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The Kissinger Telcons
Washington, DC, January 24, 2014 – A recently declassified transcript of a telephone conversation (telcon) between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford in December 1975 indicates tensions between Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department over the SALT II arms control agreement. Telling Ford that "we have [a] SALT agreement within our grasp," Kissinger said "We can smash our opponents" [See document 6]. Describing elements of the agreement concerning air-launched and ship-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs and SLCMs), Kissinger worried that Rumsfeld was "beginning to dig into his people" and asked Ford to tell him that "you want them to get with it." Kissinger expected that a successful SALT II agreement would lead to a summit with the Soviet leadership putting détente on a firmer footing and embellish Ford's and Kissinger's standing.
While Kissinger was confident that a SALT II agreement would clear the way for a U.S-Soviet summit, Ford was not going to "smash" opposition to SALT. With the Cuban role in the Angolan conflict already complicating relations with Moscow and Ford's presidential campaign for 1976 in progress, he was reluctant to rile the Defense Department over SALT, much less invite criticism from the Republican right. Those concerns stalled any progress on détente; as Ambassador Raymond Garthoff later put it, 1976 was a "turning point in American-Soviet relations" because the Ford White House decided to "shelve" détente until after the elections.
The record of the Ford-Kissinger telephone conversation and other recently declassified telcon transcripts from State Department files show an aggravated Henry Kissinger facing opposition to policies of détente and strategic arms control that were virtually unchallenged during the Nixon years. These telcons show Kissinger losing his authority at the White House, trying to protect U.S.-Soviet détente from conservative attacks while waging Cold War in the Third World, trying to crack down on leaks, and maintaining ties with the disgraced former President Richard Nixon.
A major defeat was over Angola policy. In early January 1976, after the leak of a CIA covert operation which Congress refused to fund, Kissinger became regretful, suggesting to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft that "maybe we should let Angola go…. Maybe we just should not have started that operation" [See document 9]. Scowcroft declared that it was the "right" thing to do, but he could not argue when Kissinger said "the defeat they are inflicting on us is worse." Kissinger saw U.S. credibility at risk when Washington was powerless to act against a Soviet ally in Southern Africa supported by Cuban troops.
The released telephone conversations also include the following discussions:
A protracted and wholly unnecessary appeals review process delayed the release of these documents for seven years. In 2007, in response to a FOIA request filed in 2001, the State Department denied over 800 telcons on "executive privilege" and FOIA (b) (5) pre-decisional grounds. The first group of telcons released under appeal, over 100 of them, are of Kissinger's conversations with government and former officials during the Ford Administration, including President Ford, Scowcroft, Rumsfeld, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, Treasury Secretary William Simon, and former President Richard Nixon, among others. They cover a variety of policy issues, including the SALT process, economic relations with the Soviet Union, and Congressional investigations of the CIA.
As interesting as the telcons are, they contain no information that ought to have been withheld. Unquestionably they include candid discussion of issues and personalities and inter-government decision-making generally, but that provides no excuse for agencies to apply the (b) (5) "pre-decisional" FOIA exemption to federal records produced decades ago. And "executive privilege" has its limits and has never before been applied to historical documents such as these. U.S. government officials made a mistake in denying the telcons in 2007; it would be interesting to know exactly why Bush administration officials reached the conclusion that these documents ought to be exempted altogether.
Today the National Security Archive is publishing a sampling of the 100 plus telcons recently released by the State Department. As the State Department makes the remaining withheld telcons available, they will be published on the Digital National Security Archive, which already includes The Kissinger Telephone Conversations and The Kissinger Transcripts.
The telcons of Henry A. Kissinger have a long and checkered history. When Kissinger was national security adviser and secretary of state, he had detailed records of his telephone conversations routinely prepared. This practice, known only to a few insiders, began when Kissinger became Richard Nixon's national security adviser in January 1969. When he left the U.S. government in January 1977, Kissinger kept the telcons under his personal control by depositing them and other papers at the Library of Congress (where they would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act). In 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court denied a Freedom of Information lawsuit against Kissinger on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to make the request in the first place. Only the federal government was in a legal position to recover the telcons from Kissinger's papers.
