Guest Commentary

Colonel Philip J. Corso & the FBI

The Love-Hate Relationship between Whistleblower Philip J. Corso and the Federal Bureau of Investigation:

by Larry W. Bryant

Sometimes, in order to illuminate a shadowy issue in contemporary history, the chief principal of that issue must himself pass into history -- by dying.

Such is the case with the late U.S. Army Lt. Col. (Ret.) Philip J. Corso, co-author of "The Day After Roswell." His demise on July 16, 1998, served to pave the way for public access to any and all investigatory records maintained on him by such agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. Were he alive today, however, Corso probably would be inclined to protect his privacy by denying that access (especially were he to have any reason for suspecting the existence of derogatory information).

But since dead men have little or no privacy interests, Corso's behind-the-scenes profile gets the spotlight in the February 2000 release of his 47-page F.B.I. dossier. That release, by the way, comes many months after my initial freedom-of-information request sent to F.B.I. headquarters in Washington.

In various, liberally censored inter-office memoranda -- some classified originally as high as SECRET -- certain top F.B.I. officials manage to depict poor put-upon Phil as an "unreliable" and "shifty-eyed" McCarthy-esque crusader against communist influence in society. Even director J. Edgar Hoover chose to label the would-be savior of the Republic a "rat."

What on earth (or beyond Earth) had prompted such official condemnation? It takes a couple of read-through's to sort out the trail of activities and proclivities that, in Bureau executive C. D. DeLoach's view, show how Corso "had maligned his own character" (rather than its being intentionally maligned by the Bureau, as charged by then-Congressman Michael Feighan (D-Ohio)).

The memos' style and content rely on redundancy to drive home the undesirability and unreliability of having to deal in any way with the likes of Corso. Even Corso's old boss at the Pentagon -- Lt. Gen. Arthur Trudeau -- gets tarnished (in a few offhand references) by the Corso tarbaby. Curiously, the memos start out with the date of Nov. 10, 1964, and extend into April 1966; a few documents skip from 1966 to 1990 (namely, a "congressional" pertaining to Corso's forwarding of a "Reader's Digest" article on weaponry). The file ends with the 1990 correspondence. Some of the F.B.I.-redacted material has been referred to this or that (unnamed) agency for release determination.

Now, let's see if I can construct a passable precis of the dossier -- by excerpting some chronological quotes and by appending some commentary:

First, from a Feb. 11, 1965, memo from M. A. Jones to Mr. DeLoach:

"Bufiles contain a number of references to Corso, although we have never investigated him. [Two deleted lines of type.]. He has contacted the FBI from time to time, especially in the 1940s, usually in connection with some allegation concerning the subversive activity of one individual or another."

[Next follows a page worth of redacted paragraphs.] Then:

"Corso was also alleged to be responsible for putting out a rumor that Lee Harvey Oswald was an FBI informant. When interviewed on 2-10-64, by you (Mr. DeLoach) regarding this, Corso indicated his 'sources in CIA had merely presumed that Oswald was an informant for the FBI.' When you challenged him to identify his CIA sources, Corso repeatedly failed to produce names. There is good reason to believe Corso never got such information from CIA and the 'deductions' were his own. The Director noted: 'Corso is a rat.'

"The interview with Corso took place in Senator Thurmond's office, in the presence of the Senator's Administrative and Legislative Assistants, [deleted] and [deleted]. Corso repeatedly refused to identify his alleged CIA sources and, after you kept pressing him on this point, he modified his story by saying a Communist Party member in Texas named [deleted] knew Oswald had been the source of FBI information and [deleted] had been spreading this story around. When you told Corso he was inconsistent in his story, he got very melodramatic about his fear the communists were promoting a deliberate smear of the FBI.

"Oddly enough, when you met with Senator Eastland and [deleted] on 2-6-64, about this matter, the Senator, in [deleted] presence, told you that the latter's source said Oswald was being handled as an FBI informant by a Special Agent named [deleted]. Later, [deleted] identified his source to you as Corso. (There is a [deleted] on the Reserve Index, Section B, of the San Antonio Office.)

