History of Iran Covert Action Deferred Indefinitely

A declassified U.S. Government documentary history of the momentous 1953 coup in Iran, in which Central Intelligence Agency personnel participated, had been the object of widespread demand from historians and others for decades. In recent years, it finally seemed to be on the verge of publication.

But now its release has been postponed indefinitely.

Last year, “the Department of State did not permit publication of the long-delayed Iran Retrospective volume because it judged the political environment too sensitive,” according to a new annual report from the State Department Historical Advisory Committee (HAC). “The HAC was severely disappointed.”

“The HAC was unsuccessful in its efforts to meet with [then-]Secretary Kerry to discuss the volume, and now there is no timetable for its release,” the new report stated.

The controversy originally arose in 1989 when the State Department published its official history of US foreign relations with Iran that somehow made no mention of the 1953 CIA covert action against the Mossadeq government, triggering protests and ridicule.

That lapse led to enactment of a 1992 statute requiring the Foreign Relations of the United States series to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary history of US foreign policy. The State Department also agreed to prepare a supplemental retrospective volume on Iran to correct the record. The retrospective volume is what now appears to be out of reach.

In truth, a fair amount of documentation related to the events of 1953 in Iran has been declassified and released. It is unclear how much more of significance remains to be disclosed. (Those who have read the missing volume say there is at least some new substance to it.)

But the position taken by the Obama State Department that 60 year old policy documents are too politically sensitive to be released is disheartening in any case.

Instead of disrupting relations with Iran, which are already fraught, an honest official U.S. account of events in 1953 might actually have elicited a constructive response. But that argument, advanced by the Historical Advisory Committee and its Chairman, Prof. Richard H. Immerman, did not get the serious consideration it deserved.

More broadly, the new annual report of the HAC did identify a few bright spots. One volume of the Foreign Relations series that was released last year met the statutory deadline for publication within 30 years of the events it describes. That hasn’t happened for two decades.

Overall, however, “the declassification environment is discouraging,” the HAC report found.

Information Operations: It Takes a Thief

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday on foreign cyber threats to the U.S., there were several references to the saying that “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” The point, made by DNI James Clapper, was that the U.S. should not be too quick to penalize the very espionage practices that U.S. intelligence agencies rely upon, including clandestine collection of information from foreign computer networks.

But perhaps a more pertinent saying would be “It takes a thief to catch a thief.”

U.S. intelligence agencies should be well-equipped to recognize Russian cyber threats and political intervention since they have been tasked for decades to carry out comparable efforts.

A newly disclosed intelligence directive from 1999 addresses “information operations” (IO), which are defined as: “Actions taken to affect adversary information and information systems while defending one’s own information and information systems.”

“Although still evolving, the fundamental concept of IO is to integrate different activities to affect [adversary] decision making processes, information systems, and supporting information infrastructures to achieve specific objectives.”

The elements of information operations may include computer network attack, computer network exploitation, and covert action.

See Director of Central Intelligence Directive 7/3, Information Operations and Intelligence Community Related Activities, effective 01 July 1999.

The directive was declassified (in part) on December 2 by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, and was first obtained and published by GovernmentAttic.org.

Revisiting Intelligence History

Earlier this month the Director of National Intelligence asked intelligence community historians to recommend topics in the history of intelligence which, if declassified and disclosed, “would help the public better understand the work of the IC and contribute to a public dialogue surrounding significant historical events.”

DNI James R. Clapper directed that historical topics shall be provided to the DNI for proposed declassification review “on a semi-annual basis.” IC historians are to “collaborate with other public historians or private subject-matter experts to solicit input for such topics,” he wrote in a December 9 memorandum.

In itself, this DNI directive is not a very significant step. It does not make any specific commitments, it is not enforceable, and it does not allocate any new resources. Above all, it does not set forth new criteria for declassification of historical materials. This is a serious omission, since records which qualify for declassification under existing criteria are supposed to be declassified anyway, without the need for a new procedure.

