War Powers, War Lies: Part 6: War Off the Books

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War Powers, War Lies: A Series

Part 6: War Off the Books

 Published in the Maryland Daily Record July 8, 2005

            The chefs who cooked the Enron books well understood the principle: to make something disappear (a $1.2 billion-dollar loss, just to choose a wild example), have it occur off the books, on someone else’s balance sheet.  This approach works equally well if you want to make a war disappear.  Say you’re the President of a well-known North American country and don’t want to have to take the hit for bombing or assassinating or overthrowing someone, or committing genocide or scorched-earth ecological destruction.  Do you let some fusty constitutional technicality about the power to declare war belonging to your Congress or some high-minded but impractical international law requiring open declarations of war before the commencement of hostilities get in your way?  Please, that is so 18th Century!

            No, for at least the last half-century the American way to skin this particular cat has been twofold: train homegrown warriors whose activities we can deny, and sponsor foreign warriors whose activities we can disavow. 

            When it comes to our own forces, we’re talking about covert, not merely clandestine activity.  The distinction: Clandestine activity may be hidden, but it is employed against openly acknowledged adversaries; covert is where we’ve never admitted to the world we’re treating someone as an adversary at all.  See 50 U.S.C. § 413b(e).

            Obviously it’s tough to employ conventional armies and navies both directly and covertly at one and the same time; all those personnel and all that hardware tend to attract notice, and so it is seldom done.  (One exception: the 1970 bombing of Cambodia, carried out by conventional forces, that is, Air Force B-52s, was covert, at least as to Cambodia with which we were not theoretically at war, though it was merely clandestine as to North Vietnam, an acknowledged enemy whose supply lines we were trying to hit.)

            Special forces (Deltas, SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers and the like) and shadowy warriors attached to the CIA Directorate of Operations actually can do the covert thing in the field.  That said, these forces seldom engage in warfare that is simultaneously direct and covert.  They have a lot of overt and clandestine missions;  light-infantry shock troop operations, establishing beachheads behind enemy lines until the heavier forces arrive, a la Rangers; underwater demolition like the SEALs; precision shooting to kill the hostage-taker but not the hostage, like Deltas, and clandestine guerilla operations.

            But the same skills can be and have been used to perpetrate covert warfare.  The Iranians know.  In 1954 militarized elements of the CIA directly carried out attacks that helped return the Shah to power, and after the Shah’s overthrow, in the late 1980s SEALs reportedly continually covertly boarded, mined and sank Iranian craft that threatened the oil commerce in the Persian Gulf.

            And the Special Operations Command (which since 1987 has run most Defense Department special forces) makes no bones about its capabilities this way.  In its 2003-04 “Posture Statement” the Command proclaims: “Special operations are operations conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational, and/or economic objectives…. These operations often require covert … capabilities.”[1]         

            The special forces usually don’t go it alone, however, and the public record discloses few instances in which special forces were later revealed to have served as covert armies waging their own wars.  Instead they tend to act as a force multiplier, teaming up with local insurgencies which can be trained, supplied, and often directed, but disavowed.  Perhaps the most notorious instances were the CIA paramilitaries’ equipping and training of the Cuban exiles in 1961 to conduct the Bay of Pigs invasion (which there was a game though futile attempt to keep covert), and the CIA’s heavy role in covertly equipping and training the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the early 1990s.

            The CIA’s role in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s was exhaustively detailed in Steve Coll’s 2004 book Ghost Wars.  Taking to heart the Hebrew proverb that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, the CIA decided that it should team up with Pakistani and Saudi intelligence in supporting Pashtun Muslim fundamentalists in their attacks on the Soviet occupiers.  We supplied Stinger missiles, money, and knowhow, and eventually the Soviets withdrew, leaving their puppet Najibullah in place for a while.  During that interim, CIA and the State Department staged a tug-of-war over whether we should be continuing to support the fundamentalists, by now known as the Taliban, or should throw our support to more secular warlords.  This was in the face of the increasingly hostile face shown the U.S. by the fundamentalists, and in particular by Osama bin Laden, who by then had emerged as one of their principal financiers and an organizer of international support.  It was in the face, too, of the increasingly obvious entanglement of the Taliban with international terrorists who were using Afghanistan as a training ground.

