Is the CIA plotting against President Donald Trump? A handful of observers think so — and some of them are even cheering it on.
Neoconservative publisher of the Weekly Standard William Kristol tweeted in February that while he “strongly” prefers “normal democratic and constitutional politics,” he would “prefer the deep state to the Trump state.”
Trump, you’ll remember, gave a speech at CIA headquarters the day after his inauguration, admitting that it was meant to address claims that he and the agency didn’t get along.
A series of leaked stories since then have undermined the administration, particularly in regards to its relationship with Russia and Russian intelligence services, leaks that seem to have come from CIA sources.
Trump’s politics should not be a problem for this vanguard of U.S. imperialism. Few of them, however, can tolerate Trump’s possible collaborations with hostile governments, and their actions to date suggest that they have something concrete on him.
One emerging hypothesis — Russian intelligence colluded with the Trump campaign to use hacked information to undermine Hillary Clinton’s already tenuous credibility and then the Russian government gave Trump a well-disguised 19-percent stake in its state oil company — worth $11 billion — in return for an end to sanctions against Russia and the weakening or dismantling of NATO.
If this has happened and the CIA knows about it, they have substantial motivation for action against this state, but how will we know? How would CIA go about overthrowing a U.S. president, and what signs would we be able to see as it went down?
The best way to answer this question is to look at some of the major coups the CIA has supported throughout its history. A plot against Trump would be a very different undertaking, and no two overthrows have been alike to date. There are, however, some significant commonalities among the major coups backed or attempted by the CIA.
These commonalities are basic facts of life for a coup, and if they are plotting against the duly-elected president of the United States then they are working on them right now. Some seem to be taking place, others will remain invisible for years to come and others are important signs to watch for because, in the end even if you despise Trump for the threat he poses to democracy and all life on earth, the costs of a coup are, as we’ll see, devastating.
Any CIA plot against Trump’s regime or any other government will begin and end with concerted propaganda campaigns and political intrigue. This is fundamental to every coup, because they are always trying to convince a small group of people that they can take on the entire government at once and win. In the end, coups are always rooted in psychological warfare.
The CIA-orchestrated coup in Guatemala in 1954 provides a case in point. Targeted at the freely elected government of progressive populist Jacobo Arbenz, the agency managed to use a wildly successful radio station and various other deception tactics to convince that country’s government and military that they were facing an existential threat from U.S. Marines and CIA-backed rebels.
In fact there were no Marines. And the rebels — numbering fewer than 500 — were complete military failures who never managed to capture any territory beyond small, undefended border towns.
Much broader than just a radio station, a similar program in Iran codenamed BEDAMN laid the foundation for the plot in that country. “Under the propaganda arm of BEDAMN, anti-communist articles and cartoons were planted in Iranian newspapers, books and leaflets critical of the Soviet Union and the Tudeh party [Iran’s communist-affiliated party at the time] were written and distributed, rumors were started,” political scientist Mark Gasiorowski wrote in a definitive 1987 history of the coup.
BEDAMN also involved a political arm that used “black operations” such as hiring street gangs to break up Tudeh rallies, funding right-wing political organizations and other tactics. The group also targeted the mass supporters of coalition parties in Mossadeq’s National Front political movement, stoking their specific prejudices with targeted propaganda and creating conflict within the organization.
Overt press manipulation also made a big difference. Once CIA planted stories appeared in The New York Times — and the “newspaper of record” repeatedly published such pieces — or the major papers in Latin American capitals it was only natural that other major newspapers in the region would pick them up and spread the story. That slant would then pervade elite opinion around the world.
It is in this regard that we see the see the most obvious present evidence of possible CIA machinations against Trump. CIA sources leaked surveillance of the Russian foreign minister to force the removal of Michael Flynn as national security adviser. Other sources for other key stories on this front seem to be coming from the CIA, but this one proves that at least one spy with the highest levels of access was working the press.
The more of this we see, the more we should be concerned. Most importantly — if formerly pro-Trump publications quickly turn on the president without warning or if we begin to see a great deal of very targeted propaganda clearly trying to flip Trump’s base against him or against other elements of his support structure then we should be especially concerned.
Stepping up the political plot
CIA coups depend on their political contexts. In Iran the Agency used the Shah’s constitutional powers to their advantage when they compelled him to try to remove Mossadeq by decree. After Chile’s 1973 parliamentary elections showed a major gain for Allende’s socialist coalition all hope for normal political action to sabotage his government was abandoned in favor of a coup d’etat.
