The CIA’s Failed Mission in Angola: Operation Feature

In the early 1970’s the United States was heavily engaged in fighting a jungle conflict in South East Asia in Vietnam. Early in 1973, the US fought the North Vietnamese in Peace talks in Paris, France and by the end of the year had redeployed the US military out of Vietnam (“The United States Pulls Out of Vietnam” 1973). When the war ended approximately one million people had died, and almost 59,000 Americans had sacrificed their lives in the name of fighting communists. Over 100,000 American service members were wounded in action during the conflict. The Vietnam war at home became unpopular with demonstrations, protests and lobbying to apply political pressure to bring the troops home. During the conflict, the US had played an influential role in expanding the heroine trade in this region of the world (McCoy 2003) and politically it was unclear that a military or political victory would have been achieved. Americans by 1975 having suffered a loss of prestige, waned on their hunger for perpetual war.

During this same time, colonies of former European nations struggled with similar issues as the United States. The country of Portugal had been fighting a colonial war in the colony of Angola from 1961 to 1974. The centuries of oppression, slavery, and resource exploitation had failed in an imperial promise, to elevate the status of the native populations of Angola. Separatist political agitation fomented secession against the Portuguese Crown. If fighting abroad was not enough, on April 21, 1975, a revolution occurred in the Portuguese Capitol. The Carnation Revolution in Lisbon was led by a left-leaning military populist, Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, in the ousting of Estado Novo. In October of 1975, William G. Hyland, head of the US Department of Intelligence and Research reported to the US Senate Intelligence Committee the United States did not know about the political coup that happened in Portugal (Butler 2011). Contradictory to Hyland’s testimony, the United States Central Intelligence Agency was suspected of being involved in the military coup to overthrow Novo, and the press paraded these accusations before the American and Portuguese public. After these revelations, a parade of unnamed, unofficial sources at the agency denied involvement (“US Says Lisbon Retracts Charge of CIA Coupe Roll” 1975). Internet hacktivists, Wikileaks, noted in the decades to follow, the CIA had strong opinions about Carvalho and had voiced them to the administration (“Otelo Saraiva De Carvalho’s Views on NATO, CIA and Other Subjects Expressed in a Series of Press Interviews” 1974).

Avoiding peace, Angola’s Civil War began immediately following its decree for independence from Portugal in November of 1975. While three powers had fought in Angola’s war for liberation and negotiated for its independence on November 11, 1975, the Civil War was dominated by two strong political movements which lasted till 2002. Various cease-fire agreements throughout the 27-year conflict failed to secure the peace for the average Angolan. The two factions were: the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, MPLA, and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA. Both of these factions were described as left-of-center in their politics with UNITA having a stronger anti-communist sentiment. The US took an interest in a short third rail, the National Liberation Front of Angola or the FNLA. John Stockwell, the CIA’s Station Chief, on Operation Feature, the mission to Angola, noted, “When Bill Colby went to brief the National Security Council the first time on this, his briefing was literally, ‘Gentleman’ here is a map of Angola. Now in Angola, we have three factions. There is the MPLA, they’re the bad guys, the FNLA, they’re they good guys, and there is UNITA and Johna Sivimbi, we don’t know too well; and that was to get the National Security Council involved in the whole thing (CIA & Angolan Revolution 1975 Part 1 1975).”

Things fomented in Angola, and the US Central Intelligence Agency was having problems with transparency following piqued Congressional interest in the Executive Branch. A series of political scandals, later known as Watergate, brought down the Nixon Administration. Congress was lied to about the CIA’s role in the ousting of Allende in Chile (Helms 2012) and in 1975 established an investigative committee to study Clandestine Operations (Kaiser 1978) of the US Government. Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize journalist, working for the New York Times, ran a story about the CIA and alleged domestic spying that had occurred against activists, protesters, and others who had expressed opposition to US intervention in the Vietnam War as a threat to the national interest (Hersh 1974). The violation of people’s civil liberties were the focus of Hersh’s story. The CIA asked their Inspector General’s with an internal investigation and the Report, in response to Hersh’s allegation, noted some 700 cases of abuse and contained allegations of CIA assassination efforts. It wasn’t declassified till decades later (Wilderotter 2007) but at the time the usual unnamed and increasingly unreliable sources at the agency denied Hersh’s allegations. Opposing this obfuscation, Congressman Frank Church, issued a report which encompassed a multi-volume publication of 60 days of hearings, 8000 pages of sworn testimony and more than 800 interviews. It explored hundreds of major operations and several thousand minor operations of the US Central Intelligence Agency in what became known a the “Year of Intelligence (Church 1979).” One of these Senate investigations focused on the clandestine activities of the Central Intelligence Agency in Angola called, Operation Feature.

