A recent National Archives response to a 2004 mandatory declassification review (MDR) request shows that much is wrong with the declassification process at the Pentagon. The MDR request was for file 471.6 (29 Aug 61), held in the records of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. According to the old War Department decimal file system, as modified during the Cold War, 471.6 is a file about nuclear missile systems. After a ten-year wait for a response to the MDR request (itself a problem!), the file was reviewed by a variety of civilian and military organizations and finally opened up.
A review of the opened file at the National Archives in College Park showed that some of its contents were heavily excised despite their historic age…and previous declassification and publication. A long memorandum from McNamara to President Kennedy dated 23 September 1961 on “Recommended Long-Range Nuclear Delivery Forces, 1963-1967” was massively excised when the Office of Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff redacted nearly 20 entire pages of text. Another document in the file was a memorandum from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer to Secretary McNamara, with the same title, dated 17 November 1961. From this item, the Joint Staff withheld two paragraphs in their entirety.
Yet both documents, especially the McNamara memorandum, will be familiar to some readers because they were published in full or nearly in full nearly twenty years ago, in 1996. They appeared in the State Department’s historical series Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume VIII National Security Policy (documents 46 and 54). Moreover, years before its appearance in the FRUS publication, the Defense Department declassified the McNamara memorandum in response to a FOIA request. That earlier release has a few details that were excised in the FRUS version and vice versa, but both were substantially declassified. That makes it instructive to make a side-by-side comparison of the FOIA release, with the version released at the National Archives.
These documents, especially the McNamara memorandum, are historically important. McNamara sent his long memorandum to President Kennedy at a crucial moment in the history of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War nuclear arms race. Even though the U.S. government had just learned from CORONA spy satellite photography that the Soviet Union had only a handful of nuclear-tipped ICBMs (compared to over 160 on the US side), McNamara endorsed the continued build-up of Minuteman ICBMs and Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Although he argued against a “full first strike capability,” because it would “risk the provocation of an arms race,” the very decision described here meant that the Kennedy administration was engaging in a one-sided arms race in which the Soviet Union would eventually decide to participate massively. It was the recommendations in this document, among others, that McNamara would deeply regret many years later.
Their publicly available status notwithstanding, Department of Defense reviewers (ostensibly with NARA supervision at the National Declassification Center) treated the McNamara and the Lemnitzer memos as if they had never been declassified before and cited 6 different exemptions from Executive Order 13526 to justify the excisions. The exemptions include: (b) (2) weapons of mass destruction, (b) (4) state of the art weapons technologies, (b) (5) war plans in effect, (b) (6) foreign relations, and (b) (8) national emergency preparedness plans, as well as statutory exemptions (Atomic Energy Act). For example, under the (b) (6) exemption, information was withheld that could impair ongoing diplomatic relations with another country. That would make it sound as if the declassification of these documents would be a seriously damaging transgression, yet declassification reviewers during the 1990s and even earlier did not see any such risks to U.S. national security or foreign relations. How could, as DoD declassifiers claim, the release of information about Soviet military installations targeted for destruction impair foreign relations with a country that no longer exists? In any event, the record of declassified evidence on Cold War military targeting continues to pile up and could not possibly damage relations with the successor governments to the Soviet Union.
This preposterous situation raises questions about the quality of the declassification review conducted by DOD reviewers of documents held by the National Archives. For example, what kind of guidance was the reviewer following? One possibility is improper application of declassification guidance (whatever it may be). Another, greater, possibility is that the guidance is so loose that overzealous reviewers can find anything to be properly classified. One more, most likely, possibility is that declassification guidance since the 1990s, has become unreasonably exacting and what could be routinely declassified then is now regarded as properly classified. There may be other explanations, but what happened cannot produce confidence in the DOD’s declassification process, and NARA’s approval of it. Indeed, the massive redactions are classic examples of all-too-often knee-jerk reactions by DOD reviewers against declassifying any substantive nuclear information.
These redactions also raise the question of whether or not reviewers of historical documents consult the FRUS? And if they don’t, why not? And if they did consult the FRUS, what was the point of the excisions? Plainly, declassification reviewers cannot know everything that has been declassified, but when they are reviewing historical records they ought to consult the FRUS. It is, of course, possible that they did and decided they disagreed with the decision taken in the 1990s and made a futile protest by excising the document. But the reviewers should be aware that no matter how sensitive these documents were during the Cold War, the same or similar information on U.S. nuclear delivery systems and their targets during the early 1960s has been declassified in a variety of places by the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Department over the years.
