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Noam Chomsky Missing Crucial Radical Chic Credential (UPDATE: He’s Actually Not)

MIT professor Noam Chomsky has made as much a name for himself by endorsing various radical foreign-policy positions, many of them blatantly anti-American, as he has with his academic work in linguistics. But it’s all for naught, really: The Central Intelligence Agency apparently didn’t consider him enough of a threat to keep a file on him, as they did thousands of other members of the domestic anti-war movement.

Foreign Policy reports that an author writing a book about Chomsky filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding any records the agency might have about the professor, and Langley was perfectly forthcoming. While the agency can often turn down these requests for security reasons, they were plenty forthcoming this time:

Kel McClanahan, a seasoned national security lawyer who submitted the FOIA request on behalf of [the author], was surprised by the CIA’s final findings. It was “not a Glomar response, not ‘we can’t tell you if we have records,’ an actual ‘no records’ response,” he told me. In fact, the CIA’s first denial about a Chomsky file came back in September 2011. McClanahan then appealed the outcome and received another denial letter this month.

The professor told reporter Josh Rogin that he’s not disappointed — in fact, that he thinks it’s confirmation of the CIA’s incompetence:

“I don’t care,” said Chomsky, refusing to take the bait during a phone interview. “I had nothing to do with the request.” While not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of being seen as envious of CIA surveillance, he did insist that he was the focus of another federal entity’s dragnet. “I’m sure the FBI has a big file,” he said. . . .

“These agencies are good at killing people, targeted assassinations and overthrowing governments,” he told me. “But if anyone were to honestly look at intelligence records, they’d find it all to be a very dubious affair as far as competence is concerned.” That is to say, the agency may have had no ethical qualms about spying on Chomsky, but whether it did, and successfully organized that information into its databases, is another story. “We shouldn’t be overwhelmed at their pretense of superhuman knowledge,” he added. “That’s mainly for spy novels.” 

Of course, a further explanation is that the reactionaries who run America’s national-security state appreciated what Dan Foster once argued in this space was Chomsky’s “conservative approach to his day job.”

UPDATE: Foreign Policy has some news on the story – a memo finally released by the CIA, according to a professor FP consulted, indicates the agency did have a memo on the academic. The CIA sent a memo to the FBI in June of 1970 asking for information about a group of anti-war activists traveling to Vietnam that notes the trip had the “endorsement of Noam Chomsky.” The agency’s memo requested that the FBI send over “any information” it had on the trip itinerary, the trip participants (which didn’t include Chomsky), and any information “which would confirm this information” contained in the CIA document (they didn’t exactly ask, as FP says, “‘ANY INFORMATION’ about people associated with the trip,” which would be more directly relevant to Chomsky). The contention is thus that a CIA file on Choamsky would have been created with this document enclosed, since it mentioned his name, and with any information the CIA sent in response to the request — but the CIA insists it has no such file.

Patrick Brennan was a senior communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration and is former opinion editor of National Review Online.


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We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.