On 8 February 1963, the Ba’ath Party of Iraq successfully overthrew the government of Abdel Karim Qassem after months of plotting in secret. There is no question that the United States government viewed Qassem’s overthrow as a major net gain in the zero-sum, Cold War calculus. After all, a pro-communist dictator had been replaced by the Ba’ath Party, which immediately proved its anti-communist credentials as the party’s militia went house-to-house rounding up suspected communists and their sympathizers in a bloodbath that led to the loss of somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 lives.
The dramatic shift in power that Iraq underwent in February 1963 and the obvious benefits the coup offered to the U.S. has led to widespread belief that the CIA was behind the plot. Many scholars have pointed to a memo sent from Robert Komer, Kennedy’s special advisor for the Middle East, to President Kennedy on the day after the coup, as evidence that the US was behind the plot.
The memo reads:
[blockquote]While it’s still early, [the] Iraqi revolution seems to have succeeded. It is almost certainly a net gain for our side….
We will make informal friendly noises as soon as we can find out whom to talk with, and out to recognize as soon as we’re sure these guys are firmly in the saddle. CIA had excellent reporting on the plotting, but I doubt either they or [the] UK should claim much credit.[/blockquote]
It is perplexing that this document is so often cited as a "smoking gun" that proves US complicity in the plot, when in fact it proves the opposite. The reality is that the CIA had long had an interest in the Ba’ath Party and had managed to infiltrate its ranks in the early 1960s.
In an interview with PBS, a former chief of the CIA’s Near East division chief, James Chritchfield, observed:
[blockquote]In 1961 and 1962, we increased our interest in the Ba'ath—not to actively support it—but politically and intellectually, we found the Ba'ath interesting. We found it particularly active in Iraq. Our analysis of the Ba’ath was that it was comparatively moderate at that time, and that the United States could easily adjust to and support its policies. So we watched the Ba’ath’s long, slow preparation to take control. They planned to do it several times, and postponed it.[/blockquote]
But Chritchfield was not the only former CIA official to make a connection between the CIA and the Ba’ath. Henry Rositzke, a twenty-five year veteran of the CIA’s Directorate of Operation (DO), has claimed in his book, The CIA’s Secret Operations: Espionage, Counterespionage, and Covert Action (New York: Reader’s Digest Press, 1977), that the CIA had covert assets within the Ba’ath Party:
[blockquote]CIA sources were in a perfect position to follow each step of Ba’ath preparations for the Iraqi coup. which focused on making contacts with military and civilian leaders in Baghdad. The CIA’s major source, in an ideal catbird seat, reported the exact time of the coup and provided a list of the new cabinet members.[/blockquote]
Taken together, these two claims lead to two conclusions: First, by 1962 the CIA had developed an "academic" interest in the Ba’ath Party and had managed to cultivate at least one high-level asset that was providing it with intelligence on its plans. Indeed, the veracity of this claim will become increasingly evident as this narrative progresses. The second conclusions is that Rositzke, like Chritchfield, made a distinction between intelligence gathering and outright plotting.
[blockquote][From] a diplomatic point of view, having secret contacts with plotters implies at least unofficial American complicity in the plot. This sensitivity has increased over the years as almost any coup anywhere has been uniformly ascribed to the CIA or the State Department.[/blockquote]
But the reason for these secret contacts, as Rositzke explains, is that US policymakers were obsessed with obtaining advanced warning of a coup even though information of this nature was rarely actionable. "The simple fact appears to be that no American president likes to be surprised by any dramatic event anywhere even though he can do no more than watch it happen." As such, "CIA reporting on the [1958 and 1963] Iraqi coups illustrates the diplomatic–intelligence bind that underlies all reporting. To call an upcoming coup requires the CIA to have sources within the plotters." In other words, the reason the CIA was watching the Ba'ath was to obtain information on an upcoming coup, not to facilitate or arrange a coup with them. In fact, the CIA was actively seeking Qassem’s overthrow, it just was not working with the Ba’ath to achieve this objective.
But according to a third source from the CIA, who was an operations officer stationed in Iran during the early 1960s, in the spring of 1962 the White House sent orders to the CIA to begin plotting Qassem’s demise. Archie Roosevelt, Jr. was put in charge of the operation. But almost immediately the CIA operation was beset with problems, the biggest being that obtaining "direct access to persons who could play a meaningful role in any plan to overthrow Qassem" was limited. This meant that the operation had to be built from the ground up and this would take time.
Documents show that there was significant confusion among US officials over which of the many groups plotting against the regime had actually struck first when the Ba’ath launched its coup in February 1963. This confusion stemmed from the fact that unlike previous Ba’athist plots, the US and UK had been left in the dark. Indeed, the former CIA officer that had been ordered to arrange Qassem’s overthrow has denied any involvement. He explained that "when Qassem was assassinated in early February 1963, [the CIA was] still engaged in contacting people who could play a role in a coup attempt against [him]" and that "[whatever] progress we had made [in the plot] went for naught when Qassem was assassinated."
Taken together, this suggests that while the CIA was in fact plotting against Qassem at the time that he was overthrown, it was not responsible for the coup that saw Iraq’s "sole leader" deposed.