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Remembering an Archive Hero

May 29, 2014
William Worthy and Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1957. Credit Boston Globe Staff

William Worthy and Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1957. Credit Boston Globe Staff

William Worthy, a foreign correspondent who travelled to –and reported from– locations the US government did not want him to go, died this month at the age of 92.

Worthy traveled to places like the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China because he believed Americans “have a right to know what’s going on in the world in their name,” and it would be difficult to exaggerate his contributions both to investigative journalism and the founding of the National Security Archive.

Worthy’s intrepid reporting made him the subject of a landmark federal case concerning travel rights. He is perhaps most famous for his 1961 arrest after returning to the US from Cuba where he interviewed Fidel Castro. Upon return he was arrested, not for illegally traveling to Cuba, but for re-entering the US without a passport, which the State Department had refused to renew years before after he violated a US travel ban and spent 41 days in China. The travel rights case made him the subject of protest singer Phil Ochs’ “The Ballad of William Worthy,” which includes the lyrics: William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door./ Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore. /But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say, /You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

Mr. Worthy, albeit somewhat inadvertently, also played a key role in the founding of the National Security Archive in 1985.

In 1981 Worthy, undeterred by the government’s attempts to prevent him from traveling where they didn’t want him to go, flew to Iran to report on the Islamic revolution as a freelance producer for CBS News. While there, he bought a multivolume set of books that were readily available in Iran and were already circulating through Europe. These volumes were “said to be reprints of intelligence documents taken from the United States Embassy in Tehran after revolutionary militants seized it in 1979” during the hostage crisis.

When he returned to the US with the books, however, the FBI determined the volumes were classified and seized them.

Luckily, Worthy was able to acquire another set of volumes and provided them to Washington Post reporter –and Archive founder– Scott Armstrong.

Subsequently, in January 1982 Armstrong published a five-part series, “Iran Documents Give Rare Glimpse of a CIA Enterprise,” about United States intelligence operations in Iran, based partly on the contents of the documents provided by Worthy.

In an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, Scott Armstrong called Worthy’s documents “an extraordinary find.” He said:

“This was a whole history. I think there were—he brought back 12 of 13 volumes that existed then. Later, we ended up with 90 volumes in all. But it was an extraordinary insight into the history of overthrowing Mosaddegh, the popularly elected leader of Iran; re-installing the Shah, the CIA’s role in that; and then the cooperation that the CIA gave with SAVAK, the dreaded secret police of Iran. And it was—every intimate detail was included. They just—they had some documents in their entirety that just hadn’t even gotten to the shredder and other things that they were able to print out that were still in electronic form, that showed the U.S. government reaction to pressure on the Shah as the revolution occurred in Iran. And the United States did not deal with itself well. The United States government at one point during the hostage crisis considered releasing these documents, and Cy Vance advocated it, but it chose instead to try a military rescue. So, these documents were—essentially put a lie to every defense that had been given for the U.S. role in Iran over a 30- or 40-year period at that point.”

Armstrong was careful to note in his 1982 expose that, while the volumes provided an unprecedented glimpse of the CIA’s activities, not all of the documents that were found in the US Embassy in Tehran had been deciphered, and others had but were ultimately withheld because they “might embarrass Islamic clerics the militants support.” Armstrong noted that while the published documents did not support some of the militants more “egregious” conspiracy theories about the US’ activities in Iran, the documents were “used in an intensive campaign to arouse further distrust of the United States.”

For its role in attempting to suppress the dissemination of Worthy’s volumes and tighten the lid on the US government’s activity in Iran, the FBI agreed to pay $16,000 to settle a suit brought by Mr. Worthy, his colleagues, and the American Civil Liberties Union over the volumes’ seizure.

In his interview with Goodman, Armstrong also elaborated on how Worthy’s collection convinced him and others to establish the National Security Archive.

“These documents were so complete and, once authenticated, painted such an unusually detailed picture of the U.S. machinations in Iran, that it became apparent that there was always going to be an understory, there was always going to be something in the background that journalists suspected, but were often unable to write about, because, at that point, the Reagan administration was there. The Reagan administration was attempting to intimidate Bill Worthy, attempting to intimidate other journalists. A year after I wrote the series, they came down with a National Security Decision Directive 84, which was—which said that no person in the United States government could talk to a member of the press about anything involving national security without first clearing it with the National Security Council. And that lasted about a week, because there was such an uproar from the press. But we were—it was still unclear whether the press was really going to pursue things like the Iran-Contra activities that were beginning to go on. The war in El Salvador had heated up again. And the Reagan administration was re-inventing facts every day of the week. And they would just make conclusory statements. They would deny things that were quite obvious to the journalists on the ground in different countries. And often our editors were intimidated.

So the question became: Was it possible to put together large groups of documents, get them declassified or otherwise accumulate them, and keep them in the public domain? And we tried it with—actually, it was an ACLU project at—in Washington that dealt with the questions of asylum for Salvadorians. And both Ray Bonner from The New York Times and I had independently used the Freedom of Information Act to request things, and we’d gotten back different—the same documents. Often, Ray would get back one where the top half was excluded and the bottom half was there, under national security grounds; I’d get back the same document, the top half included and the bottom excluded. So we began to put these things together, and we began to see that there were ways to get an authenticated version of what actually happened on the ground that would at least begin to pin down the administration on what its policy had been. I mean, documents do lie, in the sense that we are talking about communications between policymakers who have their own point of view, but they at least have the authenticity of showing what those points of view were and allowing people—allowing journalists to say something definitive about the position of the United States government at a particular point in time.

And it was that notion that we could do this, we could do something that was across the board on many different topics, that caused the National Security Archive to be created. It was one of the unintended consequences, I guess, of Bill Worthy’s exercise of his right to travel and his right to read and think and do what he wanted as a journalist. We began to exploit that right. And the Bill of Rights exists only insofar as you exercise it. So I left—at one point, left The Washington Post and founded the National Security Archive.”

Key selections of the volumes Worthy gave to Scott Armstrong were published electronically in the Archive’s second digital collection, Iran: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1980, and are currently housed in the Archive’s conference room.

 "Documents from the US Espionage Den" housed at the National Security Archive.

“Documents from the US Espionage Den” housed at the National Security Archive.


  1. May 30, 2014 3:50 am

    Thanks for this wonderful remembrance of an amazing man. Great snippets of Archive history, too.

  2. May 30, 2014 2:27 pm

    Reblogged this on Justice and Solidarity and commented:
    The National Security Archive is an independent U.S. NGO that founded in 1985 by journalists and scholars to check rising government secrecy. The Archive has been instrumental in uncovering “classified” govt info on U.S. covert activities, policies abroad and at home. They have also done a great deal of work on Guatemala, including analysis and dissemination of the secret National Police Archive.

    Following is a post to the National Security Archive’s UNREDACTED blog – a wonderful blog that I highly recommend to anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy – about William Worthy, a founder of their institution.

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