Archive for March, 2007

[Originally published in The Valley News.]

Most Americans honestly believe that given sufficient effort, they can solve any problem. They are usually right. Unfortunately, the problem we have in Iraq is almost certainly one of those that, despite our best efforts, is unlikely to have a decent solution.

The Bush administration, supported by less than a third of the U.S. population, says we can “win” in Iraq, and that in order to do so, we have to go ahead with the planned “surge” of additional troops. At the other end of the spectrum are those who say we should get out immediately. Either of those two extreme positions could ultimately prove to be the best course of action, but embracing either one of those options now makes no sense. Only through a careful, public examination of the advantages and disadvantages of those two extremes are we likely to reach any kind of truth about what we should do.

The claimed advantages of the stay-and-win strategy are that as long as we stay, we will: have some military control over events in Iraq; prevent a regional war among the neighbors; fight the terrorists in Iraq rather than at home; retain hope of installing democracy in Iraq; prevent al-Qaida from setting up training camps in Iraq.

Those who want us to get out now claim that: there is no military solution for Iraq; we will save precious lives and resources; we cannot export democracy; our presence in Iraq is what galvanizes local and international terrorism against us; we will regain world respect and our old allies.

How do these statements stack up with realities on the ground in Iraq?

First, there is absolutely no available evidence that our departure from Iraq will empower al-Qaida to strike America again. Even with all the help our invasion of Iraq has given our enemies, they have not yet been able to hit us a second time at home. They will do this when and if they are able. The further allegation is that they will set up training camps in Iraq if we leave. They already have, directly under our noses!

Furthermore, the secular Sunnis, who have nothing in common with theocratic al-Qaida except for a shared hatred for America’s presence in Iraq, will surely close those facilities when we withdraw from their country. The presence of American troops is the only glue that holds them together.

In terms of al-Qaida’s ability to train new jihadists, our departure from Iraq will make that training less practical, less realistic. What we really have done in Iraq and continue to do as long as we are there is give the terrorists a target-rich training environment for rookie jihadists, with live American targets, as well as a level and scope of advertising for further recruitment that al-Qaida could not otherwise match.

The fact that there are conversations going on throughout the Middle East among countries traditionally at odds shows pretty clearly that all those countries have their own reasons not to want to have a regional conflict. The apocalyptic view of a regional war may not be an accurate prediction for the future.

Pandering to the anti-war, left-wing of their party, the Democrats’ attempt to force withdrawal of our troops by 2008 is political grandstanding that will lead nowhere. Withdrawing troops without first arranging for and participating in regional talks designed to mitigate regional conflict would be a major error. Democrats can continue to try to humiliate the president and the Republicans by establishing a date certain for withdrawal, or they can do whatever is practically possible to bring our disastrous Iraq adventure to an end. Given the political realities that exist in the Senate and with a presidential veto virtually guaranteed, it seems likely that the president’s policy will prevail until he leaves office, or until the Democrats stop playing politics and find a viable plan. That will need Republican congressional support.

We need a practical approach from the Democrats that recognizes the political realities they are facing. They should be pushing for a series of timed benchmarks, including: dates for establishing regional talks; tangible evidence of the diminution of sectarian violence; evidence that Iraqis are taking over tasks now performed by Americans; and a political agreement among Iraqi factions on the future of their country.

That is where the Democrats might better put their efforts and hope to pick up the necessary Republican support. Those benchmarks would measure the success or failure of the surge policy. They would have to be successfully met for the administration to keep the battle going. Without benchmarks, we will stay in Iraq for a very long time, or at least until the next elections. With benchmarks, we have some hope of achieving a measure of success in stabilizing Iraq, even if we don’t achieve victory in terms of meeting our original goals. If the benchmarks aren’t met, we will get out.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Lebanon, Iran and Europe and as chief of counterterrorism in Langley. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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[Originally published in The Valley News.]

