Almost from the moment the first “contra” was issued his American, made combat boots, the Reagan Administration’s secret war against Nicaragua has been embroiled in a vociferous if somewhat bizarre public debate: Congressmen proclaim their outrage, editorialists confess their misgivings, while officials in Washington – who are running the war-blandly “decline to comment on intelligence matters.”
Secret, or covert, wars are an honored tradition in postwar U.S. foreign policy, having enjoyed some, thing of a golden age in the 1950s, when the CIA discreetly shuffled governments in Iran, Guatemala, and the Philippines. But the “controversial secret war” is a paradox peculiar to our post-Vietnam, post-Watergate democracy. At the root of the furor over Nicaragua lies a conflict that has obsessed America’s public life for the last fifteen-odd years: the people’s right to know versus the stated demands of national security.
Can any democracy effectively fight secret wars?
Should the United States fight such wars? If so, by what moral right and in what circumstances? To consider these dilemmas, Harper’s recently brought together intelligence officers, politicians, and diplomats who have confronted them firsthand and found them no less easy to resolve.
The following Forum is based on a discussion held at the Russell Senate Office Building. A number of interested journalists and former intelligence officers were invited to ask questions of the panel. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan served as moderator.
DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN
RALPH W. McGEHEE
GEORGE W. BALL
RAY S. CLINE
In the late part of the twentieth century we are going to face in many countries, not only in Central America, a determined effort by the Soviet Union to subvert friendly governments. Now when they do that, using great violence, do the American people really want their president, faced with the question of whether a friend like Salvador or Korea or Israel is being attacked, to have no other options than to go to war or to do nothing? I don’t think so.
Now. . . should we or should we not have some intermediate option of policy, covert action? . . . I think the American people have to wrestle with that question.
-Robert McFarlane, national security adviser, Meet the Press, May 13, 1984
SENATOR DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: We are here, gentlemen, to take up Mr. McFarlane’s challenge and “wrestle with the question” of whether the United States needs an “intermediate option of policy” – covert action. Of course, this question brings with it other, equally difficult issues: If we agree that the United States sometimes needs to intervene secretly, when should it do so? What are the advantages and disadvantages inherent in covert action? And finally, how can covert interventions be controlled and supervised within the United States government?
My first comment about so-called secret wars must be that there is no such thing. The preparations for war can be kept secret, but once a war commences, whatever its avowed nature, it becomes a public event, and very much a public event. Now, how frequently has the United States resorted to covert wars – wars in which we deny our involvement – as an instrument of foreign policy? I count several such wars in our recent history.
In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency planned and carried out the overthrow of the left-leaning Arbenz government in Guatemala. The CIA trained and equipped an army in Honduras and sent this army into Guatemala. The fighting was very brief, but Arbenz was overthrown.
In 1961, the CIA organized and trained an army of Cuban exiles who wanted to overthrow the Castro government. The army was routed on Cuban beaches by Castro’s troops, to the great embarrassment of President Kennedy and the U.S. government. This abortive secret war came to be known as the Bay of Pigs.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA organized and armed Meo tribesmen in Laos in order, among other things, to interdict the flow of arms and supplies moving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Vietcong.
Finally, in perhaps the most controversial and most publicized of these “secret wars,” the Reagan Administration has been giving money and arms to the “contras, ” Nicaraguan soldiers based in Honduras who are fighting the Sandinista government. This war has been going on for at least two and a half years with the active support of the CIA and has been the subject of a good deal of debate in Congress. In fact, it now seems that Congress will deny the Administration funds to continue supporting the contras.
Some of our panelists may want to lengthen this list. Some may disagree with my describing these operations as covert wars. Mr. Colby, you are a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Might we not make a distinction between a secret war and a covert operation?
WILLIAM COLBY: Yes. A secret war is normally referred to as a paramilitary operation. As you said, Mr. Chairman, the wars themselves cannot be secret, but sometimes American participation in them can be. In that sense a secret war – a covert paramilitary operation-is indeed possible. But many kinds of covert operations – in the political field, the psychological field, and other areas – do not involve paramilitary action at all.
RALPH W. McGEHEE: Mr. Chairman, I believe that CIA covert operations, whether paramilitary or not, have helped destroy democracy around the world. By means of these operations, the CIA has replaced popular governments with brutal, murderous, U.S. -controlled military dictatorships that torture and kill their own citizens. Whether they involve paramilitary actions, political interventions, propaganda campaigns, or other kinds of deception, covert operations are all designed to benefit U.S. -based multinational corporations that expropriate the national resources of so-called target countries. These operations hurt the indigenous peoples and eventually Americans themselves.
