The Trump administration seems poised to further unleash the CIA’s paramilitary branch

Joshua Kurlantzick writes: [T]he Trump administration is poised to accelerate a transformation that has been happening, in fits and starts, since the 1960s, with the CIA becoming less of an outfit focused on spying and more of a paramilitary organization with a central role in violent conflicts.

Further increasing the use of CIA paramilitaries and the Pentagon’s Special Forces in places such as Syria and Afghanistan would have potentially grave consequences for U.S. foreign policy — and for the United States’ leadership in the world. These paramilitaries are almost totally unaccountable, and unaccountability encourages rash, even criminal, behavior, including disdain for civilian lives, torture and other abuses. And, as demonstrated by a secret war in the 1960s and early ’70s — the most important precedent for today’s war on terror — it’s hard to win by using the CIA and Special Forces rather than conventional troops.

Fifty-six years ago, another incoming president decided to empower the CIA’s paramilitaries, relying on covert war rather than conventional fighting.

Before taking the oath of office in 1961, John F. Kennedy had (privately) squabbled with some CIA leaders, who saw him as inexperienced and potentially reckless.

The CIA was only 14 years old then and a relatively small player in the American policymaking apparatus, one with far less power and fewer resources than the Departments of Defense and State. The agency mostly concentrated on traditional intelligence and political work, such as spying and trying to overthrow foreign governments believed unfriendly to the United States. It did a small amount of training of foreign forces, but no battlefield commanding.

Once in office, however, Kennedy approved the expansion of what would become the largest covert U.S. operation in history, in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos. In a shift that could prove familiar in 2017, his decision dramatically empowered the same CIA that had worried about the new president.

The political climate at the time Kennedy took office also was in some ways similar to today’s. After a bloody stalemate in Korea, and the defeat of U.S.-backed French troops in Vietnam in 1954, many Americans were tired of conventional war and interventionism in general. Yet foreign policy elites believed that the United States faced an existential threat: Communism was spreading through Asia, first to China and North Vietnam and then to Laos, and possibly beyond. A secret war, one that used relatively few U.S. combatants and relied on foreign proxy forces and bombing from above, came to be seen as the safest choice, politically, for the Kennedy administration.

The CIA’s involvement in Laos, which expanded in 1961 with a small training program for anti-communist fighters, ramped up quickly. It would grow over the course of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, with few Americans, and not even many members of Congress, knowing anything about it. The CIA recruited tens of thousands of U.S. contractors, paramilitary fighters and local Laotian warriors in an ultimately futile attempt to transform Laotian guerillas into a conventional army capable of stopping Hanoi and its local allies. U.S. bombers, working in concert with CIA paramilitaries, destroyed much of Laos while attacking Laotian and North Vietnamese communists. They dropped more bombs on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined in World War II. The country was left with so much unexploded ordnance that, in the four decades since Laos’s civil war ended in 1975, the leftover bombs have killed 20,000 Laotians.

The war cemented the CIA’s place as an organization with power on par with the Departments of Defense and State — and one increasingly dedicated to activities such as arming and advising foreign forces, managing conflicts and even overseeing targeted killings. CIA operatives went on to play roles in covert wars in Central America and Afghanistan in the 1980s, as well as in conflict zones in the war on terror. As Foreign Policy magazine has characterized it, the CIA is now “pulling the strings of U.S. foreign policy” — overseeing drone strikes and managing many aspects of the fight against the Islamic State. And according to documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the CIA’s budget appears to be greater than the State Department’s, a dramatic reversal from the early Cold War. While Brennan is recognized for leading an effort to reduce walls between operatives and analysts and fortify some of the agency’s traditional functions, he also oversaw an increase in the strength of paramilitary operations. In 2015, he promoted a paramilitary operative to head the clandestine branch — reportedly the first time a paramilitary officer took on the top undercover position.

Although Trump’s rhetoric suggests that he could rein in the CIA, the reality, as during Kennedy’s time, will probably be the reverse. The agency’s paramilitary branch, along with the military’s Special Forces — the two have become intertwined in policy and practice — will be further unleashed in a twilight war. [Continue reading…]

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