Relations between the United States and Ghana were strained in the early 1980s. Its leader, the enigmatic former Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, had seized power in a coup in 1979 and installed the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC), a military-led government. Just when bilateral relations began to improve, it was discovered that a clerk for the CIA posted in Ghana named Sharon Scranage had been spying for Ghanaian intelligence and had released the names of CIA agents and informants to the Ghanaians. (Photo: Bettman-Corbis)
Robert E. Fritts was the Ambassador to Ghana from 1983 to 1986 and discusses the discovery of the leak, the diplomatic crisis that ensued, and the resulting evacuation of CIA personnel from Ghana with Charles Stuart Kennedy in a 1999 interview.
“She was seduced physically and morally by the glamour of being selected to go where no other Western foreigner went”
FRITTS: [By 1986] U.S.-Ghanaian relations had been turned around, Ghana was embarked upon an increasingly effective economic recovery program, and its ideological bark was worse than its bite.
Then the bilateral relationship collapsed dramatically [because of] a first-class spy flap. And I can talk about it because I think I’m one of the very few American ambassadors ever authorized to discuss a CIA station publicly. The crisis also had major media coverage internationally.
A support person in our CIA station, Sharon Scranage, was turned to spy against us. Her male cohort, Michael Sousouides, was a close relative of Rawlings. A foreign power aided and abetted the affair and Ghanaian internal security was in up to its ears.
Scranage had left post on reassignment and received the usual polygraph test at CIA Headquarters. I understand the needle went off the chart. She then confessed her activity and cooperated in setting up a sting to entice and meet her Ghanaian lover and handler in the U.S. He was arrested at Motel 50, just down the street here on Arlington Boulevard. It was kept quiet and I knew nothing about it.
Scranage had been at the embassy several years in a support job. She appeared capable and was quite popular and good for morale. Evidently this Ghanaian, who became her lover, had captivated her. He had money and gave lavish Ghanaian parties with an in-crowd. She was seduced physically and morally by the glamour of being selected to go where no other Western foreigner went. They also worked on her gripes. She provided detailed inside information to him and thence to the Ghanaian Government and what I have to call a “foreign power.” It was a very extensive and serious compromise, including far beyond just Ghana.
Q: When you say the foreign power, is this something we can –
FRITTS: Not really as I’m not sure if we ever stated it publicly….
Several days later I was playing tennis with Ghanaians when the CIA Station Chief and several visitors came and sat courtside. I assumed it was not to admire my backhand. During a set break, I was informed they needed to speak with me urgently.
Back at the residence, I was briefed on the arrests and that the USG [United States Government] would announce them shortly. I knew all hell would break loose. It wouldn’t be a routine event, such as with the Soviet Union.
The first priority was to get our CIA people and compromised Ghanaians out of Ghana. Scranage had reportedly identified many of them as well as some innocents to her handlers. I couldn’t take chances with lives and there was already a Ghanaian FSN [Foreign Service national] in prison on spy charges.
“If they knew what we were up to, they would round up Ghanaians they suspected, have phony trials and execute them”
I think we had about a week. We progressively evacuated all the Americans associated in any way as well as those not associated if Scranage said she had mentioned them. The exodus was an all-hands embassy effort. There’s always chit-chat about State-CIA tensions and rivalries, but in this case everyone really pulled together.
We had the CIA folk and their families gone quickly – maybe 72 hours.. They pulled their kids out of school and left their pets, household effects and full refrigerators behind. Over the following weeks, State, USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and other Country Team members, including Audrey, fed the pets, packed and shipped additional suitcases, took in and protected heirlooms, and helped pack up effects. Real Foreign Service cohesion.
We staggered the CIA departures to avoid raising suspicions. I’d occasionally go and hang out at the airport on some pretext in case any incident developed, but none did.
We also arranged to inform many of the compromised Ghanaians, who also left the country precipitately. Some real human tragedies, of course.
I had to prepare the embassy in advance of the Washington statement.
In that regard, given potential Ghanaian government volatility, I had informed only DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] John Brims and another officer of why we were doing what we were doing. For the others I outlined only in general terms why the Station drawdown was swiftly proceeding. I held several embassy town meetings at which I essentially said, “Trust me.”
I believed strongly that if Tsikata [head of Ghanaian Internal Security] and Ghanaian security tumbled to what we were up to, they would round up Ghanaians they suspected, have phony trials and execute them. There could also be incidents and attacks by thugs and PNDC stalwarts against the embassy, our American officers and staff, and even FSNs.
Safety lay in getting our people out first and then seeking to manage reactions with the Ghanaian government. If I were to be openly candid within the embassy before the Washington announcement, the situation would not be kept secret.