Nevertheless, the latest memorandum adds at least a dash of momentum to a series of steps that have been taken by DNI Clapper to advance intelligence-related transparency, and that cumulatively may help to keep it alive as a topic of policy deliberation. Those other steps include the creation of IC on the Record (where the new memorandum first appeared), the issuance of IC “Transparency Principles,” the creation of an IC Transparency Council, and especially the DNI’s active embrace of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review process, which should pay dividends in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, “over-classification” has recently been flagged by the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board as an issue requiring the attention of the next Administration.

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These days, intelligence history is not just for historians. One historical topic that is timely and that might be fitting for comprehensive treatment by declassifiers concerns the role of intelligence agencies in tampering with foreign elections.

“The United States cannot in good faith decry what has been done to its decent citizens until it is ready to face what it did so often to the equally decent citizens of other nations,” wrote Ariel Dorfman, referring to the CIA intervention in Chile’s elections in the 1970s (“Now, America, You Know How Chileans Felt,” New York Times, December 16).

“The C.I.A. got its start trying to influence the outcome of Italy’s elections in 1948, as the author Tim Weiner documented in his book ‘Legacy of Ashes,’ in an effort to keep Communists from taking power,” wrote David Sanger, also in the Times. The US went on to interfere in elections in Iran, Guatemala, and Japan, he noted.

In Indonesia, the CIA reportedly made a pornographic film in 1957 featuring an actor disguised as the disfavored leader Sukarno that was intended to embarrass him, according to the 1976 book Portrait of a Cold Warrior by former CIA officer Joseph Burkholder Smith.

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The current classification system “is broken,” wrote Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Washington Post. It is too complicated, too expensive, and rewards overclassification.

“We… must do what we can to change incentives to further encourage government personnel to classify at the lowest appropriate levels and for the shortest durations,” she wrote. See “How to rethink what’s ‘top secret’ for the Internet age,” December 16.

While official attention to classification policy is most welcome, the fact that a senior legislator like Sen. Feinstein would resort to writing an op-ed on the subject might be understood as a tacit signal that a legislative solution is currently out of reach.

But that is not necessarily true. I suggested some (comparatively) easy incremental steps that Congress could take to begin to combat overclassification in a statement presented at a hearing of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee on December 7.

Melvin Laird: A Declassified History

Melvin R. Laird, who served as Secretary of Defense during the Nixon Administration, passed away on November 16. His tenure as Secretary was described in an official history published last year by the Department of Defense that is based in part on classified government archives.

“Although the text has been declassified, some of the official sources cited in the volume may remain classified,” wrote DoD historian Erin R. Mahan in a Foreword. The 732-page volume was authored by historian Richard A. Hunt. See Melvin Laird and the Foundation of the Post-Vietnam Military, 1969-1973, Volume 7 of the Secretaries of Defense Historical Series, 2015.

“Laird’s tenure as secretary coincided with significant changes in national security policy,” Dr. Mahan wrote. “Faced with an NSC system that consolidated policymaking in the White House, Laird used his political canniness and bureaucratic skill to stymie the attempts of Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger to assert greater control over the defense program.”

“Laird was fully involved in planning the Breakfast bombing [of Cambodia in 1969] but disagreed with Nixon and Kissinger about doing it clandestinely,” Dr. Hunt wrote. “He later explained, ‘I told Nixon you couldn’t keep the bombing in Cambodia secret. . . . It was going to come out anyway and it would build distrust. . . . I was all for hitting those targets in Cambodia, but I wanted it public, because I could justify before Congress and the American people that these were occupied territories of the North Vietnamese, no longer Cambodian territory. I could have made that case, but they [Nixon and Kissinger] thought it was important to keep it secret’.”

CIA Releases Draft History of Bay of Pigs

The Central Intelligence Agency yesterday released a long-sought draft of the fifth volume of its internal history of the 1961 invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

The release was among the first tangible results of this year’s amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, which imposed a 25 year limit on the exemption for “deliberative” files. As a result, the 1984 draft history could no longer be legally withheld.