The disastrous Vietnam War began as a CIA covert operation. You mentioned the Bay of Pigs invasion, which set the stage for the Cuban missile crisis. Another, less well-known CIA intervention was the overthrow of the Sukarno government in Indonesia in 1966, which was preceded by the murder of more than half a million Indonesians. At this moment the United States is supporting paramilitary operations in Central America in which Nicaraguan citizens are being murdered every day.
The United States cannot continue to destroy freedom throughout the world by means of covert operations without ultimately destroying it at home. Covert operations violate the rights of all Americans: they allow the president to take actions abroad that the American people would never support. By imposing strict rules of secrecy, the president threatens the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of the American people. CIA covert operations are an immediate threat both to the peoples of other nations and to our own way of life.
MOYNIHAN: Mr. McGehee has given us a very emphatic statement. Mr. Colby?
COLBY: I have quite a different view, Mr. Chairman. Covert action is nothing new in American life. During the American Revolution, for example, the French, through covert action, were able to help the colonists fight the British without revealing their involvement. Americans were the beneficiaries of that particular covert action.
We have used covert actions ourselves at various times in our history. It is true that in the 1950s, with the organization and expansion of the CIA, there was a considerable upsurge in them. Of the covert operations undertaken since then, I would say some have been very successful and some have been disasters, some have been the wrong thing to do and some have been the wise thing to do. This applies both to covert political interventions and to paramilitary actions.
The Bay of Pigs was certainly a disaster. But consider our program in the Congo in the early 1960s. The question we faced in the Congo was whether that country, which had just gained its independence from Belgium, would be run by some toadies of the old Belgian mining companies or by men aided by Che Guevara and supported by the Soviet Union. The CIA found a midpoint between those extremes – it helped Joseph Mobuto, then a nationalist member of the Congolese forces, become the third alternative. Now, I concede that the Congo – or Zaire, as it is now called-is no garden spot and that Mr. Mobuto is not the most perfect man in the world. But I think he has considerable advantages over the alternatives.
JOHN STOCKWELL: Mr. Chairman, I grew up in the Congo and served there in the Marine Corps and as a CIA officer. I know the country very well, and I can say that the CIA intervention there was an unmitigated disaster. The United States subverted democracy in the Congo. We participated in the assassination of a prime minister who was democratically elected, Patrice Lumumba. Then we installed in power Joseph Mobuto, who is still the dictator. We have run the country into a debt of $6.2 billion -money that was spent on the multinational corporations, not on the people. In the Congo today, 25 percent of the people are starving, while Joe Mobutu has a personal fortune of about $4.5 billion. That is the result of what the CIA considers a successful covert action.
ANGELO CODEVILLA: The issue, it seems to me, is not whether the United States should try to do, the impossible – that is, fight secret wars – but whether we ought to fight wars secretly. Now, the answer to that depends on another question: Should we fight wars at all?
Three wars are now being waged in the world. All are being fought by indigenous
forces – what might be called popular forces – against the Soviet Union or Soviet surrogates. One of these wars is in Afghanistan, another is in Angola, and another in Nicaragua. In these three countries, guerrillas – people who would otherwise be living ordinary lives – have taken up arms and, accepting help from wherever they can get it, are fighting either the Soviet Union itself (as in Afghanistan) or Soviet surrogates (the Cubans in Angola, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua). I don’t believe many Americans would suggest that the United States would be better off if the pro-Soviet forces defeated the anti-Soviet guerrillas in these wars. So the real question for the United States is, shall we help the Afghans, the Angolans, the Nicaraguans defeat the Soviet Union in their countries?
What is the role of covert action in these wars, if any? I strongly disagree with Robert McFarlane’s statement, which has long been the standard view in this country, that covert action is an intermediate means between lodging a diplomatic protest and sending in the marines. If covert action is seen that way, it becomes not part of a foreign policy but rather a substitute for a policy. As Mr. Colby mentioned, the United States has succeeded in the past with the help of covert operations. But in those cases it has succeeded not because it had a brilliant covert – action program but because it had a policy. That is, the United States had a clear objective and a strong commitment to achieving that objective, and used covert action along with other means to achieve it. Covert action, then, is not the “hard option” between diplomacy and war but simply a neutral tool that mayor may not be useful in a particular situation.
But in Washington, initiating covert action is often a substitute for formulating a real policy. These covert actions and the controversy surrounding them often obfuscate what are in fact the central issues in discussions of U. S. foreign policy. We believe that we have fulfilled our obligations with regard to Nicaragua or Afghanistan if we have initiated a covert-action program. Thus, we avoid asking ourselves the hard questions: In such wars, who shall win? And how should the United States promote its interests in the outcome?
MOYNIHAN: I take it, then, your proposition is that covert operations are frequently designed to conceal indecision within the American government itself?
MOYNIHAN: Decision-making in government is a subject about which George Ball knows a thing or two. Mr. Secretary?
