Peter Kornbluh is the director of the Cuba and Chile Documentation Projects at the National Security Archive (NSA), a nongovernmental organization that works toward declassifying government documents and making them available to the public. He is also the co-author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. Kornbluh and host Robert Scheer discuss how documents obtained by the NSA gave the public new and important information about the death of activist Che Guevara and the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. Kornbluh says recently declassified documents about JFK’s assassination show the high level of secrecy and espionage that the FBI and CIA were engaging in at the time of his death. He emphasizes that transparency in government is absolutely essential to holding officials accountable for their actions.
Photo by Jeremy Bigwood/Institute for Policy StudiesCredits
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., which is a formidable organization, but not an official one. And he has been the director of the Cuba Documentation Project and the Chile Documentation Project, and what they do is, all the work of the National Security Archive, is gain access for the American people of documents that have been classified, and to share them with the American public. So, welcome, Peter. And what I want to ask you about first off is the story you did fifty years this month, fifty years after the death of Che Guevara, the legendary Argentine-born doctor who teamed up with Fidel Castro to make the Cuban revolution, and was gunned down, killed in Bolivia. And you found, fifty years after the fact, your organization in your work, a top-secret CIA memo, making it very clear that the U.S. had trained the people in Bolivia who had captured Che, and that he was alive when he was captured. And they had killed him and cut his hands off and did a death mask of his face to prove their victory, and then tried to hide the body so he wouldn’t be interred somewhere where he might be honored. Is that basically what the document revealed?
PK: Well, there was a series of documents. And the one document we published in The Nation was actually a report to President Johnson, which included a CIA attachment written by deputy director Richard Helms. And this was one of the first reports to the president of the United States about the death of Che Guevara, how it came about, its meaning, significance, how this marked, was going to mark the end of revolution in Latin America, a big blow to Castro. And Castro will be very upset, he might actually attack a U.S. embassy, so we have to increase security–all these things. And it was a truly extraordinary history, extraordinary document. The story I wrote in The Nation kind of opened with a scene where I accompanied the movie-makers of the Che Guevara film starring Benicio del Toro to Miami, to get more information about how Che died and how he was buried. And we got that information from the Cuban-American CIA operative, Gustavo Villoldo, who actually handled the logistics of cutting Che’s hands off, of secretly burying him by an airstrip on the outskirts of a town in Bolivia called Villagrande. And he told us the story of how the Bolivians wanted to cut Che’s head off and preserve it in formaldehyde, and he convinced them that that would be too macabre and gross, and that they could just use a plaster death mask to capture Che’s image. And one of the extraordinary things was that he had cut a piece of Che’s hair off, and he showed us a kind of a binder of memorabilia in which the hair was right there on the restaurant table for us to look at. And he explained that this was his big souvenir, this was his castrating, you know, the bearded revolutionary that had come down out of the mountains, and really taking a strike at Fidel Castro in the process.
RS: Well, what the memo to Johnson, written by Walt Rostow–it’s interesting, because again, this is information we had a right to have in real time. Why was Guevara such a great threat? And it says, it marks–I’m quoting from the document–it “marks the passing of another of the aggressive, romantic revolutionaries like Sukarno, Nkrumah, Ben Bella.” Now, those are three fellows, you know, from Indonesia to Algeria, and a stop in Africa, which represent, you know, admirable figures as we look back on the history. And yet here, our government, under a democratic president and under Lyndon Johnson, felt they were a threat as they did this, as I said, Argentine-trained doctor Che Guevera, who had participated in the Cuban revolution, and then instead of settling into a bureaucratic position in Cuba and a life of comfort, he then risked his life to bring revolution to Bolivia. And the irony here is that Bolivia now represents a government that has actually fond memories of Che Guevara, the Morales government. And the change in Cuba actually went in a very similar direction to what Che might have wanted. So it wasn’t a great success, and of course the image of Che, as anyone who’s seen those T-shirts all over the world knows, if anything was enhanced by the assassination; it wasn’t ended. So it actually is an example of, we hear a lot about fake news, but actually it’s an example of the creation of fake news by the U.S. government about what had happened in Bolivia, and a denial of the U.S. government’s responsibility, and in fact it was quite the opposite of the official picture.
