David E. Hoffman writes: The spy had vanished.
He was the most successful and valued agent the United States had run inside the Soviet Union in two decades. His documents and drawings had unlocked the secrets of Soviet radars and weapons research years into the future. He had smuggled circuit boards and blueprints out of his military laboratory. His espionage put the United States in position to dominate the skies in aerial combat and confirmed the vulnerability of Soviet air defenses — showing that American cruise missiles and strategic bombers could fly under the radar.
In the late autumn and early winter of 1982, the CIA lost touch with him. Five scheduled meetings were missed. KGB surveillance on the street was overwhelming. Even the “deep cover” officers of the CIA’s Moscow station, invisible to the KGB, could not break through.
On the evening of Dec. 7, the next scheduled meeting date, the future of the operation was put in the hands of Bill Plunkert. After a stint as a Navy aviator, Plunkert had joined the CIA and trained as a clandestine operations officer. He was in his mid-30s, 6-foot-2, and had arrived at the Moscow station in the summer. His mission was to give the slip to the KGB and make contact. [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. intelligence agencies believe there is a strong possibility the Assad regime will use chemical weapons on a large scale as part of a last-ditch effort to protect key Syrian government strongholds if Islamist fighters and other rebels try to overrun them, U.S. officials said.
Analysts and policy makers have been poring over all available intelligence hoping to determine what types of chemical weapons the regime might be able to deploy and what event or events might trigger their use, according to officials briefed on the matter.
Last year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad let international inspectors oversee the removal of what President Barack Obama called the regime’s most deadly chemical weapons. The deal averted U.S. airstrikes that would have come in retaliation for an Aug. 21, 2013, sarin-gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people.
Since then, the U.S. officials said, the Assad regime has developed and deployed a new type of chemical bomb filled with chlorine, which Mr. Assad could now decide to use on a larger scale in key areas. U.S. officials also suspect the regime may have squirreled away at least a small reserve of the chemical precursors needed to make nerve agents sarin or VX. Use of those chemicals would raise greater international concerns because they are more deadly than chlorine and were supposed to have been eliminated.
The intelligence is “being taken very seriously because he’s getting desperate” and because of doubts within the U.S. intelligence community that Mr. Assad gave up all of his deadliest chemical weapons, a senior U.S. official said.
Syrian officials in Damascus and New York didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. The Syrian regime has denied using chemical weapons of any kind, disputing allegations made by the U.S. and other Western governments.
Any large-scale use of chemical weapons would exacerbate the dilemma the Syria conflict poses for the Obama administration. Mr. Obama has long called for Mr. Assad to step down, given his crackdown on opposition groups and the brutality of what became an all-encompassing civil war.
But U.S. officials say they don’t want his departure to create a security vacuum in areas controlled by the regime, allowing Sunni militants affiliated with Islamic State or the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front to seize more territory. The U.S. officials are concerned that chemical weapons could fall into militants’ hands.
A new intelligence analysis suggests Mr. Assad could use those chemicals as a weapon of last resort to protect key installations, or if the regime felt it had no other way to defend the core territory of its most reliable supporters, the Alawites.
The analysis underlines what U.S. officials describe as growing signs of the Assad regime’s desperation on the battlefield.
Islamic State militants and competing rebel forces, some aligned with al Qaeda and others backed by the Central Intelligence Agency, have been whittling away at territory controlled by the regime, leaving critical military bases and supply lines vulnerable, particularly in the country’s northeast and south.
The regime’s weakness was apparent during recent defeats in the northwest province of Idlib and the city of Palmyra. Regime forces withdrew quickly rather than fight a prolonged battle, according to rebel commanders and U.S. officials. The regime controls only about one-quarter of the country, with the rest held by Islamic State, various opposition rebels and Kurdish groups, according to monitoring groups and diplomats. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Military prosecutors this year learned about a massive cache of CIA photographs of its former overseas “black sites” while reviewing material collected for the Senate investigation of the agency’s interrogation program, U.S. officials said.
The existence of the approximately 14,000 photographs will probably cause yet another delay in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as attorneys for the defendants demand that all the images be turned over and the government wades through the material to decide what it thinks is relevant to the proceedings.