GEORGE W. BALL: In principle I think we ought to discourage the idea of fighting secret wars or even initiating most covert operations. We throwaway our considerable advantage over the Russians when we indulge in such things.
At the moment, the Soviet Union has very limited assets to use in extending and maintaining its authority around the world. The Soviet assets consist almost entirely of military power. The United States, on the other hand, has assets that transcend that, the greatest of which is our reputation for upholding certain principles-noninterference in the affairs of other nations, respect for their sovereignty and self- determination, and so on. This is particularly true in the Third World, which is where most covert actions take place. When the United States violates those principles – when we mine harbors in Nicaragua – we fuzz the difference between ourselves and the Soviet Union. We act out of character, which no great power can do without diminishing itself.
I think this is a very foolish thing to do. Polls are taken in Europe today asking, What is the difference between the Soviet Union and the United States? and many people answer, Well, they are both great imperialists and they are both indulging in the same kinds of behavior. I think our covert war in Nicaragua has done us considerable harm in Europe and contributed to the problems we had there last fall with the deployment of NATO missiles. When we yield to what is, in my judgment, a childish temptation to fight the Russians on their own terms and in their own gutter, we make a major mistake and throwaway one of our great assets. And we have been doing this more and more frequently in recent years. Vietnam contributed greatly to the process, but covert operations have contributed also.
Of course, part of the problem lies with our policy itself. We seem to have a Brezhnev doc- trine of our own, which we apply to areas close to the United States. According to the Brezh- nev doctrine, the Soviet Union will not accept the overthrow of any of the satellite regimes on its borders, even by popular revolution. I think we’re applying a similar doctrine to Latin America, and I think that is the way it appears to the world. There’s an old French proverb that says a man tends to acquire the visage of his adversary. What we are doing by indulging in operations of this kind is acquiring the visage of our adversary.
MORTON HALPERIN: I believe that the United States ought not to engage in covert wars or in covert operations designed to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. The constitutional grounds for this position are clear. Covert operations commit the United States to major foreign policy initiatives-to wage war – without public debate, without congressional debate, and without giving citizens the opportunity to express their views either by petitioning the government or by voting against a president because they don’t approve of his policies. In a democratic society, it is unaccept- able for the president to engage in operations that cannot be tested in the marketplace-in Congress or at the ballot box.
But there is also a practical argument. In order to succeed in overthrowing a foreign government by a paramilitary operation, there must be a consensus at home that we should undertake such an operation. But to produce that consensus, we need to debate the program openly. If in fact there is civil war in Nicaragua (which I don’t believe for a minute), if in fact there is a civil war in Angola, if in fact Afghanistan has been illegally invaded (which I think it has), then we have a right to interfere openly in support of the people we believe to be in the right. If there is a case to be made for intervening in those countries, the President ought to present it openly and Congress ought to debate it openly. If there is a consensus among Americans that we should intervene, we could go ahead openly and more effectively.
The consequences of intervening secretly are not only that in so doing we corrupt our own society, not only that we violate international law, but also that we are often unsuccessful because the President cannot generate the public support that is necessary to see it through.
MOYNIHAN: I see agreement here between Mr. Halperin and Mr. Codevilla. You probably have different views about the specifics, but you agree that a policy must be made and debated openly if that policy is to be sustained.
CODEVILLA: I would merely add that if the arguments were made openly, I believe Mr. Halperin might not like the results very much.
HALPERIN: I’m willing to run that risk.
COLBY: But an open debate on aid to the Afghan rebels, for instance, might move the United States from a position of covertly aiding the Afghans to a position of openly defying the Soviet Union. Do we really want to do that? Do we want to cause a major crisis with the Soviet Union?
LESLIE GELB: I disagree with Mort Halperin’s proposition that we ought not to interfere in the internal politics of other societies. I believe that is exactly what foreign policy is. All foreign policy is the extension of one’s internal policies into the internal politics of another nation.
I think the question is not, Should you have covert operations? The question is, What is your policy? If you have a policy that makes sense, it seems to me that in principle you could conduct covert operations supporting that policy that would make sense. In fact, it seems rather hypocritical to use the word “covert” nowadays, when we are openly discussing covert operations all the time. Which puts us in an ironical situation-discussing what is, by definition, not to be discussed.
The CIA’s overthrow of the left-leaning Arbenz government in Guatemala was an artful campaign combining psychological warfare, propaganda, and paramilitary operations that resulted in a virtually bloodless coup. Acting on orders from President Eisenhower, the agency succeeded in convincing Guatemalans that a “popular rebellion” was taking place in support of Carlos Castillo Armas, a strongly anticommunist colonel then in exile. The CIA’s “Voice of Liberation,” supposedly the rebels’ radio station, was central to the operation. David Atlee Phillips, the CIA officer in charge of the station, gives the following account in his memoirs, The Night Watch.