PK: Well, it’s an extraordinary history. Che Guevara was a leading symbol of revolution; the U.S. government did not want to see revolution spread from Cuba to the mainland of Latin America. They put a lot of resources into training Bolivian special forces, and assigning a special team of CIA operatives to help track Che Guevara down. There was actually a CIA agent there when Che was executed, although he was executed on orders of the Bolivian president, who did not want him to be taken alive. Some people back in Washington wanted to spirit him out of Bolivia and take him to the Panama Canal zone, and basically hold him in a black site, as the, you know, top revolutionary suspect, and basically torture him for intelligence on what goes on in Cuba, because he was very close to Fidel Castro. He could have been, you know, the greatest prisoner of all time in terms of interrogation and intelligence-gathering. And, but the Bolivians didn’t want to ever face a situation where their initial claim that he’d been killed in combat was revealed to be false, and it was revealed that there were CIA operatives right there, you know, working in Bolivia. So they not only gave the order to execute him, but then to disappear his body as well, to make sure that there would never be a place where anybody could pay homage to Che. And, but they wanted to prove to the world that he was dead, so the CIA people let these photographs be taken, some of which appear in The Nation magazine and elsewhere, that many of your listeners have seen over the years, in which Che looks so Jesus-like that these images of his death became far more popular and important for the mythology around him, and for the inspiration that his martyrdom created at the hands of the imperial United States.
RS: Again, it goes to the question of what do we learn about history in real time when we need to know it. And you have spent your life examining all of these released documents, and in almost every case, the critical information that the American people would need to make a decision, whether it was about Iran and the overthrow of Mosaddegh, whether it was about what happened in Vietnam and our creation of Ngo Dinh Diem; you could go right down the list in El Salvador and what have you. What your institute has been able to demonstrate is that the really critical documents were denied to us in the name of national security classification. Is that not a fair observation?
PK: Yes, the argument that documents should be kept secret for decades and decades, if not forever, is a specious one, and one that is hurtful not only to our democratic institutions, but to our own confidence and faith in government. You know, secrecy breeds conspiracy theories. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as justice Louis Brandeis once suggested. And if we are able to see what our government has done in our name but without our knowledge, and debate better policies, that’s what we need to do. And when the information is hidden, we can’t do that. And of course in the void of truth grows a whole slew of false propaganda, conspiracy theories, kind of corrosive debates that don’t really advance the interests of our country.
RS: Well, but more than that, there isn’t accountability. I mean, the fact is, you know, a lot of people get killed in the name of U.S. foreign policy. I think the figure in Vietnam McNamara used was three and a half million, maybe it’s even higher to five–
RS: –five million or so. And that was based on a tissue of lies that were denied to the American public. They tried to put Daniel Ellsberg in jail for giving us a Pentagon study, the Pentagon Papers, that exposed a lot of those lies, but it was only for internal discussion. And you’ve spent your life trying to get these documents. Can you sort of give us the summary of what you folks at the National Security Archive have been able to come up with? What are the high points of things that we had a right to know? And I want to stress this, because the reporting about them basically was fake news based on what our U.S. government was willing to release.
PK: I’ll just give you an example that’s timely and relevant. The fifty-fifth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis has just passed. And for many years after 1962, when the crisis took place, the kind of perspective of academia and the intelligentsia and the policy-making world was that Kennedy had stood strong, and the Soviets had been forced to back down in the face of the threat of force. That the United States was going to invade Cuba and the Soviets were forced to back down. Well of course, the truth was that Kennedy and Khrushchev secretly agreed to a missile exchange, if you will. Khrushchev would take those Russian missiles out of Cuba, and Kennedy would secretly remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. But the Kennedys did not allow this truth to come out; they thought it was politically difficult for them to say what really happened, how the missile crisis was resolved. And so they planted in the press that Kennedy had been strong and brilliant and calibrated, and then their biographers, and the hagiography from Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson and others, basically propelled that idea forward. And of course that became the model for one of the most famous books on the making of U.S. foreign policy, the Essence of Decision by Graham Allison. Which everybody read; all the policy-makers read for generations, thinking that that’s–you know, that diplomacy was bad and that threat of force was good. And that certainly influenced our approach in Vietnam; it certainly influenced our approaches around the world, led to wars, led to the death of thousands and thousands of U.S. servicemen and women, not to mention you know, millions of people in the Third World. And all because of secrecy. Our organization dedicated ourselves to trying to get every scrap of paper on the Cuban Missile Crisis declassified and in the hands of analysts and citizens, because we don’t want to go the route of a nuclear crisis again. And here we are, in conflict with North Korea, and we do need to know what really happened during the missile crisis. And that’s just an example of one of many of why secrecy is bad and access to these documents, particularly historical documents, is so important.