            The CIA won.  The covert warriors of CIA held their noses and kept telling themselves – until it was far too late – that at least the Taliban were an improvement on the Soviets and on the old traditional warlords.  Certainly they were an improvement from the point of view of Unocal, which worked hand-in-glove with the secret U.S. policymakers in hopes of building a natural gas pipeline through Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan.  Driven originally by our interest in defeating the Soviets and later by our desire to stay in the good graces of Pakistan and Unocal, we felt privileged to weigh in semi-secretly against the civil and religious freedoms of all Afghans.

            As the latter instance revealed, the people our special warriors get into bed with may not be very savory.  In Douglas Walker’s 1994 book The Commandos, there is a detailed account of the annual Green Beret training exercise known as Robin Sage, which among other things specifically prepares Green Berets to work with local guerillas who may be larcenous, murderous, dishonest, and thoroughly untrainable in respect of observing human rights.

            But the lion’s share of the covert warfare is conducted not by making war, directly or indirectly, on other countries.  Instead, our Special Forces, the CIA paramilitaries, and thoroughly conventional U.S. forces, train and supervise wars by foreign governments upon their own citizens.  That is where the real action lies.

            The marquee institution for fostering this kind of warfare used to be known as the School of the Americas.  In 2001, to douse the political firestorm around the School, it was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation.  It still has the same mission, the same faculty, the same kind of student body, and an only superficially redesigned curriculum.  So let’s just call it SOA.  You can read all about it in Lesley Gill’s 2004 book, The School of the Americas.  At SOA, the elite military and police forces of friendly Central and South American countries come to learn military techniques, military leadership, and how to fight their special sort of war.

            As Gill points out, for SOA and its students, there’s always a war on.  From the time of the founding of what became SOA in 1947 until the early 1990s, the official enemy was communism, thought to threaten our southern neighbors.  Even before the rise of Casto and the triumph in Nicaragua of the Sandinistas, Washington had concluded that without constant intervention, the Western hemisphere would end up transformed into a series of Soviet client states.  The U.S. was not opposed to this outcome merely on the basis of ideology; we also had significant business interests to protect.  A notorious example was the interest of United Fruit, in whose honor the CIA staged a coup in Guatemala in 1954 against a popularly-elected government that was involved in expropriating United Fruit’s plantations.  That government was falsely proclaimed by the Dulles brothers, who respectively ran the CIA and State Departments, as communist.  The coup which brought it down was falsely presented as having been entirely an internal matter, instead of completely bought and paid for by the CIA (and United Fruit).  Later on, the enemy in our Latin American proxy wars became drug interests.  (Although not, ironically, in our underground wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the drug interests were frequently sponsored by us.)                                                                                                       

            From the start, however, the Latin militaries and their U.S. sponsors had other targets as well – and not just in guerilla insurgencies suspected of Communist leanings.  As Gill writes: “Communist subversion became defined as anything that challenged the status quo, and broad sectors of the population – students, activists, trade unionists, peasant organizers, and religious catechists – came under suspicion.”[2] Which explains why, to choose two instances among hundreds, two graduates of the SOA were involved in the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and perhaps as many as 18 SOA alums were in on the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador.  But it went beyond mere conventional left/right politics.

            Less well-known here than our own country’s race problems are the racial issues underlying the whole structure of Latin American society and in particular the class structure within its militaries. Frequent atrocities committed by Latin American militaries, generally under the guidance of SOA graduates, can only be explained as a war against indigenous Native American populations.  Sometimes this is as blatant as the 1980 massacre of the entire Salvadorian Indian village of El Mozote (approximately 800 people) by soldiers; 10 of 12 of the leaders were SOA graduates.  Sometimes it is more subtle, as in the drug wars in the Putamayo region of Bolivia, where, as Lesley Gill describes, in the last six years massacres and herbicide fumigation have driven indigenous farmers from large areas and left the survivors destitute.  The massacres are carried out by paramilitaries closely associated with the Bolivian army, and the unit commanders in the Army are working closely with U.S. advisers sent direct from the SOA.

