29. Editorial Note

Early in the Nixon administration the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger began the practice of maintaining special direct channels of communication with some foreign officials and U.S. Ambassadors, bypassing the Department of State. The Kissinger–Dobrynin channel, for example, was arranged within a few weeks of President Nixon’s inauguration. In his diary entry for February 15, 1969, the President’s Assistant, H.R. Haldeman, noted the following: “Big item was meeting planned for Monday with the Soviet Ambassador. Problem arose because P[resident] wanted me to call Rogers and tell him of meeting, but that Ambassador and P would be alone. I did, Rogers objected, feeling P should never meet alone with an Ambassador, urged a State Department reporter sit in. Back and forth, K[issinger] disturbed because Ambassador has something of great significance to tell P, but if done with State man there word will get out and P will lose control. Decided I should sit in, Rogers said OK, but ridiculous. Ended up State man and K will both sit in, but P will see Ambassador alone for a few minutes first, and will get the dope in written form. K determined P should get word on Soviet intentions direct so he knows he can act on it.” (The Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition) The President met with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin on February 17.

Two weeks later, on March 3, Kissinger met with Dobrynin and reported on the meeting in a March 6 memorandum to the President: Dobrynin “said that Moscow had noted his conversation with the President as well as the lunch with me with ‘much satisfaction.’ Moscow was ready to engage in a ‘strictly confidential exchange on delicate and important matters’ with the President using the Dobrynin–Kissinger channel. The exchange will be kept very secret. Moscow ‘welcomes an informal exchange.’” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger 1969)

[Page 68]

From March through November 1969 Kissinger met six times alone with Dobrynin and twice together with the President. Then, following a meeting on December 22, Kissinger reported the following to Nixon in a December 24 memorandum: “Dobrynin suggested that he and I meet at regular intervals, discussing a particular topic at each meeting to explore what possible solutions on various issues might look like. We could decide after the discussion of each topic was completed and after it had been discussed with you whether any action was necessary— whether instructions would be given or it should be taken to another level. If you approve, I will agree to meet with him every three weeks after our return from San Clemente on an agenda to be approved by you.” Nixon gave his approval. (Ibid.) “Increasingly, the most sensitive business in US-Soviet relations came to be handled between Dobrynin and me,” Kissinger wrote in White House Years, page 138. Documentation on the channel from February 1969 through April 1973 is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Boxes 489–96, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger. Included are lists of meetings, memoranda of conversation, notes exchanged, and Kissinger’s memoranda to the President. Documentation on the channel for the period from May 1973 through August 1974 is ibid., Kissinger Office Files, Country Files, Boxes 68–71.

Kissinger established special communication channels with other foreign officials. In October 1969, for instance, he arranged a backchannel with West German State Secretary Egon Bahr that also included West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. Starting in early 1971 Kissinger and Bahr exchanged messages through a covert Navy operation. For more information, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XL, Germany and Berlin, 1969–1972.

Kissinger communicated through backchannels that bypassed the Department of State with a number of U.S. Ambassadors at their posts abroad, among them Ambassador to Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker, Ambassador to Pakistan Joseph Farland, Ambassador to West Germany Kenneth Rush, and Ambassador William Porter at the Paris peace talks. President Nixon commented at a meeting with his closest advisers on December 22, 1971, that “there have been more backchannel games played in this administration than any in history because we couldn’t trust the God damned State Department.” (Conversation 308–13; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes) David McManis, Director of the White House Situation Room, briefed General Brent Scowcroft on the situation in a January 4, 1973, memorandum: “‘Backchannel communications’ are used to provide an unusual degree of privacy to messages between HAK and selected ambassadors. [1½ lines of source text not declassified]

“We have [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] set up several communications links using key materials permitting access to the message [Page 69] only here and at the distant end—not at any headquarters or relay point.” McManis briefly described procedures for communicating with Ambassadors Bunker and Porter and Egon Bahr and noted that “one alternative has always been the courier run.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 1327, NSC Unfiled Material 1971) Later in 1973 Kissinger began having some backchannel messages specially encrypted. (Memorandum from Scowcroft to Kissinger, April 27, 1973; ibid. Box 1335) Copies of many backchannel communications, including those with Ambassadors Bunker and Farland, are ibid., Backchannel Files, Backchannel Messages, Boxes 410–433.

Kissinger was concerned that the Department of State not become party to his backchannel communications. In a January 12, 1971, message to Bunker he observed that during a discussion with William Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Sullivan had “referred to fact that you would be returning to Washington as a result of my backchannel request to you to do so. I was surprised that Department was aware of my use of this channel since I have been proceeding under the assumption that our communication through this channel are kept exclusively between us. I would be grateful if you would reassure me in this respect.” (Ibid., Kissinger Office Files, Box 148, State/WH Relationship, Vol. 4)