This is not a particularly extreme case; examples from the recent past suggest that over-classification is a characteristic of the Pentagon secrecy system. Yet it is difficult to know what can be done to fix that problem. A few years ago, the Department’s Inspector General’s Office conducted a study of over-classification but it eschewed a close look at declassification outcomes and instead focused on small bore issues. But even a hard-hitting IG report might not have enough traction to spur reform of the Pentagon’s entrenched secrecy culture. Congress could help by imposing legislative requirements, such as the proposal to codify Attorney General Holder’s 2009 memorandum to the agencies. A sensible reform would be to empower the National Archives to oversee agencies’ review processes of historic documents, and ensure that declassification decisions do not fail the “laugh test;” that, however, the Pentagon (not to mention other agencies) would probably resist. In all likelihood, more declassification travesties will occur before such reforms take place.
Movement on FOIA Improvement Act, US Ramping up National Security Reviews of Chinese Investments, US Ratification of Treaty Banning Torture Leaves Open Possible Loopholes, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 11/13/2014
Exciting news regarding the FOIA Improvement Act this week, as Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) office recently announced that the Senate Judiciary will vote on the bill next week. A statement issued by Leahy’s office says, “I have worked with Senator Cornyn for months on the FOIA Improvement Act. It has broad bipartisan support, including the support of Ranking Member Grassley. Because of scheduling challenges in the Senate this Thursday, we are likely to hold the Committee markup off the floor this week. This FOIA bill should be debated in full public view, and so we will hold over our legislation this week so all members and the public can participate in this important debate. I expect the Judiciary Committee will approve our bipartisan legislation next week when the Committee meets at its regularly-scheduled time.” The Archive looks forward to the Judiciary vote next week, and thanks the Senators for continuing to support such an important piece of bipartisan (and bicameral) legislation.
Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson for the D.C. Circuit ordered the Obama administration and the multi-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is responsible for vetting foreign companies’ purchase of American ones, to explain why it denied a Chinese firm’s bid to purchase several Oregon wind farms. The ruling comes two years after Obama voided the initial sale on national security grounds “after the Navy objected that power windmills … would interfere with its test flights for drones and bomber squadrons at a naval site in northern Oregon.” An appeals court later ruled the action had violated the Chinese company’s constitutional due process rights.
CFIUS is also expected to investigate a Chinese insurance company’s planned purchase of New York City’s legendary Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which routinely serves as a “home-away-from-home for presidents visiting New York.” The CFIUS noted in its last annual report to Congress in 2012 that “China surpassed Great Britain for the first time as the country with the most foreign investments subject to national security review.”
Obama administration delegates met with the UN committee that monitors international compliance with a treaty banning cruel treatment of prisoners this week. The Obama administration pivoted away from the Bush-era DOJ interpretation of the treaty that argued the treaty’s obligations do not apply to US actions abroad and that the US is not obligated “to bar cruelty outside its borders.” Instead, the Obama administration took the position that the treaty applies to anywhere the US exercises governmental authority. This, however, still appears to exclude “black site” prisons and American military detention centers that exist “on the sovereign territory of other governments.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release the executive summary of its scathing report on the CIA’s torture program this month. While this is not the first time the Committee has announced its plans to release the summary, it’s likely Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wants to declassify it while she maintains the committee chair. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), who is poised replace Feinstein in the new congressional session and has an ACLU score of 0%, commented after Senator Feinstein’s blistering Senate-floor attack on the CIA’s spying on committee staff while it completed its report this March that, “I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly.”
U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled last week that the military does not need to modify the way it force-feeds Guantanamo detainee Abi Wa’el Dhiab. Dhiab is appealing the ruling, arguing that the military’s techniques are torturous. It is unclear what role the 28 videos showing Dhiab being force-fed, which Kessler ordered be released in October, had on her ruling, or if they were released at all.
A recent New York Times editorial chided the Obama administration for continuing its failed efforts to promote regime change in Cuba – efforts that have cost $264 million over the last 18 years. Two such campaigns include the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) plan to employ Costa Rican, Peruvian, and Venezuelan youths to participate in Cuban HIV prevention programs (called the “perfect excuse” to recruit political activists) as a cover for US-sponsored anti-Cuban activism that was revealed in an August 4, 2014, Associated Press story, and the USAID’s sham “Cuban Twitter” account intended to stir political unrest in the communist country, a plan that Senate Judiciary Committee chair Senator Patrick Leahy called cockamamie and said had not been described adequately to Congress after the story broke this April.