            The SOA and affiliated training programs quite explicitly pursue the objective of building close ties among Latin American militaries, and of coordinating them under U.S. leadership – a leadership that understands full well that if the armies involved are not fighting each other (and they generally do not), the only possible adversaries left for the trainees are the citizens of those very countries from whose armies and police the trainees are sent.  To that end, the SOA curriculum includes interrogation techniques which theoretically no longer include torture – but certainly used to.  The SOA was greatly embarrassed when only partially redacted versions of the manuals were made public in 1996, and they were found to contain directions for torture, assassination, and blackmail.  While those manuals are no longer used at SOA, it is rumored that the training in these dark arts has simply been shifted to other, less public locations.

            How could this happen?  Certainly nowhere did the U.S. Congress or public decide to wage war on indigenous peoples, intellectuals, unionists, and clergy to our south, any more than we ever resolved to aid religious fanatics who would impose the burqa on all female Afghans and deny them educations, and any more than we publicly decided to be of material assistance in the development of Al Qaeda.  Yet this is exactly what our wars off the books have done.

            The trouble lies in what Lesley Gill calls a culture of impunity.  The reason we conduct both covert wars and proxy wars is that we want not to be accountable for them, either to our enemies or to our own citizenry.  We train and direct militaries like the South American militaries, which have their own preexisting culture of impunity – almost total lack of accountability no matter what breaches of constitutions, human rights or social order they perpetrate, and the game goes on.  These militaries may commit atrocities in their own name.  For instance, SOA graduates include such luminaries as Manuel Noriega (Panamanian kleptocrat and drug dealer), Leopoldo Galtieri (architect of the Argentinian dirty wars), Roberto D’Aubuisson (who ordered the murder of Archbishop Romero), and Hugo Banzer (brutal Bolivian dictator).  But they are just as likely to carry out the game through their own proxies, paramilitaries and killing squads that provide their own level of deniability and impunity.

            Once we start sponsoring such people, we are deluding ourselves if we think they can be controlled.  We sponsor not only the Latin militaries or Pakistani intelligence or the Taliban but also the people they work with – the kind of people who would rape and murder nuns – or crash jetliners into the World Trade Center.  They may be off the books, but they are also off the reservation.  And since we do not officially sponsor them, we cannot hold them accountable.  Of course, in theory, we cannot be held accountable, either.  We have impunity.

            Except that maybe our own impunity is wearing off.  That was the point Osama bin Laden made repeatedly, for instance in an interview with Al Jazeera in October 2001: “We treat others like they treat us.  Those who kill our women and our innocent, we kill their women and innocent, until they stop from doing so.”  We can of course disagree with bin Laden on the specifics of U.S. policy that reportedly enrage him, and note that they do not seem to relate much to innocent victims of our policies, nor does bin Laden seem to have been personally a victim of the killing of “women and innocent.”  His invocation of such offenses may in that sense be opportunistic.  But we can hardly dispute this specific point: that all over the world “women and innocent” have died in our off the books wars.  9/11 was surely mostly payback for other things, but there is every likelihood it included payback for our Enronized wars as well.

            And make no mistake: the El Mozote massacre of 800 Indians with U.S.-made weapons perpetrated by troops led by U.S.-trained officers[3] cannot have felt much different to the Indians from the way 9/11 felt to us.  The wholesale destruction of Putamayo cannot have felt much different.  And when we create these grievances, we cannot count on our geographic isolation or our personal innocence or our military strength to protect us any more. In our newly interconnected world, revenge no longer requires an army.  And even setting revanchism aside, it is hard to justify, from any strategic calculus, making ourselves hated gratuitously.

