Open the Congo Files and Face Up to What the CIA Did

Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, hands bound, sits in the bed of an army truck under guard of Congolese soldiers on Dec. 2, 1960, one day after his arrest by troops loyal to Col. Joseph Mobutu. (Horst Faas/AP)

Stuart A. Reid is an executive editor at Foreign Affairs and the author of “The Lumumba Plot.”

Next month, a presidential campaign will kick off in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but it is unlikely to make the country finally live up to its name. Running for a second five-year term will be Congo’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, who took office in 2019 after long-delayed elections he was widely viewed as having lost. Despite promises of openness and reform, Tshisekedi has proved unwilling or unable to free the Congolese from conflict, corruption and repression.

Never in its 63 years of independence has Congo experienced a peaceful and democratic transfer of power, and the elections scheduled for December seem unlikely to alter that grim record. Two dozen opposition candidates are challenging Tshisekedi, with Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctor Denis Mukwege merely one of the latest to enter the race. But police have blocked government critics from holding rallies and cracked down hard on those who managed to do so anyway, even reportedly beating a child. In July, an opposition spokesman was found dead in his car, his body riddled with bullets; in September, a journalist investigating the murder was arrested.

In a world full of tragedy, why should we care about Congo? One could point out that the country is the planet’s top producer of cobalt, a key ingredient in the batteries that will power the clean-energy transition. One could mention that it is home to the world’s second-largest rainforest, a valuable resource in fighting climate change. One could note its ranking as one of the world’s poorest countries, with 70 percent of the population living on less than $2.15 a day, and as one of the most violent, with 120 armed groups operating in the country’s easternmost provinces alone.

But there is a special reason Congo deserves the attention of Americans: the pernicious role the United States played in its early days as a country. The United States incurred a debt for its Cold War meddling. It is not too late to repay it.

A Congolese citizen removes a portrait of Belgium’s King Baudouin on July 22, 1960. (AP)
Cold War misdeeds

On June 30, 1960, after 75 years of Belgian rule, Congo became an independent country. At the helm as prime minister was Patrice Lumumba, a former postal clerk and beer promoter turned nationalist politician who had won the most votes in elections that May. But within days of his taking office, the country fell apart: The army mutinied, Belgian forces intervened without permission and a separatist province, Katanga, broke loose.

Lumumba turned first to the United Nations, which sent in a massive peacekeeping operation but failed to end the secession of Katanga. After asking the United States for help and threatening to kick out the U.N., he approached the Soviet Union for assistance. In the context of the Cold War, that was too much for Washington.

On Aug. 18, 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first U.S. president known to order the assassination of a sitting foreign leader. During a National Security Council meeting, an official note taker saw the president turn toward Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA. Then, the note taker recalled, President Eisenhower said “something — I can no longer remember his words— that came across to me as an order for the assassination of Lumumba.”

What happened next was revealed by the Church Committee in 1975: the CIA’s top chemist procured a poison to kill Lumumba, flew it to Congo, and instructed the CIA station chief there, Larry Devlin, to put it in the prime minister’s food or toothpaste. But by that time, Lumumba had been removed from office and put under house arrest, so the plot fizzled. In January 1961, Lumumba was flown to the breakaway province of Katanga and shot dead hours after landing by Congolese soldiers commanded by Belgian officers and answering to the separatist government. Given the identity of Lumumba’s ultimate executioners, the Church Committee largely let the CIA off the hook, finding no evidence that the agency was involved in his murder. And so the story has largely remained for nearly 50 years.

In fact, the CIA very much had blood on its hands for the death of Lumumba. It played a role in every event leading to his downfall and death.

Devlin urged the country’s president, Joseph Kasavubu, to orchestrate Lumumba’s removal as prime minister. The CIA station chief also bribed members of the senate, laying the groundwork for a no-confidence vote that would get rid of the prime minister. As part of what came to be known as “Project Wizard,” the CIA subsidized at least two opposition senators, and the agency received White House authorization to pay the president as well. CIA cash also paid for anti-Lumumba radio propaganda and street protests. The pressure succeeded, and on Sept. 5, 1960, Kasavubu fired Lumumba.

Nine days later, Congo’s young army chief of staff, Joseph Mobutu, announced that he was taking power. As Church Committee staffers summarized after interviewing Devlin, Mobutu’s coup “was arranged and supported, and indeed, managed, by the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Col. Joseph Mobutu is shown leaving a facility in Congo on Sept. 28, 1960, after conferring with the commander of U.N. forces. (AP)

It was the beginning of a long relationship between Mobutu and the CIA. The agency financed him and other members of his illegal regime and recommended that he arrange for Lumumba’s “permanent disposal.” When Lumumba escaped from house arrest, it helped Mobutu search for and eventually capture him.

When Devlin learned that Lumumba was about to be sent to his death, he offered no dissent to Mobutu and the other Congolese power brokers who regularly sought — and followed — his advice. Instead, he actively kept his superiors in Washington out of the loop. The Kennedy administration was just days from taking office. By now, the CIA had shelved the assassination plan, and the State Department had made it clear that no major policy decisions could be made during this period of transition. Devlin worried that Washington might ask him to save Lumumba, and so he said nothing. This silence sealed Lumumba’s fate. Late at night on Jan. 17, 1961, the 35-year-old former prime minister was shot dead in a remote clearing in the Katangan countryside.

Lumumba’s death robbed Congo of a popular leader who had a plausible route back to the prime minister’s office. Instead, the country was saddled with Mobutu, a feckless military ruler who, in his early years, required constant CIA help to stay in power. Nourished by American aid, Mobutu remained in charge until 1997. The collapse of his regime sparked a war so bloody and confused that estimates of its death toll range from 2 million to 5 million.

