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Why is US withholding old documents on covert ops in Congo, Iran?

The State Department has failed to release key historical documents on US action in Iran and Congo. The issue isn't just that Americans have a right to know their history; they need to know it. These records could promote peacemaking and inform key foreign policy decisions.

The US government has reacted strongly to Pfc. Bradley Manning’s alleged disclosure of recent diplomatic cables via Wikileaks. We have heard State Department officials make their good case that indiscriminate leaks of contemporary communications – however much they contribute to public understanding of foreign policy – can undermine diplomacy and endanger human lives. But what we haven’t heard is that the Department has been withholding from the public historical documents that bear strongly on two ongoing foreign policy crises.

For years the State Department has refused to publish two long-completed books of documents that would throw valuable light on the roots of America’s problems today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iran. Even 50 or more years after the events they depict, these books could have positive effects on US foreign policy.

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Under a 1991 law, the State Department is required to continue to publish, within 30 years, “all records needed to provide a comprehensive documentation of...major foreign policy decisions and actions” – including relevant covert operations. A timely process for appropriate declassification is provided. The “Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS) series is a primary source for researching and understanding American foreign policy and is widely used by scholars, students, journalists, and diplomats.

But two anticipated products of the 1991 law – “retrospective” volumes on Congo (1960-68) and Iran (1952-54) – have never appeared. The manuscripts were completed many years ago after historians criticized earlier volumes for ignoring reported Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programs that overthrew democratically elected governments and installed dictatorships. Incredibly, the “retrospective” books have been stuck in endless “declassification” reviews for up to a decade!

What's the hold up on declassification?

According to leading academic advisors to the State Department and the CIA, the latter agency has been the major force holding up the Congo and Iran publications. As years go by, the CIA keeps finding new passages in the texts where it feels declassification would be harmful. It also insists on taking new looks at previously approved portions as its reviewing officers turn over.

Other reasons for delay have included disorganization in the State Department Historian’s Office and the absence of any mechanism or political will to achieve finality in the interagency review process. Although the early political momentum associated with the 1991 law produced a major “retrospective” volume on the CIA’s 1954 military coup in Guatemala (2003), that opening quickly closed.

Consider the Congo manuscript. The State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee reviewed it in 2001, concluding: “[It] sheds new light on major, highly significant events in the history of U.S. relations with the Congo in the 1960s,” and recommending “the highest priority to the declassification and publication of this volume.” Publication was scheduled for 2003. Yet the volume has remained stuck in the declassification process for 10 years.

Why Iran, Congo manuscripts face delay

Much of that lost decade has been consumed by the CIA’s resistance to identifying key Congolese leaders on its payroll, the CIA station chief, and the amounts of money spent on specific activities. The academic advisory panels accept the need for a balance that provides the public with enough information to assess the influence of the CIA in the Congo while protecting sources and methods of intelligence as much as possible.

But key members of these panels say that the CIA has been unwilling to take adequate account of the realities that certain information is already in the public record (from scholarly and press investigations, congressional reports, and even a CIA-approved memoir by the most important CIA station chief in the Congo) and that nearly all those involved are now dead.

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Similar problems have beset the Iran manuscript, essentially complete in early 2004. The latest issue raised by the CIA concerns potential British secret service (MI-6) objections to descriptions of the joint 1953 US and British-backed coup that brought the shah to power. Yet there are no MI-6 documents in the compilation, and important aspects of the British role are already on the public record (including memoirs by US and British officials and a leaked CIA internal study published in The New York Times). Further, the State Department historian’s strategy has been to refer to the British role only in the introduction to the volume.

Release would promote peace in region

A detailed public account of a decade of CIA political and paramilitary intervention in Congo on behalf of dictatorial forces led by Joseph Mobutu – who eventually destroyed social institutions, spawning internal and regional wars that killed millions – might strengthen Americans’ political will to support peacemaking and recovery in an important region. Telling the full story of the US-supported coup in Iran would help Americans understand why anti-Americanism has been such a prominent feature of the current clerical regime that seems set on pursuing nuclear weapons.

Also, an official accounting of the manipulations that installed the shah would be appreciated by the Iranian people (a major focus of America's Iran diplomacy). Similar CIA truth telling has been appreciated by Guatemalans and would probably be welcomed by the Congolese. Tens of millions of people in these countries and elsewhere are generally aware of the past CIA role – sometimes in distorted form. It is the official admission and accounting that is meaningful, corrects distortions, and provides some closure.

Why Americans 'need to know'

Finally, as CIA covert action roars back in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, a detailed, public examination of such major past operations would provide both citizens and policymakers with needed perspective and caution.

Over the years, insiders have recurrently expressed optimism that one or the other volumes would soon be released from captivity, only to be disappointed. Today, one picks up tentative hope that the Congo book will be out in 2012. There is also concern, however, that the Iran volume will never emerge due to CIA resistance or narrow administration fear that publishing the truth will fuel the propaganda machine of a hostile Iranian regime.

One thing is certain: There can be no guarantee that either book will appear until Americans insist on their right to their own history.

Stephen R. Weissman, former staff director of the House of Representatives’ Africa Subcommittee, is the author of “American Foreign Policy in the Congo 1960-1964” and “A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy.”