Castillo Armas would have three old B-26 bombers and several cargo and fighter planes, a few to be flown by Guatemalans, but most by foreign mercenaries. A staging area for the military effort had been arranged with the leader of a country bordering Guatemala. Another neighboring country would harbor a rebel clandestine radio station, which would pretend to be broadcasting from within Guatemala. . . .
D-Day. On June 18 the radio station announced that Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas and his troops had invaded. It was true: several trucks had crossed the border without opposition, Castillo Armas out front in a battered station wagon, to bivouac six miles inside Guatemala. Mario and Pepe [the Guatemalan broadcasters] used indirection to make their propaganda points: “At our command post here in the jungle we are unable to confirm or deny the report that Castillo Armas has an army of five thousand men.” In fact the army was a hundred fifty ragtag recruits. “There are reports of a battle at Esquipulas, but we do not yet have a tally of the dead.” There were no casualties; there had been no battle. Rumors buffeted the country. . .
Seven weeks had passed since the inaugural broadcast of the Voice of Liberation. It was clear there would be no military solution, with one side or the other winning a decisive battlefield victory. Castillo Armas had neither the men nor the materiel to do so, and the government, confused and lacking faith in the military, lacked the will to engage the enemy. . . .
It was decided to drop a single bomb on the capital. On the twenty-fifth ofJune a rebel pilot let one fall in the middle of the parade ground of the largest military encampment. No one was hurt, but the inhabitants of Guatemala City prepared for the worst.
The Voice of Liberation broadcast that two columns of rebel soldiers were converging on Guatemala City. In fact, Castillo Armas and his makeshift army were still encamped six miles inside the border, far from the capital. The radio skillfully created the illusion that the capital would soon be under attack: “To Commander X, to Commander X. Sorry, we cannot provide the five hundted additional soldiers you want. No more than three hundred are available.” In fact there was no Commander X, and not even three men available. There was only the hope that Arbenz and his loyalists would give up hope.
The bomb was dropped on a Friday night and the radio announcement of two imaginary columns of soldiers was broadcast on Sunday morning. Arbenz resigned in a nationwide radio speech that night. He drove to the Mexican embassy to seek asylum, and six hundred of his supporters followed. . . .
MOYNIHAN: I suggest that in the United States we openly discuss a very limited number of such operations, that the far greater portion are not discussed, but are hermetically sealed.
GELB: Well, that’s right, we do openly discuss a decided minority of the covert operations under way, but I think we generally discuss those that involve military force. They get discussed publicly in one way or another, and thus have to meet a public test.
As for specific operations, I agree with what Bill Colby said. Sometimes they have been used wisely and sometimes not, but in most cases the real problem has not been with the covert action as such or with the paramilitary operation as such. It has been with the policy itself.
RAY S. CLINE: Well, I thought I was going to be the only one here to wear the black hat and argue that covert wars are a necessary option. But Les Gelb has bailed me out there.
The first problem here is one of definition. If we are talking about military operations – wars, in common parlance – it simply is not possible to fight them secretly, as Senator Moynihan said. What we are really discussing, then, is whether we can officially admit our responsibility and involvement. For I completely agree with Mr. Gelb that the United States intervenes all the time. For a country of our size not to intervene in the affairs of o.ther countries, it would have to be living in a state of isolation that the United States never achieved, not even in the 1930s. The question to be considered is how we intervene.
Thus we are actually dealing with a rather technical problem: Is a given paramilitary intervention in a given foreign country useful to the foreign policy of the United States? As Bill Colby said, there have been times and places where such interventions have been useful, and there is no reason to suspect that they will not be useful again.
When you become as puristic as George Ball and some of the others here, and argue that the United States should never intervene in other people’s affairs, that we should maintain a standard that sets us apart from the Russians and other nasty people-this attitude, I believe, is the counsel to surrender. This attitude would have us surrender in a battle that is being fought right now. My own view, after studying the records of past covert actions and after serving in the CIA and in the State Department, is that the covert war, the secret war, is the instrument that has been chosen by the leaders and theoreticians of the Soviet Union for their struggle with the noncommunist world. This struggle is often carried out by surrogates, sometimes even by unwitting or not very loyal surrogates; but its goal nevertheless is to destabilize nations that may be critical to American foreign policy. The Syrian paramilitary operations in Lebanon provide a recent example. I believe we must face up to the fact that we are already engaged in a protracted secret war against the Soviet Union.
BALL: First, “puristic” is a fighting word where I come from. I suggested that the United States would do itself harm if it appeared to adopt the tactics and the methods of its adversary, and I hold to that position. There may well be some situations in which the United States should provide arms to an insurgent group. But I can think of very few cases where we could not pro- vide these arms openly. Why we need the CIA for that, I’m not quite sure.
