From Havana to Kiev: The US State Department as a Covert Operative

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Common Dreams

From Havana to Kiev: The US State Department as a Covert Operative

‘Democracy Assistance’ and civil-society coups in Venezuela, Cuba, Ukraine, and elsewhere

U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland offered food to pro-European Union activists as she and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, right, walked through Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, on Wednesday. She also offered food to some of the police nearby. (Photo: Andrew Kravchenko/AP)

I begin with three examples of State Department covert operations. The first examples start with Cuba (for context) and end with Venezuela, the target of the first two covert operations described below. The third example begins and ends with Cuba. These examples function as case studies that can be applied paradigmatically to Ukraine around the events of February 2014, when Ukraine's elected president was overthrown in a coup supported by the United States. I conclude with commentary about the State Department’s likely evolution into a covert operations wing of the executive branch, and why such operations are illegal and threaten to ignite war in Europe among nations with nuclear weapons. 

Covert Operation No. 1

On April 3, the Associated Press issued an investigative report titled, “US Secretly Created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to Stir Unrest and Undermine Government,” which began:

In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a U.S. government official, flew to Barcelona to put the final touches on a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.

The AP report continued: “McSpedon didn’t work for the C.I.A. This was a program paid for and run by the [State Department’s] U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID], best known for overseeing billions of dollars in US humanitarian aid.”

While USAID is known mostly for its health and food programs overseas, it includes a “Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance” program, which, as its Web site says, “helps countries transition to democracy.”

The USAID office charged with these “transition” missions is called the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) which — in the “democracy assistance” argot that thoroughly infects State Department documents — “provides assistance targeting key transition, stabilization, and reconstruction needs in the areas of promoting reconciliation, fostering peace and democracy.”

Yet, here’s what the AP reported about the involvement of OTI in its “Cuban Twitter” investigation:

McSpedon worked for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), a division that was created after the fall of the Soviet Union to promote US interests in quickly changing political environments – without the usual red tape. In 2009, a report by congressional researchers warned that OTI’s work “often lends itself to political entanglements that may have diplomatic implications.” Staffers on oversight committees complained that USAID was running secret programs and would not provide details.

Now that we've picked up the trail of OTI in Cuba from the AP report, we will follow that lead to OTI operations in Venezuela. We'll return to Cuba in Covert Operation No. 3 below.  

The report “by congressional researchers” — the Congressional Research Service — was issued in May 2009, and said a few more things about USAID’s OTI:

Critics sometimes accuse OTI of destabilizing rather than stabilizing civil society. For example, OTI democracy projects in Venezuela, with the reported goal of encouraging citizens’ participation in democratic processes, have repeatedly been accused by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of supporting groups trying to overthrow Chávez. Similarly, Bolivian President Evo Morales accused the United States of plotting a “civil coup” through the now-closed OTI program in Bolivia.

The Congressional Research Service report footnoted a 2007 analysis by Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy, who wrote:

Several months after the unsuccessful April 2002 coup in Venezuela, the U.S. State Department established an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas, using money from USAID. Operating out of the U.S. Embassy, OTI has two stated objectives, according to the agency: to “strengthen democratic institutions and promote space for democratic dialogue”; and “encourage citizen participation in the democratic process.” USAID established OTI with the all-but-explicit intention of aiding efforts to oust President Chávez.

The Congressional Research Service also cited a 2008 report in the New York Times:

Without offering proof, Mr. [Evo] Morales accused his critics of plotting a “civil coup” with the help of the American ambassador, Philip S. Goldberg, whom he expelled abruptly on Sept. 10. Indeed, considerable ill will toward the United States persists in Mr. Morales’s government, particularly in relation to a United States agency called the Office of Transition Initiatives [OTI]. Washington ended the office’s operations in Bolivia last year, after dispensing grants aimed at strengthening departmental governments, which have taken the lead in opposing Mr. Morales.

Also with regard to USAID and OTI, in 2011 WikiLeaks released a document generated by the U.S. embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, dated November 9, 2006, and titled, “USAID/OTI Programmatic Support for Country Team 5 Point Strategy.” The “country team” is State Department staff in Venezuela and the “5-Point Strategy” was aimed at discrediting and undermining President Hugo Chávez in advance of the presidential election there in December 2006.

