The recent acknowledgment by unidentified Washington "officials" that a clandestine radio station ("Free Voice of Iran") was being backed by the CIA has again put the agency in the stocks. The broadcasts allegedly used terms like "fascist" and "racist" for Ayatollah Khomeini, supported exiled leader Shahpur Bakhtiar, called for the "liberation" of Iran, and appealed to Iranians to prepare for armed action.
Before examining these points, there is a fundamental one which bears periodic repetition because it is so consistently ignored: The CIA does not conduct such operations without approval (if not instigation) from the highest levels of the executive branch, and without careful review by various legislative committees.
No lees fundamental is our need to face up to the world as it really is, as opposed to the world as we would like it to be. As Americans, our problem is that we try to impose our domestic rules and values internationally.This is fair enough when it comes to controlling activities by foreigners here, like South Korea's rent-a-congressman operation, but does not always make sense when dealing with other cultures on their grounds. When it comes to promoting long-term US interests overseas, our rules (violence aside) should be at least as flexible as those of the local environment.
Well, who needs clandestine propaganda? What is the rationale for unattributed outlets? There are several reasons:
* In countries where the United States stands branded as an enemy, resistance to any message from an official American station is very strong -- when indeed its very call sign does not impose a grave risk on the listener. To reach these audiences an unofficial medium is necessary.
* There are some messages which the United States wishes to put across but which it cannot do openly for a variety of reasons: because they would offend friends, be perceived as transcending permissible levels of meddling, might imply deeper commitments than the US was willing to make.
* Finally, the restrictions that the very fact of official sponsorship puts on a medium can inhibit language and terminology to the point that it no longer has any impact. An audience accustomed to heady levels of vituperation in its own media may yawn at more measured presentations.
None of the above justifies a massive resort to such means, nor does it absolve sponsors from responsibility for unexpected results of their efforts. Long ago Radio Free Europe, for example, was blamed for giving Hungarians the impression that the US would come to their aid if they rose up against the Soviet Union. That blame was not entirely unwarranted, but it must be recalled that the US had, after all, adopted a policy some years earlier of "rolling back communism" and had never explicitly rescinded it. The problem was that Radio Free Europe was so clearly under official US sponsorship that its "unofficial" status was no longer believable.
Clandestine radio broadcasting needs a base abroad, a pool of high-quality talent drawn from recent emigres, and an ostensible sponsor (individual or group) which may or may not be aware of the true source of support. All of these factors make precise control extremely difficult, and as a result the broadcasting product does on occasion deviate from the ideal.
Let us now return to the "Free Voice of Iran" and the probable reasons why it came into existence.
First, we may accept the thesis that Iran today is being governed by individuals whose hostility toward the US has reached unusual extremes.
Second, it is probably not in the interests of the US that these individuals continue to run the affairs of Iran.
Third, the Iranians themselves (or the effects of internecine strife at the top levels) will probably dispose of the incumbent leaders before too much longer, and we will be confronted with new faces.
Fourth, it is palpably in the interests of the US that this new group of leaders (a) reflect Iranian not Soviet or other foreign interests, (b) reorient some of Iran's hate-America energies into more productive channels, and (c) establish a more stable, law-abiding society.
In order to accomplish these aims, it can be assumed that the US wanted to support those Iranians who opposed the current leadership; the problem was to do so without admitting it. Hence the unattributed radio.
Now as to those particular aspects which were so upsetting to some in the American press:
* The Ayatollah was termed a "fascist" and a "racist." His penchant for xenophobic demagoguery, backed by officially encouraged mob action, does rather take one back to the brown shirts of the 1920s and the jackboots of the 1980s, but one is not supposed to say so in polite international society. True, but in terms of the broadcasts' ostensiblem sponsorship such terminology would be part of the normal give and take of Iranian politics; anything softer would have been suspect.
* The broadcasts supported the exiled Shahpur Bakhtiar. Is this bad from the standpoint of US interests? It becomes so only when official US sponsorship is revealed. (Needless to say, that is also bad for Shahpur Bakhtiar, whether or not he was previously aware of clandestine US support for the radio.) The point is, an ostensible sponsor or cause was needed, and Shahpur Bakhtiar seems to have been a logical choice.
* The broadcasts called for the "liberation" of Iran. Well, yes, that is the usual terminology used by "outs" when trying to unseat "ins" in parts of the world where exile is the price of political defeat.
* The broadcasts reportedly "even appealed to Iranians to prepare for armed action." If read swiftly, that might sound like a call to arms; another interpretation is that it was merely a warning to the citizenry to take prudent steps to avoid becoming noncombatant casualties.
Until leaked in Washington, and then publicized and virtuously decried in the American press, "Free Voice of Iran" appears to have been a needed counterbalance to what, even then, was a one-sided presentation. The station has now become, instead, a source of national embarrassment.
Who is most to blame for this? The CIA, for running the operation? The White House, for authorizing it? The Congress, for approving it? Or officials who no longer seem to have the right of silence on matters affecting national security, and a press that does not exercise restraint in the national interest?