Category Archives: Patriotic Betrayal

How Erskine Childers Became My Friend

I met Erskine Childers, a former officer of the National Student Association and a distinguished United Nations official, long after he died. If that seems impossible, let me explain. I came to know the young Erskine Childers through letters left behind in the United States National Student Association (NSA) archive at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In the late 1940s, as an undergraduate at Stanford, Erskine had been active in NSA and was subsequently elected an officer in 1949. I was captivated by his voice. His letters were full of passion, sometimes lyrical and poetic, especially if he was missing Ireland; at other times, they were filled with angst as he wrestled with his obligations to Irish history, the legacy of his martyred grandfather, and the question of American citizenship.

Gradually, I realized Erskine Childers’ importance to my research on the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert relationship with the NSA. Cold Warriors frequently argue that “everyone” in the late 1940s and 1950s would have cooperated with the CIA to fight international communism as they had secretly done. They condemn those who criticize them by claiming that such critics are applying contemporary standards and values retrospectively, and incorrectly, to an earlier historical period. Yet, here was “my” Erskine, fighting to preserve democratic principles, and resisting the idea of government intrusion into a student organization. His example is the best refutation of the argument that a younger generation, had they understood the temper of the times, would have embraced the CIA and its Cold War objectives. He was a contemporary, and he actively fought to keep NSA independent.

Erskine’s battle began in August 1949, when he joined more than 600 students from around the country for the NSA Congress, held that year at the University of Illinois. By then, fellow delegates had recognized his leadership talent, his unusual grasp of politics, and his interest in foreign affairs, and encouraged him to run for NSA office. He decided in the affirmative, but not before agonizing over the question of his family’s legacy. In 1922, during the Irish Civil War, the British had executed his grandfather, Robert Erskine Childers, after whom he was named. His father, Erskine Hamilton Childers, the son of the martyred patriot, had already entered Irish politics, although not yet elected President of the Republic. By taking out American citizenship, he asked himself if he was abandoning his country and his family.

Erskine ran for International Affairs Vice Presidency, unaware that this position was critical to the CIA’s agenda. Years later, I discovered agents had sought an alternative candidate. At the time, Erskine encountered electoral tactics that appalled him. He wrote to a friend. “The tricks, the deliberate attempts to distort and to confuse, the foul personal talk behind hands and doors—all this in an effort to have NSA tell the world that we had forgotten the most fundamental of inspirations….hope and faith in men and their destiny!” He explained his determination to fight in spite of these tactics by invoking his previous experience in Ireland; as a small child, he had survived being “kicked by English boys” and called “a traitor.”

At issue in the election was the question of whether NSA would cooperate with the International Union of Students based in Prague, in which communist student unions were heavily represented. Anti-communists within NSA pushed for a pro-West international alternative. Erskine did not want to foster an East-West division. In an early demonstration of his commitment to peace and diplomacy, he explained: “I do not believe for one moment that the strategy to use with communism is either to back away from it, or to present so adamantly converse a front as to make any working relationship almost impossible.” The vote was close but he won.

During his first weeks in office, Erskine was asked by the U.S. Department of State to report on NSA international activities. He declined, telling the NSA President, Robert Kelley, who was based in Madison, Wisconsin, far away from the international office near Harvard University: “I am reluctant to the point of refusing to write my personal resume of the events.” He didn’t mind sending in “official or printed literature, but I will be adamant about expenditure of especial efforts to secure information for the State Department about suspect groups or radical elements in the student community.” Even a small precedent might make NSA into “an extension division for information on the tainted few.” Kelley, by contrast, fully cooperated with U.S. government requests.

Throughout his year in office, Erskine faced and fought many such battles. He was sometimes badly treated by those who were determined to use NSA to fight international communism. In August 1950, just before his term ended, President Kelley ordered Erskine home from a European trip, denying him the opportunity to travel to Prague and personally evaluate charges of Soviet control over the International Union of Students. He reluctantly complied, but remained discreet about his upset, mindful that to make his fight public could harm the fledging student association, then only a few years old.

By the time his NSA term ended, and the number of archival letters dwindled, I had come to admire his unique blend of instinct, temperament, and commitment to democracy. It enabled him to stand for principle, even when it was an unpopular thing to do.

Getting to know someone from his or her archival letters is an oddly intimate experience. One communes — laughs, frowns, tears up, or nods in agreement. For years, I kept expecting Erskine Childers to step out of the pages I was reading and introduce himself. For one wild moment in 2015, I thought the impossible had happened, when I received an email from Erskine Childers and learned that he had a namesake son. I’m so grateful that our acquaintance has resulted in an opportunity to write about the Erskine I knew and the unusual way we met. More importantly, it has given me a chance to honor his father’s principled resistance to turning NSA into a Cold War organization.