Defense attorneys said they have not yet been informed about the photographs and said it is unacceptable that they should come to light now, more than three years after the arraignment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other defendants accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Forty-five former US military personnel, including a retired army colonel, have issued a joint appeal to the pilots of aerial drones operating in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere, calling on them to refuse to carry out the deadly missions.
In a joint letter, the retired and former military members call on air force pilots based at Creech air force base in Nevada and Beale air force base in California to refuse to carry out their duties. They say the missions, which have become an increasingly dominant feature of US military strategy in recent years, “profoundly violate domestic and international laws”.
“At least 6,000 lives have been unjustly taken by US drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, the Philippines, Libya and Syria. These attacks are also undermining principles of international law and human rights,” the authors write. [Continue reading…]
Jeff Stein reports: Mark Rossini, a former FBI special agent at the center of an enduring mystery related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, says he is “appalled” by the newly declassified statements by former CIA Director George Tenet defending the spy agency’s efforts to detect and stop the plot.
Rossini, who was assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) at the time of the attacks, has long maintained that the U.S. government has covered up secret relations between the spy agency and Saudi individuals who may have abetted the plot. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a failed effort to crash into the U.S. Capitol, were Saudis.
A heavily redacted 2005 CIA inspector general’s report, parts of which had previously been released, was further declassified earlier this month. It found that agency investigators “encountered no evidence” that the government of Saudi Arabia “knowingly and willingly supported” Al-Qaeda terrorists. It added that some CIA officers had “speculated” that “dissident sympathizers within the government” may have supported Osama bin Laden but that “the reporting was too sparse to determine with any accuracy such support.” [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The CIA did not know in advance that al-Qaeda’s leader in Yemen was among the suspected militants targeted in a lethal drone strike last week, according to U.S. officials who said that the operation went forward under counterterrorism guidelines that were eased by the Obama administration after the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Yemen this year.
The officials said that Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who also served as al-Qaeda’s overall second-in-command, was killed in a “signature strike,” in which the CIA is permitted to fire based on patterns of suspected militant activity even if the agency does not know the identities of those who could be killed.
The disclosure indicates that the CIA continues to employ a controversial targeting method that the administration had signaled in 2013 that it intended to phase out, particularly in Yemen, which U.S. officials have said is subject to more stringent rules on the use of lethal force than in Pakistan. [Continue reading…]
Following the death of Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen a few days ago, a spokesman for the group made a surprise announcement:
Although there remain several candidates for his replacement, our first choice is a senior fellow from the Brookings Institution who for obvious reasons will henceforth only be referred to by his nom de guerre, al-Moderation.
Much as al-Wuhayshi’s loss is regrettable, it opens up new opportunities for fresh blood, allowing younger, more liberally-minded members of AQAP to now explore non-violent avenues to achieve our objectives.
Hard to imagine that drone strikes might have this effect? No doubt, but what’s equally lacking in credibility is the kind of claim that predictably followed the latest strike.
With a triumphalist tone, the spokesman for the National Security Council, Ned Price, said al-Wuhayshi’s death was a “major blow” to the militant group. He said it “removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”
In an effort to perpetuate the grandiose spirit with which Obama began his drone warfare campaign, Price said: “The president has been clear that terrorists who threaten the United States will not find safe haven in any corner of the globe.”
Yet in Yemen, that corner of the globe where Obama’s drone campaign has largely been focused, the assessment of the former U.S. ambassador, Stephen Seche, is that: “If you’re looking for logic here, you’re not going to find much.”
Why? Because as the U.S. launches occasional drone strikes against AQAP, it is also offering logistical support to Saudi Arabia in its attacks against the group’s principal opponents, the Houthi rebels.
With the promotion of Qasim al-Raymi, the group apparently had no trouble in choosing a new leader.
Orlando Crowcroft writes:
“I think if you were going to guess who would replace al-Wuhayshi, this would [be] the guy. It makes a lot of sense,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Although the loss of four key figures in as many months is a blow for AQAP, the group is having a great deal of success in Yemen in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthi rebels. That conflict has largely affected the north and west of the country, allowing al-Qaeda to seize huge swathes of the east, its traditional Sunni tribal heartland.