RS: Well, it’s interesting you bring up North Korea, because a legendary journalist who is much celebrated now in journalism schools, at Columbia and UC Berkeley, I.F. Stone, derailed his career by daring to write a book called The Hidden History of the Korean War. And one of the aspects of the Korean War, really it was intended at China, which its revolution had succeeded, and also it was really quite brutal in leveling just about every building in that society. You know, it was really incredibly destructive and punitive in terms of taking of life. And to understand the mindset, crazed as it is, of the current leadership, one does have to have access to that history. And we haven’t had it.
PK: My organization, the National Security Archive, certainly got its inspiration from I.F. Stone’s famous newsletter that he used to put out, where he would scour not declassified documents as much as publicly available budgets and hearings, and go for the fine print and really print the truth. And he was an inspiration to all of us. But as citizens, we have to push for our right to know. And it’s particularly important in this day and age of Trump. My organization has filed suit for the visitor logs at Mar-a-Lago, and at Trump’s golf resort in New Jersey. We want to know who he’s meeting with. These are logs that used to be public under other presidents, that are not public under Trump. And so many other things are not public under Trump, of course. But if we’re going to have accountability, we need access to documents, even recent documents.
RS: So let me take you with John Kennedy to something that is in the news right now. And this is finally the release, thanks to Trump–I know we’re not supposed to give credit to Trump for anything, but he is actually the one who has not stopped the release of the critical documents on the Kennedy assassination. Take us through that controversy, and was not John Kennedy himself possibly a victim of the very forces that wanted secrecy. Or at least to not be able to get the–
PK: [Laughs] We’re not going to solve the–
RS: No, I know, but–
PK: –the question of who killed Kennedy–
RS: –tell me about the significance–
PK: –here today. But the truth of the matter is that this is a prime example of how secrecy breeds corrosive, a corrosive society, endless conspiracy theories, because the FBI and the CIA have withheld thousands of documents, and withheld countless more millions of pages for years and years. Oliver Stone did a movie called JFK in 1990, which gained a lot of attention, completely based on a false conspiracy theory. Prosecutor in New Orleans who thought he’d been able to identify who’d killed Kennedy. At the very end of the movie, a scroll comes up saying, none of the documents that were seen by the Warren Commission that investigated the Kennedy assassination, or the FBI and CIA documents, five million pages of documents are still secret. And the uproar over the movie by the public forced the U.S. Congress to pass a law creating a board commission empowering them to push documents, identify documents and force them to be declassified under all the agencies. In the middle of the 1990s, about five million pages were released. But the CIA and the FBI sat on an additional several thousand documents that they claimed were too sensitive. The law provided that the documents could be withheld until the 26th of October, 2017. And now these documents have been released. They shed on what the CIA was covering up all these years, and the FBI too. Which was, these espionage networks that they had throughout Mexico City, their efforts covertly against Cuba, what they knew about Oswald’s movements before the assassination–things that are not indicative of a CIA role in the assassination, but simply the depth of its covert operations and espionage efforts that it’s been trying to keep secret all these years. So it’s important to have these documents, but it’s important to have the model of having them declassified. We don’t want to go this route again where we have to wait more than fifty-five years for the truth to be told. We should have had these documents very early on, the Warren Commission should have had these documents when it investigated the Kennedy assassination. Instead, the CIA and the FBI dithered, covered up, tried to protect their institutions in the name of secrecy rather than erring on the side of openness.
RS: [omission] We’re right back with Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, which is an independent organization which for decades now has been forcing, through lawsuits and other requests, the release of classified documents that we really have to have if we’re an informed public. So the concept of the deep state has been used quite a bit lately. And let me ask you, you’ve spent a lifetime examining this whole process. To what degree does that work as a label? Is it coherent, does it make sense? Is there a deep state?