The scheme behind the five-point plan, implemented from 2004 to 2006, was laid out in the U.S. embassy document as follows: “The strategy’s focus is: 1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US Business, and 5) Isolating Chavez Internationally.”

The document reviewed OTI’s performance in implementing the five-point plan from 2004 to 2006, as follows:

Strengthen Democratic Institutions

(S) OTI has supported over 300 Venezuelan civil society organizations with technical assistance, capacity building, connecting them with each other and international movements, and with financial support upwards of $15 million. Of these, 39 organizations focused on advocacy have been formed since the arrival of OTI; many of these organizations as a direct result of OTI programs and funding. 

(S) Human Rights: OTI supports the Freedom House (FH) “Right to Defend Human Rights” program with $1.1 million. Simultaneously through Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), OTI has also provided 22 grants to human rights organizations totaling $726,000. 

Penetrate Base/Divide Chavismo

(S) Another key Chavez strategy is his attempt to divide and polarize Venezuelan society using rhetoric of hate and violence. OTI supports local NGOs who work in Chavista strongholds and with Chavista leaders, using those spaces to counter this rhetoric and promote alliances through working together on issues of importance to the entire community. OTI has directly reached approximately 238,000 adults through over 3000 forums, workshops and training sessions delivering alternative values and providing opportunities for opposition activists to interact with hard-core Chavistas, with the desired effect of pulling them slowly away from Chavismo. We have supported this initiative with 50 grants totaling over $1.1 million.

Isolate Chavez

(S) An important component of the OTI program is providing information internationally regarding the true revolutionary state of affairs. OTI’s support for human rights organizations has provided ample opportunity to do so. The FH [Freedom House] exchanges allowed Venezuelan human rights organizations to visit Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Washington DC to educate their peers regarding the human rights situation. Also, DAI [Development Alternatives Inc.] has brought dozens of international leaders to Venezuela, university professors, NGO members, and political leaders to participate in workshops and seminars, who then return to their countries with a better understanding of the Venezuelan reality and as stronger advocates for the Venezuelan opposition.

BROWNFIELD

As the document indicated, the five-point plant was written (or approved) by the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela at the time, William Brownfield.

Although the U.S. embassy and USAID/OTI had organized and implemented a program in Venezuela to “penetrate” the political base of Hugo Chávez, “divide” Chávismo (a political program of socialism and anti-imperialism), and “isolate” Chávez internationally — all designed to weaken support for Chávez leading up to the December 2006 presidential election — another State Department document released in February 2005 described U.S. involvement in preparing for the December 2006 presidential election in Venezuela as follows: “With a Venezuelan presidential election scheduled for 2006, the United States will need to offer support to help ensure they are free, fair, and transparent.”

This is one example of how State Department documents, using the pretense of “democracy assistance,” “support for democracy,” “support for civil society,” “support for free elections,” and so on, function as cover stories for State Department operations designed to influence conditions abroad without publicly acknowledging the role of the U.S. Government in the design and implementation of the operation. As such, these operations are also illegal under U.S. law.

Title 50, Section 413(b)(e) under U.S. federal law states: “As used in this subchapter, the term ‘covert action’ means an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”

Thus, the State Department/U.S. embassy plan to undermine Chávez and thereby influence the 2006 presidential elections in Venezuela matches up precisely as follows with this definition of “covert action” under U.S.:

  • “an activity or activities of the United States Government” – the State Department’s five-point plan;
  • “to influence political … conditions abroad” – to influence the December 2006 presidential election in Venezuela;
  • “where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly” – by secretly designing and implementing the five-point plan to influence the December 2006 elections in Venezuela, while publicly describing the operation as helping “to ensure” that the elections “are free, fair, and transparent.”

