It was September 1955. In the backyard of 117 Prince St. in Old Town Alexandria, a newborn boy, swaddled in a blanket, was handed to the man who would become his father.
Winston McKinley Scott was 46, handsome, self-assured, his eyes as impenetrable as the secrets they protected. The new dad looked appropriately nervous, appropriately grave, appropriately proud. His wife, Paula, beautiful and doomed, hovered nearby. A Kodak Brownie camera clicked.
And so the moment still lives, 40 years later. Michael Scott extracts the black-and-white photograph from one of many family albums scattered on the floor of the study in his California home. In the picture, Michael is the baby. Today he is an easygoing middle-aged guy in jeans and a baseball cap who directs made-for-TV movies. His adoptive parents are both dead.
Old pictures. Passports. Birth certificates. A slender volume of love poems that his father once wrote. Michael Scott keeps them all in plastic boxes, his connections to a childhood he is just now beginning to understand. Michael Scott has been digging into his past.
What he has stumbled into are shadowy catacombs of Cold War intrigue. Michael Scott has discovered that his adoptive father was not, as the son once believed, a State Department functionary. He was a spy, and not a minor one. Winston Scott was a master of American espionage, for more than a decade the CIA’s chief operative in Mexico City.
In the 1960s, Mexico City was the Casablanca of the Cold War, a sanctuary for spies, revolutionaries, assassins and agents provocateurs. Scott was, by all accounts, a brilliant proconsul, the confidant of three Mexican presidents, a personal favorite of Lyndon Johnson’s, the object of leftist death threats, a puppet master of the counterintelligence craft. He presided over hundreds if not thousands of covert CIA operations during the time of dramatic defections, intricate surveillance projects, treacherous covert operations and, intriguingly, Lee Harvey Oswald’s suspicious visit to Mexico City shortly before the assassination of President Kennedy.
“When you do something like this,” says Michael Scott about his research, “the path you are walking along may lead to something that’s going to destroy the image of the person who you want to think highly of. That’s always a risk.”
You would not be reading about any of this if Michael Scott’s research had remained private. But it hasn’t, because some time ago he found out about something he desperately wanted to see, whatever it revealed: a 221-page memoir his father wrote in 1970 and 1971, just before his death.
Winston Scott had intended to have it published someday. It may contain, Michael says, important information about his adoption, his mother’s death, and elements of Michael’s early life. As Win Scott’s heir, Michael believes, it belongs to him.
Except the government has it. Senior CIA officials had raced to Winston Scott’s house in the hours after his death and smooth-talked it away from his widow, who surrendered it unread. They’ve kept it ever since, and now won’t cough it up. The agency says it has no choice, that the father’s reminiscences are too volatile, too candid about CIA sources and methods, too potentially damaging to relations with other countries.
And so it is that Michael Scott’s understandable impulse to learn about his father and himself has come into dramatic collision with the government’s inevitable impulse to protect its secrets. The result is Scott vs. Central Intelligence Agency et al., and it is one remarkable lawsuit.
On the one hand, the issues it raises are not unprecedented: We saw them with the Pentagon Papers case. Is the government really protecting information that might prove harmful to the United States? Or is it just protecting its own dignity, sparing itself the embarrassment of having to account publicly for past malfeasance?
The days when the government enjoyed a presumption of innocence and goodwill are long gone. At a federal court hearing in Washington early this month, a Justice Department lawyer gravely told U.S. District Judge Charles Richey that the documents Michael Scott is seeking concerning his father are so sensitive that they can be described to the judge only by a senior CIA official behind closed doors. The court seemed unmoved.
“Then bring him in here and we’ll do it,” Richey said, glowering.
Scott’s lawyer, Mark Zaid, a Washington-based specialist in Freedom of Information Act litigation, says, “The CIA’s attitude in this case illustrates that the Cold War secrecy mentality still exists.”
For his client, though, the case is ultimately less about state secrets than family secrets--a simple effort at self-discovery by one man who happened, through no fault of his own, to be delivered at birth into what the CIA might call a “compromised situation.”
