Opening the Secret Files on Lumumba's Murder
By Stephen R. Weissman
Sunday, July 21, 2002; Page B03
In his latest film, "Minority Report," director Steven Spielberg portrays a policy of "preemptive action" gone wild in the year 2054. But we don't have to peer into the future to see what harm faulty intelligence and the loss of our moral compass can do. U.S. policies during the Cold War furnish many tragic examples. One was U.S. complicity in the overthrow and murder of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.
Forty-one years ago, Lumumba, the only leader ever democratically elected in Congo, was delivered to his enemies, tortured and summarily executed. Since then, his country has been looted by the U.S.-supported regime of Mobutu Sese Seko and wracked by regional and civil war.
The conventional explanation of Lumumba's death has been that he was murdered by Congolese rivals after earlier U.S. attempts to kill him, including a plot to inject toxins into his food or toothpaste, failed. In 1975, the U.S. Senate's "Church Committee" probed CIA assassination plots and concluded there was "no evidence of CIA involvement in bringing about the death of Lumumba."
Not so. I have obtained classified U.S. government documents, including a chronology of covert actions approved by a National Security Council (NSC) subgroup, that reveal U.S. involvement in -- and significant responsibility for -- the death of Lumumba, who was mistakenly seen by the Eisenhower administration as an African Fidel Castro. The documents show that the key Congolese leaders who brought about Lumumba's downfall were players in "Project Wizard," a CIA covert action program. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and military equipment were channeled to these officials, who informed their CIA paymasters three days in advance of their plan to send Lumumba into the clutches of his worst enemies. Other new details: The U.S. authorized payments to then-President Joseph Kasavubu four days before he ousted Lumumba, furnished Army strongman Mobutu with money and arms to fight pro-Lumumba forces, helped select and finance an anti-Lumumba government, and barely three weeks after his death authorized new funds for the people who arranged Lumumba's murder.
Moreover, these documents show that the plans and payments were approved by the highest levels of the Eisenhower administration, either the NSC or its "Special Group," consisting of the national security adviser, CIA director, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and deputy defense secretary.
These facts are four decades old, but are worth unearthing for two reasons. First, Congo (known for years as Zaire) is still struggling to establish democracy and stability. By facing up to its past role in undermining Congo's fledgling democracy, the United States might yet contribute to Congo's future. Second, the U.S. performance in Congo is relevant to our struggle against terrorism. It shows what can happen when, in the quest for national security, we abandon the democratic principles and rule of law we are fighting to defend.
In February, Belgium, the former colonial power in Congo, issued a thousand-page report that acknowledged "an irrefutable portion of responsibility in the events that led to the death of Lumumba." Unlike Belgium, the United States has admitted no such moral responsibility. Over the years, scholars (including myself) and journalists have written that American policy played a major role in the ouster and assassination of Lumumba. But the full story remained hidden in U.S. documents, which, like those I have examined, are still classified despite the end of the Cold War, the end of the Mobutu regime and Belgium's confession.
Here's what they tell us that, until now, we didn't know, or didn't know for certain:ï In August 1960, the CIA established Project Wizard. Congo had been independent only a month, and Lumumba, a passionate nationalist, had become prime minister, with a plurality of seats in the parliament. But U.S. presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was vowing to meet "the communist challenge" and Eisenhower's NSC was worried that Lumumba would tilt toward the Soviets.
The U.S. documents show that over the next few months, the CIA worked with and made payments to eight top Congolese -- including President Kasavubu, Mobutu (then army chief of staff), Foreign Minister Justin Bomboko, top finance aide Albert Ndele, Senate President Joseph Ileo and labor leader Cyrille Adoula -- who all played roles in Lumumba's downfall.
The CIA joined Belgium in a plan, detailed in the Belgian report, for Ileo and Adoula to engineer a no-confidence vote in Lumumba's government, which would be followed by union-led demonstrations, the resignations of cabinet ministers (organized by Ndele) and Kasavubu's dismissal of Lumumba.
ï On Sept. 1, the NSC's Special Group authorized CIA payments to Kasavubu, the U.S. documents say. On Sept. 5, Kasavubu fired Lumumba in a decree of dubious legality. However, Kasavubu and his new prime minister, Ileo, proved lethargic over the following week as Lumumba rallied supporters. So Mobutu seized power on Sept. 14. He kept Kasavubu as president and established a temporary "College of Commissioners" to replace the disbanded government.
