|From left, Peter Kornbluh, Joyce Battle, Malcolm Byrne and Tom Blanton of The National Security Archive. Photo: Kevin Clark/Washington Post|
Peter Kornbluh has a passion for dusty attics and basements. He’s like one of those weekend foragers looking for forgotten treasures. But he’s not after antiques or folk art. He has spent 25 years searching for old government documents - classified documents that help explain the U.S. government role in such historic events as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Kornbluh is a senior analyst at The National Security Archive, a non-profit research institute in Washington, D.C. And he believes that decades-old government documents can help influence the course of events, even today.
“One can use history to make history...to push toward a different future,” he said.
And that’s particularly true in the case of U.S. policy toward Cuba, he said.
“You have an anachronistic policy that's stuck in a time warp, and so the history of the Bay of Pigs, of the Missile Crisis, the assassination attempts against Castro, the embargo, the secret dialogue between the two countries, all that history is still relevant.”
Kornbluh directs the Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project, aimed at obtaining and publishing classified documents related to Cuba.
“The work on Cuba not just simply a historical exercise, but an effort to use history to make history. That’s what motivates me. Still-secret documents on these many episodes in U.S.-Cuba relations can influence change in those relations in the future.”
“I think that it's important for the American public to know what happened in the past, and why. I think it's important that we know from the Cuban side what happened in the past and why. So we work very hard in my office to bring the Cubans and their own documents into the information pool on this whole bilateral and multilateral history.”
In 2001 and 2002, Kornbluh helped organize conferences in Cuba that brought together major players in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion. (See "Love-sick crabs stir up trouble on Cuba's Pink Highway")
“We're urged the Cubans to open their own archives to some extent they did on the Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs. At one point, Vice President Jose Fernandez came to me with their first volume of declassified documents. He said - We made a rubber stamp – Declassified - just for these documents.”
Kornbluh developed an interest in the U.S. role in Latin America when he was a teen-ager.
A fellow teen-ager – a Chilean – helped spark his interest in 1973 when a U.S.-government supported military coup toppled Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president.
“Behind all these stories of career interests often there's a girl or a woman. We were teen-agers then, so I can say she was a girl.”
His Chilean friend supported Allende and was angered by the coup, which brought to power a right-wing general named Augusto Pinochet.
“The whole issue of U.S. intervention in Chile and in Latin America is a very compelling story which resonates over the last 200 years and certainly continues to this very day, particularly in one country, Cuba. So it was not a hard leap from the history of U.S. intervention in Chile to the history of the perpetual hostility of the United States towards Cuba. And then, of course, you have these amazing grand episodes of Cold War history - the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, the assassination attempts, the conflict in Africa. I'm sure you can share my sensibility that it's an amazingly interesting dynamic, past and the present.”
|CIA recon targets, October 1962|
The organization has collected more than a half million declassified U.S. government documents, more than any other organization outside the federal government.
Kornbluh marked his 25th anniversary at the Archive in April. In the early days especially, Archive workers approached former government officials for documents.
“We would ask them if they had taken any documents home…and we would say - I volunteer to clean out your attic or your basement or your garage to see what documents you have.”
One such official was Raymond L. Garthoff, a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria who had been a senior intelligence analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Garthoff also spent some time at the CIA during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kornbluh said. After retiring, he worked at the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organization.
“I went over to his office and I sat at his desk and I said - I'd like to clean out your basement. You have any documents? And he said - You know, all my documents I gave back to the government. I had a lot of documents on the Missile Crisis and I gave them back to the government during the Johnson Administration because I got a request from them that they were centralizing all documents the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
“A majority of material on the Missile Crisis in the U.S. government was still classified. It wasn't only an insult to the public's right to know, it was a dangerous offense to keep that material secret. Unless you had the full story, you really wouldn't know what the lesson was and, of course, the lessons were completely skewed by the memoirs that had come out by Arthur Schlesinger (a former assistant to John F. Kennedy and author of the book, “A Thousand Days”) Ted Sorensen (Kennedy’s special counsel and adviser who wrote “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History”) and others, which painted a rosy picture of the Kennedy Administration.
“We set out to get to as many documents out on the Missile Crisis as possible and that's why I went to see Garthoff. And he says to me - You know, for some reason I think that Lyndon Johnson thought he was getting ready to run against Robert Kennedy, and decided he'd better have all the Cuban Missile Crisis documents in one place, so they sent me over a storage list of where they are. He reaches into his desk and pulls out this six-page list, an official State Department storage form on which 40 banker's boxes were all listed and every file folder in each of them was listed.”
The boxes had been in storage since 1967 or 1968.
|John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev|
“I filed a Freedom of Information request for each box, listing the titles of the folders in them. We ended up getting about 10,000 documents on the Missile crisis, covert operations against Cuba, diplomacy, the embargo, the Khrushchev-Kennedy letters.”
