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Archive for September, 2009

With world watching, CIA is in hot seat

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

The Attorney General has opened an enquiry into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a Bush administration euphemism for torture.

If it is to go forward, this process should have two distinct components. The first is an examination of which, if any, CIA officers exceeded the parameters of those “enhanced interrogation techniques” legally permitted and approved by Bush administration lawyers and officials. Anyone found to have done that should be held accountable.

The more important component is: who approved the use of those techniques and whether they truly were legal. CIA Director Leon Panetta has come out in opposition to any such enquiry because he is reportedly fixed on trying to restore a reasonable degree of morale in a very important, but otherwise accused, abused and badly used organization.

President Barack Obama has stated on a number of occasions that he would prefer that his administration look forward, rather than backward, implying his own lack of enthusiasm for inquiries into the past practice of torture. This may well reflect his own enthusiasm for the congressional bipartisanship he seeks, but has found illusory.

Democrat members of Congress, who share none of the president’s responsibilities to actually govern, would like to go after the people in the Bush Administration who got the torture ball rolling, using a search for truth to further discomfit the leaderless Republicans.

The CIA interrogators who were involved in the enhanced techniques, some of whom have commented on the likelihood that such techniques would probably become public and cause them trouble, probably would like the entire issue to go away.

Republicans, particularly those members of Congress who avoided the consequences of having supported eight years of Bush policies and were, however improbably, reelected in 2008, would also most certainly like the issue to disappear. Such an inquiry would at minimum push the Republicans farther into the political wilderness.

Finally, it seems pretty clear where President George Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney and former CIA Director George Tenet would come to rest on the issue.

During the early years after 9/11, the Bush administration quite deliberately set about getting enhanced interrogation techniques accepted and employed by the intelligence community. Only two US Government organizations had any real experience with interrogation, the Military with POWs and the FBI with criminals. The military is said to have refused any such activity in order to protect their own troops from torture at the hands of any enemy. The FBI is said to have told the Bush administration that they would not participate because such techniques did not produce valid information.

So the Bush Administration apparently approached the CIA with its submissive Director George Tenet and found a far more willing audience. This was probably because over the years, the CIA has not been involved in interrogation. The name of the game for CIA was always debriefing people who wanted to talk to them, not interrogating those who did not. That’s police and military business. So, the enhanced interrogation techniques ended up in the hands of those government employees who knew least about what they were being asked to do!

If there is to be any sort of real justice, there has to be a complete investigation. That investigation has to cover not only what was done, but who approved it either explicitly or tacitly. Tacit approval appears to have been at work in Abu Ghraib and it should not be overlooked in any ongoing investigation. Only working stiffs in the field were punished for Abu Ghraib.

Now we have CIA in the hot seat. They may well deserve to be there, but the real issue isn’t whether or not those CIA interrogators who employed “enhanced interrogation techniques” should be investigated with a view to determining their guilt or innocence. The issue really is: who was involved in the approval of torture and bears the guilt for what appears to have happened.

If any investigation is to be successful, it has to look at the approval chain at minimum and at maximum, it has to look at the atmosphere created at the highest level of the administration in power at the time. The prevailing climate after 9/11, as represented by the actions and comments of Vice President Cheney, is equally as important as whatever normal chain of command is involved in the approval process.

Anything less would be a waste of time.

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

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[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

If you look around the world, just about every country that needs one has an external “enemy”. It’s hard to say when this phenomenon started, but it certainly is true. For a lot of obvious reasons, certain countries really feel that they can’t survive without one.

It probably started with the tribal societies of the first homo sapiens. Certainly, the ingrained fears, hatreds, jealousies and violence that accompanied those societies have continued in today’s world and from the widespread nature of the phenomenon, it’s probably fair to say that it’s part of what mankind is and will remain as long as it exists.

The worst applications of the “enemy syndrome” are found in the most repressive countries, giving reason to conclude that the syndrome is an integral part of maintaining internal national control. In non-democratic countries, particularly those which incorporate multiple religious, tribal and or ethnic groups, fostering the existence of national enemies is critical to keeping divergent populations in line.

The Soviet Union was a perfect example. Stretching from Europe to Asia and incorporating, Slavic, Turkic, Caucasian, Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic and Paleo-Siberian peoples, speaking over 200 languages and dialects, the USSR had little reason to think that all those people had much in common, or that they would cooperate without considerable pressure to do so.

The question was, how could a central (Soviet) government keep the USSR together? The answer was to find an enemy acceptable to its diverse population. Thus was born the Glavnyi nepriyatel’ or “Main Enemy” as embodied in the United States. With America as its most dangerous adversary, the Soviets kept pretty good control over an extraordinarily disparate population for decades.

The Soviets took it one step further when they created the concept of “capitalist encirclement”. Listen to Joseph Stalin in 1937:

“Capitalist encirclement—that is no empty phrase; that is a very real and unpleasant feature. Capitalist encirclement means that here is one country, the Soviet Union, which has established the socialist order on its own territory and besides this there are many countries, bourgeois countries, which continue to carry on a capitalist mode of life and which surround the Soviet Union, waiting for an opportunity to attack it, break it, or at any rate to undermine its power and weaken it.”

