|The secret life of Henry Kissinger; minutes of a 1975 meeting with Lawrence
by Mark Hertsgaard
The Nation October 29, 1990
THE SECRET LIFE OF HENRY KISSINGER
Nothing, it seems, succeeds like failure. How else to explain the media visibility of Henry Kissinger during the Persian Gulf crisis? After all, the former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser's record of achievement in that part of the world has been checkered at best. Not only did he help to make the Middle East war of 1973 inevitable by "his need to dominate then-Secretary of State William Rogers and his willful misunderstanding of the limits of Soviet influence inside Egypt," as Seymour Hersh argued in The Price of Power, but he was also the man who pressured President Carter into allowing the deposed Shah of Iran into the United States in 1979, thus precipitating the calamitous and entirely predictable seizure of the American Embassy and hostages in Teheran.
Nevertheless, in the weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Kissinger was a ubiquitous presence on the nation's airwaves and in newspaper columns. He was interviewed on ABC's This Week With David Brinkley, published at great length on the opinion page of The Washington Post (and, through the Post-Los Angeles Times syndication service, in newspapers across the country) and respectfully quoted in The New York Times. He was, as they say, a player again. Not that he ever truly lost access to ruling circles. Since leaving government in 1977, Kissinger has maintained a lucrative global network of business and political contacts and has made a special point of cultivating influence in the news media. Besides circulating opinion columns through the Post-Times syndicate, he has served on the board of CBS Inc. and has been a paid consultant to both NBC News and ABC News.
Whatever one thinks of Kissinger's deeds on a substantive level, the "most favored expert" status that the U.S. media have bestowed on him is odd, if only because of his demonstrated record of contempt for an independent press and the free flow of information upon which it depends. Kissinger has admitted to wiretapping reporters and his own aides during his years as Richard Nixon's National Security Adviser. Kissinger requested the wiretaps (which were handled by former F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover and by Alexander Haig, then the White House Chief of Staff) in order to find out who was leaking information to the press about American policy toward Vietnam. Kissinger, of course, was hardly opposed to leaks in principle; he spent a good portion of his working days spoon-feeding such influential denizens of the Washington press corps as Time's Hugh Sidey and CBS's Marvin Kalb. But Kissinger trusted no one else with this delicate task, which is perhaps understandable, given the considerable distance between his private version of events and the reality of his policies. Indeed, his wiretaps can be seen as part of a multifaceted White House campaign to keep the nation ignorant of the true nature of his and Nixon's foreign policy.
Kissinger's obsession with keeping everyone -- the citizenry, the Congress, even his own Administration colleagues -- in the dark about his actions is displayed in all its banal iniquity in the State Department document printed on page 492. So are his casual disdain for law and constitutional procedure, his disregard for the human consequences of his policies, his bizarre personal paranoia and his petulant sense of self-importance. "You have a responsibility to recognize that we are living in a revolutionary situation," he admonishes aides at one point, adding ominously, "Everything on paper will be used against me."
What provoked this particular outburst on Kissinger's part was the State Department's dispatch of the "cable on East Timor" that he refers to in the third sentence of the minutes. As Secretary of State, Kissinger had just returned from a tour of Asia with President Gerald Ford. One objective of this tour seems to have been psychological. Saigon had fallen to North Vietnamese forces that April, and Kissinger apparently thought it urgent to send a message to friends and foes alike that the United States remained a power to be reckoned with and would not retreat an inch in the global struggle against Soviet and Chinese "adventurism."
The two hot spots most vexing to Kissinger at the moment were East Timor and Angola. Both were former Portuguese colonies; both had been promised independence by the democratic government that had taken over following the overthrow of Lisbon's right-wing dictatorship in 1974. As Kissinger met with his colleagues in December 1975, however, this independence still seemed a long and bloody way off, and not least because of policies Kissinger himself had implemented. East Timor is situated on the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago; Angola, on the southwest coast of Africa. Although located half a world away from each other, both shared the common cold war misfortune of being regarded primarily as pawns in a global chess game. In July 1975 Kissinger had obtained President Ford's approval for a covert military program designed to install a pro-U.S. government in Angola. And in August, he had signaled Jakarta that the United States would not object if the Indonesians invaded East Timor, which by then was controlled by the leftist Fretilin movement. The Indonesians invaded on December 7, one day after Ford and Kissinger left Jakarta. It was a punishing assault, and the result was mass slaughter. According to church sources, an estimated 100,000 people -- one of every seven Timorese -- were killed over the next twelve months. The Indonesians did comply with an American request to delay their attack until Air Force One was well clear of Jakarta, but they alarmed State Department officials by making extensive use of U.S.-supplied military equipment. This violated American law, which mandated that such equipment be employed only in self-defense, and triggered one of the controversies detailed in the minutes printed below. Kissinger was upset with his subordinates on two counts: first, with their conclusion that the Indonesians had broken the law (and thereby made suspension of additional aid politically necessary on Capitol Hill); second, and most important, that they had dared notify Kissinger of this in a cable sent before his return to Washington.