            And gratuitous is the word.  Our record in waging war off the books is one of almost universal failure.  Where are the successes?  The Bay of Pigs?  The drug wars?  Iran-Contra?  In truth, these adventures almost always end badly.  All we end up doing is playing ball with people who commit atrocities, en route to precipitating some kind of U.S. policy failure.  Most of the time, therefore, no serious case can be made that the ends end up justifying the kind of means under discussion here.

            There is, to be sure, an argument that we have had successes.  Apart from Cuba, Communism has never established itself in Latin American; could that not be partly the result of our proxies’ overthrowing legitimately elected but leftist governments in Guatemala (1953), in Guyana (1964), and in Chile (1973), and waging Argentinian dirty war in the 70s and 80s and manning the Salvadorian death squads in the 80s  among their many other accomplishments? There are multiple refutations: the historical record does not credibly make the overthrown governments out to be Communist, and the kind of governments we tried to prevent were exemplified in one that prevailed despite us, the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, who certainly never became a vector of the Communist virus.  Most of all, we now know that our critique of Communism was utterly correct: it did destroy prosperity when it stamped out market economies, and it did perpetrate such violations of human rights, in short it did contain such contradictions that it was bound to fall on its own. So even if Communism had spread, we can now see, it would have died just as it did in the old Soviet Union.  The near-disappearance of the Communist threat in our hemisphere is no evidence of the success of our Enronized warmaking, just of what was going to happen anyway.  But in struggling to prevent what was never destined to come to pass anyway, we squandered our resources and our moral standards.

            Could it be, therefore, that the secrecy and the lies are themselves the problem?  That if we engaged in no wars except the wars we openly waged ourselves, and submitted those wars to open debate before beginning them, we would end up doing far less harm both to ourselves and others?  The Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the Church Committee issued reports in 1975 and 1976.  The Committee well articulated the problem: “In its consideration of covert action, the Committee was struck by the basic tension–if not incompatibility–of covert operations and the demands of a constitutional system. Secrecy is essential to covert operations; secrecy can, however, become a source of power, a barrier to serious policy debate within the government, and a means of circumventing the established checks and procedures of government. The Committee found that secrecy and compartmentation contributed to a temptation on the part of the Executive to resort to covert operations in order to avoid bureaucratic, congressional, and public debate.”  A result of the Church Committee was the creation of Senate and House Committees to oversee all covert activity, and the institution of a regime of secret court orders for certain activities.[4]  This was a reasonable compromise, although there has been at least one notable failure of the Executive to abide by it: Iran Contra, i.e. the movement of profits from illegal sales of arms to Iran into the pockets of the Nicaraguan Contras, a right-wing paramilitary Congress had specifically directed the Reagan administration not to fund.

            But all the Church Committee’s work accomplished, in any case, was a compromise. Covert consultation with Congress is not consultation with the American people.  And we can draw almost no consolation from it, because it does not address the problem the Church Committee put its finger on: it runs contrary to the checks and balances of our constitutional system, blocks serious debate, and becomes a vehicle, as a direct result, for the Executive doing things it knows would not pass muster were a debate to be held.  Our Enronized wars have repeatedly put us on the side of torturers, rapists, murderers, kleptocrats, and totalitarian thugs.  They have made a mockery of the very ideals we claim to be submitting as a model for the world.  And they have reaped no gains or small gains for us.  And the small gains, like the driving of the Soviets from Afghanistan, have only set the stage for catastrophically worse impacts upon U.S. interests.  And when we ask why so many in the world hate us, we need to eschew inane comments like we are hated for our freedoms, and look at more obvious reasons, including the killing of women and innocents in our Enronized wars.

            War off the books has been a failure, morally and practically.  As a nation, we need to reexamine fundamentally whether we should ever, under any circumstances, allow it at all. 


[1].  This statement is no longer posted, as it was when the piece was written.  It’s current (as of 2010) successor is to be found here.  While it does not use the same language, the same message is apparent.

[2].  Gill at 73.

[3].  E. Alterman, When Presidents Lie (2004), as Page 259.

[4].  See also PL 95-511.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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