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On Covert Action in Angola in the Carter Years
U.S. covert action in Angola during the Carter Administration is among the topics documented in a new volume of the official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series that was released yesterday. See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1977–1980, Volume XVI, Southern Africa.
The CIA had secretly intervened in Angola in 1975, during the Ford Administration. But in 1976, Congress enacted legislation known as the Tunney-Javits Clark Amendment to prohibit any such paramilitary involvement in that country, even on a covert basis. (William Blum, an often acerbic critic of U.S. policy, wrote that this was “one of the infrequent occasions in modern times that the US Congress has exercised a direct and pivotal influence upon American foreign policy,” thereby avoiding “the slippery slope to another Vietnam.”)
In the wake of the congressional prohibition, the Carter Administration struggled to determine whether further covert action in Angola was feasible, desirable, or lawful.
Officials settled on a covert propaganda operation to focus on criticizing the Cuban presence in Angola. The new FRUS volume “contains inter-departmental records pertaining to the development and implementation of the covert operation in Angola.”
The new collection details the mechanics of covert propaganda with unusual clarity. “We […] need to get the story out in the open so that our controlled assets can use it,” wrote DCI Stansfield Turner in a 1977 memorandum (document 16).
The effectiveness of legislation as a constraint on CIA covert action was notable, and the new assertiveness of Congress regarding intelligence policy was recognized and largely accepted by intelligence officials. “Before embarking on a covert action program involving direct or indirect paramilitary support, it would be wise to ascertain the sense of Congress.”
“Our previous covert paramilitary support of UNITA in Angola [in 1975] generated a great deal of controversy. Angola may be a poor choice as to the place where we try to engage in some further covert paramilitary action. An abortive attempt to reopen the issue of covert paramilitary support of UNITA–even indirect–could lead to damage to our capability and flexibility to undertake any covert action in the future,” wrote DCI Turner. (document 21)
During the Carter years, there were several innovations in the execution of covert action policy, detailed in the new FRUS volume.
For example, a new category of presidential findings known as “Perspectives” was adopted for “worldwide” or “generic” covert operations, the FRUS editors wrote.
“Perspectives were drafted by the CIA and cleared by the Department of State, so that the CIA could vet the operational feasibility and risks of the program while State could assess the diplomatic risks and verify that the program was consistent with overall foreign policy goals.”
Another covert action document category that was first introduced in the Carter years was the “Memorandum of Notification” (MON).
“MONs were initially used to introduce higher-risk, significantly higher-cost, or more geographically-specific operations under a previously-approved world-wide or general objective outlined in a Perspectives document…. MONs subsequently came to be used for significant changes to any type of [covert action] finding, not just worldwide ones.”
However, “Entirely new covert actions continued to require new presidential findings.”
The Foreign Relations of the United States series, which now includes more than 450 volumes, is produced by the Office of the Historian of the State Department with the oversight of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation. FRUS is required under a 1992 law to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions.”
Among other issues concerning Southern Africa, the new FRUS volume notably includes discussion of a suspected South African nuclear weapons test that may have occurred in September 1979.
FRUS Volume on Iran 1953 Still Unreleased
Meanwhile, a long-delayed retrospective FRUS volume on Iran in 1953, based on official Eisenhower Administration records of CIA involvement in the coup against the Mossadegh government, remains held up.
A decision on whether to proceed with publication of the 1953 Iran volume was elevated in the past year to Secretary of State Kerry, who decided to block its release. The logic of his decision is obscure, but presumably it is based on a belief that publication would somehow perturb relations with Iran in an unfavorable way. (A plausible argument could be made that the opposite would more likely be the case, and that an honest reckoning with the past is a prerequisite to improved relations in the future.)
Although many relevant records are thought to have been destroyed and others have already been released, the withheld volume on Iran 1953 includes “a lot of new material,” according to an historian who is familiar with its contents.