The Largest Covert Operation in CIA History

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The
Central Intelligence Agency has an almost unblemished record of
screwing up every "secret" armed intervention it ever
undertook. From the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953
through the Bay of Pigs, the failed attempts to assassinate Fidel
Castro of Cuba and Patrice Lumumba of the Republic of Congo, the
Phoenix Program in Vietnam, the "secret war" in Laos,
aid to the Greek colonels who seized power in 1967, the 1973 killing
of Salvador Allende in Chile and Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra war
against Nicaragua, there is not a single instance in which the agency’s
activities did not prove acutely embarrassing to the United States.
The CIA continues to get away with this primarily because its budget
and operations have always been secret and Congress is normally
too indifferent to its constitutional functions to rein in a rogue
bureaucracy. Therefore the tale of a purported CIA success story
should be of some interest.

According
to the author of the newly released Charlie
Wilson’s War
, the exception to CIA incompetence was the
arming between 1979 and 1988 of thousands of Afghan moujahedeen
("freedom fighters"). The agency flooded Afghanistan with
an astonishing array of extremely dangerous weapons and "unapologetically
mov[ed] to equip and train cadres of high tech holy warriors in
the art of waging a war of urban terror against a modern superpower,"
in this case, the USSR.

The
author of this glowing account, George Crile, is a veteran producer
for the CBS television news show "60 Minutes" and an exuberant
Tom Clancy-type enthusiast for the Afghan caper. He argues that
the U.S. clandestine involvement in Afghanistan was "the largest
and most successful CIA operation in history" and "the
one morally unambiguous crusade of our time." He adds that
"there was nothing so romantic and exciting as this war against
the Evil Empire." Crile’s sole measure of success is the number
of Soviet soldiers killed (about 15,000), which undermined Soviet
morale and contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union
in the period from 1989 to 1991. That’s the successful part.

However,
he never mentions that the "tens of thousands of fanatical
Muslim fundamentalists" the CIA armed are some of the same
people who in 1996 killed 19 American airmen at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia;
bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; blew a hole
in the side of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Aden harbor in
2000; and on Sept. 11, 2001, flew hijacked airliners into New York’s
World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Today, the world awaits what
is almost certain to happen soon at some airport – a terrorist
firing a U.S. Stinger low-level surface-to-air missile (manufactured
at one time by General Dynamics in Rancho Cucamonga) into an American
jumbo jet. The CIA supplied thousands of them to the moujahedeen
and trained them to be experts in their use. If the CIA’s activities
in Afghanistan are a "success story," then Enron should
be considered a model of corporate behavior.

Nonetheless,
Crile’s account is important, if appalling, precisely because it
details how a ruthless ignoramus congressman and a high-ranking
CIA thug managed to hijack American foreign policy. From 1973 to
1996, Charlie Wilson represented the 2nd District of Texas in the
U.S. House of Representatives. His constituency was in the heart
of the East Texas Bible Belt and was the long-held fiefdom of his
fellow Democrat, Martin Dies, the first chairman of the House Un-American
Affairs Committee. Wilson is 6 feet, 4 inches tall and "handsome,
with one of those classic outdoor faces that tobacco companies bet
millions on." He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1956,
eighth from the bottom of his class and with more demerits than
any other cadet in Annapolis history.

After
serving in the Texas Legislature, he arrived in Washington in 1973
and quickly became known as "Good Time Charlie," "the
biggest playboy in Congress." He hired only good-looking women
for his staff and escorted "a parade of beauty queens to White
House parties." Even Crile, who featured Wilson many times
on "60 Minutes" and obviously admires him, describes him
as "a seemingly corrupt, cocaine snorting, scandal prone womanizer
who the CIA was convinced could only get the Agency into terrible
trouble if it permitted him to become involved in any way in its
operations."

Wilson’s
partner in getting the CIA to arm the moujahedeen was Gust Avrakotos,
the son of working-class Greek immigrants from the steel workers’
town of Aliquippa, Pa. Only in 1960 did the CIA begin to recruit
officers for the Directorate of Operations from among what it called
"new Americans," meaning such ethnic groups as Chinese,
Japanese, Latinos and Greek Americans. Until then, it had followed
its British model and taken only Ivy League sons of the Eastern
Establishment. Avrakotos joined the CIA in 1961 and came to nurture
a hatred of the bluebloods, or "cake eaters," as he called
them, who discriminated against him. After "spook school"
at Camp Peary, next door to Jamestown, Va., he was posted to Athens,
where, as a Greek speaker, he remained until 1978.

