Sunday, November 17, 2013

Interview with Xhevdet Shehu of leading Albania daily DITA about the upcoming publication of Operation Valuable Fiend

Front Page of DITA, November 14, 2013.
Recently, I set down with Mr. Xhevdet Shehu, one of the most distinguished and professional Albanian journalists, for an exclusive interview given to his newspaper, DITA.

DITA is an independent daily which began its publication just recently with the inaugural edition coming out on November 1, 2012. Despite its young age, DITA has established itself as an important independent voice among the Albanian media, playing an important role in reporting accurately about the parliamentary elections of June 2013 -- the first elections in post-Communist Albania where the power transitioned peacefully between the opposing political parties. Leveraging a Western-style approach to its concept of operations, with attention-grabbing front page designs which often lampoon politicians and oddities of the Albanian society and democracy, DITA has become the best-selling newspaper in Albania.

Mr. Shehu is a veteran journalist that has contributed to multiple Albanian publications over the years. In the early 1990s, he became the first correspondent of the Voice of America in Albania chronicling the dramatic transition to democracy of that country. He recounted the experience of those years in his book "The VOA Ambassador." Today, Mr. Shehu covers politics for DITA.

Here's a link to the article (in Albanian) that resulted from this interview. A transcript of the interview follows.

Question: Mr. Lulushi, you have written a book about the CIA operations against the Albanian communist regime in 1949-1955 that will be published soon in English and Albanian. This book has already created a lot of buzz among Albanians. How did you get the idea to write this book?

Answer: Having lived in Albania during the Communist rule, I became inevitably aware of the version of history written by the Party propaganda regarding the National Committee for Free Albania, the pursuit of the so-called "diversionists" at the time, and the much-heralded radio deception operation orchestrated by Sigurimi (the Albanian Secret Service) against their opposing foreign intelligence services. After I left Albania to settle in the United States, it became clear for me that I had to reconsider with a critical eye, and often relearn, everything we had been taught in history, literature, art, culture, and so on. In this context, I read what was published in the West about the events of that time in books about the history of the CIA or the British SIS, often being left with more questions than answers. Most of these publications placed the blame for the failure of the U.S. and British operations in Albanian on Kim Philby, the most famous Soviet intelligence officer to infiltrate the ranks of the British services. The actual version of events, however, was more complicated. This became very clear  a few years a go, when the CIA declassified a large trove of documents related to the Albanian operations. I saw an opportunity to provide an objective and fact-based rendition of the events of that time, with importance not only to Albania but also to the CIA and the United States.

Q: A lot has been said about these operations in recent years, especially after the fall of the Communist regime. Sources have been primarily British and most of them come from fragmentary recollections of the protagonists of the events. How does your book differ from what has been said to-date on the subject?

My book presents facts extracted from hundreds of documents, including American, British, Soviet, Albanian, Yugoslav, Italian and Greek sources. The different, and sometimes contradictory, points of view allow readers to reach their own conclusions about the events and the characters of that time. This variety of sources also paints a complete landscape of the events, as is the case with the the mission of the officers of King Zog's Guard in Albania. By using Albanian and U.S. sources, often side by side, this mission is described from its inception, during the visit of King Zog to the United States in 1951, and all the way to its tragic conclusion with the trial and execution of its participants by the Communist government.

Q: Allow me to ask a direct question. Was the United States government really intent on overthrowing Enver Hoxha and his regime or is this all a hypothesis, given that the spheres of influence between East and West were agreed upon at the Yalta Conference?

A: The CIA received approval and began executing the Albanian operation, code name BGFIEND, on June 22, 1949. The final objective of this operation was the overthrow of the Hoxha government. It was the first para-military operation in the history of CIA, which until that time had been limited in its activities in the collection and analysis of intelligence for the U.S. Government. For almost a year, this remained the most important para-military operation conducted by the Agency. Towards the middle of 1950, for a series of reasons explained in my book, CIA abandoned the final objective of the operation -- that is, the overthrow of the Communist regime, although it continued psychological, economic and propaganda warfare, as well as the collection of intelligence against Albania.

The overthrow of the Communist government came again in the front burner at the beginning of 1953, when CIA drafted the plan for a coup d'état in Albania, scheduled to be launched on July 1, 1954. I provide the details of this coup in my book. The plan was not approved because the Agency at the time was tied with similar operations in Iran and Guatemala, which at the time proved more successful that the Albanian operation. Geo-political changes brought upon by the death of Stalin and ascendance to power of Khrushchev, combined with the loss of agents captured or killed by Sigurimi, lead to the abandonment of actions against Albania in 1954 and in the complete elimination of the program by CIA at the end of 1959.

Q: During World War II, there was an American Military Mission at the Headquarters of the Albanian Communist Partisans, which supported them in their fight against the Axis powers. What caused the change in the attitude of the United States towards its World War II allies?

