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Operation Ajax - The 1953 Iran Coup

This extremely important document is one of the last major pieces of the puzzle explaining American and British roles in the August 1953 coup against Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadeq. Written in March 1954 by Donald Wilber, one of the operation's chief planners, the 200-page document is essentially an after-action report, apparently based in part on agency cable traffic and Wilber's interviews with agents who had been on the ground in Iran as the operation lurched to its conclusion.

Long-sought by historians, the Wilber history is all the more valuable because it is one of the relatively few documents that still exists after an unknown quantity of materials was destroyed by CIA operatives – reportedly "routinely" – in the 1960s, according to former CIA Director James Woolsey. However, according to an investigation by the National Archives and Records Administration, released in March 2000, "no schedules in effect during the period 1959-1963 provided for the disposal of records related to covert actions and, therefore, the destruction of records related to Iran was unauthorized." (p. 22) The CIA now says that about 1,000 pages of documentation remain locked in agency vaults.

During the 1990s, three successive CIA heads pledged to review and release historically valuable materials on this and 10 other widely-known covert operations from the period of the Cold War, but in 1998, citing resource restrictions, current Director George Tenet reneged on these promises, a decision which prompted the National Security Archive to file a lawsuit in 1999 for this history of the 1953 operation and one other that is known to exist. So far, the CIA has effectively refused to declassify either document, releasing just one sentence out of 339 pages at issue. That sentence reads: "Headquarters spent a day featured by depression and despair." In a sworn statement by William McNair, the information review officer for the CIA's directorate of operations, McNair claimed that release of any other part of this document other than the one line that had previously appeared in Wilber's memoirs, would "reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security of the United States." Clearly, the "former official" who gave this document to The New York Times disagreed with McNair, and we suspect you will too, once you read this for yourself. The case is currently pending before a federal judge. (See related item on this site: "Archive Wins Freedom of Information Ruling Versus CIA")

In disclosing this history, the Times initially reproduced only a summary and four appendixes to the original document. It prefaced each excerpt with a statement explaining that it was withholding the main text of the document on the grounds that "there might be serious risk that some of those named as foreign agents would face retribution in Iran." Eventually, the Times produced the main document after excising the names and descriptions of virtually every Iranian mentioned.

In posting the main body of the history on June 18, 2000, the Times' technical staff tried to digitally black out the unfamiliar Iranian names, but enterprising Web users soon discovered that in some cases the hidden text could be "revealed" without much technical savvy. The Times quickly pulled those portions of the document and reposted them using a more fool-proof redaction method. The Archive is reproducing the latter versions of the document, even though most of the individuals known to be named in the history are either already dead or have long since left Iran.

The posting of this document is itself an important event. Although newspapers regularly print stories based on leaked documents, they far more rarely publish the documents themselves, typically for lack of space. The World Wide Web now offers a tremendous opportunity for the public to get direct access to at least some of the sources underlying these important stories — much like footnotes — rather than relying on second-hand accounts alone. The Times performed a valuable public service in making available virtually the entire Wilber history. Its precedent should be a model for future reporting that unveils the documentary record.

Although the Times' publication was not without controversy, mainly over the unwitting revelation of Iranian names, fundamental responsibility for their exposure rests with those officials at the CIA who, despite compelling public interest and the filing of a lawsuit, insisted that virtually the entire document had to remain sealed. As Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists put it:

If the CIA had exercised a more discerning classification policy and had declassified the bulk of the report, then there would have been no "leak" to the New York Times, and no subsequent disclosure of agent names. Instead, through overclassification, [Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet failed in this case to fulfill his statutory obligation to protect intelligence sources and methods.

As a brief substantive introduction, the Archive is reproducing a preliminary analysis of the document by Prof. Mark Gasiorowski (Louisiana State University), the most prominent scholar of the coup, and a member of the Advisory Panel of the Archive's Project on Iran-U.S. Relations. It takes the form of a response to a request for his "take" on the document from the listserv Gulf2000, directed by Dr. Gary Sick of Columbia University. From June 7-8, 2000, the Archive co-sponsored an international conference in Tehran on Iran and the great powers during the early 1950s, specifically focusing on the Mossadeq coup.

CIA Clandestine Service History, "Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran,
November 1952-August 1953," March 1954, by Dr. Donald Wilber.



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