Secrecy Obsession: An Example from the CIA

November 3, 2016–While we spend lots of our energy incredulous over the FBI and James B. Comey’s apparently stupid (or worse) intervention in the United States presidential election, all that attention draws us away from another secrecy “event” that further illuminates the insanity of the present system. This is the CIA’s recent declassification of the final volume of its internal official history of the Bay of Pigs, the disastrous project that mobilized a force of Cuban exiles to invade their home island to overthrow Fidel Castro. That April 1961 fiasco is one of the most famous in CIA lore. If you want the chapter and verse on what I’m about to say, just visit the National Security Archive where you can download a copy of the newly-released document.

As you can imagine, there were testy and treacherous internal debates at CIA over what went wrong. There was also an obligation to draw lessons from the failure. One thing President John F. Kennedy did, right after the operation, codenamed Project ATE, was to reactivate a watchdog board that had kept an eye on intelligence for his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the first things that unit did was to ask the CIA’s inspector general (IG) if he was investigating the Bay of Pigs, and when they could expect to see his report. Agency director Allen W. Dulles summoned the IG, Lyman D. Kirkpatrick, and ordered him to assemble such a report. Kirkpatrick did this over the following months and finished up late in 1961, just as Allen Dulles was retiring, to be succeeded by John A. McCone.

This timing is important to the story. Rather than pass the IG report on to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, McCone held it back while interested parties at the CIA wrote their own rebuttals to the IG, each more scathing than the next. (Sound like the Senate torture report? Right!) Only when all the refutation was ready did Mr. McCone pass the assessment along to overseers. In effect, McCone had scuttled–or, depending on how you take it, covered up–the IG report on the Bay of Pigs.

Another key to this story is the CIA’s internal debate. All the rebuttals essentially passed the buck, back to President Kennedy. One dominant theme was muddled White House decisions obliging the CIA to cut back its operation. Even more problematical was the contention, by many at the CIA, that Project ATE would have overthrown Fidel Castro if only Kennedy had permitted the agency to execute its full surprise attack planned against Castro’s air force. Both these contentions took the argument outside the CIA. But the Inspector General’s job was to carry out reviews that improved efficiency within the agency. Kennedy’s decisions were not within his purview. Yet here the IG was attacked bitterly by his own colleagues for doing his job–improving efficiency–by criticisms (and there were many) of how the operation had been conducted.

Now let’s skip ahead. Late in the 1970s the CIA commissioned a massive internal history of the Bay of Pigs. Official historian Jack Pfeiffer got the assignment to do the study. He spent five years on that job, splitting the history into microscopic studies of the air campaign, the evolution of the CIA plan, the agency’s dealings with the Cuban exiles, the presidential commission inquiry, and, in this volume, the now-suppressed Kirkpatrick report. The CIA’s chief historian of that time, we are told, judged this volume inadequate. Pfeiffer retired in 1984, before he could complete revisions to this study, which therefore remains a “draft.”

What was objectionable about the Pfeiffer history? Not much, at least in this volume. Scrambling to make lemonade on the occasion of the document’s 2016 declassification, current CIA chief historian David Robarge writes the history was not acceptable “because of serious shortcomings in scholarship, . . . polemical tone, and . . .failure to add significantly to an understanding of the controversy.” But reading the document shows its author correctly footnoting his sources, using relevant official records, and displaying other tools of the historian’s trade. We might say the history is tendentious, in that its author spends a good deal of space on textual interpretation of other CIA histories and documents to make his points–but that precise method is used successfully by many historians. Scholarship is not evidently at issue. The “not adding to the history” part we’ll put aside, since several books of this era made the best seller lists precisely by revealing some of the same information that is in these histories. That criticism is a throwaway line.

The Pfeiffer history is polemical, very much so, in siding with the failed leaders of the project and CIA rank and file who condemned the IG for criticizing agency practice. Pfeiffer still reflects, in the 70s and 80s, the testy attitude that Kirkpatrick was a careerist out to take over CIA’s operations directorate, and he also clearly shares the notion that the Bay of Pigs would have worked if only Jack Kennedy had fully unleashed the CIA exile air force. Both these attitudes were CIA orthodoxy, not controversial at all. As a matter of fact, agency dislike for “Kirk,” as he was called, lasted long after Pfeiffer himself departed Langley. In 1998, when a CIA retiree association newsletter wrote of the Inspector General’s office, it lambasted Kirkpatrick and the Bay of Pigs report in this identical fashion–as the man who wanted to run operations so bad he’d do anything. The criticism seemed so unfair to CIA old timer Tom Polgar that he wrote a letter in protest.

Meanwhile, much of history is polemical, and, in Bill Casey’s CIA, when agency analysis was possibly at its most politicized, it was no sin to be polemical in a history. This sounds like a “those grapes were sour anyway” sort of objection, or perhaps something conjured as an excuse to shoot down a study that made top echelons uncomfortable.

Jack Pfeiffer left the agency convinced that it had covered up the Bay of Pigs failure by restricting access to both the Kirkpatrick report (and rebuttals) and the White House review (called the Taylor Commission report). He notes that “external requests for access to the reports have caused and continue to cause great consternation at the highest levels in the Agency.” Pfeiffer added, “After more than twenty years, it appears that fear of exposing the Agency’s dirty linen, rather than any significant security information, is what prompts continued denial of requests for release of these records.” Not long afterwards Mr. Pfeiffer filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the release of his histories.