Loretta Lynch, reportedly Obama’s candidate for replacing Attorney General Eric Holder, has “little to no” background in national security law. It’s an interesting choice considering Holder’s tenure was rife with national security debates, including targeted drone killing of American citizens, the legal obstacles surrounding closing Guantanamo, and defending the legality of the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance of American citizens.
History professor Beverly Gage recently uncovered an uncensored letter from an unnamed author, later revealed to be FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, to Martin Luther King, Jr. “tucked away in a reprocessed set of his official and confidential files at the National Archives.” The letter, previously only available in heavily redacted form, is commonly referred to as the “suicide letter” for its vague warning that King should kill himself. The uncensored version contains “explicit allegations about King’s sex life, rendered in the racially charged language of the Jim Crow era” and “offers a potent warning for readers today about the danger of domestic surveillance in an age with less reserved mass media.”
This week the Archive is proud to announce the publication of two new documents sets through the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) with the help of our partners at ProQuest. Electronic Surveillance and the National Security Agency: From Shamrock to Snowden, represents the most comprehensive collection of leaked and declassified records on the controversial subject of electronic surveillance, and The Kissinger Conversations updates the Archive’s substantial body of documents focusing on Kissinger’s roles in policymaking and diplomacy under presidents Nixon and Ford.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Archive posted a collection of formerly secret documents from Soviet, German, U.S., Czechoslovak and Hungarian files to its website this week. The documents show “the historic events of the night of November 9, 1989, came about from accident and contingency, rather than conspiracy or strategy,” and that the Wall’s actual collapse “began with Hungarian Communist reformers who proposed in early 1989 to open their borders to the West, while seeking particularly West German foreign investment to solve Hungary’s economic crisis. Hungarian Communist leaders checked in with Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1989, letting him know they planned to take down the barbed wire; and Gorbachev — true to his ‘common European home’ rhetoric — responded only that ‘we have a strict regime on our borders, but we are also becoming more open.’ The Hungarian decision sparked a stream and then a flood of East German refugees.”
This week’s #tbt document pick is chosen with Hoover’s hatred of MLK in mind, and highlights brothers Morris and Jack Childs, together codenamed SOLO, who were the “FBI’s most valued secret agents of the Cold War.” This week’s pick is the SOLO file, nearly 7,000 pages cataloging the Childs brothers’ reports to J. Edgar Hoover dating back to 1958, which include “the origins of Hoover’s hatred for Martin Luther King, some convincing reasons for Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to hold off on the CIA’s plans to invade Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and the beginnings of Richard Nixon’s thoughts about a détente with the Soviets.”
The Kissinger Conversations: New Compilation to Update Archive’s Substantial Collection of Kissinger Documents
On November 12, 2014, the National Security Archive will publish a new compilation of documents on Henry Kissinger, the larger-than-life statesman who remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of modern U.S. foreign relations and whose tenure as national security advisor and secretary of state continues to be seen as a defining moment for America’s global position. The collection is being published through the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) with the help of our partners at ProQuest.
The new collection, The Kissinger Conversations, Supplement: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1977, totals more than 600 documents and updates the National Security Archive’s substantial body of documents focusing on Kissinger’s roles in policymaking and diplomacy under presidents Nixon and Ford.
The collection includes freshly declassified memoranda of telephone conversation (telcons) and memoranda of conversations (memcons) of National Security Council and State Department meetings and overseas trips. Most of the telcons and many of the memcons were declassified at the specific request of the National Security Archive, which has earned far-reaching praise for its work on the Kissinger period. A substantial number of the telcons from the Ford administration are the result of a Freedom of Information appeal filed in 2007 (over 600 more remain to be released). The topics discussed in the documents cover a wide range of Nixon and Ford administration concerns, including the Vietnam War and related military actions in Laos and Cambodia; Middle East peace talks; conflicts in Jordan, Cyprus, and Angola; the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks; international terrorism; and U.S. government surveillance of American citizens. Other topics include economic warfare against Chile during the Allende years; Kissinger’s trips to Latin America; and the 1971 South Asia crisis.
