Archive for May, 2009

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

After 9/11, the Bush administration concluded that it would have to look very carefully at every nation that could conceivably provide a launch pad for an Al Qaida attack on the United States. Later it was further decided that any “failed state” would supply Al Qaida with the environment it would need and that we would therefore, presumably, have to see to it that no state in Islam failed.

Of course, Afghanistan was not a failed state. It was a state dominated by the Taliban. Our problem was that the Taliban had no problem with Al Qaida setting up shop on Afghan soil. So they did, and they trained their terrorists and we watched and waited until 9/11, before we truly galvanized.

In their Afghan facility, Al Qaida ran a complete terrorist training operation, grooming their troops for just about any conceivable paramilitary task. They trained their recruits as guerillas, attack troops, bomb makers, snipers, suicide foot, car and truck bombers and anything else that struck them as appropriate for a terrorist organization.

What they could not train them to do in the Afghan mountain caves was to fly planes into buildings. They had to come to America for that training. Nor was it necessary for them to find a failed state or a friendly state in order to sit down and plan 9/11. They could do that in just about any mud hut in the Pushtun countryside or in any other country that provided freedom of movement, like America, Spain, Germany, France or England, in all of which countries they have subsequently done just that. 9/11 was planned and then trained for in places that had absolutely nothing to do with failed states. It would almost certainly have been successfully planned and carried out in the absence of a safe haven in Afghanistan.

We have recently been ominously informed that Somalia and the Yemen could easily turn into “failed states” that could provide support for Al Qaida training and plotting. And if we look at a map, there are other states in Islam with which we do not enjoy cordial relationships, states that do not hold us in high esteem. Any of these states could turn into a sanctuary for Al Qaida.

Apparently the Saudis are concerned about a growing threat from the Yemen. This concern is shared by Gen. David Petraeus, who recently told Congress that the weakness of Yemen’s government provides Al Qaida a safe haven and that terror groups could “threaten Yemen’s neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.”

So, there is some reason for our allies in the Middle East to be concerned about Al Qaida and failing states. That may mean that we should also be concerned, as long as we understand that it is not a military issue which will directly involve the United States. It is a security problem for the Saudis and should be handled by them and any other threatened country.

There are two lessons here. The first is that there are always bad people doing bad things in the world. It is important for us to learn that we are not responsible for rectifying all the world’s ills. We need to let the rest of the world accept primary responsibility for its own wellbeing.

The second is that undertaking to keep states from failing and trying to make sure that Al Qaida doesn’t have any friends who will give them sanctuary will not bring us any sort of immunity from the next terrorist attack. That attack can be organized, planned, funded and carried out from any safehouse in any part of the world that gives its residents a relative lack of scrutiny. It requires neither a friendly nor a failing state.

As long as we are compulsively militarily involved in trying to mold the world to our liking, we are going to create more and more people and nations who will wish us ill, increasing the likelihood that we will be attacked again.

We are at a crossroads here. At our own peril, we are either going to continue to undertake truly high risk military operations like the Iraq war in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and perhaps elsewhere, or, having been given the opportunity to change as a result of the elections of November 2008, we can reassess our role in the world and consider the possibility that there are other ways to do our business that will not keep us stretched thin around the world and not put us constantly in military, political and economic jeopardy.

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.

Read Full Post »

[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

America is all about checks and balances. We began it all by setting up our national government in a way that would spread power between the Judiciary, Executive and Legislative branches of Government. Each would provide checks and balances on the others.

This arrangement has forced us to compromise. Compromise, in the main, has brought us to the center, politically, economically and philosophically, helping us avoid the extremist pitfalls that have in the past characterized other, more authoritarian systems around the World.

In our national political arena, the spirit of compromise, as forced on us by the diffusion of power between the parties, has helped us achieve centrist moderation.  That has occasionally been painful, simply because on the political side, there have been times when one of the parties in our two party system, flush with long-term electoral success, has felt it had no reason to compromise with the other.  We have seen that recently and may see it soon again.

The arrogance of presumed power and the inclination to uncompromisingly stick it to the other party has often led to the ouster of the offending party and the restoration of power through the electoral re-installation of the opposition.  This situation has become more pronounced in recent decades as the Republicans and Democrats have become increasingly at philosophical odds.

We are in the middle of one of these changes right now.  We have gone from an essentially autocratic and politically partisan Bush Administration, which did pretty much as it wished, through national disenchantment with those policies, to their ouster and the re-installation of the Democrats.

Despite Obama’s inclination to reach out to the Republicans, which he appears to have sincerely wished to do, two unproductive issues have surfaced. On the left, there are indications that some Democrats would like to get even for the past eight years, where in contrast, the Republicans have lined up and voted in a bloc against all the important Obama initiatives designed to address our critical economic problems.

We have no experience with the economic problems that might teach us what to do today. Further, it would appear that the policies that helped get us here and which in many cases are now supported by congressional Republicans as viable solutions, are not going to get us out of the mess we are in.  It may be that Democratic policies also may not do the job either, but at least they have not been tried and already failed.

