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

Marcus Walsh-Führing

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1John Prados, The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power

2Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016, pp. 388. ISBN: 9780292737624.

3Marcus Walsh-Führing

4John Prados’s book analyzes secrecy as it occurs in the relationship between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Executive Branch and has arrived during times of political pressure in the United States from civil society and institutions on the nation state to provide more transparency of governmental activities. While the book was published before the election of Donald J. Trump, it is impossible to read it without comparing strategies of the new administration to those described by the author when it comes to the consolidation of power and the protection of the image of the CIA. The book offers a detailed empirical account of the classified documents known as the ‘The Family Jewels’ and the institutional and political measures taken by the CIA to keep the documents secret. However, in doing so, the book, The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Powers, merely attempts to describe the mechanisms and institutional relationships between the Executive Branch and the CIA but fails to do so in detail.

5The main weakness of Prados’s book becomes clear in the demonstration of the dialectical process between the Executive and the CIA to secure presidential protection by drawing on the political power of intelligence agencies. While Prados alludes to the relationship, he leaves the reader wondering about the full role of the Executive in the replication of controversial activities. Without a detailed description of the President’s ability to utilize the ‘Gang of Four’, it creates a one-sided institutional view point on how the CIA covers up questionable governmental acts. While the reader may expect from the book a clear narrative on the attitudes that drive the institutional system in a pluralistic political environment, the book is more a historical analysis of actions based on superiority of knowledge and political controversy which challenge the normative understanding of good governance in the United States. Furthermore, instead of focusing on the ‘The Year of Intelligence’ which is the year ‘The Family Jewels’ were released, the book is an all encompassing historical analysis of the impact the documents have had on Presidents, from Nixon to Obama.

6The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Powers is successful in describing the institutionalizations and replications of CIA operations such as domestic surveillance, detention and interrogation, and assassination, to name a few. The main argument of the book is that the image of the nation state is damaged by the cover-up of CIA’s actions such as avoiding accountability, suppressing information, and preventing public inquiry which are at the center of the debate in the current political climate.

7In December 1974, the investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, published in the New York Times classified documents of the CIA which would later be known as ‘The Family Jewels’. While John Prados describes the reaction of then President Gerald Ford’s administration on the released documents and suggested strategies to protect the Executive Branch from the leaking of secret documents, the author neglects to go into detail about the dynamics between the President and his advisors and the importance of keeping the Executive Branch unconstrained from public scrutiny. Also, the book does not go into great detail on the institutional relationships within the CIA under Director James R. Schlesinger which resulted in the creation of ‘The Family Jewels’ during the time of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate Scandal. Instead, the author only vaguely describes the backlash from institutional elites on challenging the reforms made by Director Schlesinger that would centralize the data collection process of the CIA. The author spends more time discussing the evolutionary and overall capacity of CIA operations like ‘Chaos’ and ‘HT/Lingual’, then going into more detail about the role of Presidents in drafting and lobbying Acts, such as the Communication Act of 1934, Espionage Act, and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act.

8The book addresses the relationship between Presidents and the CIA from the Iran-Contra Affair until the 9/11 Commission illustrating and describing the consolidation of power as a fortress of secrecy. For this time span, the author demonstrates the cyclical nature of CIA operations by illustrating the surveillance projects that led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 and, ultimately, resulted in the escalation of institutional reach leading the CIA to operate out of its jurisdiction. Prados further explains that the cyclical nature of CIA operations evolves into a tipping point of institutional leaks which cause the development of a ‘truth commission’ to purge abuses of power within the CIA. During the development of the CIA’s covert operations, US Congress and its intelligence committees have, at times, been able to constrain the agency but, due to its size and resources, they have not been able to implement oversight and reform. Even though President Obama has rescinded permission for torture and secret detention, there are still actions carried out by the CIA that do not conform to restrictions and the legality of the War Powers Act of 1973. This demonstrates the lack of political will from our elected officials and the institutional power that allows the CIA to maintain its status quo.

9The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Powers serves as a reminder for American politics and society that the debate of the relationship between the Executive Branch and the CIA is always in flux. The book defines a grey area between secrecy and security that challenges civil liberties and institutional checks and balances which are the foundation of political discourse in American politics. This grey area brought to light by ‘The Family Jewels’ illustrates the importance of regulatory reform to control the scope of the CIA’s operational capabilities and holding the agency accountable to its Charter. As technology has become more advanced, the CIA has been able to stay one step ahead of the Executive Branch and other governmental agencies by allowing them to consolidate power, evade regulatory scrutiny, and expand operational support for operations. In turn, it has enabled whistleblowers, civil society, and nongovernmental agencies to hold the agency accountable for controversial acts.

10Since the nation state continues to be based on monopolizing violence to create safety, secrecy between the President and the CIA has survived since the ‘The Family Jewels’. Both actors have institutionalized the same political agenda and justify their actions around a common enemy, domestic or foreign. Prados provides a comprehensive analysis on the political power of the CIA and the institutionalization of controversial activities which, in this current state of affairs, remains to be an important topic to be addressed.

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Marcus Walsh-Führing, “John Prados, The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential PowerEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2017-3, Online since 29 November 2017, connection on 22 September 2021. URL:

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Marcus Walsh-Führing

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