Kissinger's great fear, of course, is that the American public might eventually discover the truth about his policy on East Timor. He wants "to stop it the aid quietly," and dismisses Assistant Secretary Philip Habib's assurance that the cable "will not leak." Kissinger becomes nearly apoplectic when he learns that actually "there are two cables! And that means twenty guys have seen it." This naturally raises the odds that a reporter will eventually get wind of it.
Near the end of the meeting, Kissinger decides to finesse the legal problem by telling Congress that aid will be cut off "while we are studying" the issue. But the aid will secretly "start again in January." And so it came to pass. A "modified suspension of military aid" to Indonesia was imposed for six months, but in name only; as Noam Chomsky later testified to the United Nations, "the flow of arms was uninterrupted, including attack helicopters and other equipment required to wipe hundreds of villages off the face of the earth, destroy crops, and herd the remnants of the population into internment centers." Why publish this fifteen-year-old document now? That Henry Kissinger had lied, circumvented the law and blasphemed democratic principles is, after all, hardly late-breaking news. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to fill in another small portion of the public record. And the special advantage of this document is that it cannot be discounted in the way that some of Kissinger's friends tried to undermine Hersh's The Price of Power, a work that relied in part on the recollections of Kissinger's associates. No one can dispute the memory or accuracy of the sources quoted here, for they are Kissinger and company themselves, as recorded by the State Department's own notetaker. But the larger reason for calling attention to these minutes of a long-ago conversations is that Kissinger is still managing to escape his past. Readers of The Nation may not need a refresher course in the mendacity and personal unpleasantness of Henry Kissinger, but the executive producers of this country's television talk shows and the editors of its newspaper opinion pages evidently do. For they have enthusiastically welcomed Kissinger back onto the public stage during the Persian Gulf crisis, just as they cooperated earlier this year in the most recent resuscitation of Richard Nixon. One may doubt that these media gatekeepers will now somehow be swayed by the addition of yet another brick in the bloody wall. But one can always hope.
Participants: The Secretary
The Secretary: I want to raise a little bit of hell about the Department's conduct in my absence. Until last week I thought we had a disciplined group; now we've gone to pieces completely. Take this cable on East Timor. You know my attitude and anyone who knows my position as you do must know that I would not have approved it. The only consequence is to put yourself on record. It is a disgrace to treat the Secretary of State this way....
What possible explanation is there for it? I had told you to stop it quietly. What is your place doing, Phil, to let this happen? It is incomprehensible. It is wrong in substance and in procedure. It is a disgrace. Were you here?
Habib: Our assessment was that if it was going to be trouble, it would come up before your return. And I was told they decided it was desirable to go ahead with the cable.
The Secretary: Nonsense. I said do it for a few weeks and then open up again.
Habib: The cable will not leak.
The Secretary: Yes it will and it will go to Congress too and then we will have hearings on it.
Habib: I was away. I was told by cable that it had come up. The Secretary: That means that there are two cables! And that means twenty guys have seen it.
Habib: No, I got it back channel--it was just one paragraph double talk and cryptic so I knew what it was talking about. I was told that Leigh thought that there was a legal requirement to do it.
Leigh: No, I said it could be done administratively. It was not in our interest to do it on legal grounds.
Sisco: We were told that you had decided we had to stop. The Secretary: Just a minute, just a minute. You all know my view on this. You must have an FSO-8 Foreign Service officer, class eight who knows it well. It will have a devastating impact on Indonesia. There's this masochism in the extreme here. No one has complained that it was aggression. Leigh: The Indonesians were violating an agreement with us. The Secretary: The Israelis when they go into Lebanon--when was the last time we protested that?
Leigh: That's a different situation.
Maw: It is self-defense.
The Secretary: And we can't construe a Communist government in the middle of Indonesia as self-defense?
Leigh: Well . . .
The Secretary: Then you're saying that arms can't be used for defense.
Habib: No, they can be used for the defense of Indonesia. The Secretary: Now take a look at this basic theme that is coming out on Angola. These SOBs are leaking all of its stuff to New York Times reporter Les Gelb.
Sisco: I can tell you who.
The Secretary: Who?