Because so many of Congo’s problems were structural weaknesses inherited from its colonial history, the country was probably never destined to become a Jeffersonian democracy in the heart of Africa. But absent U.S. meddling, it could well have followed the trajectory of many postcolonial states in the region: poor and politically chaotic, but at least functional and free of mass violence. It is no exaggeration to say that Congo’s entire history after 1960 would likely have been far different were it not for a few key decisions made by U.S. officials in those early years.

Paul Robeson Jr., with a brief case, pickets outside the U.N. building in New York on Feb. 15, 1961, after the death of Patrice Lumumba. (AP)

If the United States is capable of holding itself accountable, then it should make amends. In lieu of reparations, a substantial increase in aid to the country is in order. The United States provides Congo with nearly $370 million per year in non-emergency aid, less than one-fifth of what it pays annually to maintain empty buildings.

Washington could also offer Congo a formal apology. This very message has already been delivered behind closed doors. In 2018, Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president at the time, told me that an American envoy had admitted to him in private that the U.S. government bore responsibility for the turmoil of the 1960s and therefore what followed. Going public with such an apology would cost nothing, while signaling to Congo and the rest of the Global South that the United States, unlike China and Russia, deals honestly with its history.

In the current political environment, compensation is a nonstarter, and the echoes of the flak President Barack Obama took for his 2009 “apology tour” probably also preclude President Biden from saying sorry to Congo. More plausibly, his administration could prioritize long-term democratization in the country to help get Congo back on the track off which America shunted it in the 1960s. It missed an opportunity to do so in 2019, when Congo’s electoral commission named Tshisekedi president even though credible evidence suggested a rival won four times as many votes. The Trump administration endorsed Tshisekedi’s victory — yet again choosing the side of an illegitimate ruler over that of the Congolese people.

In Congo’s upcoming election, Washington must not make the same mistake: backing an undemocratic political leader for the sake of short-term stability. In the remaining months before the Congolese go to the polls, the United States could send a strong message to Tshisekedi that it will be watching the election closely — and encourage station-by-station results be quickly published and upheld. Last July, the U.S. government pledged $3 million for election observers, poll workers and civil society groups in Congo, but all that will do little good if top officials decide their political survival depends on rigging the election. And they might not even have to cheat: Tshisekedi could well win the vote fairly, albeit after having tilted the playing field for months beforehand.

In February 1961, Congolese officials survey a vehicle Patrice Lumumba used to escape authorities. (AP)
Censored files

But there is one thing that Biden could do with the stroke of a pen to begin the long process of making amends: open up the Congo files. More than 60 years later, many cables and memos from the CIA, the State Department and the White House are still striped with redactions. Dollar amounts of bribes are regularly blacked out, as are the names of CIA officers and their Congolese cooperators.

Some redactions appear to have been motivated not by any sense of national security but by a desire to avoid institutional embarrassment. In an August 1960 cable, for example, Clare Timberlake, the U.S. ambassador, wrote the State Department saying it was a “fiction that we are dealing with a civilized people or a responsible government in the Congo.” When his words were presented to readers of a State Department volume on Africa published in 1992, the phrase “a civilized people” was replaced with “[less than 1 line of source text not declassified].”

The normal processes for releasing documents aren’t working. The United States spends a pittance on declassification, and the U.S. intelligence community has resisted efforts to replace costly manual reviews with ones conducted by artificial intelligence. Freedom of Information Act requests take ages to bear fruit. In 2018, investigative reporter Emma Best filed one for the CIA’s internal history, subtitled the “CIA’s Operation Against Lumumba in 1960.” The request is still pending.

Atonement must begin with an accounting. Right now, we don’t know all that could be known about America’s misdeeds in Congo. Biden could change this tomorrow by ordering a large-scale declassification project focused on U.S. policy there in the 1960s. The Obama administration did the same thing with regard to Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and 1980s, an initiative that produced more than 7,000 documents.

Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of Congo, signs the act of independence with Gaston Eyskens, Belgium’s prime minister, on June 30, 1960. (Jean Jacques Levy/AP)

Nor surprisingly for a country that has been the victim of actual conspiracies, Congo’s politics and society are poisoned by conspiracy theories. During the 2019 Ebola epidemic, for example, many of the infected thought the disease was a hoax or part of a Western extermination campaign and thus refused to go to the hospital. Health workers were attacked. American forthrightness about its past policies wouldn’t cure Congolese mistrust overnight. But it would represent a small step toward filling the information vacuum with historical fact and showing that when it comes to transparency, Washington is walking the walk.

More important, a Congo declassification project would be a diplomatic freebie. Biden should know this well. As vice president, he traveled to Brazil during a time of tense relations with the United States but arrived with a peace offering: a disk full of declassified documents about the pro-American military government that took power in the country in 1964. “I hope that in taking steps to come to grips with our past,” Biden told President Dilma Rousseff, “we can find a way to focus on the immense promise of the future.”

Applied to Congo, such openness would no doubt be received by leaders as a sign of respect, enhancing U.S. diplomatic influence in a place where it has been waning for years as China and Russia have gained ground. (Indeed, America’s lack of influence in Congo was part of the reason it felt the need to go along with the stolen elections there.) Especially in Africa, given the history of colonialism, the optics of Western diplomacy matter. Witness the outrage at the way multiple African heads of state attending Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral last year were ushered onto a bus like schoolchildren while Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in their own limousines. American disclosures would send a clear message to Congo: Your country and your history matter to us.

But the United States also stands to benefit from declassification. Democracies are defined by openness, accountability and free inquiry. They enjoy the self-confidence that comes with self-acceptance, certain that their system can survive whatever embarrassing disclosures it suffers. More than six decades after Lumumba’s murder, what are we still hiding and why?

– Published Courtesy of the Washington Post.

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