Archive for August, 2007

[Originally published in The Valley News.]

Earlier this summer, when the CIA released the “family jewels” — nearly 700 pages of documents detailing some of its most infamous and illegal operations dating back to the 1950s — the question that immediately came to mind was: Why now?

After all, Director of Central Intelligence Bill Colby had let some of those secrets out during the Church Committee hearings in the early 1970s. When Colby made the initial revelations, there was widespread anger among the old agency hands, particularly those from World War II’s Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s precursor. Much of this anger resided in the division known as the Clandestine Service, which thought it owned most of the jewels. Colby had betrayed them. More gems dropped out of the bag in subsequent years.

Today, there is no cadre of old-timers to rise up in anger. Most of them are either dead or so far removed from the realities of espionage that they do not care much what happens in Langley, Va. It was, therefore, a pretty safe time for Gen. Hayden to put his jewels on the table, as it were.  Or perhaps the CIA released the information because it wanted some cover for its questionable activities in the rendition and interrogation business. Framed against a backdrop of past sins, today’s CIA might seem less horrendous.

Still, these explanations aren’t sufficient. It could be that the agency knew that Tim Weiner’s book Legacy of Ashes was about to be published.  Weiner had unique access to the CIA leadership of the early years, and he was about to expose their secrets himself. By releasing the secrets first, Hayden preempted Weiner.

One unintended result of the release of the vast store of CIA secrets is that it denigrates covert action operations in favor of human intelligence collection, which will play such an important part in our struggle with terrorism. And to understand the difference between covert action and human intelligence, you have to understand the reality of the CIA, which evolved from the OSS.

During World War II, OSS personnel parachuted behind enemy lines to establish contact with and organize resistance groups to harass the Germans and Japanese. It was a classic hot war operation. Those who did it were heroes in the truest sense of the word.

When CIA’s existence was legitimized in the post-war years, its management was handed over to those senior OSS officers who chose to respond to the challenge of the Cold War–Allen Dulles, Richard Helms and Des Fitzgerald. Their experience was almost entirely in paramilitary operations, which today are part of the world of Covert Action. That is what they knew and understood, so when successive presidents wanted someone assassinated or a foreign government overthrown, that kind of covert action was right up their alley.

They were less knowledgeable about Humint operations, particularly against difficult targets like the U.S.S.R., China and terrorism, which are time-consuming, frustrating, tedious and only occasionally successful. Compared with the flash and bang of covert actions, they are mundane and boring.

Because the old OSS types had so little experience in Humint, there was never a sufficiently strong worldwide effort against those hard targets. Presidents and CIA management were interested, instead, in covert action. It was infinitely easier to recruit some Third World newspaperman to place articles favorable to the United States in his paper than it was to recruit a Soviet. A lot of CIA officers got promoted doing just that.

So, the CIA of the post-war years was primarily a covert action organization, which, according to the newly exposed record, wasn’t even terribly good at covert action. For those officers who saw the USSR as a real threat, covert action operations were an impediment that drew resources away from the really important job of recruiting Soviets. This was a major factor in the inability of the CIA to penetrate the highest policy-making levels of the USSR.

Take an Agency management that neither promoted or understood the nuts and bolts of Humint operations, couple it with the paranoid madness of those Agency managers who believed the Soviet KGB controlled everything we tried to do against them, and you have a Clandestine Service that was destined to under perform against the most important and difficult target we had.

Has any of this changed? One of the major messages of the Weiner book is that with the possible exception of former DCI George H. W. Bush, no president has ever understood what the CIA could and could not do. The CIA probably failed in its Cold War covert action operations because most Americans (the Mafia excluded) are not very good at assassinations. Picture an Ivy Leaguer planning Castro’s assassination.

Whether presidents like it or not, the CIA is a reflection of the American ethos. When it ceases to be that, this country will have made a major change for the worse.

We may be approaching that point now.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  He lives in Williston, Vt.

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Why the ‘surge’ cannot work

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

The goal of the Bush administration for the ongoing “surge” in Iraq, as far as it can be ascertained, seems to be to bring an absence of violent, physical conflict to Iraq which would in turn permit political reconciliation.

Iraq has never been a viable country in any accepted sense of the word. It was created between 1921-1926 by the British to suit their own political needs in the area. Since then the “country” has been kept together by a succession of repressive regimes, ending with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party rule from 1958 until our 2003 invasion.

It is likely that the “surge” currently under way will dampen the violence in Iraq. We have entered into relationships against al-Qaida with Sunnis in Anbar and Diala provinces. In return for training and financial support, the militias in those areas have joined us in the struggle with al-Qaida in Iraq. Those two provinces have become relatively peaceful.

Actually, this makes all the sense in the world since it was inevitable that Iraqis would come to view al-Qaida in Iraq as a hostile, foreign, fundamentalist organization that shares no goals with the secular Iraqi Sunnis. Incidentally, this shreds the Bush administration’s repeated assertions that if we leave before “succeeding,” Iraq will turn into a terrorist base for attacks against the U.S. That is patently untrue.

With help from those Sunnis, we apparently have narrowed al-Qaida’s options. When attacked in the past, al-Qaida would simply move to a safe area. Now when we attack them in one place with more troops, they have few if any options on places to hide. It looks as if we may be on the way to reducing al-Qaida-sponsored violence in the Sunni areas. Clearly, this is good.

However, the real problem lies with the Iraqis. It has been said over and over by every pundit and military expert in the U.S. that there will be no successful conclusion to our adventure in Iraq until the Iraqis reach peaceful agreement on sharing wealth, power and responsibility.

The Iraqis have shown no inclination to fulfill this, our goal, for them. Quite the contrary, none of the participants appears to have any desire to make a “new Iraq” work. Having had virtual autonomy since the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds would like to be left alone in northern Iraq. They now want the oil in the north as well as Kirkuk, the largest city in the north.

The Shia, as the largest ethnic and religious component in Iraq, would like to maintain control of the southern oil fields and, in addition, control the entire country. They have absolutely no desire to share any of this with the Sunnis, under whose hostile and repressive thumb they existed for decades, or with the Kurds.

The Sunnis, having run Iraq since 1963, think they should still be in charge. They are so deluded about their past power that many of them honestly believe that they are the majority group in Iraq. Unfortunately for them, they are the smallest group in Iraq, have no oil to speak of on their own turf and are roundly despised by Kurds and Shia alike for their 40-year-long murderous rule of the country.

In short, there is no reason for any one of the three groups to want to share anything with the others. And these are the folks that the Bush administration is counting on to find a political solution to Iraq’s problems, which would enable us to withdraw from the country.

There is no viable central government in Iraq today. There is only a power void created by the disinclination of the Sunnis, Shia and Kurds to solve their political problems. In fact, the Sunnis have just withdrawn from the so-called central government, making political consensus even less likely.

We have compounded the problem by entering into local agreements supporting Sunnis against al-Qaida. Even though that may be in our best interest in the struggle with al-Qaida, it certainly will do nothing but make Iraqi political reconciliation more difficult. The Shia, who are suspicious of our ultimate intentions and probably anticipating a more open civil war, are upset that we are, in effect, training, arming and financing their Sunni enemies.

However resoundingly successful the “surge” turns out to be in terms of calming violence in Iraq, it will be meaningless in the face of the disinclination and inability of the three warring factions to reach a viable consensus.

The likelihood of an amicable solution to internal Iraqi political problems, which would enable us to declare success and withdraw under the conditions already established by the Bush administration, is infinitesimally small.

Why should the U.S. use its precious treasure to support a process that has little if any chance of success?

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Lebanon and Iran and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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