Sunday, June 15, 2014

Inteview with Voice of America about Operation Valuable Fiend

On June 14, 2014, I met at the studios of Voice of America with Mr. Ilir Ikonomi of the Albanian Service for an interview about my book, Operation Valuable Fiend.

A transcript of the interview follows:

Ilir Ikonomi, Voice of America
Ikonomi: A new book titled Operation Valuable Fiend has just been published in the United States. It is written by Albert Lulushi, an Albanian-American author, and describes covert operations of the CIA to overthrow the communist regime in Albania between 1949 and 1954. These operations failed for a number of reasons which we will discuss shortly. This was the first effort by the CIA to strike at the Iron Curtain. We have in the studio tonight the author, Mr. Albert Lulushi, to further discuss his book, Operation Valuable Fiend.
Welcome to our studio, Mr. Lulushi, and congratulations for this very interesting book. I have read it very closely and you have discovered a number of previously unknown facts in this book. How would you explain the title of the book? What is behind the terms 'Valuable Fiend?'
Lulushi: These two terms come from the codenames that the CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service used for their Albania operations. FIEND was the codename used by the CIA and VALUABLE was the name used by the British.
Ikonomi: How did these operations come about? What was the genesis of the CIA and British operations against Albania?
Lulushi: The CIA that had just been formed at the time, in 1947, desired to strike against the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. They found in Albania a good target of opportunity because at the time it was isolated from the Soviet bloc as the result of the rupture in relations between Tito and Stalin. The thinking was that since Albania was physically isolated from the Soviet bloc, a focused effort would be sufficient to topple the communist regime.
Ikonomi: So, we are talking between 1948 and 1949?
Lulushi: Planning began toward the end of 1948 and the first operations were conducted in 1949.
Ikonomi: Why did the CIA choose Albania and not another country behind the Iron Curtain? Did they find Albania a softer target that offered better opportunities to overthrow a communist regime?
Lulushi: One important factor is the physical isolation of Albania from the Soviet bloc. It made it very difficult for the Soviets to send troops in support of the Hoxha regime. Another reason was the civil war that was raging in Greece at the time between communist and anti-communist forces in that country. It is known that the Albanian communist government had opened the southern borders at the time to allow communist insurgents to cross into Albania to escape capture. Thus, a regime change in Albania would also improve the outcome of the civil war in Greece.
Ikonomi: Naturally, the basis for the operations were Albanian émigré groups. Who were they specifically?
Lulushi: There were three main groups who had come out of World War II as opponents of the communists. Perhaps the largest group was Balli Kombetar; the next group were the followers of Legaliteti led by Abaz Kupi; and a third group were anti-communist elements from Kosovo and the northeast mountains of Albania led by Said Kryeziu. These three groups had fought the communists during the war and after they went into exile they were used by intelligence services of the United States, Great Britain and other countries in the region against the Hoxha regime.
Ikonomi: Where were these groups based?
Lulushi: The majority of them were émigrés living in refugee camps in Italy and Greece. Some of them had moved to Egypt, close to King Zog who lived in Alexandria at the time. The overwhelming majority lived in desperate conditions in refugee camps, scraping by from one day to the other.
Ikonomi: Very interesting. How were these groups organized? How did the CIA sent them to Albania?
Lulushi: They were infiltrated by land and sea, but the preferred method for the CIA was to parachute them from the air. The British preferred to send their agents by sea. Toward the end, in 1952, '53 and '54, the main method of infiltration was overland through the Greek borders.
Ikonomi: I imagine it must have been very difficult sending these groups in Albania, whether by parachute or other means.
Lulushi: It was extremely difficult, especially for those who were parachuted in. If you compare the training of regular paratroopers in the armed forces with the training that the CIA provided their parachutist agents, you can understand what courage and bravery these agents must have had in order to jump from the airplanes. The majority of them experienced their first jump experience during the mission.
Ikonomi: Then, they would drop in unknown territory.
Lulushi: Yes. Especially during the first missions in 1950 and 51, there were no reception parties in the ground to signal the drop zone. And perhaps this was one of the reasons for their lack of success. A number of these agents lost their weapons, ammunition, and supplies during the drops, or were dropped in the wrong location to start with. This led to their pursuit by the government forces and the Sigurimi.
Ikonomi: I spoke recently with Nicholas Pano, Professor Emeritus of History, who has read your book and spoke very highly of it. Let's hear an excerpt of his comments.
Nicholas Pano
[Pano in audio]: I think what the book does is to put the role of H. A. R. Philby in perspective. It demonstrates that although he was knowledgeable of the plans against Albania, he did not have access to the operational plans in Albania. Although he was a factor in the failure of this adventure in Albania, the main factors were the rivalry and divisions among the Albanian émigré groups, the leaks of operational details from these groups, the bureaucratic approach that the CIA and British planners of these operations often took, and the rivalry among different intelligence agencies with interests in Albania at the time.
Ikonomi: So, then, you argue in your book that the main reason for the failure of the CIA and British operations against Albania at the time was not their betrayal by Kim Philby, the Soviet mole inside the British SIS, a thesis put forward by Nicholas Bethel in his book Betrayed. How are you able to prove this, based on what documents?
