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Priscilla Johnson McMillan
and the CIA

by Peter R. Whitmey

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© 1999, Peter R. Whitmey. All rights reserved.
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In August, 1993, thousands of pages of CIA documents were made available to researchers at the National Archives that had been previously classified, including several documents associated with Priscilla Johnson McMillan, author of Marina and Lee, and the subject of several earlier articles by this writer.(1)

The first document, dated December 11, 1962 (and numbered 17456), is a "contact report," previously classified "secret," written by Donald Jameson, Chief SR/CA, which possibly stands for "Soviet Russia/Covert Actions." The report is based on a 90- minute meeting with Priscilla Johnson in her room at the Brattle Inn, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was pointed out that, according to Mr. Butler at the "OO Office" in Boston, Priscilla was "...allowed to use the Harvard-Russian Research Center for her own work, mainly the writing of articles and a book, but that she has no other official relationship to the center."

Jameson described Priscilla as being "able, astute and conscientious," reflected also in her writing, but at the same time, was "rather nervous and shy," suggesting a "lack of self-confidence." He noted, however, that she certainly had a large number of Soviet contacts, and knew how to meet and talk to people. Jameson indicated at the outset of his report that Priscilla had been "selected as a likely candidate to write an article on Yevtushenko in a major U.S. magazine for our campaign." He recognized that Priscilla was "concerned about making her articles accurate as to fact and free from any external influence," but believed that "she might be worked around to writing an article in which she genuinly (sic) believed, but would also further our purposes for Yevtushenko" (a popular Russian poet).

Much of the report is a summary of Jameson's discussion with Priscilla about various Russian poets and Yevtushenko especially, whom the CIA seemed to be particularly interested in. Priscilla informed Jameson that she had arranged to write several articles for The Reporter - including one on Yevtushenko - and emphasized that "she thought she must write only the truth, without defining exactly what that was to me."

In conclusion, Jameson pointed out that, despite what she had stated:

"I think that Miss Johnson can be encouraged to write pretty much the articles we want. It will require a little more contact and discussion, but I think she could come around ... Basically, if approached with sympathy in the cause she considers most vital, I believe she would be interested in helping us in many ways. It would be important to avoid making her think that she was being used as a propaganda tool and expected to write what she is told. I don't think she would go along with that idea at all. On the other hand, she is searching for both more information and more understanding of the problem of the Soviet intellectual and is consequently subject to influence."

It is certainly clear that the CIA intended to make full use of Priscilla Johnson's talents as a Soviet researcher and writer in an ongoing attempt to destabilize conditions in the Soviet Union, apparently without her complete knowledge.

The next document, dated February 5, 1964, and numbered 17458 (suggesting that there might be a document still classified in between), is a lengthy memo based on a meeting with Priscilla on Jan. 30 and 31,1964, this time written by Gary Coit (SR/CA). Although the report was prepared two months after the assassination of JFK, there is no mention of the subject, including Priscilla's revised report of Nov. 24, 1963 about having interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald. However, in the initial four line paragraph, two full lines and a partial line have been blacked out.

Intriguingly, there is a reference to Priscilla having written to "...her former boss, President Kennedy..." in regard to the fact that her notebooks had not been returned to her by the Soviet Union; they had been removed from her luggage as she was leaving Leningrad (Priscilla pointed out that none of the material was "...particularly sensitive ... and would not have really seriously compromised any of her contacts in the USSR.") Presumably, Coit's reference to JFK as Priscilla's "boss" dates back to the mid-1950s when he was a senator. Nevertheless, she was able to obtain the President's assistance, as press secretary Pierre Salinger had made contact with the Soviet Ambassador about her notebooks, "...which produced no result."

The overall purpose of the Jan. 30-31 meetings (which lasted a total of 11 hours) was to "...debrief Johnson on her flaps with the Soviets when she was in the USSR, notably at the time of her last exit." Much of the memo deals with some of the problems Priscilla encountered with Soviet officials related to her visa and attempts to have it extended. She was able to meet with a Soviet lawyer and, later, his boss in the Foreign Office, and was asked to prepare "...a complete curriculum vitae on herself" - which Priscilla refused to produce. She was also asked about certain issues such as NATO and Soviet-American trade, and "...whether or not she would be interested in writing articles for Soviet publications."

An attempt was made during the debriefing to learn about Priscilla's "contacts" while in the USSR, but she was unwilling to provide names (one of her contacts had been exiled for a year); therefore "...no effort was made to attempt to force the issue of a debriefing on her contacts." However, Coit indicated during the interview that he would "...probably be back to see her from time to time to see what she knows about specific persons whose names might come up, and she at least nodded assent to this."

Reference was made to a reporter/translator named Victor Louis associated with both McGraw-Hill and NANA, whom Priscilla felt had a "...lousy reputation in Moscow;" she attempted unsuccessfully to get NANA to "drop Louis." She also encouraged NANA to hire "...Ruth Danilov, the wife of another correspondent" (possibly Victor Danilov, author of Rural Russia: Under the New Regime (Univ. of Indiana Press, 1988), but more likely Nicholas Daniloff, a Newsweek correspondent who wrote Two Lives: One Russia (Avon Publishing, 1990) - Coit might have misspelled Ruth's last name.) However, the Soviets refused to accredit her. Priscilla pointed out that NANA subsequently hired "Dick Steiger" who was immediately accredited, due to his "left wing past." Brief reference was also made to Frieda Lurye, a liberal Russian who had spoken at Harvard, as well as Yelena Romanova, whom Priscilla "thoroughly dislikes and thinks ought to be discredited."