“It is a great time for AQAP […] when you look at the situation on the ground. As long as the war continues, as long as Yemen continues inching further and further into the abyss of being a failed state, AQAP and other groups will continue to capitalise,” said Baron.
“Celebrating the death of al-Wuhayshi as if it means the death of AQAP is a very flawed way to look at this.”
If the Al Qaeda central leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was ever to come into the sights of an American drone operator, the wisest response would be to hold fire, and yet the simplistic assumption behind President Obama’s strategy of eliminating so-called high value targets, is that terrorist groups suffer potentially crippling blows whenever their leaders are eliminated — an assumption that is nothing more than an exercise in wishful thinking.
When it comes to the leadership of terrorist organizations, more often than not, it tends to be a case of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
As much as politicians and pundits would prefer terrorists to be seen as extraterrestrial beings, they do in reality exhibit many traits common to their fellow men, one of which is that aging quite often has the effect of curtailing aggression. And even if aging doesn’t lead to moderation, it almost always diminishes the capacities of adaptation.
Even so, over the last decade and a half, a constant refrain from America’s military leaders has been that they struggle against highly adaptable foes. No one seems to recognize that this adaptability is not simply a challenge; it is also an effect of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.
If Obama’s own mysterious strategy extends further than crossing dates off the calendar as he looks forward to leaving office, it is perhaps one of conflict maintenance — to keep the war on terrorism on a slow simmer. Not too hot, nor too cool, but just hot enough to ensure that national security has its required prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign and that whoever enters the White House in January, 2017, will be able to continue with business as usual in America’s ongoing wars.
If 9/11 was the product of a failure of imagination, so is the war on terrorism.
And if for Obama, drone warfare once looked like a magic bullet whose power derived from its precision, it now represents the impotence of a strategy leading nowhere.
Jonathan Vanian writes: The CIA’s top techie explained why the intelligence agency is interested in the same big data tech that businesses love.
Doug Wolfe, the CIA’s chief information officer, made an unusual sales pitch to Silicon Valley on Tuesday by arguing that the spy agency and the tech industry have a lot in common.
“Remember, a lot of the solutions we need are similar to the private sector,” he told the crowd at a tech conference in San Francisco, using some tech industry jargon in the process.
Wolfe, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, was trying to explain the intelligence agency’s interest in a hot technology for data-processing called Spark that’s the current rage for big data nerds. It lets businesses sift and analyze data much quicker than they could just a decade ago.
Of course, Wolfe stayed silent about why the CIA is so interested in processing huge amounts of data. But the reason was hardly a mystery. As part of its spy mission, the CIA invariably wants to quickly glean insights from huge troves of information it and fellow spooks at the National Security Agency collect on a daily basis. Records of international money transfers, cellphone calls, and biometric data about possible terrorists are just some of the inevitable areas of interest.
It’s the same kind of technology that many big businesses use everyday. It turns out that covert CIA operations and routine online marketing campaigns by retailers are much the same. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The Central Intelligence Agency had explicit guidelines for “human experimentation” before, during and after its post-9/11 torture of terrorism detainees, the Guardian has learned, which raise new questions about the limits on internal oversight over the agency’s in-house and contracted medical research.
Sections of a previously classified CIA document, made public by the Guardian on Monday, empower the agency’s director to “approve, modify, or disapprove all proposals pertaining to human subject research”. The leeway provides the director, who has never in the agency’s history been a medical doctor, with significant influence over limitations the US government sets to preserve safe, humane and ethical procedures on people.
CIA director George Tenet approved abusive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, designed by CIA contractor psychologists. He further instructed the agency’s health personnel to oversee the brutal interrogations – the beginning of years of controversy, still ongoing, about US torture as a violation of medical ethics.
But the revelation of the guidelines has prompted critics of CIA torture to question how the agency could have ever implemented what it calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” – despite apparently having rules against “research on human subjects” without their informed consent. [Continue reading…]
Max Fisher writes: Late on Friday, the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General finally released the findings of its internal investigation, concluded in 2005, into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The few sections left un-redacted in the 500-page report do not appear to offer any major revelations.
But the very final section of the report, titled “Issues related to Saudi Arabia,” touches on a question that has swirled around US inquiries into 9/11 since the first weeks after the attacks: Was there any involvement by the government of Saudi Arabia?
