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Reporter Says CIA History Was Written by Coup's Planner

Charlie Rose Show
April 17, 2000

CHARLIE ROSE: It has taken almost a half century to uncover to the details of the CIA's role in the 1953 coup in Iran. That coup empowered the late Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi and overthrew the popular nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.

The CIA's successful intervention in Iranian affairs became a blueprint for involvement in the coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba in 1961.

Joining me to talk about this, James Risen. He is the New York Times reporter who obtained a copy of the agency's secret history of the coup in Iran.

I'm pleased to have him here.

Thank you for coming in on your day off.

JAMES RISEN, ``New York Times'': Sure.

Thanks for having me.

CHARLIE ROSE: Boy, it certainly got appropriate play in the New York Times on Sunday. JAMES RISEN: Yeah, it was-- They did a nice job by it.

CHARLIE ROSE: Take me to the beginning. I mean, tell me what you cover at the New York Times and how you came upon this history.

JAMES RISEN: Well, I cover -- among other things -- the CIA in the Washington bureau. I'm kind of an investigative reporter, focusing on national-security affairs.

And so, as part of that, I cover the CIA as a beat. And one of my sources presented this history to me. And I decided it was worth putting in the newspaper.

CHARLIE ROSE: All right.

Let me just get this for you. I know--

I'm not asking you to tell me who it was. And obviously you wouldn't if I asked. But you have a meeting, and you talk to the source, and he says, ``By the way, I brought you something''?

JAMES RISEN: Well, actually he brought it up, and it took quite a while for me to get it.

CHARLIE ROSE: Oh, so he started talking about it. And then you were able to talk him into presenting it to you so that you could write a story in the New York Times--

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, without getting into--

Yeah, without getting into too many details, that's right. It took quite a while for him to turn it over to me. CHARLIE ROSE: What-- what-- what was it you had to--

Again, what was it you had to persuade him? I mean, what was the reluctance to do it?

JAMES RISEN: Well, it's a classified document. And it's illegal for him to give it to me.

And so that was a problem for him.

CHARLIE ROSE: For understandable reasons.




CHARLIE ROSE: Do you think the CIA's embarrassed by this? Or does it tell us anything about the CIA that we didn't already know or assume?

JAMES RISEN: I think the CIA-- Well, they should speak for themselves.

I'm not sure how embarrassed they are by the actual document appearing. I think they're more-- they have been more concerned, over the last-- while I've been talking to them about this, about the issue of how-- of whether or not they actually destroyed all the documents over the last few years.

They maintain that they've been misunderstood about that issue. As you know, three years ago the New York Times reported that CIA historians had discovered that they had-- that the CIA had destroyed most of the documents related to the Iran coup in the early '60s.

And, in the process of looking to find files to declassify and turn over the National Archives, they said-- in 1997 they said they couldn't find very many. That story then led a lot of people who are kind of Iranian experts and who are in the-- there's a small community of people in Washington who try to get things declassified out of the CIA and national security-- to begin kind of a small campaign to try and find out what exactly happened to these files.

The CIA after that 1997 story never said very much about it. The National Archives, based on the story in the New York Times in 1997, actually began an investigation of CIA record-management and issued a report in March of this year in which they said that the destruction of files by the CIA in the early 1960s-- of Iran-related files was unauthorized.

But it turns out that the CIA, while they had said that some files had been destroyed, they never finished that sentence and said, ``But some remain.''

And what we got were the most important thing remains, which was the actual history of the coup, written six months after the coup by the coup's chief planner. It's an extensive narrative that also includes many attached planning documents and memoranda.

And it-- for them never to have publicly stated that this still existed even as the impression was left with the public that most of the documents were gone was -- I think, as one of my editors said -- ``playing it coy.''


JAMES RISEN: So, they would dispute that, however. They say, you know, that ``we have, in fact--'' And I think I put this in the story. They have, in fact, turned this over to the chief historian of the State Department for use in updating the State Department's official history of U.S. foreign relations.

But they have not declassified it so that the State Department's historian can actually use it yet. So, it's kind of a Catch-22 situation. The State Department's Historical Office apparently has a copy. But, since it's still classified, they can't write that history.

CHARLIE ROSE: I'm sure I'm missing something here. But is it possible-- is it possible that the CIA didn't know that this copy that this person had existed?

JAMES RISEN: Well, certainly they didn't know that he had it. They did know that they had copies of it.


So, they did-- knew copies, they didn't know that he had it?

