Archive for March, 2009

[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

In pointing out blandly in a March 15 CNN interview that America has not suffered a terrorist attack since 9/11, former Vice President Cheney stated that he believes that the policies undertaken by the new Obama Administration are making America less safe.

In saying this, Cheney was making a direct comparison between the policies of the Bush Administration and those of President Obama. He was saying that the standby policies of the Bush administration—preemptive military action, wireless wiretapping, enhanced interrogation techniques (torture), Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the CIA ‘s rendition and overseas detention programs, to name but a few—were what kept us safe and that their ongoing repudiation will make us more vulnerable.

Democracies are never completely safe. They are inherently dangerous. If they were safe, they would not be democracies. To make us safe from terrorism, we would have to employ all the questionable techniques listed above, plus many more. In the process of doing that, we Americans would have to give up layer after layer of our constitutional guarantees. Remember Benjamin Franklin’s admonition that “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety“.

To get back to Cheney, let’s just arbitrarily stipulate that what he says is true. Even then, it is only a tactical response to the terrorist threat. Optimally, it may stop the occasional attack, but it won’t solve the fundamental problem. We need a new strategy that deals with the weaknesses in this terrorist threat with a view to stopping the movement, not just the attacks. Without such a strategy, there will be no foreseeable end to this problem.

The essence of a successful strategy against terrorism lies in not losing your old friends in the Muslim world, and also gaining new ones. In that context, it is critical that we keep moderate Muslims on our side. Basically, our entire approach to terrorism has been misguided. Our major response after 9/11 was the invasion of Iraq which, in itself, was offensive to all sorts of Muslims. Then we added torture and all of the questionable activities enumerated above which, in the aggregate, although they may have eliminated some terrorists, create an environment in which moderate Muslims have turned away from us. When moderate Muslims do that, there are not many alternatives available and they turn toward terrorism. Our questionable activities become recruiting posters for terrorism and their ranks swell.

On the positive side, we have decimated Al Qaida management to the point where the organization is on the run and marginal. The result has been the MacDonaldization of Al Qaida, in which groups spring up in the spirit, but not in the line of command of Al Qaida Central. That turns them into local groups vulnerable to the authorities in the countries in which they exist and makes them far easier to cope with, if we maintain good relations with those countries’ security services.

The real issues that remain are the futures of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. Somalia is in the mix because there is no effective central government there, creating the kind of environment that existed in pre 9/11 Afghanistan which Al Qaida found so amenable.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are problems for us, but not terrorist problems. They are insurgencies and they have to be dealt with as such. In addition to that, we have to deal with state sponsors of terrorism like Syria and Iran, a process that appears to be underway with Syria and could well be a part of any future negotiation with Iran.

According to a recent Rand study, between 1968 and 2008, 648 terrorist groups disappeared. Of that group, 75% were absorbed into their national political systems, 10% were defeated by police activities, and a mere 7% by military action. The critical point here is that military force often has the opposite effect of what is intended. It is often overused, alienates the local population by its heavy-handed nature, and is a boon to terrorist recruiters. The US military should generally resist being drawn into combat operations in Muslim societies, especially in large numbers, where its presence is likely to create more problems than it solves.

The default position for dealing with fundamentalist Muslim terrorism is talking. Like the three-way baseball trade analogy, everyone has things they want and things they will give up. The key is to find out which is which and the only way to do that is to talk with all those involved.

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. A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

Read Full Post »

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

For anyone who has not been paying attention to the national press recently, there has been a really nasty battle going on over the appointment of Ambassador Charles Freeman to the post of chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

Freeman is an extraordinarily creative and innovative public servant who has long been involved at the national level in both foreign policy and military matters, having served as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. As a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he is the kind of person whose experience and views could have added badly needed clarification to the otherwise cloudy issues in the Middle East.

But there is one really big problem. Freeman has not been sufficiently uncritically pro-Israel over the years to garner the approval of right-wing Israelis and those Americans who most fervently support them.