What makes this covert action in Venezuela probably illegal under U.S. law is the likelihood that it was initiated and implemented without a written finding by the president, which is a legal requirement under Title 50, Section 413(b)(a), which states: “The President may not authorize the conduct of a covert action by departments, agencies, or entities of the United States Government unless the President determines such an action is necessary to support identifiable foreign policy objectives of the United States and is important to the national security of the United States, which determination shall be set forth in a finding that shall meet the following conditions: (1) Each finding shall be in writing.”

The sense is that the State Department’s unacknowledged covert actions exist to circumvent this law, thus enabling the United States to perpetuate off-label but illegal operations abroad without the president assuming the political and legal risks of issuing written findings for conduct that is also illegal under international law.      

Covert Operation No. 2

In the early morning hours of April 12, 2002, the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, was overthrown by a group of military officers who installed a Venezuelan businessman as president. The junta-installed president, Pedro Carmona, made the announcement as follows: “With the consensus of all forces comprising Venezuelan civil society, and the military establishment, the armed forces, I’ve been asked to lead the government.”

Later that day, the Bush administration announced that it supported the overthrow of Chávez, as reported by the New York Times: “The Bush administration laid the blame for Mr. Chávez’s overthrow firmly with the ousted leader. Officials portrayed the ouster as a victory for democracy, even though Mr. Chávez was a legitimately elected president.”

In its official response, the U.S. State Department issued an entirely inaccurate and misleadingstatement, also on April 12:

Though details are still unclear, undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterday’s crisis in Venezuela. According to the best information available, at this time: Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans gathered peacefully to seek redress of their grievances. The Chavez Government attempted to suppress peaceful demonstrations. Chavez supporters, on orders, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in more than 100 wounded or killed. Venezuelan military and police refused orders to fire on peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government's role in such human rights violations. The government prevented five independent television stations from reporting on events. The results of these provocations are: Chavez resigned the presidency.

Three documentary films address in detail the events referred to here by the State Department on the day of the coup: Llaguno Bridge: Keys to a Massacre by Ángel Palacios (2004); The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain (2003); and Anatomy of a Coup by Bentley Dean and Elise West (2002). Not one supports the State Department’s assertions; in fact, the documentaries establish – on virtually a point-by-point basis – a completely different reality concerning the events and conditions surrounding the coup.  

In another documentary, South of the Border, Oliver Stone reported, concurring with the others:

As [the anti-Chávez protesters] reached the [presidential] palace, suddenly shots were fired from the rooftops of buildings, and members from both sides were hit in the head. On a nearby bridge, the Chávez supporters took cover, and returned fire at the direction of the snipers, as well as at the Metropolitan Police, who had fired at them.

The local media coverage of this event showed the Chávez supporters firing from the bridge, and then showed the street where people had been hit in the head by snipers, manipulating the footage to make it appear that the Chávez supporters had fired these lethal shots. The media would also say that Chávez himself had ordered these shootings, and used this justification for the coup, which was already in progress.

And in a review in the New York Times of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Stephen Holden wrote:

More than a scary close-up look at the raw mechanics of a power grab, the film is a cautionary examination of the use of television to deceive and manipulate the public. The attempt to seize control never would have gotten off the ground without the fervent support of Venezuela’s five private television stations, all politically aligned with oil interests that had hounded Mr. Chávez from the moment he took office…. Much of the documentary replays the actual television coverage of the events, and the incident that became the excuse for deposing Mr. Chávez was deliberately misrepresented by the private channels, the film says. Two opposing crowds faced off in front of the presidential palace, and sniper gunfire killed at least 11 demonstrators. Mr. Chávez’s supporters were blamed. But excised film clips shown in the movie dispute that claim.

What the documentaries show is that sniper fire from a number of tall buildings by unidentified gunmen killed both pro-Chávez and anti-Chávez protesters that day, causing an extreme degree of bloody chaos that was attributed to President Chávez not only by the Fox-TV-like private television stations in Venezuela, but by the highest levels of the U.S. government as well. This was on April 11-12, 2002.

