Former Chief historian of the CIA explains why he nixed a secret history of the Bay of Pigs

tags: CIA, Bay of Pigs



Ken McDonald, an ex-marine and Oxford DPhil, has been a professor at George Washington University, King Chair of Maritime History at the US Naval War College, and chief historian of the Central Intelligence Agency. His recent publications include (with Michael Warner)US Intelligence Community Reform Studies since 1947 (2005) and (with Michael Herman and Vojtech Mastny) Did Intelligence Matter in the Cold War? (2006).

In late 1984, not long before he retired from the CIA, Jack Pfeiffer filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the CIA to release the classified five-volume draft history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation that he had begun as a CIA History Staff monograph in 1973. In late 1987 and early 1988, after Pfeiffer had appealed the CIA's denial of this request, the CIA's Office of General Counsel asked me, as chief historian, to prepare a declaration and later a supplement concerning Pfeiffer's appeal for declassification and release of this top secret draft history. A few years later, I recall hearing that the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had rejected Pfeiffer's FOIA appeal and his entire five-volume draft history remained classified. 

I heard nothing more about the fate of Pfeiffer's draft history until May of this year, when I read a copy of the recent US Court of Appeals denial of the National Security Archive's FOIA appeal for the declassification and release of Volume V of this Bay of Pigs draft history. Although Judge Rogers's dissenting opinion in this case quotes excerpts from my 1980s declarations, I have nothing useful to say now about the continued denial of Volume V. I can, however, provide some explanation for how it was that Jack Pfeiffer produced this massive draft history in the years 1973-1981 and how I came to review that draft in December 1981. I must rely on memory for this account of matters that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, since I am now retired and no longer have access to CIA records concerning Jack Pfeiffer, his history, or my work at the CIA.

Jack Pfeiffer joined the CIA History Staff in the early 1970s on temporary detail from the Directorate of Intelligence. As a staff historian he began work in 1973 on a history of the CIA's failed Bay of Pigs Operation. In January 1975, however, Senator Frank Church's Senate Select Committee investigating the CIA's foreign activities co-opted the small CIA History Staff to find documents needed for its inquiry. While this investigation proceeded, the History Staff's chief and historians found positions elsewhere in the CIA. With some retrospective irony, Jack Pfeiffer was assigned to the office handling FOIA requests, where he was allowed to continue work without supervision on his Bay of Pigs history. Although the CIA History Staff no longer existed, Jack soon styled himself first as "acting chief historian" and later as "chief historian."...

It took some time to review and evaluate Pfeiffer's massive draft history after I got it in early December 1981. My review, which had nothing to do with any declassification of this top secret manuscript, was intended only to determine whether or not the draft work was acceptable as an official CIA history for classified circulation within CIA. At that time, I had an Oxford doctorate in modern history and 20 years of experience as a professor at George Washington University and the US Naval War College. As the new head of a revived CIA History Staff I was concerned that our products reflect the careful use of historical evidence and high professional standards of both research and writing. I evaluated the draft critically, as I would a doctoral dissertation or prospective book manuscript.

Pfeiffer's eight years of research, especially into the actual conduct of the Bay of Pigs operation, was impressive. I nevertheless found that the work had serious deficiencies as a historical study. I was especially troubled by three particular weaknesses. First, the work was an apologia, an uncritical defense of the officers and operatives most closely involved with the operation. Second, without adequate argument or evidence it put responsibility for the operation's failure on officers elsewhere in CIA and on US government officials up to the highest levels. Third, the work's polemical response to earlier critics of the operation (especially those within the CIA) strongly suggested that Pfeiffer undertook his history principally as a rebuttal to such earlier critiques as the June 1961 findings of General Maxwell Taylor's presidential commission and the October 1961 report of CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick, both of which assessed the operation's many faults in planning and execution....



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list