By Michael Scott’s first birthday in 1956, Win and Paula Scott were living in a grand house on Paseo de la Reforma, the main boulevard of Mexico City.
Michael’s earliest childhood memories of Win are fond and magical. He recalls his father holding him up at an embassy function in 1962 to shake hands with the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. His recollections of Paula are minimal.
“I wish I had more memories of her,” he says, squinting. “The ones I have are very vague. I’ve been told she was drinking a lot then.”
In September 1962, one week after Michael’s seventh birthday, Paula Scott died of undisclosed causes. Dr. Morgan Scott, Win Scott’s brother, now a psychiatrist in Virginia, believes his sister-in-law committed suicide. Michael finds that plausible. He believes his father’s memoir might shed light on what happened.
Win Scott, a romantic who abhorred loneliness, remarried three months later. His Peruvian-born bride was Janet Leddy, a mother of five who had just divorced a longtime colleague of Scott’s. Their wedding was a sensation in the Mexican social scene. While few people knew that the groom was the CIA station chief in the country, the identity of the chief witness to the civil ceremony--the man who signed the marriage certificate--was no secret. It was Adolfo Lopez Mateos, the president of Mexico.
Win Scott was a workaholic, but on weekends he would let Michael tag along to his office in the U.S. Embassy a few blocks down Paseo de la Reforma.
“I remember to get to his whole wing of the office you had to step through this vault door, like a bank vault,” Michael recalls. “As a kid I thought, ‘This is kind of bizarre.’ ”
All the while, Michael did not know his father worked for the CIA, though he did recognize the names of some famous visitors to their house.
“Allen Dulles came to visit one time, and we all went to the salt baths. I remember driving down there and noticing how gnarly Dulles’ hands were. He had arthritis or gout, and the salt baths were supposed to be good for that.”
But Michael is the first to acknowledge that his memories of his father may be lovingly selective. He calls on his stepbrother, George Leddy, who is a guest lecturer in Latin American studies at UCLA and who is the same age as Michael, to fill in the details. George recalls another time in the late 1960s when Dulles and CIA Director Richard Helms came to see Win Scott.
“I assume to consult with him about what the U.S. should do,” George says. “I remember because they couldn’t find a catering service that they could trust, so when they had a party I had to pour the drinks.”
In June 1969, Win Scott retired at age 60. The following year, Michael and George, both 15, were dispatched to Connecticut to enter the 10th grade at a boarding school. Michael received typed letters, almost daily, from his father in Mexico City.
On April 26, 1971, when Michael was working in the student cafe, he was summoned to the dean’s office. His stepbrother was already there. The two boys were told that their father had died. They quickly arranged to fly to Mexico City.
“I forget what happened,” Michael says, “but we missed the plane.”
James Jesus Angleton didn’t miss his plane.
Angleton, the chief of counterintelligence and one of the most powerful figures in the CIA, had known Win Scott since they were both in London in the mid-1940s. He had been asked to talk to Scott about the manuscript and was planning to do so when he heard the news that Scott was dead. Angleton put aside his antipathy for all things Mexican (he was half Mexican and ashamed of it) and flew to Mexico City. He had but one goal in mind: to secure the memoir. All Angleton had to do was gain the cooperation of Scott’s widow, Janet.
There are two accounts of what happened in the Scott family home on the afternoon of April 28, 1971. One comes from a recently declassified CIA cable written the next day by John Horton, who was the CIA’s Mexico City station chief at the time. This cable is based on what Angleton told Horton right after the visit. (Horton is retired and living in Maryland; he declined to be interviewed for this article.) The other account comes from Michael Scott and George Leddy and is based on what Janet Scott has told her family and closest friends over the years. Janet Scott, a former CIA employee herself, also declined to talk to reporters.
Angleton is now dead. At the time he was a tall, gaunt man whose once-handsome features had been pinched down to a sinister aspect by alcoholism and a profession that required a certain amount of paranoia. Janet Scott knew Angleton through Win and didn’t care for him. She liked him even less as she listened to his cordially brutal message.
