|Should the CIA Fight Secret Wars?||View other pieces in "Harper's"|
|By Mark Danner , Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William Colby, Leslie Gelb, et al.||September 1984|
|Tags: secret wars | foreign policy | Latin America | CIA | Harper's Forums|
Almost from the moment the first "contra" was issued his American, made combat boots, the Reagan Administration's secret war against Nicaragua has been embroiled in a vociferous if somewhat bizarre public debate: Congressmen proclaim their outrage, editorialists confess their misgivings, while officials in Washington - who are running the war-blandly "decline to comment on intelligence matters."
Secret, or covert, wars are an honored tradition in postwar U.S. foreign policy, having enjoyed some, thing of a golden age in the 1950s, when the CIA discreetly shuffled governments in Iran, Guatemala, and the Philippines. But the "controversial secret war" is a paradox peculiar to our post-Vietnam, post-Watergate democracy. At the root of the furor over Nicaragua lies a conflict that has obsessed America's public life for the last fifteen-odd years: the people's right to know versus the stated demands of national security.
Can any democracy effectively fight secret wars?
Should the United States fight such wars? If so, by what moral right
and in what circumstances? To consider these dilemmas, Harper's recently
brought together intelligence officers, politicians, and diplomats who
have confronted them firsthand and found them no less easy to resolve.
The following Forum is based on a discussion held at the Russell Senate Office Building. A number of interested journalists and former intelligence officers were invited to ask questions of the panel. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan served as moderator.
My first comment about so-called secret wars must be that there is no such thing. The preparations for war can be kept secret, but once a war commences, whatever its avowed nature, it becomes a public event, and very much a public event. Now, how frequently has the United States resorted to covert wars - wars in which we deny our involvement - as an instrument of foreign policy? I count several such wars in our recent history.
In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency planned and carried out the overthrow of the left-leaning Arbenz government in Guatemala. The CIA trained and equipped an army in Honduras and sent this army into Guatemala. The fighting was very brief, but Arbenz was overthrown.
In 1961, the CIA organized and trained an army of Cuban exiles who wanted to overthrow the Castro government. The army was routed on Cuban beaches by Castro's troops, to the great embarrassment of President Kennedy and the U.S. government. This abortive secret war came to be known as the Bay of Pigs.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA organized and armed Meo tribesmen in
Laos in order, among other things, to interdict the flow of arms and supplies
moving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Vietcong.
Some of our panelists may want to lengthen this list. Some may disagree
with my describing these operations as covert wars. Mr. Colby, you are
a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Might we not make
a distinction between a secret war and a covert operation?
The disastrous Vietnam War began as a CIA covert operation. You mentioned the Bay of Pigs invasion, which set the stage for the Cuban missile crisis. Another, less well-known CIA intervention was the overthrow of the Sukarno government in Indonesia in 1966, which was preceded by the murder of more than half a million Indonesians. At this moment the United States is supporting paramilitary operations in Central America in which Nicaraguan citizens are being murdered every day.
The United States cannot continue to destroy freedom throughout the
world by means of covert operations without ultimately destroying it at
home. Covert operations violate the rights of all Americans: they allow
the president to take actions abroad that the American people would never
support. By imposing strict rules of secrecy, the president threatens
the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of the American people. CIA covert
operations are an immediate threat both to the peoples of other nations
and to our own way of life.
We have used covert actions ourselves at various times in our history. It is true that in the 1950s, with the organization and expansion of the CIA, there was a considerable upsurge in them. Of the covert operations undertaken since then, I would say some have been very successful and some have been disasters, some have been the wrong thing to do and some have been the wise thing to do. This applies both to covert political interventions and to paramilitary actions.
The Bay of Pigs was certainly a disaster. But consider our program in
the Congo in the early 1960s. The question we faced in the Congo was whether
that country, which had just gained its independence from Belgium, would
be run by some toadies of the old Belgian mining companies or by men aided
by Che Guevara and supported by the Soviet Union. The CIA found a midpoint
between those extremes - it helped Joseph Mobuto, then a nationalist member
of the Congolese forces, become the third alternative. Now, I concede
that the Congo - or Zaire, as it is now called-is no garden spot and that
Mr. Mobuto is not the most perfect man in the world. But I think he has
considerable advantages over the alternatives.
