Kermit Roosevelt in 1953, as pictured on the dust jacket of Countercoup.
In 1979, the veteran CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. published Countercoup, his memoir of participation in the U.S. and British-backed overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953. In the absence of competing official narratives, and in spite of its swashbuckling tone, the book won a reputation as a valuable first hand account of the signal incident in U.S.-Iranian relations.
On Monday, May 12th, the Washington D.C.-based National Security Archive, a non-governmental research institute that collects, catalogues and examines declassified U.S. government documents, published 19 CIA documents pertaining to the Agency’s internal debates surrounding publication of Roosevelt’s book.
The documents reveal that the Agency raised repeated objections to the book’s contents, and that its relations with Roosevelt grew strained. By the time Roosevelt published the book, he had assented to so many changes that the CIA deemed the memoir “essentially a work of fiction.”
Shortly after the book appeared, its publisher, McGraw-Hill, withdrew it because Roosevelt had falsely identified the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) as the instigator of the coup, and the company’s successor, British Petroleum, had threatened a lawsuit. Inexplicably, when the book reappeared in 1980, references to the AIOC had been replaced by references to British intelligence, whose role the CIA has otherwise avoided acknowledging.
Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director and Director of Research at the Archive, spoke to IranWire about the documents.
What motivated Kermit Roosevelt to write Countercoup? It doesn’t seem that he set out to produce a piece of black propaganda, since he fought for the book's integrity as he saw it, but in the end he agreed to publish something the CIA called “a work of fiction.”
It’s a good question. One of the main criticisms about he book is that it is centered on Kermit Roosevelt. Some people have said that it tells you more about him than about the events he purports to describe. There certainly is a tone to the book, and an attitude, of high adventure in the Great Game of the Middle East, and he seems to think a lot of this is almost great fun, and a real adventure like [those of] his grandfather Teddy Roosevelt.
The CIA speculates about his possible pecuniary motives for publishing his memoir. But it seems that those views came out of an increasingly acrimonious situation between Roosevelt and the CIA.
You can’t tell the whole story by this handful of documents, but you definitely get that sense. I don’t know what his financial situation was, but someone inside the Agency said that they suspected he was hoping for substantial financial returns from book rights and movie rights. I have no way of confirming that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was a motivation.
At first, Kermit seems to think that there’s not going to be any problem at all, as befits someone of his station and his legendary status in the CIA, who has relationships with the high and mighty. His approach is to talk to the Shah first, and then talk to the head of the CIA to get approval, and he thinks that’s all it’s going to take.
There really wasn’t any formal mechanism in place at the CIA before the early to mid-1970s for reviewing manuscripts of this sort. Often the leading lights of the Agency, once they retired, decided to write books or articles about their adventures, and they found few obstacles.
But Roosevelt confronted a different set of attitudes at lower levels of the Agency, particularly in the operational side, that those of us who work to get more transparency [about] their operations still feel today. There are sections of the Agency that feel very strongly that nothing should be released that relates to their activities.
You see some early signs of that as Roosevelt wends his way through the process, and he becomes more recalcitrant as the process goes along.
…I love that moment, as a frequent FOIA requester. Others like me will notice the irony in that.
What was going on in the CIA at that time? Was there an emerging concern about nepotism being shown to former officials? Was the Agency digging its heels in and saying, “It’s not going to be like that any more?”
There was some of that. At this point it’s early 1977, when the Inspector General John Waller is briefing the General Council at the CIA about Roosevelt’s [book] idea. 1975 became known as the “Year of Intelligence.” It was a year when a number of highly significant, high profile investigations of the CIA and the intelligence community as a whole, and U.S. government operations in the larger picture, began to reveal tremendously sensitive, embarrassing information, as far as the Agency was concerned.
That’s their sensitivity. They are starting to try to fight back. People have a sense of the Agency as this omnipotent entity that can do anything, but in fact, starting from the mid 70s, the Agency came under intense criticism from people who thought it was doing reprehensible things, illegal acts, and was a “rogue elephant,” and those of the view that the Agency was inept, and was not doing its job. What you’re seeing in these documents is early evidence of the CIA trying to seek cover and protect itself from attacks from various different directions.
What does William F. Donnelly of the Agency’s Publication Review Board mean when, in Document 9 , he calls for an “operationally-oriented review” of Roosevelt’s book?
What I think it means is that, as an operations person—and we’re distinguishing between operations people and analysts—[he’s saying] “Look, you guys who have been working with Kermit Roosevelt so far haven’t really accomplished anything, and you have been treating him with kid gloves, and you’re hoping that he’ll come around after some good conversation and a couple of martinis.”
Donnelly seems to think that they need to take a tougher approach and appeal to Roosevelt from the standpoint of protecting CIA operations. [Roosevelt] is an old operations hand, and maybe he’ll appreciate the damage that Donnelly and his colleagues believe will come from an exposé of the type that Roosevelt wants to write.
You refer throughout your document summaries to “standard intelligence community arguments,” some of which have endured. How do those arguments compare to arguments the CIA makes now?
I was interested to see these arguments [in the documents], because there are a lot of parallels to arguments that are made today. The CIA refuses to release the internal history of the coup [that Roosevelt requested in 1977 when he was writing his book] because they say it’s going to damage national security. It strikes the rest of the world as ridiculous, because so much is known about Agency participation. If the CIA is willing to allow perhaps its chief operative [in the coup] to say all kinds of things about what happened, why on earth can’t they allow the underlying documentation to be released?