Some of the telcons from 1976 stem from Kissinger’s search for legal advice against a lawsuit filed by former NSC staffer Morton Halperin who had been wiretapped on Kissinger’s instructions. The nearly verbatim nature of Kissinger’s telephone conversations and meetings provides unparalleled insights into the U.S. policy process, notably presidential decision-making, and the extensive interaction between Kissinger and his high-level interlocutors make the memcons a critically important source not only for the study of U.S. diplomatic and military history but also for other fields of history and the social sciences, including:
- Wars in Indochina: not only Vietnam, but also Laos and Cambodia, and the White House’s role in managing United States military operations in these countries, including the final stages of these conflicts
- U.S.-Soviet détente and Kissinger’s conduct of “back channel” diplomacy with the Soviet leadership
- U.S.-China rapprochement and attempts to normalize diplomatic relations
- developments in South Asia, including the 1971 India-Pakistan war and the Nixon/Kissinger tilt to Pakistan during that crisis
- the Middle East, including U.S. conduct during the 1973 October War and Kissinger’s role in shuttle diplomacy during 1974-1975
- revolutions in Portugal and its colonies and U.S. policy toward the ensuing political crisis in Portugal and the civil war in Angola
- Latin America, including Kissinger’s meetings with regional leaders during 1976 visits
- U.S.-European relations, including policy coordination and consultations on a variety of “hot spots” and “hot issues,” including the rise of Euro-Communism
- the 1974 Cyprus crisis and U.S. relations with Greece and Turkey
- international economic, energy, and raw materials policies
The Archive has previously published two massive collections documenting Kissinger’s interaction with foreign leaders and diplomats as well as U.S. government officials. The Kissinger Transcripts: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1976 includes 2,163 transcripts of Kissinger’s meetings and The Kissinger Telephone Conversations: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1977 comprises 15,502 detailed records of his telephone conversations. These two collections represent an invaluable source for research on U.S. diplomatic and military history during the late 1960s and the 1970s.
The CIA’s Plan to Destroy its Email Records, Judge Scolds Govt. for Redacting Portions of Drone Doc Containing “Not a Whit of Classified Material,” and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 11/6/2014
The National Security Archive joined 16 other groups this week in asking the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to deny the CIA’s request for increased authority to destroy its email records. Steven Aftergood first reported the CIA proposal, and NARA’s tentative agreement, to allow the agency the authority to destroy all emails sent by non-senior officials at the agency this October. The proposal, now open for public comment, was announced in the Federal Register on September 17 — just one day before the agency posted a trove of articles to its website only after a District Court judge admonished it for erecting needless and lengthy hurdles to its electronic records. The Archive and its colleagues ask NARA to postpone a final decision on the CIA’s request until, at the very least, NARA reviews a sample of CIA emails to ensure that no unique, historically valuable material will be destroyed; the CIA finally answers NARA’s requests to account for its 2005 destruction of videotapes showing waterboarding and other torture methods, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence publishes the Executive Summary of its study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
The Southern District Court of New York reached a partial decision in a pair of concurrent FOIA lawsuits for government documents on drone killings this week, and ordered a set of legal opinions from the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel to be released (the remaining documents will be ruled on later). Presiding Judge Colleen McMahon said in a memo accompanying the order “I disagree with the Government’s redaction of the bulk of the first full paragraph and the second and third paragraphs on page 9, which as drafted by this court contain not a whit of classified material (the Government does not suggest otherwise), and which I do not believe would tend to reveal any classified information.”
Jason Leopold has posted a new batch of FBI documents on Samir Khan, the North Carolina man killed in the same 2011 CIA drone strike that killed U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, to his new FOIA blog for Vice News, Primary Sources. One document detailing the bureau’s Charlotte field office request to monitor Kahn via Closed Circuit Television from a location where “there would not be a reasonable expectation of privacy” argues that because the monitoring would be done in public and “because Khan was the subject of a criminal investigation ‘the provisions of the Attorney General’s Guidelines for Foreign Intelligence and Foreign Counterintelligence investigations do not apply,’” and the FBI therefore wouldn’t need a warrant from a surveillance court to monitor Khan. The 250 pages of heavily redacted documents further “reveal that the bureau had grown increasingly concerned over Khan’s anti-American screeds posted to his blog and determined he was a serious threat.” The FBI withheld the remaining 700 pages on the grounds that their release would harm national security.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is reporting, in a move some advocates call religious profiling, that Muslim communities nationwide are facing increased pressure by the FBI to produce informants to help the law enforcement agency fight Islamic extremism. While an FBI spokesperson says the bureau is operating under standard procedure, attorney Jennifer Wicks with CAIR’s civil rights department counters “the FBI’s over-broad and coercive use of informants in mosques, reports of outreach meetings being used for intelligence gathering and other acts of abuse demonstrate that community leaders should engage legal professionals to ensure the protection of their rights and those of their congregations.”
