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CIA Tries to Roll Back History of Eisenhower’s Rollback Doctrine

May 4, 2017

Newly declassified documents demonstrate the continuing haphazard application of United States secrecy regulations. The progress of declassification remains a one step forward-two steps back dance, with authorities responsible for the release of records misapplying applicable regulations, laws, and secrecy guidelines. Today’s illustration of this resides in a recently-declassified history of United States policy toward unrest in Eastern Europe during the period up through 1956.

Among the most pernicious practices in records release is the continuing predilection of authorities to, in effect, re-invent the wheel, regarding as “secret” information that has previously been declassified into the public domain. Whether this results from authorities not keeping track of what they have previously declassified, from carelessness, or from a desire to reclassify information is not clear. In combination with the treatment of so-called “equities,” wherein government agencies are given the opportunity to delete information from documents originated elsewhere, because a document cites that agency’s information, or even simply that the data is of a type another agency deals with, this practice has the effect of absorbing a substantial fraction of the scarce resources the U.S. government devotes to records declassification. It also increases the cost of records security, since the partially released/partly secret records must be housed in fully secure storage facilities.

Today’s subject document is one of several studies written by Ronald Landa of the Historians’ Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Landa, an experienced analyst, had previously worked in the State Department on the Foreign Relations of the United States series starting from the 1970s. He had graduated the University of Chicago and earned his PhD from Georgetown University. At OSD Landa wrote a series of historical studies profiling United States actions in a succession of situations that arose during the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. This particular paper, “Almost Successful Recipe: The United States and Eastern European Unrest prior to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution,” serves to introduce U.S. policy for that region, which becomes problematic in Landa’s further treatise on the Hungarian Revolution. This study was declassified in January 2016.

The Landa OSD history importantly shows the continuities in United States policy toward Eastern Europe during a period when that region remained under Soviet domination. From 1949, when the Truman National Security Council (NSC) adopted the policy paper NSC 58/2, through Eisenhower’s NSC-174 paper, and then NSC-5608, Washington’s policy remained one of encouraging unrest among the populations of the Soviet satellite countries, but always stopping short of any measure that could be construed as active intervention.

This point is especially important in the context of the transition from Harry Truman’s presidency to that of Dwight Eisenhower, because the latter had campaigned on promises of liberating the satellites, a so-called “policy of boldness,” and one of “rolling back” the Iron Curtain. Once in office Eisenhower held a policy review of Rollback versus Containment, famously dubbed the “Solarium Study” for the White House room where participants met. The Solarium study found the Rollback policy impossible to implement without inviting Soviet military action, potentially World War III.

Ronald Landa contrasts this formal policy with the events of the period. He points to the central role of Eisenhower adviser C. D. Jackson, who had been a psychological warfare operative for Ike when the president was a general in World War II, and who favored Rollback policies. This Washington debate encountered repeated situations that demanded policymakers take a stance. In Poland the Soviets manipulated a fictive resistance movement to call on the West for intervention. Later there were food riots and labor unrest. The Polish troubles helped catalyze the Hungarian revolution. Czechoslovakia had food riots. In East Germany there was labor unrest and riots, most notably in the summer of 1953. Landa’s work features some of the best analysis of the broadcasting of Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), which some held to be instigators of the East German riots, especially those in Berlin. The OSD history shines new light on these events and the challenges they posed for U.S. policy.

It is in covering the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) role that the government declassifiers have exceeded their bounds. A good deal of the CIA material, particularly on Poland and Albania, has been deleted in this 2016 redaction. Historian Landa shows, in passages that survived to be released, that senior CIA officials agreed it had become too difficult to operate in Eastern Europe, despite the political rhetoric of the Eisenhower campaign. Yet in Albania the U.S. itself, in a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert operation, was doing the acting. In February 1953 the CIA completed an operational plan to overthrow the communist government there. More than ten thousand exile fighters were to enter Albania from bases in Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia to accomplish this. The projected date for the invasion was set at July 1, 1954. This extravagant covert invasion was planned even though Anglo-American efforts to infiltrate Albania with exile agent teams had consistently failed, with the covert operation registering few intelligence gains. The Albanian invasion plan was shelved when the Eisenhower administration decided to employ the CIA against Iran and Guatemala during that same time frame.

Explicit mention of the CIA’s Albania invasion plan is almost entirely deleted in the Landa history. Yet we know about it in considerable detail because of documents declassified under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act (P.L. 105-246), which mandated the release of information on this subject. The law created an interagency working group with the power to release records. Between 1999 and 2007 some 8.5 million pages of wartime and postwar records were declassified under the Act. Because many Albanian exiles had been parties to war crimes (as collaborators of German or Italian occupiers) or victims of them the Albania records were included. Among 114,000 pages of CIA-era documents declassified under the Act are the files for the Albanian operation.

Thus in a 2016 declassification action the CIA is going back on document releases of a decade before. The CIA is certainly aware of the prior release—it has put out statements lauding the work as the largest congressionally-mandated single-subject declassification effort in history. And the agency spent $3.1 million on its Nazi War Crimes Act work. Going back on the Albania releases also appears to be against the current Executive Order governing secrecy, which mandates that agencies must apply for special permission to keep secret documents more than fifty years old. Equally deplorable, under the “equity” formula the Department of Defense has acquiesced in these CIA actions.


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