(or…how I came to learn about a little-known, upper-tier CIA official through a run-of-the-mill FOIA request)
So guys…I’ve been blogging for a little over a year and a half on Ron Tammen, and I think by now most readers would agree that, even though there’s still more information to be revealed, we know a lot more than when we did at the get-go. I think most readers also have a fairly decent idea of how tough it can be to get ahold of some of this information, since not everyone has been forthcoming. Sometimes an embarrassing amount of chutzpah has been required to pry certain bits of info from certain entities’ filing cabinets.
Take the FBI, for example. I’ve already posted several updates that let you know about the kinds of tactics that are employed by their Freedom of Information/Privacy Act (FOIPA) Office. Alas, I’m sorry to say that I’ve developed a hard-shelled cynicism through it all and have come to view many of their responses to my inquiries on Tammen (or Tammen-related topics) as bluffs, smokescreens, or flat-out, um, departures from the truth. My forever goal is to find the crack in whatever tale they’re telling.
Case in point #1: the 1631 pages of documents that they somehow forgot about during my initial FOIA request for the Richard Cox files.
When I first submitted my request for everything the FBI had on Richard Cox’s disappearance, they sent me 24 pages of documents and left it at that. Only when I realized two years later that two other researchers had received tons more documents than I had, and pointed that fact out to them, did the Department of Justice send me three CDs filled with 1631 pages. There was no letter of apology or explanation for their error—just a here-ya-go, I-guess-you-caught-us sort of response. This leads me to ask: If you happen to be a plain old taxpaying citizen on the outside looking in, who doesn’t have a hefty slush fund for the sole purpose of hiring FOIA lawyers, how do you know if what they’re sending you is all that they have? Answer: you don’t (#alwaysappeal).
Case in point #2: their shifting reasons for sending me Ron Tammen’s documents.
As you may recall, a supposedly hard and fast rule of the FBI is that they won’t send you documents concerning another person without proof of death or authorization from that third party. (They do mention a “public interest” caveat, but it’s hard to tell how they define that category, and they never agree with my assertions that anything I’m doing holds any interest for the public.) For some reason, they’d sent me Ron Tammen’s documents without either a proof of death or third-party authorization. When I tried to find out why, a representative of the FBI first conveyed to me through a liaison that they’d sent me Tammen’s documents because “…over the years the FBI had contact with his family who indicated that they believed Mr. Tammen to be deceased given some suspicious facts, namely, that after his disappearance a fish was found in his college bed.” When I pursued that dubious explanation further with the FBI rep by phone, he said it was just a poor attempt at humor and that he’d been referring to a famous scene from The Godfather. I knew I’d caught him in a lie, so my lawyer pressed them on that issue during my lawsuit’s settlement process. We were informed in writing that “The FBI inadvertently accepted plaintiff’s third-party request despite the fact that it is the FBI’s policy not to process third party requests in the absence of a policy waiver, proof of death or a showing of sufficient public notoriety. Based on the administrative records available to us, we have determined that the reason [the Record/Information Dissemination Section] proceeded with this request, despite its deficiencies, is that it treated the request as a request for a missing person investigation.”
I’ll admit that that excuse got by me in 2012, but as I was going through all of the back-and-forth with them in seeking an answer to whether or not they’d already confirmed Tammen to be dead, I revisited their settlement declaration. Not having any idea what a “request for a missing person investigation” was and how that differed from my FOIA request, I asked my lawyer about it. He suggested I do some online research and, if I found nothing, to submit a FOIA request on that question. In September 2016, I submitted a FOIA request seeking “policy documents that describe the FBI’s Records/Information Dissemination Section’s protocol when handling requests from the public pertaining to a ‘missing person investigation.’” Just to make sure we were discussing the same timeframe, I then added: “If the protocol has changed in the recent past, I am interested in the protocol that was in place in 2010.” I didn’t refer to my lawsuit, because I knew what they’d say: We don’t have to address any more questions about your silly little lawsuit. Several weeks later, I received their response: “Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System. We were unable to identify main file records responsive to the FOIA.” Yeah, I didn’t think they would.