CIA said in a cover note that “This fifth draft volume was not publishable in its present form, in the judgment of CIA Chief Historians as well as other reviewers, because of serious shortcomings in scholarship, its polemical tone, and its failure to add significantly to an understanding of the controversy over the Bay of Pigs operation.”

Indeed, the new “volume is strange, in some respects, and interesting,” said Villanova Prof. David M. Barrett, who had filed a lawsuit last summer for release of the draft history.

“Essentially, it is a critical history of the Inspector General’s critical report on Bay of Pigs, which mainly blamed CIA incompetence for the failure at Bay of Pigs.  [The author, CIA historian Jack] Pfeiffer says IG Lyman Kirkpatrick’s report was, itself, biased and incompetent.  Pfeiffer says the most obvious cause of failure at Bay of Pigs was JFK’s decision to cancel a planned 2nd airstrike in support of the invaders at Bay of Pigs,” Barrett said.

He noted several highlights:

Author Pfeiffer describes one of the IG report’s authors as probably mentally ill (p. 75).  Writing in about 1983, Pfeiffer says that CIA had kept the IG report and other internal analyses of Bay of Pigs classified Secret in order to avoid airing its “dirty laundry.” (p. 4).

Pfeiffer says CIA hired a couple of people to write the true story of Bay of Pigs with the hope of having Life Magazine or another outlet publish it.  Only State Dept objections stopped that from being pursued, though the authors did write the article. (p. 87-90)

At the end, Pfeiffer suggests in a footnote that the history program (where he worked!) should probably be abolished, and the raw materials it possessed should be destroyed; the Operations Directorate was hostile to it, and it was hard to see the point of the program. (p. 146) [Correction: The views expressed in the footnote on page 146 are those of other CIA officials, not Pfeiffer’s.]

“Not quite earth-shaking history, but I think the real story is that CIA spent much effort and money over the past 5 years to prevent [release] of this document,” Barrett said.

The National Security Archive, which had previously filed suit to obtain the document, hailed its release here.

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.

Intelligence Reform in the Jimmy Carter Era

“Public trust and confidence in the Intelligence Community have been seriously undermined by disclosures of activities in the past that were illegal, injudicious or otherwise improper by today’s standards,” according to a 1977 interagency memorandum circulated by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

“Moreover, many disillusioned persons who have come to believe the worst of their government tend to accept at face value exaggerated imputations of impropriety to legitimate foreign intelligence activities. In some quarters there is a persistent belief that U.S. foreign intelligence activities have still not been brought under adequate control. Clearly the Intelligence Community must earn wider acceptance of its legitimacy and role within our democratic form of government if a viable U.S. foreign intelligence effort is to be sustained over the longer term.”

These observations were included in an impressive collection of declassified documents on intelligence reform in the Jimmy Carter administration that was published by the State Department yesterday as part of a new volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series (Organization and Management of Foreign Policy: 1977-80, volume 28).

The 365-page section on Intelligence Policy and Reform presents often-candid discussion of topics such as: the role and authority of the Director of Central Intelligence, the perennial problem of leaks of classified information, the vexed relations between ambassadors and CIA chiefs of station abroad, covert action, the role of PFIAB and the Intelligence Oversight Board, and more. While some of the documents have appeared previously, many of them were declassified for this volume in 2012-2014.

A few samples:

A 1977 memorandum from CIA General Counsel Anthony Lapham stated that when it comes to prosecuting leaks of classified information to the press, “It is extremely doubtful that the provisions [of the Espionage Act] were intended to have application in such situations, and as a matter of historical fact, leaving aside the unsuccessful Ellsberg prosecution and possibly one or two other cases, they never have been so applied.”

Moreover, added Lapham, “Under current Justice Department procedures, unauthorized disclosures of national security information, in other than espionage situations, are almost never even investigated, let alone prosecuted.”