The US Central Intelligence Agency remained divided in its planning phase, and some had advocated against intervention. When President Nixon approved the plans for Operation Feature, on July 18, 1975, Nathaniel Davis, a career diplomat who had been the ambassador to Chile when the CIA overthrew Allende and then, the Assistance Secretary of State for African Affairs, resigned. He advocated the Soviet Union would recognize American interventionism, in Angola and react negatively on the world’s stage. He urged for a diplomatic solution. While his fears would be proven correct, after the Presidents approval he was no longer involved in Operation Feature (Paterson et al. 2009). John Stockwell, the CIA’s Station Chief in Angola, expounded on the processes the CIA failed to engage in regarding Angola. He critiqued in a lecture given to the subject in 1987 expressing concern about the lack of feasibility given. He remorsed:

There was never a study run that evaluated the MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA, the three movements in the country, to decide which one was the better one. The Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Nathaniel Davis–no bleeding-heart liberal (he was known by some people in the business as the Butcher of Santiago). He said we should stay out of the conflict and work with whoever eventually won, and that was obviously the MPLA. Our consul in Luanda, Tom Killoran, vigorously argued the MPLA was the best qualified to run the country and the friendliest to the US (Stockwell 1987).

Prados, author of, The President’s Secret Wars, expanded on this lack of consensus. He notes that before Davis’s resignation, Operation Feature, had begun and that Stockwall’s planning activities were playing catch up with a decision process in which he was a reactive afterthought. He noted: “Operation Feature went forward on a very high priority. The operation was so urgent, in fact, that, the first planeload of weapons was on its way to the FNLA, via Zaire, before Langley even formed its task force to manage the program. By August 9th, two more loads had been sent aboard Air Force C-141 transports, while a shipload of supplies was being assembled (Prados 1986).” Millions of dollars had been forwarded to rebel forces in the country under Presidential authorization with an initial investment of $6 million followed by an additional $8 million in July of 1975 (Andrew 1995).

Opposing American interests and responding to the intervention of Americans in the region, the MPLA had received training and arms from Fidel Castro’s Cuba. This aid continued into the conflict surrounding the Civil War (George 2005). The MPLA, was the largest group and was based on the capital, Lauanda and was led by Agostinho Neto. The MPLA included members of the intelligentsia, academic community of the country and was decidedly Marxist. The American-supported FNLA operated father north of Luanda, closer to the border with Zaire. Roberto, the anti-communist leader of the FNLA, with socialist leanings, had links with neighboring Zaire and operated across borders during Angola’s struggle for independence from Portugal. UNITA, lead by Savimbi, was based in the south of the capital.

Russia had taken an additional interest in the outcome of the conflict due to Cuba’s political role with the MPLA. On October 02, 1975, South Africa entered the conflict on the side of UNITA which had been supporting the FNLA. When South Africa became involved further assistance from Cuba was sought by the MPLA and the brinkmanship perpetuated political violence.

The US efforts failed to achieve the desired results and unable to secure immediate and additional funds in a tactical situation from the US Congress; the CIA began recruiting efforts for a mercenary force (Jones and Stockwell 1989). The FNLA appeared to be the losing side and in doing so required additional training and manpower. The CIA secure approximately 300 men for the mission. The CIA’s advisors were hard at work on the ground with FNLA troops. This mercenary force committed atrocities against the Civilian populations of Angola.