During
Avrakotos’s time in Greece, the CIA was instrumental in destroying
Greek freedom and helping to turn the country into probably the
single most anti-American democracy on Earth today. Incredibly,
Crile describes this as follows: "On April 21, 1967, he [Avrakotos]
got one of those breaks that can make a career. A military junta
seized power in Athens that day and suspended democratic and constitutional
government." Avrakotos became the CIA’s chief liaison with
the Greek colonels. After the fall of the colonels’ brutally fascist
regime, the 17 November terrorist organization assassinated the
CIA’s Athens station chief, Richard Welch, on Dec. 23, 1975, and
"Gust came to be vilified in the Greek radical press as the
sinister force responsible for most of the country’s many ills."
He left the country in 1978 but could not get another decent assignment
– he tried for Helsinki – because the head of the European Division
regarded him as simply too uncouth to send to any of its capitals.
He sat around Langley for several years without work until he was
recruited by John McGaffin, head of the Afghan program. "If
it’s really true that you have nothing to do," McGaffin said,
"why not come upstairs? We’re killing Russians."

Wilson
was the moneybags and sparkplug of this pair; Avrakotos was a street
fighter who relished giving Kalashnikovs and Stingers to the tribesmen
in Afghanistan. Wilson was the more complex of the two, and Crile
argues that his "Good Time Charlie" image was actually
a cover for a Barry Goldwater kind of hyper-patriotism. But Wilson
was also a liberal on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and a
close friend of the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-Texas),
and his sister Sharon became chairwoman of the board of Planned
Parenthood.

As
a boy, Wilson was fascinated by World War II and developed an almost
childlike belief that he possessed a "special destiny"
to "kill bad guys" and help underdogs prevail over their
enemies. When he entered Congress, just at the time of the Yom Kippur
War, he became a passionate supporter of Israel. After he traveled
to Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee began to
steer large amounts of money from all over the country to him and
to cultivate him as "one of Israel’s most important Congressional
champions: a non-Jew with no Jewish constituents." Jewish members
of Congress also rallied to put Wilson on the all-powerful Appropriations
Committee in order to guarantee Israel’s annual $3-billion subsidy.
His own Texas delegation opposed his appointment.

Wilson
was not discriminating in his largess. He also became a supporter
of Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza, the West Point graduate and
dictator of Nicaragua who in 1979 was swept away by popular fury.
Before that happened, President Carter tried to cut the $3.1-million
annual U.S. aid package to Nicaragua, but Wilson, declaring Somoza
to be "America’s oldest anti-Communist ally in Central America,"
opposed the president and prevailed.

During
Wilson’s long tenure on the House Appropriations Committee, one
of its subcommittee chairmen, Clarence D. "Doc" Long,
used to have a sign mounted over his desk: "Them that has the
gold makes the rules." Wilson advanced rapidly on this most
powerful of congressional committees. He was first appointed to
the foreign operations subcommittee, which doles out foreign aid.
He then did a big favor for then-Speaker Thomas P. "Tip"
O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). The chairman of the Defense Appropriations
subcommittee at the time, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), had been caught
in the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation in which an agent disguised
as a Saudi sheik offered members of Congress large cash bribes.
O’Neill put Wilson on the Ethics Committee to save Murtha, which
he did. In return, O’Neill assigned Wilson to the defense appropriations
subcommittee and made him a life member of the governing board of
the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center, where he delighted in
taking his young dates. Wilson soon discovered that all of the CIA’s
budget and 40 percent of the Pentagon’s budget is "black,"
hidden from the public and even from Congress. As a member of the
defense subcommittee, he could arrange to have virtually any amount
of money added to whatever black project he supported. So long as
Wilson did favors for other members on the subcommittee, such as
supporting defense projects in their districts, they would never
object to his private obsessions.

About
this time, Wilson came under the influence of a remarkable, rabidly
conservative Houston woman in her mid-40s, Joanne Herring. They
later fell in love, although they never married. She had a reputation
among the rich of the River Oaks section of Houston as a collector
of powerful men, a social lioness and hostess to her fellow members
of the John Birch Society. She counted among her friends Ferdinand
and Imelda Marcos, dictator and first lady of the Philippines, and
Yaqub Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, D.C., who got Herring
named as Pakistan’s honorary consul for Houston.