Yet, the FBI has been a cup of honey-sweetened chamomile tea when compared to dealing with the CIA. Many of you who have predicted some sort of CIA connection in Tammen’s disappearance will be pleased to know that I’ve been submitting FOIA requests to them since I began my research, and more earnestly beginning in 2014. I get it—they have a lot of secrets they need to keep to protect our national security. But I also think that they tend to overdo it in the classification department, long after everyone involved has died and programs have been shelved. I mean, if it takes them 50 years to declassify a high school student’s praline recipe, that just tells me that their rule of thumb with FOIA is to turn over as little as humanly possible.
Occasionally, however, they will send something your way, which brings me to our topic for today’s blog: a little-known CIA employee during the late 1940s and early ’50s by the name of Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. What I’m about to share with you is breaking news. As far as I can tell, the internet has not yet had access to this information. He’s not even mentioned in the CIA’s FOIA Reading Room. However, Williams’ name was provided to me courtesy of the CIA in response to one of my FOIA requests. It carries some degree of intrigue for the Tammen case, particularly given the department he represented, which was the Office of Scientific Intelligence, or OSI. (Fyi, “Cmdr.” is an abbreviation for commander in the U.S. Navy. The Air Force also has a commander rank, but the abbreviation they use is CC.)
I’m posting this information now so that you can see what I’ve been up against for the past several years. The way I view things is: If I can contribute to the greater good by offering up a bit of background information for the Google algorithms to chew on so that this blog post will pop up whenever someone runs a search for Cmdr. Robert J. Williams, then it will be well worth it. Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. (The more a term is mentioned on a website, the higher the ranking Google will give it in a keyword search, right?) Cmdr. Robert J. Williams!
So what does this stealth commander have to do with Ronald Tammen? Back in July 2014, I found a CIA memo that I consider pivotal to the Tammen case. On that document are three names—all blacked out—that I would even call the smoking gun regarding what happened to Tammen (or as close to a smoking gun as I’m going to get). I am 100 percent certain of the identity of one of the persons on that memo and 99 percent sure of the second person. (I’ve changed my mind about the third person, but he really doesn’t pertain to our story anyway.) In August of that year, I filed a FOIA request asking that those names be released to the public because the men were deceased, and I sent some obituaries along as proof. They came back and said (and I paraphrase here), no. They did so on the basis of Section 6 of the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, as amended, and Section 102A(i)(l) of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended. The latter statute doesn’t say much of anything except for establishing the Central Intelligence Agency. The former statute, however, says this (bold added):
SEC. 6. [50 U.S.C. 403g] In the interests of the security of the foreign intelligence activities of the United States and in order further to implement section 102A(i) of the National Security Act of 1947 that the Director of National Intelligence shall be responsible for protecting intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure, the Agency shall be exempted from the provisions of sections 1 and 2, chapter 795 of the Act of August 28, 1935 1 (49 Stat. 956, 957; 5 U.S.C. 654), and the provisions of any other laws which require the publication or disclosure of the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by the Agency: Provided, That in furtherance of this section, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget shall make no reports to the Congress in connection with the Agency under section 607, title VI, chapter 212 of the Act of June 30, 1945, as amended 1 (5 U.S.C. 947(b)).
I’m no lawyer, but this seems to tell me that all three individuals whose names were redacted in the memo had worked for the CIA at some point in their lives. The CIA’s FOIA Office did offer up a consolation prize. They lifted the black bar off of the person in the “To” line of the memo to reveal our friend Cmdr. Robert J. Williams, OSI.
Seriously bummed at my failed attempt, I decided to follow the new lead and submitted a FOIA request to the CIA for Commander Williams’ personal bio plus any personnel/human resources files they had on him. As back-up, I referred to the memo and how I’d recently learned that he was the memo’s recipient. When I received their response—from the same person who sent me the memo with Cmdr. Robert J. Williams’ name unredacted—I had to laugh. Here’s what he said:
“Although you have provided some of the identifying information required, before we can effectively search our files on an individual, we still need additional data before we can begin processing your request. Specifically, we require the individual’s full name, date and place of birth, and date and place of death. Without this data, we may be unable to distinguish between individuals with the same or similar names.”