Facebook’s latest transparency report reveals government requests worldwide for the site’s user data increased 24% in the last six months, with U.S. government requests accounting for nearly half. The company reported it complied with 80% of requests for user information.
In the wake of former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette’s publication of his book of the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, “No Easy Day,” which is still being investigated for its possible disclosure of classified material, the SEALs are warning its members “not to disclose classified information for publicity or cash.” Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently “scolded” Bissonnette for publishing his account of the raid, even though while he was CIA director Panetta gave his “full approval/support” to granting Hollywood filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal extensive access to CIA files and personnel for their film on the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, despite the fact most of these files remain classified and shielded from the public.
U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Ted Branch, head of Naval intelligence, hasn’t been allowed to view classified information for over a year in connection to bribery scandal concerning the contracting firm Glenn Defense Marine Asia. This means that Branch cannot attend intelligence briefs, that he must leave the room if classified intelligence is discussed, and that subordinates’ offices must be scrubbed of classified material before he visits. According to Defense News, “In the year since, no charges have been filed and there is no sense of when they might be, leaving the Navy in an untenable situation.”
The DOD has been forced to scale back its plans to assemble an overseas spy agency, the Defense Clandestine Service, initially intended to rival the CIA. Plans for the service “called for moving as many as 1,000 undercover case officers overseas to work alongside the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command on counterterrorism missions and other targets of broad national security concern.” That number has been cut to 500 after opposition from lawmakers who found such a large program uneconomical and unnecessary.
In a recent posting for Unredacted, Archive Deputy Director Malcolm Byrne addresses one of the lingering mysteries from the Iran-Contra scandal: who leaked the original story of the Reagan administration’s secret negotiations with Iran over the fate of American hostages being held by forces in Lebanon? In the posting Byrne debunks a recently declassified CIA Studies in Intelligence article that theorized the Syrian regime was responsible for the leaks.
This week’s #tbt document pick is chosen to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which the CIA helped fund as part of its anti-Communist propaganda campaign. Specifically, this week’s #tbt pick is a CIA article excerpted from a larger classified draft study that documents the agency’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, which, along with helping fund Animal Farm, tried to advance American ideology abroad during the 1950s by funding artistic endeavors, including Britain’s Encounter magazine, the Paris Review, and spending millions to subsidize NYC’s abstract expressionist movement.
Archive’s Upcoming Document Collection the Most Comprehensive Available on Electronic Surveillance and the National Security Agency
At the cost of $50 billion annually, U.S. intelligence activities, both domestically and internationally, have significant implications for national security, foreign relations, and civil liberties. In an attempt to help the public better assess these implications, on November 12, 2014, the National Security Archive and our partners at ProQuest will publish Electronic Surveillance and the National Security Agency: From Shamrock to Snowden, the seminal collection of leaked and declassified records documenting U.S. and allied electronic surveillance policies, relationships, and activities.
The collection of nearly 1,000 documents, compiled by Archivist Jeffrey T. Richelson and to be made available through the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA), serves as an addition to several National Security Archive documents sets – including those on U.S. Intelligence and the National Security Agency (NSA) – and represents the most comprehensive collection of materials publicly available on the controversial subject of electronic surveillance.
The vast majority of the collection focuses on records related to the classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden to a handful of journalists and that were ultimately published by, primarily, the Intercept, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel. Every effort has been made to locate and include each posted Snowden document in this collection – including those that originated with the NSA, with other U.S. organizations, or with foreign SIGINT agencies. This includes policy and strategy documents, histories, briefings on specific programs, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) orders, and assessments of NSA’s relations with foreign agencies. In addition to leaked materials, the set gathers together the full collection of records periodically declassified by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in response to the fallout from the Snowden revelations.
It is worth noting that the set contains only those leaked documents already posted by the media organizations mentioned above, and it seems clear from the reporting on Snowden’s disclosures that the documents posted represent only a fraction of the number he actually turned over to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. While the total amount of documents leaked by Snowden remains unclear, in August 2014 Snowden revealed to the original NSA chronicler James Bamford that he left the NSA “bread crumbs” that could have helped the agency determine which files he copied, and which he merely “touched,” further arguing that the government’s continued insistence that he copied as many as 1.7 million documents “is a sign that the agency has either purposely inflated the size of his leak or lacks the forensic skills to see the clues he left for its auditors.”
