Archive for January, 2010

Getting Iran to unite means U.S. standing up

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

It appears that violence has reached a new high in the struggle between the Iranian people and their “Islamic Republic of Iran”. Just about any time an opportunity presents itself, anti-government forces take to the streets. Recently protestors have burned police cars, police stations and other government installations and, whenever they could, terrorized the police and militias.

The tough call here is whether or not these protests and demonstrations represent a viable threat to the Iranian government. Will there be a general uprising, and, if so, will it end with the successful overthrow of the government?

During the evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran over the past 30 years one fact has become crystal clear: The primary purpose of that evolving system is to keep itself in power.

To that end it is estimated that Iran has over 800,000 personnel on active duty; 650,000 in the Army, 100,000 in the Air Force and 70,000 in the Navy. The Revolutionary Guards add an additional 100,000, including their own militia, the Basij. With reservists added in, it is conservatively estimated that Iran can field a military establishment of over one million people. US General John Abizaid called Iran the Middle East’s most powerful military establishment.

This military establishment, coupled with a police force of over 200,000, is perfectly capable of maintaining the current order in Iran, as long as its members do not break ranks and go over to the dissidents, which there is no present indication they would do.

In addition to all this military and police power, the Revolutionary Guards are heavily involved in the country’s economic life, controlling up to one third of the Iranian economy through businesses they own and thus increasing their power over the people.

There are two issues involved here: the ability of the regime to maintain its power and the ability of the military and paramilitary establishments to deal with external threats. They do not appear to be unable to cope with any such local or regional problems.

There is much discontent within Iran, but Iran has a government dedicated to maintaining itself in power, as well as the tools to do so. Iranians do not seek western style freedoms or freedom from their theocracy. They seek simply an improvement in their lives. Iran has a totally home-grown government which, however much disliked by large portions of the population, stems from a common religious commitment to the Shia branch of Islam.

Can external involvement change Iran? As much as the Iranian in the street may like individual Americans, hardly any of today’s residents think of the United States as anything but the enemy. We are, after all, the country that in 1952, took down the only representative government that was ever democratically elected in Iran, replaced it with a despotic Shah and kept him in power for 27 years. Most of the Iranians who liked us up until their 1979 Islamic revolution now live in the west, so there is precious little support for U.S. involvement in internal Iranian affairs. For us to do it and get caught, which we usually are, would be the final kiss of death for America in Iran.

Add to this the fact that the first Bush administration called for a revolt in Iraq after the First Gulf War in 1991 and then offered absolutely no assistance of any kind. When this ended in tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, the U.S. government was pretty well written off in the region as offering anything positive under such circumstances. So, if there is to be any external support for today’s Iranian dissidents, it will have to come from somewhere other than the United States.

Finally, however much Iranians may like individual Americans, their view of American policy toward Iran and the greater Middle East is quite different. Where they don’t hate American or what it stands for, they absolutely do hate what America does. They hate our policies in Iran and the region.

In that context, any indication whatsoever that America is meddling in internal Iranian affairs or actually planning to attack Iran, whether over nuclear weapons or simply for another round of regime change, will overnight do away with this current discontent with its marches and anti-government slogans. Like it or not, American bellicosity is probably the only thing that is capable of uniting Iranians behind their present government.

Absent such American involvement, there is a high likelihood that the protests in Iran will continue. Where such continued protests are highly unlikely to unseat the present regime, they may result in positive changes in Iranian economic conditions, a fact that might well calm Iranian unrest.

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Stumbling in the ruins

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

In his 1993 article in Foreign Policy titled “The Clash of Civilizations?” Samuel Huntington posits that “in the future … countries with large numbers of people of different civilizations … are candidates for dismemberment.” In this context, “civilizations” are defined by language, history, religion, customs and institutions.

Much of the world is made up of individual countries that contain people of such different “civilizations.” Iraq and Afghanistan are on our plate on an unremitting basis today, but the fact is that much of the world, particularly that part of the world that once existed under the arbitrary and self-interested umbrella of imperialism, is made up of “countries” that contain populations of people from different civilizations that generally have little in common and that often are overtly hostile to one another. Ultimately, we will not be able to keep them all intact.

The Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia, China and much of Asia fall into this category. With their origins based on early and competing tribal societies, these civilizations might never have coalesced into “countries” without the controlling intervention of imperialism.

Nevertheless, it is what it is. As the world’s only current superpower, we have to live with this complicated situation. So how does this translate into the world of American foreign and military power?

We are on the horns of a nasty dilemma. We live in a world that is less than a century removed from centuries of imperialism. That’s barely a historical heartbeat, and the result is that many of the world’s peoples have not achieved their societal goals in that period.

Most Middle Eastern and African countries have rid themselves of imperialism but now have repressive regimes that continue to deny their peoples’ aspirations for a freer, better life, however they may define that. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran cover the spectrum. Saudi Arabia has evolved from imperial Ottoman occupation to its own anti-democratic kingdom.

Egypt has shed the British imperialists for a regime that is probably more repressive and antidemocratic than were the British. Iran progressed from imperial Russian and British occupation, to a repressive kingdom under the shah, to an even more repressive Islamic government that usurped power after his fall.

We Americans need to know precisely what it is we want for the world’s former imperial colonies. When we say we want democracy, we are simply pushing our own American exceptionalism. “Democracy” may be well suited to us, but close examination of the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, will show the difficulties in exporting it lock, stock and barrel to countries with no experience in self-rule, no free press and no rule of law.

What America should be interested in is stability through self-determination. We need a world that is not constantly in turmoil. The way you reach such stability is to make as many people as content as possible.

Yet our foreign policy over the last 50 years has been to create “stability” by keeping repressive rulers in power.

Just now, we are seeking an end to today’s halting attempt at self-determination in Egypt. We seem guided by a “better the devil you know” foreign policy that concludes that iron-fisted repression or control of populations is better than allowing their people to choose the form and nature of governance under which they seek to live, if we fear it will not be “democratic.”

So, we continue to support Mubarak in Egypt, the royal family in Saudi Arabia, dictators in Central Asia and Africa, impotence in Yemen and Afghanistan, ambivalence in Pakistan and chaos in Somalia, perhaps as an alternative to our concerns about the possibility of radical Muslim theocracies taking over.

As a nation, America has not, as Huntington says, “develop(ed) a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests.”

Over the last 50 years, Americans as a group have not been able to develop a sufficiently broad and deep grasp of the complexities involved outside our own ethnocentric world to permit such understanding. Since most foreign-policy decisions are based on the domestic political needs of our elected leadership (their view of what we want), our policies will not change until Americans in general have attained a more nuanced grasp of world complexities.

In the meantime, we will flounder about the old colonial world, making mistake after mistake by applying our political and military power in defense of repressive, unwanted regimes.

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

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[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

Compared with much of the rest of the world, America enjoys unparalleled, constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Unfortunately, in bad or difficult times, our national leadership, irrespective of political party, is prone to make those guarantees secondary to their own notions of “security.”

Suddenly, the “safety of the American people” becomes more important than the Constitution. Practices and procedures are adopted that fundamentally conflict with that document. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush have all gone that route.

At least Lincoln and Roosevelt had real wars on their hands. Bush had only his contrived “War on Terror,” a self-defeating reaction to the horrors of 9/11 which apparently was designed by the Neoconservatives, as were many of his other policies, to keep Americans in an endless state of fear and turmoil. This would, in turn, enmesh us in their “long war” which would commit us to equally endless years fighting their contrived enemies. Maybe they thought that fomenting this struggle would keep them in power. Clearly, it has not.

Over the six-plus years since 9/11, we have seen an end to certain habeus corpus rights, unconstitutional wireless wiretapping, torture, the CIA Gulag of prison camps, over 700 presidential “signing statements” abrogating legal legislation, and on and on.

We even got to the point where when President Bush found a law he didn’t like, he said he would interpret the law his own way. With a court system that was increasingly permissive in dealing with his activities, you had the perfect constitutional storm.

