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Opinion

Why is US withholding old documents on covert ops in Congo, Iran?

The State Department has failed to release key historical documents on US action in Iran and Congo. The issue isn't just that Americans have a right to know their history; they need to know it. These records could promote peacemaking and inform key foreign policy decisions.

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Similar problems have beset the Iran manuscript, essentially complete in early 2004. The latest issue raised by the CIA concerns potential British secret service (MI-6) objections to descriptions of the joint 1953 US and British-backed coup that brought the shah to power. Yet there are no MI-6 documents in the compilation, and important aspects of the British role are already on the public record (including memoirs by US and British officials and a leaked CIA internal study published in The New York Times). Further, the State Department historian’s strategy has been to refer to the British role only in the introduction to the volume.

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Release would promote peace in region

A detailed public account of a decade of CIA political and paramilitary intervention in Congo on behalf of dictatorial forces led by Joseph Mobutu – who eventually destroyed social institutions, spawning internal and regional wars that killed millions – might strengthen Americans’ political will to support peacemaking and recovery in an important region. Telling the full story of the US-supported coup in Iran would help Americans understand why anti-Americanism has been such a prominent feature of the current clerical regime that seems set on pursuing nuclear weapons.

Also, an official accounting of the manipulations that installed the shah would be appreciated by the Iranian people (a major focus of America's Iran diplomacy). Similar CIA truth telling has been appreciated by Guatemalans and would probably be welcomed by the Congolese. Tens of millions of people in these countries and elsewhere are generally aware of the past CIA role – sometimes in distorted form. It is the official admission and accounting that is meaningful, corrects distortions, and provides some closure.

Why Americans 'need to know'

Finally, as CIA covert action roars back in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, a detailed, public examination of such major past operations would provide both citizens and policymakers with needed perspective and caution.

Over the years, insiders have recurrently expressed optimism that one or the other volumes would soon be released from captivity, only to be disappointed. Today, one picks up tentative hope that the Congo book will be out in 2012. There is also concern, however, that the Iran volume will never emerge due to CIA resistance or narrow administration fear that publishing the truth will fuel the propaganda machine of a hostile Iranian regime.

One thing is certain: There can be no guarantee that either book will appear until Americans insist on their right to their own history.

Stephen R. Weissman, former staff director of the House of Representatives’ Africa Subcommittee, is the author of “American Foreign Policy in the Congo 1960-1964” and “A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy.”

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