The set also features other reports, statements, and white papers released by the Obama administration. Along with these executive branch documents, a number of congressional materials are included in the set, such as testimony presented at congressional hearings, proposed legislation, and substantive statements from key congressional participants in the controversy. Rounding out this extremely valuable collection are a host of records generated by private lawsuits directed against the NSA’s surveillance programs, as well as communications from telecommunications and internet service provider firms that have become embroiled in the controversy.
One of the key features of the compilation that sets it apart is the fact that it begins during the Cold War – before the advent of cell phones and the Internet. Among the specific subjects covered are two historical programs that involved the early examples of the provision of cable traffic and creation of a watch list, respectively. One – SHAMROCK – dates to 1945, while the other – MINARET – began in 1967. Also, included are a set of documents concerning United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, which covered the ability to collect and retain signals intelligence on American citizens.
Electronic Surveillance also provides valuable new information on one key, often obscured, aspect of foreign relations – the liaison relationships between U.S. intelligence organizations (in this case, the NSA) and their foreign counterparts.
The documents published in this unique collection were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and archival research, from the media publications that posted the Snowden leaks, official releases from the executive branch (including press releases and declassified documents) and Congress (including legislation, member’s press releases, and testimony).
Malcolm Byrne is the author most recently of “Iran-Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power” (U. Press of Kansas, 2014)
Twenty-eight years ago, on November 4, 1986, The New York Times published a story – based largely on a Lebanese press account – that blew the lid off one of the more bizarre U.S. foreign policy initiatives of modern times.[i] The day before, on November 3, a Lebanese magazine had reported that the Ronald Reagan administration had been enmeshed in secret negotiations with Iran over the fate of American hostages being held by forces in Lebanon (see Document 1). What’s more, the administration had reportedly sent an envoy, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, to Tehran for talks. The revelations came as a particular shock to American readers because the State Department had identified Iran as a sponsor of international terrorism and for years the president had emphatically forsworn bargaining with terrorists.
The Lebanese magazine – Ash-Shiraa, not widely known outside the Arab world – broke the story but the Times made it a world headline. Despite a sprinkling of errors in the original account, and notwithstanding administration attempts to deny or deflect it, the basic picture was accurate. Unbeknownst to everyone involved (even the Times did not lead with the McFarlane revelation), it would help spark the biggest U.S. political scandal of the Reagan era – albeit one that has now largely been forgotten almost three decades later.
Most of the important details about the U.S.-Iran arms deals are now known, but a few small mysteries remain. One of them is who leaked the original story.
The Mehdi Hashemi Story
For most of the last 28 years, the general consensus has been that the perpetrators were supporters of a notorious Iranian radical named Mehdi Hashemi. In fact, the Ash-Shiraa article itself describes Hashemi, including his background and politics, in some detail. He was related by marriage to the family of Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the designated heir to supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and enjoyed a degree of support from his revered patron (although Montazeri had at one time denounced the views of his own son with whom Hashemi had been closely tied). By most accounts, Hashemi, who headed an office charged with promoting the Islamic revolution abroad, approached his mission with fanatical zeal and treated anyone not as deeply committed with contempt – including senior officials in the Islamic Republic such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then Speaker of the Parliament and deemed a pragmatist, who turned out to be a central figure in the deals with the United States.
Sometime in the fall of 1986, Iranian authorities arrested Hashemi on several counts including for allegedly shipping weapons to Saudi Arabia during the Hajj. His supporters tried to obtain his freedom, as did Ayatollah Montazeri. They circulated large numbers of leaflets in the capital describing the highly sensitive deals with the Americans, as a way to influence popular opinion against Rafsanjani and others who had presumably ordered Hashemi’s incarceration. There was no way to keep the operation secret for long. In late October, the Americans who took part in the covert initiative were warned by their Iranian counterparts that there would be trouble (see Document 2).
The prediction came true sooner than expected. As the publisher and editor of Ash-Shiraa himself told an Associated Press reporter, just four days before his magazine was due to go to press two Iranians traveled to Beirut to meet with him and to tell him their story in person. Later, other observers reached the conclusion that Hashemi’s supporters had been behind the leak.[ii]
A CIA Theory
But apparently not everyone agreed. In 1989, some three years after the Ash-Shiraa scoop, a CIA employee (presumably, although his/her identity has been excised) wrote an article for a classified in-house agency publication called Studies in Intelligence that reached a very different conclusion (see Document 3). Sometime in 2014 (the declassification stamp reads “Approved for Release” as of July 29, 2014), the CIA released the main contents of the article to the public. Citing what appears to be a single source, although it may be more than one – identifications have been excised – the author advances the theory that the true source of the leak was in fact the Syrian regime.
