« Rangel Blows It | Main | Evolution and the Courts »

Hersh on Covert Ops

I'd been led by friends to believe that Seymore Hersh's latest article was all about a secret plan to go to war with Iran, but the Iran-related material in the piece is rather thin. Basically, it tells us what we already knew -- that many influential people want to launch a military counterproliferation strike, and many other people think this is nuts. Hersh adds the tidbit that, allegedly, covert surveillance operations laying the groundwork for this are already under way. I don't find that all too shocking, even if true. The interesting material in Hersh's story (and, indeed, this is what the bulk of the word count is dedicated to) has to do with efforts to step up covert operations around the world and shift the locus of such activities out of the CIA and toward the Pentagon. It's a bit hard to know what to make of all that. I think it's clear that there is a need for an increased focus on small-scale, largely covert action.

The alternative is a counterterrorism policy that consists of invading whole countries but then letting the key leaders run away and hide, which isn't very appealing. Should this really be done by the Defense Department rather than the CIA? Maybe. Should it be done by DOD and not CIA in order to find a loophole around the legal requirement for consultation with congress? Definitely not. Does the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Feith-Cambone-Boykin chain of command have what it takes to manage all this in a wise and effective manner? I have my doubts. And I really, really hope we don't go to war with Iran. My hope on that front is that the White House political team will tell the president he needs to focus on his domestic agenda and start start any new wars.

January 18, 2005 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8345160fd69e200d83457936969e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Hersh on Covert Ops:

» Conrast from Balloon Juice
Matt writes: I'd been led by friends to believe that Seymore Hersh's latest article was all about a secret plan... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 20, 2005 11:47:42 AM

» As if on cue (Updated) from Why are all the good names gone...?
When all is said and done, we are left with a great deal more conjecture and speculation...but little proof of anything beyond the fact that the Pentagon and CIA are battling for control of covert operations and the administration has chosen to ensur... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 21, 2005 4:44:00 AM

Comments

Why, having a little war in September/October 2006 would go a long way to advance the domestic agenda in 2007.

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 18, 2005 11:45:29 AM

An actual war would require an actual army, which may be a little hard to find in October 2006.

"Secret" little covert operations, on the other hand, could be accomplished on the basis of the fine intelligence so assiduously cultivated by this administration -- not!

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jan 18, 2005 11:58:10 AM

It must be a terrible idea or impossible, but I wish our use of force was focused on corrupt or inhumane leaders rather than the populations.
A formal, semi-international (coalition of the powerful and reasonably good governments) system of identifying unacceptable governing practices, and offering mediation that escalates until a formal order for assination where covert ops would be acceptable. The latter only being issued in cases where today we would contemplate full scale war like in Iraq.
Although it sounds a little barbaric it is more humane than war. The pressure are put roughly in the correct places - on the leaders, and on the populations to coearce their leaders to avoid chaos. There would be some perverse incentives for second in command, but that problem seems no worse than anything in the current way we deal with bad governance.
Obvioulsy, some will argue for sovereignity, but it is not clear to me sovereignity is a good thing, at least in all cases.

Posted by: theCoach | Jan 18, 2005 11:59:39 AM

I really think that you're fooling yourself. Bush has made it clear that he thinks he has a blank-check mandate, and he's given every indication of intending to push hard for hardline conservative policies everywhere.

A lot of moderates decided to give Bush four more years, and it doesn't really make any difference if they end up not liking what he does. All sales are final.

With a new war, we will probably need a draft, since the existing forces are already being pushed to the limit. This will require him to demonize and marginalize the anti-war, anti-draft forces. Expect Ann Coulter to become more mainstream.

Democratic hawks will be irrelevant, just as they were in Iraq War II. Why should Bush-Rove-Cheney give them any share of the action, especially when the Democrats will be split? And why should Bush-Rove-Cheney refrain from waving the bloody shirt and trying to destroy the Democrats entirely (a goal which Norquist has already proclaimed)? Once the Democrats are in shambles (even more than they are), the domestic program can easily be slipped by.

It won't stop with Iran, and as long as Bush's war plan doesn't lead to utter disaster, it will be supported. And hawkish voters will see no need to switch hawks in midstream. Why should they?

Since I tend to be dovish, unlike Matt, I would oppose Bush's plan anyway. But I think that Matt, and Democrats in general, are also clueless about the political consequences of WWIV.

