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Character Assassination
CIA's "Nerve War Against Individuals" in Guatemala
by Jon Elliston,

The Central Intelligence Agency has demonstrated considerable capabilities for subversion and destabilization. Overthrowing foreign governments became regular practice during the Cold War, and along the way the spy agency prepared detailed studies on the art of the coup.

The declassified paper trail shows that the CIA's tradecraft for coup operations included special methods for applying maximum psychological pressure against key enemies. One covert operation, an early milestone in the history of the CIA, demonstrated how "nerve war," as these tactics were called in secret documents, could put a target government off balance before the agency's operatives moved in to topple it.

In the summer of 1954, acting under the orders of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the CIA strangled Guatemala's democracy by staging an invasion and coup against a popularly elected president, Jacobo Arbenz. The operation, code-named PBSUCCESS, was a uniquely successful clandestine venture, given its size and impact. The United States replaced a foreign leader and maintained a manageable degree of plausible deniability about the spy agency's role.

The coup and cover-up were largely accomplished through psychological warfare (or "psywar"), as propaganda operations were then called. The agency's psywar blitz against Arbenz included clandestine publishing projects, high-powered radio broadcasts, airplane-dropped leaflets and a multifaceted scare campaign targeting the president and his top aides.

What did Arbenz do to invite the Eisenhower administration's assault? A leftist military officer with a handful of communist friends who helped him implement land and labor reforms, Arbenz quickly ran afoul of U.S. investors in Guatemala, especially the powerful, Boston-based United Fruit Company. The company, which ran banana plantations and other large enterprises in the country, had enjoyed preferential treatment under previous Guatemalan leaders and it reacted violently to Arbenz's steps to bring it into compliance with local laws.

The mourning card sent by CIA operatives to Arbenz supporters; when filled in with the name of a nerve war target, the card served as a thinly veiled death threat.
United Fruit had many allies in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, where the company's calls for aggressive action against Arbenz found a sympathetic audience. Official Washington, then in a particularly chilly phase of the Cold War, saw Arbenz's land reforms as a dangerous precedent and direct evidence that he was in league with the international communist conspiracy run by the Kremlin. Guatemala, U.S. officials warned, was fast on its way to becoming a "Soviet beachhead in our hemisphere."

That conclusion, most historians now agree, was born of anti-communist hysteria and was far out of touch with Guatemala's reality. In fact, the country was only implementing the sort of reforms that were needed to bring Guatemala into the age of modern capitalism, and while the Soviets were diplomatically friendly to Arbenz, they offered no aid other than supportive words in the United Nations and on Radio Moscow. But any sign of leftward drift in Central America was then viewed by U.S. officials as a symptom of the communist virus, and when it came to curing communism, the United States was willing to administer a ruthless prescription: CIA covert operations.

The CIA took its first stab at Arbenz during the Truman administration. Arbenz was inaugurated in March of 1951, and just a year-and-a-half later, in the fall of 1952, the agency set in motion PBFORTUNE, a sizable but quickly aborted plot.

The plan was to help an exiled right-wing military officer, Carlos Castillo Armas, invade from neighboring countries with a few hundred supporters and seize power. A month after it was authorized, the State Department became concerned that word about the operation was getting out and mothballed PBFORTUNE.

Another year of nettlesome relations between the United States and Guatemala followed, and the CIA continued to support Castillo Armas in exile. Then, in August 1953, President Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for PBSUCCESS, and the CIA launched a full-fledged covert action program, including an intensive nerve war campaign that badgered and intimidated Abenz's allies until the Guatemalan leader was forced to forfeit the presidency on June 27, 1954.

PBSUCCESS was the CIA's first great nerve war showcase, a chance to apply all the agency had learned about undermining enemies with disinformation and threats. Thanks to the CIA's first declassification of PBSUCCESS operational documents in 1997, the public finally has access to the strategy papers that put the campaign into motion. Among the documents is a four-page list of instructions, titled "Nerve War Against Individuals," that was used by the CIA station in Guatemala City.