"From your interview with Corso on 2-10-64, you got the definite impression that he was a rather shifty-eyed individual who fancied himself a great intelligence expert. It was difficult for you to pin him down and he continually insisted on expounding his theories in preference to sticking to facts. In spite of the fact Corso promised to call you on 2-11-64, relative to the identity of his sources, he did not do so. When you reached him that evening he said he had not had an opportunity to recontact his sources. He then stressed his sources had no facts but that their belief Oswald was an FBI informant merely stemmed from idle deduction during a conversation. He said he was responsible for leading this discussion in this regard because of his extensive experiences with military intelligence; he felt than [sic] any American citizen who was given a job in the Soviet Union, allowed to marry a Soviet citizen and then permitted to return with her to the U.S., could only be an FBI or CIA informant. He indicated neither he nor his CIA sources had any facts on which to base these deductions. He again promised to contact you within 3 days. When you had no word from him by 2-25-64, you contacted Corso again. Claiming to have been traveling with Senator Thurmond, Corso apologized for not getting in touch with you as he had promised. He again refused to disclose his so-called CIA sources, and again emphasized the fact that his allegations had been strictly deductions and had no basis in fact. You told him this was a pretty poor way of doing business, especially for a man who supposedly had been trained in intelligence operations, and you advised him of the tremendous amount of work his gossip had caused the FBI. His reply was to invite you to lunch. This was refused. (105-82555-2274,2275,2276)"

[LWB comment: At this point, readers may recall the rumor circulating during Corso's extra "15 minutes of fame" in the aftermath of his Roswell tell-all tome -- that he (with a co-author?) was planning to do another, comparable expose, to be titled "The Day After Dallas."]

The most Corso-image-damaging datum contained in the 8-page Jones memo gives us an amusing glimpse of how Murphy's Law operates in Washington (or is it the Keystone Cops Law?):

"On 10-30-64, [deleted], [the associate commissioner of the] Immigration and Naturalization Service, advised the Bureau that an employee of his had found a carbon copy of a letter on the streets of Capitol Hill addressed to the Director and dated 10-28-64. This communication signed by Philip J. Corso, Research Assistant to Senator Strom Thurmond, alleged that Mr. Hoover or the FBI was being used to follow up leads derived from illegal telephone monitoring of calls from Senator Thurmond's office. The letter indicated a hoax call was made and recorded to determine if the Bureau was involved and being used as a political tool by the present Administration. Corso said this incident, which he did not identify, was particularly appalling since you (Mr. DeLoach) had personally assured him no phones on Capitol Hill were ever illegally monitored. Corso said it was obvious that you were lying.

"On 11-3-64, you interviewed Corso regarding this letter. SA [deleted] was also present. Corso acknowledged the communication as his and expressed surprise that it had got out. He tried to explain it away as a joke, engaged in by himself and three of Senator Thurmond's assistants. According to Corso, this joke materialized one night when the group was sitting around with nothing else to do. He said there was no intention of releasing the letter, and that he thought the original and all copies had been destroyed. You asked him why, if it were a joke, the letter had been witnessed by [deleted], an attorney who had formerly been on the Subcommittee of the Senate investigating [deleted]. Corso continued to insist it was written 'in fun.' You very strongly impressed upon him that the FBI did not tap telephone wires on Capitol Hill and that we certainly did not appreciate his brand of so-called humor. (62-52026-76)"

In a highly redacted section titled OBSERVATIONS, the Jones memo notes:

"Corso and General Trudeau have caused the FBI and other Federal agencies to expend many hours of work and much manpower in running down wild accusations. For example, on 2-2-54, the Bureau [deleted]."

