People Remembered: John Kelly, NBC, CBS Newsman, CIA Officer and OPC Member

by Andrew Kreig

OPC member Andrew Kreig, cofounder and editor of the Justice Integrity Project in Washington, DC, began his career in 1970 as a Hartford Courant reporter and has worked since then in journalism and law.

John Kelly, a longtime OPC member who combined an eventful career in broadcast network news with government service and a lifelong passion for journalism, died early this year at age 85 in Connecticut.

His career included work as a news editor and correspondent on the national staff of NBC News and CBS News. He was the last surviving reporter to have covered the 1960 Election Night victory party of Democratic Presidential nominee John Kennedy in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

Kelly went on to cover civil rights stories, early 1960s operations in Laos, the FBI and the Watergate scandal. In doing so, he worked with such iconic anchors as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC Nightly News and Walter Cronkite at CBS News. In one career interlude in the late 1960s, he worked for the CIA in Indochina during the Vietnam War. He later served during the 1970s in the administration of New York Gov. Hugh Carey as deputy commissioner and director of the State Office of Taxation and Finance, where he helped to unravel and expose to Congress corruption schemes that were hurting taxpayers.

A CIA Career Interlude

Kelly interrupted his reporting career, leaving his post as an editor at NBC News at its Rockefeller Center headquarters in New York, to become a CIA covert action officer serving in Indochina, among other duties. Later, he returned to reporting. Then in the Carey administration, he was intimately involved in two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. One was an $85 million suit against the State of New Jersey for discrimination against New Yorkers working in New Jersey. The other was defending New York against a suit by Vermont, which sought to prevent New York from auditing the books of Vermont vendors selling in New York.

As a dinner speaker at the National Press Club in Washington, he called for investigations about weapons containing depleted uranium and Agent Orange being used by the U.S. military in Vietnam that have caused some 400,000 deaths, with others being disfigured. He has raised similar concerns about cancerous conditions in veterans in the 1991 Iraq-Kuwait War.

“As was the case with the cover-up of the effects of Agent Orange on GIs after the Viet Nam War, the Pentagon and its entities, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center, are in denial while Western Europe allies have prohibited the use of such weapons,” he commented. He has spoken about unauthorized and unlawful telephone eavesdropping on American citizens in the U.S. by the National Security Agency and has participated in panel discussions with former federal agent and intelligence officer whistleblowers. Also, he has criticized the editorial control of broadcast news organizations by their corporate owners in ways contributing to the demise of public confidence in the American news media.

He died on Jan. 9 in the hospice unit of St. Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury following a COVID-19 illness that compounded several pre-existing conditions, according to survivors, who include two brothers and their families.

I serve as director of the Justice Integrity Project in Washington, DC, which I co-founded with Kelly in 2010 as a non-partisan project to report on complex legal-political stories exposing global corruption and other sensitive issues.

Our organization benefited from John Kelly’s continuing interest in providing story tips and sage counsel. We rented a van last fall to move Kelly from his longtime home from Washington’s suburbs to join relatives near where he had begun his career as a reporter in the late 1950s. During the course of the move, I obtained new insights about my friend’s early career, his passion for journalism as a vital component of public service, and his admiration for the OPC.

John, a loyal friend, was also a complex and generous man of seeming contradictions – such as his advocating for aggressive, in-depth coverage of news while remaining personally in the background.

The following details of Kelly’s life draw heavily from the account posted on the website of the Justice Integrity Project, on whose board Kelly served until his death.

Early Years

A native of Massachusetts whose family moved to Connecticut, Kelly’s career began as a high-school copyboy for the New York Journal-American in the 1950s. After a stint with a New Haven newspaper and television station Kelly returned to New York to report for United Press Movietone Television News on national assignments while also attending Columbia University. His coverage of the John F. Kennedy 1960 campaign included responsibilities as the pool reporter on Election Night.

His stories included cutting-edge reports on the historic 1961 integration of University of Georgia at Athens and flying to Washington to witness the Kennedy inauguration and, from a nearby camera platform, hearing Kennedy’s words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

In 1962 on the 50th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, Kelly interviewed three survivors. He then reported at sea on the U.S. Navy’s interception of Soviet vessels during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Also that year, he flew with federal hurricane hunters based in Jacksonville, Florida into the eye of a storm.

He reported exclusives about Albert “The Boston Strangler” DeSalvo, Cuban militants planning Castro’s overthrow, Soviet espionage, Mafia crime, and Watergate.

More specifically, Kelly’s other work in the 1960s included first-hand reports of astronaut John Glenn’s lift-off. As a correspondent accredited at the United Nations, he also covered Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s iconic speech banging his shoe on a UN desktop for emphasis. Kelly was covering the UN Security Council when U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge removed a secret microphone from artwork installed in the Moscow embassy. Soviets had given the embassy a decorative U.S. seal, but with a microphone in the eagle’s beak.

