, and the war continued for another five years, claiming an additional 22,000 American soldiers’ lives.
1. The Spy Who Almost Destroyed The World
Oleg Penkovsky was a KGB double agent for the CIA and MI6. He became an intelligence legend during the Cuban Missile Crisis and earned the moniker, “the spy who saved the world.” A U-2 spy mission over Cuba took photographs of unusually long missiles. Nothing like them had been seen before in Cuba. Analysts pulled out their secretive “black books” of missile intelligence and field manuals given to the CIA by Penkovsky. It was in these manuals that the analysts found a match for Soviet R-12MRBM missiles. It was clear Cuba possessed these missiles giving them strike capabilities of targets deep within the United States. Thanks to Penkovsky, the U.S. acted early and war was averted.
1992 declassified documents reveal a darker end to Penkovsky. The CIA and MI6 had setup a system by which Penkovsky could use telephone signals to give emergency warnings when there was no time for a coordinated dead drop. In case he received credible intelligence of an impending Soviet nuclear strike against the West, he was to call both handlers and blow three times into the receiver before hanging up. On November 2, 1962, both the CIA and MI6 received these calls. Both agencies were sceptical of the signal. The British believed it was a false alarm and did not react. The CIA, however, knowing missiles remained in Cuba, quickly sent an agent to check the dead drop for more information. The agent was promptly arrested by the waiting KGB. It seems unlikely the Soviets would risk war to simply catch a spy. Apparently Penkovsky had been arrested by the KGB and, knowing he would be executed for treason, decided on a last ditch effort to take the Soviet Union down with him. He attempted to get the West to launch a nuclear strike against his captors. The last act of the spy who saved the world was to try and destroy it.