excerpts from the book

Safe For Democracy

The Secret Wars of the CIA

by John Prados

Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 2006, paperback


Public opinion polls in many countries today portray the United States as the greatest threat to world peace on the globe, worse than terrorism or any other nation. This is an unfamiliar role for a country that has consciously articulated - and advanced - over many decades the notion that democratic values are the solution for many of the world's ills. How strange it is that Americans, fond of the vision of the nation's exceptionalism ... should find themselves an object of the world's fears.

In the sixty years since the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], presidents have continually harnessed the agency in service of their foreign policy goals. Three decades ago the "problem" of the CIA appeared to be the agency's status as a "rogue elephant"-unsupervised, tearing about the globe, acting at whim. By now it is evident that the agency and its cohorts were in fact responding to presidential orders.

... Perhaps the problem is more one of the "rogue" president than it is about an tout-of-control Central Intelligence Agency.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff define a "covert operation" as one planned or conducted so as to conceal the identity of the sponsor or permit a denial of involvement. To that category the U.S. military adds the "clandestine operation," defined as one in which emphasis "is placed on concealment of the operation rather than on concealment of the identity the sponsor."

American undercover actions have resulted in upheavals and untold suffering in many nations while contributing little to Washington's quest for democracy.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not quite kill Cheddi Jagan but did its best to put him out of business. Jagan, the prime minister of British Guiana, headed for independence as the nation of Guyana, had raised hackles in Washington. The CIA had orders to get rid of him.

U.S. officials used the [1962] Georgetown [Guyana] riots as an excuse to write off Cheddi Jagan. On February 19, with smoke still rising from the ruins in Georgetown, [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk sent a strong demarche to the British foreign secretary [Lord Alec Home] declaring it "mandatory" that "we concert on remedial steps." Rusk thundered, "I must tell you now that I have reached the conclusion that it is not possible for us to put up with an independent British Guiana under Jagan." Rusk saw the Guyanese leader as espousing a "Marxist-Leninist policy" paralleling Castro's. Ominously, Rusk ended, "It seems to me clear that new elections should now be scheduled, and I hope we can agree that Jagan should not be allowed to accede to power again."

The agency [CIA} had longstanding ties to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), had played a central role in the 1949 creation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the Inter-American Regional Labor Organization (Organización regional interAmericano de trajabadores or ORIT) in 1951, and the AFL's American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD.

The December elections [in Guyana] did not turn out as advertised. Cheddi Jagan won 47 percent of the vote, more than either the Americans or the British expected. Burnham trailed by almost thirteen thousand votes in spite of overseas ballots overwhelmingly favoring him. But because Jagan did not obtain an outright majority, a coalition would have to follow. The British governor simply refused Jagan the opportunity to put one together. A CIA officer elsewhere in South America noted in his diary on December 18, "a new victory for the station in British Guiana ... largely due to CIA operations over the last five years to strengthen the anti-Jagan trade unions."

The British turned to Forbes Burnham to form the government. Bumham went on to rule like a dictator until he died in office, as racist and imperious as many had feared. Guyana's export industries of sugar, rice, and bauxite atrophied. By 1984 the wheel had come full circle and Burnham publicly accused Washington of trying to undermine his government by encouraging striking bauxite workers-shades of the CIA in 1963. Guyana did not have another free election until 1992. When it did, the nation elected Cheddi Jagan... Ironically Cheddi Jagan would die in Washington, at Walter Reed Army Hospital in 1997, while still in office. Arthur Schlesinger said in retrospect, "We misunderstood the whole struggle down there. He wasn't a Communist. The British thought we were overreacting and indeed we were. The CIA decided that this was some great menace, and they got the bit between their teeth. But even if British Guiana had gone Communist, it's hard to see how it would be a threat."

Since 1947, American secret wars have been carried out on almost every continent. These covert operations have involved tens of thousands of dead and wounded, thousands of native fighters, significant numbers of American clandestine agents, and even regular U.S. military forces. U.S. involvement has run the gamut from advice to arms, from support for invasions of independent nations to secret bombing in clandestine military operations; to the subsidizing of political parties, associations, or individuals; to the planting of misinformation by clandestine means. The techniques for international coercion are not new, nor were they first developed by the United States. But American participation in World War II opened many eyes in Washington to the potential of special operations and provided a nucleus of personnel well versed in clandestine methods. The Cold War became the catalyst that brought methods and men together on missions that have been sometimes spectacular, often unfortunate, and occasionally surprising.