Jones concludes his memo with this observation: "It is felt that Philip Corso has probably 'sold' himself to Congressman Feighan as an intelligence expert. Based on his past history, if he is placed on the staff of the Immigration and Nationality Subcommittee [chaired by Feighan], we can expect another spate of wild accusations -- this time about how communists are engaged in thwarting the policies of immigration and naturalization in the U.S. Too, it would seem that Corso is 'coaching' Feighan on how to combat criticism of the former's history of biased personal attacks on all those he decides are un-American."

Six days after receiving Jones' memo, DeLoach sent a classified memo of his own to his supervisor (a Mr. Mohr). He opens the missive with this review:

"Mr. Jones' memorandum to me dated 2-11-65 reflected that [Feighan] had written to the Director under date of 2-6-65 advising he [Feighan] had seen a memorandum from Attorney General Katzenbach to Congressman Celler concerning the background of one Philip J. Corso. Feighan took exception to this memorandum, terming it a violation of Corso's civil rights. Feighan stated he desired to meet with the Director and discuss this matter. Referenced memorandum [the one witten by Jones] recommended that the Director not take time to discuss this matter with Feighan but that I should meet with Feighan and set him straight with respect to Corso.

"As a matter of background, as previously indicated in referenced memorandum, Corso is a self-styled intelligence expert who retired from the military approximately 3 years ago, and he has been working as one of Senator Strom Thurmond's many assistants. He has been somewhat of a thorn in our side because of self-initiated rumors, idle gossip and downright lies he has spread to more or less perpetuate his own reputation as an intelligence expert. His activities so far as we are concerned are: [deleted subparagraph]."

On page 2 of his 4-page memo, DeLoach reports:

"In Congressman Feighan's letter to the Director, Feighan claimed that I (DeLoach) threatened Corso by telling him that if he did not reveal his sources he would be brought before the Warren Commission. This is true. I did threaten Corso and would do it again. I felt that the only way to make him tell the truth on the record was to possibly get him on the witness stand. I not only threatened him but also told him that he was a poor representative of a background which supposedly possessed intelligence experience. In this latter incident, the Director had me see Senators Eastland, Dirksen and Hruska and give them the correct facts so that the record could be set straight. As a matter of fact, I had to see Senator Dirksen in the hospital inasmuch as he was suffering from a bleeding ulcer at this time, however, was greatly concerned about this matter."

The last part of the dossier deals with interactions ensuing from a libel suit brought by Corso against syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, as witness this quote from an F.B.I. memo of April 1, 1966:

"Drew Pearson's column of 3/29/65 referred to Congressman Feighan's fight to put Corso on the Government payroll and a portion of the column is entitled 'FBI Blackballs Aide,' and indicates that Feighan phoned the Attorney General and tongue-lashed him for turning over an FBI memorandum concerning Corso [i.e., the touchy "name check" memo dated Nov. 10, 1964] to Representative Celler and accused the Attorney General of 'McCarthy-like tactics' in circulating 'unevaluated' information."

[LWB comment: Someone apparently had "leaked" to Pearson a copy of the then-classified memo, which Pearson's lawyer later sought to have entered as exculpatory evidence into the defendant's discovery process.]

Who knows how far Corso progressed with his lawsuit, but I suppose that his status as a public figure would've been factored into the equation at some point before trial. For example, the private Corso and the public Corso merge smoothly in his self-defense letter-to-editor printed in the Washington Post for April 3, 1965. After denying that he ever had implicated CIA personnel in promoting any Oswald-informant rumors, he ends his letter by referring to his exemplary Army career: "... I have received 17 decorations and over 50 written citations, including four from Cabinet members during my tour of duty with the National Security Council."

Is it premature, now, to judge Corso's overall character and credibility on the strength of his (liberally censored) F.B.I. dossier? Shouldn't we withhold final judgment until we can compel (via FOIA litigation) the Army and the CIA to cough up ALL their own records pertaining to his activities, alleged experiences, and motivation?

During his Napoleonic lifetime, Phil Corso managed to tell many a tale. Now, as a dead man, he can tell no more -- but his official records can go on telling and telling and telling . . . .


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