Three wars are now being waged in the world. All are being fought by
What is the role of covert action in these wars, if any? I strongly disagree with Robert McFarlane's statement, which has long been the standard view in this country, that covert action is an intermediate means between lodging a diplomatic protest and sending in the marines. If covert action is seen that way, it becomes not part of a foreign policy but rather a substitute for a policy. As Mr. Colby mentioned, the United States has succeeded in the past with the help of covert operations. But in those cases it has succeeded not because it had a brilliant covert - action program but because it had a policy. That is, the United States had a clear objective and a strong commitment to achieving that objective, and used covert action along with other means to achieve it. Covert action, then, is not the "hard option" between diplomacy and war but simply a neutral tool that mayor may not be useful in a particular situation.
But in Washington, initiating covert action is often a substitute for
formulating a real policy. These covert actions and the controversy surrounding
them often obfuscate what are in fact the central issues in discussions
of U. S. foreign policy. We believe that we have fulfilled our obligations
with regard to Nicaragua or Afghanistan if we have initiated a covert-action
program. Thus, we avoid asking ourselves the hard questions: In such wars,
who shall win? And how should the United States promote its interests
in the outcome?
At the moment, the Soviet Union has very limited assets to use in extending and maintaining its authority around the world. The Soviet assets consist almost entirely of military power. The United States, on the other hand, has assets that transcend that, the greatest of which is our reputation for upholding certain principles-noninterference in the affairs of other nations, respect for their sovereignty and self- determination, and so on. This is particularly true in the Third World, which is where most covert actions take place. When the United States violates those principles - when we mine harbors in Nicaragua - we fuzz the difference between ourselves and the Soviet Union. We act out of character, which no great power can do without diminishing itself.
I think this is a very foolish thing to do. Polls are taken in Europe today asking, What is the difference between the Soviet Union and the United States? and many people answer, Well, they are both great imperialists and they are both indulging in the same kinds of behavior. I think our covert war in Nicaragua has done us considerable harm in Europe and contributed to the problems we had there last fall with the deployment of NATO missiles. When we yield to what is, in my judgment, a childish temptation to fight the Russians on their own terms and in their own gutter, we make a major mistake and throwaway one of our great assets. And we have been doing this more and more frequently in recent years. Vietnam contributed greatly to the process, but covert operations have contributed also.
Of course, part of the problem lies with our policy itself. We seem
to have a Brezhnev doc- trine of our own, which we apply to areas close
to the United States. According to the Brezh- nev doctrine, the Soviet
Union will not accept the overthrow of any of the satellite regimes on
its borders, even by popular revolution. I think we're applying a similar
doctrine to Latin America, and I think that is the way it appears to the
world. There's an old French proverb that says a man tends to acquire
the visage of his adversary. What we are doing by indulging in operations
of this kind is acquiring the visage of our adversary.
But there is also a practical argument. In order to succeed in overthrowing a foreign government by a paramilitary operation, there must be a consensus at home that we should undertake such an operation. But to produce that consensus, we need to debate the program openly. If in fact there is civil war in Nicaragua (which I don't believe for a minute), if in fact there is a civil war in Angola, if in fact Afghanistan has been illegally invaded (which I think it has), then we have a right to interfere openly in support of the people we believe to be in the right. If there is a case to be made for intervening in those countries, the President ought to present it openly and Congress ought to debate it openly. If there is a consensus among Americans that we should intervene, we could go ahead openly and more effectively.
The consequences of intervening secretly are not only that in so doing
we corrupt our own society, not only that we violate international law,
but also that we are often unsuccessful because the President cannot generate
the public support that is necessary to see it through.