The CIA went to The 40 Committee iii with requests for $30 million, $60 million, and $100 million to continue operations (Prados 1986). Congress had been informed of Operation Feature, and not wanting to get the US embroiled in another Vietnam, proposed in opposition, an amendment to the Arms Control Act. Called the Clarke Amendment, it became law in 1976. This amendment explicitly prohibited the sale of arms for military or paramilitary operations in Angola (“Reasons Why The Clarke Amendment Should Be Retained”). When the Clarke Amendment passed, and direct American arms stopped going to Angola, the war continued. The CIA Director, George H.W. Bush, who took over after Bill Colby in 1976, would not deny that arms were going to Angola. Allegedly the CIA through an intermediary in Israel continued to sell weapons to Angola (Hunter 1987). The war continued for decades, tens of thousands died, and more were displaced as refugees over the conflict.

The US did not present a unified front to the world. There was an internal State Department Memo that advocated against US intervention in Angola, and this lack of consensus was complicated by denial and deception campaign carried out at the United Nations by senior administration officials. Furthermore, the Marxist faction of the Angolan Civil War, the MPLA, did not want a war with the United States. CIA Station Chief in Angola, John Stockwell, noted in a lecture in 1987:

The MPLA said they wanted to be our friends; they did not want to be pushed into the arms of the Soviet Union; they begged us not to fight them, they wanted to work with us. We said they wanted a cheap victory, they wanted a walk-over, they wanted to be unopposed, that we wouldn’t give them a cheap win, we would make them earn it, so to speak. And we did. 10,000 Africans died, and they won the victory that they were winning (Stockwell 1987).

The Measures of Success

An analysis of the events in Angola can be viewed from multiple perspectives in regards to Operation Feature’s, positive or negative outcomes. If seen through a political lens of Communism vs. Americanism, as was a common attitude during what Peter Polak called the “Last Battle of the Cold War (Polack 2013),” the victory of Soviet-Cuban backing of the MPLA was a win for the pro-communist government who not only beat out the Portuguese imperialists, but the Anglophile-friendly, Fabian-socialist-backed interests of the FNLA. Angola’s post-war recovery brought significant capital into the country from Communist China where infrastructure materialized for growth following the end of the Civil War. A unique phenomenon of this modern development in the post-civil-war Angola is the building of a ghost city called Nova Cidade de Kilamba by a Chinese Development Corporation. Kimamba is a residential development of 750 eight-story apartment buildings, a dozen schools, and more than 100 retail units and is mostly uninhabited (Badkar 2012).

Angola’s neighbors continued to develop in spite of the conflicts, but this part of Africa remained essentially a target for multi-nationals and their economic development which was resource-acquisition-driven. The South Africans were not as successful as they had imagined at the beginning of the conflict and in a region where they had to deal with their neighbors, their prestige and regional influence was challenged instead of expanded upon. The fact the Civil War in Angola last several decades created an environment of destabilization that was advocated as an American interest.

If one views the US domestic success or failure of the Operation Feature, the sentiments of the Executive Branch and Legislative branches of government were opposed regarding these operations. The anti-war sentiment of the Congress was successful in limiting the funds to conduct clandestine operations, but the subversion of the law by the US Central Intelligence Agency in exploiting political relationships with Israel may be viewed as an executive success. If the perspective is to be regarded from an economic dominance standpoint by the use of force to further the economic goals of the United States, it can be viewed as a success. The political irony of this is due to many multi-nationals not exclusively American but in their supra-national operation use the American State for crony exploits just the same as in the developing world. Stockwell notes that commerce resumed almost as soon as hostilities stopped:

Three weeks after we were shut down…The MPLA had Gulf oil back in Angola, pumping the Angolan oil from the oilfields, with US Gulf technicians protected by Cuban soldiers, protecting them from CIA mercenaries who were still mucking around in Northern Angola. You cannot trust a communist, can you? They proceeded to buy five 737 jets from Boeing Aircraft in Seattle. And they brought in 52 US technicians to install the radar systems to land and take-off those planes. They did not buy [the Soviet Union’s] Aeroflot…. David Rockefeller himself tours S. Africa and comes back and holds press conferences, in which he says that we have no problem doing business with the so-called radical states of Southern Africa (Stockwell 1987).