Posted by: John Emerson | Jan 18, 2005 12:10:46 PM

Well I think military strikes to counter proliferation of nuclear or other weapons is a spectacularly bad idea.

Considering we have been systematially violating Iranian air space, I think Bush does want to invade-
http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?F=580655&C=airwar

my only hope is that our creditors will tell us they are unwilling to lend money for another war.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Jan 18, 2005 12:16:44 PM

It won't stop with Iran, and as long as Bush's war plan doesn't lead to utter disaster, it will be supported. And hawkish voters will see no need to switch hawks in midstream. Why should they?

Indeed. It's a historical fact that no sitting president- hence political party- has ever lost a re-election bid during wartime.

Permanent war augurs permanent incumbency. Trotsky has his Fourth Internationale of permanent revolution. The neocon dominated Repubs have the Global War On Terrorism.

Not only is the debate over whether limited counterinsurgency strikes are better than an all out war irrelevant, since we don't have the ground troops; but politically it plays into the hand of the permanent war party.

And it ignores the potential blowback factors. For instance, striking Iran will result in some kind of counterstrike, most likely at our presence in Iraq, where we have obligingly planted some big fat targets well within the range of Iranian missiles.

Re Matthew's point about the signifigance of the shift of covert ops from the CIA to the Pentagon, I agree that is a matter of great concern, since it could remove the fundamental check and balance of congressional oversight. Not that such oversight has been worth much of late, but it would represent further consolidation of power into the increasingly unaccountable executive branch of our government.

Posted by: Armasgettin' | Jan 18, 2005 1:11:33 PM

Could a bunch of bond traders prevent a bunch of messianic megalomaniacs from invading a bunch of countries? Good question. I say - no. They can always get cash by selling the national parks or something.

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 18, 2005 1:23:03 PM

"And it ignores the potential blowback factors. For instance, striking Iran will result in some kind of counterstrike, most likely at our presence in Iraq, where we have obligingly planted some big fat targets well within the range of Iranian missiles."

Which even Bushco is probably clever enough to Maginot Line against.

Suppose it occurred to Iranians that US troop concentrations and port facilities in Kuwait are vulnerable? Or will we just go to airlift mode to sustain our forces in Iraq?

Posted by: liberal elitist | Jan 18, 2005 1:43:57 PM

It's a bit hard to know what to make of all that. I think it's clear that there is a need for an increased focus on small-scale, largely covert action...The alternative is a counterterrorism policy that consists of invading whole countries but then letting the key leaders run away and hide, which isn't very appealing.

Is that even an alternative? Whose army is going to do the invadin'?

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Jan 18, 2005 1:50:32 PM

What Hersh's article really made clear to me was that somehow I had forgotten that The Global War on Terror was not just a figure of speech. The DoD considers itself to be and is fighting shadow wars all over the world--and it does not see the need to inform anyone about the details of these wars.

The extent of Pentagon power over this counter-terrorism network scares Hersh's contacts. They are worried, it seems to me, about two possibilities specifically regarding the Iranian situation: 1) that the US will rely on Special Operations solutions to the exclusion of diplomatic methods, and that 2) tactical decisions made within the Pentagon will tip the US over into a dangerous conflict before civilians have had any warning or imput.

So I guess I agree basically with Matthew that a lot of the reactions to Hersh's article seem a bit tangential to his main story, which describes the power-dynamics and decision-making in the secret wars.

Posted by: Jackmormon | Jan 18, 2005 2:07:35 PM

Um, Jackmormon, this kid of petty technical organizational detail sometimes is enormously important. In this case we increasingly have all power concentrated in the hands of a few Bush loyalists, without any institutional constraints. Not quite a coup d'etat, but definitely a fundamental institutional change.

Posted by: John Emerson | Jan 18, 2005 2:14:13 PM

...tactical decisions made within the Pentagon will tip the US over into a dangerous conflict before civilians have had any warning or imput...

No, I heard Hersh on the Blitzer show and he explicitly stated that the neocons are driving this thing. So, this is not similar to the Cuban missile crisis with sane civilians and insane generals - this time it's the opposite.

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 18, 2005 2:20:02 PM

abb1,

You write:

Could a bunch of bond traders prevent a bunch of messianic megalomaniacs from invading a bunch of countries? Good question. I say - no.

