Continental Divides

John Melcher Sanitized and Declassified

A Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who participated in the D-Day Invasion, Melcher in 2018 died peacefully sitting in his favorite chair overlooking Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula. He was 93.

By John McCaslin

It’s no wonder classified material is popping up in places it doesn’t belong when the U.S. government insists on classifying more than 50 million documents every year.

Even Montana state agencies are required to classify all data as public, confidential, secret or top secret.

Call it paranoia, but more than once during my journalism career I wondered whether Uncle Sam might be keeping a classified file or two of my reporting, especially on those occasions when federal feathers got ruffled.

Then not long ago the CIA made a rare announcement that it was declassifying 12 million documents held in its archives since the 1940s. So out of curiosity I typed my name into the newly declassified database of documents and lo and behold 48 pages appeared, mostly “sanitized” versions of newspaper articles I’d written through the years.

One story surrounded a CIA clerk and her lover who were arrested on espionage charges; another a CIA “safe house” I painstakingly pinpointed deep in the Virginia woods. 

Also in the file were my takes on Soviet eavesdroppers in the United States, the plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II, and a startling admission from President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser that American POWs were likely still being held in Vietnam.

Granted the primary function of the CIA is to collect and analyze information that might impact national security, but that doesn’t explain the agency also keeping record of when I visited CIA headquarters, as well as my attendance at a private dinner honoring a CIA director and his wife.

That said, my now-declassified file is humdrum compared to some of the other newly released material describing psychic warfare, enactors of assassination, and (take a deep breath, everyone) a potential “alliance with the Russians if Earth were threatened by ‘alien’ invaders from outer space.” 


The most intriguing of my articles (“Declassified in Part – Sanitized Copy”) that captured the CIA’s attention surrounds a 1987 interview I conducted on Capitol Hill with Democrat John Melcher, the resulting headline: “Montana Senator Stalls Webster’s Confirmation.”

I’d written that the widely popular FBI Director William H. Webster “probably never imagined that horse thieves and other criminal elements on Indian reservations” would stall his Senate confirmation to become the next CIA director, but that’s precisely what happened.

A member of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, Melcher (the no-nonsense Montanan served as U.S. congressman from 1969 to 1977 and U.S. senator from 1977 to 1989) singlehandedly put Webster’s confirmation on ice because of the FBI’s “totally unsatisfactory” record of investigating crimes committed on Indian reservations.

“I hoped we could work it out peacefully,” the senator told me, vowing that the confirmation would “be kept on hold until something is done about the terrible situation.” 

Melcher’s strategy: “I’ll get the attention of the FBI director long enough where he’ll redirect his people to do something.”

The senator got Webster’s attention all right – and everybody else’s in the hallowed halls of Washington. One frustrated lawmaker I’d quoted described Melcher as “a man with all the blunt stubbornness of the Montana plains.”

As it was, the proud Montana veterinarian – who even did a stint as mayor of Forsyth – stood his ground, submitting undeniable proof that the most egregious of crimes committed on the nation’s Indian reservations went mostly unprosecuted.

He singled out the Blackfeet Indian Reservation bordering Glacier National Park, where in a two-year period between 1983 and 1985 there were 99 instances of bodily assault – homicides included – yet only three resulted in convictions.

During our interview, interestingly enough, the Montana senator voiced concern that once Webster eventually departed for the CIA his replacement would shift the FBI’s regional supervision from Butte to Salt Lake City.

“Are we going to get anywhere by moving chain of command down to Salt Lake?” he asked.

Sure enough, on the heels of Melcher’s defiant one-man stand, Montana was not only stripped of its FBI regional authority in favor of Salt Lake City, the bureau in 1989 closed its Butte field office altogether.

Today, the Salt Lake City division governs 10 Montana FBI resident agency territories: Kalispell, Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, Helena, Great Falls, Glasgow, Havre, Shelby, and last but not least – with a nod upstairs to Melcher – Browning, headquarters of the Blackfeet Nation and the only incorporated town on the reservation.

A Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who participated in the D-Day Invasion, Melcher in 2018 died peacefully sitting in his favorite chair overlooking Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula. He was 93.

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