Now, they knew darn well which Robert J. Williams I was referring to. The one who was a commander in the Navy. The one who was high up in the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence. The one whom they’d just been discussing regarding whether they should release his name or not, and ultimately determined the answer to be OK. But no. They wanted me to try to figure out when and where the guy with the extraordinarily ordinary name of Robert Williams was born and when and where he died. For all I knew, his name wasn’t even real. The CIA gives its undercover operatives fake names, so why not its higher-ups? It even refers to itself as a cryptonym on occasion. (See KUBARK, WOFACT, BKCROWN, PALP, etc.)
I made use of my genealogy resources to find out who this guy might be. The biggest and best clue was a 1948 declassified document that had originally been posted on the website of the nonprofit organization National Security Archive. (Because it was taken down at some point, I’ve made a copy for this site.) The document told me that his middle name wasn’t John or James or any of the typical “J” names I was trying out in my searches. It was Jay, which, thank heavens, isn’t as common. I now knew that his name was Commander Robert Jay Williams.
And with that, I eventually landed on this little gem of an obit in the Danville (VA) Bee:
The obituary listed him as a captain, which would mean that he’d been promoted from commander. It also didn’t provide his birthplace, but that would be easy enough to find now that I had all of the other information. Funny how the CIA wasn’t mentioned anywhere, but that’s probably institutional policy.
That same month, I let the CIA folks know that the Cmdr. Robert J. Williams about whom I was inquiring was the one who was born in Spokane, WA, in 1913 and who died in Bethesda, MD, in 1969, just shy of his 56th birthday.
Here are the specifics:
Name: Robert Jay Williams
Date of birth: 11/12/1913
Place of birth: Spokane, Washington
Date of death: 10/25/1969
Place of death: Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Md.
By then, I’d also discovered that Commander Williams, who also went by R.J. Williams, was one of a handful of individuals who attended an infamous high-level meeting in Montreal in June of 1951. The meeting concerned a “top-secret” CIA program having to do with “all aspects of special interrogation.” A paper by Alfred W. McCoy, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, mentions Williams on page 404, in the first paragraph under “Our Man in Montreal.” The entire manuscript is worth devoting some time to, but at the very least, we know that a memo that I believe contains a name that is relevant to the Tammen case is addressed to a high-level CIA official who is interested in “all aspects of special interrogation.” That’s not nothing, right?
And what of the memo? I was told by one of the best lawyers on intelligence matters that it wouldn’t do any good for me to sue the CIA based on the specific exemptions they’re claiming. I had virtually zero chance of winning. Fortunately, as back-up, I’ve found another memo in which I’m relatively certain—probably a 50/50 mix of confidence and hope—that my person of interest’s name is on it, though it’s also heavily redacted. I’m currently seeking the release of his and another person’s name, although this time, I’m employing a different mechanism than FOIA. FOIA has failed me far too many times. We’ll discuss the alternative mechanism on another day.
In the meantime, for researchers who have landed on this page because you’re interested in learning more about Commander Robert Jay Williams, here are some newly released documents for you to peruse.
- Assignment documents
- Application for federal employment — 1948 (est)
- Application — April 24, 1948
- Application — May 19, 1950
- Security approval — June 13, 1950
Also, I’m including a link to this article from The Onion once again, because I think it’s hilarious and totally apropos.
The floor is now open for comments. Please be aware that comments will be reviewed and posted as soon as I’m able, though there may be a wait.
Also, if you’d like to comment on the preceding post on Ron Tammen’s sexual orientation, here are my ground rules: I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the evidence I presented or other related musings you’ve had that pertain to the topic. But please, no divisive language and no grandstanding on religion, your views on morality, and the like. Oh, and let’s not get into a nature/nurture debate, OK? Let’s keep comments focused on Ron. Lastly, please try to use terminology that doesn’t offend. Just fyi, here’s the latest guidance from GLAAD. Thanks!