As a foreign correspondent at UP Movietone in London, Kelly covered Parliament, served in Paris and covered intrigues involving Berlin Wall escapes and reprisals. Besides assignments in Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan, he covered the so-called Secret War in Laos. He lived in the mountains with anti-communist Montagnard tribes and flew on Air America drops of rice and paratroopers. While posing as a student and traveling by train between Munich and Berlin through East Germany during annual Warsaw Pact Maneuvers, he was once taken into custody by the East Germany State Police and Stasi, the East German secret police. Similarly, he was taken into custody by agents of the Communist Pathet Lao and held at their headquarters in Vientiane before release.

In February 1965, he obtained an exclusive interview for NBC with Malcom X in which the black leader correctly predicted that he would not make it through the weekend without assassination.

Kelly’s assignments included living on the secret bases of the militant anti-Castro organizations Alpha 66 and Brigade 2506 as they planned commando raids on the Cuban mainland from camps in the Florida Everglades. The FBI’s Hoover authorized Kelly to meet with former Soviet GRU intelligence agent Kaarlo Toumi, who was being hunted by the Soviet KGB and on its hit list, in safe houses in New York after the Finnish-born Russian switched sides to become a double-agent for the U.S. For years, Soviets failed to detect the agent’s switch.

As night editor at NBC’s headquarters news desk at 30 Rockefeller Center, Kelly obtained permission from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for exclusive news film footage of the arrest of 18 Ku Klux Klan members for the infamous “Mississippi Burning” murders of three civil rights activists whose bodies were dumped in a swamp.

Later, as a reporter at CBS News, Kelly covered Watergate coverups in Washington, Miami and California. Among his exclusives were the Army’s use of the University of Minnesota campus police for surveillance and photographing students during rallies and campus activities. Also, Kelly broke stories showing that Army instructors rigged tests measuring Army reactions to potential missile attacks.

Kelly served as a CIA covert action officer beginning in the 1960s but resigned after calling for a congressional investigation into Vietnam War corruption by local officials and coverups by U.S. officials who failed to provide oversight. “The two most abused things in Vietnam,” Kelly was quoted in media reports as saying, “are the American G.I. and the U.S. taxpayer’s dollar.”

In the administration of New York’s governor, Kelly’s responsibilities included mustering congressional support for passage of anti-organized crime legislation aimed at ending interstate cigarette bootlegging. The smuggling was siphoning $90 million of state tax revenue, with the money going into the coffers of three major organized crime families. Later, Congress enacted an omnibus anti-organized crime bill.

In retirement, Kelly served on the boards of the New York Symphonic and the Japan-U.S. Concert Society. He has also served on boards of trustees of philanthropic foundations that emphasize in grants in health, education and the arts.

Summing Up

John Kelly strongly encouraged me to join the OPC as a vital institution for journalists and press freedom. Kelly generously paid the OPC initiation fee and constantly provided the project with news tips, important new books and advice until his final months.

John was remarkably civic-spirited, creative and deeply knowledgeable. For example, he encouraged national security commentator and former Navy Intelligence officer Wayne Madsen to research and publish the 2017 book The Almost Classified Guide to CIA Front Companies, Proprietaries & Contractors, a unique 400-page A-Z encyclopedia of organizations that have been publicly reported as linked to the agency (albeit not-necessarily conclusively).

Yet Kelly was reticent throughout his life about most of his first-hand observations obtained under conditions of secrecy. He declined almost all requests to be photographed and lived by what he regarded as an honor code about his confidentiality agreements and service, even while he irreverently used an email of his own devise that included the letters “xspook.”

In appreciation for John’s impressive career and inspiring personal qualities, Wayne Madsen and I collaborated last year in creating a 30-minute video homage, “Mr. Kelly Goes To Washington,” chronicling career highlights that recall the James Stewart film. The Kelly video was viewable only privately until now. But we make the video public on YouTube (embedded in the window below) for this column for OPC colleagues, whom he so much admired. It primarily portrays the long-ago news events that Kelly covered and not his own role. That’s because his work habits encouraged him to focus constantly on his next story or civic project, and not collect an archive of personal clips and other memorabilia.

In that spirit, the video was presented a year ago to our then-ailing friend. It references a lingering mystery about one of his stories about Richard Nixon – and it calls for “Agent Kelly” to go on the road once again to get to the bottom of the story. The larger purpose? Not the Nixon tale. Instead, it was to remind him and anyone else that in a troubled and busy world some still know and deeply appreciate his kind of old-school dedication and skill.