Sisco: National Security Council staff member William Hyland spoke to him. The Secretary: Wait a minute--Hyland said . . .
Sisco: He said he briefed Gelb.
The Secretary: I want these people to know that our concern in Angola is not the economic wealth or a naval base. It has to do with the USSR operating 8,000 miles from home when all the surrounding states are asking for our help. This will affect the Europeans, the Soviets, and China.
On the Timor thing, that will leak in three months and it will come out that Kissinger overruled his pristine bureaucrats and violated the law. How many people in L the legal adviser's office know about this? Leigh: Three.
Habib: There are at least two in my office.
The Secretary: Plus everybody in the meeting so you're talking about not less than 15 or 20.
You have a responsibility to recognize that we are living in a revolutionary situation. Everything on paper will be used against me.
Habib: We do not take account of that all the time.
The Secretary: every day some SOB in the Department is carrying on about Angola but no one is defending Angola. Find me one quote in the Gelb article defending our policy in Angola.
Habib: I think the leaks and dissent are the burden you have to bear. The Secretary: But the people in charge of this Department could have lacerated AF Bureau for African Affairs.
Intersoll: I was told it came from up the river.
Eagleburger: No way.
The Secretary: Don't be ridiculous. It's quoted there. Read Gelb. Was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs William Schaufele called in and told to get his house under control? This is not minor league stuff. We are going to lose big. The President says to the Chinese that we're going to stand firm in Angola and two weeks later we get out. I go to a NATO meeting and meanwhile the Department leaks that we're worried about a naval base and says it's an exaggeration or aberration of Kissinger's. I don't care about the oil or the base but I do care about the African reaction when they see the Soviets pull it off and we don't do anything. If the Europeans then say to themselves if they can't hold Luanda, how can they defend Europe? The Chinese will say we're a country that was run out of Indochina for 50,000 men and is now being run out of Angola for less than $50 million. Where were the meetings here yesterday? Were there any?
The Secretary: It cannot be that our agreement with Indonesia says that the arms are for internal purposes only. I think you will find that it says that they are legitimately used for self-defense.
There are two problems. The merits of the case which you have a duty to raise with me. The second is how to put these to me. But to put it into a cable 30 hours before I return, knowing how cables are handled in this building, guarantees that it will be a national disaster and that transcends whatever Deputy Legal Adviser George Aldrich has in his feverish mind. I took care of it with the administrative thing by ordering Carlyle Maw to not make any new sales.
How will the situation get better in six weeks?
Habib: They may get it cleaned up by then.
The Secretary: The Department is falling apart and has reached the point where it disobeys clear-cut orders.
Habib: We sent the cable because we thought it was needed and we thought it needed your attention. This was ten days ago.
The Secretary: Nonsense. When did I get the cable, Jerry? Bremer: Not before the weekend. I think perhaps on Sunday. The Secretary: You had to know what my view on this was. No one who has worked with me in the last two years could not know what my view would be on Timor.
Habib: Well, let us look at it -- talk to Leigh. There are still some legal requirements. I can't understand why it went out if it was not legally required.
The Secretary: Am I wrong in assuming that the Indonesians will go up in smoke if they hear about this?
Habib: Well, it's better than a cutoff. It could be done at a low level. The Secretary: We have four weeks before Congress comes back. That's plenty of time.
Leigh: The way to handle the administrative cutoff would be that we are studying the situation.
The Secretary: And 36 hours was going to be a major problem? Leigh: We had a meeting in Sisco's office and decided to send the message. The Secretary: I know what the law is but how can it be in the US national interest for us to give up on Angola and kick the Indonesians in the teeth? Once it is on paper, there will be a lot of FSO-6's who can make themselves feel good who can write for the Open Forum Panel on the thing even though I will turn out to be right in the end.
Habib: The second problem on leaking of cables is different. The Secretary: No, it's an empirical fact.
Eagleburger: Phil, it's a fact. You can't say that any NODIS most restricted distribution cable will leak but you can't count on three to six months later someone asking for it sic in Congress. If it's part of the written record, it will be dragged out eventually.
The Secretary: You have an obligation to the national interest. I don't care if we sell equipment to Indonesia or not. I get nothing from it. I get no rakeoff. But you have an obligation to figure out how to serve your country. The Foreign Service is not to serve itself. The Service stands for service to the United States and not service to the Foreign Service.
Habib: I understand that that's what this cable would do. The Secretary: The minute you put this into the system you cannot resolve it without a finding.
Leigh: There's only one question. What do we say to Congress if we're asked?
The Secretary: We cut it off while we are studying it. We intend to start again in January.
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