PK: You know, one could redefine what a deep state is. The state that we have is a government that has all sorts of assorted sinister, dark and violent capabilities. And sometimes those are needed to effectively fight terrorists, for example, but other times they’re, and throughout the history of the United States they’ve been abused, those capabilities, in policies of hegemony, of imperial and even imperialist intervention. But the way the deep state is defined now is that it’s somehow a separate state from the one that we know. And in fact, this is the state we know. The CIA was not, quote, a “rogue elephant” as Senator Frank Church said during the Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s. The CIA for the most part answered to presidents, and didn’t have an independent foreign policy, and didn’t go out on its own. Presidents used the CIA so that they themselves could have plausible deniability. And now we have an even broader set of institutions, after 9/11, that do similar things; also provide plausible deniability, and secrecy. We have more secrecy than ever, in part because of the very quiet activities that we’re conducting around the world as part of our counterterrorism programs. But these activities, obviously we need accountability, because otherwise there’s abuse of power. And we saw the abuses of power during the Bush administration, false invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, the lies that were told there, the dark sites that the CIA created, the torture programs, all of those things in the name of counterterrorism and national security. But only transparency is going to help us debate these issues and hold our government accountable and have a good government, a government that might be a big state, but not a government that is a deep state in the sense that it’s defined today.
RS: You know, the argument of the founders of this country was that you should not be overly extended, and certainly not using, as Washington talked about, means of force. He wasn’t talking about trade and diplomacy, but means of force, to build an empire. Because if you have an empire, you really can’t have a republic that is responsive to its citizens. That truth will be the casualty of these foreign adventures, that secrecy will dominate. And that basically, the public will not know what’s going on. And it seems to me, in the two areas that you are, one of the leading specialists in the whole country in terms of familiarity with the documents, with what has been released, take two countries, Chile and Cuba. And we had a lot of involvement with these two countries, and as I say, you know the documents; you know what has been revealed. Did we get it right? From my knowledge, I think we got them both wrong. But I mean, I wonder, what is your view of it, these foreign adventures, these entanglements? And we’ve been at, had an embargo with Cuba for, you know, over fifty years; Obama tried to end it, now Trump wants to bring it back. In the case of Chile, we did some terrible things in the overthrow of Allende and so forth. But you know probably more than any human being alive about what was withheld from us about these two countries. What didn’t we get to know that we needed to know?
PK: The U.S. intervention in Chile during the Nixon-Kissinger days, in 1970 to 1973, and then the support that Nixon and Kissinger gave to Augusto Pinochet and his bloody military coup, did come back to bit them and haunt them, in a way. When Seymour Hersh revealed in the New York Times in September of 1974 the CIA’s covert operations in Chile and how they contributed to the coup, there was a pretty major scandal in the United States. And Frank Church was appointed to head this special investigation into the CIA that was the first really revelatory effort to share with the American public what this dark, sinister agency was doing in our name, but without our knowledge. And the Church Committee produced this, it must have been eight volumes of reports on the CIA and covert intervention, on assassination plots, there was a whole section on the FBI as well. And that was like the first moment of accountability and information. But the documents that were used in those reports were kept secret for another almost 20 years, 25 years. And only during the Clinton administration, after Pinochet was arrested, did we have the opportunity to push President Clinton to declassify 23,000 documents on Chile. And recently I took about 50 of those documents and did a whole exhibit called Secrets of State, in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. And so these documents have now passed from being newsworthy, creating headlines, to being used as evidence in court cases and human rights cases, to now being in a museum where people can go read them, see them, evaluate them, and kind of pass the verdict of history on what they say. And that’s very important; we’ve come a long way on Chile. In Cuba, we’ve pursued to same imperial-minded policies, and we’re still pursuing them, more for domestic political reasons than for valid foreign-policy reasons. And Obama finally broke through that. He used back-channel diplomacy, and now Trump is trying to sabotage the great advances that were made in breaking the historic impasse with Cuba, and opening up our policy towards Cuba and engaging in what’s known as positive engagement: people-to-people diplomacy, support for the Cuban private sector, et cetera. And we’re now facing a situation where it’s more difficult to travel to Cuba; Trump’s going to release new regulations in the coming weeks that are going to impinge upon our right to travel, our constitutional right that we have. And we’re in the middle of this kind of uproar over this so-called sonic attack issue, and it’s not really known that anything was sonic, or if there even was an attack on U.S. diplomats. But the Trump administration seems to be catering to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who parenthetically sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee that’s investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. Seems to be a good ally for the president, and he seems to be calling the shots now on Cuba policy.
RS: It’s interesting, though. Because after all, the justification for infringing on the rights of Americans to know, of classification, is supposed to be that certain things have to be kept secret, and you have to protect the public. And the record on Cuba–it’s absurdly wrong, that view. And the fact of the matter is, Cuba was never any kind of serious threat to the U.S. until the missile crisis happened. And as we discussed before, that whole thing has been misrepresented in terms of how to resolve it. But we had already invaded Cuba, we already had a blockade against Cuba, we were threatening another invasion. And when you look at the documents, and your organization has been very influential in getting those documents released, we see that the American public has been kept in the dark about Cuba consistently. We didn’t know that the Mafia was involved and recruited to assassinate Castro. We didn’t know that a plane carrying the fencing team was blown up by an American operative who had ties to the CIA. We–you could go down the list. And was there really any evidence that you found in the documents that Cuba was actually engaged in terrorist attacks or a threat to the United States?