A cover memo stated that the nerve war tutorial was intended to serve "as a supplement to the instructions for Tactical Psychological Warfare which you have received with previous communications." The methods differed somewhat from conventional psywar, which was focused on mass persuasion, and instead pressured individual targets. The CIA instructions offered this working definition of nerve war:

The strength of any enemy (foreign or domestic, political or military) consists largely of the individuals who occupy key positions in the enemy organization, as leaders, speakers, writers, organizers, cabinet members, senior government officials, army commanders and staff officers, and so forth. Any effort to defeat the enemy must therefore concentrate to a great extent upon these key enemy individuals.

If such an effort is made by means short of physical violence, we call it "psychological warfare." If it is focused less upon convincing those individuals by logical reasoning, but primarily upon moving them in the desired direction by means of harassment, by frightening, confusing and misleading them, we speak of "nerve war."
If key figures from Guatemala's ruling circle could be diverted and disabled, the CIA reasoned, then Arbenz's support network would be impaired when he needed it most. "Against each of these target personalities, a series of measures are to be devised which will lower his morale, if possible get him to abandon the enemy side or at least get him out of the way in the critical hours," the CIA instructed its officers in a May 26, 1954 memo, a month before the coup. "These measures must be 'custom tailored' for each individual case, since different people have different vulnerable spots and react in different manners."

The memo listed eight potential means of attack:

Sending death notices;
Telephone calls -- preferably between 2 and 5 a.m. -- whispering a threat or a warning (either against impending purge by PGT [Communist party] or a threat or government -- or against being blacklisted by Liberation Movement);
Marking subject's house "here lives a Moscow agent" or the like (luminous paint?);
Sending cardboard coffin or hangman's noose through mail or depositing before subject's house or office;
Sending subject a fake summons, asking him to appear in Guatemala City to answer charges of deviation from the party line (if a PGT member), or embezzlement of betrayal of government secrets (if a government official);
Informing subject's wife that he is in danger and that she must see to it that he seeks safety;
Exposing true or very likely dark spots in subjects private life, by telling him, or his wife or denouncing him to his superiors or publishing the story via a black leaflet;
Sending subject a wire, announcing a successful business deal to be made, asking him to come for important meeting, or pretending an accident which befell family member, mistress or close friend in far-away place, to remove him from the scene for critical moment, and so forth.
CIA officers conceived and directed the campaign, but the main footsoldiers for the nerve war were the conservative student activists of the ComitÈ Estudiantes Universitarios Anti-Comunistas (CEUA). Code-named ESSENCE by the CIA, the group was viewed by the agency's field commander, Al Haney, as a crucial component in the effort to destabilize Guatemala.
Online Resources
A wealth of documentation and investigative reporting on the CIA's nerve war, psywar and the rest of the PBSUCCESS covert action package has made its way to the Web. See these sites for some of the best document collections and research on the Guatemala operation available anywhere.

Guatemala Collection, CIA Electronic Reading Room
(Select "Guatemala" from the subject menu on this page.)
Though this giant collection of PBSUCCESS records can be difficult to wade through on-line, it's worth the effort. The entire batch of files released by the CIA in 1997 is available here, allowing for remote research that would normally require a trip to the National Archives, where the papers are stored. See especially these two important reports: Document No. 2, "The SHERWOOD Tapes," a comprehensive collection of transcripts from the CIA's clandestine radio station, and No. 756, "Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala, 1952-1954," an in-house CIA history of the operation.

CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents, by Kate Doyle and Peter Kornbluh
This National Security Archive electronic briefing book does what this research group does best: assembles key foreign policy documents and puts them in perspective. A selection of papers from the CIA's 1997 release highlights the agency's assassination plans. (See also Kornbluh's related editorial from the June 16, 1997, issue of The Nation, "License to Kill.")

The Clandestine Granddaddy of Central America, by Don Moore
This narrative account of the CIA's anti-Arbenz Radio Liberation (also known as the Voice of Liberation), offers a good introduction to what is widely regarded as one of the CIA's most effective propaganda operations. A version of this report originally appeared as an article in the April 1989 issue of Monitoring Times.