Afghanistan is a special situation. The United States is paying lip service to the idea of freedom for the Afghan people, but we know that at the end of the road they are probably not going to have that freedom. We are primarily aiding the Afghan rebels in order to impose very high costs on the Soviet Union. I see big differences between the Bay of Pigs operation – where we hired an army, trained it, and then sent it off to fight in some secondhand airplanes – and a situation where we send some arms to a country that has asked us for help. If it is an insurgent group that asks us for help, so be it. But the United States is not in the Soviet Union’s position; it does not serve our objectives to exploit every sign of instability in the world in order to advance our own interests.
In helping the insurgents in Nicaragua, I think we are being dishonest with ourselves, or else we are deceiving the contras. If the United States is really only trying to stop the movement of arms and supplies from the Sandinistas to the Salvadoran guerrillas, as we officially claim, then our purpose is very different from that of these poor devils fighting in the jungle. If the supplies are eventually stopped, does the United States then say to the contras, “Sorry, chaps, we know you have been getting yourselves killed to establish a new government in Nicaragua, but now we are no longer going to help you”? This is what I mean when I say we get ourselves into positions that are contradictory and basically dishonest.
STOCKWELL: Many statements made here today have been superficial; many have been inaccurate. Finally, there has been a tendency to focus on matters so small that they are insignificant. I have already described the disastrous results of the CIA’s intervention in the Congo, which Mr. Colby cited as an example of a highly successful covert action. Now let’s consider Mr. Codevilla’s statement that few Americans would argue that the United States should sup- port the so-called Soviet-backed forces in Angola – the MPLA, which we fought during the CIA covert action in 1975 – or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. But many people did argue publicly at the time that we should support and recognize the MPLA, including Assistant Secretary of State Nathaniel Davis and our consul in Luanda, Tom Killoran. Gulf Oil also lobbied for recognition, as did David Rockefeller. In the same way, many, many people, including myself, are arguing vigorously today that the Sandinistas pose no threat whatsoever to the national security of the United States and that we could just as easily support them as attack them and kill them.
The suggestion was made earlier that our subject is a small number of semisecret wars. I came here today to talk about covert action. According to the Senate’s own studies – the investigations of your own committee, Senator – the CIA has carried out several thousand covert actions since 1961, and several thousand before then. Many of these things are bloody. If you add up the toll of victims of these operations, the number of people killed, you arrive at a minimum figure of 1 million people.
Now, what kind of people have we been killing? They are not Russians, not KGB; very few of them are even communists. In fact, we have gone into Third World countries and arranged, in one way or another, for more than a million people to be killed. I am talking now about direct victims – for example, when the United States gives arms to the contras in Honduras, and the contras go into northern Nicaragua and kill people there. The United States is trying to modify the policies of a government it doesn’t like by destabilizing the country, that is, by making the Nicaraguan people miserable – not the Sandinistas, but the people-so miserable that their country falls apart. We have given people arms, stirred things up, started wars, and killed millions of people in a kind of five-year-old’s make-believe game. These operations are so superficially planned, yet so murderous, that it boggles the mind. Consider the CIA’s operation in Indonesia in 1965. The CIA’s own reports estimate that 800,000 Indonesians died as a result of that operation. When you add up the victims of all the other, smaller covert operations – 5,000 dead here, 10,000 dead there, 50,000 dead here – you come up with an awe- some figure. We have probably killed close to 3 million people in these so-called secret wars- people of the Third World, not Russians.
The issue now in Central America is not Rus- sian subversion. The United States is playing a child’s game in Central America. The game is: let’s make believe the Russians are taking over Central America and let’s go down there and destabilize governments and kill a lot of people. That is wrong. It has discredited the United States. It has made the United States responsi- ble for genocide in the Third World.
COLBY: I would like to state clearly for the record that I consider Mr. Stockwell’s statements, and those of Mr. McGehee earlier, just plain inaccurate. For example, the allegation that the CIA somehow caused the revolution in Indonesia is flatly wrong. The allegation that the CIA caused the revolutions in some of these other countries is flatly wrong. The characterization of the CIA as operating totally on its own is flatly wrong.
As you know, Senator Moynihan, the CIA today operates under your control – that is, under the active supervision of the United States Congress. What may have happened before 1975 is another problem, but in the last ten years, thanks to the work of your fine committee and that of its counterpart in the House, Congress has had control over what the CIA does. You also know, Senator, that there are strict rules about what the CIA is authorized to do and what it is not. Again, in the last ten years, I know of no violations of those rules.
The Senate voted to support the contra in Nicaragua. The House of Representatives voted not to support them. A very clear difference of opinion about the wisdom of a particular covert action is being debated in Congress – in the democratic way of our country. These committees were established in order to debate these matters quietly, but nonetheless to debate them.