— Karen M. Paget, originally published  in Yale Books Unbound, March 31, 2017

Lessons Not Learned: Covert Operations since the Cold War

While writing Patriotic Betrayal, which chronicles a major Cold War covert operation with the U.S. National Student Association, I began a file in which I collected evidence of renewed covert activities in the late 1990s. The newspaper clips came from different parts of the globe in little media bursts of charges and denials, like seeing a whale breach and knowing a pod is just beneath the surface. The question arises: did we learn any lessons from twenty years of Cold War covert operations?

Patriotic Betrayal concluded with an assessment by CIA-knowledgeable (witting) participants of the stratagems used to win friends and punish enemies. Their judgment? Few actually worked.  This was true whether the witting students created phony foreign student unions, known as ghosts, that collapsed as soon as their purpose had been served, or aided the CIA overthrow of Iraqi ruler Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1963, that instead paved the way for the rise of Saddam Hussein, or backed Algerian revolutionaries in the hope of a gaining friendly post-colonial Algeria in 1962, hopes that were dashed when Algerian President Ben Bella allied with Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

By the mid-1960s, ideas for covert projects had grown more creative or more absurd, depending on your point of view. For example, the NSA-CIA team considered obtaining a worn out Soviet tanker and creating an oil spill off the coast of Algeria during the 1965 World Youth Festival in Algiers. To what end? The worn out tanker would signify a failed Soviet economy, and the oil spill a lack of environmental sensitivity. In this case, events overtook the scheme. President Ben Bella was overthrown, the festival cancelled, and the oil spill never materialized.

In the wake of 9/11, my collection of clippings grew. Articles, newspaper columns, and reports advocated a return to Cold War-style covert operations. Titles such as “Covert Operations: Now More than Ever,” or an International Herald Tribune op-ed by Richard Holbrooke that subtly signaled his backing for new CIA action, or a 2007 Rand Corporation report, “Building Moderate Muslim Networks,” that made the historical analogy explicit, albeit using sanitized language. The U.S. Government officials should build “parallel structures” and give them “benign guidance.”  Did the authors know anything about Cold War operations, I wondered? I dubbed my growing clip file, The Golden Age.

The tongue-in-cheek title didn’t mean that I wasn’t concerned. I was. Take the phony Twitter account in Cuba established secretly in 2010 with funds from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), called ZunZuneo, apparently Spanish slang for a Humingbird’s chirp. Yes, this phony twitter account, designed to build a base of freedom-seeking Cubans, had as its ultimate goal the creation of  “smart mobs” that would create a Cuban Spring and finally—once and for all—overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime. ZunZuneo was a textbook case of covert action, a project designed to disguise the hand of the U.S.  Government. USAID funds went to two private U.S. Companies, Creative Associates and Mobile Accord. As usual, one big secret requires lots of little ones. In this case, additional front companies were needed to disguise the publicly recognizable ones, and therefore the U.S. origins of the Twitter account. ZunZuneo’s “creative” entrepreneurs met secretly in Spain and other foreign capitals; like many Cold Warriors, they enjoyed a little foreign travel on the taxpayer’s dime while they plotted.

Not only did the project fail to overthrow Castro but, according to Catherine A. Traywick in Foreign Policy, its net effect was to supply intelligence to the Castro government on 40,000 twitter participants. It seems the covert operators overlooked the fact that the Cuban government owned the internet infrastructure.

Yet, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee examined the failed project at a televised hearing on April 8, 2014, I listened in disbelief as the debate turned on whether ZunZuneo was a “discreet” or a “covert” project. The Democratic Chair, Robert Menendez from New Jersey, a fierce anti-Castro Senator, stubbornly insisted it was discreet. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, made perhaps the most cogent remark, saying, in effect, you can call it covert, you can call it discreet, I call it silly.  His remarks were echoed by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who called it “dumb, dumb, dumb.” Leahy also pointed to how the Twitter project endangered USAID employees around the world, some of whom had contacted his office.

The Obama White House echoed the “discreet” defense, and pointed its finger toward Congress, since it had appropriated USAID funds. No one in Congress or the White House worried, at least openly, about the information newly amassed by the Cuban government. Did officials grasp what the exposure of the Cuban caper meant for dissidents throughout the world who are using social networks to organize, and who are often urged on by the U.S. Department of State? Was there a faster way to sow distrust of social media? Of course, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures, we know the answer is yes—through massive electronic surveillance.

But the ZunZuneo project is also an example of something I found characteristic of covert Cold War student operations: large and unrealistic hopes were often attached to covert projects. A friendly Algeria, for example, was to have enhanced U.S. prestige across all of North Africa, and even the Middle East. Support for anti-Batista Cuban revolutionaries was to demonstrate that the U.S. didn’t just support Latin American dictators. Not only does most covert meddling in politics fail, but the fallout or blowback, should the operations become public, and they usually do, is often the opposite of what was intended. Changing the adjective from covert to discreet suggests that we have a long way to go before we learn the lessons of the Cold War.

— Karen M. Paget

(This post appeared on the Yale Books Unbound blog on April 15, 2015)