Operation CHAOS or Operation MHCHAOS was the code name for a domestic espionage project conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. A department within the CIA was established in 1967 on orders from President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson and later expanded under President Richard Nixon. The operation was launched under Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Richard Helms, by chief of counter-intelligence, James Jesus Angleton, and headed by Richard Ober. The program's goal was to unmask possible foreign influences on the student antiwar movement. The "MH" designation is to signify the program had a worldwide area of operations.
The CIA began domestic recruiting operations in 1959 in the process of finding Cuban exiles they could use in the campaign against communist Cuba and Fidel Castro. As these operations expanded, the CIA formed a Domestic Operations Division in 1964. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson requested that the CIA begin its own investigation into domestic dissent—independent of the FBI's ongoing COINTELPRO.
The CIA developed numerous operations targeting domestic dissent, many operating under the CIA's Office of Security. These included:
- HTLINGUAL - Directed at letters passing between the United States and the then Soviet Union, the program involved the examination of correspondence to and from individuals or organizations placed on a watchlist.
- Project 2 - Directed at infiltration of foreign intelligence targets by agents posing as dissident sympathizers and which, like CHAOS, had placed agents within domestic radical organizations for the purposes of training and establishment of dissident credentials.
- Project MERRIMAC - Designed to infiltrate domestic antiwar and radical organizations thought to pose a threat to security of CIA property and personnel.
- Project RESISTANCE - Worked with college administrators, campus security and local police to identify anti-war activists and political dissidents without any infiltration taking place
- Domestic Contact Service - Focused on collecting foreign intelligence from willing Americans.
When President Nixon came to office in 1969, existing domestic surveillance activities were consolidated into Operation CHAOS. Operation CHAOS first used CIA stations abroad to report on antiwar activities of United States citizens traveling abroad, employing methods such as physical surveillance and electronic eavesdropping, utilizing "liaison services" in maintaining such surveillance. The operations were later expanded to include 60 officers. In 1969, following the expansion, the operation began developing its own network of informants for the purposes of infiltrating various foreign antiwar groups located in foreign countries that might have ties to domestic groups. Eventually, CIA officers expanded the program to include other leftist or counter-cultural groups with no discernible connection to Vietnam, such as groups operating within the women's liberation movement. The domestic spying of Operation CHAOS also targeted the Israeli embassy, and domestic Jewish groups such as the B'nai B'rith. In order to gather intelligence on the embassy and B'nai B'rith, the CIA purchased a garbage collection company to collect documents that were to be destroyed.
Targets of Operation CHAOS within the antiwar movement included:
Officially, reports were to be compiled on "illegal and subversive" contacts between United States civilian protesters and "foreign elements" which "might range from casual contacts based merely on mutual interest to closely controlled channels for party directives." At its finality, Operation CHAOS contained files on 7,200 Americans, and a computer index totaling 300,000 civilians and approximately 1,000 groups. The initial result of investigations lead DCI Richard Helms to advise then President Johnson on November 15, 1967, that the agency had uncovered "no evidence of any contact between the most prominent peace movement leaders and foreign embassies in the U.S. or abroad." Helms repeated this assessment in 1969. In total 6 reports where compiled for the White House and 34 for cabinet level officials.
In 1973, amid the uproar of the Watergate break-in, involving two former CIA officers, Operation CHAOS was closed. The secret nature of the former program however was exposed in 1974 when Seymour Hersh published an article in the New York Times titled Huge CIA Operation Reported in US Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years. The following year, further details were revealed during Representative Bella Abzug's House Subcommittee on Government Information and individual Rights. The government, in response to the revelations, launched the Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States (The Rockefeller Commission), led by then Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, to investigate the depth of the surveillance. Richard Cheney, then Deputy White House Chief of Staff, is noted as stating of the Rockefeller Commission; it was to avoid " ... congressional efforts to further encroach on the executive branch."
Following the revelations by the Rockefeller Commission, then DCI, George H. W. Bush, stated: "... the operation in practice resulted in some improper accumulation of material on legitimate domestic activities."
See also 
- Covert operation
- NSA warrantless surveillance controversy
- Project MERRIMAC
- Project MINARET
- Project RESISTANCE
- Project SHAMROCK
- Project Megiddo
- FISA Court
- Operation Mockingbird
- Athan Theoharis, Richard H. (2006). The Central Intelligence Agency: Security Under Scrutiny. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 49,175,195,203,322. ISBN 0-313-33282-7.
- Napoli, Russell P. (2005). Intelligence Identities Protection Act and Its Interpretation. Nova Publishers. pp. 18–20. ISBN 1-59454-685-1.
- Friedman, John S. (2005). The Secret Histories: Hidden Truths That Challenged the Past and Changed the World. Macmillan. pp. 278–279. ISBN 0-312-42517-1.
- Verne Lyon, "Domestic Surveillance: The History of Operation CHAOS", Covert Action Information Bulletin, Summer 1990.
- Goldstein, Robert Justin (2001). Political Repression in Modern America: From 1870 to 1976. University of Illinois Press. p. 456. ISBN 0-252-06964-1.
- Loftus, John; Mark Aarons (April 15, 1997). The Secret War Against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed The Jewish People. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 322. ISBN 0-312-15648-0.
- Burn Before Reading, Stansfield Turner, 2005, Hyperion. p 118
- Hixson, Walter L. (2000). Military Aspects of the Vietnam Conflict. Taylor & Francis. p. 282. ISBN 0-8153-3534-2.
- Seymour Hersh (December 22, 1974). "Huge CIA Operation Reported in US Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years". New York Times: 1.
- CHAOS, MERRIMAC, and RESISTANCE | PDF
- Development of Surveillance Technology & Risk of Abuse of Economic Information | PDF
- Domestic Surveillance: The History of Operation CHAOS
- Operation Chaos: The CIA's War Against the Sixties Counter-Culture
- Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities: United States Senate - CIA Intelligence Collection about Americans: CHAOS and the Office of Security
- Transcriptions of CIA documents related to Operation MHCHAOS