Whether the politics are good or bad, the conditions on the ground determine the coup’s tactics. The strategy that unites the tactics, however, is always the same: isolate the targeted ruler. Remove their key elements of support and cultivate internal coup allies that can leave the leader weak and harassed.
In the case of Chile there was no obstacle greater in the early days of the Allende government than the commander in Chief of the Chilean Army Rene Schneider. Schneider was profoundly respected by both officers and rank and file soldiers and no fan of Allende. He was also, however, a deeply committed constitutionalist and a vocal opponent of military involvement in politics. As long as Schneider was in charge of the military there was no chance of a coup succeeding.
So Schneider had to be removed. The CIA collaborated with officers aligned with Chilean Army General Camilo Valenzuela to provide them with submachine guns, ammunition and tear gas grenades to aid their attempt to kidnap Schneider. Mere hours after transferring the weapons, however, another coup plot associated with the fascist former Chilean general Roberto VIaux killed Schneider in what appears to be a botched kidnapping attempt of their own.
While the CIA did not oversee that action, it knew of it ahead of time and ultimately paid one of the assassins $35,000 for “humanitarian reasons” according to its own historical assessment.
As for cultivating internal allies, this was the key to the Iranian coup’s success. The key leaders of the various parties in Mossadeq’s National Front were systematically paid off to turn against him. Most notable of these were the leader of the Front’s most significant Left-wing party; the populist Islamist political leader, cleric and Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Abol-Ghasem Kashani; and Iran Party leader Hussein Makki among others. One by one Mossadeq’s key political allies were corrupted, making a coup possible.
In Iran the CIA also encouraged clerics who had previously been sympathetic on the whole with Mossadeq’s oil nationalization program — if not his liberal politics — to take a more fundamentalist line and oppose the government for its toleration of the Tudeh Party.
William Blum, a long-time chronicler of U.S. imperialism, reports that the plotters underscored the effort by sending out agents provocateurs pretending to be Tudeh to attack mosques and clergymen marking “the Tudeh and, by implication, Mossadegh as being anti-religion.” Encouraging fundamentalist political Islam in Iran had negative unforeseen consequences.
In the short run, however, this strategy was important because, as CIA operatives noted in Guatemala, most of society “was neutral, apathetic or frustrated, ‘a soap opera audience.’” They did not think much about politics but if a foreign element wanted to overthrow their government, they were going to be roused to opposition.
No institution was better for securing this mushy middle of society than religious leadership.
If major religious-right figures attack Trump, it will be one of the clearest warning signs that a plot of some sort is afoot. For now the resignation of Michael Flynn and the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the Russia scandal look very much like an Agency attempt to neutralize elements of the president’s support network.
If we see more such stories and forced resignations, we should deepen our suspicions.
The need for a viable alternative
No matter how much the CIA may hate a regime, and no matter how much havoc they wreak they cannot translate this into a change of regime without organized confederates on the ground.
In Cuba, for example, the CIA deployed hundreds of plots against the Castro regime for decades. At no point did any of them come anywhere close to toppling the regime because there has never been a significant constituency against the regime in Cuba itself.
In the countries where CIA political violence succeeded, it had not only an organized front to deliver the state, but typically also a leader capable of symbolizing the effort and consolidating power after victory. Iran was easy — the Shah already had that sort of stature. Guatemala had Castillo Armas. Chile had Augosto Pinochet.
Any CIA plot against Trump is going to be very different from these in then-isolated corners of the developing world. A large-scale plot seems unnecessary because they could easily make Vice Pres. Mike Pence their standard-bearer.
Pence took a distinctly anti-Russia position in the campaign, one that Trump himself opposed in the third presidential debate. He traveled to Europe and reassured U.S. allies of the country’s commitment to NATO even as Trump and the mainstream of his regime are making moves against the alliance.
He won’t risk the billionaire-friendly policies they like about Trump while sticking with the imperialist program now threatened by the president’s corruption.
For the CIA the choice would be very easy if they got to vote between the two, and they might have such a vote after all. Any actions by Pence or the media to draw daylight between him and Trump should be taken very seriously.
Forcing crises, showing force
As coup-backed propaganda spreads, the existing state’s isolation deepens, alternatives are empowered and new leaders emerge, the task at hand becomes simple. As a CIA cable to the White House from Chile put it, “You have asked us to provoke chaos.”
Provoking chaos means striking blows against the regime’s legitimacy. The first sort of chaos is in the streets. In Chile the CIA paid 40,000 truck drivers, urban shopkeepers and taxi drivers to strike, with bitter demonstrations giving the impression of widespread hatred for Allende’s government.
