Covert Action is Prominent in Carter Admin History

07.05.12 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Covert action was a particularly prominent feature of U.S. foreign policy during the Jimmy Carter Administration, according to a report last month from the State Department Historical Advisory Committee.  Covert action or other intelligence activities are said to figure in at least half of the volumes that will constitute the official record of the Carter Administration’s foreign affairs.

The Historical Advisory Committee reported to the Secretary of State on June 13 regarding progress (or lack thereof) in the production of the official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), which is the documentary record of U.S. foreign policy.  Although there is a statutory requirement that FRUS be published no later than 30 years after the events it records, the series has never yet met that mandatory benchmark.

One of the obstacles to timely publication has been the need for a so-called High-Level Panel (HLP) composed of State, CIA and NSC officials to review documents related to covert action and other sensitive intelligence activities.  Since the early 1990s, “more than 40 covert intelligence activities have now been acknowledged for publication in the [FRUS] series,” the Committee report noted.  However, any FRUS volume requiring HLP review “will spend at least one additional year, and often many more than one, in the declassification pipeline.”

The Committee report said that the challenge to timely publication will only increase because “at least half of the Carter volumes will require resolution of HLP issues.”

In other words, of the 28 projected FRUS volumes for the Carter Administration, at least half involve covert action or other sensitive intelligence activities.

This “seems high,” a former State Department official told Secrecy News.  “Nowhere near half of the Nixon-Ford volumes had HLP [covert action] issues and it’s hard to believe there were more covert actions going on during the 4 years of Carter than during the 8 Nixon-Ford years.”

The largest single covert action at that time would have been in Afghanistan, particularly following the Soviet intervention in 1979, said intelligence historian John Prados.  He said there was also widespread intelligence involvement in “radio operations” around the globe, close observation of Cyprus, some focus on the PLO, some activity in South Yemen, and actions to counter the Cuban presence in various parts of Africa and Latin America.

Though some of this material is public knowledge, that will not necessarily expedite the task of publishing the FRUS series.

“The CIA… resolutely resists declassifying documents that entered the public domain through irregular channels,” the State Department Historical Advisory Committee said.

“These documents are widely known to scholars, and thus CIA’s policy presents a special challenge for the HO [State Department Historian’s Office] to publish [FRUS] volumes that meet the [statutory] standard of a ‘thorough, accurate, and reliable’ documentary record of United States foreign policy,” the Committee report said.

CIA’s self-perception of its disclosure practices is rather different and altogether more flattering than the despairing view held by non-Agency historians, FOIA requesters, and others who attempt to elicit information from the Agency.

“CIA, unlike any other agency in the Intelligence Community, much less Federal Government, makes discretionary releases of historically significant documents available to the public, journalists, and academicians in a purposefully organized manner,” the CIA stated in a March 2012 report from the CIA Chief FOIA Officer.

“CIA continues to inform record numbers of citizens, demonstrating our commitment to the Open Government Initiative and its three goals of transparency, participation, and collaboration,” the CIA report said.