You're probably correct in these circumstances. But that IS sort of what happened during the Suez crisis in 1956. We crashed the pound (via the IMF, I think), and England withdrew from Egypt.

Posted by: A Tiny | Jan 18, 2005 3:07:37 PM

We crashed the pound (via the IMF, I think), and England withdrew from Egypt.

Not the IMF, the Fed had bought up enough sterling that if we sold it we could crash them and that was the end of the "Nasser is Hitler, attack!!!!" horseshit.

Posted by: absynthe | Jan 18, 2005 3:14:02 PM

Oh, Tiny, believe me - I don't underestimate powers of the bond market. It would prevent any traditional government from trying anything this adventuristic. But those who take direct orders from God are invincible.

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 18, 2005 3:20:40 PM

The alternative is a counterterrorism policy that consists of invading whole countries but then letting the key leaders run away and hide, which isn't very appealing.

False dilemma, Matt. The choice isn't just between SpecOps counter-proliferation strikes and all-out invasion. There's also traditional counter-terrorism that is more akin to competent police work or Cold War espionage.

Great post, though -- I share all of your concerns about turning this kind of work over to the DoD. The question should loom large for all Americans -- is it yet another step toward Putinization that more and more of our spy work is being carried out by the military?

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Jan 18, 2005 3:46:49 PM

I haven't read the article yet, but apparently Hersh talked to someone who said that the US trained and used the death squads in El Salvador. First Cheney refers to El Salvador in his debate, then there's the Newsweek story and now this--it sounds like there are people in this government who see El Salvador in the early 80's as a positive model.

Posted by: Donald Johnson | Jan 18, 2005 4:16:44 PM

War doesn't always make you popular, just ask Galtieri, or the Hohenzollens, Hapsburgs or Romanovs.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Jan 18, 2005 4:54:43 PM

As Matt as indicated a few times, Bush is plenty capable of making decisions on his own. He has bucked the neocons a few times, namely Rumsfeld who did not want to occupy Iraq at all. Bush (and I'm guessing his political counterparts, Rove and Co) thought otherwise. Call me nieve, but what are the sort of goals/targets we have there? Remove the somewhat theocratic regime? Remove the WMD? Covert operations in Iran that actually acomplish these goals are still going to get political attention. They have to. An important guy gets assinated, a factory bombed, etc. If the dominoes that further what people see to be our goals keep magically falling into place, covert or not people are going to notice.

I really question the political viability of such a scheme. I understand that DOD neocons might give two shits about that itself, but I wonder if Bush and Co. is going to realize this is a stupid move. The reason I say this is the message I'm hearing lately about the Iraq War, that this is really getting to be ridiculous. And I'm not talking about liberals, I'm talking about conservatives. I guess this is just hearsay, but I really do think another armed conflict in the next 4 years is going to loosen support for Bush, especially one in which the U.S., again, is not directly under attack. Americans can take war, but only for so long and only if the continuing cause is seen as just. I know that is hard to swallow for readers here considering the whopping we got, but I don't think Bush's reelection, contrary to his public statements, validated his Iraq policy. I really wonder whether he even believes this at all either and is just posteuring.

Posted by: Adrock | Jan 18, 2005 5:13:08 PM

For the next four years, as far as foreign and military policy go, Bush scarcely has to think about public opinion or even Congressional opinion. Nothing less than impeachment or open revolt will have any effect on him.

Posted by: John Emerson | Jan 18, 2005 5:20:01 PM

For a rather thorough read on possible Iranian reactions, plus the underlying assumptions and option for US or Israeli preventive strikes, see James Fallows' article in the December issue of The Atlantic.

It summarizes the conclusions from a state-of-the-art war gaming exercise led by former Air Force Colonel Sam ("Truth From These Podia") Gardiner, who ran war games for two decades at the National War College.

In sum, there are no good viable military options. For instance, a full assault operation aimed at regime change would be so well telegraphed that it would invite a pre-emptive attack. I already mentioned the missile option.

Other after-the-fact options include a cross a border assault assault. The prospect of Iranian special forces conducting operations inside Iraq could make the existing insurgent attacks look like child's play. Recall that Iranian officers are mostly veterans of a brutal 9 year long war with what was then one of the world's most sophisticated armies.

Another option would be to launch attacks within America itself by members of the Iranian Hizbollah, among others.