There are several problems with this admittedly informal analysis produced for the intelligence community as a whole rather than as a formal work-product intended for a confined group of analysts or policy-makers. For one thing, it relies virtually entirely on the account of (apparently) one informant, who in turn seems to have talked to more than one Syrian source, and ignores or minimizes other evidence that was available at the time. For instance, the author makes the odd statement that reporting was first received on the subject of the leak only in June 1987. He or she may mean specifically that the CIA received reporting directly from the field, but there were certainly press reports available well earlier, notably an Associated Press interview with Ash-Shiraa’s publisher.[iii]
The CIA article goes on to relay a variety of possible motives for the Syrians’ supposed decision to leak the story. One of them relates to the kidnapping of Syria’s chargé d’affaires in Tehran in the fall of 1986, Iyad Mahmud, something Ash-Shiraa also mentioned. But while the Lebanese story took the trouble to present different accounts of the kidnapping (those offered by both Iranian authorities and by Mehdi Hashemi’s supporters), the CIA article provides only the one viewpoint. It goes on to hypothesize that the unfortunate Mahmud, evidently an intelligence officer not just a diplomat, had somehow found out about the US-Iran deals and was abducted and reportedly beaten in order to intimidate him into silence. The Syrian regime, according to this theory, then had the story printed to punish Iran for mistreating their envoy.
To be fair, the CIA author disagrees with some of the source’s views, and goes on to provide his/her own personal conclusion, supported by a lengthy argument that takes up the bulk of the three-page article. Syria’s motive? To deflect world attention from two high-profile trials in Europe that were focusing an unwelcome spotlight on Damascus’s backing of international terrorism. The author further declares the effort a “sizable success,” judging that, “by damaging the credibility of the US counterterrorist effort, Damascus made it unlikely that Western diplomatic and economic sanctions against Syria would last for long.”
Even if, as s/he acknowledges, the Syrians could not have predicted the scale of the scandal they had supposedly exposed, this judgment leaps too easily from cause to effect. The West’s relations with the Hafez Assad regime were influenced in a variety of ways by Damascus’s multifaceted role in the region that included, ironically, its potential for helping to resolve hostage cases – as occurred with the TWA hijacking of June 1985, for example.
Other skewed conclusions and outright mistakes detract even more from the CIA article. A case in point is the analysis that the Ash-Shiraa story had a pronounced impact on Iran. Here, the author inverts cause and effect, noting incorrectly that Hashemi was arrested in November (it was no later than the last week of October) and postulating that the timing of the arrest, which purportedly followed publication of the story, was “hardly a coincidence.”
Other Minor Enigmas
Several other small puzzles make this episode all the more interesting. One is whether another murky figure may have had a role – Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Iran’s ambassador to Syria in the early-to-mid 1980s and a key liaison with Hezbollah. Like Mehdi Hashemi, he would presumably have been well informed about the actions and viewpoints of the Lebanese hostage-takers who were to a degree his protégés, and furthermore to be sympathetic to their complaints that senior individuals in authority in Tehran were regularly pressuring them to turn over the hostages for the sake of Iran’s interests (i.e., to barter them for American-made missiles to use in the war with Iraq) more than for their own. Mohtashemi also surfaces in at least one journalist’s assessment as a suspect in Mahmud’s kidnapping – an act that represents another mystery in this story.[iv]
A more likely player than Mohtashemi, even though he may have been unwitting, was none other than Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian middleman and bête noire of the arms deals. Although he denied it later, the evidence is stark that he kept Ayatollah Montazeri informed of the contacts between Tehran and Washington through at least two letters written in July 1986.[v] The question is whether this was how Mehdi Hashemi found out about the deals.
Another minor puzzler is why Hashemi was arrested. (He was executed in September 1987.) Was it because he tried to expose the covert deals with the United States (and Israel), as Ervand Abrahamian and others believe?[vi] Or was it, as official Iranian publications claim, because of his radical misconduct and law-breaking? What seems clear is that Hashemi was defiantly (and violently) promoting the export of Iran’s revolution at a time when most of the country’s rulers preferred to transition to a more stable system and a set of policies designed to dismantle the wall of isolation separating the regime from much of the world.