JAMES RISEN: Right, right.

And they still have copies of it themselves. But the impression-- I mean, it's a-- it's a very odd thing to try and sort out-- is the degree to which they-- I mean, they wanted the-- whether or not they wanted the impression out there that this-- that there was very little left so that the pressure wouldn't be on them to declassify things more quickly or whether it was just a bureaucratic snafu and nobody ever got around to correcting the public record on this issue.

It's unclear at this point.

CHARLIE ROSE: My next question -- tell me what we have here. Who wrote it? And is it to be believed?

JAMES RISEN: Well, I think it's a primary historical document. I mean, that one of the-- one of the issues the CIA raises in their argument on why they've been misunderstood on this issue is-- of the destruction of files is that they had always maintained that the portions of the ``working files'' were destroyed.

And in their parlance that means cable traffic or other actual documents written at the time-- you know, at-- simul-- contemporaneously with the coup.

In my mind, you know, some people might argue that this history is not a part of that working file because it was written six months afterwards. But I think you could consider this a primary historical document.

It was written by a participant in the coup, the chief-- the man who was the chief planner for the coup. It was written by him six months after the coup while he looked over all of the cable traffic and looked-- and talked to his colleagues who had worked with him on the coup.

And this is essentially a narrative history of what the CIA did in the coup-- what their-- how they planned it, how they went about doing it, and what happened.

And it's a very-- it's very well-read-- very well-written -- I'm sorry -- and it's, you know, fairly exhaustive in its detail.

CHARLIE ROSE: Who is the author?

JAMES RISEN: A CIA officer named Donald Wilber, who was a fascinating character in his own right. He had joined the CIA after working for OSS in World War II in Iran and prior to that had been a-- been wandering around the Middle East for 10 or 15 years as a Persian and Middle-Eastern architecture expert.

He started out, after leaving Princeton in -- I think -- 1929. He went to Luxor, to work on the survey of the Luxor temples that the University of Chicago was doing at the time.

And from there he just began to wander around from Syria to Greece to-- And then he ended up hooking up with some of the better-known Persian art experts at the time and began to wander around Iran in the late '30s, surveying and cataloguing Persian temples.

And by the time World War II broke out he was back at Princeton. And he got a call from the OSS, the new spy agency that was being set up for the war because they were desperate to find some Middle-Eastern experts.

At that time, there weren't very many Americans who knew much about the region.


JAMES RISEN: So, they sent him out to Iran.


And this was a guy who had a natural cover.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah. And then he spent-- he went right-- basically right from OSS to the CIA after the war. And his cover was perfect.

His cover was as a Persian architecture expert. And he would go in and kind-of, you know, survey temples. And then the next day, you know, try and help overthrow the government.

CHARLIE ROSE: Did you go talk to anybody from the Shah's family? Or any of these people that might still be alive today? About, you know, ``I've got this amazing document we're gonna go to print with, but can you tell me anything you know about what it says here?''

JAMES RISEN: No, I didn't talk to anyone from the Shah's family. I frankly didn't want to spread too widely the fact that we had this document.

I wanted really to be-- to the extent possible, I wanted this to be a story based on the CIA's history. But I think it may be time for us now to do some broader reporting on that.

CHARLIE ROSE: Well, I join you in that.

I'm trying to do the same thing here and see if we can get them comment on this -- some of the--


CHARLIE ROSE: --Shah's family who may be in the United States now.

JAMES RISEN: I think the other-- when you're asking about what were the most interesting things about this is the degree of contempt that the CIA held for the Shah was pretty striking.

CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah. That comes through so loud and clear. I mean--


CHARLIE ROSE: Well, the contempt -- I guess -- is expressed in their perception of his indecisiveness--


CHARLIE ROSE: --and his unwillingness to stand up and be prepared to go.

JAMES RISEN: Right, right.

I mean, it just-- that to me was-- in fact, there's one point in the history where they talk seriously about finding someone else, finding--

CHARLIE ROSE: An alternative shah?

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I mean, they talk about-- they really didn't think much about General Zahedi who was their hand-picked prime minister to succeed Mossadegh. And they didn't think much-- they thought even less of the Shah, who they know -- going in -- was vacillating and indecisive.

And throughout the last days of the coup they just were tearing their hair out because the Shah wouldn't do anything they asked him to do because he was so afraid of the consequences.

And -- at one point, I think, in the history -- it says something like, you know, ``I'm--'' he quoted in there saying something like, ``you know, I am not a gambler. I'm not willing to gamble my throne.''