Here is where our story really begins. In 1984 the CIA asked Congress for–and obtained–an exemption from FOIA for “operational records.” It described operational records as agent and project case files, substantive materials. The CIA then used the “operational records” exemption to refuse to release its Bay of Pigs histories, calling them operational files. Jack Pfeiffer went to his death still pleading for release of the histories.

History marches on–and that also means records get older and become less sensitive. Redacted versions of the Taylor Commission hearings became available in the 1980s. They were White House, not CIA records, so the agency lacked complete control over them. The Kirkpatrick report and its rebuttals were opened in expurgated form around the millennium. They have since appeared in substantially complete form. National Security Archive analyst Peter Kornbluh even published the IG document and most refutations in a book that appeared in 1998.

Still secret were the Pfeiffer Bay of Pigs histories, the CIA’s official record. The third volume, the one concerning the anti-Castro Cubans and the exile brigade, was released by the CIA’s Historical Review Program in 1998. The JFK Assassination Records Board compelled the disclosure. That’s important–here the agency gave up the claim these were “operational records”–except that it did not. Here’s where the “deliberative process” exemption took a front seat. That presumably meant a document that is advisory in nature and pertinent to arriving at a decision. Under pressure of additional and repeated declassification requests, spearheaded by the Archive’s Kornbluh, in July 2011 the CIA yielded and let out three more volumes of Pfeiffer’s history. But Volume 5 it continued to withhold under “deliberative process.”

The National Security Archive sued CIA over this and won a judgment, but Archive lost the CIA’s appeal, which let stand the absurd exemption. The court found that creators of the exemption had put no time limit upon its exercise. Think about it–the Pfeiffer history explicitly covers the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, in which CIA covered up its mistakes and suppressed the IG report that tabulated them. That IG report itself was already in the public domain. There is nothing of deliberative process about this. And the document is a history not an advisory paper. In due course Dr. David Barrett of Villanova University again FOIAed the Pfeiffer history and, when the agency denied it again, prepared to take them to court. Meanwhile, Congress passed a new law embodying changes in the Freedom of Information Act. Among them is a legal requirement to consider the public interest in the release of documents, and one that limits the deliberative process exemption to 25 years. Both those things, especially the second, would have condemned the CIA to disaster in a court proceeding, and would have ended up costing you, the American taxpayer, when CIA is found liable for the court costs of this mess. The “context note” from the agency chief historian reveals nothing of this history. Instead CIA takes credit for moving to affirmatively release a document to which the new legal strictures apply.

That is how they play the game. You can be sure that the Pfeiffer history would not have been released except that it was the subject of a lawsuit, and that no extensive release of CIA predecisional documents older than 25 years impends.

Finally, let’s look at the actual and “articulable” damage to United States national security that regulations specify must be present for a document to be made secret. There was an IG report on the Bay of Pigs. No secret there. The report was actually declassified years ahead of this analysis of it. The CIA covered up the Kirkpatrick report. Not widely known, but no secret–and no evident source of national security damage. CIA officers thought Lyman Kirkpatrick a careerist. So what?

What’s left is this : CIA officers into the late 70s and 80s still persisted in the delusion–reflected in Pfeiffer’s writing–that the Bay of Pigs would have worked if there had only been a bigger air strike. Embarrassing, but no national security impact. In fact, the regulations explicitly prohibit imposing secrecy for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment. Second, that a CIA historian might write that the agency is afraid to air its dirty laundry. National security damage? No. Also, that the Bay of Pigs coverup continued by means of the secrecy in which the Pfeiffer history was held. There’s the big enchilada. That does not damage the national security either but think of the tortured logic–the document has to be secret because it was secret (and embarrassing), and the secrecy mavens are entitled to invent or utilize any exemption they can think of to maintain that state. What Jack Pfeiffer wrote in 1984 is still true more than 30 years later.

So, watch the FBI secrecy investigation. The classifications, the descriptions of what are true reasons why things on Hillary’s, or anyone else’s computers, are secret have been imposed by the same bureaucracy that held on to the CIA Bay of Pigs history. You’ve already read in this space about those folks retroactively deciding that things are secret (another violation of regulations). The system is rotten at its core. The FBI wants to be seen as diligent enforcers of this system. So be it–but first make the secrecy system worth defending.

COMMENT BY DR. DAVID M. BARRETT: “Your blog’s treatment of the CIA and the Pfeiffer history of the Bay of Pigs, volume 5, was brought to my attention yesterday, and I want to express my admiration for your analysis. I was delighted to have that volume declassified by the CIA, but I was quite annoyed to see the Agency claim that they were doing so because of the change in the law. My attorney and I have (in writing) the Agency’s explanation to a federal judge (in the case Barrett v. CIA) that they were declassifying it due to my (and surely others’) FOIA request(s) and because of the lawsuit. But, as you note, the Agency’s chief historian claims otherwise.”–November 21, 2016.

 

 

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