What is different about covert actions today is that if they turn out to be mistakes, they will be American mistakes. They will not be CIA mistakes, but mistakes of the administration and the Congress in power.
MOYNIHAN: Mr. Colby is referring to a series of executive orders implemented during the last ten years that define the operations the CIA might properly undertake. Establishing these two oversight committees has helped ensure that Congress is kept informed of CIA activities.
I would like to make clear that the oversight committees of Congress must, by statute, be in- formed of CIA activities. But they do not have the right to approve or disapprove. Congress may of course deny funds for particular CIA programs – which is what the current debate over funding the contras is about-but that comes later. The president retains the power to initiate CIA activities, but he must inform Congress, and Congress has its say through the annual appropriation and authorization process.
STOCKWELL: If this is such a democratic process, why does it have to be so secret from the American people? Why must we lie to the American people about CIA covert activities? Why can’t the American people share in the truth about them?
As for the assertion that this oversight process has not been violated, or that no violation has occurred during the last ten years, I would point out that in 1975, Mr. Colby gave thirty-six briefings to the Senate in which he offered false information. I myself gave the Senate cable numbers and details that prove those statements were absolutely not true, not correct, not accurate. Those statements were false.
MOYNIHAN: Mr. Stockwell, do you really want to use the word “false” about a man of Mr. Colby’s reputation?
STOCKWELL: Sir, a man who has spent his life in the CIA lives in secrecy. That means cover stories, false identities, false information, lies. Everything I did during twelve years in the CIA, everything Mr. McGehee did during twenty- five years in the CIA-virtually everything we did we had to lie about.
COLBY: Mr. Chairman, I have been accused of all sorts of things. It doesn’t bother me because I know these matters have been investigated by the committees of Congress, and the committees have not accepted the allegation that I made false statements to them.
MOYNIHAN: I was not in the Senate at that time, but it is my understanding that what Mr. Colby says is correct. I myself can certainly not accept the charges being made here today against Mr. Colby.
McGEHEE: I want to remind Mr. Colby that the CIA prepared a study of the 1965 Indonesian operation that described what the agency did there. I happened to have been custodian of that study for a time, and I know the specific steps the agency took to create the conditions that led to the massacre of at least half a million Indonesians.
While I was in the CIA I also helped prepare briefings for Congress for Mr., Colby, and it is a fact that those briefings had nothing to do with reality. The briefings were designed to present a certain picture that would allow the CIA to sell covert programs to Congress. Very few of the facts in these briefings were true. They were complete whitewash jobs.
In the CIA you learn, to do things by deceiving. When you want to undertake a covert operation, you first justify your policy, and then you implement that policy. Some attempts to justify future covert-action programs are being reported in the press right now. A prime example is the yellow rain-the chemical warfare – that the Russians and their allies are supposedly using in Afghanistan, Laos, and Cambodia.
MOYNIHAN: Are you suggesting, sir, that the yellow rain is somehow American-instigated?
McGEHEE: The claim that yellow rain has been used in these countries originates with sources in the American intelligence community, and is simply a justification to heat up the cold war and to expand our arsenal of chemical weapons.
CODEVILLA: Mr. Chairman, I believe Mr. McGehee is describing accurately only his own state of mind – that is to say, he is first reaching conclusions and then stretching reality to fit them.
To accept his statement that yellow rain is a figment of our imagination, we must suppose that some 20,000 Laotians and Cambodians willingly suffered rather nasty deaths. As for his allegation that the CIA invented yellow rain, in the late 1970s we on the Senate Select Committee had a very difficult time convincing the CIA to pay attention to what was happening. There were reports of massive deaths from yellow rain, not from one or two sources but from hundreds. There were corpses of people who had died in the most gruesome ‘ways. And the agency, because of all sorts of prejudices, re- fused to accept this evidence.
McGEHEE: Jacqui Chagnon and Roger Rumpf of the American Friends Service Committee, who have lived in Cambodia and Laos, recently visited numerous villages that were supposedly attacked with yellow rain, and they found no evidence whatsoever of such attacks.
Another example is the Libyan hit teams in 1981. A deputy director of operations in the CIA planned to overthrow the government of Libya. Of course, you need some justification to sell such a program to the American people. All of a sudden the press was filled with reports of Libyan hit teams sent to the United States to assassinate President Reagan. The agency as simply creating a justification to overthrow the Libyan government. But because the House Intelligence Committee protested, this particular CIA program was never carried out, and the American people and the political process, sometimes for a very long time.
Let’s consider Nicaragua. The Reagan Administration would have fought the whole war there secretly had-the political process in the United States allowed it. Without any public debate, the Administration made the decision to use military force against a country whose government we recognize, to arm and equip people to invade that country. And it continues to pursue this war without any full public explanation of what our goal is.
