Tribune Print Share Text

At the heart of history

CIA chairman shares inside look at America’s most secret organization

Created date

January 8th, 2016
Ashby Ponds resident
Ashby Ponds resident

If information is power, John Hedley was at the center of it. With an intelligence career spanning nearly 50 years at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), John worked on matters related to Soviet foreign policy, compiled the President’s daily brief, and determined which CIA agents’ stories would become public as the chairman of the CIA’s publication review board.

“It’s not about an individual acting alone, it was simply a wonderful career, more interesting than anything I could have ever dreamed up,” says John, who now lives with his wife Elizabeth at , an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va.  

“The CIA was at the heart of all the information that could be obtained worldwide, secret or public, from embassies, military attachés, foreign agents, foreign broadcasts, satellites, audio surveillance. I was immersed in all that was going on in the world.”  

Life-changing event

In the 1960s, John was a young college professor with a Ph.D. in political science. He served with the U.S. Army in Berlin and was invited to work at the CIA.

“I took a two-year leave of absence from teaching, not intending to stay longer, but I fell in love with intelligence work,” he says.  “I enjoyed a wonderful variety of assignments, all involving my professional loves of writing and international developments.”  

John spent the first part of his career in the Office of Current Intelligence, working on matters related to Soviet foreign policy.  

By the early 1990s, John headed up the preparation of the President’s daily brief. 

“Hundreds of analysts digest material for the written briefing,” he says. “It’s a network no news agency can match. Cobbling it into a succinct, coherent document is an immense editorial challenge. You are always working against deadlines to determine each day what the President will see. You must craft each item for value, accuracy, and readability. It is demanding and exciting work.”

For a time, because of its sensitivity, John took the President’s daily brief in person to the White House and reviewed it early in the morning with the President’s national security advisor. He then met one-on-one with Vice President George H.W. Bush in his office to go over the brief with him.

A changing world

Over the course of his remarkable career, John witnessed a culture shift at the CIA toward greater openness in the sharing of information. Never was this more apparent than during his last, full-time position as chairman of the CIA’s publications review board. In this role, John was responsible for determining whether the personal writings of CIA officers could be published.  

“I saw myself as a facilitator, guarding what must be guarded but still being forthcoming about intelligence activities that can inform, enlighten, and even entertain the general public,” says John.  

“My goal was to be an enabler, to help authors find a way to exercise their First Amendment rights while not divulging damaging information. We must protect such things as our sources, covert collaboration with foreign intelligence services, and secret collection techniques and operating methods.”  

Important decision

During his tenure as chairman, John was presented with a manuscript for a book entitled Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, authored by retired CIA officer Antonio Mendez. He approved the book for publishing, calling it a “story of American ingenuity combined with life-risking courage.” The book was published under the same title in 2000. 

“It was a riveting story that exemplified the behind-the-scenes courage, ingenuity, sacrifices, and risks that an intelligence operation calls into play,” says John. “These stories involve real Americans, often maligned as federal bureaucrats, doing things most of their fellow citizens applaud—if only they become aware of them. To me, that’s what greater openness is about.”  

More than a decade following John’s first review of the manuscript, a portion of the story was retold in the book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, and in October 2012, was released as the Hollywood film Argo, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

“When Argo won the Academy Award, I was pleased for my friend and also found it very satisfying that millions of Americans got to learn about this,” he says.

Still sharing 

Following his 1999 retirement from the CIA, John continued working for 14 more years as a part-time consultant. In 2014, he and his wife Elizabeth moved to Ashby Ponds. One of the first—of countless activities at Ashby Ponds—to pique John’s interest was the history club. 

“I quickly became acquainted with new friends who share a common interest,” he says. “Together we schedule monthly speakers who explore a great variety of topics.”

Currently, John is preparing a presentation for the club on the processes of providing the President with intelligence information. 

“The talk will focus on preparing the President’s daily brief, which, I believe, is the intelligence community’s most sensitive current intelligence effort,” he says.

John also serves on the Ashby Ponds special trips advisory committee, planning events that range from Washington Nationals baseball games to Kennedy Center concerts. He is singing in a men’s group at Ashby Ponds after being in his church choir at Holy Comforter in Vienna, Va., for 25 years.

Looking over a fascinating career, John says he’s happy to have played a key role in the dissemination of information. 

“Ours is a robust democracy in which people deserve to know what can safely be revealed about an organization, even a secret one, which exists to serve them.”