Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.
U.S. Acknowledges Cold War Covert ActionsThe United States Government last year officially "acknowledged" the existence of several covert actions that occurred during the early years of the Cold War, and was considering proposals to acknowledge numerous others, according to State Department records obtained by S&GB.
The decision to admit the operations, most of which have been documented in unofficial sources, was taken by a so-called High-Level Panel composed of representatives of the State Department, National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency. The Panel was created after years of conflict between the CIA and State Department historians over declassification of records about covert actions for publication in the official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series.
Details of the declassification actions were provided in minutes of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee which were released to the State Department Reading Room last month. Within days, however, the minutes were withdrawn from public access. "We need to double check whether some of that information can be released," said a State official on February 26. But by then, the minutes had already been placed on the world wide web.
The High-Level Panel met for the first time in February 1998. "The Panel agreed at that time to acknowledge covert operations in Italy, the Philippines, and Indonesia," according to minutes of a June 1998 meeting of the Historical Advisory Committee.
The second Panel meeting was to consider acknowledging covert operations in "Iran, Guyana, and two issues relating to Pakistan."
A third Panel meeting was contemplated, according to the June 1998 meeting minutes, to address "issues relating to the Dominican Republic, Thailand, and Israel/Jordan, and Greece."
Past Declassification Promises Went UnfulfilledSimple acknowledgment of covert actions does not reliably translate into the release of actual documents. CIA officials in particular have made a practice of promising more than they ever seem to deliver. In 1992, Director of Central Intelligence Robert M. Gates announced plans to declassify covert actions concerning the Bay of Pigs operation, the 1954 Guatemala coup, the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, and operations in the Dominican Republic and the Congo. Significant releases did occur in connection with the first two, but the others have languished.
In 1993, DCI R. James Woolsey further directed the declassification of "activities in support of democracy in France and Italy in the 1940s and 1950s; support to anti-Sukarno rebels in Indonesia in 1958; support to Tibetan guerrillas in the 1950s and early 1960s; operations against North Korea during the Korean War; and operations in Laos in the 1960s." No progress at all has been reported on these.
CIA's intent to declassify records of such operations was reaffirmed in 1996 by DCI John Deutch, but with meager results.
In July 1998, DCI Tenet issued a statement indicating that declassification of most of the material long promised by his predecessors had not even begun. He further indicated that it would not begin until some unspecified time when "resources are available."
But financial resources, while important, are secondary. A more fundamental problem is CIA's anachronistic classification standards. For example, CIA still opposes disclosure of parts of the history of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), its World War II predecessor agency. "While the names of OSS operatives have already been released and, therefore, are no longer of concern," CIA officials said, the Agency is "still concerned about incidents of foreign cooperation with the OSS." CIA argues that disclosure of such cooperation during World War II could have adverse national security consequences today.
The creation of the High-Level Panel was an attempt to break the declassification logjam at CIA by taking the declassification decision out of CIA's hands and raising it to a higher, interagency level. Moreover, it was believed that the statutory requirement that the FRUS series must present a "thorough, accurate and reliable" account of U.S. foreign policy could be used as leverage against CIA's characteristic resistance to declassification. Timely publication of the FRUS series, which is required by law to appear "not more than 30 years after the events recorded," had been repeatedly obstructed by the CIA.
But the initial results from the Panel were not very encouraging. "There appear to be problems in getting the CIA to implement the findings from the February Panel" which approved the declassification of three covert actions, said State Department Historian William Z. Slany last June.
The CIA Directorate of Intelligence introduced yet another obstacle with its decision last year "not to release finished intelligence concerning six allied states," including Germany and five others. This unilateral decision would seem to violate all kinds of rules, if there were anyone around to enforce them.
As of last year, members of the Historical Advisory Committee were considering recommending several retrospective FRUS volumes on intelligence and covert action. These would include a volume on Guatemala, a sequel to the 1996 volume on the organization of the intelligence community, and one or more volumes on covert operations during the Truman era-- in such places as France, Italy, and Eastern Europe, including Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states-- and during the Eisenhower Administration-- in the Philippines, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Tibet, and Japan. China and Burma were also proposed subjects.
Consideration was being given to a joint publication with the British concerning the covert action in Iran, particularly since CIA had destroyed most of its records of the 1953 operation. "Of the initial 2 feet of documents, some 6 inches remain," said a CIA historian.
Minutes of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee, which has labored mightily to establish an accurate historical record of U.S. foreign policy, are available at www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/state/index.html.
Moynihan, VENONA and TrumanThe most novel claim in Senator Daniel P. Moynihan's widely reviewed book Secrecy: The American Experience (Yale University Press, 1998) is that "President Truman was never told of the Venona decryptions," i.e. the intercepted Soviet diplomatic cables from the 1940s that confirmed the reality of Communist espionage in the United States. For Moynihan, the deliberate withholding of such vital information from the President was "government secrecy in its essence."
But newly published FBI documents indicate that information derived from Venona was in fact provided to the Truman White House.
Previous writers had concluded merely that it was unknown whether or not Truman had been briefed about the Venona program. "Truman's repeated denunciations of the [espionage] charges against [Alger] Hiss, [Harry Dexter] White, and others-- all of whom appear under covernames in decrypted messages translated before he left office in January 1953-- suggest that Truman either was never briefed on the Venona program or did not grasp its significance," wrote Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner in their preface to VENONA: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, 1939-1957.