Most notably of any conflict is the influence of the conflict on ordinary Americans and Angolans. The world as a whole during this time suffered from an economic depression. Americans came off the gold standard, and the Bretton Woods agreement had been signed. While the United States was raiding the Social Security funds in the General Fund of the US Treasury to engage in the arms race with the Soviet Union by building massive missile bunkers, and fleets of weapons, with MIRV’d warheads, and portable nuclear power plants, as manufacturing capacity and technology in the United States, decreased, China and Japan were modernizing infrastructures, industrial capacity to produce commercial goods that were competitive against American dominance. Americans were losing jobs at home and began to rely on foreign sources of oil at the beginning of the decade. The Federal Government ran at record deficits. America at this time became a debtor nation. For the average American life was moving away from the Apex of its financial, economic, and social dominance. This shift brought about a period of decline that continues to this day and some believe will end in a sovereign debt crisis. While the issue of Angola is not causational with these other problems when placed into this broader context amidst these challenges there is a correlation pattern of using the powers of the American state for supra-national interests, offloading debt, and solving security challenges without assuming the cost of life or limb.

For Angolans, the decades of war devastated their nation’s capital amidst the hopes and promise of liberty from the rule of the crown and provided in that destruction a chance to rebuild. Their lives were sacrificed in the tens of thousands for the interests of the Soviets and Americans who were fighting a proxy conflict with Angolan pawns. Hundreds of thousands were made refugee in a country (Anyadike 2013) that was rich in natural resources and gave rise to the concept of ‘blood’ or ‘conflict’ diamonds (“The Angolan Civil War: The Concept of ‘Blood Diamonds’ Explained” 2014). An entire generation remained captivated by political violence and at the end of it all, like their oppressors, the people’s liberators through cronyism and favors, invited the multi-nationals, took money from big banks, mostly lead by the Americans, back into their backyard to draw upon their rich natural resources of oil and diamonds. Corruption became rampant in Angola with billions missing from the National Treasury. After fueling the colonial enterprise of slavery as a world leader of such decadent subservience at the behest of their Portuguese, Dutch and English traders for hundreds of years, the Angolans found themselves serving the corporation. The Civil War ended with the death of Jonas Savimbi in February of 2002 in a land where a white ex-patriots from Portugal continued to draw upon Angola’s natural resources working for multi-national corporations (“Texaco – A Follow Up” 1997). Apartheid remained a problem in South Africa, and Cuba’s intervention in Angola sought to end this struggle.


Oil as an American interest was not expressed in the rhetoric of anti-communist American interests. It was the white elephant in the room. Early explorers noted bitumen seeps northeast of the capital in the 1800’s and along the coast just north of the capital. In 1906 first surveys of the country revealed that Angola retained significant hydrocarbon potential. An Angolan Geologist, Mario Brandao, noted the first drilling occurred in 1915 about 15km inland from the Atlantic Ocean along the small Dande River which was just North East of the Capital. Tako Koening, an expatriated Canadian geologist and oil consultant, living in Angola, noted, “In 1915, the Portuguese oil company, Companhia de Pesquisas Mineiras de Angola (PEMA), drilled the first exploration well, which was called Dande-1. It went to a depth of 602 meters, and 13 wells were after that drilled – eight of which were drilled in the valley of the Dande River (Koning 2013).”

In 1975, Chevron-Texaco (then under a different name) moved in to develop the Cabdina Oil Field in an area called Block Zero. This oil field proved to be hugely profitable for the American-based multi-national oil company supported by the Marxists in Luanda. In 1980’s Texaco reported huge profits from selling some of its wells in Angola (Wald 1989). An Energy Intelligence Report noted that Texaco expanded capacity in the 1990’s to deeper waters in Angola with advances in technology (“Angola/Nigeria-Texaco Plans Deep Water Operations” 1997). A 2000 oil development report from Angola’s Director General of these resources noted, “Angola is producing around 765,000 barrels of oil per day (BOPD) today and the Minister of Petroleum, Botelho de Vasconsales, has indicated the production will increase by circa 255,000 BOPD during 2000.” In 2002 Angola surpassed Nigeria as the largest producer of oil in Southern Africa. Gulf Oil’s early investment in Angola were able to secure the low-hanging fruit of the Cabdinan Basin.

Oil remains relevant because the funds from these oil companies empowered the pro-communist government. At the height of the Civil War, it was succinctly stated by Congressman William L. Dickinson, in July 1985 regarding this financial support, “These Cuban troops are protecting American oil interests, and they are preventing UNITA from overrunning the MPLA (Sutton 1986).” Notably, in 1979, Angolan President, Neto, nationalized the oil industry except for the Gulf Oil contracts. The majority of the international funds regarding these resources were not going to the individual citizens of Angola. Political corruption silenced opposition, association, and the state was the mouthpiece of the press as the wealth that poured into the state benefited a few and perpetuated the conflict of Civil War.