Generalizations often are inaccurate. Having said that, when it comes to Israel, and our policy in the Middle East, Americans tend to break down into two very broad groups.

The first group is made up of informed, pragmatic Americans who strongly support Israel’s right to exist as a democratic, Jewish state and who are equally opposed to those radical Arabs, Palestinians and Muslims who are trying to bring an end to the existence of the State of Israel. This group is typified by the “J Street” organization and more moderate American Jews and Christians who tend to support the “two state solution” for the region.

The second group, equally informed and certainly more strident, supports the further expansion of Israel into Palestine (the West Bank) through the settler program. This group includes AIPAC (the “Israeli Lobby”) and a more amorphous group of “Christian Zionists” who believe that the second coming of Christ will not take place until Jews occupy the West Bank of the Jordan River (Samaria and Judea).

The stakes surrounding the Palestine issue are very high. They include the survival of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state; an end to the perpetual violence that has characterized the region since the British occupation; a damper on the increasing radicalization of Islam and the Middle East and a viable solution to our problem with radical Muslim terrorism.

All political arguments about the future of Israel aside, there is one extremely important demographic reality at play in Israel: Palestinians living in Israel and Palestine are reproducing at a rate far greater than Israelis. One can dispute when the day of reckoning will be, but the fact is that if demographics continue in typical historical pattern, Palestinians will fairly soon outnumber Israelis in both Israel and in what is becoming, through the settler program, occupied Palestine.

That will leave Israelis with only bad choices: They can let the burgeoning Palestinian population become the majority (a one-state solution), remaining democratic, but relinquishing Israel’s Jewishness. They can set up an apartheid system which will relegate the Palestine majority to total political impotence, giving up any Israeli claim to democracy. Or, they can expel all the Palestinians in Israel and Palestine, giving up their international credibility, while retaining their Jewishness at the cost of democracy.

Only the two-state solution has the potential to solve many of both Israel’s and Palestine’s most important problems. Past opportunities to find a viable and even-handed solution have been passed up by both sides for good and bad reasons, but what really matters are the realities of today.

If Israel wishes to continue as a Jewish democracy and the Palestinians want a state of their own, major compromises will be needed from both Israelis and Palestinians and the full weight of western, particularly American influence, will have to be brought to bear on both sides of the dispute. If America continues its laissez faire policies of the past that underplayed both Arab rockets and Israeli settlements, there will be no peace. Israel, in the end, will be at the mercy of the inevitable march of demographics.

Against that backdrop, we have just had the opportunity to see Israel’s most strident American supporters gear up over the appointment of Ambassador Charles Freeman. Before coming under attack and withdrawing his candidacy, his beliefs and honor were questioned in every conceivable way by uncritically pro-Israel American individuals and organizations.

Accusations that he was somehow controlled by Saudi Arabia, China or anyone else are wholly spurious. If you take the trouble to look carefully at the accusations leveled against him, and do so against the backdrop of his own record, it becomes immediately clear that the campaign against him was not undertaken because he is viewed as anti-Israeli, but rather because he is viewed as insufficiently pro-Israeli. He does not support Israel 100 percent, preferring to consider American national interests in the policy mix.

This campaign against Ambassador Freeman is not unique. Such campaigns have taken place against numerous insufficiently pro-Israeli Americans over the past 60 years of Israel’s existence. However, it is sad in a number of ways.

Purely internally, it is a bad foreign policy start for the Obama administration in the Middle East. Quite simply, they would have been far better advised either to have anticipated the ÅIPAC onslaught and not made the Freeman appointment, or having decided to do so, should have been prepared to stick with him, thus avoiding the shocking embarrassment of having an important personnel decision dictated by foreign-oriented interests.