This section of the report is entirely redacted save for three brief paragraphs, which say the investigation was inconclusive but found “no evidence that the Saudi government knowingly and willingly supported the al-Qaeda terrorists.” However, it adds, some members of the CIA’s Near East and Counterterrorism divisions speculated that rogue Saudi officials may have aided al-Qaeda’s actions.
The findings, though frustratingly inconclusive, are in line with what many analysts and journalists have long suspected: that, while the Saudi government was probably not involved, rogue Saudi officials sympathetic to al-Qaeda may have been. Like so many investigations into Saudi links to 9/11, this report adds credence to the “rogue officials” theory, but it ultimately settles nothing. [Continue reading…]
Huffington Post reports: For years, Guantanamo Bay prisoners’ memories of their time in CIA custody have been considered classified state secrets. Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers can’t talk publicly about how he lost his left eye. Lawyers for Mustafa al Hawsawi, who can now only sit on a pillow, can’t tell the press or the public about anal feedings that left him with a rectal prolapse. And until recently, Majid Khan’s lawyers couldn’t bring up the time he was hung from a pole for two days, naked and hooded, while interrogators threw ice water on him.
The government argued that by talking about what had happened to them, the CIA’s former prisoners, who are now detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, would risk revealing classified information about the agency’s torture program.
But as James Connell, a lawyer who represents detainee Ammar al Baluchi, wrote more than three years ago in a motion to declassify the prisoners’ accounts, “A person’s own experiences — whether the smell of a rose or the click of a gun near one’s head — are what make them a person, and the government can never own or control them.”
The notion that a torture survivor’s memories can be classified, Connell wrote, “contravenes the most basic principles of human rights.” He added that detainees “were exposed to classified interrogation techniques only in the sense that Hiroshima was exposed to the classified Manhattan Project.”
Now, the government is starting to change course. A Senate Intelligence Committee report, which began to pull back the curtain on the CIA’s use of torture in secret prisons known as “black sites,” compelled the government to change its rules about keeping former CIA prisoners’ memories secret. Khan became the first to successfully test the new rules by going public with his account of his imprisonment, which included details not previously disclosed in the Senate report. Citing the success of Khan’s team, defense attorneys for other Guantanamo detainees are now cautiously optimistic that they can bring their clients’ memories of their time in CIA black sites to light. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Pakistani authorities expelled the U.S.-based aid agency Save the Children from the country on Thursday, sealing its office in the capital and giving staff members 15 days to leave because of “anti-Pakistan activities,” according to the Interior Ministry.
The move, which could have a chilling effect on dozens of charities that work in Pakistan, was carried out after extensive monitoring of the group’s members and activities, a ministry official said in an interview.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, declined to discuss the specific reason for the action. But the move appeared to be related to long-standing allegations of Save the Children’s ties to the Pakistani physician recruited to help the CIA gain information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts prior to the 2011 U.S. military mission that killed him in northwestern Pakistan. [Continue reading…]
In an editorial, the New York Times says: Anyone who had the time to read the summary of the 6,700-page report by Senate investigators on the federal government’s program of torturing detainees captured after the Sept. 11 attacks knew, or at least suspected, that there was more to the sickening story.
This week, a Reuters report added to those suspicions with newly declassified statements from Majid Khan, a high-value prisoner who had been affiliated with Al Qaeda, was captured in 2003 and has been held at Guantánamo Bay since 2006.
Over more than seven years of conversations at Guantánamo with his lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Mr. Khan described even more torture and abuse than is contained in the Senate report. Although the details of his account, as documented in notes by his lawyers, could not be independently confirmed, they corroborate many of the findings of the report.
Soon after his capture, Mr. Khan said, interrogators waterboarded him twice, a contention that contradicts the Central Intelligence Agency’s claim that it had already named all detainees who were subjected to that practice. (The C.I.A. has denied that Mr. Khan was waterboarded.) As he was moved among a series of C.I.A.-operated “black sites” over the following months, Mr. Khan told his lawyers, the torture continued. He was beaten repeatedly. He was hung naked from a wooden beam for three days, shackled and starved. He was taken down once during that time to be submerged in an ice bath. Interrogators pushed his head under the water until he thought he would drown. He received what he called “violent enemas,” and was anally assaulted in a process the interrogators called “rectal feeding.”
