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The Family Jewels

The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power 

By: John Prados (University of Texas Press, 2013)

Review by Jason Saltoun-Ebin, for

Oct. 1, 2013 

Almost forty years after Seymour Hersh broke the story for The New York Times on Dec. 22, 1974 that the CIA was illegally spying on Americans, John Prados’s The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power (University of Texas, 2013) reminds readers that the recently released Top-Secret CIA “Family Jewels” document Hersh relied on for his groundbreaking story to examine the history of CIA illegal activities is as relevant today as it was when Hersh broke the story.

Prados, along with the National Security Archive, obtained the release of the over 700-page “Family Jewels” document in 2007 through a Freedom of Information Act request.  Domestic spying, attempted assassinations and assassinations, and the Watergate scandal comprise much of the “Family Jewels”, which Prados notes the CIA created at the request of then director of central intelligence James R. Schlesinger so that Mr. Schlesinger would be apprised of all the CIA’s questionable activities. Prados rounds out his study by analyzing the legacy of the “Family Jewels”, events after 1973 that may, when the evidence is finally revealed, show a continued pattern of CIA illegal activities. The Iran-Contra scandal, domestic spying, rendition, as well as drone strikes play significant roles in his account.

 The Family Jewels is much more than just the history and legacy of the CIA’s Family Jewels document. The book is actually at its best when looked at as a study of the interactions between Congress, the CIA and the Presidency. Prados appropriately calls upon his political science background to complete this task.

 The central figure to emerge from his study is none other than former vice president Richard Cheney, whom he writes was the “leading ringmaster” of the CIA’s Family Jewels. “Over a period of three decades starting with the Year of Intelligence, Dick Cheney remained a central figure,” Prados argues. “As deputy assistant to the president, Cheney set up the Rockefeller Commission and ensured its narrow scope. Promoted to assistant with Donald Rumsfeld’s departure, Cheney spearheaded President Ford’s responses to the congressional investigators. In the Iran-Contra affair, Representative Cheney was crucial in limiting the joint committee inquiry and in drafting a minority report to discredit Congress’s findings. In the second Bush administration, the vice president stood at the forefront of those actually ordering the operations that created Family Jewels, functioning as George. W. Bush’s manager for the dark side. Mr. Cheney was at the heart of rendition and interrogation as well as NSA eavesdropping, not to mention the invasion of Iraq. Cheney’s involvement in the Family Jewels can hardly be overstated.” (326)

 It is through Cheney that Prados examines the interactions between the White House, Congress and the CIA, with the CIA all too often becoming the convenient scapegoat when “Family Jewels” get leaked. Prados looks behind the scapegoating, as in Iran-Contra, to argue that those in the White House and Congress deflected blame onto the CIA. Although Prados notes that the roles of both President Reagan and former director of central intelligence William Casey still remain ambiguous, despite the claim of Robert M. Gates that Casey probably did not know about the diversion, Prados argues there is “a fair likelihood that he did.” Overall, in terms of the White House/CIA relationship, Prados concludes that “The agency’s effort to protect the Family Jewel only did it harm, while the Iran-Contra faults overall were so large that no effort to scapegoat the CIA actually could protect the White House.”

 Prados does not exempt the current presidential administration from his critique. “Obama’s failure to sustain the effort to close Guantanamo and his acquiescence in continued authority for the wireless intercept programs show poorly,” he argues. “He either lacked the courage of his convictions or let himself be led by the intelligence mavens.” Yet Obama does not rise to the likes of Cheney, in Prados’s assessment, because “Unlike his predecessors, however, President Obama did not add new Family Jewels. Obama functioned as an enabler for the jewelers, not as their ringmaster.” (327)


The lesson Prados leads his readers to is the need for an informed polity to guard against what he calls “the most disturbing aspect of all.” For Prados, that is that “Family Jewels seem to have a tendency to replicate, suggesting that abuse fulfills some functional purpose.” For example, Prados writes: “Vietnam-era surveillance is reprised by war on terror surveillance. Vietnam-era eavesdropping yields to the Terrorist Surveillance Program. Harsh interrogation tactics used in the CIA molehunt are followed by the even greater horrors of the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees. The assassination plots of the Cold War have been succeeded by the real killings of the drone program.” (322)

Though I imagine that Prados had in mind when he started this project the importance of informing Americans of what their government did in their name, I wonder if the author had a loftier goal in mind. Throughout the work he weaves a narrative of the White House, Congress and the CIA constantly digging themselves a deeper hole through their efforts to protect the “Family Jewels.” Nixon and Watergate, as well as Reagan and Iran-Contra, standout. In that regard “The Family Jewels” serves as nothing less than a warning to future administrations that the best, and perhaps only, way to avoid another Watergate or Iran-Contra is simply to avoid authorizing any actions that would later rise to the level of a “Family Jewel.”

Prados’s warnings should not go unheeded by future administrations. “The Family Jewels” is highly recommended for history buffs, especially those interested in the intersection of intelligence, congress and the white house. The book is available at and by clicking here: The Family Jewels.

© Jason Saltoun-Ebin 2016