A: In reality, it was the Albanian government, encouraged and instigated by the Yugoslavs, who sabotaged the relations with the USA immediately after the war. After the American mission to Albania was withdrawn in November 1946, I don't think there was an active interest against Albania on the part of the U.S. Government. In fact, efforts by King Zog to draw support for his cause were not encouraged by the Department of State. The situation changed in 1949. The expulsion of Yugoslavia from Cominform left Albania physically isolated from the Soviet bloc. There was a real possibility that the Hoxha government could be toppled by an immediate and decisive action. The U.S. political and military circles at the time had formulated the hypothesis that it was possible to overthrow a Communist government already established by means of covert para-military action without resorting to open war. The Albanian operation was the first effort to test that hypothesis.

Q: Why did the American operation fail, according to what you have been able to gather from your sources?

A: There are many reasons for the failure, but I would highlight the following:
  1. The rivalry among the secret services of United States, Great Britain, Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia effectively sabotaged the efforts of each side against the Hoxha government, which was able to survive because the status quo was the only solution acceptable by all parties.
  2. Divisions among the different anti-communist factions in exile which, as during the war, were never able to join their forces in a united front against their common enemy.
  3. The ability of Sigurimi to penetrate the ranks of the opposition, including perhaps placing their sources in the National Committee for Free Albania.
  4. Lack of skills, attention to details and respect for operational security on the part of the CIA officers that conducted the operations from Athens.
Q: It is often said that Kim Philby betrayed the operation and was the principal cause of its failure. Is this true?

A: This is a myth advanced initially by Nicholas Bethel in his book The Great Betrayal published in 1984. Based on documents available in archives, I have tried to show that the role of Philby in betraying the operations has been exaggerated. For as long as he was in the United States as the liaison between the British and American intelligence communities, Philby had knowledge of the political and strategic aspects of the operation, but not of the tactical plans that had to do with operational details, including locations or dates when the American-sponsored agents were dropped. The greatest losses of the operation came after Philby's recall from Washington, under suspicion for being a Soviet spy. This, in my opinion, is proof that the sources of information for Sigurimi were Communist agents or sympathizers who had penetrated the ranks of the Albanian exiles at the time.

Q: Was the outcome of this operation analyzed by the cognizant elements of the U.S. Government? What were their conclusions regarding Albania?

A: The most important conclusion that CIA and the Sate Department drew from the Albanian experience was that it was impossible to overthrow a Communist government already under the Soviet umbrella using only covert paramilitary means. Encouraged by successful efforts in Iran and Guatemala, the attention of the CIA moved from Europe to Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Interest on Albania faded away significantly after Albania broke away from the Soviet dominance in 1961 -- an event which eliminated the strategic importance Albania had as a Soviet post in the Mediterranean and effectively accomplished one of the objectives of Plan BGFIEND. Albania began to receive interest again in the beginning of 1980s, on the eve of the transfer of power that would come with the death of Hoxha. The aim was to accomplish the other objective of Plan BGFIEND -- the establishment in Albania or a government friendly to the United States, an objective which was conclusively accomplished with the admission of Albania in NATO.

Q: Are there documents about the continued interest of the United States in Albanian affairs?

A: CIA produced analysis of the situation in Albania, knows as Intelligence Estimates, regularly throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. They are available today at the National Archives. However, operational details like those for Plan BGFIEND, if they exist, remain classified.

Q: How do you explain the fact that the Voice of America has broadcasted without interruption in Albanian since its first broadcast in 1943, unlike other services like BBC?

A: It can be construed as an example of the continued attention of the United States towards Albanian interests, since 1919. The British policy, on the other hand, has always been ambivalent towards Albania. Correspondence between the State Department and the British Foreign Office discussed in my book shows that as last at 1953 the British government was open to a solution in which Greece would annex the Vorio Epirus of Albania, and the remainder of the country would join the Yugoslav Federation as its seventh republic.

Q: Can we then see this position of the United States as a strong support for its territorial integrity even during the Communist period?

A: Yes, without a doubt, as the previous example shows. Another example is the American opposition against the Greek territorial claims against Albania immediately after World War II. Citing from a message sent to Athens by the American government at the time, these claims were considered as having “no ethnic, little strategic and less historical basis.” When the Greek Army pushed the Greek Communist guerrillas to the Albanian border in 1949, they were determined to continue the advance into Albania, thus making the annexing of the southern regions of Albania a fait accompli. It was the forceful intervention of the State Department, CIA and the Pentagon, that convinced the Greek government and military not to undertake such an adventure.

Q: Let's conclude at this time the interview with the understanding that we will continue the conversation when the book is out. Do you agree?

A: Yes, absolutely. It will be my pleasure to continue our conversation and to the exchange with one of the most professional and prestigious newspapers in Albania at the moment. Thank you!