More information on Iran:
The Iran Declassification Project
Washington, D.C., November 29, 2000 –
The CIA history of operation TPAJAX excerpted below was first disclosed
by James Risen of The New York Times in its editions of April 16
and June 18, 2000, and posted in this form on its website at:
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
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
of American Scientists put it:
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.
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.
"What's New on the Iran 1953 Coup in the New York Times Article
(April 16, 2000, front page) and the Documents Posted on the Web"
By Professor Mark Gasiorowski
19 April 2000
is not much in the NYT article itself that is not covered in my article
on the coup ("The 1953 Coup d'Etat in Iran" published in 1987 in the International
Journal of Middle East Studies, and available in the Gulf2000 archives)
or other sources on the coup. The most interesting new tidbit here
is that the CIA's agents harassed religious leaders and bombed one's home
in order to turn them against Mossadeq. The article does not say,
but this was probably done by Iranians working in the BEDAMN network, which
is described in my article. There are also some new details on how
that US persuaded the shah to agree to the coup, including a statement
that Assadollah Rashidian was involved in this effort and that General
Schwartzkopf, Sr. played a larger role in this than was previously known.
There are also a few details reported in the article that I knew about
but chose not to reveal, including that Donald Wilber and Norman Derbyshire
developed the original coup plan and that the plan was known as TPAJAX,
rather than simply AJAX. (The TP prefix indicated that the operation
was to be carried out in Iran.) The NYT article does not say anything
about a couple of matters that remain controversial about the coup, including
whether Ayatollah Kashani played a role in organizing the crowds and whether
the CIA team organized "fake" Tudeh Party crowds as part of the effort.
There may be something on these issues in the 200-page history itself.
more important than the NYT article are the two documents appended to the
summary document giving operational plans for the coup. These contain
a wealth of interesting information. They indicate that the British
played a larger—though still subordinate—role in the coup than was previously
known, providing part of the financing for it and using their intelligence
network (led by the Rashidian brothers) to influence members of the parliament
and do other things. The CIA described the coup plan as "quasi-legal,"
referring to the fact that the shah legally dismissed Mossadeq but presumably
acknowledging that he did not do so on his own initiative. These
documents make clear that the CIA was prepared to go forward with the coup
even if the shah opposed it. There is a suggestion that the CIA use
counterfeit Iranian currency to somehow show that Mossadeq was ruining
the economy, though I'm not sure this was ever done. The documents
indicate that Fazlollah Zahedi and his military colleagues were given large
sums of money (at least $50,000) before the coup, perhaps to buy their
support. Most interestingly, they indicate that various clerical
leaders and organizations—whose names are blanked out—were to play a major
role in the coup. Finally, the author(s) of the London plan—presumably
Wilber and Derbyshire—say some rather nasty things about the Iranians,
including that there is a "recognized incapacity of Iranians to plan or
act in a thoroughly logical manner."
the most general conclusion that can be drawn from these documents is that
the CIA extensively stage-managed the entire coup, not only carrying it
out but also preparing the groundwork for it by subordinating various important
Iranian political actors and using propaganda and other instruments to
influence public opinion against Mossadeq. This is a point that was
made in my article and other published accounts, but it is strongly confirmed
in these documents. In my view, this thoroughly refutes the argument
that is commonly made in Iranian monarchist exile circles that the coup
was a legitimate "popular uprising" on behalf of the shah.
reply to Nikki Keddie's (UCLA) questions about whether the NYT article
got the story right, I would say it is impossible to tell until the 200-page
document comes out. Nikki's additional comment that these documents
may not be entirely factual but may instead reveal certain biases held
by their authors is an important one. Wilber was not in Iran while
the coup was occurring, and his account of it can only have been based
on his debriefing of Kermit Roosevelt and other participants. Some
facts were inevitably lost or misinterpreted in this process, especially
since this was a rapidly changing series of events. This being said,
I doubt that there will be any major errors in the 200-page history.
While Wilber had his biases, he certainly was a competent historian.
I can think of no reason he might have wanted to distort this account.
are a few other notes. It is my understanding that these documents
were given to the NYT well before Secretary Albright's recent speech, implying
that they were not an attempt to upstage or add to the speech by the unnamed
"former official" who provided them to the NYT. I think there is
still some reason to hope that the 200-page document will be released with
excisions by the NYT. I certainly hope they do so.
CIA Clandestine Service History, "Overthrow
of Premier Mossadeq of Iran,
November 1952-August 1953," March 1954, by Dr. Donald Wilber.
CIA's Broken Promises on Declassification
Follow the link above for information on the Archive's lawsuit
against the CIA to force the declassification of key documents on the agency's
role in the European elections of 1948 and the 1953 coup in Iran, and to
read what five former CIA directors and others have said about the agency's
declassification policies. From there, follow the link at the bottom
to view the complaint filed with U.S. District Court on May 13, 1999.
The document below is the court filing of a sworn statement from William
H. McNair, the Information Review Officer for the CIA's Directorate of
Operations. In the statement, McNair explained why he believed that
all but one sentence out of the 200 page history later disclosed the the
should remain classified.