Further, robust political debate is a way of life in Israel. There is a constant stream of opinion in the Israeli press on any and all contentious political issues from every sector of the political spectrum. Yet, Israel’s most fervent, Israel-centered American supporters use personal attack indiscriminately against those it views to be its critics in the United States, effectively smothering legitimate debate on an issue which has wide-ranging potential consequences for America.

If a representative, effective policy is to evolve in the United States on the Israel/Palestine issue, it will only be validated if it is thoroughly debated in America. Short of that, any policy we undertake will bring with it the potential for political retribution.

Secondly, however many common goals America shares with Israel in the Middle East, our national interests are not always identical. They are not the same on Israel’s territorial goals in Palestine simply because those goals will inhibit an equitable solution to the Israel/Palestine struggle which is and will remain a critical element in our attempts to deal with Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism.

Additionally, our interests are not the same on Iran, where Israel clearly would like either to have us wipe out Iran’s nuclear program, or do it themselves with our weaponry and tacit blessings, while we, in our own national interest, would prefer to pursue negotiations.

Lastly, it would appear that we have crossed a new line and that AIPAC and its supporters will react to appointments like Freeman’s, and presumably to American policies, governed only by the depth and breadth of their commitment to Israel’s definition of their own foreign policy goals and national interests.

We are either heading for, or have already reached the point where Israel’s most strident American supporters hold veto power over our foreign policies and personnel assignments on Israeli-related issues. That is a bad situation in which to find oneself, certainly not one the Israelis themselves would permit the American government to exercise over their sovereign interests and probably not one that a thoughtful Israeli government would like to see in effect today in America.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served over 25 years in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He lives in Williston.

Read Full Post »

[Originally published on AmericanDiplomacy.Org.]

A retired CIA station chief examines they marriage between human intelligence collection and covert action that came about in the early years of the Cold War and its detrimental effects on the Agency’s ability to produce useful and timely intelligence on U.S. enemies. If we cannot eliminate covert action entirely, he concludes, it should at least be separated from the intelligence collection function. – Ed.

America has lived with its “Intelligence Community” – the CIA, NSA, DIA and all the other lesser intelligence organizations – for decades.  Depending on your viewpoint, they have been somewhere between successful and unsuccessful in providing our government both with the organizational structure and with the intelligence needed to protect our country and advance its international interests.

Whatever your take, there is one immutable involved in intelligence work:  It is an aggressive, risk-taking business that withers when bureaucratic inertia and caution settle in.

The issue today is whether the post-9/11 reorganization of the intelligence community has made sense or has improved the ability of the organizations within it to carry out their jobs.  The omission of the FBI, our national law enforcement organization, in the “intelligence community” list does not obviate the need for the creation of a functioning internal intelligence organization to deal with domestic issues.  We still need such a service – one without the power of arrest.

At its highest level, it is the purpose of any intelligence organization to produce finished intelligence analyses of information on the capabilities and intentions of their country’s enemies.  Much of the raw intelligence behind such analyses is collected through highly technical means and thus, in America, is the province of the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office.  Nevertheless, even acknowledging that technical operations can see and hear, they are still not able to read peoples’ minds, and those minds often hold the key to intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of our enemies.

A new weapons system is vulnerable to technical collection when it is first test fired.  However, to deal effectively with it we need to know of its development years before that firing.  Similarly, intentions, if not ascertained well in advance, are only observable when the planes hit the Twin Towers and Pentagon, missiles are unleashed, or enemy troops begin to mass for an attack.

HUMINT Operations

Like technical collection, it is also the function of human intelligence (HUMINT) operations to produce intelligence on the capabilities, specifically including military research and development, and the intentions of our enemies.  The difference is that HUMINT operations seek to find human beings with access to critical information who will talk frankly with us.  Where intentions and critical military research and development activities are not normally or broadly vulnerable to technical collection operations, they often can be sniffed out through the recruitment of well-placed spies.