After 9/11, having not experienced a serious foreign attack on the continental US since the War of 1812, Americans panicked. We were being asked to actually give up constitutional rights for some amorphous sense of safety. We were bombarded with color-coded threat assessments, constant reminders of America’s vulnerability, stories of plots against America, and heavy coverage of attacks abroad.

Then we got Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, waterboarding, the CIA Gulag and we were told America had to do that to be safe. In a direct abrogation of our responsibilities as citizens, we accepted it! We simply packed up all our constitutional convictions and gave in, forgetting Benjamin Franklin’s admonition of 300 years ago that if you give up your rights for safety, you will get neither. That does not seem to have changed under President Obama.

The fact is that free societies are not safe. That’s the price you pay for your freedom. There is no middle ground. Either you are “free” or you are “safe”.

Let us accept as true the Bush administration’s claim that the techniques and tools that diminished our civil liberties at home and our reputation abroad were worth it because they stopped terrorist attacks. Even then the argument fails, for such things represent a tactical response to a strategic threat. They may stop the occasional attack, but they won’t address the fundamental issue. Even with a new administration, we need to change our counterterrorism policies.

Don’t believe the constant drumbeat that Muslims “hate us for what we are.” They actually like what we are. What they don’t like is what we do. They do not like our policies. As long as those policies persist, that tiny percentage of Islam that is composed of radical Muslims will wish and do us evil.

What Muslims want is pretty straightforward. They want foreign troops out of Arab countries, particularly out of the holiest countries like Saudi Arabia. They want an end to foreign support for the repressive, unelected governments in the Muslim world, an end to the American military occupation of Iraq, an end to killing Muslims and an equitable solution for Palestine.

It is possible to reach the goals outlined above if America and Europe get together and work for them. As of this moment, our active involvement is the only way we will solve the problems that face us in that part of the world. Only through such solutions will we realize our national interests in the Middle East, rid ourselves of our fears here at home and reconnect with our constitutional guarantees.

The election of Barack Obama initially provided real hope that appropriate solutions would be undertaken. Since then, he appears to have adopted the Bush Administration’s foreign policy philosophy and tactics, leaving little hope either for peace or for our military departure from the Middle East.

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

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The CIA’s gray world

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

There is an essential philosophical disconnect in the existence of a secret intelligence organization in a liberal democracy. For those who don’t remember, that was one of the arguments presented when the creation of the CIA was being discussed in Congress after World War II.

Nevertheless, after due deliberation, the decision was made to go ahead with the creation of the CIA, based primarily on the nature of the world in which the discussion was being held. That was not a happy world. In the aftermath of the war and the Holocaust, and in the face of the upsurge in Soviet involvement around the world, the decision was made that, given a proper set of rules and sufficient oversight, it was in our national interest to have just such a secret intelligence service.

Now, more than 60 years later, recent articles in the press have called this decision into question. The issue revolves around the CIA’s movement of German Nazis to the United States in contravention of our own laws and practices covering the arrest and detention of Nazi war criminals. This concern has widened to question the propriety of the continued existence of the CIA.

The CIA was faced immediately after the war with the fact that certain of its “assets” could not safely remain in their countries of origin, mostly in Europe. As Nazis, they were being hunted by numerous organizations. As American agents or defectors, some Soviet citizens were being hunted by the KGB. In most cases, these were assets who had served the United States well or who had the strong potential to do so.

The CIA Act of 1949, also known as Public Law 110, created a structure that permitted the CIA to operate secretly without the normal fiscal and administrative controls that exist in the U.S. government. PL110, Section 8, also enabled the CIA to bring into the United States 100 foreign citizens per year outside normal immigration procedures if their entry was determined to be in “the interest of national security or essential to the furtherance of the national security mission.” These individuals were to be “given entry into the United States … without regard to their inadmissibility under immigration or any other laws or regulations.”

That is the law that permitted the CIA to bring German Nazis into the U.S., for past services rendered to the U.S., or for their potential contribution to our intelligence and defense needs, as in the creation of our missile capability. It also permitted the immigration of considerable numbers of Soviet citizens and their allies who had served or would serve American interests.

