Owen Jones on the CIA

This is a guet post by Mugwump

Quick fisk of Owen Jones’ latest deeply, deeply ignorant article about the CIA. The first claim that he makes is in relation to Allende’s ousting by Pinochet in 1973. He claims that “This was the other 9/11, and the CIA’s fingerprints were all over it.” Except the documentary evidence shows the CIA was not responsible for the coup, let alone having their hands “all over it.” This is the conclusion of the Church Report, Gustafson (2005). See this succinct post by Michael Ezra for the supporting extracts. More recently, Jack Devine has written a great article published in Foreign Affairs on the CIA’s role in Chile. Here are some relevant bits:

“The agency wasn’t getting regular information from high-ranking Chilean military personnel and had no meaningful relationship with Pinochet before he took power. In fact, the deputy station chief in Santiago had made contact with Pinochet but was unimpressed by him, considering him too weak to lead a coup.. The CIA’s covert efforts to reduce support for Allende played an important role in the political turmoil that characterized his time in power. But the fierce opposition Allende faced was primarily a response to his own flawed economic policies, which hurt not only the wealthy but the middle and working classes as well… I’m convinced that if the Chilean military had not intervened in September 1973, our covert-action programs [which were not aimed at a coup] would have sustained the opposition until the next election and the Allende government would have been defeated at the ballot box—a far more preferable outcome than the Pinochet regime.”

Owen then goes on to list ways in which countries have used PR firms – much of what he says is true but then he gets to this: “Kazakhstan’s pro-western dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev – who locks up dissidents and massacres striking oil workers – is a pro at PR campaigns, hiring Tony Blair at vast expense.” This is technically true but it’s important to note that Blair received no profit from Nazarbayev, he pressed the country for human rights reforms and they edited an interview with him to make it look like he supported the regime. You can still criticise his stance, here’s one reasoned response – but its important to note that Blair is not engaged in “PR” but reforms (which, per the last link, don’t seem to be going *too* well), see this correspondence to find out what the Tony Blair Foundation actually does.

Owen’s next claim is perhaps his most ignorant:

“The CIA’s catastrophic involvement in Iraq goes back much further. In 1963 Saddam’s Ba’ath party violently deposed the leftist administration of Abd al-Karim Qasim, slaughtering thousands of communists with the help of lists provided courtesy of the CIA. “We came to power on a CIA train,” boasted Al Saleh Sa’adi, the new regime’s interior minister. Today, Iraq lies shattered and bloodied.”

There is a debate in the academic literature about the CIA’s role in the 1963 coup. There are two leading views from academics. The first is from Hahn (2012) in his book “Missions Accomplished?” – he concludes that “declassified U.S. government documents offer no evidence to support” that Ba’ath officials maintained any significant links with U.S officials (p.48). The other view comes from Jacobsen (2013) – in an excellent journal article published in Diplomatic History (which I’m sure Owen, as an avid reader of Iraqi history in the 60s, inadvertently missed). In that Jacobsen, looking at the same archival material, finds that there were significant links between the CIA and the Ba’ath officials that took over in Feb 1963. Jacobsen concludes that to “end.. threats to U.S. interests, Kennedy again opted to work with local actors – in this case the Iraqi Ba‘th Party – to plan Qasim’s demise.” But Owen is still wrong for two reasons. First, as Jacobsen notes, the coup’s organisers “would have likely taken similar actions without U.S. assistance” (p.1031). Does this exonerate the U.S? Not at all, as Jacobsen notes they gave significant help in purging old regime officials – but it does mean that the coup was not a result of U.S action – despite what an Iraqi might say about a “CIA train.” Second, Owen gets his history incredibly wrong. A few months after the coup which brought the Ba’athists into power, there was another coup which removed them from power. This has no U.S involvement and was led by the pro-Nasserists (see Jacobsen, p.1057). Hence, as Diplo (2013) says: “Kennedy administration’s enthusiasm for what it regarded as the great “white hope of the Arab world” came to naught.” It is also worth bearing in mind that the short time the Ba’athists were in power, they acted in what they thought was their own interest, not the U.S. “In addition, when Iraqi and Ba’ath interests ran contrary to those of the United States, the Ba’ath regime chose to look out for itself” (Jacobsen, 1058).

It is for this second reason that any link that Owen tries to make between a 1963 coup which itself was dismantled (to be re-instated, without U.S support in 1968) and Saddam or the situation today is very very tenuous. This link becomes even more tenuous if you accept Jacobsen’s view that it would have happened anyway. It becomes more tenuous still when you consider the role of the Iranians, Al Qaeda and remnant Ba’athists post-2003. But Owen has no time for such nuance, the CIA’s coup in 1963 is responsible for Iraq being “shattered and bloodied.” (I’m not going to address the issue of causation here because I think it’s unnecessary but Owen’s idea of causation is flawed, see here). None of this should be taken as exonerating the U.S for its role in giving assistance to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranians. It is, however, noteworthy that subsequent U.S administrations made it a key policy of theirs not only to disarm Iraq of WMD but remove his regime altogether. The policies supported by Owen would likely have left Saddam in power, containment and sanctions falling and the rise of Iraqi WMD. But I will lay out my position on Iraq and evidence in a future post so I can’t elaborate beyond that right now.

Owen’s next claim is about Indonesia:

“Fearful that the country was slipping into the communist axis, the CIA supplied the coup leader General Suharto and his goons with names of leftists. Up to a million were slaughtered …”

I do not know much about Indonesia apart from a few academic articles so I am happy to be corrected on the following point: as with above, the U.S should be condemned for its involvement. Owen is right to say that they provided names and other support to a regime that was hell bent on violating the human rights of the Communist opposition. But, this does not mean that the U.S significantly increased the amount of killing that took place. As Cribb (Asian Review, 2002) notes:

“The argument that the U.S. was complicit in the killings is, I believe, part of this paradigm. There is considerable evidence that the U.S. encouraged the killings, by both providing funds to anti-communist forces and supplying the Indonesian army with the names of people whom it believed were PKI members. There is no evidence, however, that U.S. intervention significantly increased the scale of the killings” (footnote 3, p.552)

Again, this does not exonerate the U.S but it does really call for perspective. In an article claiming the CIA is the greatest terrorist organisation, there should be evidence of that rather than historical examples where the CIA was not significantly involved in what occurred.

“And Afghanistan still suffers the consequences of the CIA’s lavish support for mujahideen fighters engaged in armed struggle with the Soviets in the 1980s.”

No, Owen, no. The Taliban were a group that came into existence in 1994, long after the fall of the Soviet regime (which the U.S was rightly trying to displace). The current problems in Afghanistan have little to do with the CIA’s actions. The Northern Alliance, the only resistance to Taliban rule between the 90s and 2001 was a product of CIA activity. The Taliban, on the other hand, were bolstered by Arab and Pakistani fighters who were self-sustaining (i.e, without U.S funding). The idea that a country that was liberated with the help of the CIA and a country that is aided by the use of CIA drones is worse off because of the CIA is deeply ignorant. (See here for the great utility in drone strikes and the huge benefit of the American liberation:)

I’m not going to go through the rest of Owen’s examples because I have revision to do – but the above is more than enough to discredit his un-nuanced, historically inaccurate attack on a liberal democracy’s agency. People like Owen will write whole articles about the CIA being remotely involved in conflicts and human rights violations, condemning the West – but will rarely talk about those directly responsible.