I think the question is not, Should you have covert operations? The
question is, What is your policy? If you have a policy that makes sense,
it seems to me that in principle you could conduct covert operations supporting
that policy that would make sense. In fact, it seems rather hypocritical
to use the word "covert" nowadays, when we are openly discussing covert
operations all the time. Which puts us in an ironical situation-discussing
what is, by definition, not to be discussed.
As for specific operations, I agree with what Bill Colby said. Sometimes
they have been used wisely and sometimes not, but in most cases the real
problem has not been with the covert action as such or with the paramilitary
operation as such. It has been with the policy itself.
The first problem here is one of definition. If we are talking about military operations - wars, in common parlance - it simply is not possible to fight them secretly, as Senator Moynihan said. What we are really discussing, then, is whether we can officially admit our responsibility and involvement. For I completely agree with Mr. Gelb that the United States intervenes all the time. For a country of our size not to intervene in the affairs of o.ther countries, it would have to be living in a state of isolation that the United States never achieved, not even in the 1930s. The question to be considered is how we intervene.
Thus we are actually dealing with a rather technical problem: Is a given paramilitary intervention in a given foreign country useful to the foreign policy of the United States? As Bill Colby said, there have been times and places where such interventions have been useful, and there is no reason to suspect that they will not be useful again.
When you become as puristic as George Ball and some of the others here,
and argue that the United States should never intervene in other people's
affairs, that we should maintain a standard that sets us apart from the
Russians and other nasty people-this attitude, I believe, is the counsel
to surrender. This attitude would have us surrender in a battle that is
being fought right now. My own view, after studying the records of past
covert actions and after serving in the CIA and in the State Department,
is that the covert war, the secret war, is the instrument that has been
chosen by the leaders and theoreticians of the Soviet Union for their
struggle with the noncommunist world. This struggle is often carried out
by surrogates, sometimes even by unwitting or not very loyal surrogates;
but its goal nevertheless is to destabilize nations that may be critical
to American foreign policy. The Syrian paramilitary operations in Lebanon
provide a recent example. I believe we must face up to the fact that we
are already engaged in a protracted secret war against the Soviet Union.
Afghanistan is a special situation. The United States is paying lip service to the idea of freedom for the Afghan people, but we know that at the end of the road they are probably not going to have that freedom. We are primarily aiding the Afghan rebels in order to impose very high costs on the Soviet Union. I see big differences between the Bay of Pigs operation - where we hired an army, trained it, and then sent it off to fight in some secondhand airplanes - and a situation where we send some arms to a country that has asked us for help. If it is an insurgent group that asks us for help, so be it. But the United States is not in the Soviet Union's position; it does not serve our objectives to exploit every sign of instability in the world in order to advance our own interests.
In helping the insurgents in Nicaragua, I think we are being dishonest
with ourselves, or else we are deceiving the contras. If the United States
is really only trying to stop the movement of arms and supplies from the
Sandinistas to the Salvadoran guerrillas, as we officially claim, then
our purpose is very different from that of these poor devils fighting
in the jungle. If the supplies are eventually stopped, does the United
States then say to the contras, "Sorry, chaps, we know you have been getting
yourselves killed to establish a new government in Nicaragua, but now
we are no longer going to help you"? This is what I mean when I say we
get ourselves into positions that are contradictory and basically dishonest.
The suggestion was made earlier that our subject is a small number of semisecret wars. I came here today to talk about covert action. According to the Senate's own studies - the investigations of your own committee, Senator - the CIA has carried out several thousand covert actions since 1961, and several thousand before then. Many of these things are bloody. If you add up the toll of victims of these operations, the number of people killed, you arrive at a minimum figure of 1 million people.