PK: Cuba was not a national security threat to the United States in the physical sense, but the model of the Cuban revolution was something that the United States feared. Because Fidel Castro said, I’m going to lead a revolution, and the purpose of this revolution is to be independent of the United States, independent of its economic stranglehold on the Cuban economy, independent of the military side of our relationship with the United States, independent of the political control the United States has exercised going over to Cuba, going all the way back to the turn of the 20th Century. And nationalism in Cuba became very forceful precisely because the United States controlled so much, dominated so much, and really used Cuba as a playground for the rich and famous. Drugs, Mafia, the whole thing. So the Cuban revolution was a proud moment in Cuba’s history, but the United States didn’t want to see more Fidel Castros and more nationalist Latin Americans, and they figured if they could get rid of Fidel Castro, they’d kind of ruin the model of that kind of revolutionary movement. And so you saw president after president trying to either use covert operations or economic embargos to undercut, undermine, roll back the Cuban revolution. There was another side to this history; every president, as we write in Back Channel to Cuba, also negotiated secretly with Fidel Castro on one issue or another. And several presidents actually tried to engage in a dialogue for normalizing relations. It’s a very interesting history. But yes, your point is exactly correct. These are small countries, Chile and Cuba. Cuba was pushed into the alliance with the Soviet Union. Fidel Castro didn’t even declare Cuba a socialist state until the middle–in the middle of the Bay of Pigs invasion, after the United States had already launched an air attack on his airports, and the ground invasion he knew was coming in the next day or two. And it was at that point, during the funeral of the 11 air force Cubans who were killed during the U.S.-backed attack on the airfields during the Bay of Pigs invasion, that Fidel Castro announced that Cuba was a socialist state, and was allying itself with the socialist bloc. His hope, of course, was that the Soviets would enter into some defense pact and protect him, and deter another U.S. attack. And eventually, the Soviets said, yes we will; we’ll support you, we’ll defend you, we’ll put nuclear missiles on your soil, and that will deter another U.S. attack.
RS: We have this delusion that somehow, yes, they may distort on the edges, but we get the main facts in real time. Yet as I look at the work of your organization in getting these documents released, the fact is, the main facts were kept from us very effectively. You know, you talk about nationalism; the fact that Vietnam was really an anti-nationalist war, it had nothing to do with their being a threat to the United States or even an extension of Chinese or Russian power; it was an extension of French colonialism. That we now understand. The whole problem with Cuba really had more to do with a domestic problem in Miami; it had to do with what you said, not having a role model that might be attractive to others around the world. But these major confrontations, their use of trillions of resources, the death of so many people around the world, were based on a tissue of lies. And Iraq was, as you mentioned, just a more recent example. So what is the value–I mean, how–you’ve tried to make our democratic system work better. Why is there so much resistance to letting the truth come out?
PK: [Laughs] Those in power want to exercise their power without accountability. Too many leaders of our country really aren’t democrats with a small “d”; they are abusers of their position, and secrecy has allowed them to abuse power the way they’ve wanted to. And to get away, for at least a time–not altogether, but for a time–with the actions that they have taken. But let me just say, you know, you have had this great career, Bob, in speaking truth to power. And that’s a very important mission, it’s a very laudable one, one that you and Truthdig should be immensely proud of. My organization, the National Security Archive, believes that one great way to speak truth to power is to get the very words that those in power spoke and wrote, and the policies that they made, out, so that we can see what was spoken by those in power, and use it to make sure that they are held accountable and that the leaders we have today know that the American public is going to hold them accountable in the future.
RS: Well, those are strong words on which to end this. I want to thank Peter Kornbluh for giving us his time, and for his great organization, the National Security Archive. Go to their website, they have a tremendous amount of information on just about every major event of the last 50 years. And a quick favor from our podcast listeners. KCRW wants to learn more about you, who you are and how you listen, so if you have three minutes to help us out, go to KCRW.com/survey, and thanks. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Kat Yore and Mario Diaz provided the brilliant engineering work. And the folks at NPR in Washington who made their facilities available. Be back next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.