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Secrecy & Government Bulletin

Issue Number 77
March 1999

U.S. Acknowledges Cold War Covert Actions

The 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 Within days, however, the minutes were withdrawn from public access.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 Unfulfilled

Simple 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 Truman

The 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:


Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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