The Original American Malcontent

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The History of a Coup D'Etat

History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, "ZENDEBAD SHAH!": The Central Intelligence Agency and the Fall of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossdeq, August 1953, by Scott A. Koch, June 1998, Top Secret.Source: FOIA request and lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency
One of the most infamous covert operations in the history of U.S. foreign policy was the coup d'├ętat against Iran's Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in August 1953. That the United States government, through the Central Intelligence Agency, played a role in this affair is not a matter of dispute, although the exact nature of its role remains subject to controversy (Note 29): indeed, the normalization of U.S-Iran relations may someday require Washington to elucidate its role in the 1953 coup. While the events of 1953 have been the subject of a valuable memoir literature by key American and British participants, (Note 30) declassified documents that shed light on the CIA operation TP/AJAX are, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. The State Department's Foreign Relations series volume on Iran, 1951-1954 (published in 1989) failed even to mention the CIA role in the coup. That helped precipitate a scandal that led the U.S. Congress to require the State Department to establish an historical advisory committee that would guard against such omissions in the future. Moreover, several Directors of Central Intelligence, including James Woolsey and John Deutsch, promised that the Agency would take action to declassify material on key events in the early history of the CIA, such as its role in the 1948 Italian elections and the 1953 overthrow of Mossadeq. (Note 31)
In an effort to force the release of documentation on the 1953 coup, in 1999 the National Security Archive initiated a lawsuit against the CIA with the pro bono assistance of Todd Richmond and Thomas Susman of the Washington, D.C. law firm, Ropes and Gray. The lawsuit focused on several issues: 1) CIA biographies of deceased Soviet bloc leaders, 2) a CIA history on the U.S. role in the 1948 Italian elections, and 3) two histories of the 1953 coup: a) one written in 1954 by clandestine services official Donald Wilber that the Agency published internally in 1969, and b) a CIA History Staff study prepared in the late 1990s. The CIA proved most obdurate, refused to release any substantive information on TP/AJAX, and convinced a federal judge to sustain its position on the others issues as well (CIA biographies and Italy/1948). In the course of the proceedings, William McNair, a CIA information officer swore under oath that only one line in one of the requested histories could be declassified. McNair also claimed that the CIA could never confirm nor deny the existence of biographical sketches of Soviet bloc leaders, a "Glomar" claim, named for the ship Glomar Explorer, the subject of a FOIA lawsuit in which the courts allowed the CIA to "neither confirm nor deny" the existence or non-existence of responsive information. (Note 32)
Apparently a CIA veteran decided that this was an intolerable state of affairs because the Wilber history was leaked to the New York Times, which published an excised version on its web site in 2000. (Note 33) The Archive subsequently dropped that part of its request. In the meantime, the Archive's lawyers argued that McNair's testimony was "facially incredible," not least because the CIA had already released biographical information on some of the same Eastern European Communists - Janos Kadar and Gustav Husak - that were the subject of its FOIA request. (Note 34) The judge agreed and forced the CIA to revisit the documents. As it turned out, further review of the CIA History Staff study showed that McNair's testimony was false because the study included a number of paragraphs marked "U" for "unclassified" that were based on unclassified, secondary literature. Pursuant to the Archive's lawsuit, the CIA released the unclassified portions of "ZENDEBAD SHAH" (Long Live the Shah!), but refused to declassify any of the classified paragraphs. Thus, it was not until a CIA official had been caught in a deception that the Agency would address some part of the Archive's FOIA request.
In a victory for FOIA requesters, the court ruled that the CIA could no longer use the "neither confirm nor deny" language to refuse FOIA requests for biographical sketches. Unfortunately, the Court accepted the CIA's decision to release only the unclassified paragraphs from ZENDEBAD SHAH!, ruling that the Agency need go no further. The State Department will eventually publish important CIA documents on TP/AJAX when it publishes a special volume in the Foreign Relations series. It will be interesting to see how far the CIA will go in releasing information on this episode. In the meantime, the U.S. government's failure to declassify information on the 1953 coup remains one of the most dubious secrets of all.


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