Now, what kind of people have we been killing? They are not Russians, not KGB; very few of them are even communists. In fact, we have gone into Third World countries and arranged, in one way or another, for more than a million people to be killed. I am talking now about direct victims - for example, when the United States gives arms to the contras in Honduras, and the contras go into northern Nicaragua and kill people there. The United States is trying to modify the policies of a government it doesn't like by destabilizing the country, that is, by making the Nicaraguan people miserable - not the Sandinistas, but the people-so miserable that their country falls apart. We have given people arms, stirred things up, started wars, and killed millions of people in a kind of five-year-old's make-believe game. These operations are so superficially planned, yet so murderous, that it boggles the mind. Consider the CIA's operation in Indonesia in 1965. The CIA's own reports estimate that 800,000 Indonesians died as a result of that operation. When you add up the victims of all the other, smaller covert operations - 5,000 dead here, 10,000 dead there, 50,000 dead here - you come up with an awe- some figure. We have probably killed close to 3 million people in these so-called secret wars- people of the Third World, not Russians.
The issue now in Central America is not Rus- sian subversion. The United
States is playing a child's game in Central America. The game is: let's
make believe the Russians are taking over Central America and let's go
down there and destabilize governments and kill a lot of people. That
is wrong. It has discredited the United States. It has made the United
States responsi- ble for genocide in the Third World.
As you know, Senator Moynihan, the CIA today operates under your control - that is, under the active supervision of the United States Congress. What may have happened before 1975 is another problem, but in the last ten years, thanks to the work of your fine committee and that of its counterpart in the House, Congress has had control over what the CIA does. You also know, Senator, that there are strict rules about what the CIA is authorized to do and what it is not. Again, in the last ten years, I know of no violations of those rules.
The Senate voted to support the contra in Nicaragua. The House of Representatives voted not to support them. A very clear difference of opinion about the wisdom of a particular covert action is being debated in Congress - in the democratic way of our country. These committees were established in order to debate these matters quietly, but nonetheless to debate them.
What is different about covert actions today is that if they turn out
to be mistakes, they will be American mistakes. They will not be CIA mistakes,
but mistakes of the administration and the Congress in power.
I would like to make clear that the oversight committees of Congress
must, by statute, be in- formed of CIA activities. But they do not have
the right to approve or disapprove. Congress may of course deny funds
for particular CIA programs - which is what the current debate over funding
the contras is about-but that comes later. The president retains the power
to initiate CIA activities, but he must inform Congress, and Congress
has its say through the annual appropriation and authorization process.
As for the assertion that this oversight process has not been violated,
or that no violation has occurred during the last ten years, I would point
out that in 1975, Mr. Colby gave thirty-six briefings to the Senate in
which he offered false information. I myself gave the Senate cable numbers
and details that prove those statements were absolutely not true, not
correct, not accurate. Those statements were false.
MOYNIHAN: I was not in the Senate at that time, but it is my understanding
that what Mr. Colby says is correct. I myself can certainly not accept
the charges being made here today against Mr. Colby.
In the CIA you learn, to do things by deceiving. When you want to undertake
a covert operation, you first justify your policy, and then you implement
that policy. Some attempts to justify future covert-action programs are
being reported in the press right now. A prime example is the yellow rain-the
chemical warfare - that the Russians and their allies are supposedly using
in Afghanistan, Laos, and Cambodia.
CODEVILLA: Mr. Chairman, I believe Mr. McGehee is describing accurately only his own state of mind - that is to say, he is first reaching conclusions and then stretching reality to fit them.
To accept his statement that yellow rain is a figment of our imagination,
we must suppose that some 20,000 Laotians and Cambodians willingly suffered
rather nasty deaths. As for his allegation that the CIA invented yellow
rain, in the late 1970s we on the Senate Select Committee had a very difficult
time convincing the CIA to pay attention to what was happening. There
were reports of massive deaths from yellow rain, not from one or two sources
but from hundreds. There were corpses of people who had died in the most
gruesome 'ways. And the agency, because of all sorts of prejudices, re-
fused to accept this evidence.
Another example is the Libyan hit teams in 1981. A deputy director of operations in the CIA planned to overthrow the government of Libya. Of course, you need some justification to sell such a program to the American people. All of a sudden the press was filled with reports of Libyan hit teams sent to the United States to assassinate President Reagan. The agency as simply creating a justification to overthrow the Libyan government. But because the House Intelligence Committee protested, this particular CIA program was never carried out, and the American people and the political process, sometimes for a very long time.
