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  • Iraq Report

    Bay of Pigs Redux

    Exclusive: How the CIA's secret war in Iraq
    turned into utter fiasco

    Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

    By Evan Thomas, Christopher Dickey
    and Gregory L. Vistica

    Issue of March 23, 1998

    In the long and checkered history of the CIA's attempts to overthrow foreign governments, there is almost always a character like "Bob." Usually known only by their code names, case officers like Bob arrive in faraway places with suitcases of cash and a knowledge of plastic explosives. Their mission is to encourage a revolution, but quietly. Men like Bob are supposed to blend in with the natives, although usually they stick out like the Stars and Stripes. "Bob"--actually, his real first name--was more invisible than most. Tall and olive-skinned, but otherwise unremarkable, he could, with the right headdress and his fluent Arabic, pass unnoticed on streets from Sudan to Kurdistan.

    Bob was, at a critical moment in the secret war against Saddam Hussein, the CIA's man in northern Iraq. Brave and resourceful, he was part of an operation that might have worked to undermine, if not unseat, the Iraqi strongman. Like many covert operations, however, this one was undone by betrayal and bureaucratic bumbling, and the sheer difficulty of removing a foreign despot, at once secretly and with congressional approval. Bob was in many ways a throwback to an earlier era, when CIA case officers were swashbucklers, but his masters at Langley, Va., burned by decades of letdown and recrimination, were cautious to the point of timidity. The result was a halfhearted attempt to do a job that called for all--or nothing.

    The failure of the CIA's $120 million operation in Iraq, which collapsed in September 1996 after Saddam's tanks rolled over Kurdish resistance fighters as they begged, in vain, for American air cover, has been fairly well documented. As the operation ended, hundreds of Iraqis died and thousands more were forced to flee to Turkey, from where they were transported to a holding camp on the Pacific island of Guam, of all unlikely places. Many have since settled in the United States. Less well known is the personal story behind the U.S. humiliation--the mixed signals and fatal misunderstandings that led to one of the worst CIA fiascoes since the Bay of Pigs. Today, Bob lives in a foreign country, still under CIA cover. Awarded a medal--but only recently cleared by an FBI investigation--he is not bitter, his friends say, but he is wiser. His story, pieced together from interviews with his colleagues, U.S. intelligence officials and policymakers and Iraqi dissidents, is a cautionary tale, worth considering as Congress clamors for yet another covert action to overthrow Saddam.

    When Bob arrived, carrying an AK-47 and wearing a burnoose, in the mountains of northern Iraq in January 1995, he was backed by what is known in the intelligence community as a lethal finding. Signed by George Bush after the gulf war in 1991, the finding ordered the CIA, in essence, to get rid of Saddam. A kind of real-world version of James Bond's license to kill, a lethal finding--which must be approved by Congress--gives the CIA authority to launch a covert operation that could result in fatalities. A lethal finding comes with two significant restrictions born of past disasters: the CIA may not plot to assassinate foreign leaders, and its propaganda may not suggest that the United States will back a revolution with military force. The former ban was imposed after the CIA's botched assassination plots against Fidel Castro were revealed in the 1970s; the latter is known as Budapest rules, after America's failure to come to the rescue of the CIA-inspired revolt in Hungary in 1956.

    Bob's bosses back at CIA headquarters in Langley were not enthusiastic about the directive to set up a covert operation against Saddam. When Frank Anderson, then the CIA's top man for the Middle East, was handed the formal, written finding in 1991, he wrote on it, "I don't like this." Anderson understood that the agency would probably not be given the resources to win, though it would certainly get the blame for failure. The agency was authorized to spend about $20 million a year on trying to overthrow Saddam, barely enough money to set up and run a clandestine radio station to broadcast propaganda--and a fraction of the amount that the CIA spent in the 1980s trying to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The most direct method for deposing a dictator--a palace coup--seemed farfetched. Saddam's secret police are ruthlessly efficient at exposing traitors. And Hollywood notwithstanding, the CIA has not staged a successful coup d'etat since the early 1950s.

    Page 2

    © Copyright 1998 Newsweek

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