Victor Marchetti, 88, Dies; Book Was First to Be Censored by CIA
Victor Marchetti, a former CIA employee and co-author of the first book, about the agency’s inner workings, that the federal government sought to censor before its publication, died Oct. 19 at his home in Ashburn, Virginia. He was 88.Posted — Updated
Victor Marchetti, a former CIA employee and co-author of the first book, about the agency’s inner workings, that the federal government sought to censor before its publication, died Oct. 19 at his home in Ashburn, Virginia. He was 88.
The cause was complications of dementia, his son Christian said.
Marchetti worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for 14 years as a Soviet-military specialist and executive assistant to the deputy director, Rufus L. Taylor. Disillusioned by what he saw as the agency’s unchecked excesses and its increasing involvement in attempted assassinations, coups and cover-ups, he resigned in 1969.
He and John D. Marks, a former State Department intelligence officer, then wrote a nonfiction book, “The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence,” which was ultimately published in 1974.
“The cult of intelligence is a secret fraternity of the American political aristocracy,” they wrote. “It seeks largely to advance America’s self-appointed role as the dominant arbiter of social, economic, and political change in the awakening regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”
A legal battle erupted over its publication and would have far-reaching implications, establishing that government employees who have access to classified information can be enjoined for the rest of their lives from disclosing it or discussing it, even after they leave the government.
“Marchetti was at the vanguard of what has been called the literature of disillusion,” said Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
“He was one of a number of CIA officers who came to have second thoughts about the role of intelligence and about their own role in the agency,” he added, “and they expressed those misgivings in memoirs that became best-sellers.”
Those books included “Inside the Company: CIA Diary” (1975), by Philip Agee, a former CIA secret operations officer, and “Decent Interval” (1977), by Frank Snepp, the agency’s chief strategy analyst in Vietnam.
Marchetti signed a contract when he joined the CIA in 1955 pledging not to disclose classified information. The contract stipulated that any books or articles he wrote had to be cleared by the agency in advance.
In reviewing the manuscript in 1973 for “The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence,” the agency cited 339 passages that it said had to be removed on the grounds that they jeopardized national security.
The authors and their publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, challenged the agency in court, accusing it of violating their First Amendment rights. Moreover, they argued, much of the material in the book had already been made public or was so trivial — like the pronunciation of names — that it hardly undermined national security.
Over several months, the agency whittled down its objections to 168 passages. Knopf then published the book using blank spaces for passages that had been censored and using boldface type to indicate passages that the CIA had initially wanted to censor but later allowed.
Even while the book was in production, the legal case continued.
In the end, a trial judge found that fewer than 30 passages had actually been classified while Marchetti was a CIA employee.
But in 1975, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the agency, saying that Marchetti had “effectively relinquished his First Amendment rights” when he signed his employment contract. The Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.
In its ruling, the appeals court laid out a broad definition of what constituted classified material. For example, it could include anything considered “useful,” even if not “vital,” to national security, the court said, and if a lengthy document were stamped secret, every sentence in it, however innocuous, would have to be regarded as classified.
Anthony Lewis, a longtime columnist and legal affairs specialist for The New York Times, sounded an alarm after the ruling, writing of authors: “They cannot write anything in the vaguely defined area of national security without the prior approval of the CIA. They cannot discuss facts or even write fiction. Not now or ever. It is an extraordinary legal situation, unlike any in our history.”
The book became a critically acclaimed best-seller. It was one of several accounts of the CIA’s attempts to subvert foreign governments and spy on American citizens (Marchetti among them) that led to the creation in 1975 of a Senate select committee to study intelligence abuses.
The work by the committee, chaired by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, led to legislation calling for greater checks and balances on the intelligence community. And despite the ruling against it, Marchetti’s book helped spawn a literary genre that revealed government secrets.
“When Marchetti did it, it was shocking and practically unheard of, and the government didn’t know how to react,” Aftergood said. “Its first instinct was to try to suppress and then censor, and they were successful. That only made the book more celebrated.”
Victor Leo Marchetti Jr. was born Dec. 23, 1929, in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. His father, Victor, ran a plumbing and heating business and a hardware store; his mother, Martha (Poniatowski) Marchetti, was a homemaker.
After high school in Hazleton, Marchetti moved to New York City, then to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne. He joined the Army in 1952 and served in an intelligence unit in Germany. When he returned, he graduated from Penn State University and married Bernice Baran.
In his later years, Marchetti was a consultant, frequent speaker and freelance writer. Some of his articles, appearing in right-wing publications, advanced conspiracy theories involving the CIA and organized crime in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Besides his wife and son, he is survived by two other sons, Victor and Jeffrey; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. In the end, all the attention that his CIA book gained was, by Marchetti’s reckoning, a dubious reward.
“I lost everything I had,” he told The Washington Post in 1980. “If I had it to do all over again, I’d have kept my mouth shut. I’d have played the game.”
Asked what his father meant by that, Christian Marchetti said in a telephone interview: “When he left the CIA, he was climbing the ladder. He could have had a long career with the CIA, a government pension, but because of the path he chose, his friends weren’t friends anymore. The agency prevented my mom from getting jobs.”
He added: “When you take on the system, it’s hard to beat the system.”
Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.