You were present, Senator Moynihan, when the Nicaraguan war was debated in the Senate. A number of senators suggested very different motivations behind it. Some talked as if its purpose was to overthrow an illegal, dangerous government. Others talked as if we were trying to halt the flow of supplies. But when the President and the secretary of state are asked why the United States is fighting in Nicaragua, they say they can’t discuss covert operations.
GELB: But the question remains: Does the overall policy make sense and does the particular covert operation under way really support that policy? If it does not, you find yourself with the diplomatic troubles George Ball suggests, or you eventually have to abandon the people you have been covertly supporting.
Take the case of Afghanistan. The United States certainly has the option of providing aid openly to the Afghan guerrillas, but I think we are not doing that for two compelling reasons.
First, such overt aid would make relations even more difficult with the Soviet Union: I don’t think the Russians mind the current fiction as much as they would overt aid to the Mujaheddin. Second, covert aid was the preferred course of the Pakistanis. I don’t think the Pakistani government would even consider playing a role if it had to admit its involvement openly.
The question you come back to is, Should we support the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan? If the United States says as a matter of principle that it will not support any insurgent group against any government, we deny ourselves reasonable choices. And if we say we have to aid these groups openly if at all, we also deny ourselves reasonable choices. I don’t want to see our government do that.
HALPERIN: No one suggested the United States stop helping people who are fighting for causes we believe are just. The question remains: What are the conditions for debating and approving that support within the United States? I believe there is overwhelming support in the United States for resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But there must be public
debate and consensus before we make a policy decision to help the Afghans.
After such a decision is reached, the operation itself can be kept secret. In the case of Afghanistan, the absence of a public debate means that we appear to be helping the Mujaheddin just enough to keep the Russians bleeding, which may satisfy those people who think that is a way to annoy them. But we haven’t faced the fundamental question: Will the United States do enough to really annoy the Russians? If the United States is going to make a difference in Afghanistan, the Russians will be annoyed with us for it. We simply must decide whether we are willing to have that kind of dispute with the Russians. We seem to believe that by providing our aid secretly we keep the Russians from being annoyed; what makes more sense is that we are providing such a small amount that it doesn’t really affect the Russians.
GELB: Well, what would be your alternative policy in Afghanistan?
HALPERIN: I would have an open debate in the United States about what our goals really are. If it was decided that we should do whatever is most effective to end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which would require substantially more money and substantially more effort, I would divert resources from other CIA operations to Afghanistan. But first we need to come to a decision to make Afghanistan a point of confrontation with the Russians.
GELB: And if the Pakistanis objected to an increased level of arms and supplies moving through Pakistan, then what would you do?
HALPERIN: Then I would try to find alternative ways to get the arms and supplies to the Mujaheddin. If we can’t do it, we can’t do it; but the notion that we should not do it because it would antagonize the Russians seems to me internally inconsistent.
MOYNIHAN: Morton Halperin said there is overwhelming public support for assistance to the Mujaheddin. I would say, rather, there is not overwhelming opposition. A very small group of knowledgeable people feel strongly about aiding the Afghan rebels, but in most of the country the mood is simply one of acquiescence. Is it not the case, gentlemen, that the number of things the American people can know about and care about at a given moment is limited, whereas the number of things that the U.S. government might have to be concerned with is a lot greater? That is one reason why we have governments. Are there not areas in which the government must act on the basis of a general mandate, rather than specific public approbation?
HALPERIN: What is important is that those who do care are able to find out what their govemment is doing.
MOYNIHAN: It seems to me that Mr. Halperin’s proposal to provide American support to the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan openly and assertively would in the end result in our doing nothing whatsoever. I believe there would be no American support for this kind of overt program.
CLINE: That is precisely why Mr. Halperin is so passionately attached to this method of reaching a decision about whether to provide aid.
CODEVILLA: The question with regard to Pakistan is this: Is Pakistan’s acquiescence in serving as a conduit for arms and other assistance for the Mujaheddin based on the fact that the Soviet Union does not know that such assistance is flowing through Pakistan? That seems unlikely. Rather, the Pakistanis cooperate because they are confident the United States will come to their aid should they be attacked by the Soviet
Union. Since the Russians know this, they refrain from attacking. I suggest that the willingness of third parties to help in covert actions depends not so much on the secrecy of their involvement as it does on their assurance that should the action ever become overt, they will receive plenty of overt support.
So I disagree that it is good to undertake only actions that are small enough to be quiet failures. I think a loud success is always preferable to a quiet failure.
GELB: The fact of the matter is that almost any covert operation that might be considered controversial is going to be debated publicly. At this point it is almost impossible to prevent it. On the issues I would guess Mort Halperin cares about most we have had precisely the kind of debate he suggests. The debates have been somewhat Kabuki-like since the operations nominally remain covert, but we have had the debates. And in the case of our aid to the contras in Nicaragua, the operation may actually be terminated by Congress.