(Almost identically, on February 18-21, 2014, sniper fire from unidentified assailants from a number of tall buildings in Kiev at the seat of government, which killed and wounded anti-government and pro-government persons on the scene, was quickly attributed to the elected government of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, and which was just as quickly cited by the coup leaders in Ukraine and U.S. officials in Washington as the acute justification for the coup that overthrew Yanukovych.)

When Chávez returned to power on April 14, two days after he was overthrown, the Bush administration would deny that a coup had taken place. This is Otto Reich, at the time assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric affairs, from Stone’s documentary:

CNN Correspondent on TV to Otto Reich: “[Chávez] says that the coup that took place in his country was engineered by the United States, and some in his administration say that in fact you had something to do with it. What do you say when you hear that?”

Reich: “Well, I have to laugh, because the coup, first of all, there was no coup. I think Mr. Chávez would have been removed. There was a four-month investigation by the State Department. There was absolutely no U.S. involvement in that action that Chávez calls a coup.”

First, Chávez was removed from power, contrary to what Reich asserted.

The documentary The Revoultion Will Not Be Televised brilliantly films that removal, as it happened, by the military coup leaders inside the presidential palace. Second, the investigation by the State Department’s inspector general, Clark Kent Irvin – the investigation to which Reich referred as exonerating himself and the State Department —was seriously flawed. 

On July 29, 2002, Irvin issued his report, which was tasked by Senator Christopher Dodd to investigate potential U.S. involvement in the April 2002 coup in Venezuela. Dodd had given Irvin a list of five questions to answer. 

In issuing his report, Irvin noted that some records were missing from the U.S. embassy in Venezuela:

We note that there are some apparent gaps in the electronic information. For example, at this time, we are not sure we have all e-mails from the embassy’s classified internal system. According to embassy information technology staff, they did not have enough recording tape to back up their systems fully; instead, they used the same tapes over and over again, and as a result, data from that time period may have been lost.

Irvin reported no investigation of the erased emails, and presumably did not conduct one.

Irvin also interviewed only officials from the Bush administration and the National Endowment for Democracy. In this regard, Irvin wrote: “Purposely, we did not interview any Venezuelans, either supporters or opponents of the Chávez government.” In addition, Irvin interviewed no one under oath, took what Bush and NED officials told him apparently at face value, and indeed grounded his conclusions about U.S. involvement in the coup in what these officials told him. Thus, Irvin ritually repeated throughout his report that U.S. policy toward Venezuela “supported democracy and constitutionality.”   

Beyond the travesty of his self-imposed investigative restrictions, which compromised the investigation from the start, Irvin modified one of Dodd’s questions (question no. 4) so as to insert Irvin’s stock claim that the Bush administration had acted democratically and constitutionally in Venezuela.

Dodd had asked:

Did opponents of the Chávez government, if any, who met with [U.S.] embassy or [State] Department officials request or seek the support of the U.S. government for actions aimed at removing or undermining that government? If so, what was the response of embassy or Department officials to such requests?

Note that Dodd’s point of inquiry is whether Venezuelan opposition groups sought support, and whether the Bush administration provided support, for “removing or undermining” the Chávez government.

Irvin, however, chose not to answer the question that Dodd had asked. Irvin thus responded: “Taking the question to be whether, in any such meetings, Chávez’s opponents sought help from the embassy or Department for removing or undermining the Chávez government through undemocratic or unconstitutional means, the answer is no.” (Emphasis added.)

By modifying Dodd’s question, Irvin modified Dodd’s point of inquiry from whether the Bush administration supported “removing or undermining” the Chávez government, to whether it supported “removing or undermining the Chávez government through undemocratic or unconstitutional means.” Having changed Senator Dodd’s question, Irvin was able to answer in a way that fit the administration’s alibi – that whatever was done, it was done to support democracy. This would appear to be unethical behavior on the part of the State Department’s inspector general, given that he substantially modified a question put to him by a U.S. senator with oversight of the State Department.