In February 1953 — six months before Mossadeq’s ouster — CIA-backed parties organized a large anti-government protest that marched on Mossadeq’s home. Pro-Mossadeq forces responded and the result was a violent clash that nearly led to the government’s collapse.
The government did fall in August after CIA operatives paid protestors to march shouting Tudeh slogans and denouncing the Shah. The fake demo brought out real party members, but provocateurs attacked patriotic symbols, stoking widespread fears among what might be called the “soap opera audience” that the communists were about to take over.
Two days later the Agency paid the cleric and speaker of the parliament Abol-Ghasem Kashani $10,000 to organize an anti-communist march, among the demonstrators were soldiers and police officers. The crowd destroyed pro-Mossadeq newspaper and political party offices before marching on Mossadeq’s home where they clashed for more than nine hours with his supporters, ending in more than 300 deaths and the prime minister’s resignation.
Chaos in the streets of this sort is amplified by formal political crises that provide a pretext for the coup’s climax. We’ve already seen how the Shah’s unprecedented dismissal of Mossadeq precipitated a constitutional crisis. In Chile the Chamber of Deputies passed a proclamation that explicitly requested military action against the administration. The parties that passed the proclamation were, of course, financed by the CIA.
There have been unprecedented protests since Trump’s election, and despite Right wing conspiracy theories claiming that all the marchers were paid, there is zero evidence for this. The demonstrations were furthermore not of the sort that would serve any CIA interests — they were for the most part peaceful and progressive, and even the more militant protests were not sufficient to seriously threaten the regime. They also came at the wrong point in time to be part of a coup plot.
Still, while outright paid protests seem hard to pull off in the era of universal media access, agents provocateurs are an ongoing reality. Ask anybody involved in Occupy demos in 2011 and they’ll be able to name specific police spies that urged illegal and violent behavior.
In Austin in 2008, an FBI snitch convinced two activists to make Molotov cocktails and other illegal weapons to take to the Republican National Convention protests that summer. Those two went to federal prison and the snitch is now an editor for Breitbart.
Provocateurs are to be expected whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Trump are in charge, but we might nonetheless see an increased number, sophistication or violence from them. Another danger sign will be if they are getting mixed in with right-wing groups. In recent years they have been focused on the left.
Finally, if suspected spies are allowing illegal behavior and never delivering any legal consequences this suggests that the activists aren’t the target. In that case the president may be.
One last chance for the people
Finally, in most coups there comes a moment when popular resistance gets a last ditch opportunity to push back. In Venezuela in 2002 mass demonstrations forced the short-lived coup against Hugo Chavez to surrender and flee into exile.
A similar reversal was seen just last year in Turkey when ruling class demonstrators in support of the threatened president Recep Erdogan quickly mobilized to defeat a poorly-executed coup attempt.
With regard to Trump, such an effort seems highly unlikely. His base has obstacles that prevent their mobilization. For one, they are not organized. Not only has Trump not created any lasting political institution uniting them, but these communities are not organized into any other institutions to speak of.
They are also well off, with well above average annual incomes — on average about $72,000. Few wealthy Americans will be looking to risk it all to stop Mike Pence.
Finally, they are old — voters under 40 broke strongly for Clinton, and those over 50 went largely for Trump. Insurgency is a young person’s game, and Trump’s supporters generally don’t fit that bill.
All of this should be deeply distressing because history shows that when the CIA wins, human freedom loses. Chile went nearly 20 years without elections and thousands of its citizens were tortured and killed.
Iran saw one of the world’s most brutal regimes descend upon it for more than a quarter-century before becoming a theocracy. As for Guatemala the government installed by the CIA and that regime’s successors killed over 200,000 civilians in a 36 year civil war.
If the CIA is plotting at this level — and they are at the very least rattling their sabers with leaks and perhaps other tactics — then anything that simply plucks the president out of his current office translates into victory. There are a variety of legal and extralegal means to do this — no need for bombing runs over Mar-a-Lago.
But if they do this then Pence will still need to consolidate his power and secure his legitimacy through the only means imperialists know — force. He will need to secure the support of the base that made Trump possible and suppress those elements that helped undermine the regime.
At the point that constitutional authority and normal legal and political restraint have gone out the window, this process is not one anyone can tolerate, regardless of how you feel about Trump.
For all the coups throughout history there have also been numerous times when popular resistance moved the mountains of corrupt, repressive regimes, forcing them to change or dissolve. The shortcut of a coup is no substitute for real democratic action whether that comes at the ballot box or in the streets.
History is a guide for what to watch for. Let’s hope these lessons remain academic and if they become more immediate, that we heed history’s most important lessons before we lose our chance to.