The Central Intelligence Agency was conceived in 1947 as the lead intelligence organization in the U.S. government.  Its chief was not simply the chief of CIA, he was given the title of Director of Central Intelligence, and with that august title, the responsibility to coordinate and direct the overall intelligence operations of the United States government.

For a variety of both good and not so good reasons, no DCI has ever really carried out that responsibility.  In the aftermath of the purported intelligence failures of 9/11, a new overall leader, the Director of National Intelligence, was created.  That left the CIA as simply one of many equals in the intelligence community.

During the Cold War, the CIA had broad responsibilities and conducted all manner of activities in the fields of intelligence analysis and collection.

The primary analytical arm of the CIA, known as the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), began its life after the Second World War and its Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at the State Department.  It was then moved into the new CIA in the late l940s.  Even then, some of INR’s employees remained at State.  The State Department’s analytical function remained in INR and has continued to this day to provide analytical insights in support of foreign policy.

In addition to the DI, there is the Directorate of Science and Technology.  According to the CIA website, “The DS&T creates, adapts, develops, and operates technical collection systems and applies enabling technologies to the collection, processing, and analysis of information.”

The other major analytical organ in the U.S. government is the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.  It provides intelligence analysis support to Department of Defense activities and requirements.

National Clandestine Service

The other operational CIA collection component is the National Clandestine Service (NCS), which, according to the CIA, “operates as the clandestine arm of the CIA and serves as the national authority for the coordination, deconfliction, and evaluation of clandestine human intelligence operations across the Intelligence Community. The NCS supports our country’s security and foreign policy interests by conducting clandestine activities to collect information that is not obtainable through other means. The NCS also conducts counterintelligence and special activities as authorized by the President.”

In the early days of the CIA, there were two types of activities that fell under the Clandestine Service.  The first was HUMINT (human intelligence), made up of positive intelligence, counterintelligence, and counterespionage, and the second was CA (covert action), consisting of propaganda and political action operations, which, at their most potent, involved regime change.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, CA and HUMINT operations were literally housed in separate CIA stations in the same foreign cities.  As the Cold War progressed into the 1950s, this arrangement was found to be less than attractive by an Eisenhower administration that was vitally interested in CA operations being used to counter the Soviet threat around the world.  For that reason, the two activities were combined under the same station roofs abroad, and CA and HUMINT were forced to coexist.

The results of this were many, but two were of major importance.  First, CA operations began to compete with HUMINT operations for the only resources the CIA had – money and manpower.  In this context, CA broke down into two major sub-forms:  propaganda and political action (mainly regime change) operations.  Propaganda was far and away the more prevalent and consisted, inter alia, of support of radio stations, the placement of newspaper articles favorable to the United States or unfavorable to the USSR, or the publication of materials to be sent in to the socialist world.

These propaganda operations were viewed as important within the CIA and the U.S. government, and it was perfectly feasible for any given CIA officer to make a very successful career out of them without getting involved in far more difficult and potentially less successful HUMINT operations, particularly those against “hard targets” like the USSR, China, and the lesser socialist countries.

The involvement of CIA officers in political action operations designed to overthrow any given government was far less likely.  Despite reports to the contrary, in relative terms, there simply were not that many such operations, nor did they involve many of our officers.

The result of this phenomenon was that many officers profitably spent their careers in CA propaganda operations without dipping their toes into the far more critical waters of our hard target operations.

Uneasy Marriage

The second, far more significant result of the uneasy marriage between HUMINT and CA operations was both practically and psychologically negative.

Espionage that is confined to the collection of significant intelligence through HUMINT operations is a politically low-risk business.  When actually exposed, such operations usually result, at worst, in the expulsion of our officer, a testy response from the target country, and icy relations for a usually manageable period of time.

When a political action operation goes wrong or gets exposed, particularly if it involves regime change, the results can have a virtually endless negative impact.   Latin America still chafes under the conviction that the United States attempted regime change in seven different countries in the 10 years between 1954 and 1964.  Worse yet is the fact that the fallout of the overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran in 1953 remains a major bone of contention over 55 years later!