In this respect, it is difficult to see much difference between former Nazis and, for example, former KGB officers. Many Nazis had been involved in unspeakable crimes against humanity, but then, so had many KGB officers. Keep in mind that the KGB killed millions more Soviet citizens than the Nazis killed Jews, Gypsies, handicapped people and homosexuals.

We live in a rather gray world. Let’s assume for the argument (and because we hope it is true!) that the CIA is a wildly successful intelligence organization that, in pursuing its clandestine targets around the world, has produced critical information that has saved thousands of American lives in a dangerous world of international terrorism.

Is such a CIA worth having around even though its very existence is philosophically problematical for our liberal democracy? That is the sort of question that was resolved in favor of the CIA’s creation in 1949. Where the world is very different today, it is hardly less dangerous.

Is the CIA up to the tasks it now faces? That is impossible for outsiders to know. If it is not, then it needs examination with a view to reorganization or redirection. In any event, the United States needs a clandestine intelligence service to protect itself in a very dangerous world. Without such an organization, America is more vulnerable than it should be.

And while we’re at it, perhaps we should take another look at the entire intelligence community and the USA Patriot Act. Certainly that poorly and hastily conceived legislation did little more than give us an additional layer of bureaucracy and cover the posteriors of our elected and appointed officials.

As was the case 65 years ago, America needs to decide whether today’s realities warrant an uncomfortable coexistence with a clandestine intelligence structure and how that structure should be configured and managed for optimal results.

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

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

All it takes to get America ginned up about terrorism and air travel security is to have another attempt to down a jetliner hit the press. Detroit has done just that.

Suggestions for solutions to this problem cover the range from idiotic to inspired. One genius on CNN suggested we ban anyone with an Arabic name from flying at all. One rather thoughtful expert suggested that there are a number of devices available that are capable of sniffing out explosive compounds.

Americans cannot be both safe and free. Until the time when and if technology takes over, if you really want to be safe in the air, you will have to accept some diminution of your personal freedoms, like virtual screening and body searches. If you want to be free, you will have to reject such measures and perhaps not fly.

Let’s face it, Americans have already accepted major intrusions into their personal freedoms with warrantless wiretapping and most of the other measures instituted by the Bush administration under the Patriot Act after 9/11. So, you see, your horse has already left the barn.

One CNN “expert” has suggested that what is wrong is that we are focused too much on weaponry in our anti-terrorism measures. What we should be doing, he suggested, is focusing on the people. Terrorists, he and many others have said, have many common and identifiable factors. They are all Muslims and have strange names, for example. Forget the legal issues, we need to profile them.

If you look at Muslims around the world, they are black, white, tan, Asian, European and Middle Eastern. Consider Nigeria, the Arab world, Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, China, Russia, Bosnia and Albania. That covers the human color range. There are no common denominators in those groups other than their religion, and that only if they are Muslim and choose to say so.

In addition, they now include numbers of converts who are entirely atypical. Some are white Americans and Europeans.

Quite apart from those absolutes, any good terrorist organization has its document specialists. Any such specialist can create or alter just about any passport by giving the bearer a new name, date and place of birth, or any of the other identifying characteristics contained in such a document. That really puts the torch to any foolproof system that would focus on the individual rather than the chosen weapon. In fact, the best known, most competent and highly blacklisted terrorist can foil the entire watch list system by assuming a new identity. So much for watch lists and no-fly lists.

The only potentially effective system available is based on common sense and technology. Common sense dictates that we have a system that will tell us unequivocally that any given person: bought a one-way ticket; bought a ticket with cash; had only a carry-on for a three-week stay. Or that that same person had been reported to U.S. authorities as an increasingly radicalized Muslim. We have computers. What we need is more reliable input and analysis.

Technological solutions now include machines designed to detect explosives at airports as part of security screening. Although performance specs on such technology are understandably closely held, they are said to work very well and to have low failure rates. The only impediments to the use of such technology are the availability of the machines and the decision to install them.