If first principles are individual liberty and using the powers of the state to protect the rights of the most influential minority in society, the individual, then both Americans and Angolans lost as a result of the intervention of the US Central Intelligence Agency and its multi-national corporate associations in Angola. Americans continued to provide oil subsidies via tariff to American oil companies who were illegally buying oil from OPEC countries during the Oil Embargo in the 1970’s. This happened via intermediaries, who then used those advantages of the state to support a Marxist government in Angola. With George H.W. Bush running the US Central Intelligence Agency and having strong family ties to the oil industry, it is doubtful that these decisions regarding intervention in Operation Feature, were truly to support anti-communist efforts of the Angolan people as purported. It is possible, anti-communist sentiments were part of a propaganda campaign conducted by the Congress and the people they represented by the CIA. Instead, their designs perpetuated a profit-making the enterprise of war with guns, bombs, and munitions, from a government that was running deficits. The US was looking to liquidate many of these after the Vietnam war (NBC Nightly News 1972) and the money used was borrowed from the American people to give these weapons to warring factions in Angola in the name of anti-communism. These efforts destabilized a regime long enough to secure lucrative oil contracts for American based multi-nationals to include large oil companies and recapitalize with large Wall-Street banks. Furthermore, the clandestine template of this long term intervention, which included sales of arms, black market funds procured from drug money, and subversion of local populations for the exploitation by multinationals, was used in Nicaragua and Afghanistan in the 1980’s as millions paid a price for freedom with their lives often leaving behind infrastructure and countries impoverished while resource rich. Some have argued this was also the case in Benghazi in 2012 during the Arab Spring with the US running guns.

Angola remains a difficult sell for success when considering the policies of the US Central Intelligence Agency, and the lack of transparency on a constitutional republic who’s political pluralism have been kindly viewed by the rest of the world as a beacon of freedom and individualism. Instead, the rampant cronyism, campaigns of denial and deception conducted against members of Congress and the people of the US, by mechanisms of the state, fails to increase or even protect the liberty of individuals; but only those of a faceless corporate benefactor which is disguised as a national interest in subversion of the Constitution. This can hardly be viewed as a National Interest, and perhaps Frank Church was right when he alluded during the Congressional debates about the War Powers Act of 1973. Congressman Church wanted to constrain the executive branch with limitations on the power to the Intelligence Apparatus of the United States Government and not just the Department of Defence. As 21st Century America wrestles with similar problems following an expensive War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, echoes of allegations of similar political abuses of inappropriate surveillance stir similar sentiments among Americans from whistle-blower and defector, Edward Snowden. Senator Church has been vindicated in his concerns which were considered politically alarming in the mid-1970’s. Perhaps this is the greatest success of Operation Feature.


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End Notes

i This fragile political situation in the Iberian Peninsula derived its name from the girls who placed carnations in the rifles of military service members. There was not a lot of bloodshed in this revolution.

ii The Watergate scandal happened in the early 1970’s as a political scandal in the United States due to a break in at the Watergate Complex which housed the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. President Nixon allegedly covered it up, and it leads to his resignation.

iii The 40 Committee was a function of the Office of the President of the United States. Its job was to review covert actions. This committee was influential in the 1970’s in the secret war against the Chilean Communist Revolt of Salvadore Allende and had taken the place of Special Group 0/2, 5412 Panel.

iv The Fabian Socialists began in England as an organization who’s purpose was to advance socialistic principles through reforms of British Society. It was influential in the founding of the Labour Party and helped to decolonize the British Empire. It is committed to a socialist economy.

v In the late 1800’s the Pacific Oil Company was established. In 1911 Standard Oil was dissolved, and Standard Oil of California (SOCAL)was created. In 1933 Standard Oil of California started an oil company in Saudi Arabia that would become ARAMCO in 1936 when joined with Texaco. Caltex also joined the company at this time. SoCAL in 1984 bought Gulf Oil Company creating the business of Chevron.

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