According to the recently declassified CIA cable, Angleton expressed regrets about her husband’s death, quickly adding mention of “the benefits to which she was entitled” but stressing that “our current information is tentative.”
Janet Scott’s recollection of this ominous introduction is more specific. She has told her family that Angleton threatened her, saying that the agency was planning to put up a plaque in honor of Win Scott at CIA headquarters in Langley, but that it might not proceed if she didn’t cooperate.
Angleton, according to the CIA’s cable, went on to warn Janet Scott that publication of the memoir would violate two secrecy agreements and damage U.S. relations with foreign governments. He warned her not to read it, saying, accurately, that it “discussed in an open way intimate matters of previous marriage.” When Angleton said the agency wanted all copies of the manuscript, Janet Scott hastened to cooperate. She found the manuscript the next day and immediately turned it over to station chief Horton.
“We got two original drafts and two carbons of manuscript,” Horton then reported in his cable to CIA director Helms. Horton also reported removing “three large cartons and four valises with file folders, notes and memorandums of classified station files” from Win Scott’s study.
Horton closed with a word of cool candor to the now widow. According to his report, he acknowledged that Win Scott’s friends “may feel agency has pulled a fast one with manuscript.” The agency, he added, “was prepared to weather that one.”
Around this time, Michael and his stepbrother arrived home. A kid whose biggest concern just a few days earlier had been making the Taft School golf team, had reached the end of his childhood. In the days after his father’s death, he learned two family secrets.
Michael’s stepmother took him aside and told him what he had previously suspected: that Win Scott was not his biological father.
“It wasn’t a shock,” Michael says with characteristic equanimity. “We didn’t look alike. He was very fair and I was darker. He had never told me about being adopted. Why not? I think because he was afraid I might love him less.”
His stepmother also told him some people from the government had come by for his father’s memoir. She didn’t say who, or why.
A week later, Michael Scott flew back to Connecticut. At the same time, his father’s papers were being sent by diplomatic pouch to CIA headquarters. Michael resumed his classes and quit the golf team.
The story would end there, except for Michael’s choice of career: investigating other people’s lives. He became a documentary filmmaker, then a producer for NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries,” and now a director.
“In 1985 I spent a lot of time with a couple whose daughter had been raped and murdered,” he says softly. Their tragedy--the role of happenstance in the lives of good people--cast a harsh light on the contingency of his own identity as Win Scott’s son. The accidents of life, which had seemed generous to a teenager, became a little more frightening.
“One day, I just said to myself, ‘You come in, you talk to somebody for three hours for an interview for a documentary, and you wind up knowing more about them than you do about yourself.
“I realized that if I put 10% of the effort I put into talking to these other people, I could find out something pretty interesting and important for my kids. My wife, Barbara, pushed me to do it, saying these were things that any person should know about his family.”
Sometime in the 1970s, Michael says, he figured out his father had been associated with American intelligence. He didn’t think much of it at the time. But in March 1986 he wrote a letter to the CIA, seeking the manuscript his stepmother had told him about 15 years before. He received a friendly note back inviting him to come to CIA headquarters whenever he was in the Washington area. That summer, he was in West Virginia shooting a documentary and took a day off to drive into Langley. Two senior CIA public affairs officers ushered him through the doors famously emblazoned with the credo “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”
His hosts praised his father generously. They talked about his Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the agency’s highest honor. They said the agency had no problem giving him the manuscript, noting only that a few sensitive things about Oswald had to be deleted. They handed him a sheaf of papers, and Michael Scott left a happy man.
Only when he actually got around to reading the pages did he feel a bit foolish. The bulk of the manuscript was missing. The CIA had given him the first nine chapters, about 90 pages, covering Win Scott’s boyhood on a farm in Jemison, Ala., his semipro baseball career, his PhD in mathematics, his brief stint at the FBI, and his enlistment in the Navy and the beginning of his career in the Office of Strategic Services in 1944.