The top task was to forestall any intemperate reaction from the within the Castle [the seat of the Ghanaian government] or zealot supporters by giving Rawlings a brief advance alert. That meant I had to see him on short notice, which was always difficult.
Only an unconventional approach might do. So the next morning at dawn I camped outside the home of a government cabinet member along with the usual levee of Ghanaian relatives and others seeking jobs or favors. It’s part of Ghanaian culture.
I was moved to the head of the queue, invited in and sat down at his breakfast. I apologized for the intrusion and said I had to see Rawlings that very day. That I had an issue of major importance to the future of U.S.-Ghana relations.
When I saw Rawlings later that morning, I informed him of what had occurred, that an announcement of the arrests of Scranage and Sousouides would be made in Washington in a few hours, that unless we managed the matter wisely, there could be serious repercussions, and that I expected, of course, the fullest government protection for our embassy and personnel.
He didn’t do much batting of his eyes and I don’t know how much he may have known. I think he gave me the right answers, but his speech was often elliptic. I then returned to the embassy to finally open up with the Country Team [heads of the embassy’s sections and agencies] and prepare to hunker down. That afternoon, I learned that the Ghanaian security was making arrests in town.
“We got out and walked in with our heads high as if it were a normal day”
Given the time differential between Washington and Accra, the full story was emblazoned in the Ghanaian media with a heavy overlay of the U.S. and the CIA attempting to overthrow Rawlings and the PNDC. We had an urgent Country Team meeting, issued public statements, briefed the FSNs [Foreign Service Nationals] with the facts, sent them home, and shut down the embassy to await further developments.
Audrey and I were to attend a diplomatic corps activity the next day hosted by the Ghanaian Army. It was to observe a shooting competition at the main military base. I’d been busy most of the night and early morning, of course. And the army event had already started. Once the embassy was buttoned up, should we go?
We decided we weren’t going to slink around. After all, it was the Ghanaians and their friends who had spied on the U.S., which had no interest or intention of overthrowing the PNDC.
So later that morning we got into the car, drove into the military base, and then across a broad field up to the stands, with the flags flying on the fenders and every eye in the place upon us. Our stomachs were tight. But we got out and walked in with our heads high as if it were a normal day. The Ghanaian officers didn’t know whether to shake hands with us or whether they’d be punished if they did. I put my hand out to General Quainoo and the usual Ghanaian politeness carried the day. But, of course, the adulation days of “best ambassador” and easy access were over.
“I’m also sure the Cubans, Libyans, Soviets and others were egging the issue on and reinforcing it”
A number of true believers and Rawlings as well, believed or were led to believe, that the CIA was working with Ghanaian exiles in Togo to overthrow the PNDC. I was regularly called in on the carpet or the Ghanaian media would carry reports on CIA connivance from Togo. It was all delusional. As I frequently said, my task with Washington was to get anyone in any agency to pay attention to the U.S.-Ghana relationships, not beat back budding coup attempts.
I remember a cabinet secretary reading me the riot act one day. I asked him to cite one single shred of evidence to support his view. His reply was classic, “The absence of evidence is proof of the conspiracy!”
In some conversations, Rawlings would state that I couldn’t know what the CIA was really doing. Once he even added, “Even me. Intelligence agencies have more in common with each other than they do with their own governments”. In his world, that was certainly true at least some of the time. And maybe elsewhere as well. He could be quite insightful.
The PNDC itself had come to power in a coup and executed two former presidents. And given what many of them believed to be an Nkrumah precedent, they saw a mirror image. I’m also sure the Cubans, Libyans, Soviets and others were egging the issue on and reinforcing it.
All part and parcel of the challenges in the developing world….
Both we and the Ghanaians began trials of our respective arrestees, the Ghanaians matching us step for step. Thus, the issue was in the news all the time — photos of Sousouides in shackles, etc. Vignettes of CIA skullduggery in Ghana. On and on. A constant hemorrhage.
We eventually began prolonged negotiations for an exchange of ”spies.” We would hand back their man in the U.S. — Sousouides — for all our “persons of interest.” There were also a number of side issues. The negotiations were tortured, extended, and broke off on several occasions.
At one time there was a semi-official threat against me personally when the Ghanaian chief negotiator said he would not guarantee my continued safety. To their credit, AF [State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs] Assistant Secretary Chet Crocker and DAS [Deputy Assistant Secretary] Jim Bishop called in the Ghanaian ambassador, who was a very good man, and laced in to him.
I think one of Crocker’s comments to the ambassador was “If a small country like Ghana wants to make an enemy of the U.S., let it.” It got their attention and the chief negotiator was switched to the Foreign Minister, Obed Asamoah. With him the process remained difficult, but professional.
“It was not a good press day for the United States in Ghana”
After about six months, we reached agreement for the exchange and related matters. On a particular day, they took their arrestees to the border with Togo and the convicted Sousouides came across to Ghana.
