Monday, January 17, 2005

Sy Hersh on Pentagon covert ops

Sy Hersh has a new story posted at the New Yorker website today, in which he says that the Pentagon has taken over all covert operations from the CIA in the war on terror:

The President has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia. The President’s decision enables Rumsfeld to run the operations off the books—free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A.
Hersh focuses on the fact that the U.S. is planning operations again Iran, but what most interests me here is that his story gives further creedence to the Dickey correction to the Newsweek story last week. Hersh doesn't call these commando groups "death squads," but he does erroneously (I think) make a reference to the early 1980s. In fact, the kinds of operations he describes are more clearly the kinds of things the U.S. special forces trained units of the Salvadoran military to do starting in the mid-1980s. Read this excerpt and judge for yourself:

Under Rumsfeld’s new approach, I was told, U.S. military operatives would be permitted to pose abroad as corrupt foreign businessmen seeking to buy contraband items that could be used in nuclear-weapons systems. In some cases, according to the Pentagon advisers, local citizens could be recruited and asked to join up with guerrillas or terrorists. This could potentially involve organizing and carrying out combat operations, or even terrorist activities. Some operations will likely take place in nations in which there is an American diplomatic mission, with an Ambassador and a C.I.A. station chief, the Pentagon consultant said. The Ambassador and the station chief would not necessarily have a need to know, under the Pentagon’s current interpretation of its reporting requirement.

The new rules will enable the Special Forces community to set up what it calls “action teams” in the target countries overseas which can be used to find and eliminate terrorist organizations. “Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?” the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. “We founded them and we financed them,” he said. “The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it.” A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon’s commando capabilities, said, “We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.”

One of the rationales for such tactics was spelled out in a series of articles by John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, and a consultant on terrorism for the rand corporation. “It takes a network to fight a network,” Arquilla wrote in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

When conventional military operations and bombing failed to defeat the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya in the 1950s, the British formed teams of friendly Kikuyu tribesmen who went about pretending to be terrorists. These “pseudo gangs,” as they were called, swiftly threw the Mau Mau on the defensive, either by befriending and then ambushing bands of fighters or by guiding bombers to the terrorists’ camps. What worked in Kenya a half-century ago has a wonderful chance of undermining trust and recruitment among today’s terror networks. Forming new pseudo gangs should not be difficult.

“If a confused young man from Marin County can join up with Al Qaeda,” Arquilla wrote, referring to John Walker Lindh, the twenty-year-old Californian who was seized in Afghanistan, “think what professional operatives might do.”

"Action teams" and the creation of "pseudo-gangs" sound like the kind of military reconnaissance efforts we know something about in El Salvador. Admittedly, "right-wing execution squads" sounds like the "death squads" as we commonly think of them in the Salvadoran context, but much else in the article points more to the kind of "training of elite units to snatch or kill very specific insurgent leaders" that Dickey referred to in his article.

This does sound very much like what U.S. counterinsurgency training was engaged in by the mid-1980s in El Salvador, training more aggressive mobile units that, together with air support, forced the FMLN into a true "guerrilla" war as opposed to the conventional army they'd built up in the early 1980s. (Go back to Bob Ostertag and Sara Miles' very good piece on the "FMLN's New Thinking" in the September 1989 issue of NACLA, which is not online, unfortunately.)

What's new in this New Yorker article is that it describes a bit more of the methodology to be used, at one point citing former CIA clandestine officer Philip Giraldi's skepticism that the U.S. military may not be up to some of the infiltration tasks involved in these missions:

“I don’t think they can handle the cover,” he told me. “They’ve got to have a different mind-set. They’ve got to handle new roles and get into foreign cultures and learn how other people think. If you’re going into a village and shooting people, it doesn’t matter,” Giraldi added. “But if you’re running operations that involve finesse and sensitivity, the military can’t do it. Which is why these kind of operations were always run out of the agency.”
I emphasize the latter, because that raises the question of just what the CIA was doing during the war, and of that, we know far, far less.

Irregardless, the mention of the creation of the use of "pseudo gangs" rings true. I recall sitting in the living room of the home of a former Salvadoran military intelligence officer for an interview on the peace process in 1994. He ended up pulling out his photo album from his military days, and sure enough, there he was leading a patrol of scruffy looking guerrillas! Or rather, a Salvadoran unit dressed up like guerrillas, out on patrol getting intelligence--i.e., trying to determine where the guerrillas had been, who was supporting them, etc.--probably with the consequences you might imagine.

As far as I know, very little if anything has been written about this aspect of the war. Which is why it is still comes across as "secret" every time we hear talk about the U.S. role in the Salvadoran conflict.

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