“I wished they had killed me,” Mr. Khan said. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency used a wider array of sexual abuse and other forms of torture than was disclosed in a Senate report last year, according to a Guantanamo Bay detainee turned government cooperating witness.
Majid Khan said interrogators poured ice water on his genitals, twice videotaped him naked and repeatedly touched his “private parts” – none of which was described in the Senate report. Interrogators, some of whom smelled of alcohol, also threatened to beat him with a hammer, baseball bats, sticks and leather belts, Khan said.
Khan’s is the first publicly released account from a high-value al Qaeda detainee who experienced the “enhanced interrogation techniques” of President George W. Bush’s administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.
Khan’s account is contained in 27 pages of interview notes his lawyers compiled over the past seven years. The U.S. government cleared the notes for release last month through a formal review process. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: The former deputy CIA director made a series of factual misstatements while defending the agency’s harsh treatment of detainees in his recent book, Senate intelligence committee staffers assert in a 54-page document filed with citations from CIA records.
The detailed critique of the memoir by Michael Morell shows the extent to which critics and backers continue to try to shape public perceptions of the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program, even months after the release of a Senate report that sought to render a final judgment on it.
How the public interprets the CIA’s use of torture is not merely a matter of history: At least one Republican presidential candidate, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, recently promised to bring back harsh interrogation techniques if elected. [Continue reading…]
Rambo! In my Reagan-era youth, the name was synonymous with the Vietnam War — at least the Vietnam War reimagined, the celluloid fantasy version of it in which a tanned, glistening, muscle-bound commando busted the handcuffs of defeat and redeemed America’s honor in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Untold millions including the Gipper himself, an inveterate Vietnam revisionist, were enraptured.
Many years later, studying war crimes in Vietnam, I would come across a real Rambo — or maybe you’d call him an anti-Rambo. To the best of my knowledge, this Rambo didn’t fire a machine gun one-handed or use explosive-tipped arrows. But his work was a powder keg with a short fuse and his conscience a bright flame. While conducting research for a Pentagon-funded project on refugees, A. Terry Rambo turned up evidence that South Korean troops, functionally serving as America’s mercenaries in Vietnam, had massacred a large number of civilians. That Rambo “presented the findings” to, he said, “a whole slew of colonels — 10 or 12” of them. He thought the American brass would take action. Instead, a U.S. officer instructed him to leave that information out of his report. “I told [the officer] as a civilian I didn’t feel myself bound by [U.S. military] orders and that I was going to submit a report on it.” Rambo eventually went public with the story.
He was far from alone.
The criminality, the madness of the Vietnam War seemed to compel many to act in similar ways even when it put them at great peril, threatened to upend their lives, sink their careers, and leave them at odds with their families. Many took to the streets; many who knew secrets spilled them; and the phenomenon spread. It became a golden age of whistleblowing: veterans exposing U.S. atrocities, civilians exposing FBI dirty tricks and domestic surveillance, governmentofficials exposing White House crimes and NSA spying. Truth-telling seemed to be in the air. And, of course, a former Pentagon analyst and employee of the military-funded RAND Corporation, Daniel Ellsberg, rocked the world with his exposure of the U.S. military’s secret history of the Vietnam War — known as the Pentagon Papers — laying bare decades of lies foisted upon Congress and the American people. Today, in another great age of whistleblowers, only Ellsberg’s name remains.
The real Rambo, Ron Ridenhour, Jamie Henry, Perry Fellwock, Peter Buxtun, and so many others are known only to a tiny minority. In 1970, A. Terry Rambo told the New York Times that he had heard about a RAND study that also found evidence of South Korean atrocities. A RAND spokesman said they had turned up “rumors about Korean troop behavior… but since they did not involve RAND research, we can only regard them as hearsay.” Decades later — no thanks to RAND — it’s well-documented that South Korean forces slaughtered large numbers of Vietnamese civilians. It might never have been so if the real Rambo hadn’t had the courage to come forward.