In
July 1977, the head of Pakistan’s army, Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, seized
power and declared martial law, and in 1979, he hanged Zulfikar
Ali Bhutto, the president who had promoted him. In retaliation,
Carter cut off U.S. aid to Pakistan. In 1980, Herring went to Islamabad
and was so entranced by Zia and his support for the Afghan freedom
fighters that on her return to the United States, she encouraged
Wilson to go to Pakistan. There he met Zia, learned about the Afghan
moujahedeen and became a convert to the cause. Once Reagan replaced
Carter, Wilson was able to restore Zia’s aid money and added several
millions to the CIA’s funds for secretly arming the Afghan guerrillas,
each dollar of which the Saudi government secretly matched.

Although
Wilson romanticized the mountain warriors of Afghanistan, the struggle
was never as uneven as it seemed. Pakistan provided the fighters
with sanctuary, training and arms and even sent its own officers
into Afghanistan as advisors on military operations. Saudi Arabia
served as the fighters’ banker, providing hundred of millions with
no strings attached. Several governments, including those of Egypt,
China and Israel, secretly supplied arms. And the insurgency enjoyed
the backing of the United States through the CIA.

Wilson’s
and the CIA’s greatest preoccupation was supplying the Afghans with
something effective against the Soviets’ most feared weapon, the
Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship. The Red Army used it to slaughter
innumerable moujahedeen as well as to shoot up Afghan villages.
Wilson favored the Oerlikon antiaircraft gun made in Switzerland
(it was later charged that he was on the take from the Zurich-based
arms manufacturer). Avrakotos opposed it because it was too heavy
for guerrillas to move easily, but he could not openly stand in
Wilson’s way. After months of controversy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff
finally dropped their objections to supplying the American Stinger,
President Reagan signed off on it, and the "silver bullet"
was on its way. The Stinger had never before been used in combat.
It proved to be murderous against the Hinds, and Soviet President
Mikhail S. Gorbachev decided to cut his losses and get out altogether.
In Wilson’s postwar tour of Afghanistan, moujahedeen fighters surrounded
him and triumphantly fired their missiles for his benefit. They
also gave him as a souvenir the stock from the first Stinger to
shoot down a Hind gunship.

The
CIA "bluebloods" fired Avrakotos in the summer of 1986,
and he retired to Rome. Wilson became chairman of the Intelligence
Oversight Committee, at which time he wrote to his CIA friends,
"Well, gentlemen, the fox is in the hen house. Do whatever
you like." After retiring from Congress in 1996, he became
a lobbyist for Pakistan under a contract that paid him $30,000 a
month. Meanwhile, the United States lost interest in Afghanistan,
which descended into a civil war that the Taliban ultimately won.
In the autumn of 2001, the United States returned in force after
Al Qaeda retaliated against its former weapon supplier by attacking
New York and Washington. The president of the United States went
around asking, "Why do they hate us?"

Crile
knows a lot about these matters and presents them in a dramatic
manner. There are, however, one or two items that he appears unaware
of or is suppressing. For the CIA legally to carry out a covert
action, the president must authorize a document called a finding.
Crile repeatedly says that Carter signed such a finding ordering
the CIA to provide covert backing to the moujahedeen after the Soviet
Union invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979. The truth of the matter
is that Carter signed the finding on July 3, 1979, six months before
the Soviet invasion, and he did so on the advice of his national
security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in order to try to provoke
a Russian incursion. Brzezinski has confirmed this sequence of events
in an interview with a French newspaper, and former CIA Director
Robert M. Gates says so explicitly in his 1996 memoirs. It may surprise
Charlie Wilson to learn that his heroic moujahedeen were manipulated
by Washington like so much cannon fodder in order to give the USSR
its own Vietnam. The moujahedeen did the job, but as subsequent
events have made clear, they may not be grateful to the United States.

This
piece was first published by the Los
Angeles Times, and then on the
History News Network, and is reprinted
with permission of the author.

March
7, 2005

Chalmers
Johnson [send him mail]
is the author of Blowback:
The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
and The
Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic
.

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