What most Americans don’t ever consider is that the job of CIA case officers who work overseas in human espionage operations is to break the laws of the countries where they serve. During the Cold War, when we met a Soviet citizen in Moscow who was one of our agents, we were breaking Soviet law by that simple act. There is no other nonmilitary organization in the U.S. government whose job it is to break other countries’ laws.

Judging by recent news reports, the intelligence community’s emphasis on counterterrorism operations has led to a very different, more serious sort of law-breaking by CIA officers. Among the questions raised by those stories is: How important is this type of activity to our struggle with fundamentalist Muslim terrorism?

CIA officers have been accused of participating in “renditions” — the act of kidnapping people suspected of being involved with fundamentalist Muslim terrorism and removing them to a place where civil rights guarantees are not as stringent as they are in most Western democracies. In other words, torture is likely to be part of the interrogation process in the countries to which they are shipped.  Both Germany and Italy have issued arrest warrants for CIA officers allegedly involved in kidnappings carried out in their countries as part of renditions.

Add to that reports about the so-called “CIA Gulag” — a string of CIA facilities alleged to exist in countries around the world where it is legal or at least tolerated to extract information from terrorism suspects using techniques that would be illegal in America.

Then there is the allegation that “civilian officials” at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were involved in the abuse and humiliation of prisoners. Although not clearly stated or confirmed, it was intimated that these were also CIA officers. There have also been reports of CIA officers at the military detention facility for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For many CIA veterans of the Cold War, these activities represent a major, disturbing departure from the old norm.  For most Americans who were drawn to the CIA in those years, altruism was a major factor. The Communists were intent on taking over the world, and we were the ones on the front lines, responsible for holding back the Red Menace. Most CIA officers of that period would have been appalled at the thought of rendering, torturing or facilitating the torture of anyone.

You could be a highly effective CIA officer and never raise a finger against anyone. If the KGB caught you in a clandestine relationship with an agent who was a Soviet citizen, you never had to fear for your life, you simply got expelled from the country.  In the intelligence wars, there were tacit agreements that, however heated our rivalries with the Soviets and their allies became, there would be no rough stuff.

That changed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Palestinian terrorism became an important intelligence target. If Black September, an early Palestinian terrorist group, caught you in a clandestine relationship with a member of their organization, you stood a very good chance of being gunned down along with your agent. No habeas corpus there! In fact, in Beirut in those years, when an officer had such a clandestine meeting, he normally was accompanied by armed colleagues who were there to protect him against just such a tragedy. It had become a different, unsettling world for the old Cold Warriors. Most regarded that sort of violence as not just undesirable but downright terrifying.

So now we live in a different, far more violent world. If there are any rules of behavior at all, they are undefined and likely to remain so. CIA officers who can function in that world share little in common with their Cold War predecessors.

What kind of CIA officers do you need for this new environment? Certainly not the old Cold Warriors with their rules and their high level of moral and ethical comfort in what they were doing. In this world, if your turn your other cheek, you are likely to get your head removed. We need officers who are comfortable in this new, more violent world, who can walk around the world’s slums without their hearts in their mouths and without it being immediately clear they are Americans.   Perhaps where many CIA cold warriors were liberal arts majors, the new breed might better come from the Military academies or from the Special Forces.  That certainly would prepare them better for today’s world.

However, the tools that will make contemporary CIA officers most effective in this new world do not include a willingness to engage in or facilitate brutality. The most useful skills are language fluency and an ability to blend seamlessly into the local environment. Most, but not all, Americans, aren’t much good at that.

Renditions, torture, Guantanamo, gulags — those things are not in the best interest of America. They produce little critical, actionable intelligence while severely damaging our image around the world. However, if one can make the distinction, we need the kind of officers in the CIA who can deal effectively and decisively with the difficult world in which those abhorrent activities prevail. That takes a different kind of American, and it does not include most old Cold Warriors.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in the Middle East, East and West Europe and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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