Let's consider Nicaragua. The Reagan Administration would have fought the whole war there secretly had-the political process in the United States allowed it. Without any public debate, the Administration made the decision to use military force against a country whose government we recognize, to arm and equip people to invade that country. And it continues to pursue this war without any full public explanation of what our goal is.
You were present, Senator Moynihan, when the Nicaraguan war was debated
in the Senate. A number of senators suggested very different motivations
behind it. Some talked as if its purpose was to overthrow an illegal,
dangerous government. Others talked as if we were trying to halt the flow
of supplies. But when the President and the secretary of state are asked
why the United States is fighting in Nicaragua, they say they can't discuss
Take the case of Afghanistan. The United States certainly has the option of providing aid openly to the Afghan guerrillas, but I think we are not doing that for two compelling reasons.
First, such overt aid would make relations even more difficult with the Soviet Union: I don't think the Russians mind the current fiction as much as they would overt aid to the Mujaheddin. Second, covert aid was the preferred course of the Pakistanis. I don't think the Pakistani government would even consider playing a role if it had to admit its involvement openly.
The question you come back to is, Should we support the Mujaheddin in
Afghanistan? If the United States says as a matter of principle that it
will not support any insurgent group against any government, we deny ourselves
reasonable choices. And if we say we have to aid these groups openly if
at all, we also deny ourselves reasonable choices. I don't want to see
our government do that.
So I disagree that it is good to undertake only actions that are small
enough to be quiet failures. I think a loud success is always preferable
to a quiet failure.
As to Mr. Halperin's statement that we should not provide only a small
amount of arms, I don't think we need be ashamed to help brave men and
women fight for what they believe, even though we cannot guarantee them
victory. Perhaps they will be unhappy that we are not supporting them
with B-52s, but some support is perfectly justifiable in many cases. If
you provide this support covertly, you obviously avoid the problems involved
in challenging the other side directly.
Second, we must recognize that, despite what may be happening in Congress,
the Reagan Administration still refuses to debate these operations in
public and will not publicly explain precisely what it is they are supposed
to achieve. This corrodes the public debate and makes it very difficult
to have an informed confrontation.
And it goes without saying that we made statements and prepared formal
briefings for Congress that were completely false. We had propagandists
in New York and Washington, and we wrote false statements for them to
deliver. I submit that this is exactly what is going on in Nicaragua today.
The American people are being lied to by their leaders. Why don't they
tell the American people the truth about what is happening in Nicaragua?
Then we can make an honest decision, at least.
I submit that unless using force to intervene it another nation's affairs
is a demonstrable act of self-defense, there is no excuse for it. And
there is certainly no legitimate reason for it to be covert. The American
people are perfectly capable of perceiving legitimacy if it is pointed
out to them. I believe the primary reason the government refers to operations
that have already been exposed (such as our support of the contras) as
covert is to circumvent normal public debate of their legitimacy. If the
American government feels that a particular intervention is not legitimate
but is still in the national interest, then don't we have a clear conflict
between the national interest ,and the public interest?
The second principle is proportionality: a covert action is often less
of an interference in a country than an aggressive military action would
be, even when the military action could be taken in self-defense. Some
- not all - of our covert actions can be justified by this ra- tionale.
Those operations that don't meet this test have been mistakes, for various
reasons. I certainly know of several that we should never have attempted.
This is a rule of prudence as well as of jurisprudence. The plain fact
is that the United States is routinely charged with extraordinary wrongdoing,
even by its own citizens. This is the price paid by a society that is
both powerful and free. Such power has existed before; never, I think,
in combination with such freedom. Freedom is doubly a check on the power
of our government. It cannot - for long - do that which is seen to be
wrong. Just as importantly, it ought not do that which can be made to
appear to be wrong. Administrations need to understand that when they
opt for "covert action," they forsake and thereby abuse the most precious
attribute of democracy - the opportunity to make your case.