President John F Kennedy and his national security team visit NASA in 1962. (Photo via Flickr user James Vaughan)
In the annals of America's foreign policy blunders, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion ranks near the top. Sure, the CIA's half-baked suspicion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction ended up being disastrously wrong, thus rendering the premise for the Iraq War null and void. But that error revealed itself in a slow drip of embarrassing revelations about the failure of the intelligence community and the outrageous actions committed during the war – the Bay of Pigs, on the other hand, was a clusterfuck right from the get-go.
There hasn't been a Channel 4 series about the Bay of Pigs, so I suppose I'll need to provide some background: In 1959, Fidel Castro and his Marxist foot soldiers had seized power in Cuba, ousting crony-capitalist dictator Fulgencio Batista and threatening to inculcate a hotbed of radical (read: Soviet) sentiment right in America's backyard. By the time John F Kennedy won the presidency in November of 1960, the CIA was putting the finishing touches on a scheme cooked up under the direction of his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, to land 1,400 or so armed Cuban exiles at an inlet along the swampy southern coast known as the Bay of Pigs.
If all went according to plan, the capitalist majority on the island would suddenly find its courage and overwhelm Castro's massive militia – who would be taken completely by surprise, of course – while the US Navy provided support. Instead, the landing party, AKA Brigade 2506, came under furious assault from forces loyal to the Castro regime right away, and didn't last more than a couple of days before being rounded up and imprisoned.
It makes a certain amount of sense that the CIA might not volunteer to recount such a bumbling part of its history. Who wants to reflect on their most public humiliation? Then again, the events in question occurred more than 50 years ago, which makes a federal appeals court's ruling on Tuesday that the agency can keep the final volume of its internal account of the invasion secret indefinitely more than a bit disturbing.
"We should not be arguing about access to historical records dealing with events that are half a century old," said Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the American Academy of Scientists. "If they're not willing to disclose records about the Bay of Pigs, how can we expect an honest account of the War on Terror?"
At issue is Volume V, which is essentially the CIA's attempt to discredit its own inspector general's report detailing the agency's systematic incompetence in the run-up to the invasion. (The CIA was also trying to avoid being dissolved completely, which was apparently something JFK hinted at during one of his more forlorn moments after the botched operation.) Today, of course, the CIA is in no danger of getting disbanded – imagine the uproar if any mainstream politician even suggested that we didn't need it any more – and the only people interested in the Bay of Pigs are historians and perhaps a few Cold War and Kennedy buffs.
The troubling thing here is the agency's desire to keep even historical documents tightly under lock and key. In the wake of last year's flood of reporting on NSA surveillance programs, many are hoping for some basic reforms aimed at making the US government's intelligence activities more transparent. Those hopes have to be dampened now that a key arm of the American security apparatus has been permitted to keep its own story classified forever.
What's especially odd about all of this is that the scathing inspector general's report itself (Volume III) has been declassified since 1998, meaning the CIA is just dragging its feet because it can – even though the contents of the final chapter are largely already out there for public consumption.
"This decision proves that the fifth exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the 'Withhold it if you want to exemption' – that's the sad thing about the case," said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which brought the suit against the CIA.
Unfortunately, we can't blame this one entirely on Barack Obama. While it's true that his administration has been extremely hostile toward the press corps – the Department of Justice has obtained the phone records of the Associated Press and tracked the movements of a Fox News reporter – obfuscation on the part of the intelligence community has been standard procedure since before the CIA existed. Uncle Sam didn't release a secret recipe for invisible ink (which dates back to 1917) until 2011, and held on to the "family jewels" of covert operations, including a bunch of failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, until 2007.
But the intelligence community has arguably never been as important or powerful as it is now, when nearly everything anyone does during the course of a day can be classified as an electronic communication, and therefore is at risk of being monitored. The documents the CIA are keeping hidden may or may not be important – historians see value in having a look at the agency's attempt to explain away the invasion's many flaws – but this is yet another case of the president who swore to be more transparent when it came to the national security state as a candidate instead overseeing the expansion of its reach now that he's the one wielding all that awesome power.