19 Jul 2009

Covert Intelligence: In Trouble on the Potomac

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Richard A. Clarke, in the Wall Street Journal, discusses, from a professional’s perspective, the political wars over US Intelligence Operations, describing recent events as “part of a 60-year historical pattern of manic swings of opinion in Washington about the efficacy of covert action.”

Most Americans might not think it was a big secret that CIA agents were trying to kill al Qaeda members, but in the weird world of Washington intelligence, it was.

For over a decade, in three different presidencies, there has been an ongoing debate about whether and how to kill al Qaeda terrorists and what part of the U.S. government should have the mission. The 9-11 Commission report details how President Clinton decided that killing Osama bin Laden and his supporters was not a violation of the ban on assassinations, how he authorized attacks, and how the CIA failed successfully to use that authority. Several media accounts this week indicate that after 9-11, the CIA put together a more serious effort to take out terrorists, but that the program was variously activated, deactivated, and put on hold by the four directors the CIA has had since 9-11. Senior CIA officers have been reluctant for years to create hit squads, fearing that a wave of CIA assassinations of terrorists would provoke a major al Qaeda retaliation against U.S. intelligence officers worldwide. They have also, with good reason, doubted the ability of their own agency to successfully kill the right people and then escape. Some have pointed to the Israeli terrorist targeting effort as evidence that such killings can be counter-productive, providing the terrorist groups with propaganda victories. Israeli experts are themselves split on the effectiveness of their killings, but it does seem likely that it has made it harder for terrorist leaders to operate.

It is puzzling that some people object to U.S. personnel killing terrorists with sniper rifles or car bombs, but have little apparent problem with CIA and Department of Defense personnel tracking down specific terrorist leaders with Predator drones and then killing those leaders with the unmanned aircraft’s Hellfire missiles. The terrorist groups probably see little difference in how we choose to kill their leaders.

Clarke is perfectly right. Outside the nation’s capital and beyond the circles of the chattering class elite, no one in America would ever understand why there is (supposedly) some kind of a legal and moral problem with US covert intelligence killing al Qaeda terrorists. You need elite education, real sophistication, and a habit of reading important publications to understand these things.

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