At the time of the August 1991 attempted coup against then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Bush administration gave intelligence support to Boris Yeltsin that helped the Russian president emerge as a hero from that event, according to an article today in The Atlantic Monthly.
American officials in Moscow, with access to U.S. intercepts of Soviet defense communications, were ordered by the Bush White House to tell Yeltsin that Soviet military units were not responding to calls by the coup leaders, Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, according to the article by Washington journalist Seymour Hersh.
In addition, Hersh writes, an American communications specialist was sent to Yeltsin's headquarters in the Russian parliament office building "with communications gear and assigned to help Yeltsin and his followers make their own secure telephone calls to the various military commanders." Yeltsin urged the commanders not join in the coup, Hersh says.
Although previously published reports have documented how then-President George Bush in June 1991 warned Gorbachev that a coup was being planned against him, the Hersh article is the first indication that intelligence support was subsequently given to Yeltsin during the actual event.
Neither the CIA nor the Clinton White House would comment yesterday about the article.
Historian Michael R. Beschloss, whose recent book on Bush-Gorbachev relations, "At the Highest Levels," was cowritten by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, said yesterday that he knew of the earlier coup warnings from Bush to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but not the later channeling of intelligence data.
Beschloss added that he would not be surprised that Bush ordered help given to Yeltsin in Moscow to head off the August coup because Gorbachev, whom Bush supported, was isolated at his vacation home in the Crimea. Helping Yeltsin, Beschloss said, "fit into the Bush administration pattern we wrote about."
In his book, Beschloss reported that on the first day of the August coup, the CIA's top Soviet expert had reviewed U.S. spy satellite material and communications intercepts and found there was no major movement of Soviet troops or tanks around the country, nor any attempt to round up political opponents.
Beschloss also wrote that on the first day of the coup, Bush talked by telephone to the top American diplomat in Moscow, who had just met with Yeltsin in the Soviet president's offices across the street from the U.S. Embassy complex. The diplomat reported to Bush on the mood of Yeltsin, who had just denounced the coup and called its leaders traitors.
Hersh writes that Congress was not informed of the intelligence support given Yeltsin despite newly signed legislation that required the president to do so.