The first word of the deaths in Jonestown to reach the U.S. early on the morning of November 19 came through the National Operations Intelligence Watch Officers Network (NOIWON), a CIA radio communications channel, which characterized the deaths as mass suicides.
The NOIWON notation was included in an overall chronology of events in the appendix of an After Action Report which was compiled by the Defense Department following the Air Force’s airlift of the bodies which included. Dated 3:29 AM, Sunday, November 19, 1978, the notation reads, “CIA NOIWON reports mass suicides at Jonestown.” The time on this bulletin is hours before any other hint of the deaths – much less the nature of the deaths – was whispered to the outside world.
Not only did the CIA first notify the Defense Department of the mass deaths, it may have known the poisons involved. A subsequent Defense Department cable notes that a medical evacuation team leaving Charleston Air Force Base “should include personnel to treat poison victims with necessary poison antidote” [italics added].
Survivors of the Jonestown tragedy had reached Port Kaituma and reported the news to American Embassy personnel who had accompanied Rep. Leo Ryan’s party. There is no definitive word on which of the people the survivors talked to was the source for the CIA’s information: it could have been U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Dwyer, who was wounded at the Port Kaituma airstrip during the shooting that left Congressman Ryan dead, although longtime Temple researcher Jim Hougan reported that the information came from James Adkins, the CIA Chief of Station in Guyana.
NOIWON Notation, After Action Report, California Historical Society, Moore Family Papers, MS 3802, Box 19, Folder 118.
Although the Defense Department released the notation of the CIA cable in an After Action report in 1979, the CIA still declines to release a copy of the cable itself – or even to acknowledge its existence.
In 2020, more than 41 years after the deaths in Jonestown, the CIA responded to a Freedom of Information Act request that the agency “can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of the document. The agency added that its position that the “existence or nonexistence of such records is itself currently and properly classified,” is based on the law creating the CIA in 1949 and the National Security Act of 1947. Because of that, the request was denied under Exemptions b(1), the national security exemption, and b(3), the statutory non-disclosure exemption.