ï The CIA financed the College and influenced the selection of commissioners. The College was dominated by two Project Wizard participants: Bomboko, its president, and Ndele, its vice-president. Another CIA ally, Lumumba party dissident Victor Nendaka, was appointed chief of the security police.
ï On Oct. 27, the NSC Special Group approved $250,000 for the CIA to win parliamentary support for a Mobutu government. However, when legislators balked at approving any prime minister other than Lumumba, the parliament remained closed. The CIA money went to Mobutu personally and the commissioners.
ï On Nov. 20, the Special Group authorized the CIA to provide arms, ammunition, sabotage materials and training to Mobutu's military in the event it had to resist pro-Lumumba forces.
The full extent of what one U.S. document calls the "intimate" relationship between the CIA and Congolese leaders was absent from the Church Committee report. The only covert action (apart from the assassination plots) the committee discussed was the August 1960 effort to promote labor opposition and a no-confidence vote in the Senate.How did Lumumba die? After being ousted Sept. 5, Lumumba rallied support in parliament and the international community. When Mobutu took over, U.N. troops protected Lumumba, but soon confined him to his residence. Lumumba escaped on Nov. 27. Days later he was captured by Mobutu's troops, beaten and arrested.
What happened next is clearer thanks to the Belgian report and the classified U.S. documents. As early as Christmas Eve 1960, College of Commissioners' president Bomboko offered to hand Lumumba over to two secessionist leaders who had vowed to kill him. One declined and nothing happened until mid-January 1961, when the central government's political and military position deteriorated and troops guarding Lumumba (then jailed on a military base near the capital) mutinied. CIA and other Western officials feared a Lumumba comeback.
On Jan. 14, the commissioners asked Kasavubu to move Lumumba to a "surer place." There was "no doubt," the Belgian inquiry concluded, that Mobutu agreed. Kasavubu told security chief Nendaka to transfer Lumumba to one of the secessionist strongholds. On Jan. 17, Nendaka sent Lumumba to the Katanga region. That night, Lumumba and two colleagues were tortured and executed in the presence of members of the Katangan government. No official announcement was made for four weeks.
What did the U.S. government tell its Congolese clients during the last three days of Lumumba's life? The Church Committee reported that a Congolese "government leader" advised the CIA's Congo station chief, Larry Devlin, on Jan. 14 that Lumumba was to be sent to "the home territory" of his "sworn enemy." Yet, according to the Church Committee and declassified documents, neither the CIA nor the U.S. embassy tried to save the former prime minister.
The CIA may not have exercised robotic control over its covert political action agents, but the failure of Devlin or the U.S. embassy to question the plans for Lumumba could only be seen by the Congolese as consent. After all, secret CIA programs had enabled this group to achieve political power, and the CIA had worked from August through November 1960 to assassinate or abduct Lumumba.
Here, the classified U.S. chronology provides an important postscript. On Feb. 11, 1961, with U.S. reports from Congo strongly indicating Lumumba was dead, the Special Group authorized $500,000 for political action, troop payments and military equipment, largely to the people who had arranged Lumumba's murder.
Devlin has sought to distance himself from Lumumba's death. While the CIA was in close contact with the Congolese officials involved, Devlin told the Church Committee that those officials "were not acting under CIA instructions if and when they did this." In a recent phone conversation with Devlin, I posed the issue of U.S. responsibility for Lumumba's death. He acknowledged that, "It was important to [these] cooperating leaders what the U.S. government thought." But he said he did "not recall" receiving advance word of Lumumba's transfer. Devlin added that even if he had objected, "That would not have stopped them from doing it."
By evading its share of moral responsibility for Lumumba's fate, the United States blurs African and American history and sidesteps the need to make reparation for yesterday's misdeeds through today's policy. In 1997, after the Mobutu regime fell, the Congolese democratic opposition pleaded in vain for American and international support. Since then, as many as 3 million lives have been lost as a result of civil and regional war. The United States has not supported a strong U.N. peacekeeping force or fostered a democratic transition. The collapse in late April 2002 of negotiations between Congolese factions threatens to reignite the smoldering conflict or ratify the partition of the country.
Our government's actions four decades ago in Congo also have special meaning after the tragedy of Sept. 11. They warn that even as we justly defend our land and our people against terrorists, we must avoid the excessive fear and zeal that lead to destructive intervention betraying our most fundamental principles.
Stephen Weissman is author of "A Culture of Deference; Congress's Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy" (Basic Books). He was staff director of the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Africa from 1986 to 1991.