Irvin clung to the idea that the United States had behaved in the spirit of democracy in Venezuela, even though he himself had published at least some information to the contrary. For example, Irvin describes a “January 2002 strategy document” for Venezuela from the National Endowment for Democracy. The document is titled, “Democratizing Semi-Authoritarian Countries.” Irvin wrote, Clouseau-like and without comment: “The strategy document states that, since semi-authoritarianism involves shortcomings in so many different sectors, NED should take full advantage of its ability to work simultaneously in different areas. NED should strengthen not just civil society and independent media, but also political parties, business associations, trade unions, and policy institutes that can mediate between the state and the market and effect real economic reform.” Irvin reported that NED spent $2 million in Venezuela on activities in these areas from November 2001 to April 2002.

It apparently made no impression on Irvin that Venezuela’s most prominent business association and trade union leaders, in addition to its private media, were all intimately involved in the overthrow of Chávez. Nor did Irvin explain why — in the smoke-filled back rooms, with little expectation of disclosure — the State Department would draw the line at democracy and constitutionality with coup plotters whom it had funded, only to openly scoff at the principles of electoral democracy in its post-coup statements and actions.      

Irvin also made little of what had been reported in the U.S. press about U.S. involvement in the coup. In a series of reports by correspondent Christopher Marquis, the New York Times reported: “Senior members of the Bush administration met several times in recent months with leaders of a coalition that ousted the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, for two days last weekend, and agreed with them that he should be removed from office, administration officials said” (April 16, 2002); “A senior Bush administration official [Otto Reich] was in contact with the man [Pedro Carmona] who succeeded Mr. Chávez on the very day he took office. Mr. Carmona, who heads Venezuela’s largest business association, was one of numerous critics of Mr. Chávez to call on [Bush] administration officials in recent weeks. Officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon, among others, were hosts to a stream of Chávez opponents, some of them seeking help in removing him from office” (April 17, 2002); “In the past year, the United States channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to American and Venezuelan groups opposed to President Hugo Chávez, including the labor groups whose protests led to the Venezuelan president’s brief ouster this month” (April 25).

The Bush administration supported the coup-related aims of the U.S.-paid coup plotters in Venezuela in 2002 – that’s why the United States paid them. And it is an obvious fact that the administration supported the coup plotters after they had overthrown the elected president of Venezuela. Yet, State Department documents released from July 2001 to February 2003 reported – in its standard style – that “the U.S. will continue to work with Venezuela to strengthen democratic institutions” (July 2, 2001), “the United States will continue to work with Venezuela to strengthen democratic institutions” (April 15, 2002), and “the United States will continue to work with Venezuela to strengthen democratic institutions” (February 13, 2003).

Covert Operation No. 3:

In its April 3 report on Cuba, the Associated Press reported the following details about the State Department’s operation there:

  • The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a ‘Cuban Twitter’—a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, the Associated Press has learned.
  • USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington’s ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail.

The Obama administration did not deny the substantive details of the AP report. Instead, administration officials defended the operation. According to the Guardian, the president’s spokesman, Jay Carney said: “This program [ZunZuneo] has been debated in Congress and reviewed by the GAO, which found it was in accordance with US law” and “not a covert program.” According to The Hill, Carney said: “It was not a covert program. It was debated in Congress. It was reviewed by the GAO [Government Accountability Office]. Those sorts of things do not happen to covert programs.”

Re Carney’s claim that ZunZuneo “was debated in Congress”: Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee with oversight of USAID, said: “I know they said we were notified. We were notified in the most oblique way, that nobody could understand it.” The AP also reported that “by late Thursday [April 3] no members of Congress had acknowledged being aware of the Cuban Twitter [ZunZuneo] program earlier than this week.” Thus, the program apparently wasn’t debated in Congress, as Carney said.

Re Carney’s claim that ZunZuneo “was reviewed by the GAO”: This statement also was not accurate. GAO published three reports on USAID operations in Cuba within the conceivable time framework of the ZunZuneo program: “Foreign Assistance: U.S. Democracy Assistance for Cuba Needs Better Management and Oversight,” November 2006; “Foreign Assistance: Continued Efforts Needed to Strengthen USAID’s Oversight of U.S. Democracy Assistance for Cuba,”November 2008; and “Cuba Democracy Assistance: USAID’s Program Is Improved, but State Could Better Monitor Its Implementing Partners,” January 2013. None of these reports mention the ZunZuneo operation in Cuba by name, none mention it by description, and certainly none mention it as detailed in the AP’s April 3 exposé of the ZunZuneo operation. If anything, the GAO reports reveal a seven-year record of calling for greater monitoring by the State Department and USAID of Cuba program funds. Without ever citing the ZunZuneo report by name or by description, the GAO also never certified that ZunZuneo “was in accordance with U.S. law,” as Carney also claimed.