Lulushi: The CIA had declassified the majority of the documents related to this operation and they are accessible at the National Archives in Washington, DC. There were three waves of operations. For those conducted in 1949, Philby could not have known because he was still assigned in Turkey at the time and had no knowledge of these operations. Philby was in the know of the 1950 and 1951 operations, but in early 1951 he was withdrawn from Washington under the suspicion that he was a Soviet agent.
Ikonomi: So, Philby came to Washington as first secretary at the British Embassy?
Lulushi: That was his diplomatic cover. In fact, Philby's role in Washington was to coordinate between the British SIS and the US intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA at the time. The major failures in the Albanian operation came in 1952, '53, and '54, when Philby was without a doubt out of the picture. He had been more or less expelled from the SIS under suspicion of being a Soviet spy.
Ikonomi: Nevertheless, Philby would have given the Soviets information about the operation.
Lulushi: Theoretically, it is possible. But if you dig deeper, Philby's main assignment from his Soviet handlers was to uncover US nuclear secrets and to keep tabs on the developments of the CIA as the newest intelligence organization in the United States. In my opinion, the Albanian operation was too irrelevant for the Soviets to risk uncovering such a major source that had burrowed deep in the British service and had access to the US services as well.
Ikonomi. An important role in these operations from the American side was played by Frank G. Wisner, father of the renowned diplomat Frank G. Wisner, Jr. former assistant secretary of state who played a leading role in the negotiations that led to the independence of Kosovo. I talked to Mr. Wisner two days ago on the telephone. He has read your book very carefully and has a high opinion about it. Here's what Mr. Wisner had to say.
Frank G. Wisner, Jr.
[Wisner in audio]: I thing a great deal is new in the book, because the author explores a field that has not been reviewed extensively in published literature. The author gets into the essence of the mistakes in the operation. They include the lack of careful planning, poor execution and insufficient financing of the operation. The motivation was clear but the execution left a great deal to be desired. The Albanian groups were divided among them, which gave the Tirana government a lot of latitude to explore these divisions to its favor.
Ikonomi: It is interesting that, as Mr. Wisner says, one of the main reasons for the failure of the operations was the division among the Albania groups. Why did these divisions exist?
Lulushi: In my opinion, these divisions existed since the time of World War II and in some cases even before the war. An example here is the followers of Zog and the followers of Balli Kombetar who were anti-Zog. As during the war, these factions did not have the maturity to look at the communists as their main enemies and to unite in opposition against the communists. After they went into exile, although most of them fell under the umbrella of the National Committee for Free Albanian, they continues their rivalries. As an example, Company 4000 in Germany where most of the exiled Albanians were enrolled at the time was split along party lines. All followers of Balli Kombetar were in one unit, the followers of Legaliteti were in a separate unit. They did not communicate with one another and in a lot of cases fought with each other.
Ikonomi: Naturally, the CIA was aware of these divisions.
Lulushi: The CIA was aware of these divisions and at some point in time it gave up hope that these groups could come together.
Ikonomi: Another thing than Mr. Wisner mentions is the poor planning on the part of the CIA of this operation. How do you explain this? Was it because they lacked good information or what?
Lulushi: I was able to discover something interesting in the documents I was able to find in archives, which then have been summarized in the book. The CIA abandoned its main objective, that is the overthrow of the Hoxha government, very early on. By the end of 1949, early 1950, the situation in the Balkans had changed to the point where the CIA decided to continue the operations in order to put pressure on the Hoxha regime but without taking the final step to overthrow it.
Ikonomi: That is interesting. So, the CIA gave up the goal to topple the regime very early then?
Lulushi: Yes. In my opinion, the mistake the CIA made at this time was not to share with its Albanian agents the fact that they were prepare to continue operations to put pressure on the regime but they were not prepared to take the final step.
At the VOA studio on June 14, 2014 with Ilir Ikonomi
Ikonomi: So, then, the groups of exiles continued to think that the goal of the operation was to overthrow the regime?
Lulushi: Yes. They were all convinced and believed that their final objective was the overthrow of the Hoxha regime.
Ikonomi: Very interesting. Did the CIA try other operations later on? I am talking about the period after 1954.
Lulushi: After 1954, they suspended more or less all the operations. At least there are no documents available to show that any other operations were planned. In my opinion, there have been no other operations.
Ikonomi: Why do you think the CIA did not pursue other operations?
Lulushi: If you consider the historical situation at the time, Stalin died in 1953 and after some internal machinations, Khrushchev came to power in 1954 aiming to soften the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. At a strategic level, the State Department and the CIA decided to dial back covert paramilitary operations against the Soviet Union and its satellites. Espionage and intelligence gathering operations continued but paramilitary activities were abandoned. The attention shifted to Latin America, Iran, Southeast Asia, and Cuba.
Ikonomi: I am sorry we have to cut short our conversation here. Thank you!
Lulushi: Thank you!