The status of the telcons remained contested but unresolved for years. According to Kissinger's deed of gift, his papers at the Library of Congress would not be available to researchers until five years after his death. Yet he was alive and well decades after his years in government and historians were keenly interested in the telcons for research on the Nixon and Ford administrations. The National Security Archive began to resolve the problem in February 2001, when at its request lawyers from the Mayer Brown law firm prepared a draft complaint which they circulated to the National Archives and the State Department. The complaint charged that Kissinger had unlawfully removed federal records from U.S. government control and that the two agencies had failed to recover them as required by federal records laws. Concerned about the possibility of protracted litigation that the Bush administration could lose, State Department legal adviser William Howard Taft IV asked Kissinger to return copies of the telcons to the National Archives and the State Department. Unless Kissinger wanted a legal battle with an administration that he supported, he had little choice.
Once the State Department received copies of the telcons covering Kissinger's Secretary of State years, in August 2001 the National Security Archive filed a FOIA request for them (the telcons from 1969-1974 were processed by the National Archives for release in the Nixon presidential records). Over the next six years the Department of State broke up the thousands of telcon records into 12 separate tranches and coordinated their release with a variety of offices and agencies. Over 4,500 telcons were released in their entirety or in excised form. The excised telcons were appealed and the State Department adjudicated processing of many of them fairly quickly.
The most surprising development was the State Department's decision, communicated to the Archive in June 2007, to deny over 800 telcons in their entirety because they "consist of pre-decisional deliberative process material and/or privileged presidential communications." Exempted by this decision were hundreds of conversations between Kissinger and President Gerald Ford and other White House and cabinet officials from that period. This decision was made during the George W. Bush administration, in which Kissinger had some influence; given his long-standing efforts to control the record of his years in government, it is likely that Kissinger preferred that the telcons remain under wraps.
The National Security Archive immediately appealed the decision arguing that the State Department's use of the executive privilege and the pre-decisional information claims was invalid. The appeal letter cited existing case law, e.g. Nixon v Freeman, which held that after ten years or so, the presidential communications privilege "begins to wear away to the point that the public interest in open access to historical information strongly outweighs any claim of confidentiality." Therefore, "it follows that there can be no legitimate claim of privilege, much less confidentiality of communications, for the decades-old documents at issue in this appeal."
In January 2009, just after the inauguration of President Obama, the Archive reminded the State Department about the pending appeal, asking that it take into account the President's memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act which directs all agencies to "adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure" and to apply this presumption "to all decisions involving FOIA." According to the president's memorandum, the government "should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears." The Archive reasoned that because that guidance "effectively nullifies any concerns about executive privilege or the disclosure of pre-decisional information, the argument for full release of the Kissinger telcons becomes even stronger."
The State Department did not respond to the Archive's letter with an affirmative decision and in April 2011, the Archive sent Mr. Blake Roberts at the White House General Counsel's office a plea to expedite processing of the appeal. Citing Obama's January 2009 memorandum, the Archive claimed that the "spirit of this order suggests a more objective approach that would reject making any assertions about applying executive privilege to 35-year old State Department records." The Archive wondered "whether the Office of General Counsel has accepted the poorly-considered decision made during the Bush administration." If the General Counsel rejected the Bush administration's logic, "the documents at issue in this appeal could be released."
Finally, thanks to the recent due diligence of the State Department's Information Programs Services (IPS) office, the Department has released several batches of hitherto exempted documents. But hundreds more remain under review and it could take years before all of the telcons see the light of day. Admittedly, processing 800 documents is not easy, but it is unfortunate for historians and students of national security policy that the Bush administration's initial poorly conceived decision took so long to correct.
Note on the documents: All but 2 of the telcons published today are from a 20 November 2013 release by the State Department of the documents that had been withheld under (b) (5) or executive privilege grounds. Documents 1 and 3 below, however, are from a separate release on 3 July 2013 of telcons that the Department had denied in their entirety in 2005, on either privacy or national security grounds.
