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Final volume in CIA's official history of Bay of Pigs invasion still in dispute

Fifty-one years after a CIA-backed exile force hit the beaches of Cuba for what became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Central Intelligence Agency is still fighting the release of the final volume of its official history of the ill-fated mission.

The final volume is a rebuttal by Jack Pfeiffer, the CIA’s chief historian, of a report by the agency’s inspector general that found the CIA itself bore primary responsibility for the failure of the April 14-19, 1961, invasion. The IG blamed “bad planning,’’ faulty intelligence, inadequate staffing and failure to inform President John F. Kennedy that the success of the operation was “dubious.’’

The invasion, whose centerpiece was a 1,500-man exile force called the 2506 Brigade that landed at Playa Girón on April 17, was designed to topple the Castro regime. Instead, it failed less than 72 hours later, resulting in the deaths of 114 exiles and the capture of 1,100 men by the Cuban army and militia.

Who is to blame for the failure has been debated for the past five decades.

Lyman Kirkpatrick, who wrote the inspector general’s report, cited “a tendency in the agency to gloss over CIA inadequacies and to attempt to fix all of the blame for the failure of the invasion upon other elements of the government’’ in a cover letter to the 1961 report.

In contrast, Pfeiffer’s account “tried to fully pin the blame for the historic calamity on the Kennedy White House,’’ said Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at The National Security Archive. “Pfeiffer pushed the line that Kennedy was responsible and his brother Bobby helped transfer blame to the CIA.’’

The Washington-based nonprofit research institute and library filed a lawsuit last year on the 50th anniversary of the invasion, asking for declassification of all five volumes in the official history. Previous requests for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act had been unsuccessful.

Volume III was actually released in 1998 but the world was unaware of it until David Barrett, a Villanova University professor, found it in 2005 at the National Archives Kennedy Assassination Records Collection in a box marked “CIA miscellaneous.’’

Last summer, in response to The National Security Archive lawsuit, the CIA released more than 1,200 pages of “The Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation,’’ but it held onto the fifth volume.

“More than 50 years after the failed invasion, the CIA continues to try and hide this dramatic history from public scrutiny,’’ Kornbluh said.

The National Security Archive has continued to fight for release of the fifth volume in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. in a case before Judge Gladys Kessler.

The CIA has argued that the final volume can’t be released because it is “an internal draft of a CIA history that was never approved for release or publication.’’

In a court filing, David S. Robarge, currently the CIA’s chief historian, said that “the mere possibility that an initial draft could be released to the public would undoubtedly chill open and frank deliberations” that go into creating CIA histories.

“The release of an unfinished draft of CIA history risks placing inaccurate or incomplete information into the public domain,’’ Robarge said in a statement to the court.

The CIA’s concern is the draft “will confuse the public,’’ Kornbluh said. “Certainly the public is astute enough to judge for itself.’’

Ironically, Pfeiffer, who died in 1997, tried to have both Volume IV and V declassified in the mid-1980s because he wanted to write about them after he left the CIA. Pfeiffer wrote the bulk of the official Bay of Pigs history from 1973 until 1979 but continued to work on it until his retirement from the CIA in 1984.

Volume IV is Pfeiffer’s rebuttal of the findings of a Presidential Commission headed by the late Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor on the failed invasion. Pfeiffer took issue with the Taylor critique, saying it gave a “bum rap” to the CIA for “a political decision that insured the military defeat of the anti-Castro forces.’’

That was a reference to President Kennedy’s decision not to provide overt air cover to the invading Brigade 2506. Previously released documents show that Kennedy clung to the idea that the Bay of Pigs invasion must remain covert even though planners had doubt months before that it could succeed as a secret mission.

The CIA released the Taylor critique but successfully fought declassification of Volume V.

The National Security Archive noted in a memorandum filed with the court that the circumstances were different then because Volume V was only five years old at the time and it appeared a final “official’’ version of the document was forthcoming.

Now the document is nearly three decades old but is still in draft form. There is no indication that it will be finished.

In the 1980s, Kenneth McDonald, Pfeiffer’s successor as CIA historian, made an argument similar to the CIA’s current objections: release of the document “could seriously impair the ongoing historical manuscript review process.’’

McDonald also said that in his judgment the draft “had serious deficiencies as a historical study.’’

But in court papers, The National Security Archive said the U.S. government has released draft material under FOIA and labeled it accordingly in the past and could release Volume V “with an appropriate disclaimer if it deems such a condition necessary to clarify the status of the document.’’

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