Censoring American Diplomatic History

Stephen R. Weissman, September 2011

Serious analysts of American foreign policy know the value of the State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, which provides a documentary record of important U.S policy decisions and actions going back to 1861. One turns first to these volumes to understand the historic bases of contemporary foreign policy, America's past perceptions and misperceptions of the world, and the U.S. Government's decision-making process. For evidence, just walk over to your Vietnam War bookshelf and thumb through the endnotes of such important books as Fredrik Logevall's Choosing War, David Kaiser's American Tragedy, and Gerald Goldstein' Lessons in Disaster. The FRUS series is widely read not only by scholars and policy analysts, but also by students, journalists and diplomats.

That is why it is so important that the State Department has been refusing to publish two long- completed volumes on U.S. policies towards the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iran. Although these texts go back to the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, they throw valuable light on the roots of the current crises in Congo and Iran. What is more, their very publication could make a positive contribution to American policies today.

Here is the background. Two decades ago, historians criticized FRUS volumes on Iran, Central America and the Congo for ignoring widely reported CIA programs that overthrew democratically elected governments and installed dictatorships. Congress responded with a 1991 law requiring the State Department Historian to continue to publish, within 30 years, "all records needed to provide a comprehensive documentation of..major foreign policy decisions and actions”including, with necessary redactions, relevant covert operations. Yet two anticipated products of this law – "retrospective”volumes on Congo (1960-68) and Iran (1952-54) -- have never appeared. The manuscripts were completed many years ago. 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 members of academic advisory panels to the Department and CIA, the latter has been the major force holding up the Congo and Iran publications. Moreover, as years go by, it sometimes finds new passages in the Historian-submitted texts where declassification would be harmful, or insists on taking new looks at previously approved portions as its reviewing officers turn over. Other delays have stemmed from staff turnover and disorganization in the Historian's Office. In these circumstances, the absence of a political will—by the Secretary of State and the President's National Security Council Advisor—to achieve finality in the interagency declassification process has been disastrous. Although the early 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 Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation reviewed the Historian's compilation 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 ten years!

Much of that lost decade has been consumed by the Agency'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 necessary. But key members say that the CIA has been unwilling to take adequate account of the reality that certain information is already in the public record (from credible scholarly and press investigations, public Congressional reports, and even Agency-approved memoirs by former CIA officials), and that nearly all of those involved are now dead.

Similar problems have beset the Iran manuscript, which was essentially complete by early 2004. The latest issue involves the CIA's effort to preemptively exclude any reference to the United Kingdom's well-known participation in the CIA-backed 1953 coup that brought the Shah to power. The British Government reportedly continues to refuse to acknowledge the Iran operation. On the other side, the State Department historian and academic advisors know that major aspects of the British role are already on the public record (including memoirs by U.S. and British intelligence officials and a leaked CIA internal study published in the New York Times). Ignoring British participation in the jointly sponsored coup could therefore be perceived as contradicting the Congressional mandate for a "thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity.”Various attempts at compromise have failed. It appears there are only two ways to break the stalemate. One is for the Secretary of State or National Security Adviser to prevail upon the British to show some flexibility. The other is for the State Department Historian to move ahead with a volume that will only document the key U.S. Government role in the coup—hopefully with an Editor's Note clarifying the series' policy regarding discussion of U.S. joint covert operations with other Governments.

Release Would Promote Better Foreign Policies Today

Even 50 or 60 years after the events they describe, publication of these books could have positive effects on U.S. foreign policy. A detailed public account of a decade of CIA political and paramilitary intervention on behalf of dictatorial forces led by Joseph Mobutu—who eventually destroyed social institutions, spawning internal and regional wars that killed millions—might contribute to strengthening Americans' political will to support peacemaking and recovery in an important region. Telling the full story of the U.S.-supported coup in Iran would help Americans understand why anti-Americanism has been such a prominent feature of the current clerical regime pursuing nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, a thorough official accounting of the manipulations that installed the Shah would be appreciated by the Iranian people (one focus of current American diplomacy towards Iran), just as similar CIA truth telling has been appreciated by Guatemalans and would be welcomed by the Congolese. Tens of millions in these countries and elsewhere are generally aware of the past CIA role, sometimes in distorted form. But it is the official accounting of the intervention – and its undeniable character—that is most meaningful, corrects distortions and can provide some closure.

Finally, as CIA covert action roars back in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, a detailed examination of these major past operations would provide U.S. policy makers and citizens with needed perspective and caution.

Americans, Including Historians, Should Insist on their Need to Know

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 all Congo declassification issues—except for the description of certain deletions—have been resolved and the book could possibly appear in 2012. There is also concern that the Iran volume will never emerge either because of the deadlock over handling the British role or a narrow-based Administration fear that publishing the truth will fuel the propaganda machine of a hostile regime.

One thing is certain: there can be no guarantee that either book will appear – or that the integrity of the FRUS series will be maintained—until Americans insist on their right to their own history. Who better than historians to lead that battle by pressing the Obama administration to fully implement a law that they themselves helped put in place?

Stephen R. Weissman is the author of American Foreign Policy in the Congo 1960–1964 (Cornell Univ. Press) and A Culture of Deference: Congress's Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy (Basic Books). He is also former staff director of the Africa Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.