Deceiving Ourselves

November 04, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago -- In 1963, the government of Cheddi Jagan was overthrown in Guyana, and Forbes Burnham became the ruler for the next 20 years. A racist demagogue, Burnham created a foreign debt of $2 billion that, as Tim Weiner puts it in the New York Times, is ''more than five times Guyana's gross domestic product -- interest on that debt now consumes 80 percent of the country's revenue,'' so that Guyana went from being one of the wealthier countries in Latin America to its present status as one of the poorest.

All this was done at the express command of President Kennedy, who issued a secret order to the CIA that it must topple Jagan, who was considered too leftist for our comfort. Jagan was the legitimately elected ruler; the country would clearly have been better off with him. But none of that mattered in our period of Cold War arrogance. Kennedy lied not only to Jagan, whom he had promised to support after his legitimate election, but to the American people, who were led to believe that we had nothing to do with the fall of Jagan.

It is 30 years later, and the time for publication of State Department and CIA records concerning this affair has now arrived. Even the 30-year delay stretches the spirit of the Constitution, which calls for timely accounting of all government activities. But now officials in both the CIA and the State Department say the documents should not be included in the account of foreign affairs -- asking that for the first time we publish incomplete (and, by omission, lying) official historical records.

The argument for secrecy is, as always, national security. Not that poor little Guyana can threaten us -- or even that the Guyanese doubt the tale of Jagan's fall. They have reinstated Jagan, accepting his account of our activities.

No, the lie is to be upheld among our own people. The government thinks that any ''embarrassment'' must be stopped, even by lying, since that would weaken our prestige and self-confidence.

That has been our excuse for lying to ourselves for the last 30 years. If we accept the argument for suppression now, it will be used again and again as new periods of the Cold War come up for publication in the records.

It is dangerous to lie to ourselves. Kennedy lied about our attempts to assassinate Castro, which led to the placing of missiles in Cuba. Then he had to keep lying, arguing that Cuba had not been provoked in any way, and therefore creating a hysteria about ''gratuitous aggression'' on the parts of Castro and Khrushchev.

The CIA has been at the center of all our lies, and it certainly did ''embarrass'' us, over and over, as we will be learning if we are allowed to see what was done in our name and with our money. The legacy of crimes the CIA has been building is so great that no mere reform can redeem it. It should be abolished, now that its Cold War occasion has disappeared.

There are plenty of other security agencies, especially the National Security Agency, to collect information. The CIA was added to this array of intelligence units specifically to perform dirty operations. Its charter was drawn up in a misleading way to mask that empowerment, as Clark Clifford, who helped draw it up, has admitted.

The new Senate report on the Ames affair concludes that the CIA has created ''a system and a culture unwilling and unable to face, assess and investigate'' its own errors, such as the Ames story. If it cannot collect intelligence on its own acts, why should we expect it to be better at finding out the truth about other governments? ''Ecrasez l'infame.'' Remove the blot on our nation.

6* Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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