The CIA backstory needs to be remembered

As the debate on the Feinstein Committee’s torture report continues, we need to remember the “backstory.”

A key CIA concept is that of “plausible deniability.” This goes back to the CIA’s founding. There are certain things CIA agents do which would create problems for the political leadership of the country if they became known. But such things do often become known eventually, so the political leadership has to be able to say that these were rogue operations and they knew nothing about them.

The Church Committee hearings (see below) about the CIA’s murderous operations led to legislation designed to curb the “plausible deniability” scam, but surely the CIA has not been inhibited by this.

The torture report reveals horrific practices, but the CIA has been doing much worse things since it was founded after the second World War. To list them all would require a thick tome, but here is some of the worst:

– The overthrow of moderately progressive Iranian president Mohammed Mossadeq of Iran in 1953. Working through Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson), the CIA channeled money to Shiite clergy, prostitutes and street thugs to create a situation of disorder, during which monarchist elements of the armed forces were able to violently dislodge Mossadeq and restore Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. This was done to fend off a threat of nationalization of British petroleum interests in Iran. The pretext was an imminent “communist takeover” in Iran, a shameless lie.

– The overthrow of left-ish president Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954. The CIA managed to create a crisis situation on a shoestring, leading to an army coup. This in turn led to a civil war in which 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, mostly civilians. The pretext was again an imaginary “imminent communist takeover.” The real reason was that Arbenz’s government was trying to implement a land reform in which idle land owned by the United Fruit Company (ancestral to today’s Chiquita Banana) would be distributed to poor farmers. The head of the CIA at the time, Allen Dulles, and his brother John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, both had financial interests in United Fruit.

– The overthrow and murder of Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1961. The CIA worked with Belgium and with anti-Lumumba Congolese politicians on this. The pretext was that Lumumba was “erratic” and was causing instability. In fact the instability was brought about in part by the CIA’s machinations. At least five million people have died in civil wars in the Congo. The real reason was the mineral richness of the Congo, which the U.S. and European ruling classes wanted to keep exploiting for their own benefit.

There were similar activities worldwide, which aligned the United States with some of the most despotic regimes in world history. This has gone on in every continent except Antarctica. And the news has often slipped out as to what the CIA was doing.

For example, in 1970, left-wing guerrillas in Uruguay captured CIA asset Dan Mitrione and subsequently killed him. Out of this incident came information that Mitrione had been assigned to teach Uruguayan security forces how to torture political prisoners.

In 1975, a conscience-stricken CIA agent, Philip Agee, published Inside the Company: C.I.A. Diary, in which he revealed a massive amount of information about CIA activities all over the world but especially in Latin America. This book confirmed the suspicions of many that the CIA had its tentacles extended worldwide and that, rather than gathering information to protect the United States against outside aggression, it was involved in dirty tricks which violated both the sovereignty of numerous countries and the consciences of ordinary Americans.

That same year, a Senate committee headed by Senator Frank Church, D-Idaho, carried out hearings which revealed even more of the CIA’s trajectory of mayhem. Investigations by Seymour Hersh and others added to the horrifying picture of assassination plots against foreign leaders and other skullduggery.

But the CIA continued on its secretive and interventionist course, being especially active in the never-ending efforts to overthrow the socialist government of Cuba by means which included working with terrorist Cuban exile groups. The CIA’s alliance with violent fascist groups in South and Central America alone killed thousands. Using foreign assets was another way to establish “plausible deniability.” This is why the CIA made use of people like Cuban right-winger Luis Posada Carriles, the main suspect in the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 which killed 73 people. One of the tactics that Posada used to get off the hook at his trial was to hint that he could tell some tales about the involvement of U.S. government higher ups – thus destroying their “plausible credibility.”

So remember:

Torture and other activities by the CIA did not arise in response to 9/11/2001. This has been going on for well over half a century.

And when politicians claim they “were kept in the dark” about what the CIA was doing, they are most emphatically invoking “plausible deniability.”

Photo: Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, just before she released the report on CIA torture. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP 


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.