Priscilla raised the question during the interview of the likelihood of being able to return to the Soviet Union as a "correspondent." Coit felt it depended on whether the Soviets believed she could be "...useful for some of their plans." Coit felt that her chances were good, since she had not been in any "...serious trouble or done anything especially bad." However, to the best of my knowledge, Priscilla never again returned to the USSR.

Coit had brought up the name "Alex Dolberg" during the debriefing, whom Priscilla knew and talked to at length when he was "...at Harvard." The CIA were quite certain that he was "...working for Sovs and therefore advised her to be careful in any dealings with him." Priscilla had been equally suspicious, although her discussions with him had "...developed her understanding of the Soviet machine ... and (she) now understands power as used by the Sovs."

In his final paragraph, Coit stated that he was "...vaguely uncomfortable after this long discussion with Johnson...", even though he found her to be "...intelligent and well informed on the Soviet Union" (although with "...an air of naivety and innocence, which is really only a mannerism"). Coit felt that Johnson's interest in the Soviet Union was "...an intellectual thing," and that she was "...not out to destroy the Communist system" (the major goal of the CIA). Having spoken to another U.S. correspondent named Patricia Blake (who later wrote a glowing review of Marina and Lee for Time magazine), Coit had noted two "...apparent contradictions" related to Priscilla:

1) she had defended Dolberg to Blake, who for years she had thought was "...no good;" and

2) according to Blake, Miss Johnson had developed a "...low opinion of Lurye after the Boston press conference," in contrast to comments made by Priscilla during the debriefing.

In conclusion, Coit felt that "...we cannot expect to use Johnson actively in operations. She obviously doesn't want to get involved in deep plots. She is unlikely to be the type of informant who will volunteer information; but she will supply info she has acquired, if asked and if it's not too sensitive, such as the identies (sic) of her friends in the USSR."

There is no indication whether the CIA encouraged Priscilla to contact Marina Oswald through its publishing connections, or whether she provided any feedback based on her extensive interviews later that year, but such information could very well be included in another, still classified document.

The third document that I received, dated February 23, 1965, is also a memo written by Gary Coit, based on a phone call from Priscilla in regard to Alex Dolberg. By now Dolberg was living "...in London's demi-monde with homosexuals, drunks, beatniks, etc." and had become "...terribly paranoid", convinced that he was being "...followed everywhere." Priscilla had heard from several sources that Dolberg might be considering going back to the USSR because of the death of his mother and the condition of his father. Coit indicated that Priscilla had reported this information because of her belief that Dolberg "...could do more harm to followers of Soviet intellectual affairs, both in the West and in the USSR, than anyone else she can think of." They both agreed that "someone" should have a talk with Dolberg, and encourage him to recognize the fact that returning to the USSR would be a mistake. At the same time, Coit felt it was important to emphasize to Dolberg that no one trusted him in the West, believing he was a "...Soviet agent," but if he told the CIA everything he knew, he could be "...rehabilitated" and have his name cleared.

Based on the fact that Priscilla had made the call to the CIA, regardless of her motivation, it would appear that she had become an informer for the Agency, although it is impossible to know how much other information she provided, and whether any of it related to her contact with Marina Oswald.

It should be noted that the CIA's interest in Priscilla Johnson began at an early date, based on the fact that a "201 file" was opened most likely in the mid-1950s(2) and, according to a fourth document declassified in 1993 entitled, "Review of 201 File on U.S. Citizen," Priscilla's file had not been closed as of Jan. 28, 1975. She was listed as a "witting collaborator," although the nature of her collaboration was not described.(3)

In addition to the four documents described above, I also received a copy of Priscilla's HSCA Executive Session interview that took place on April 20,1978, although 40 out of 113 pages of transcript have been withdrawn by the CIA. It was clear that the committee members did not entirely trust her.

Peter Whitmey, September, 1994

Read subsequent Letters to the Editor


1. Thanks to Jon Meyers at AARC for letting me know about the availability of PJM documents discussed in this report.

2. According to a conversation with Major John Newman earlier this year, no date is listed on "201 files", but PJM's number (102798) precedes both Oswald's and Webster's considerably: He estimates that her file was likely opened around 1955. No date is required on "201 files."

3. I learned from Anthony Summers that Priscilla Johnson claimed in a recent interview (with Summers and his wife, Robbyn), that "...the Johnson in the 1975 document is someone other than herself." (Letter from Summers to Whitmey, dated July 27, 1994). It should be noted that only the last name is given on the CIA document, unlike the other three, but all four are stamped "Approved for Release 1993 CIA Historical Review Program." I got the distinct impression from my conversation with John Newman that the "201" file number on the 1975 document was Priscilla Johnson's.

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