And right there, Michael had to stop reading. The next 115 pages of his father’s book were missing, deleted virtually in their entirety in the name of national security. What exactly is so sensitive about Win Scott’s unpublished memoir, a quarter of a century old?
It’s not what Scott knew about Oswald. His chapter on the accused assassin was declassified in September 1993, along with a million pages of CIA documents concerning the Kennedy assassination. His eight-page description of the CIA’s surveillance of Oswald in Mexico City does not constitute any kind of “smoking gun” in the long-running debate about the Kennedy assassination.
Win Scott did write that Oswald was “a person of great interest” to the CIA during his visit to Mexico City between Sept. 27 and Oct. 2, 1963. That’s a rather different story from the official line (as articulated in a 1978 for-the-record memo by one top official) that the agency “had no real knowledge of his presence there.”
Yet another possibility of what the agency fears is what the manuscript might say about Kim Philby, the legendary Soviet spy who worked his way to the top of the British intelligence services. From the summer of 1949 to the summer of 1951, Philby was stationed in Washington, lived on Nebraska Avenue and worked closely with top CIA officials--including Win Scott and James Angleton.
“Nobody in the CIA knew Kim Philby better than Win Scott,” says Cleveland Cram, a retired CIA counterintelligence officer. “Nobody had worked with him so closely or so long.”
Cram, a career officer who had worked in London for many years, was called out of retirement in 1978 to conduct a top-secret internal review of James Angleton’s career. The counterintelligence chief had been forced to quit amid the CIA scandals of the mid-1970s. At one point, Cram says, he was shown 30 to 40 pages of the still-censored portion of Win Scott’s manuscript and asked to comment on it. Cram says that Scott wrote about his early suspicions of Philby.
After Philby was recalled by the British government under a cloud of suspicion in June 1951, Scott and Angleton both contributed to an assessment on whether he had been a spy. According to Cram, Scott concluded that Philby was almost certainly a Soviet spy; Angleton was noncommittal.
“I think Jim was always worried about the other shoe dropping with Philby,” Cram says. “I think he must have been afraid that something worse could come out about his closeness to Philby. What Win might write about Philby could have reflected very, very badly on Angleton.”
The possibilities for what else lies in the manuscript are vast. Scott’s career did not begin in Mexico City. Before he was 40, he was the chief of U.S. intelligence operations in postwar London. He helped Allen Dulles do a study of the British intelligence services that was influential in the creation of the CIA, and he went on to supervise all covert operations in Europe in the early 1950s.
George Leddy thinks his stepfather knew about and wrote about the CIA’s efforts to keep Communists and socialists out of power in Italy and France after World War II. “If he did, that information would still be politically explosive today in those countries,” George says.
Likewise, what Scott wrote about his friendships with top Mexican political figures in the 1960s and about the Mexican crisis of 1968 would be big news in Mexico today. Many of those officials are still alive, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party is facing the strongest challenge to its rule since 1968.
For Michael and his stepbrother, the darker, still largely unknown side of Win Scott’s life is still forbidding territory. If they ever get the manuscript, Leddy expects to learn the worst about his stepfather. “He was my family and he was part of the repressive apparatus,” George says.
Michael’s reaction to this side of his father is characteristically more charitable.
“I don’t agree with everything he did in his life,” he says, “but I think of my dad as committed to certain goals, which were the goals of the U.S. government in that period. He believed in the U.S. and the pursuit of freedom. He should be judged in the context of the times.”
Michael makes one last stab at explaining why his father wrote his manuscript. He refers to the last three chapters given to him by the CIA in February 1995. In these pages, a rambling Win Scott writes that the agency had failed to stem the spread of communism. And intelligence work, by its very nature, was dehumanizing, requiring clandestine officers to lead “schizoidal” lives. Perhaps referring to himself, he explained why clandestine officers should retire early.
“They arrive at a point in life--having met and dealt with so many dishonest people, and having, themselves, in their demanding and dominating (false) selves, lived a lie--where they mistrust almost everyone, look for the hidden meaning and motives behind even the most sincere statements of friends and loved ones.”