And Kermit Roosevelt, who was the chief-- you know, one of the chief CIA officers involved on the ground in Teheran, had to tell him, ``Look, at this point, it's no longer a choice. You either do this and take the army with you. The army, right now, is still on your side. But it may not be in a few more days. You either do it now or you're gonna lose your throne either way.''

And that was essentially the choice they had to make to him.

CHARLIE ROSE: James Risen, thank you.

It's a wonderful story. And I'm pleased that the New York Times put it right where it was so that it captures a real sense of what happened '53 from the perspective of the CIA. And it's a remarkable document.

And I thank you for coming here to talk about the process.


CHARLIE ROSE: When we come back, more comment -- Shaul Bakhash will be here; Elaine Sciolino, who also has a new book coming out soon about her own sense Iranian history.

Back in a moment. Stay with us. Analysts Say Iranians Will Look at Release As Political

CHARLIE ROSE: Joining me now for a further consideration of this rather extraordinary story--

--From the New York Times, Elaine Sciolino. She has a new book coming about Iran called Persian Mirrors, the Elusive Face of Iran.

--Also here is Shaul Bakhash. He is a well-known Iranian scholar who is now affiliated with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

I am pleased to have both of them here.

I ask you this simple question -- tell me what your reaction was to this story, Elaine.

ELAINE SCIOLINO, ``New York Times'': Well, obviously it was a great coup -- no pun intended -- for my newspaper. But I think it's also a very important historical contribution and it comes at an interesting moment in time.

It comes on the heels of an overture by the United States towards Iran as part of this step-by-step diplomacy. It also comes at a time when Iran itself is going through an extraordinarily open-ended political process where there are all sorts of guerrilla battles that are being played out-- being fought on a number of different-- in a number of different arenas.

CHARLIE ROSE: What do you think the Iranians will say about this?

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Well, I don't think there's any way that the Iranians are going to see this scoop as accidental. There is still a strong sense of conspiracy-theory thinking in Iran.

And I have to think that in many circles -- probably most political circles -- it's going to be seen as part of the American government's overture towards Iran even though it was a straight journalistic endeavor.

CHARLIE ROSE: All right.

When did you know about this?

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Well, I knew about it probably about 10 days ago, when I was asked if I could contribute a very modest part of the story, which is a biographical sketch of Mossadegh and to put him into the historical context of both at the time of the coup, the time of the revolution and what the legacy of Mossadegh is today.

CHARLIE ROSE: Do you know where it came from? Not that-- whether you'll tell me or not, but do you know where it came from?

ELAINE SCIOLINO: As someone who covered the intelligence beat like my colleague James Risen and as a Sicilian who believes in the code of silence, even if I knew I wouldn't tell you who.

CHARLIE ROSE: All right.

I know you won't tell me where, but I just wonder whether you-- I'm, you know, totally curious about the fact as whether you know.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Charlie, my blood is 100 percent Sicilian, and you can't-- you can't go against the blood.

CHARLIE ROSE: What is it called? ``Amarata'' or something?


CHARLIE ROSE: ``Omerta'' -- all right. I'll accept that.

Tell me what you learned that you didn't know, that you think it's important to point out -- as I hold up the New York Times here in my studio in Washington, this was a story above the fold, the center of the paper on Sunday, ``How a Plot Convulsed Iran in 1953--'' and then it's in parens, ``and in 1979.''

And there is a picture of the Shah, and it is the story of the CIA complicity, which has been known before, in that coup which threw out the elected prime minister, Mossadegh-- Mohammed Mossadegh.

Am I saying that correct?


CHARLIE ROSE: Mossadegh.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: But I'll defer to my colleague and close friend, the historian and scholar Shaul Bakhash for pronunciation.

CHARLIE ROSE: OK, before I get to Shaul Bakhash -- I'm going to do that in just a second -- so what did you learn that you didn't know that you thought was so important? I mean, after all, you just wrote a book. You spent the last year or two focusing on Iran.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Right, right.

Well, one thing that I learned is that I didn't realize how extensive the Iranian role was in the coup. You know, we tend from the outside to blame the Americans for this coup.

But what this document illustrates is that this coup would not have succeeded if it had not been for Iranian complicity and Iranian courage, really, if you look at it from their point of view, at a crucial time in the coup plot. The coup would have failed had there not been Iranian military people and people on the street who wanted to see the Shah back in power.