This last point contains an insight as relevant today as in the 1980s: that Iran since the revolution has always had political actors in its midst representing a fairly broad range of views, and that sometimes even the country’s central authorities have found it hard to constrain the most radical of those elements. The episode is also a reminder of how complex and opaque the region’s dynamics and political relationships remain to outside observers – posing a continuing challenge for the Obama administration and its successors in Iran as well as in Syria and Lebanon.
[i] Ihsan A. Hijazi, “Hostage’s Release Is Linked to Shift in Iranian Policy,” The New York Times, November 4, 1986.
[ii] Among other accounts, see Gary Sick, “Iran’s Quest for Superpower Status,” Foreign Affairs, Spring 1987, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/42020/gary-g-sick/irans-quest-for-superpower-status.
[iii] Associated Press, “The White House Crisis: ‘It’s the Scoop of the Year’; Newsman Tells of Leak from Khomeini’s Heir,” The New York Times, December 7, 1986.
[iv] Robert Fisk, “Ties that Bind the Hostages: Robert Fisk Reports from Beirut on the Shadowy Connections that Link Factions and Nations in the Middle Eastern Captives Crisis,” The Independent, August 30, 1989.
[v] Montazeri’s memoirs (in Farsi) implicate Ghorbanifar (www.amontazeri.com) in this respect. See the discussion in James Buchan, Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences, (John Murray, 2012), especially note 21 on p. 384. See also Stephen Engelberg, “From an Iranian Middleman, His Side of the Story,” The New York Times, June 23, 1987.
[vi] Ervand Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran (University of California Press, 1999), pp. 162-67.
The temptation to fracture history by suppressing the past—whether by silly redactions (or even outright denial) of documents or by other means—seems to be a universal constant. It is at least as widespread as the public’s thirst for knowledge of its history. It exists in many countries. Freedom of information remains a work in progress. The latest example comes from Vietnam, where, for six years now, the National Security Archive’s Vietnam Documentation Project has been involved in an effort to open up some of the history of the long conflict in that land. The Archive and the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project cooperated to assist a semi-official group of Vietnamese in reconstructing some of the story of their wars. The result, published in Vietnam in 2010, is a multi-volume History of the Southern Resistance. On its website the Cold War project recently posted the results of the symposium we held on the new work. The Archive and the Cold War Project assembled a panel of experts to evaluate the findings of the Vietnamese historians. Once all the participants had delivered the written versions of their commentaries we assembled the symposium’s results.
The Vietnamese account was crafted by a group, the Council of Direction for the History of the Southern Resistance. That was the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, the guerrilla movement which formed the mainstay of the war in the southern part of Vietnam from its inception until 1968, and which also played a critical role in the Franco-Vietnamese war of 1945-1954. At the time many Americans and others called the Resistance the Viet Cong. So, what has really been at issue in Vietnam today, is the relative roles of southern Vietnamese versus northern Vietnamese in the war that finally unified Vietnam and ended in 1975. This is important to note in judging the History of the Southern Resistance. Not only was there a danger of self-censorship among participants in drafting the account, the final product had to undergo an approval process prior to publication as a semi-official history. To make things worse, powerful Vietnamese political figures who had championed the project passed away during its elaboration.
The Archive and the Cold War International History Project were approached relatively late in the compilation of the Vietnamese history. Intermediaries spoke to us of opening the archives of the Liberation Front, an exciting prospect for any group dedicated to freedom of information. Representatives of our groups attended a conference in Ho Chi Minh City in 2008 that was built around this history. Unfortunately the goal of opening archives proved elusive. For guerrillas in the bush many things were done without anything being put on paper. No doubt there were records destroyed in the course of the war as well. And for other records the typical reticence of government bureaucracies to the release of real documents applied as well. In the special case of Vietnam there was also the issue of what the documents might say about the relationship between the Liberation Front and the figures in Hanoi who were calling the shots in the war. The net result is that “opening archives” contracted to become helping publicize a “documentation” of the Southern Resistance, and in turn that shrank to whatever survived the South-North vetting process in Hanoi’s approval for publication.
Commentators at our symposium focused on the Southern Resistance history exhibit and the ambivalence that is a natural product of the Vietnamese censorship. The value the Vietnamese documentation might have had has been reduced by its dilution to meet the objections of the powers that be. On the other hand our expert panelists all found valuable material in the newly available Vietnamese history. Read the posting on the symposium at the Cold War Project website to see for yourself. Our disappointment in the result so far is matched by our hope that the Vietnamese will see their way to a more open discussion of this history.