National Security

Vladimir Channels the Gipper

Putin's rationale for invading Crimea sounds a lot like Reagan's for invading Grenada.

Some of the most interesting analyses of the situation in Crimea have been written on the blog of the former American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock. Matlock, who served Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, reminds Americans to empathize with Moscow about why Russian leaders might feel justified in violating Ukrainian sovereignty. "Russia would point out," he writes, that the United States violated Panamanian sovereignty to arrest Manuel Noriega, invaded Iraq on "spurious grounds," and has targeted individuals in at least six sovereign countries for assassination using drones. And don't forget, Matlock urges us, that in 1983 the United States "invaded Grenada to prevent American citizens from being taken hostage (even though they had not been taken hostage)."

Imagine the chuckle I had, then, a day later when the Reagan Presidential Library finally mailed me its response to a Freedom of Information Act request I had filed three years earlier for National Security Decision Directives 105 and 110A. The directives, signed by Reagan, described how and why the United States should invade Grenada.

On October 23, 1983, Reagan ordered that "The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in coordination with the Secretary of State and the Director of Central Intelligence [will] take control of Grenada, no later than dawn Tuesday, October 25, 1983." This military invasion was justified, according to NSDD 110A, because "recent violence and instability have created a situation which could seriously jeopardize the lives and safety of American citizens." 

NSDD 105 spelled out other justifications for installing a Grenadian government that would be friendly to the United States: "A significant portion of our imported oil and U.S. commercial shipping transits through the sea lanes of the Eastern Caribbean. U.S. military logistic support and reinforcements essential for use in a Persian Gulf contingency must also pass through the region." Another Caribbean island under Soviet influence could, therefore, pose a "significant threat to our economic and security interests."

Reagan buttressed the military action with "a coordinated legislative and public affairs strategy" that would emphasize "the multi-lateral character of our actions"; "the human rights, abuses, and oppression of the current regime and the recent violence which potentially endangers U.S. lives"; and -- with no apparent irony -- "the democratic nature of the new government being installed."

In many ways, Russian President Putin seems to be reading from Reagan's 1983 script. His professed impetus for Crimea's annexation was the "anti-constructional takeover, an armed seizure of power" in Kiev. At a March 4 press conference he "retained the right to use all available means to protect" the Russian-speaking population in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. He has justified the annexation by stating: "We have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO's navy would be right there in this city of Russia's military glory [Sevastopol], and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia."

Similarly, Reagan's authorization of "appropriate covert and deception measures ... to mislead the present Grenadian regime and the Cubans concerning our true intentions" mirrors Putin's use of subterfuge in Crimea -- namely the flagless, balaclava-clad, unidentified commandos who quickly and surreptitiously claimed key Crimean airports, bases, and other strategic points.

The U.S. invasion of Grenada does differ from today's Crimea situation in several ways. For one, the Organization of the Eastern Caribbean States did formally request U.S. help in removing "the outlaw regime on Grenada." (Britain, Canada, and the U.N. General Assembly criticized the invasion.) Additionally, a coalition of allied Caribbean military forces did participate in the attack. Russia has acted unilaterally, failing to secure political support from even Belarus. Russia has threatened to cut energy exports, whereas the United States feared a potential blockade in 1983. And, of course, the United States did not annex Grenada after successfully installing a pro-American government. 

Obviously, the revelations included in Reagan's order to invade Grenada in no way constitute legal, political, or moral justification for the Russian annexation of Crimea. These declassified documents do, however, provide historical context for Amb. Matlock's observations on the fickleness of great-power calls for respecting the sovereignty of other nations. After all, it was then-Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko who called the American violation of Grenadian sovereignty a "piratical act of terrorism and a challenge to the entire world."*

However altruistically motivated the United States claims its foreign interventions to be, even short-term military actions set decades-long precedents that our adversaries use to claim that they, too, must invade sovereign nations to protect their interests.

*Correction, Mar. 28, 2014: This article originally misstated the office held by Andrei Gromyko in 1983. He was Soviet minister of foreign affairs, not ambassador to the United States. (Return to reading.)

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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:

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