In order to positively identify the Ghanaians, the CIA had brought along several of the people we had gotten out previously. The Ghanaian press took telescopic photos of the exchange, including the exiles hugging the newly exchanged. It was not a good press day for the United States in Ghana. Naturally, I wasn’t there, but was in touch with embassy officers who kept me informed in case any glitch occurred or the exchange was aborted.
I thought the crisis was finally over, but it wasn’t.
It had been agreed that the Ghanaians and we would announce the agreement and exchange at the same time, but the Justice Department violated the agreement and jumped the gun by several hours. The PNDC and Rawlings were furious when they heard the news on VOA [Voice of America] and the BBC. Again, CIA and U.S. perfidy.
We hunkered the embassy down again and took a break for Thanksgiving. I sent a cable saying that the Justice action had undone months of efforts and placed the embassy and my colleagues again in jeopardy. Actually, the night before the affront I had seen the Foreign Minister at a reception and we had agreed on “no more surprises” and to get on with our bilateral business.
Audrey and I hosted a large Ghanaian group for Thanksgiving dinner. As the specially imported turkeys were being served, I was summoned to call at the Foreign Ministry urgently. I delayed until dessert.
Asamoah said the PNDC had decided the USG had not dealt in good faith and read the names of four embassy officers named persona non grata. They were to be out in forty-eight hours for interfering in Ghana’s internal affairs. All blameless. (Read about other cases of people who were PNG’ed.)
I remonstrated conceptually and individually, but he said the PNDC decision was final. We responded, of course, by expelling the same number from their embassy in Washington and suspending – temporarily – our aid programs. Obviously, our new “surprise” had been answered….
I then began a reporting cable. Alone in the embassy, the phone rang from Washington midway though the cable. In those days phoning Accra wasn’t easy. It was a State Operations Center watch officer saying the BBC was carrying an item that American embassy officers were being expelled from Ghana. What was going on? I didn’t want him to be the purveyor of interpretative comment, so I said I didn’t know, but the ambassador was preparing a cable as we spoke. “Fine”, he said.
“The bilateral relationship had gone from a pit to a pinnacle and was now back in a pit”
Q: So now what? Was it finally over?
FRITTS: Yes and no. This was November and I was due to leave the following June. During my tenure the bilateral relationship had gone from a pit to a pinnacle and was now back in a pit. Neither my status nor credibility were the same.
Some people thought we had been interested in overthrowing a Ghanaian government – again. It was also apparent that Rawlings no longer considered me esteemed. That complicated access to the government as it meant officials felt some risk in too close an association or not having it cleared by the Castle in advance. Also, international economic aid programs were expanding and the PNDC didn’t need me or the U.S. as much.
We had really been of critical importance to the Ghanaian government at a formative period. The U.S. decision to work with the PNDC, build a relationship and convince others to do so through an economic stabilization program had been essential. Recovery was underway. There were now established alternatives to a singular role with the U.S.
The government also reverted to petty harassments and vitriolic media attacks, which had marked earlier days, despite pro forma statements of putting the issues behind us. Meanwhile, I was determined to uphold the honor and dignity of the U.S. and that meant not trying to ingratiate myself personally. As long as we were pilloried, we would be correct and business-like… It would set the stage for my successor to be a good guy.
“I hold some kind of record for negotiating the most one-sided exchange of ‘spies’”
I never saw Chairman Rawlings again personally, although I did receive a letter from him some months after I had left Ghana, apologizing for not meeting with me on departure. But it was an exercise by the Ghanaian ambassador in Washington.
I’ve often commented that the role of an ambassador is not to be well loved or liked, although that’s preferable, but to pursue hopefully enlightened U.S. national interests. That’s our professional responsibility, not always shared — to my observation — by political appointees who covet abstract bilateral relations and local popularity.
I received a personal commendation from the Acting Secretary of State and glowing evaluations by Chet Crocker and others plus a CIA award. I understand that to this day I hold some kind of record for negotiating the most one-sided exchange of “spies” – their one for our multiple – in the history of U.S. diplomacy…
Q: Did you feel that the Central Intelligence Agency appreciated what you did?
FRITTS: Very much so. A lot of working level attention plus an award and lunch with the Acting CIA Director, Bob Gates, I think.
In retrospect, some CIA officers opined that they expected me as an FSO [Foreign Service officer] to be less cooperative and to care more about safeguarding State’s image in the country. Sort of opt out with a low profile. I didn’t see that as an option. Whatever status I had was to be used.
In this case, negotiating an exchange and saving lives was not only humanitarian, but also a message that the USG, which includes the CIA, will not abandon those who, for whatever reasons, have placed their trust in it. Kind of a professional duty thing, I guess.