“It seems to us that the universe of classified information is quite simply too large, and encompasses such a great variety of material of so many different degrees of importance to the national security, as to make impractical the idea of extending criminal sanctions to the unauthorized disclosure of all such information,” he wrote (document 34, pp. 156, 159).

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In one particularly thoughtful and reflective document in the new collection, NSC staffer Paul Henze observed: “While we now enjoy nearly real-time photography from satellites [less than 1 line not declassified] we are not much closer than we were thirty years ago to knowing what goes on in the minds of the top men in Moscow or Madrid, Peking, Algeria or Brasilia, what Arab leaders say to each other when they get together or how French elections are going to come out.”

“CIA greeted the Carter Administration with a keen expectation that with new leadership it would leave behind a period of strain and controversy and be able to rebuild its own capabilities and redirect its energies to real USG priorities. . . . Eight months later all this sense of excitement and optimism has dissipated. The prevailing mood of CIA, both on the operational and analytical sides of the agency is apprehension, depression, frustration,” Henze wrote (document 63 at p. 321).

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In a remarkable 1978 memorandum “On the Psychology of President Power,” National Security Advisor Brzezinski advised President Carter that he should demonstrate a capacity for irrational and impulsive behavior (document 13, page 45).

“I suspect that an impression has developed that the Administration (and you personally) operates very cerebrally, quite unemotionally. In most instances this is an advantage; however, occasionally emotion and even a touch of irrationality can be an asset. Those who wish to take advantage of us ought to fear that, at some point, we might act unpredictably, in anger, and decisively. If they do not feel this way, they will calculate that simply pressing, probing, or delaying will serve their ends. I see this quite clearly in [Israeli prime minister Menachem] Begin’s behavior, and I suspect that Brezhnev is beginning to act similarly.”

“This is why I think the time may be right for you to pick some controversial subject on which you will deliberately choose to act with a degree of anger and even roughness, designed to have a shock effect,” Brzezinski suggested.

According to the new book “Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War” by Nancy Mitchell of North Carolina State University, this advice was prompted by Brzezinski’s alarm at the scale of Soviet and Cuban intervention in Ethiopia.

Four Cold War Covert Actions to be Disclosed

The Central Intelligence Agency said that it will disclose four previously unacknowledged Cold War covert actions. The four have not yet been publicly identified, but they will be addressed in forthcoming editions of the U.S. State Department’s official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series.

“In 2015 [CIA] agreed to acknowledge four covert actions that will be documented in future volumes (of FRUS),” according to a new annual report from the State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation for calendar year 2015.

CIA spokesperson Ryan Trapani declined to say what those four covert actions are.

“CA [covert action] programs are not officially declassified until done so by FRUS, so you have to wait for its formal announcement,” Mr. Trapani said by email.

The FRUS series has been a significant driver of the national security declassification program, particularly since a 1991 statute required that FRUS must present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary history of U.S. foreign relations — which necessarily includes information that was classified at the time — within 30 years of the events in question.

The State Department has never yet complied with that 30 year deadline, but the new Advisory Committee report indicates the situation is improving. “It is likely that HO [the State Department Office of the Historian] will finally meet its statutory thirty-year timeline as it publishes more volumes in the Reagan administration series over the next few years.”

The Committee report was complimentary towards the CIA, citing “the very positive relationship HO has developed with CIA over the past several years [which] has paid dividends. CIA consistently reviews both specific documents and compiled volumes in a timely manner….”

“Nevertheless, the frequent reliance on covert actions in the Reagan and subsequent administrations will doubtless require lengthy declassification processes that will inevitably delay publication of a significant number of volumes beyond the 30-year target,” the report said.

One specific area of disappointment is the failure to release the long-deferred FRUS volume on the 1953 coup in Iran.

“Owing to the currently volatile relationship between the United States and Iran…, the State Department continues to withhold its approval for publishing the eagerly anticipated retrospective volume on Iran 1953,” the Committee report noted.

