1958 January 22

Spy vs. Spy: FBI Stumbles Onto Illegal CIA Domestic Mail Cover Program


In an almost comic sequence of events, the FBI on this day accidentally discovered a secret and illegal mail cover program operated by the CIA in the U.S. (“Mail cover” is a term used by the intelligence agencies to describe surveillance of peoples’ mail. It might only involve examining or recording the addresses on the cover, or in some cases it might involve opening and reading the mail.) Concerned about spying by the Soviet Union, the FBI set out to launch its own mail cover program, which would track mail from overseas arriving in the U.S., and in the process discovered the CIA program. The CIA, of course, was forbidden by its charter from operating within the United States. High-level secret negotiations between the two agencies finally resolved the conflict between their competing efforts.

The incident was reminiscent of an old Mad magazine feature titled “Spy vs. Spy.” It would seem that the writers at Mad had a better intuitive grasp of the activities of the American intelligence agencies than either Congress or the American public.

Learn about the mail cover program in the Senate Church Committee reports, Book III (pp. 559-677): http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/contents/church/contents_church_reports_book3.htm

Learn more: Athan Theoharis, The FBI & American Democracy: A Brief Critical History (2004)

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