So that was one thing I learned. The second thing I learned is that there was an extraordinary British role that now is -- had been known before, but is certainly there in black and white in an authoritative document. And certainly the third thing I learned was that -- was that the Shah was much more of a vacillater and even a coward than we had known. And--

CHARLIE ROSE: Yes, that was what surprised me, was that the Shah was so weak in terms of -- you could either say weak, or maybe he just didn't want to be the Shah that much. But he clearly did not covet this and was not sort of seeking it so strongly as you might have imagined.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Well, we saw that play out again in '78-'79.

CHARLIE ROSE: Seventy-nine.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Absolutely, with the revolution, where the Shah was vacillating, where he changed his mind, and where Khomeini, by contrast -- the Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the revolution -- never backed off his very, very firm position that the Shah had to go and there had to be an Islamic republic to replace him.

CHARLIE ROSE: Shaul, what do you think about this? What did -- what do you think the significance of it is? What do you think it teaches us? Why is it important? What was it that startled and surprised you about it?

SHAUL BAKHASH, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Well, again I think three or four points are striking in the report that appears in The New York Times. One is the Shah's own vacillation and uncertainty. And in a way, this was a return to the Shah -- Let me do that again, Charlie. One is the Shah's own vacillation. And in a way, we saw in 1979, during the Islamic revolution, a mirror of the Shah as he was in 1953.

A second point that comes out very strikingly in this report is the uncertainty of the CIA, whether this coup attempt had succeeded or not. And, in fact, they had decided it had failed. And the extent of the CIA's uncertainty and disarray, I don't think we knew to this extent before.

And thirdly, which stems from the second point, is the role of the Iranians. Now, I'm sure, when the Iranians read this news story, they will be confirmed in their belief that the CIA did everything. But it's very clear from the report that Iranian army officers, Iranian politicians played a role in the coup and in saving it from failing.

CHARLIE ROSE: What interests me also is the notion that Wilber said that if the history of the CIA involvement in Iran and the events that led to the Shah coming to the throne in '53 had been read by the planners of the Bay of Pigs, they wouldn't have tried it.

SHAUL BAKHASH: Charlie, I think that's a very important point, because the success of the 1953 coup in Iran led the CIA to think it could continue to carry out operations like this around the world. And, in fact, Wilber draws the opposite conclusion, which is that, in fact, had they read this story carefully and understood its history, they wouldn't have tried this kind of adventurism elsewhere so easily.

CHARLIE ROSE: What do you think its impact will be in helping or hurting U.S.-Iranian bilateral relations today?

SHAUL BAKHASH: I think that's a little difficult to say. As I say, Iranians certainly in Iran will be confirmed in their belief that the U.S. manipulated Iran and plays this nefarious role in world politics even now. And the hardliners in Iran will build on this.

So in a way, the -- this revelation will enter into the current political debate in Iran about how to deal with and relate to the United States.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Yes, yes, I would agree with that.

CHARLIE ROSE: Jump in, Elaine.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Please. I would say that the short term, what you are going to see is an explosion of articles in both the reformist press and the very conservative press on what this means. And each camp will come up with very different conclusions. It will be the story du jour for -- for -- for some time.

But I think it's -- it won't have a direct impact on U.S.-Iranian relations per se. I mean, that -- that's something that is still going to take a long, long time before we see real specific and meaningful change.

CHARLIE ROSE: What's interesting to me too is that it -- somehow it points up one more time -- and obviously the United States' obsession about oil and as a lifeline for the United States, and that was at issue with respect to communist control -- but it also points up to me one more time that there are certain places around the world where the United States seems to have this sort of most interesting relationship, and both of you, one expert and one a journalist who's extensively covered Iran, can appreciate that.

There's something about the relations between the United States and Iran that's -- that makes it different than most of our bilateral relationships.

ELAINE SCIOLINO: Well, Iran is an old, great civilization, you know, it's ancient Persia. There are -- there is resonance in the American imagination. And just as the Iranians are hooked into the United States in some emotional and deeply psychological and historical way, so we are hooked into Iran.

CHARLIE ROSE: Yes. I mean, I just watched Sunday Morning yesterday, and there was a piece about a young woman who was an entrepreneur in Teheran.

I thank you both. I will come back to this story. We hope to have others here, can talk about how they feel and how they react to the story. It shows you that history lives.

I appreciate it very much that you took time to join me today.

SHAUL BAKHASH: Thank you, Charlie.



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