Spies Like Us
China’s alleged plan to buy influence with the White House and Congress could have been torn from a U.S. manual on diplomacy. Over the past half-century, the United States has meddled so widely in the internal affairs of other nations that one expert on the U.S. intelligence community says it would be easier to cite exceptions than examples.
“It’s a complete double standard,” author Jim Hougan said of the United States’ tendency to do unto others what it does not want done unto itself. “This is exactly what the CIA is paid to do.
“It’s not an aberration,” said Hougan, a former editor at Harper’s magazine and author of “Spooks: Private Use of Secret Agents.” “It’s one of the principal functions of the agency to influence foreign corporations, governments and individuals to serve the covert foreign-policy interests of their counterparts in the United States. This has been going on at least since the CIA was created in 1947.”
Then, the Cold War had just begun, creating a global struggle between democratic capitalism and totalitarian communism. In the battle to win hearts and minds, the vastly different systems sometimes employed the same strategies and techniques.
Eager to defeat leftist political parties in places such as France, Italy, Portugal and Japan, the U.S. government funneled millions into the campaigns of conservative candidates, according to Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archives in Washington, a public interest group that documents U.S. foreign policy.
“The examples number in the hundreds,” he said.
Some of the most vivid accounts of U.S. interventions have come from the agents involved. In his recently published memoir, “A Spy For All Seasons,” for example, former CIA agent Duane Clarridge recalls influencing the first national parliamentary elections in Nepal in the summer of 1959.
“With the fall of Tibet to the Chinese, the approaching Nepalese national election took on added significance,” writes Clarridge. “… A weak Kathmandu government could be susceptible to Chinese pressure, greatly multiplying the number of potential access points for a Chinese invasion, and making the northern Indian border much harder to defend. Thus, the outcome of the election was of interest to Washington.”
Clarridge, who then was a 27-year-old novice spy, admits that “at this point, I am not sure I knew the words covert action, which was what I was proposing.” But by the end of the operation, he had succeeded in a classic case of covert duplicity by passing money to both major candidates.
By the 1970s, the U.S. government had developed a virtual “template” for intervening in foreign elections, according to Gregory Teverton, a former investigator of the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence Activities.
Treverton, now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand think tank, was in 1975 the principal author of the Select Committee’s staff report on covert action in Chile, one of Congress’ most thorough critiques of U.S. intervention in another government’s election process.
“Covert American activity was a factor in almost every major election in Chile in the decade between 1963 and 1973,” said the report. “In several instances the United States intervention was massive.”
As if anticipating claims that the election buying was the work of a few rogue agents, the report added that the covert action “was an instrument of United States foreign policy, decided upon at the highest levels of the government.” In fact, the U.S. government was so deeply involved in Chile’s 1964 presidential election that it set up a covert campaign headquarters in Washington and underwrote more than half the total cost of the conservative Christian Democrat campaign. U.S. corporations also made generous contributions.
When monetary intervention failed to defeat the leftists in Chile, the U.S. government changed tacts.
On Sept. 4, 1970, Salvador Allende, a Marxist, won a plurality in Chile’s presidential election. “On September 15,” said the Senate report, “President Nixon informed CIA Director Richard Helms that an Allende regime in Chile would not be acceptable to the United States and instructed the CIA to play a direct role in organizing a military coup d’etat in Chile to prevent Allende’s accession to the Presidency.”
Three years later, the coup took place. Allende was killed and replaced by a four-man military junta led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled as a dictator for 20 years.
Coit Blacker, a former adviser to President Clinton, said the Allende assassination and Senate investigation led to a “real shift” in U.S. policy.
“As early as the Ford administration, they realized it was counterproductive for the U.S. to intervene directly in the electoral process of any country because it usually failed or backfired,” said Blacker, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
But if not intervening became the rule, there remained exceptions, he noted, including the Reagan administration’s extensive interference in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s.
Evidence of covert intervention often takes years to surface, if it surfaces at all. But some experts suspect that the U.S. government still intervenes in elections when much is at stake, such as in Russia’s presidential election last summer.
Money, of course, is merely one way in which governments, especially powerful governments, can influence the internal policies of others. Something as simple as a public show of support, such as that Clinton gave Israel’s Shimon Peres last year, can have an impact on a nation’s policy, even when the favored candidates loses.
“On the one hand, we talk a lot about non-intervention, but the whole aim of foreign policy is to influence the behavior of foreign states,” Teverton noted. “There’s a whole continuum of measures, but there’s a point where everything beyond that is unacceptable.”
The allegation that China planned to pump $2 million into the coffers of U.S. congressional candidates was front-page news and provoked demands for an investigation. So did earlier reports that China may have funneled money through some of President Clinton’s Asian-American contributors.
John Ellwood, a professor of public policy at the University of California-Berkeley, said: “The fact that we do it doesn’t mean it’s right.”