The Iran problem arose from oil, though it had a Cold War overlay, specifically from British interest in Iranian oil. The CIA covert action represented the end result of an Anglo-Iranian oil crisis that had endured for two bitter years, drawing in the British government, the Royal Navy, the SIS, and then the United States. Great Britain had total control over the pumping, refining, and shipping of oil in southern Iran through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Under an agreement to expire in 1993, AIOC paid Iran rents and taxes plus salaries for Iranian employees. The money accounted for half of Iran's budget, but in fact AIOC paid more taxes to the British government than to the nation whose oil it pumped, and AIOC itself earned ten times what it paid Iran. Sure of their position, the British offered only cosmetic changes in a supplement to the agreement when it came up for renegotiation. Tensions heightened when the United States signed its own agreement with neighboring Saudi Arabia that recognized Saudi ownership of the oil and the corporation.

... While the Truman administration remained in office, official U.S. policy favored an amicable resolution of the AIOC matter.

... Allen Dulles's era began when he took an oath of office on February 23, 1953. Another SIS delegation, this one headed by British intelligence chief Sir John Sinclair, was in Washington at the time, its mission to plan a joint Iran operation. Allen Dulles had headed the Near East Division during his time at the State Department, and Sullivan & Cromwell represented AIOC's parent firm in the United States. Although he maintained a casual and noncommittal posture to the British, Dulles favored the idea of a joint operation [Operation Ajax].

... the CIA station in Teheran had reported inquiries from a senior Iranian general as to whether the United States might support a coup d'etat against Prime Minister Mossadegh.

... On April 4 Allen Dulles approved a $1 million fund that the Teheran station could use to weaken Mossadegh.

... Project Ajax envisioned a "quasi-legal overthrow" in which the CIA would manipulate public opinion into opposition and suborn members of the armed forces, the Majlis, religious figures, and businessmen. To induce the shah to dismiss Mossadegh, a series of emissaries would proceed to Teheran to persuade him to issue the appropriate decree, called a firman. At that point the agency would put crowds into the street to back up the shah's action and further pressure any wavering members of the Majlis.

... Compared to the protracted period of planning approval, Ajax's execution took place quickly. It was the struggle for control of the armed forces and police, together amounting to some 250,000 Iranians, that triggered the actual Iranian coup. In the spring of 1953 Mossadegh assumed the position of defense minister in his own cabinet and moved to supplant the shah as commander-in-chief. He appointed his own people to head the police and as chief of staff of the army. Quite likely these actions steeled the shah, who had failed to act decisively throughout the AIOC crisis, in his determination to rid himself of Mossadegh. In this case the Majlis refused Mossadegh's request for extended powers, leading the premier to dissolve parliament on July 19. A few days later major street demonstrations occurred in Teheran.

... Full-scale rioting broke out in Teheran on August 18 and 19. Several hundred people died in the violence. A friendly newspaper published the text of the shah's firman appointing Zahedi. Late on the 18th a CIA headquarters dispatch actually called off Ajax, and the SIS dispatched a similar instruction. But the tide had already begun to turn. Roosevelt got the Rashidian brothers and other agents to mobilize mobs in the streets while Iranians and CIA officers contacted army units throughout Iran to rally them to Zahedi. On the second day pro-shah tank units, informed by reporter Kennett Love of weak guard forces at the premier's house, attacked Mossadegh's residence. That morning Chief of Staff Riahi reluctantly informed Mossadegh he no longer controlled the army, and in fact pro-shah troops began to appear all over Teheran. Throughout the afternoon the CIA-backed forces consolidated their hold on the city. The shah returned from Italy and paraded in triumph through the streets of Teheran.

So ended Project Ajax, the first apparent U.S. covert victory.

... The big winners were the shah and his henchmen, who gained absolute power, which they held for twenty-six years until swept away by a religious conservatism even more potent than the populism of Mossadegh. The United States, by participating in the coup, broke with its own tradition-and its declaratory policy-of unconditional support for democracy around the globe. Through support of the shah, the United States also committed itself irrevocably to his regime in a way that blinded Washington later when it should have recognized rising opposition... The losers were the Iranian people; Mohammad Mossadegh, who was eventually captured and placed on trial.

The government in Guatemala, of a social democratic bent, had been elected Fin November 1950 with more than half the vote in a free election. President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman thereafter acquired even greater popularity. Peasants fully supported his ardent efforts to reform Guatemala's agriculture and economy.

... United Fruit, the largest landowner in Guatemala, owned some 550,000 acres plus a controlling share of the country's only railroad. La frutera, as it was known, trembled at the Guatemalan government's land redistribution program. Beginning in February 1953 Arbenz expropriated almost 400,000 acres of land to parcel out to peasants. The Guatemalans offered compensation - twenty-five-year bonds at 3 percent guaranteed interest for the exact book value of the assets la frutera claimed for tax purposes. United Fruit rejected this settlement out of hand and ... went to its home government for relief.