It is fairly safe to say that our CA propaganda operations, despite what they cost us in terms of resources, were little more than a pinprick to the Soviets.  Our political action operations, particularly those designed to change regimes, are a bit more difficult to evaluate in terms of their net worth to the U.S. government.  So many such “operations” have been laid at our doorstep that it is really impossible for an outsider to put together an accurate list.  Nevertheless, some that went bad have had a profoundly negative effect on us.  That negative effect is not only to be measured in international political terms, but has to be looked at in terms of the effect that it had on our own human intelligence collection operations. The negative publicity that the CIA has gotten over the years as a result of its covert action operations, both real and imputed, has had a direct inhibiting effect on its clandestine intelligence collection operations.

The CIA may well have been at its most prolific in terms of its production of intelligence on our enemies’ capabilities and intentions during the 1960s and 1970s.  We had learned a great deal about the conduct of Cold War clandestine collection operations during the 1950s and early 1960s, and that fact, combined with a loosening of Soviet control over its citizens, presented us with a very favorable operational environment which we were increasingly able to exploit.

We were able to do that because CIA management was still very much in the hands of the old OSS members who had migrated to the Agency.  Whatever negativity they brought to the Agency in terms of their positive focus on covert action operations, they were always aggressive.  The CIA was a risk-taking organization, and if your goal is successful espionage, that is one of the prerequisites.

Church Committee Impact

All of that began to change with the publication of the Church Committee findings in 1976. The CIA took the fall for all the Political action (regime change) operations undertaken against foreign leaders, the implication having been made that the CIA, the “rogue elephant,” planned these operations entirely on its own.  No mention was made of the fact that all of them were planned and undertaken at the direction of sitting presidents.

The negative results on CIA’s intelligence collection operations were both physical and psychological.  CIA officers felt unjustly accused and inappropriately undefended.  They had done what they were asked to do and had broken no laws in doing so.

Worse than that, there was an almost immediate effect on our operations.  HUMINT collection activities that had been approved and successfully carried out in the past were suddenly put on hold.  Management had become wildly risk-averse.  They were gun-shy because of realities in their own country.

Intelligence organizations, specifically those operating on behalf of democracies, are incredibly susceptible to the normal organizational aging processes.  While a successful commercial organization tends to reinvent itself when under duress, if only to reestablish profitability, intelligence organizations tend to go to ground when they are under intense scrutiny.  It is probably an unavoidable fact that as they age and their successes and failures become increasingly well known, intelligence organizations get more and more cautious and conservative.

America should probably give up its political action operations.  It is quite likely that a dispassionate evaluation of all those operations over the past 60 years would conclude that they caused us far more difficulty and embarrassment than they were worth.  Nevertheless, It seems unlikely, given the world in which we now live, that any U.S. president would voluntarily give up that part of his legal authorities that lets him commission “special activities as authorized by the President” – an open-ended license to carry out covert action operations, most emphatically including regime change.

Covert action operations, like those attributed to the CIA particularly during the paranoid era of the early Cold War, have consistently been uncovered and publicized to the detriment of CIA’s intelligence collection operations. On the other hand, clandestine intelligence collection operations, when exposed, cause momentary discomfort in the area where they were being conducted, but they rarely result in lasting negative consequences for the CIA or the United States, and they rarely have a lasting negative effect on the continuation of such collection operations.

One acceptable way to counter the stultifying effects on HUMINT operations of organizational aging coupled with publicized covert action failures is to separate the two.  A National Clandestine Service without CA responsibilities, but imbued with the esprit and risk-taking proclivities of the OSS and early CIA, would be a greatly improved intelligence collection organization, undistracted and undeterred by CA from its HUMINT goals.

