180. Memorandum From William H. Brubeck of the National Security Council Staff to President Johnson1
- American Pilots in the Congo
For eighteen months a group of [less than 1 line not declassified] pilots under nominal contract to the Congo Government [less than 1 line not declassified] has been flying US-supplied T6 planes in support of the Congo army. The T6s have now been replaced by T28s. The operation is managed and trained by two American civilians. They were under certain restrictions but did do some reconnaissance and combat missions in the Kwilu this spring, but were subsequently ordered to do no more combat missions.
The two Americans were under heavy local pressure during the past two weeks, however, to fly combat in the Eastern Congo crisis, as the only pilots already trained to fly the T28s. They did so, and their contribution was probably decisive in temporarily saving the Kivu. It would be hard to second guess their decision now by hindsight.
However, our press handling of the problem here is open to criticism. After several days of press rumors, and in response to questions last Monday, State said “The Department’s present information is” no American civilian pilots are flying combat. [1½ lines not declassified]
As a result, on Tuesday State told the press that we had now learned some American civilians had in fact “flown T28 sorties in the past few days.” On Wednesday in response to further questions, State said the contract pilots had violated no US law but that we now had an understanding that the Congo Government would no longer use them for operational missions. After that interest began to die down.[Page 257]
The actual combat flying in the Congo was not the cause of our trouble. Press handling was, even though there was ample high-level consideration of the problem each day, in which I participated.
In retrospect we made three mistakes. We gave a qualified answer before we knew the facts and then had to retract. We were too slow, once the story broke, in giving the press an adequate explanation, so the story snowballed on a speculative basis for several days. Undoubtedly encouraged by some people in State looking for a scapegoat, the press made this into a State–CIA fight; some papers implied, I think unfairly, that CIA had engaged in tricky dealing. The result, in addition to bad publicity on CIA and damage to our general credibility, is of course to cast doubt on our operations not only in the Congo but in Southeast Asia.
In part the handling of the story was just bad judgment and we just have to learn from the experience. Beyond that, State is trying to prevent any further gossip to the press about CIA. Also, because part of our trouble was inadequate briefing of the press, we are systematically back-grounding key reporters so that they will have better information on the Congo and we can avoid speculative stories.
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Congo, Vol. I. Secret; Sensitive Handling.↩