Two-Decade Review Yields History of Covert Action in Congo

12.23.13 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

After a declassification review that lasted nearly twenty years, the history of CIA covert action in the Congo from 1960 to 1968 was finally published last week by the State Department, filling an awkward gap in the historical record.

“In August 1960, the U.S. Government launched a covert political program in the Congo lasting almost 7 years, initially aimed at eliminating [Prime Minister Patrice] Lumumba from power and replacing him with a more moderate, pro-Western leader,” an editorial note introducing the new publication stated. See Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1964-1968, Volume XXII, Congo, 1960-1968.

“The U.S. Government provided advice and financial subsidies…. These funds were to be channeled in such a way as to conceal the U.S. Government as a source.”

“At the same time, based on authorization from President Eisenhower’s statements at an NSC meeting on August 18, 1960, discussions began to develop highly sensitive, tightly-held plans to assassinate Lumumba. After Lumumba’s death at the hands of Congolese rivals in January 1961, the U.S. Government authorized the provision of paramilitary and air support to the new Congolese Government….”

“In addition, the covert program included organizing mass demonstrations, distributing anti-Communist pamphlets, and providing propaganda material for broadcasts,” the editorial introduction said.

The new publication supplements previously published official histories of U.S. policy during the Congo Crisis, which were harshly criticized by historians and others for withholding documentary evidence of U.S. covert action.

By excluding CIA covert action, the 1994 FRUS volume on the Congo Crisis “omitted vital information, suppressed details concerning US intervention, and generally provided a misleading account of the Congo crisis,” wrote David N. Gibbs, a political scientist at the University of Arizona in a review entitled “Misrepresenting the Congo Crisis” (African Affairs: Journal of the Royal African Society, vol. 95, no. 380, pp. 453-459, 1996).

In another 1995 paper on Secrecy and International Relations, Prof. Gibbs said the persistent classification of the Congo covert action exemplified the use of secrecy to evade the democratic process.

“According to this approach, governments seek to conceal potentially controversial activities or ones that could generate public opposition,” he wrote. “In the Congo case secrecy successfully concealed government activities (such as the efforts to assassinate Lumumba) that were potentially very controversial.”

Historian Philip Zelikow told his colleagues on the State Department Historical Advisory Committee in 1999 that by refusing to admit the role of covert action, the earlier Congo volume “did enormous damage to the credibility of the Foreign Relations series and of the CIA.”

The current Historian of the State Department, Dr. Stephen P. Randolph, acknowledged that the earlier FRUS volumes “did not… contain documentation of the U.S. covert political action program. There were also no records in the two volumes concerning U.S. planning and preparation for the possible assassination of Patrice Lumumba.”

“This volume consists of a selection of the most significant of those previously unavailable documents,” Dr. Randolph wrote in the Preface to the new FRUS volume.

The first part of the new volume “contains numerous CIA cables to and from the Station in Leopoldville, which documents the chaotic nature of the Congo crisis and the pervasive influence of U.S. Government covert actions in the newly independent nation,” he wrote.

The second part “documents the continuation of the U.S. covert political action programs and their role in providing paramilitary and air support to the Congolese Government in an effort to quell provincial rebellions.”

Astonishingly, “The declassification review of this volume began in 1994 and was finally completed in 2013.”  Even so, it resulted in a number of redactions, some of which are not very credible.

The Central Intelligence Agency insisted on censoring cost figures for its covert action programs, even when they are half a century old. So, for example, document 170 in the new collection states that “To date covert support of Adoula’s government has cost a total of [dollar amount not declassified].”

A helpful editorial note (at p. 5), however, supplies some of the missing information: “The Special Group/303 Committee-approved aggregate budget for covert action in the Congo for the years 1960-1968 totaled approximately $11,702,000 (Political Action, $5,842,000; Air Program, $3,285,000; and Maritime Program, $2,575,000).”

The State Department Historical Advisory Committee, composed of non-governmental historians, advised and supervised the preparation of the final manuscript, and ultimately recommended its publication.

Even with the remaining redactions, the Committee said it “assesses the volume as a reliable guide to the trajectory of U.S. policy toward the Congo from 1960 until 1968 and an exceptionally valuable addition to the historical record.”