The lawyer Thomas G. Corcoran had been a lobbyist for Civil Air Transport and also for United Fruit. Tommy "The Cork" acted as intermediary now, selling Ia frutera's scheme to the CIA. He met with Undersecretary Walter Bedell Smith that summer. Smith already knew of CIA's efforts and had no difficulty hearing out the lobbyist. A key difference would be that United Fruit, a principal purveyor of the charge that Jacobo Arbenz Guzman constituted a Communist threat to the Americas, and a participant in earlier plots, this time wanted nothing to do with the action itself.

Allen Dulles became the executive agent for Project PB/Success. He kept in close touch with the planning through personal assistants. Jim Hunt was Dulles's man for field operations, much as Tom Braden had been for international organizations. By the fall, definite action impended. The plan for Success, embodied in a September 11 paper, went right to Director Dulles. Based on the premise that the Guatemalan army, a poorly trained, indifferently equipped force of few, tin seven thousand troops, functioned as arbiter of the country's politics. [Project] Success aimed to inundate Guatemala with propaganda undermining loyalty to President Arbenz. At the same time the CIA would provide its own alternative, an ostensibly independent force under a former army officer, Col. Carlos Castillo-Armas. A CIA air force would bomb as necessary and drop leaflets while a CIA radio station purporting to be the voice of the rebels would convey the impression the movement had mass support. The concept envisioned the army defecting to Castillo-Armas as his rebel force entered Guatemala. In effect, the DO paper argued, "the task headed by the CIA calls for a general, over-all plan of combined overt and covert action of major proportions."

... In the Cold War vision of a two-camp world, there was little room for indigenous nationalisms. Not only did the United States act readily against nations like Iran and Guatemala, those ventures were initiated regardless of the countries' efforts to maintain friendly relations with the United States. The CIA operations made a mockery of the oft-reiterated American principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of states.

The Central Intelligence Agency, unleashed in the name of democracy - democracy as defined by American foreign policy, which came to mean governments that assumed pro-American stances-actually encouraged the opposite. No elections occurred in Iran between the 1953 CIA operation and 1960; thereafter parliament existed at the pleasure of the shah. In Guatemala after 1954 the republic was abolished. A new constitution was adopted only in 1965, but that was soon suspended by military rulers. In fact the excesses of the ruling oligarchy became such that the United States itself, under the Carter administration, finally halted virtually all foreign aid to the country. Over the long haul the covert actions did not produce the results advertised.

In both Iran and Guatemala the United States received credit from world public opinion for creating dictatorships, not democracies.

Dwight Eisenhower, a general with broad military experience, seemed better equipped than Harry Truman to judge the feasibility of covert action. As president he accepted the Cold War rationale, encouraging covert operations as an integral part of the conflict, even as he managed intelligence better than many presidents before him and since. The record shows President Eisenhower intimately involved in the secret war.

President Eisenhower began his quest for a new system for covert action during the heady days of 1954 when [Project] Ajax [Iran] shone as the CIA's crowning achievement. Ike wanted to replace Truman's top-secret NSC order which prescribed the procedure for approval. Truman's 10/5 panel, the Psychological Strategy Board, had endorsed covert operations informally, but the Truman directive merely gave the group authority to regulate the Office of Policy Coordination. Eisenhower abolished the PSB in the summer of 1953, making the Truman directive obsolete. With the OPC merged into the CIA's Directorate for Operations, the Iran and Guatemala covert operations were approved in ad hoc fashion. Eisenhower's new order, signed on March 15, 1954, and numbered NSC-5412, brought the system into sync with the new structure. In his directive, Ike for the first time gave formal powers to his management mechanism for secret wars.

... Eisenhower's commitment to the Cold War is clearly demonstrated in NSC5412/2. The directive provided the secret warriors with the broadest possible charter, the breadth of which is still worth quoting in its entirety:

3. The NSC has determined that such covert operations shall to the greatest extent practicable, in the light of U.S. and Soviet capabilities and taking into account the risk of war, be designed to:

a. Create and exploit troublesome problems for International Communism, impair relations between the USSR and Communist China and between them and their satellites, complicate control within the USSR, Communist China and their satellites, and retard the growth of the military and economic potential of the Soviet bloc.

b. Discredit the prestige and ideology of International Communism, and reduce the strength of its parties and other elements.

c. Counter any threat of a party or individuals directly or indirectly responsive to Communist control to achieve dominant power in a free world country.

d. Reduce International Communist control over any areas of the world.

e. Strengthen the orientation toward the United States of the peoples and nations of the free world, accentuate, wherever possible, the identity of interest between such peoples and nations and the United States as well as favoring, where appropriate, those groups genuinely advocating or believing in the advancement of such mutual interests, and increase the capacity and will of such peoples and nations to resist International Communism.

f. In accordance with established policies and to the extent practicable in areas dominated or threatened by International Communism, develop underground resistance and facilitate covert and guerrilla operations and ensure availability of those forces in the event of war, including wherever practicable provision of a base upon which the military may expand these forces in time of war within active theaters of operations as well as provide for stay behind assets and escape and evasion facilities.

