Sunday, July 07, 2013

Spooks muddling lethally forward

Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars focuses on the role of elite U.S. military killers in the unit called Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in carrying out directives to kill persons designated enemies by our government in countries where we are not formally at war. The link goes to an introduction to the movie of the same name; I'll likely get to the book in the fall.

Concurrently, New York Times "national security" correspondent Mark Mazzetti is out with The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. This book chronicles the spook agency's evolution after 9/11 from intelligence collection (now parceled out to the NSA) and into the drone and assassination business in countries where the US military is not operating. The book struck me as a worthy follow up to Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA which came out in 2008.

Mazzetti clearly has terrific sources, many named, some undoubtedly unnamed. I had to wonder whether they were all telling him the truth so close in time to the events described, but he's a sharp reporter so I am confident he wondered too.

The CIA, as Mazzetti recounts, transformed itself after the Senate investigation by the Church Committee in the mid 1970s. It taught its agents that their job was acquiring information, not instigating coups and assassinations. Sure, there were still cowboys in Special Operations, but the institution saw itself as reining in the crazies, not encouraging them. Clandestine operations were unprofessional boondoggles for secretive semi-rogue groups like Colonel Oliver North's National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration. The CIA was about intelligence and building world-spanning relationships with foreign spy networks.

After 9/11 the agency's bosses in the Bush administration wanted something different: operational capacity to chase, capture, interrogate (and torture), and kill persons designated as terrorists, anywhere in the world. This was not a simple transition for men and women who had prided themselves on their expertise in a very different field. Even before 9/11, they'd been asked to take charge of a Predator drone program aimed at Bin Laden in Afghanistan. This might sunder carefully nurtured relationships with the Pakistani secret service. They were being asked to become a paramilitary outfit and it didn't seem an easy fit.

[James] Pavitt, head of the CIA's clandestine service, was a one-man Greek chorus arguing forcefully against the CIA running the Predator program. He wanted to spend his black budget on hiring more case officers, not buying drones. …But he also voiced a much deeper concern, one shared by other members of [Director George] Tenet's staff. What exactly were the repercussions of the CIA getting back into assassinations? "You can't underestimate the cultural change that comes with gaining lethal authority," said John McLaughlin, then the CIA's deputy director [and in 2004, Acting Director]. "When people say to me, 'It's not a big deal,' I say to them, 'Have you ever killed anyone?'" he said. "It is a big deal. You start thinking about things differently."

Change they did, but there was nothing smooth about that evolution -- the kinks in the process seem to me to be reason that Mazzetti has sources for his story.

What did I learn from this book? That the people who killed and tortured in our name during the last decade -- this decade too, for all I know -- certainly don't deserve the moniker "intelligence community." There was darn little "community" about the early phases of the "war on terror." Much of how operations were carried on was determined by interagency bureaucratic bickering among spooks, the military, the State Department and the political authorities. Everyone was protecting their budgets, striving for institutional autonomy, covering their asses in case something went wrong or was later judged illegal. The result was seldom "intelligent" in the common sense meaning of the term (and witnesses were there to spill their stories to Mazzetti .)

This might come as a surprise to most everyone who has been part of the process of creating the United States' current array of lethal spook outfits -- the CIA, JSOC, NSA, etc. -- but what I learned from reading about how these institutions assumed their current form is that the "war on terror" simply is not an existential threat to this country. Yes, terrorists, domestic and foreign, can kill and cause terrible damage if they manage to pull off their dramatic stunts. But the scale of the threat remains puny unless somebody gets hold of a nuke -- and that's hard to do. The "war on terror" is mostly a deadly sham, propped up by threat inflation for consumption at home and the drive to demonstrate imperial resolve around the world.

If this country were confronted by a real existential threat, we wouldn't put up for over a decade with the bureaucratic castle-building that Mazzetti documents. Heads would roll, fantasists would be ousted, and real threats would be eliminated if possible and evaded if necessary.

Come to think of it, we do face a real threat existential threat -- global warming. The smarter factions of our military and "intelligence" analysts know this. When we see our political authorities turn our "intelligence" apparatus to that direction, we'll know we're regaining some equilibrium, some realism about real threats.

In the meantime, here's to Mazzetti for chronicling the post-9/11 muddle.

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