National Security

CIA Admits It Was Behind Iran's Coup

The agency finally owns up to its role in the 1953 operation.

Sixty years ago this Monday, on August 19, 1953, modern Iranian history took a critical turn when a U.S.- and British-backed coup overthrew the country's prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The event's reverberations have haunted its orchestrators over the years, contributing to the anti-Americanism that accompanied the Shah's ouster in early 1979, and even influencing the Iranians who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran later that year.

But it has taken almost six decades for the U.S. intelligence community to acknowledge openly that it was behind the controversial overthrow. Published here today -- and on the website of the National Security Archive, which obtained the document through the Freedom of Information Act -- is a brief excerpt from The Battle for Iran, an internal report prepared in the mid-1970s by an in-house CIA historian.

The document was first released in 1981, but with most of it excised, including all of Section III, entitled "Covert Action" -- the part that describes the coup itself. Most of that section remains under wraps, but this new version does formally make public, for the first time that we know of, the fact of the agency's participation: "[T]he military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy," the history reads. The risk of leaving Iran "open to Soviet aggression," it adds, "compelled the United States ... in planning and executing TPAJAX."

TPAJAX was the CIA's codename for the overthrow plot, which relied on local collaborators at every stage. It consisted of several steps: using propaganda to undermine Mossadegh politically, inducing the Shah to cooperate, bribing members of parliament, organizing the security forces, and ginning up public demonstrations. The initial attempt actually failed, but after a mad scramble the coup forces pulled themselves together and came through on their second try, on August 19.

Why the CIA finally chose to own up to its role is as unclear as some of the reasons it has held onto this information for so long. CIA and British operatives have written books and articles on the operation -- notably Kermit Roosevelt, the agency's chief overseer of the coup. Scholars have produced many more books, including several just in the past few years. Moreover, two American presidents (Clinton and Obama) have publicly acknowledged the U.S. role in the coup.

But U.S. government classifiers, especially in the intelligence community, often have a different view on these matters. They worry that disclosing "sources and methods" -- even for operations decades in the past and involving age-old methods like propaganda -- might help an adversary. They insist there is a world of difference between what becomes publicly known unofficially (through leaks, for example) and what the government formally acknowledges. (Somehow those presidential admissions of American involvement seem not to have counted.)

Finally, there is the priority of maintaining good relations with allies, particularly in the intelligence arena. British records from several years ago (see the National Security Archive's posting today) show that the Foreign Office (and presumably MI6, which helped plan and carry out the coup) has been anxious not to let slip any official word about its involvement. To outside observers, this subterfuge borders on the ludicrous given that Iranians have assumed London's role for so long. Yet, by most indicators, the U.S. intelligence community has gone along, regardless of the consequences for Americans' understanding of their own history.

The fact that the CIA has now chosen to shift direction, at least this far, is something to be welcomed. One can only hope it leads to similar decisions to open up the historical record on topics that still matter today.


Redacted cover of the report released in 1981:


Cover of the now fully declassified report:

AFP/Getty Images

National Security

The Secret History of the U-2

A just-released CIA report pulls the covers off America's most famous spy plane -- and Area 51.

On February 21, 1955, Richard M. Bissell, a senior CIA official, wrote a check on an agency account for $1.25 million and mailed it to the home of Kelly Johnson, chief engineer at the Lockheed Company's Burbank, California, plant. According to a newly declassified CIA history of the U-2 program, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive, the agency was about to sign a contract with Lockheed for $22.5 million to build 20 U-2 aircraft, but the company needed a cash infusion right away to keep the work going. Through the use of "unvouchered" funds -- virtually free from any external oversight or accounting -- the CIA could finance secret programs, such as the U-2. As it turned out, Lockheed produced the 20 aircraft at a total of $18,977,597 (including $1.9 million in profit), or less than $1 million per plane. In other words, the project came in under budget, a miracle in today's defense contracting world.

A source of deep pride for the U.S. intelligence community, the U-2 program survived the May 1, 1960, shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union, and the plane went on to spy for the CIA until 1974 -- and the Air Force still operates the latest version today. Nevertheless, the agency has been holding back information about the U-2 for years. At a 1998 CIA-sponsored symposium to celebrate the U-2 program, one of the conference speakers was asked to refrain from mentioning how Chinese Nationalist pilots, based in Taiwan, flew agency U-2s over and near the People's Republic to gather intelligence on the PRC, including its nuclear programs. The speaker ignored the request, but that did not stop the CIA from maintaining that such information should remain officially classified. That position was reflected in a heavily redacted volume, The CIA and the U-2 Program, which the agency released to the public at the time of the conference.

Fifteen years later, the CIA has become considerably less reticent about revealing details of the program, as demonstrated by the newly declassified The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Program, 1954-1974, from which the 1998 volume was drawn. This report, which the National Security Archive is posting today, openly credits Chinese Nationalist pilots with numerous missions over the People's Republic of China to gather intelligence on both military facilities and industrial areas, although details of a flight over a nuclear facility are deleted. British participation in the program is also now spared from redaction -- participation that included flights over the Soviet Union. The history also notes President Dwight Eisenhower's belief that the British role would confuse the Soviets as to who was behind the program.

And while it discusses Britain as an ally in gathering intelligence, the history reports on France as a target -- specifically, the French nuclear testing facility in the Pacific, photographed by the only U-2 to operate off an aircraft carrier. India, Indonesia, and Tibet also figure in the less redacted version -- the latter two as cases where the U-2 was used to support CIA covert operations in the late 1950s. Between March 28 and June 12, 1958 agency U-2 pilots flew 30 missions over Indonesia in support of the effort to oust President Sukarno, whom the Eisenhower administration found troublesome.

Back in the United States, Area 51 (a.k.a. Groom Lake), the secret facility in Nevada where the U-2 and other clandestine aircraft were tested, now makes repeated appearances in the history, including a declassified map showing where Area 51 actually is. So do other secret aircraft. The section on China discusses the STPOLLY effort (the use of P-2V planes to conduct low-altitude electronic intelligence missions), and two unmanned aircraft programs (AQUILINE and AXILLARY) are featured prominently in an appendix.

The final take-away, after 355 pages of inside history, is to wonder why the government kept all of this secret for so long. For example, what was the point of keeping secret the CIA's assessment that British author Chris Pocock's book, Dragon Lady, is "by far the most accurate unclassified account of the U-2 program"?

Area 51 map

1. A map of Area 51, a secret Air Force base northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, which has been fodder for conspiracy and UFO theories for years. Once CIA officials had selected the area as a site for U-2 flight tests, they asked the Atomic Energy Commission to attach it to Nevada (Nuclear) Test Site territory that the commission already controlled.


2. To keep U-2 development going, senior CIA official Richard M. Bissell wrote a $1.25 million check and mailed to the home of Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson. This is an example of the agency’s use of unvouchered funds and secret bank accounts to support its covert activities.

Bissell Check to Kelly

3. The CIA’s secret aid to India, in the form of U-2 flights over Chinese military deployments after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, is one of the revelations in the agency’s new release. The Indian government later gave the CIA access to an abandoned air base at Charbatia to support the flights.

USAF/Getty Images