The letters weren’t easy to obtain.
“We actually had to convince the Soviets to say they could be released before the State Department would release them.”
|Missile equipment at Mariel|
“It was really right before the Missile Crisis broke out. We went to the judge and said - Please look at this. The CIA claims that if they release it now they'll be exposing a blueprint for a potentially still useful type of covert operation, and we don't think that something that happened in 1962 could conceivably be relevant to covert operations against Cuba today or anyplace else.
“The judge looked at it and said to the CIA - You can't hold on to this. There's not a single word in here that needs to be secret and they released pretty much the whole document. And it turned out to be this document of how the CIA had bought these ships, created these little helium balloons with baskets in them that would open on a timer. And they were going to put these ships off the coast of Cuba, float these balloons over the Cuban countryside and at a certain moment the timer would release the contents of the baskets and it would all come fluttering down on the Cuban populace. And the baskets would be filled with various types of propaganda, and chachkas and records and that kind of thing.
“They actually tested the weight of the stuff in the baskets to make sure if it fell from the sky and hit a Cuban kid in the head it wouldn't hurt them.”
“The document was the planning paper. It was clear they had already gone very deep into the plan. They had bought the ships. They had contracted the crews. They tested the winds. They picked the kind of stuff they were going to put in the baskets.
“This was the kind of silly covert operation that everybody knew that the agency had done before. A famous example: Dropping nylons for women onto the eastern side of the Berlin Wall from the sky so that the women on the communist side would see all the good things that women could have on the capitalist side.”
|CIA's National Photo Interpretation Center|
He has also helped create two document collections related to Cuba – one on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the other on the Bay of Pigs.
Next year he plans to compile a third collection on U.S.-Cuba relations over the past 50 years.
“The history is still relevant, all these years later,” he said.
The Archive also lobbies for greater openness in government.
Archive staffers met with Barack Obama’s transition team after his election and asked that the president’s first decree be about transparency and openness.
“That’s what he did on his first day. His very first presidential decree was to ask for more openness and to err on the side of openness.”
Asked whether those words caused real change, Kornbluh said, “The agencies have been slow to respond, but at least the standard is set.”
The Archive has cited Obama’s decree in lawsuits it has filed to try to force agencies to release documents.
The organization sued the CIA in April to try to obtain the agency’s secret five-volume history of the Bay of Pigs.
“We basically point out that the president has said in his executive order on classification and national security information that no document can remain secret indefinitely, and you know, that includes the CIA's official history of the Bay of Pigs.”
The lawsuit is pending. A government lawyer said in June that the CIA may be willing to release at least some of the documents.
“There is a complete difference, almost a 100-percent difference, in tone. In practice, it takes time to kind of change the course of a ship as big as the secrecy system in the United States of America. But this administration is better than the last one. It's been slightly better in practice. The Bush administration came in to office and immediately – under pressure from (Vice President Dick) Cheney, they reversed the Clinton administration’s directive that FOIA officers should err on the side of openness and the right to know. They changed it completely - You should err on the side of secrecy and the need to keep national security documentation secret to safeguard the security of the country.”
U.S. policy toward Cuba is another matter. Kornbluh said it is stuck in the past.
The U.S. began taking a hard-line against Cuba at a time of great hostility. Fidel Castro spoke “incredible anti-American rhetoric, which U.S. officials had never quite heard before, except going back to the 1930s when (rebel Augusto Cesar) Sandino was running around Nicaragua.”
Castro “was popular not only in Cuba, but throughout the region, which was one of the things that truly scared the CIA and the State Department. Nobody’s really written much about when Fidel went to Caracas in March of ’59 and the CIA station chief in Caracas was awed by the turnout of hundreds of thousands of people to cheer him on and the kind of charisma he exuded.”
The same CIA station chief became “manager of the Bay of Pigs operation. He was already very worried about Fidel at that point.”
|Fidel Castro leads Cuban forces during Bay of Pigs invasion|
“The promise that many people saw in a new foreign policy team has obviously dissipated. The commitment that we saw Obama make as a candidate to have a civil discourse with his enemies and to sit down with leaders like Raul Castro has gone by the wayside. And so U.S.-Cuban relations are acrimonious still because this administration has not truly changed the perpetual hostility towards Cuba. The tone has changed considerably, but the programs haven't really been changed.”
Raul Castro’s announcements of economic reforms have not impressed the Obama administration.
“The Cubans have just announced major changes in their economic perspectives and you'd think the United States would applaud. The first thing the president said was they haven’t made any change that's worthy of us responding. The president has moved the goal posts again.”
Photo credit: Black-and-white Archive photos from Cuban Missile Crisis used with permission.