Thus, the Soviets set up the straw men of capitalism and America as the great enemies and threats to all the goals of the Soviet Union. Of course this was not designed to do anything other than increase Soviet hold over its people by uniting them against a spurious, external, American enemy.

There are literally dozens of historical and actual permutations of this theme. Pakistan with India, the Nazis with Jews, gypsies and other “undesireables”, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe with Britain, Saddam’s Iraq with Iran, the Shia and the Sunnis, many Arab states with Israel. On examination, two phenomena stick out. The enemy syndrome is prevalent in countries where the regime does not have full support of its people, or where there is major ethnic, tribal or religious diversity within the population, or both.

Curiously, during the last eight years, America has fallen victim to the enemy syndrome. We cut our teeth in the Cold War when the USSR was our enemy for decades, giving a sense of national unity to a country where our ethnic, religious and political differences were legion. On the negative side, and there always is a negative side, it enabled the McCarthy era and all the wars we took on in the name of “saving the world from Communism”.

The creation of a dangerous enemy gives any regime the excuse to limit freedoms which can perpetuate a regime in power. Today we have radical Muslim terrorism as our new national enemy. This all began under George W. Bush after 9/11 and got us directly into our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These struggles, purportedly against “terrorism”, were referred to by Bush and the Neoconservatives as the “long war” and it seems perfectly reasonable to conclude from what Karl Rove has said that the real goal was to create an enemy, the battle against which would keep the Republicans in charge for years. The negatives of this “long war” included all the loss of basic civil rights that we suffered during that administration.

As long as American administrations feel the political need for enemies, we will continue to find them. And with the enemy syndrome we will inevitably inherit a new set of national negatives in our pursuit of those enemies. Are we caught in this syndrome?

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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Rhetoric may define strategy

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

Why does President Obama believe it is necessary to “win” in Afghanistan? Of course, this question begs the issue of what “winning” means and whether it is even remotely possible. Certainly, historically, it rarely, if ever, has been.

The president is, by all counts, a thoughtful and intelligent man. He has grasped the important issues involved in Iraq and has moved to a position that will end our military presence there in 2011. He appears to be uninterested in waging war against Iran. He is doing his level best to solve the intractable Palestine situation. These are all good, smart things.

But again, why is he intent on at least maintaining and probably increasing our level of military activity in Afghanistan? Which of his advisers is advocating that policy? Perhaps the answers can be found in his 2008 campaign rhetoric, his lack of military experience, and his hopes for increased bipartisanship.

During the presidential campaign of 2008, Barack Obama pleased many Americans by saying it was not in our national interest to be in Iraq and that he would get us out. As a companion part of that position, he said incessantly that we had been fools to abandon Afghanistan in favor of lraq. In other words, he supported our invasion of Afghanistan and criticized its abandonment, in contrast to his strong negative feelings about our Iraq adventure. He thus created a situation in which, ultimately, he would find it difficult to change his Afghan policy without being accused by his detractors of “flipflopping”.

Barack Obama of 2008 had literally no military experience or background and thus little credibility with either the military or its American supporters. If he wanted to have any credibility with the right and with pro-military congressmen, he may have felt that he had to balance his negativity on Iraq with a pro-military stance on Afghanistan. He does speak favorably and often about increasing bipartisanship.

He is probably a bit defensive about his own lack of experience in military affairs and wants to stay on the good side of military to placate the far right and not be referred to as “soft on terrorism” – all political, as opposed to military issues.

As president-elect Obama, he has found himself in a completely different situation. None of his old political associates had much experience with military matters. President Obama has hired retired General James Jones as his National Security Advisor, retained a Republican-appointed Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, and completely revamped his military team with Generals Petraeus and McCrystal as his go-to leaders on Afghanistan.

It’s a fair guess that two highly ambitious, educated, articulate, relatively young generals would be disinclined to admit that they could not meet the military needs of the administration – “winning” in Afghanistan. Clearly, they have said that the job can be done, albeit with much involvement on the civil side, yet they have no example of its ever having been accomplished!

America often has a way of re-fighting its last war and Afghanistan is no exception. The notion that there will be a literal repeat of 9/11 is pretty absurd. yet our defenses are all designed to thwart that attack! With all the current security involved in US air travel and the fact that there has not been a repeat in eight years, that approach seems pretty unlikely. The same can be said of the “refuge” theory that stipulates that terrorists must have training camps like pre-9/11 Afghanistan in order to pull off another attack of some kind. All they really need is a safehouse in a part of the world where they will not be likely to be watched. That opens up half the world for training and planning.

So, it would seem that President Obama is “motivated” in his Afghan policy, not by any personal experience or conviction that he is on the right course, but rather by his own lack of those attributes and his concomitant reliance on his military establishment, coupled with his own political imperatives, which play an important, perhaps even dominant role in his motivation.

Assuming that “winning” will continue to be illusory, our best way out of Afghanistan probably will be the inevitable decrease of support for that war in the American electorate. That would make every additional day we stay there a major part of the President’s negative legacy. Afghanistan is, after all, Obama’s war.

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.

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