Seeking answers to the death of Herbert Norman

The Globe and Mail, Saturday, June 21, 1997
Section 5b: Persistent Controversy

This letter was sent on June 9, 1997, to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency by Roger W. Bowen, president of the State University of New York at New Platz. Professor Bowen sent a copy of the letter to The Globe and Mail and The New York Times.

Mr. Lee S. Strickland
Information and Privacy Coordinator
Agency Release Panel
Central Intelligence Agency
Washington, D.C. 205051

References: F96-0544 (formerly F80-0591)
F96-0568 (formerly F81-0807)

Dear Mr. Strickland:

You have asked me to explain the basis for my appeal of your decision to deny me, for the second time in 17 years, access to 60-odd documents concerning Egerton Herbert Norman, the subject of my biography, Innocence Is Not Enough, published in 1986 in Canada and in 1988 in the United States. Currently a documentary film about Norman is being made, based essentially on my book, by the National Film Board of Canada. Its expected completed date is February, 1998. Before that date I would like to fill in the last gap in knowledge left by the denied CIA documents.

You may recall that Dr. Norman fell to his death from a nine-storey apartment building in downtown Cairo, Egypt, on April 4, 1957. At the time he was serving as Canada’s ambassador to Egypt, a position he took up just prior to the Suez Crisis. In fact, it was Norman more than anyone else who persuaded Egypt’s nationalistic president Gamal Abdul Nasser to permit United Nations peacekeepers to defuse the Crisis. Canada’s foreign minister, Lester Pearson, later earned the Nobel Peace Prize in part because of Norman’s masterful intervention with Nasser.

The Egyptian and Canadian official records show that Herbert Norman committed suicide in Cairo on April 4, 1957, following published accusations by members of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee that Norman may have once been, or was still, a communist. This was an old charge, one which the Canadian government investigated and declared erroneous six years earlier, a fact conveniently and purposely overlooked by such subcommittee witch-hunters as Robert Morris and William Rusher.

Americans then, you must remember, were suspicious that President Nasser might be too cosy with the communists since he had bought weapons from the Czechoslovakians and was speaking with the Soviets about technical assistance in building the Aswan Dam. Too, unlike today’s world in which UN intervention is commonplace, then a UN peacekeeping mission was not regarded as necessarily positive, especially since it was against America’s anticommunist allies — Britain, France, and Israel — which had intervened militarily to reverse Nasser’s move to nationalize the Suez Canal. Norman negotiating with Nasser in order to convince the Egyptian ruler to permit United Nations troops onto Egyptian soil to safeguard against a renewal of hostilities by American allies undoubtedly caused grave concerns among some American officials.

Interviews I conducted in Egypt revealed that a close acquaintance of Norman’s physician, Dr. Halim Doss, was a CIA operative who lived in the same building as the doctor. Mrs. [Irene] Norman told me, and Dr. Doss confirmed, that following publication of damning newspaper accounts questioning Norman’s loyalty Dr. Doss helped Norman deal with mounting despondency by prescribing sleeping pills and personally delivering them to the ambassador’s residence. Mrs. Norman, however, noticed that the sleeping pills had the opposite effect of what was intended, namely, they did not work at night but kept him fatigued during the day.

Were they sleeping pills in fact? Did Dr. Doss, friendly to at least one CIA operative, personally deliver to Norman’s home something other than sedatives? At that time, we know, the CIA was conducting secret experiments with mind-altering LSD at McGill University in Montreal. Earlier in the same decade, according to recent revelations, the CIA composed a list of assignation targets in Guatemala, and later attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba. Could the CIA have made the decision to use Dr. Doss to slip Norman LSD tablets with the intention of further destabilizing him emotionally? Is this reckless speculation or reasonable surmising? Unquestionably, based on eye-witness accounts days before his death, Norman’s behaviour became erratic and uncharacteristically self-absorbed at the very time he began taking the pills Doss gave him.

I recall a late-night phone call 15 years ago from the CIA’s spidery former Director of Operations, James Jesus Angleton, to my then home in Maine and him telling me, “You will never learn the true story about Norman.” Despite the taunt, I completed my biography and published it anyway, reasonably certain of its accuracy because of having had access to Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian Government files; U.S. Army Intelligence files; FBI files and Senate records; and so on. But those 66 CIA files, whose existence you acknowledge but whose release you have again denied me, contain something apparently worth hiding in your view.

Forty years and more have passed since Norman’s death. Today the CIA promises a new openness and expresses a willingness to declassify documents whose reason for the secrecy designation has long since been forgotten. Yet once again you invoke outdated Cold War strictures — the National Security Act of 1947 and the CIA Act of 1949 — to deny me information about a “case” that barely qualifies for fame, even by Andy Warhol standards. [...]

In my book I attributed Norman’s suicide to a growing sense of hopelessness and despair. Yet I need to know whether anything the CIA may have done contributed to Norman’s growing depression prior to his death. I need to know. Won’t you honour the spirit of Freedom of Information and release these 40-year-old documents to me?

Roger W. Bowen
President and Professor of Political Science
State University of New York at New Platz

Post script July 23, 2007:
As recently as a year ago, the CIA denied my request for release of the 60+ documents it acknowledges as existing. I believe this is the 6th or 7th such denial I have received from the CIA over the past 25 years. So, 50 years after Norman’s death, the Agency continues to conceal its role. I have consulted with legal experts in Washington about my chances of winning a lawsuit against the CIA and to a person they have argued against such an effort.

Source: Roger W. Bowen, "Open Letter to the CIA," Globe and Mail, June 21, 1997

Return to parent page