The point here is to have a HUMINT service that is not burdened with the psychological, bureaucratic, and organizational negatives of having to conduct covert action operations.  Even if we are unable to do away with regime change operations, anything we can do to improve our collection operations is worth consideration.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

Read Full Post »

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

Americans are currently looking at their disastrous economy with a mixture of fear and concern. Given what’s happening in Washington, Wall Street and Main Street, those are understandable concerns. After all, what is our country going to look like in one year? Five years? Ten years?

But then, how many of us think about the impact on the rest of the world of identical problems to those that are now vexing us here at home? In this interconnected world, those foreign impacts could be even greater on us than those that seem to apply only to our economy.

The issue here is a loss of international political stability and its effect on American national interests around the world.

Perhaps the greatest single impact of the global downturn lies in the plummeting price of crude oil.

Most oil producing countries have economies that are wholly or largely dependent on oil and about half of the 15 largest oil producers are heavily dependent on the actual price being paid for it. Many of the countries that are heavily dependent on oil for their well-being have marginal economies. When they are in any way threatened, those marginal economies can become a source of real national unrest. Iran is such a country. During the past few years, there have been increasing internal complaints about the Iranian economy. A drop in the price of oil will simply increase pressure on the government, as the economy is not sufficiently diverse to permit some other sector to take up the slack. Unchecked, this will lead to instability in Iran

The potential for instability lies not just in Iran, it is there all over the oil-producing world in countries we have long supported and thought of as our friends. Think about Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Nigeria and Algeria. This has been true in just about all those countries simply because none of them are democratic, all of them have significant domestic dissent and all are vulnerable to radicalism. Toss in Russia, Mexico, and Brazil and ask whether or not it is in our interest for there to be unrest in those countries.

In the days of $140 per barrel crude, such countries set their priorities on the basis of that price. In some cases, the budgets that evolved to meet the demands of the populations of those countries were understood to be unworkable if the price of crude slipped below a specific price per barrel.

With the price of crude now substantially below the minimum required by many oil exporters to meet their internal budgetary requirements and thus the basic requirements for national stability, the potential for trouble is very real.

China’s situation is very complicated. The one thing that motivates the regime in China is maintaining stability. In order to maintain stability, they feel they must have an annual GDP growth rate of around 10 percent. That means that China requires that 8 million to 9 million new jobs be created a year, all in the name of maintaining stability.

Yet, in 2009’s economic downturn, China will see between 15 million to 20 million new, jobless, migrant workers. Even in a rising economy, it would take over two years to create jobs for them. Take no pleasure in Chinese instability. An unstable nation of 1.3 billion souls is the last thing in the world we want.

Russia is no better off. The recent resurgence of a Russia looking to reestablish the old Soviet position of eminence and influence on the world scene was enabled by the riches brought by their recently established oil wealth. Russia’s ability to fulfill those international aspirations, as well as their ability to satisfy the needs of their own population, will be directly and negatively impacted by the recent drop in crude prices. Today’s bothersome and pushy Russia is far preferable to an unstable Russia.

The international economic downturn is a threat to the United States because it creates political instability. Instability is dangerous to us regardless of whether the country involved is a friend or foe. It is dangerous because there is no way to predict the ultimate outcome of political instability.

In the Muslim world with oil producers and non-producers, it could easily consist of the radicalization of the countries involved. Our old, undemocratic allies, faced with major economic shortfalls and lacking any real internal political support, could see Muslim fundamentalism emerge as a major threat to their stability. The same could easily become true in any country that does not enjoy the support of its people. That could involve our Allies as well as our enemies.

Thanks largely to the excesses of Western greed that lead to the global economic collapse, the world is about to enter a period of what could easily turn into economic chaos. At the very least, we are heading for international economic instability and a time when political instability already grips the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia.

Instability has always fostered revolution. We could be heading now toward the onset of a world-wide revolutionary period that will test American leadership.

Haviland Smith writes about foreign policy.

Read Full Post »