Without whistleblowers, citizens are at the mercy of massaged truths and fine-crafted fictions spun by officials who prefer shadows to sunlight. If you can imagine a world in which the Pentagon Papers were never leaked, in which the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office by President Nixon’s “Plumbers” was never uncovered, in which decades of blood-soaked lies were kept secret from the American people, then you can imagine a world in which the late Anthony Russo, another former RAND analyst and whistleblower in danger of evaporating into history’s mists, never had a crisis of conscience.
Today, Russo has been reduced to a footnote and his shining accomplishment assumed to be, as he put it, as a “Xerox aide” to Ellsberg, a man who did little more than help physically copy documents. As Barbara Myers writes in her inaugural (and epic) TomDispatch piece, Russo was far more instrumental in the leaking of the Pentagon Papers than most know — and that may have been only his second most important act of whistleblowing. With news of a final Rambofilm starring Stallone on the horizon, the time seems ripe to remember the real Rambos and Russos who took great risks to tell hard truths, exposing misery, malfeasance, and murder that the powerful would rather have kept hidden. Nick Turse
The other conspirator
The secret origins of the CIA’s torture program and the forgotten man who tried to expose it
By Barbara Myers
The witness reported men being hung by the feet or the thumbs, waterboarded, given electric shocks to the genitals, and suffering from extended solitary confinement in what he said were indescribably inhumane conditions. It’s the sort of description that might have come right out of the executive summary of the Senate torture report released last December. In this case, however, the testimony was not about a “black site” somewhere in the Greater Middle East, nor was it a description from Abu Ghraib, nor in fact from this century at all.
The testimony came from Vietnam; the year was 1968; the witness was Anthony J. Russo, one of the first Americans to report on the systematic torture of enemy combatants by CIA operatives and other U.S. agents in that long-gone war. The acts Russo described became commonplace in the news post-9/11 and he would prove to be an early example of what also became commonplace in our century: a whistleblower who found himself on the wrong side of the law and so was prosecuted for releasing the secret truth about the acts of our government.
Determined to shine a light on what he called “the truth held prisoner,” Russo blew the whistle on American torture policy in Vietnam and on an intelligence debacle at the center of Vietnam decision-making that helped turn that war into the nightmare it was. Neither of his revelations saw the light of day in his own time or ours and while Daniel Ellsberg, his compatriot and companion in revelation, remains a major figure for his role in releasing the Pentagon Papers, Russo is a forgotten man.
That’s too bad. He shouldn’t be forgotten. His is, unfortunately, a story of our times as well as his.
Watch the full documentary detailing the CIA’s torture program here.
Yochi Dreazen and Seán D. Naylor report: Since its creation in 1947, the CIA has steadily evolved from an agency devoted to its mission of spying on foreign governments to one whose current priority is tracking and killing individual militants in an increasing number of countries. It has been well documented that the agency’s growing scope and depth of influence in the counterterrorism fight reflects its growing skill at hunting America’s enemies from Pakistan to Yemen. What is more surprising, however, is the CIA’s adept navigation of public scandals and its outmaneuvering of the DNI and opponents from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, and the rest of the intelligence community. Through such machinations, the spy agency has managed to weaken or eliminate crucial counterweights to its own power.
To be sure, an empowered and largely autonomous CIA has global repercussions. Much of what the world associates with U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks—from drone strikes in the Middle East to the network of secret prisons around the world and the torture that occurred within their walls—originated at Langley. And given the agency’s dominance, the CIA seems bound to retain its outsize role in how the United States acts and is perceived abroad. With the agency at the forefront of another looming U.S. war in the Middle East, its primacy will again be put to the test.
Today, the CIA is the tip of the spear of the administration’s growing effort to beat back the Islamic State, which controls broad stretches of Iraq and Syria. CIA officers in small bases along the Turkish and Jordanian borders have helped to find, vet, and train members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition so they can fight to dislodge the Islamic State and, ultimately, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. In addition, the agency is responsible for helping to funnel weapons and other supplies to rebels. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, which dwarfs the CIA in size, resources, and congressional backing, is dispatching Special Forces personnel to the region to carry out basically the same training mission. But if the two pillars of the national security establishment were to collide over Iraq and Syria, it would be a mistake to assume that the CIA would lose out. For better—and sometimes for worse—the CIA has been winning just these types of fights since the war on terror began 14 long years ago. [Continue reading…]