InTERRORgation: The CIA's Secret Manual on Coercive Questioning
The CIA's 1963 "Counterintelligence Interrogation" manual, declassified in 1997, reveals the institutional use of personalized harassment tactics similar to those used in the Guatemala nerve war. Dossier provides image and text files of the entire 128-page manual, along with an introductory essay explaining the context of the document, the evidence that mind control research made its way into CIA interrogations, and the agency's grim global record of exporting terror tactics.

"Morale, efficiency of ESSENCE is vital," Haney instructed the CIA's Guatemala City station on March 25, 1954. "ESSENCE shall not be impeded in any way by lack of funds. You [are] authorized [to] generously grant all reasonable ESSENCE requests."

To the public, the CEUA was a strident voice of opposition to Arbenz, and secret CIA subsidies helped the group sponsor such overt projects as a weekly anti-communist radio hour in the capital. But as the CIA's D-day for Guatemala approached, the group was enlisted in more and more clandestine activities, including the nerve war.

The group's psywar cells performed such tasks as telephone harassment, rumor-mongering, dissemination of leaflets and propaganda publications, and widespread "chalking" of the CIA-conceived "symbol of resistance" for the rebels: the number "32" -- a reference to the article of the constitution banning foreign-based political parties from operating in Guatemala, the implication being that communist parties should be outlawed.

When it came to the nerve war, the CEUA proved adept at sending the CIA's intimidating messages. Earlier, the CIA station did the background work, compiling "information useful for character assassination," and determining "which character assassinations could be most readily and profitably performed," according to CIA records.

In the month preceding the CIA's invasion, the group mailed "mourning cards" and "death notices" to targets selected by the agency. "Cards were to mourn the purge or execution of various Communists in the world and to hint forthcoming doom to recipients," explained a CIA summary of the operation. The daily death threats were backed up with late-night telephone calls in which ESSENCE teams reiterated the ominous warnings.

The CIA judged the tactic to be especially effective in rattling Arbenz's cronies. The Guatemalans had reason to be worried -- the death threats were credible ones, according to a report by Gerald K. Haines, the current head of the CIA's historical office.

"Proposals for assassination pervaded both PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS," Haines concluded after a careful review of all available CIA Guatemala files. "Even before official approval of PBFORTUNE, CIA officers compiled elimination lists and discussed the concept of assassination with Guatemalan opposition leaders. Until the day that Arbenz resigned in June 1954 the option of assassination was still being considered."

Arbenz's assassination proved unnecessary, as his government succumbed to the CIA's covert operation. On June 17, 1954, Castillo Armas's force of about 300 heavily armed troops moved slowly across the border from neighboring Honduras, and CIA contract pilots began buzzing Guatemala City in light aircraft, disgorging propaganda leaflets, with messages appealing to the army to usurp Arbenz, as well as the occasional grenade or small bomb.

The invasion culminated months of combined pressures by the CIA, Pentagon and State Department, and it was the beginning of the end for Arbenz. The Guatemalan military command, interpreting Castillo Armas's meager force as a precursor to large-scale U.S. military intervention, told their president it was time to surrender.

On June 27, Arbenz, his supporters marginalized and stripped away by the nerve war, stepped down, and the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, John Peurifoy, helped CIA officers tinker with a series of short-lived military juntas and install the agency's hand-picked president, Carlos Castillo Armas.

Guatemala then plunged into decades of military rule and civil war, providing critics of the CIA with ample evidence that this agency "success" had a terrible toll. The catastrophic human rights situation in Guatemala did not prevent the CIA from attempting similar operations, however. PBSUCCESS served as a general model for several subsequent covert actions, most notably the secret wars against Cuba in the 1960s, Chile in the 1970s and Nicaragua in the 1980s.

In all of those cases, the CIA used forgeries, disinformation and terror tactics to undermine governments, political groups and individual leaders, employing tactics that saw their first full-fledged use in the Guatemala operation. The program of dirty tricks against Arbenz entered agency lore as an exemplar of what could be done from behind the scenes to topple U.S. adversaries.

In a radio speech to the nation announcing his resignation, Arbenz named his attackers. "The United Fruit Company, in collaboration with the governing circles of the United States, is responsible for what is happening to us," he charged.

In the final shot of the nerve war, the CIA jammed the broadcast.




CIA implicated in murder
as part of
MK ULTRA Coverup?