Yet, these attempts have passed despite 100% Republican Congressional disapproval.  Any non-partisan bystander who looks at this situation has to think that the Republicans are taking an incredible, all-or-nothing risk.  If the Democrats’ policies don’t work, they, the Republicans, win it all, BUT, and it’s a big but, if the Democrats are even only sufficiently correct, the Republicans will lose.

This may be a gamble that the Republican leadership, if there really is such a thing today outside the talk show circuit, is prepared to take.  It may be a risk that the Democrats, believing that their policies will succeed, are also prepared to take.  Those real gamblers are, in the main, the most radical and partisan members of both political parties, those who see political annihilation of the other party as a good thing.

However, if you are an Independent, Democrat or Republican and from the political center, this has all the earmarks of an impending disaster. The existence of either a too weak or a too strong party is dangerous.  What you don’t want if you are a centrist, is for either party to lose big-time.  All that does is put the radicals in charge – the ones who more than anything else, want to use their new power to get even with the party that put them through hell for their preceding years in the political wilderness – and permits them to promote their most radical policies.

The only hopeful sign for moderate, non-partisan centrists at this moment is the indication that some Republicans have been increasingly supporting Obama-sponsored legislation against the wishes of their party leadership.  This can be seen in the recent bills addressing credit card fraud, financial fraud and predatory housing lending, all of which have drawn Republican support.

The divisiveness we have seen over the past few decades has been of little service to this country.  We were far better off when major differences between the two parties were few and far between and when changes from administration by one party to the other did not presage traumatic political, social and economic change. We need the checks and balances provided by two viable parties with minor, not major differences.

A little more bipartisanship today could help us a lot tomorrow.

Haviland Smith was a long-term resident of Brookfield.  He now lives in Williston.

Read Full Post »

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

Most Americans who are watching current revelations about our past torture practices and related abuses, or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” seem primarily interested in the extent and nature of those activities. We can all speak to the downside of torture in terms of our world standing. However, in the arcane world of secret intelligence, many professionals are asking precisely what if any benefits have accrued as a result of these questionable activities. More simply put, does torture work and do we really need it?

Interrogation is one of the techniques used by intelligence officers working to obtain information. It rests somewhere in a continuum that includes interviewing, recruitment, debriefing and elicitation.

The most basic of these techniques is arguably recruitment, in which an intelligence officer seeks to obtain the cooperation of a prospective agent for the purpose of producing needed intelligence. Recruitment attempts can be categorized into two general categories, collaborative and coercive. Of these two, collaborative recruitments have been the only ones that have been consistently successful. Coercive recruitments rarely work because there is no communality of interest, only the threat of some as yet undefined punishment for the prospective recruit.

Collaborative recruitment is like seduction. It involves a dynamic in which two people realize that they have a common goal and then work together to reach that goal. The point is, as a mutually shared process and goal, it works only if there is some positive benefit in it for both participants.

Interrogation is a totally different process. It starts with the fact that it involves one person who has been captured or arrested and is now being held captive by another, creating an uneven situation in which there is no mutual benefit in sight. That means that at the onset of the interrogation process, there is no identity of purpose between captor and captive. There is only reason for him to do everything he thinks will help him survive.

In an uneven, captor/captive situation, the captive – and this is particularly true in military or intelligence operations – has no reason to tell the truth. He has every reason to try to figure out what his captor wants to learn, and then try to provide it. He will say virtually anything to stop torture, but will be terrified to reveal the real truth, realizing that doing so will probably end the interrogation process, bringing a totally uncertain future for him, perhaps even death!

Truly gifted interrogators say unequivocally that they can move from the essentially hostile imbalance that is inherent at the beginning of an interrogation to the stage of mutual advantage found in a recruitment scenario simply by approaching the captive as if he were a recruitment target. At that point, using the same process of seduction, he not only establishes a mutuality of interest, but completely removes all the disadvantages of coercion.

Members of the Bush administration and the occasional “anonymous CIA source” have consistently told us that waterboarding has produced critical intelligence. Yet, admissions have crept into the public domain that not all of what was learned was true or accurate, or that it was really the result of waterboarding. Many of the most experienced and successful Military and FBI interrogators support this conclusion, saying it simply does not work and that, even if it did, we can get the information we need without using it.

We live in an unfortunate environment in which, thanks to mass media productions like Fox TV’s “24”, many Americans have been led to believe that torture produces critical intelligence. As that is the primary argument used by proponents of enhanced interrogation, it simply must be challenged and cleared up. The keys to this matter lie probably the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

If it is found that torture is productive, the debate formed in the Bush era on the legality of enhanced interrogation will continue. Next we will examine whether or not it is really needed. Regardless of the result, this process will probably end with the banning of these techniques based simply on their illegality.

However, if it can be established, as it is claimed by so many successful and experienced interrogators, that torture does not work and really never has, and that we can get the information we need without it, there will be no need for further debate.

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.

Read Full Post »