Document 1: Robert Bernstein-Kissinger, 28 August 1974
That Henry Kissinger would write his memoirs after eventually leaving government was widely assumed; the question of who would publish them was on the minds of some editors and publishers for years. Even a rumor that Kissinger was talking to a publisher made some executives "nervous" as Random House president Robert Bernstein acknowledged during a late August 1974 conversation. Newsweek magazine had reported talks with publishers but Kissinger declared that it was "an outrageous lie" and he would not "entertain offers" nor allow anyone to negotiate on his behalf while he was in office.
Document 2: Scowcroft-Kissinger, 30 January 1975 SD 318
Leaks were a constant concern and a New York Times story on an NSC meeting on the SALT talks and a CBS news story by Bob Schieffer caused anguish to both Kissinger and Scowcroft, who complained about the "total lack of honor and discretion." Kissinger said that when meeting with Ford "almost every day I am in there crying" about the leaks. Both agreed that the U.S. Intelligence Board needed to do something about the problem.
Document 3: Kissinger-Larry Eagleburger, 2 May 1975
When the U.S.-supported Government of South Vietnam collapsed at the end of April 1975, Kissinger asked the Nobel Committee to accept the return of the Peace Prize that he had won, with North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho, in honor of the January 1973 Vietnam peace settlement. Apparently, the medal was ready for shipment back to Oslo. A day or so later, Kissinger told Lawrence Eagleburger, then Deputy Under Secretary of State for Management, that the Committee would not comply because they believed that it "was worthy of having been given." Kissinger and Eagleburger agreed that he should go along with that because it would be "unseemly to fight with them to take the damn thing back." Eagleburger said he would make sure that the medal was not sent back.
Document 4: Scowcroft-Kissinger, 25 July 1975
The problem of how best to position President Ford for a major foreign policy achievement surfaced during a discussion with Scowcroft over draft remarks prepared for Ford's departure for the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The draft included language about the Baltic States which said that the U.S. "has never recognized [their] incorporation" into the Soviet Union. The language was probably designed as a sop to conservative critics of détente, but such wording, Scowcroft said, was a "disaster." Kissinger and Scowcroft agreed that it was "stupid" because Ford should leave for the conference on a "positive note." "It is out of the question. He shouldn't say what he is not doing." The statement that Ford actually used for his departure from Andrews Air Force Base avoided the negative spin and took a positive approach to the Helsinki conference.
Document 5: Scowcroft-Kissinger, 15 August 1975
Besides commenting on the Cold War language in the draft of Robert Hartman's speech, Kissinger and Scowcroft discussed other matters including Scowcroft's vacation housing in Vail, CO. Apparently, Kissinger was not fond of Vail because when Scowcroft said that the house was designed by a major architect there, Kissinger commented that was like saying "it is the best house in Bangladesh."
Document 6: Ford-Kissinger, 10 December 1975
Kissinger was scheduled to go to Moscow in mid-December and was trying to position himself to reach an agreement with the Soviets on SALT II as the basis for a summit meeting in Moscow. Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department was raising critical questions about SALT but Kissinger hoped that Ford would work with him to "smash" the opposition and induce the Pentagon "to get with it." But this was becoming problematic because Democratic and Republican hawks had been attacking the first SALT agreement and Ford was worried about political challenges from the Republican right, especially if the Joint Chiefs criticized a SALT II agreement. Thus, in mid-January 1976, just when Kissinger was in sight of reaching an agreement in Moscow, Defense officials worked behind his back to persuade Ford to abandon the State Department proposals. That outraged Kissinger but a new U.S. SALT position emerged which deferred decisions on controversial issues. The Soviets saw that as a "step back," which meant that there was no prospect of an arms control agreement before the election. This development had significant consequences; as Ambassador Raymond Garthoff argued, it was a major reason why 1976 was a "turning point in American-Soviet relations," even though the Soviets had reaffirmed détente, the Ford administration "shelve[d]" it and SALT until after the election.
Document 7: Scowcroft-Kissinger, 18 December 1975
Here Kissinger and Scowcroft discuss the purge of the State Department’s Africa Bureau. At a departmental meeting that day Kissinger said that the leaking of information about Angola policy was a “disgrace” and that he wanted people who had worked on Angola “transferred out within two months.” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Nathaniel Davis, whom Kissinger associated with the leaks, had already resigned under protest (Davis was slated to be ambassador to Switzerland). The reference to the man who is a “hog” is obscure.