Moynihan went one step further, claiming to have found "proof" that Truman was never told of Venona in an October 1949 FBI memorandum recounting a dispute over whether or not to inform the President and the CIA of the newly decrypted Soviet messages. The memo reports that General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sided with those opposing disclosure. Thus, Moynihan reiterated recently, "President Truman was not told-- on orders from the Pentagon." But the same memo indicates that Bradley assumed responsibility for advising the President "if the contents of any of this material so demanded."
A year later, it now appears, the President was so advised by the FBI.
An October 16, 1950 FBI memo from Assistant Director D.M. Ladd to Director J. Edgar Hoover reported that the Venona codename "Jurist" had been positively identified as Harry Dexter White. Hoover wrote on the memo: "Wouldn't it be swell to send substance to Ad. Souers for information of the President." (Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers was Special Consultant to President Truman.)
A subsequent memo to Hoover dated February 28, 1951 reports that "We did furnish, in a carefully paraphrased form, the identification of Harry Dexter White on the basis of [deleted: FBI term for Venona] information to the White House under date of October 17, 1950."
This October 17 memo, if it still exists, has not yet been retrieved and it is unknown how clearly the FBI communicated the reliability of its "carefully paraphrased" finding. The FBI had previously forwarded rumors and falsehoods about Soviet espionage, as Moynihan points out, and unless the Venona information were somehow distinguished from earlier reporting it could have been readily dismissed by Truman. The term Venona would not have been used, incidentally, since it was not employed until 1961, according to CIA historian Michael Warner.
The FBI Venona documents were placed on the FBI web site in February-- in slightly corrupted form-- at http://vault.fbi.gov/Venona/Venona%20Part%201%20of%201.
Among other noteworthy items in the documents:
- In 1952, FBI Director Hoover favored limiting CIA access to Venona materials because, as he wrote on one memo: "In view of loose methods in CIA and some of its questionable personnel we must be most circumspect."
- In 1956, analysts of the Venona messages were still expressing a becoming humility about the reliability of their decryptions. "It must be realized that the [deleted] cryptographers make certain assumptions as to meanings when deciphering these messages and thereafter the proper translation of Russian idioms can become a problem. It is for such reasons that [deleted] has indicated that almost anything included in a translation of one of these deciphered messages may in the future be radically revised."
- Venona remained classified, at least for a time, not because of some abstract Weberian tendency to hoard information, but because of an explicit calculation by the FBI of its own political self-interest: "It is believed that disclosure of existence of [Venona] information at this time would probably place the Bureau right in the middle of a violent political war. This is an election year  and the Republicans would undoubtedly use disclosure of the [Venona] information to emphasize the degree of infiltration by Communists and Soviet agents into the U.S. Government during the 1940s when the Democrats were in power. At the same time, the Democrats would probably strike back by claiming that the FBI had withheld this information from the proper officials during the Democratic administration and at the same time would salvage what credit they could by claiming that the messages were intercepted and deciphered during the course of their administration and under their guidance. The Bureau would be right in the middle."
- On February 24, the CIA filed papers in federal court officially denying the Federation of American Scientists' request for disclosure of the total intelligence budget appropriation for FY 1999. The case remains pending. One intelligence community official, who is agnostic about budget disclosure, called CIA's position "incoherent," explaining that "If the budget total is sensitive, George [Tenet] should not have disclosed it in 1997 and 1998. If it is not sensitive, he should disclose it in 1999." How to account for DCI Tenet's erratic behavior? "I just think he's getting bad advice."
- Immediately after Seymour Hersh reported in 1974 that the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in illegal domestic operations, the number of applications for CIA employment tripled, according to David Atlee Phillips (Careers in Secret Operations: How to be a Federal Intelligence Officer, University Publications of America, 1984, page viii). Nowadays, "We are getting about 500 unsolicited resumes a week," a CIA spokesman told S&GB. "That is in addition to the ones we collect at career fairs and colleges, where we really get our people. The hardest part is sorting the wheat from the wheat germ." The current CIA recruiting drive-- the biggest ever-- was portrayed by Tim Weiner in The New York Times Magazine on January 24.
- The new Congressionally-mandated review plan "to prevent the inadvertent release of Restricted Data" during the declassification process took effect on January 28. At the end of March, the Department of Energy officials will report to Congress on the inadvertent releases that occurred prior to the legislation, sponsored by Senator Jon Kyl last year, that required the new plan. At a recent public meeting, S&GB asked DOE officials how many hundreds of inadvertent releases they expected to report. The answer: Four. Four hundred? No, four. Is it possible to justify the disruption of the entire declassification program and the expenditure of millions of dollars and untold hours of review time by hundreds of reviewers in order to prevent four inadvertent releases out of hundreds of millions of pages? "Well, that's the debate," said one congressional staffer. "Senator Kyl thinks four releases of nuclear weapons information is four too many."
[DOE has subsequently revised its position and now asserts that "hundreds" of inadvertent releases did in fact occur.]
- The Government Secrecy Reform Act was reintroduced in the 106th Congress on January 19 as S.22 by Senators Moynihan, Helms, Lott, Daschle, Thompson, Collins, and Schumer. Some formal changes were made to accommodate White House concerns, but the bill retains a "balancing test" which public interest groups had supported and which the White House opposes. The bill's heavyweight bipartisan sponsorship would seem to work in its favor. With the departure of Rep. Lee Hamilton, a sponsor of the bill in 1997, no counterpart legislation has been introduced in the House.
- In a recent interview in the Argentine magazine VIVA, Chilean writer Isabel Allende recalled attending a 1997 White House state dinner and discussing CIA covert action with First Lady Hillary Clinton. "We spoke about the CIA's intervention in Chile during the Allende government," Allende said. "She was fully informed of everything and did not shrink from my questions" [no le sacó el cuerpo a mis preguntas].
The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.