In her denials, a State Department’s spokeswoman, Marie Harf said, according to the New York Times: “There was nothing classified or covert about this program. Discreet does not equal covert. Having worked for almost six years at the C.I.A. and now here [at the State Department], I know the difference.” Reuters also reported: “Harf said that ‘we submitted a congressional notification in 2008 outlining what we were doing in Cuba’ and ‘we also offered to brief’ the appropriate lawmakers about it.” According to the same Reuters report: “Harf said ‘the notion that we were somehow trying to foment unrest, that we were trying to advance a specific political agenda or points of view – nothing could be further from the truth.’”

Re Harf’s claim that “we submitted a congressional notification in 2008 outlining what we were doing in Cuba”: See Leahy’s statement, and the report by AP, both of which undermine Harf’s assertion that the Congress was notified.

Re Harf’s claim that “the notion that we were somehow trying to foment unrest, that we were trying to advance a specific political agenda or points of view – nothing could be further from the truth”: While Harf did not respond to the details of AP’s April 3 report, this statement is inconsistent with those details. For example, the AP reported, citing USAID documents, that the purpose of ZunZuneo was to instigate “mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban spring, or, as one USAid document put it, ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.’”

Re Harf’s claim that there was nothing classified or covert about ZunZuneo: A covert operation wouldn’t need to be classified in order for it to be covert. In fact, the definition of “covert action” under U.S. law – Title 50, Section 413(b)(e) – would appear to qualify ZunZuneo as the third State Department covert operation described in this report, since: (a) ZunZuneo was “an activity of the United States Government,” (b) organized “to influence political … conditions abroad,” and (c) included the intention “that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”

The Congress Should Assert Its Oversight Function

In a brief piece in the New York Times on the AP’s investigative report about ZunZuneo, David Sanger observed: “By the standards of American efforts in Cuba, ZunZuneo was on the milder side. It did not involve poison cigars for Fidel Castro, or landings by exiles at the Bay of Pigs.” That’s true, perhaps, but Sanger overlooks what is likely going on, which is that the State Department has built a nest of covert action pieces that engages in secret, illegal foreign operations, including political destabilization for the benefit of powerful corporate and financial interests.  

An illuminating moment in the U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela in 2002, and in the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in 2014, was the eager involvement of the International Monetary Fund with the unelected, illegitimate, post-coup governments.  

In his documentary, South of the Border, Oliver Stone captures an IMF Webcast on April 12, 2002 – 9:30 a.m. to be exact. This Webcast thus took place only a few hours after the military junta in Venezuela had overthrown Chávez, had dissolved Venezuela’s National Assembly, its Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the head of the Central Bank, and the National Electoral Board to the accompaniment of raucous cheers, raised fists, and standing ovations among the coup plotters and their supporters.

Stone’s voice-over introduced the IMF Webcast on that day as follows: “The IMF, usually slow in responding to the genuine requests for aid from starving Africa, was quick off the mark to demonstrate its support for the coup.” On the screen is an IMF official, Thomas Dawson, addressing the new military junta in Venezuela: “I hope that these discussions will continue with the new administration, and we stand ready to assist the new administration in whatever manner they find suitable.” Stone: “The aim was straightforward. The IMF was making it clear to the world that the toppling of Chávez was in the interest of global capitalism.”

Likewise, less than two weeks after the elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown on February 22, 2014, the IMF engaged the post-coup government in negotiations over an IMF debt agreement that, in essence, had been rejected by Yanukovych in December, just three months earlier. By March 27, the IMF announced a deal on an $15-18 billion loan to the post-coup Ukrainian government. In reporting the agreement, the New York Times noted that the deal was “subject to the approval of the [IMF’s] board next month,” but not to the approval of the Ukrainian people, which had no voice after the coup through duly elected representatives to approve or reject the deal.  