What you see in these documents, and as I’ve seen in my experience of trying to get records released through the Freedom of Information Act, is a different point of view. They are not really arguing that it’s going to make a difference if somebody suspects or doesn’t suspect an Agency role. They are arguing that it makes a difference as a matter of principle, that for the CIA to do its job, they need to be able to throw a veil over as many of their activities as they can in order not to allow the adversary, whoever it may be, any opportunity or any advantage.
I imagine that if you talked to an Agency operative, they’d say, “Yeah, sure, everybody knows we took part, but we can’t start acknowledging things because we don’t want to open the floodgates.” That is one of their principle arguments.
What is infuriating is to see how this particular story unfolded, how Roosevelt’s book finally came out after [the CIA had] gone to all this trouble to protect their brothers in MI6 in England by not allowing references to that Agency in the book. There’s no record we know of that shows anybody objecting to allowing the book to include references to British intelligence. Even the British don’t seem to have minded.
There’s a huge disconnect there. To this day we are waiting for publication of a revised volume of the official United States diplomatic history of the 1953 period, and the grounds for delaying it relate to the alleged need to protect against disclosure, on an official basis, of British involvement in the coup. Why on earth was it so sacrosanct in one minute, and then the next minute, it was okay to release it? Where is the principle there?
Who put the references to British intelligence into the book, and why?
I’m assuming that it was Roosevelt, and that he must have had at least a wink and a nod from the CIA and even from the British. It seems to me that the British must have been notified, and the trigger seems to have been this threat by British Petroleum to file suit if [Roosevelt] continued to use their predecessor company’s name [the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company] in the book. It’s amazing that [Roosevelt and the CIA] thought they could get away with that.
It seems that MI6 takes a much more conservative position on its history in relation to the coup than the CIA does.
Absolutely. From my interviews and reading into why this official U.S. diplomatic history has been delayed, it doesn’t seem that the CIA has any qualms about its own role being exposed, and in fact that’s proven by the release of documents that I wrote about last August that explicitly said that they had officially allowed declassification of a printed reference to their role in the coup.
You won’t find anything of the sort in the British files. It’s particularly odd when you look at other materials that have been released in the British archives about their operations in the Middle East. There are some really explicit records there, which I would consider potentially embarrassing. It raises the question: why does the British government feel comfortable releasing those materials, but [not materials] about the Iran operation? I can only guess that their concern is that there might be some blowback to British interests if the Iranians overreact.
How do you see the MI6 role in the coup?
We have some indication from the memoirs of people like Sam Falle, who was in the British government at the time and who talked about the coup, and from some of the other people involved. My sense is that they didn’t have all that much of a role because their representatives were no longer in the country, having been expelled the previous year by Mossadeq. I think their role was limited to coming up with the idea in the first place, pushing it first on the Truman administration and raising it again with the Eisenhower administration. The British were certainly eager to see that kind of drastic action taken, and they also certainly helped by providing planning assistance and by making available some of their own agents inside Iran.
How does the CIA’s declassification process differ from that of MI6, and of intelligence agencies around the world? It seems like there is at least some impetus towards transparency or some sense of the value of the historical record that may not exist in other intelligence agencies.
That’s quite right. I would guess that the CIA is more open relative to its brother organizations around the world, almost without exception. There is the case of the Stasi files in the former East Germany, but of course East Germany doesn’t exist anymore.
The CIA is a big organization, it’s a big bureaucracy, and no bureaucracy of that size has one monolithic point of view. It seems clear that [staff on] the operations side of things tends to be much more skittish about releasing information than, say, [those on] the analytical side. This is also a constantly evolving issue, so there may be moments when transparency advocates see a great victory, and I would say the mid-1970s was one of those times, but those are often followed by periods of retrenchment, which is certainly what happened during the Reagan period, which followed the Church and the Pike investigations.
There are always challenges that come up as people try to find ways to make the intelligence community more transparent, and that community tries to find ways to counteract that pressure. The CIA seems now to be taking a different tack in trying to protect internal historical accounts. We’ve already talked about the one that related to the 1953 coup that is still officially secret, although the New York Times printed most of it in June 2000.
The Agency seems now to be trying to argue not just that [official histories] are national security secrets, but that they represent internal deliberations that fall under the “B5” exemption that is allowed under the Freedom of Information Act. It’s supposed to apply to internal deliberations that, it is deemed, would be a bad thing to discourage within government, and would be discouraged if information about individuals’ points of view during internal policy debates were to be exposed prematurely. But in most cases these are historical accounts and they are many, many, years old. Our argument is that they’ve lost any sensitivity that they used to have.
We often find that officials, once they retire from the Agency and decide they want to write memoirs or get access to the materials they worked with, are among the most eager to see so-called secrets [become] accessible.
What was the afterlife of Kermit Roosevelt’s book?
It’s still, ironically, one of the more important accounts that’s available, and that may be a sad commentary on the limited state of the public record, but that, and the internal history that was written by one of his fellow operatives, Donald Wilber, in 1954, are two of the most important accounts available. Roosevelt did play around with a lot of the details. He makes a lot of mistakes in terms of identifying agents and there is some confusion there. But still, you have to read it if you want to know as much as is available about the coup, for better or worse.