Sunday, July 13, 2008

6. US Military & CIA


Albania 1949-1953

By William Blum. Killing Hope. Chapter Six

The proper English spy

"To simultaneously plan and sabotage this ill-fated venture must have been a severe test of his energy and ingenuity," wrote one of Kim Philby's biographers. The venture was the clandestine attempt, begun in 1949, by the United States and Great Britain to overthrow the pro-Soviet regime of Enver Hoxha through guerrilla-fomented uprisings.

It ended in disaster, in part because the Russians had apparently been alerted by Philby, the proper Englishman who had gone to all the right schools and penetrated the highest ranks of British and American intelligence, though he had been a Soviet spy since the age of 21.

Philby had moved to Washington the year before to act as the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) liaison to the CIA. In that capacity he served as a co-director of the CIA-SIS task force engaged in planning the Albanian operation. The choice had fallen upon Albania because it was regarded as the most vulnerable of the socialist states, the smallest and the weakest, not sharing a border with the Soviet Union, isolated between a US-controlled Greece and a Yugoslavia that was a renegade from the Soviet bloc. Moreover, a recent agreement between the Soviet Union and Albania involved aid for Albania in return for a Soviet right to build a submarine base with direct access to the Mediterranean. By the rules and logic of the cold-war board game, this was a move the United States was obliged to thwart.

The task force began by recruiting scattered Albanian émigrés who were living in Italy, Greece and elsewhere. They were exposed to basic military training, with a touch of guerrilla warfare thrown in, at sites established on the British island of Malta in the Mediterranean, in the American occupation zone of West Germany, and, to a lesser extent, in England itself. "Whenever we want to subvert any place," confided Frank Wisner, the CIA's head of covert operations, to Philby, "we find that the British own an island within easy reach."

Intermittently, for some three-and-a-half years, the émigrés were sent back into their homeland: slipping up into the mountains of Greece and over the border, parachuting in from planes which had taken off from bases in Western Europe, entering by sea from Italy. American planes and balloons dropped propaganda leaflets and goods as well, such items in scarce supply in Albania as flour, halvah, needles, and razor blades, along with a note announcing that they were a gift from the "Albanian National Liberation Front"5—another instance of the subtle "marketing" touch that the CIA, born and raised in America, was to bring to so many of its operations.

In outline, the plan, or the hope, was for the guerrillas to make for their old home regions and try to stir up anti-Soviet and anti-Communist sentiments, eventually leading to uprisings. They were to distribute propaganda, obtain political, economic and military information, engage in sabotage, recruit individuals into cells, and supply them with equipment. Later infusions of men and material would expand these cells into "centers of resistance".

Cold-war conventional wisdom dictated chat the masses of Eastern Europe were waiting to be sparked into open rebellion for their freedom. Even if this were the case, the choice of ignition was highly dubious, for the guerrillas included amongst their numbers many who supported a reinstitution of the Albanian monarchy in the person of the reactionary King Zog, then in exile, and others who had collaborated with the Italian fascists or Nazis during their wartime occupations of Albania.

To be sure, there were those of republican and democratic leanings in the various émigré committees as well, but State Department papers, later declassified, reveal that prominent Albanian collaborators played leading roles in the formation of these committees. These were individuals the State Department characterized as having "somewhat checkered" political backgrounds who "might sooner or later occasion embarrassment to this government". They were admitted to the United States over the Department's objections because of "intelligence considerations". One of the checkered gentlemen was Xhafer Deva, minister of interior during the Italian occupation, who had been responsible for deportations of "Jews, Communists, partisans and suspicious persons" (as a captured Nazi report put it) to extermination camps in Poland.

In the name of the CIA-funded National Committee for a Free Albania, a powerful underground radio station began broadcasting inside the country, calling for the nation's liberation from the Soviet Union. In early 1951, several reports came out of Albania of open organized resistance and uprisings. To what extent these happenings were a consequence of the Western infiltration and agitation is impossible to determine. Overall, the campaign had little to show for its efforts. It was hounded throughout by logistical foul-ups, and the grim reality that the masses of Albanians greeted the émigrés as something less than liberators, either from fear of the harsh Hoxha regime, or because they supported the social changes taking place more than they trusted what the émigrés had to offer.

Worst of all, the Albanian authorities usually seemed to know in which area the guerrillas would be arriving, and when. Kim Philby was not the only potential source of disclosure. The Albanian groups were almost certainly infiltrated, and careless talk indulged in by the motley emigres could have contributed to the fiasco. Philby, referring to the CIA-SIS task force members' habit of poking fun at Albanians, wrote: "Even in our more serious moments, we Anglo-Saxons never forgot that our agents were just down from the trees."

So lax was security that New York Times correspondent Cyrus I. Sulzberger filed several dispatches from the Mediterranean area touching upon the intervention which required virtually no reading between the lines. (The articles carried no attention-grabbing headlines, there was no public comment about them from Washington, no reporters asked government officials any embarrassing questions ... ergo: a "non-event" for Americans.)

Despite one failure after another, and without good reason to expect anything different in the future, the operation continued until the spring of 1953, resulting in the death or imprisonment of hundreds of men. It was not simply the obsession with chopping off one of Stalin's fingers. Professional prestige and careers had been invested, a visible success was needed to "recoup past losses" and "justify earlier decisions". And the men who were being lost were, after all, only Albanians, who spoke not a word of the Queen's English, and did not yet walk upright properly.

There was, however, the danger of the action escalating into conflict with the Soviet Union. The Soviets did in fact send some new fighter planes to Albania, presumably in the hope that they could shoot down the foreign aircraft making drops. The operation could not fail to remind Stalin, Hoxha, and the entire socialist bloc of another Western intervention 30 years earlier in the Soviet Union. It could only serve to make them yet more "paranoid" about Western intentions and convince them to turn the screw of internal security yet tighter. Indeed, every now and again over the ensuing years, Hoxha mentioned the American and British "invasion" and used it to justify his policy of isolation.

In the early 1960s, Hoxha himself did what the CIA and SIS had failed to do: He pulled Albania out of the Soviet orbit. The Albanian leader purged pro-Soviet officials in his government and aligned his country with China. There was no military retaliation on the part of the USSR. In the mid-1970s, Hoxha forsook China as well.

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