Document 8: Scowcroft-Kissinger, 22 December 1975
Kissinger did not want to attend a "G-D" meeting on drug policy but Scowcroft explained that James Cannon, President Ford's domestic policy adviser, "wants you there very badly"--apparently for status reasons, but also because Cannon thought that the top diplomats "don't pay any attention" to narcotics policy. Jokingly referring to right-wing attacks on the administration, Kissinger said "Of course. We are too busy selling the country out to the Russians." Apparently Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) had just come back from Mexico and was "upset that the Mexicans are not doing anything" on narcotics policy, so Kissinger joked again: "Let's let cut off aid, arms, or something."
Document 9: Scowcroft-Kissinger, 6 January 1976
It was during this conversation that Kissinger said "Maybe we should let Angola go."
Document 10: Scowcroft-Kissinger, 17 January 1976
Speaking with Scowcroft, Kissinger grumbled about this reminder of the White House-orchestrated "Halloween Massacre" in which he lost his post as national security adviser along with his position as chair of NSC committees. Concerned about Ford's sagging popularity and his prospects for the 1976 elections, his political advisers sought dramatic cabinet changes, including firing Kissinger and the acerbic Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger. Ford had no problem firing Schlesinger but would agree only to reduce Kissinger's authority by replacing him with Brent Scowcroft as national security adviser.
Document 11: Nixon-Kissinger, 13 February 1976
During this conversation, former President Nixon discussed with Kissinger his forthcoming trip to China, which would cause some heartache for President Ford who preferred that Nixon stay out of the limelight (see the next document). Kissinger seemed to like the idea, especially because he thought Nixon would help "get them off this idea we are soft on the Russians." The conversation segued into the ongoing presidential campaign where Reagan was attacking Ford, which Nixon believed were abetted by former Secretary of Defense Schlesinger. Kissinger observed that if Schlesinger "keeps going after me I will have to go after him." Nixon disagreed, arguing that the Secretary of State (and the Secretary of Defense) has "to stay out of political activity," to which Kissinger assented.
Document 12: Scowcroft-Kissinger, 27 February 1976
After discussing scheduling issues, included the visit of Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, Kissinger and Scowcroft commented critically on President Ford's interview statements about Nixon's trip to China. The "Abshire Group" reference is not entirely clear; David Abshire had been a leading Republican foreign policy expert, who served as assistant secretary of state for Congressional affairs during 1970-1973, and went on to high-level positions during the Reagan administration. The references to Chadrin and Vogel are obscure, but Kissinger and Scowcroft continued their critical assessment of President Ford and his political advisers. According to Scowcroft, the political people around President Ford were "just insane." Bryce Harlow, who had worked as a political adviser for the Eisenhower and the Nixon White Houses, was having trouble arranging a meeting with Ford because "the guys he would criticize would be in there with him."
 For background on the Kissinger telcons, see "The Kissinger Telcons," 26 May 2004 https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB123/index.htm, and "The Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts," 23 December 2008, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB263/index.htm
 Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States Gerald R. Ford Containing the Public Messages, Speeches and Statements of the President 1975, Book II (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1977), 1043-1044.
 Raymond L. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 2nd Edition (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994). 594-604. For discussions of SALT options at the 21 January 1976 NSC meeting (held in Kissinger's absence), Kissinger's outraged reaction, and Ford's decision for "deferral," see U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XXXIII (Washington, D.C., Department of State, documents 119, 120 , 130, and 131.
 For background on Angola policy, see John Prados, Safe for Democracy; The Secret Wars of the CIA (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 439-455, and Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 556-593.
 Jussi Hanhimaki, Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (Oxford, 2004), 426-427; Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (Simon & Shuster, 1992), 669-672.
Kissinger to Ford: "Smash" Rumsfeld
Newly Declassified Telcons Show Conflict during Ford Years over Arms Control, Détente, Leaks, Angola
Kissinger Urged President to Tell Rumsfeld to "Get with It" on SALT, Pondered to Scowcroft Whether "We Should Let Angola Go," and Disparaged Ford for "Popping Off" Publicly against Nixon
New Telcons are Subset of 800 Telcons Held up by State Department for Seven Years
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 454
Posted January 24, 2014
Edited by William Burr
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