Another option is economic, such as retaliation against American oil interests.

Liberal elitist pointed out another option, which I don't remember being mentioned in the article- attacking Kuwait tran-shipment ports. These are vital in supplying the 150,000 troops in Iraq, not to mention the tens of thousands of support troops in Kuwait itself.

Even assuming a best case scenario of sucessfully identifying and hitting all of the various weapons sites, the best that can be expected is a three year setback.

Then what? More attacks and counterattacks, most likely. Israel vs the Palestinians all over again, but with much greater geopolitical consequences.

Another significant factor in the Hersh article is the Kool Aid factor. If you don't drink the brew of the Administration's foregone conclusions, you don't get inside the door to discuss these kinds of alternative scenarios. Rumsfeld's extreme makeover of the Pentagon apparently doesn't include "Red Teams."

Posted by: Armasgettin' | Jan 18, 2005 5:52:56 PM

Another downside to shifting covert ops to the Pentagon:

The CIA is, for instance, prohibited from operating as journalists, the theory being that all journalists would then become subject to the same dangers as spies.

Not so with military cover ops described in the Hersh article. Their operatives would be "wiped clean"; that is, they would carry no I.D. and could pose as anyone- journalists, teachers or even tourists. This would effectively put all Americans on foreign soil at risk.

Talk about your back door draft...

Posted by: Armasgettin' | Jan 18, 2005 6:51:03 PM

The interesting material in Hersh's story (and, indeed, this is what the bulk of the word count is dedicated to) has to do with efforts to step up covert operations around the world and shift the locus of such activities out of the CIA and toward the Pentagon. It's a bit hard to know what to make of all that.

One thing that is clear is that nobody really asked the public what they thought about this. The Pentagon covert operations budget is secret; the CIA covert operations budget is secret. It's all a big wonderful secret. To the extent that our "representatives" pass public judgment on these decisions at all their acts are crammed into a dark corner of some other bill, hidden behind some popular mechanical bunny for the lapdog media to chase. Or else they just shift some black money in the black budget from black box A to black box B.

Our "democracy" is a complete joke. On the good ship American Empire, we are allowed some occasional input on what to order from the purser, and even granted a chance to replace the captain in an "accountability moment" once every four years. But otherwise the ship of state sails on with barely any input at all from the public whose very lives depend on its course.

Instead of debating the question "what should we do?" we are again reduced to wondering "what are they doing?" and passing around inside Sy Hersh gossip about the byzantine workings of the imperial Ministry of External Control, with scarcely any hope of influencing these events.

Historically, democracies tend not to last long, because war and democracy are enemies. Every time we have a war, we lose another piece of our democracy. We always lend some extra temporary powers to the warlords, and they never pay back everthing that is lent, but hang on to some important piece of it. And the five-sided, horizontally and vertically integrated fear and death industry, headquartered in Washington, uses the latest crisis-of-the-week to extort more funds from the public treasury in order to grow their obscene business. Some day they will control just about everything, and there will be hardly anything left of democratic government in America. Maybe that will occur at about the same time that our demented imperial elites have successfully "democratized" - i.e. subjugated - the rest of the world.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Jan 18, 2005 7:50:28 PM

You are kidding yourself if you think we haven't already sent special ops into Iran and you can certainly bet your last dollar that the CIA is already there. Other than the CIA, who do you think does all the cloak and dager operations? Who runs all the spy sattelites? Who flies all the recon spy planes? That's right - the Dept of Defense. The problem I see is that the CIA doesn't have the operatives required for the current world wide mission. Although supposedly classified, some say the number of trained CIA operatives numbers less than the number of FBI agents in the New York City Office. As for an all out invasion, I personally don't think that COULD happen, even if the current administration wanted to. Who are they going to send? Draft? No way, how could they institute a draft without every country in the world pointing their guns at us, wondering if they will be the next occupied country. My guess is that there will be precision air strikes on selected sites to get the Iranians attention. After that we can all pray that the Iranians somehow take the administrations point of view. God help us all..

Posted by: Jim | Jan 18, 2005 10:05:44 PM

So having a bunch of covert operations going on inside a soverign power and accepted member of the international community is what you propose, Matt.
Hmmm that is another little breach of international law. I am shocked to hear you proposing such illegal activity. It could also be termed state terrorism.

Posted by: Observer | Jan 18, 2005 11:34:45 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.