COLBY: In recent years we have had two clear cases where public opposition to a covert operation has expressed itself in decisive action by – Congress to end that operation. Congress ordered the CIA to terminate its covert action in Angola in 1975, and it stopped dead in its tracks. And the House of Representatives recently voted to end U.S. funding of the contras, and that vote looks as though it will prevail. This shows conclusively that covert action is indeed subject to the control of the American people through their elected representatives.
As to Mr. Halperin’s statement that we should not provide only a small amount of arms, I don’t think we need be ashamed to help brave men and women fight for what they believe, even though we cannot guarantee them victory. Perhaps they will be unhappy that we are not supporting them with B-52s, but some support is perfectly justifiable in many cases. If you provide this support covertly, you obviously avoid the problems involved in challenging the other side directly.
HALPERIN: First, the covert operation in Nicaragua was begun without that public debate. The critical moment for debating a military intervention is before it begins. Clearly, once you help people start a war there are weighty arguments in favor of continuing to support them.
Second, we must recognize that, despite what may be happening in Congress, the Reagan Administration still refuses to debate these operations in public and will not publicly explain precisely what it is they are supposed to achieve. This corrodes the public debate and makes it very difficult to have an informed confrontation.
MARK DANNER: Harper’s did invite the Reagan Administration to send a representative from the National Security Council to explain its policy to this panel, but the Administration declined, saying it did not comment on intelligence matters.
STOCKWELL: What has been overlooked in all of these high-minded comments about the American people and the democratic process is the fact that the American government – our government – when it comes to covert actions initiated and encouraged by the CIA, deliberately and consistently lies to the American people. For example, during the Angolan operation in 1975, CIA propaganda programs were under way both here and abroad. We planted stories in U. S. newspapers and in papers around the world about Cuban soldiers raping Angolan women. But there had been no Cuban rapists in Angola.
And it goes without saying that we made statements and prepared formal briefings for Congress that were completely false. We had propagandists in New York and Washington, and we wrote false statements for them to deliver. I submit that this is exactly what is going on in Nicaragua today. The American people are being lied to by their leaders. Why don’t they tell the American people the truth about what is happening in Nicaragua? Then we can make an honest decision, at least.
TOM GERVASI:” Mr. Chairman, the panelists here seem to live in two different worlds, and I don’t know if I can bridge the gap. I find this very frightening because, after all, we do all live in one world, don’t we, one real world? This means that some people here are either knowingly lying or are self-deluded. It means there is disinformation right here.
I submit that unless using force to intervene it another nation’s affairs is a demonstrable act of self-defense, there is no excuse for it. And there is certainly no legitimate reason for it to be covert. The American people are perfectly capable of perceiving legitimacy if it is pointed out to them. I believe the primary reason the government refers to operations that have already been exposed (such as our support of the contras) as covert is to circumvent normal public debate of their legitimacy. If the American government feels that a particular intervention is not legitimate but is still in the national interest, then don’t we have a clear conflict between the national interest ,and the public interest?
HALPERIN: Yes, we do.
COLBY: I believe two principles dominate the use of force, whether in overt wars or covert operations. The first is the moral doctrine of self- defense. But then the question immediately becomes, What action is in self-defense? If you look at American history, you will find that a number of our military and paramilitary and covert operations were clearly in self-defense, and you will find that others were not. But I agree we should follow that standard generally.
The second principle is proportionality: a covert action is often less of an interference in a country than an aggressive military action would be, even when the military action could be taken in self-defense. Some – not all – of our covert actions can be justified by this ra- tionale. Those operations that don’t meet this test have been mistakes, for various reasons. I certainly know of several that we should never have attempted.
MOYNIHAN: One can argue, of course, that if the U.S. Congress is satisfied that an action is legal, the action need not be public, if that would make it unsuccessful or diminish its chances for success. But in fact, gentlemen, if one common theme has impressed itself upon me throughout this discussion, it is that no major American military involvement in another part of the world can be kept secret. The issue here is degrees of acknowledgment. In the real world there are things nations can do, and be known to do, but cannot do effectively if they acknowledge as much. I wonder, then, if the wise rule for governments might be: Never do anything you are not prepared, even so, to acknowledge.
This is a rule of prudence as well as of jurisprudence. The plain fact is that the United States is routinely charged with extraordinary wrongdoing, even by its own citizens. This is the price paid by a society that is both powerful and free. Such power has existed before; never, I think, in combination with such freedom. Freedom is doubly a check on the power of our government. It cannot – for long – do that which is seen to be wrong. Just as importantly, it ought not do that which can be made to appear to be wrong. Administrations need to understand that when they opt for “covert action,” they forsake and thereby abuse the most precious attribute of democracy – the opportunity to make your case.