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Ralph McGehee, CIA officer who became an agency critic, dies at 92 of coronavirus

Former CIA officer Ralph W. McGehee.

FAMILY PHOTO/THE WASHINGTON POST

By HARRISON SMITH | The Washington Post | Published: May 13, 2020

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Ralph W. McGehee, who joined the CIA out of college as a gung-ho Cold Warrior, became disillusioned during the Vietnam War and emerged as a prominent critic of the agency after publishing the memoir “Deadly Deceits,” died May 2 at an assisted-living facility in Falmouth, Maine. He was 92.

The cause was COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, said his son, Dan McGehee.

Raised during the Depression and World War II, McGehee joined the CIA in 1952 to fight communism and to “save the world for democracy.” A star football player in college, he had played on three national championship teams at Notre Dame and excelled during exercises at “the Farm,” the agency’s clandestine training center at Camp Peary in Virginia.

He went on to work as a case officer and counterrevolutionary operator in the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, where he served as the tip of the spear of American foreign policy — and, by the late 1960s, was increasingly racked with doubts about his mission.

In McGehee’s telling, the CIA suppressed his assessments about widespread communist support in northeastern Thailand, where he found that the Communist Party was building “a mass-based revolutionary movement” rather than terrorizing the population into submission. He saw something similar in Vietnam, where a broad swath of society seemed to be rebelling against years of foreign occupation and oppression.

McGehee came to believe that the agency was distorting intelligence intentionally to support the White House’s political goals, ginning up support for the Vietnam War even as its outlook worsened. Seated in his Saigon apartment in 1969, he considered hanging a banner from his window that read “THE CIA LIES” and then shooting himself, according to a New York Times report that chronicled “the disintegration of his small corner of the American dream.”

“Vietnam broke him, as it did so many millions of people,” said former Times reporter Tim Weiner, author of the CIA history “Legacy of Ashes.” “He had spent half his life working for the American cause, and when Saigon fell, his work went up in smoke.”

As news reports and congressional investigations exposed CIA assassination plots and domestic spying programs, McGehee grew restless and bitter, later recalling years “filled with anger, bitterness, self-doubts, mistrust, disbelief, disgust and struggle.” In 1977, after 25 years with the CIA, he volunteered for a new early-retirement program.

Somewhat to his surprise, he left with the Career Intelligence Medal, awarded by William Wells, the deputy director for operations. McGehee said he accepted it in part “to give my children an occasion to be proud of their father,” adding in his memoir that the medal citation offered further confirmation that the CIA’s intelligence was flawed: It recognized his “excellent work in Malaysia — a country which I had never even visited.”

Working out of his home in the Washington suburb of Herndon, Va., he pored over histories of the Vietnam War to write “Deadly Deceits” (1983), which chronicled his years in the CIA and concluded with a scathing condemnation of the agency as a whole.

“The CIA is not now nor has it ever been a central intelligence agency,” McGehee wrote. “It is the covert action arm of the President’s foreign policy advisers. In that capacity it overthrows or supports foreign governments while reporting ‘intelligence’ justifying those activities. … Disinformation is a large part of its covert action responsibility, and the American people are the primary target audience of its lies.”

In an interview Tuesday, Weiner called “Deadly Deceits” “a cold, hard look at the agency’s failures in Vietnam and Southeast Asia — his own failures among them.” He added that although McGehee “was right to argue that the CIA had beggared the gathering and analysis of information in favor of covert action and coups,” the agency was not strictly “targeting” the American people.

“When the CIA went wrong in those days,” he said, “it was often deceiving itself.”

Like all current or former CIA officers, McGehee was required to submit his manuscript to the agency’s Publications Review Board, which checks for classified information. It initially censored 397 sections of the book, ranging from a single word to several pages, spurring a two-year battle over publication.

McGehee credited its successful release to help from an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and a 1982 article from The Washington Post, which reported that agency censors were apparently trying to “reclassify” information that had circulated for years.

“The agency made no bones about it. They just weren’t going to let me write my book,” McGehee told a radio interviewer after it was published. “If any information is embarrassing, shows them doing immoral things, they’ll classify it.”

While researching “Deadly Deceits,” McGehee began developing CIABASE, an online archive of news reports, congressional testimony and other materials that investigative journalist Jeff Stein called “an indispensable resource for those of us reporting on intelligence activities.”

In interviews and lectures, McGehee called for the CIA to be dismantled and said that the agency had harassed him by posting officers outside his home. He also made far-reaching claims about its covert actions, alleging that a South Korean airliner downed by the Soviet Union in 1983 had been part of a CIA plot. (At the time, an agency spokesman called his claims “absolutely ridiculous and utterly irresponsible.”)

“Revelations of further questionable CIA activities as the years went on, in places like Chile and Central America, did darken Ralph’s growing conclusion that the agency, as constructed, was irredeemable,” Stein said in an email. “But I never detected any erosion of his deep love of country. He just yearned for America to be better.”

Ralph Walter McGehee Jr. was born in Moline, Ill., on April 9, 1928. He grew up in Chicago, where his parents managed an apartment complex, his mother handling the bookkeeping and his father doing maintenance.

McGehee was a standout wrestler in high school and played on the offensive line at Notre Dame during a four-season stretch in which the team never lost a game. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1950, he tried out for the Green Bay Packers and coached football at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

He was working for Montgomery Ward in Chicago when he received a telegram: “Would you be interested in an important government position?” The CIA, he later wrote, seemed to recruit football players for its covert operations out of the belief that they “liked the active life and were not overly intellectual.”

McGehee later threw himself into writing his book, working away at a manual typewriter in the basement of his home. “He was angry,” said Dan McGehee, “and you could just hear him typing away: Wham! Wham! He was just pounding the typewriter.”

“It changed him,” Dan McGehee added by phone. “It changed his personality. In our memorial service, each of my siblings talked about how here was this gruff man we grew up with who turned into this amazing grandfather who was sweet, caring and attentive. I’m sure that writing the book was therapeutic.”

McGehee’s wife of 63 years, the former Norma Galbreath, died in 2012. Survivors include four children, Dan McGehee (also known as Keenan Dakota) of Louisa, Va., Jean Marteski of Youngsville, N.C., Scott McGehee of Kailua, Hawaii, and Peggy McGehee Horton of Falmouth; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

While working dead-end jobs at CIA headquarters during his last years at the agency, McGehee sometimes recalled the words of Frank Leahy, his coach at Notre Dame: “You have to pay the price, but if you do, you can only win.”

In truth, he told the Times in 1983, he had not entirely succeeded.

“I guess I justify myself by thinking that I fought for what I thought was right,” he said. “I didn’t quit. I tried to get the CIA to tell the truth. I also had to put my children through college.” Displaying the medal he received after his retirement, he added, “I think they hoped it would shut me up. It didn’t.”

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