The CIA Must Keep Its Vows of Openness
By JIM MANN
Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, May 26,
WASHINGTON-- For anyone who likes to keep track of the CIA and its foibles,
a wedding announcement a few months ago was a precious collector's item.
The notice, which appeared in the Sunday society pages of the New York
Times, said the bride was a great-great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt.
It then went on: "Her grandfather, Kermit Roosevelt of Cockeysvile,
Md., was an official of the Central Intelligence Agency who organized the
1953 counter-coup that put the Shah of Iran in power."
What was interesting here was not the fact itself. Kermit Roosevelt's
role in organizing the overthrow of the Iranian government of Prime Minister
Mohammed Mossadegh had been unearthed a long time ago. Indeed, Kermit Roosevelt
had written about it in his memoirs. Rather, what made this wedding announcement
so remarkable was that the CIA has tried so hard for so long to obscure
its involvement in the coup.
A few years ago, when the State Department published its official history
of American policy toward Iran in the 1950s, it was forced to omit any
mention of the CIA's role because the agency wouldn't turn over any information
about it. The book, part of the supposedly authoritative series "Foreign
Relations of the United States," left readers with the false impression
that the shah had come to power on his own.
And so we are left with this curious proposition: that information the
CIA thinks might be too dangerous for the world to know is also safe enough
to be published with pride on the society pages. The Roosevelt wedding
announcement came to mind because of a new lawsuit that is seeking to require
the CIA to make public the records of some of its covert activities decades
On May 13, the National Security Archive, a nonprofit organization based
at George Washington University, went to court seeking to require the CIA
to declassify records of a few of its covert intelligence operations, including
those in Iran in the early 1950s. The suit seeks to have the records made
public under the Freedom of Information Act. The astonishing aspect of
this lawsuit is that it merely asks for the CIA to stick to the commitments
its own directors have made over the last decade.
The CIA goes through brief, occasional spasms of openness, whenever
it believes its support in Congress or with the American public may be
shaky. At such times, the agency likes to make splashy announcements to
demonstrate how it is changing.
I was present at a congressional hearing in 1993 when then-CIA Director
R. James Woolsey proclaimed that the CIA had decided to declassify the
records of 10 major covert intelligence operations, all of them more than
30 years old. Woolsey's predecessor, Robert M. Gates, had earlier said
the CIA would open up some of these records, and Woolsey extended this
"To remain confident as we face the future, we must learn from
our past, and that learning must be based on information that is both accurate
and as comprehensive as possible," Woolsey testified. He assured Congress
that he would disclose these secret operations, "warts and all."
His promise covered the CIA's early covert activities in France and
Italy, North Korea, Indonesia, Tibet, Laos, Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, the
Dominican Republic and the Congo. Since then, the CIA has slowly and quietly
backtracked. It now says it cann't and willn't keep the commitment Woolsey
made in Congress six years ago.
First, the CIA came up with what can be called the "Oliver Stone"
excuse. In the wake of Stone's movie "JFK," which suggested the
CIA was involved in a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy, Congress passed
a law requiring declassification of documents relating to the Kennedy assassination.
The CIA said it was giving highest priority to complying with this law
and therefore had to set aside for a time the work on declassifying its
old Cold War operations.
More recently, the CIA has shifted ground. Last year, CIA Director George
J. Tenet said his agency just didn't have enough time or money to do all
the work that it had earlier promised. Although some of the declassification
work will go forward, he said, the CIA has decided not to open the files
on its early operations in Iran, Tibet, Indonesia, France and Italy.
"We continue to face the dilemma of where to apply our available
resources," Tenet said. "The fact is, we do not have sufficient
resources at the current time to review the documentation involved in these
five remaining covert intelligence operations."
The CIA has an annual budget of nearly $30 billion, enough to do what
it wants. (We don't know the exact budget figure, because the CIA, despite
occasional suggestions it might change, willn't make this information public,
It's time for Congress and the courts to hold the CIA to its past promises
of openness. Otherwise, we may be doomed to try to learn about its murky,
distant past by reading the wedding announcements of the CIA's grandchildren.
- - - Jim Mann's Column Appears in The Los Angeles Times every Wednesday