The status of the Iran volume is expected to be on the agenda of the upcoming meeting of the State Department Advisory Committee on June 6.

Soviet Spy Ronald W. Pelton to be Released from Prison

Tomorrow Ronald W. Pelton, a National Security Agency communications specialist who was convicted in 1986 of spying for the Soviet Union, will be released from prison.

Like Jonathan J. Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel and released last week, Pelton was apprehended in 1985, which became known as the Year of the Spy because so many espionage arrests and prosecutions took place during or around that time.

A search of the Bureau of Prisons Inmate Locator indicates that Pelton’s release, which has not been widely noted, is set for Tuesday, November 24. It further identifies Pelton as a 74 year old white male (Register Number 22914-037).

The Pelton case had several distinctive features.

Unlike most spies of the time, he did not steal U.S. government documents and turn them over to a foreign government. Instead, he was able to sell the Soviets information based on his “excellent memory and […] encyclopedic knowledge of intelligence activities.” Among the U.S. intelligence projects he compromised was IVY BELLS, an effort to secretly tap Soviet undersea communications cables.

The Pelton case was also a test of the government’s ability to successfully carry out an espionage prosecution involving highly classified information. “The trial included an extraordinary amount of public testimony by an agency known for its reticence,” the New York Times reported at the time, referring to the NSA.

In 1986, Pelton was sentenced to three life terms plus 10 years in prison (and a $100 fine), with sentences to run concurrently (not consecutively, as has been mistakenly reported). In theory he could have been eligible for early release after ten years, but he has served nearly 30 years in prison instead.

In 1995, Pelton was interviewed by representatives of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (the Moynihan Commission), who sought his insights into the problems of official secrecy. His contributions to the study, if any, were not identified in the Commission’s final report.

In 1963, CIA Said It Had Copies of Soviet Spysat Images

In a newly disclosed memorandum from 1963, the Director of Central Intelligence advised the Secretary of State that the CIA had “good reproductions” of Soviet satellite imagery.

This puzzling remark appears to suggest a previously unrecognized capability of the CIA.

The declassified memo summarizes a July 3, 1963 telephone conversation between DCI John McCone and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. It was discovered by researchers David M. Barrett and Eric P. Swanson.

According to the memo, McCone said that the U.S. had “for some time tried to determine whether the Soviets were actually photographing and the extent they were from satellites.” The DCI said “it has been determined they have been and we have good reproductions of what they are getting.” The DCI was to brief the President on the subject the following week.

In an article discussing the memo in the journal Intelligence & National Security, Barrett and Swanson wrote that they found “no references in the intelligence literature to the United States having had the capability to see what the Soviet satellites were seeing, much less any treatment of how the CIA obtained the ‘good reproductions’.”

Assuming the McCone statement is accurate, it would seem to imply one of a few possibilities. It could mean that the US was somehow intercepting the Soviet images (which seems improbable), or that it was replicating the images through US overflights, or else that it was simply modeling the images based on the presumed capabilities of the Soviet satellites and their orbital parameters.

Prof. Barrett added that the fact that the matter was to be briefed to the President indicated that it was of more than ordinary significance. He also noted that the 1963 memo was located in State Department records at the National Archives, and was not released by CIA.

The import of the memo remains uncertain.

Reproductions of Soviet satellite imagery were “not anything I ever came across some ten years later,” said former CIA analyst Allen Thomson, “and I was in a decent position to see such (Office of Weapons Intelligence).”

“At a guess, perhaps the ‘reproductions’ were simulations based on the technical state of the art at the time (film) and estimates of the camera aperture. That would have been easy enough to do and useful as an aid to orient consumers to what might be in the imagery. Or it could just have meant looking at the ground tracks to see what the satellites overflew,” Mr. Thomson said.

Dino Brugioni, who was a pioneering figure in U.S. imagery intelligence and a CIA official at the time of the McCone memo, passed away in September with little public notice.