If the terrorist is able to get his bomb past airport controls, today’s carry-on bomb materials clearly require privacy to be assembled and armed. That can best be done in the toilet. There needs to be a way to learn that such a process is under way; given our high level of technical sophistication, that is certainly possible.

Of course, it would be useful if there actually were someone in charge at the Transportation Security Administration. The nominee, Erroll Southers, has been held up by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina since early September, because the senator fears that Southers will unionize airport screeners. Now, there’s a good way to keep us safe in the air!

We are at the point where technology and common sense, instead of prejudice, stereotyping and hysteria, represent the possibility of saving us from our baser selves, while measurably increasing our security without further diminishing our personal freedoms. That certainly is worth a try.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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

he Obama administration, in the face of strong, highly professional, reality-based advice and commentary warning against any Afghan build-up, has decided to go ahead with such a troop build-up coupled with a withdrawal deadline. It would seem on the face of it to be a strange mix. Why raise the ante and simultaneously set a date for a withdrawal that can easily be waited out? What is the military rationale for that?

For political observers and junkies, it is fascinating to look at the “whys” of this policy decision. Certainly it was not based on a rational assessment that the facts on the ground in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) gave any hope for its success. Quite the opposite, history and current realities argue strongly against his policy. So, the decision must have been political.

Perhaps it was based on the old George W. Bush premise that you make foreign policy, not on the basis of the way the world is, but on the basis of the way you would like it to be. There’s nothing new here, as the Bush administration’s neoconservatives always opted for principle-based, rather than reality-based foreign policy.

Or perhaps it was because the president felt hemmed in by the positions he took on Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2008 presidential campaign. He did say, after all, that Iraq was a mistake, but that Afghanistan was a just war that had to be pursued because it was the main theater in our struggle with al Qaida. Of course, the facts do not support him on that, but he may have felt constrained from other considerations by his own campaign position when it came to an expedient policy for Afghanistan.

Or perhaps it was made because, with absolutely no military experience and precious little foreign policy experience, he was reluctant to argue against the Pentagon and the remaining American citizens, politicians and business that share the now discredited neoconservative conviction that military power is the correct, the only decision for all such foreign policy dilemmas. One might think that after Bush, Afghanistan, Iraq and Afghanistan a second time, we could have learned. However, it may have seemed far too politically dangerous to this inexperienced administration to go up against its detractors. Particularly as the vice president is the only one with any claim whatsoever to any valid experience.

Or, perhaps it was made because of the administration calculus that to have gone in any other direction, whatever its possible promise, would have materially weakened the Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections and ultimately in the next presidential election. The thought of returning to power a Republican Party that seems to have no policy of its own, other than to be against everything the Democrats want to do, must be terrifying to the White House and the Democratic caucus.

Or, perhaps it was made in the hope of neutralizing the Republicans’ military trump card by playing it. Of course, that wouldn’t work if you told your own generals, who are good at war, but not necessarily good at politics, that they are very likely wrong when they say they can “succeed.”

Or perhaps he really believes that he will not lose his core supporters when they digest all the “perhapses” and realize that absent the choice he made, the Democrats might be consigned to the political dust heap in 2010 and 2012, thus losing the opportunity to implement their more significant domestic agenda.

Or perhaps, worst of all, the president has settled on the same cynical exit strategy that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger employed in Viet Nam, where, understanding they could not win, they sought a “decent interval” between the decision to withdraw and the actual withdrawal. That might be fine for them, but what about the troops and treasure we will lose while watching our Afghan demise.

Perhaps it was all of the above combined. Whatever the truth, it would appear that this Obama Afghan policy will shake out as one of the most crassly political decisions made by a recent president.

However, he says he has done his due diligence. He has chosen his policy and begun its implementation. All we can do is wish him well and pray that in the face of inevitable, historical and contemporary realities, something positive will come of his decision.

Barring major developments in Afghanistan/Pakistan, or the opportunity to eat his words, this is the last this writer intends to offer on that subject until there is some resolution of the problem that now faces us. Everything that could have been said has been said and there is no reason to keep on beating this dead horse.

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.

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