The secret warriors [CIA] marched on, led by their president {Eisenhower], insulated from outside the country, ordered to stir up trouble for the enemy - a Cold War agency with a mission.

... Eisenhower worried about controlling the secret warriors but pursued his Cold War with gusto. The very rush of events made it difficult to go back over old ground. The 5412 Group provided semi-annual presentations of the covert program, but it remained impossible to exercise constant control. Initiative became crucial to protecting the president's interests. Like many bureaucracies, however, 5412 reacted to recommendations rather than exerted positive leadership. The real initiative lay in the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency, which, in fulfillment of the 5412/2 objectives, launched more covert ventures around the world.

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick (Ronald Reagan's U.N. ambassador) [in an] article in the magazine Commentary in November 1979. In "Dictatorships and Double Standards", [Jeanne] Kirkpatrick argued that there was a difference between dictators of the left and the right... According to Kirkpatrick's reading of history, right-wing dictators are more respecting of human rights, do not create refugees, merely tolerate (rather than cause) social inequities, are more amenable to liberalization, and, of course, are more friendly to the United States.

The CIA answered to the president. Throughout the Cold War it had been the president's tool for international manipulation. This could only continue, due to the fact that Congress, by failing to pass an intelligence charter during the 1970s, had left existing ambiguities untouched. At no time since has there been sufficient unity of view, or a veto-proof majority of any political party, capable of imposing regimentation on the system.

Nor did every, or even most, legislators want control of intelligence. Many recognized that Congress had too many chiefs and lacked ability to sustain attention; it had not the necessary knowledge of programs, missions, and players. Its members might trip over important values. Many saw Congress as a partner with the executive in managing intelligence, with oversight the tool. None of this mattered. Presidents viewed every success of the overseers as diluting their authority. Tensions inherent to the system could be viewed as constitutional checks and balances except that the playing field, never level, awarded all advantage to the executive.

America's most valuable resource is the image and texture of its democracy, its example to the world. The worst aspect of covert political action is that the tool is a clear contradiction of democratic values. Manipulation of peoples anywhere runs directly counter to these professed values.

The Central Intelligence Agency exists to serve the president. There would be no paramilitary actions except for presidential desires.

Covert action has never been under complete presidential control, even as presidents have total authority to order it. The continuing problem with this authority is that its legal basis rests entirely upon the "such other functions" clause of the 1947 National Security Act. But the legislative history of the act shows that Congress never intended to sanction covert action with that language, and there are several occasions when the CIA's general counsel concluded that paramilitary action was not within its scope. If presidents instead rely on their authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the problem is that the CIA is not an "armed force." If it were, the president would then have to comply with the 1973 War Powers Act for a covert operation. Moreover, if the CIA is to be considered an unofficial armed force, the Constitution (Article I, Section 8) expressly reserves to Congress, not the president, the right to give letters of marque, the eighteenth-century equivalent of grants of combatant status-in other words, presidential findings. Legislation that regulates findings cannot supersede the Constitution.

This legal conundrum would be eliminated if there were a detailed charter specifying missions and methods for the intelligence agencies, but initiatives for charter reform were defeated by the Carter administration in 1978 and 1980. Presidents as politically diverse as Eisenhower and Carter have consistently opposed this intelligence reform. The device of issuing executive orders on intelligence is precisely aimed at avoiding charter law. Nothing in the last two decades has altered this constitutional issue. It is time to end the presidential free ride on covert action.

former CIA director John Deutch

It is one matter to adopt a foreign policy that encourages democratic values; it is quite another to believe it just or practical to achieve such results on the ground with military forces .... But the notion of intervening in foreign countries to build a society of our preference is not just a Republican or conservative failing. The corresponding Democratic or liberal failing is the view that America has a duty to intervene in foreign countries that egregiously violate human rights and a responsibility to oppose and, where possible, remove totalitarian heads of state.

The system of congressional oversight of intelligence operations persists on the surface. But both the president and the CIA continue to resist full and frank reporting, the very reforms supposedly initiated in the wake of Iran-Contra.

Americans are doubtful of the propriety or effectiveness of intervention, and, schooled by the tragedies of Vietnam and Iraq - are suspicious of motive. Claims to act in support of democracy have cloaked a host of dubious schemes, and covert action has been a major avenue for the execution of such intrigues. A conflict remains between ends and means, with covert action an especially sensitive technique when employed in the quest for democracy.... What Americans accepted yesterday they may not today, or tomorrow.

CIA watch

Home Page