In both Venezuela and Ukraine in these instances, there isn’t a scintilla of democracy at work, yet State Department documents are larded with references to supporting and advancing democracies in their descriptions of U.S. policy toward those two countries in those years.

With respect to Ukraine, from FY 2011 to FY 2014, a period of four years, the State Department had requested from Congress at least $426 million for its operations in Ukraine, with no coherent explanation on how exactly that money would be spent. (See, “Congressional Budget Justification: Volume 2: Foreign Operations: Department of State: United States of America,”Fiscal Year 2013 and Fiscal Year 2014.)  

For example, in the last two years (FY 2013-FY2014), the State Department requested $108 million for its operations in Ukraine through its “Economic Support Fund.” What is the Economic Support Fund and how does it operate in Ukraine? Here’s what the State Department says:

U.S. assistance aims to promote the development of a democratic, prosperous, and secure Ukraine, fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community as it struggles to overcome the effects of the global financial crisis and worsening backsliding on democratic reform. Funding will strengthen democratic institutions and processes, and accountable governance; support civil society, independent media, judicial reform, and anti-corruption efforts; improve conditions for investment and economic growth; help bring the damaged Chernobyl nuclear facility to an environmentally safe and stable condition; and improve energy security.

Except for the references to the Euro-Atlantic community and Chernobyl, this sounds pretty much like what the State Department published about its operations in Venezuela when it supported the coup that overthrew Chávez in April 2002. In fact, in the midst of this two-year, $108 million “democracy promotion” effort in Ukraine — which due to the fiscal year calendar of the federal government was in effect from October 1, 2012, to September 30, 2014 — a U.S.-supported coup occurred there in February 2014.

Furthermore, for FY 2013, the State Department requested $36.2 million through its Economic Support Fund for operations in Russia. The State Department explained the purpose of its ESF program in Russia as follows: “Assistance will support efforts by Russians to further democratic reforms through programs that provide support for civil society, independent media, the rule of law, human rights, and good governance; and will support Russia’s evolution towards becoming a global development partner.” This also sounds similar to the descriptions of State Department programs in Venezuela and Ukraine during the periods of U.S. destabilization in those countries discussed here.

Also, for FY 2014, the State Department requested no money for Russia through its Economic Support Fund. On the other hand, the State Department requested $68 million for “Europe and Eurasia Regional,” a line-item that did not appear in the State Department’s FY 2013 funding request, and which included “promoting civil society development and networks” among its funded activities. Were the funds allocated for the State Department’s Economic Support Fund for Russia for FY 2013 transferred to “Europe and Eurasia Regional,” a region which includes Russia, for FY 2014? There’s no easy way to know from the State Department’s documents.     

The purpose of this exercise is not to take sides with Russia over the United States and Europe. The idea is to demonstrate that the State Department, which was established to function as the foreign-policy making center of the executive branch, has likely evolved into another covert operations hub of the U.S. government, with no discernible legal basis for having done so, and with no oversight from the Congress, the press, or the American public.   

At a minimum, there is almost no way to know what the State Department does or doesn’t do in this regard, given that its principle public disclosure documents are, at best, uninformative from beginning to end. An organization that rates foreign-aid transparency, called Publish What You Fund, in its Aid Transparency Index, rated the U.S. State Department a 22 out of a top score of 100, “placing it near the bottom of the poor category.” It advises that “the State Department should begin publication in line with the International Aid Transparency Initiative standard as soon as possible.”

If there were someone in the Congress who would actually do it, one might call for a congressional investigation of the State Department’s “democracy assistance” and “civil society” programs that currently operate overseas under the banners of USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Office of Transition Initiatives, and the Economic Support Fund along the lines of the Church Committee and Pike Committee investigations of C.I.A. operations in the 1970s, hopefully before the State Department ends up going even further than it already has in starting a major war in Europe.

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