CIA papers: U.S. caught off-guard in Korean War

Thursday, June 17, 2010

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- The CIA on Wednesday released a massive number of documents dealing with the Korean War, some of which point to the young agency's failure in the late 1940s to understand crucial events on the Korean peninsula in the run-up to the conflict.

One CIA analysis said "American military and civilian leaders were caught by surprise" when North Korean troops moved south across the 38th Parallel in June 1950.

"Only the intercession of poorly trained and equipped U.S. garrison troops from Japan managed to halt the North Korean advance at a high price in American dead and wounded," the report said.

That document, "Two Strategic Intelligence Mistakes in Korea, 1950," also describes how U.S. military and civilian leaders were caught off-guard four months later when the Chinese "intervened in massive numbers as American and UN forces pushed the North Koreans back."

The release of the 1,300 CIA documents includes 900 papers that had either not been made public before or now contained new information. The CIA release coincides with the 60th anniversary this month of the Korean War's start.

The CIA documents were released on a CD-ROM distributed at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence to participants at a two-day conference on the Korean War. The documents were also to be made available on the CIA's website.

The announcement of the papers also coincides with the release of hundreds of additional documents from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

The Truman library documents, which included audio clips of President Truman and correspondence from then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson, were being made available at the library, though some may eventually be released online, said museum director Michael Devine. The Wilson center's documents are on its website.

The CIA documents include intelligence reports, correspondence and National Intelligence Estimates, and foreign media accounts of activity in the region.

Peter A. Clement, CIA's deputy director of Intelligence for Analytic Programs, said the documents showed the CIA was "not very well-organized" at the time.

"They didn't call the invasion," he said. "It showed very clearly that we didn't put the signs all together."

Clement said the documents illustrate how the agency then relied on "a small crew of people who looked over the entire world," as opposed to current iterations involving separate staffs each assigned to a specific region.

Some parallels remain, however, between the CIA in its early years and the agency today, which is still "doing some tea leaf reading" but also has the help of more sophisticated tools.

"Intelligence-wise, we have come far," Clement said. "But at its core, the [job] of understanding leaders' decisions ... is still a challenge."

James F. Person, program associate for the Woodrow Wilson center, said the documents his center had collected from 1955 to 1984 depict the "rocky relationship" between North Korea and China that continues today.

"We continue to get this wrong today, the North Koreans and the Chinese walking in lock step," Person said. "The North Koreans can't stand the Chinese. ... It's going to go on and on until we sit down and talk with them."

Clayton Laurie, a CIA staff historian, said the "breadth" of the documents release indicates the Truman administration's interest in the region.

"Even though this is not a primary area of interest for the Truman administration, they're still reporting on this area," he said.

Michael Pearlman, a former professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kan., and a conference participant, said he had hoped the release would include information on the circumstances of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's firing in 1951. But from what he could tell, the documents had no such detail.

"It's more than disappointing," he said. "It's a tragedy."

Paul Edwards, founder of the Center for the Study of the Korean War at Graceland University in Independence, Mo., said before he had seen the documents that he hoped to find information about President Dwight Eisenhower's efforts to end the war.

"I'll be terribly surprised if there's anything too surprising" in the papers, he said.



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