Best of TomDispatch: Chalmers Johnson, The CIA and a Blowback World
Everyone has their hits and faves from the past like the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (with Citizen Kane at #1). TomDispatch is no exception. While the AFI has 100 years of film to work with, we have a more modest 10 years of “Tomgrams,” but that doesn’t stop us. Each summer as the heat builds and vacation time arrives, we offer a few TD “classics” of our own. Think of many of them as part of a series with a rubric like: the top 10 nightmares of our truncated “American Century.”
Without any question, among them, the late, great Chalmers Johnson’s 2004 account of how we fought our first Afghan war and so created a world ripe for our second Afghan War (still ongoing) ranks high. After all, seldom has anyone answered better than Johnson did seven and a half years ago questions like: Why, for 20 of the last 32 years, have we ended up fighting wars in a country to which few Americans had previously paid the slightest attention? How could we have armed and supported a whole crew of Islamic fundamentalists in the first of those wars who would be our enemies in the second? How did we end up with hijacked planes taking down towers on American soil in 2001? How, in response, did we launch a “global war on terror” that shows no sign of ending?
And here’s the saddest part of the story, if you even care to think about it (and these days few Americans do): we’re not done yet. The Afghan War goes on and on. Yes, the security forces we’re building up in that country are regularly deserting or blowing away our trainers and advisers; our reconstruction projects are, as they’ve long been, as they were in Iraq, a joke; the U.S. military has proven incapable of suppressing the minority insurgency it faces; and the corruption our money has engendered is staggering in an otherwise still poverty-stricken land. And yet our leaders are planning to leave U.S. trainers, advisors, and bases in Afghanistan until at least 2020.
We’re living amid the detritus of a world changed radically by Washington’s Afghan decisions of the 1980s, and who knows whom exactly we’re arming at staggering cost (or blowing away) these days, laying the groundwork for yet more nightmares. Too bad no one listened to Johnson, who would have been 81 on August 6th, when he first put the word “blowback,” originally a term of CIA tradecraft, into our vocabularies with his trademark bestselling book of the same name. If he were alive today, he would be grimly amused by a nation that preferred the possible road to bankruptcy and disaster to calling it quits and licking its wounds. He, like Gore Vidal, was a crucial analyst of of American imperial decline and he’s sorely missed. But today, briefly, he’s back with us, offering a history that, sadly, is as relevant now as it was in 2004. Tom
Abolish the CIA!
Steve Coll ends his important book on Afghanistan by quoting Afghan President Hamid Karzai: “What an unlucky country.” Americans might find this a convenient way to ignore what their government did in Afghanistan between 1979 and the present, but luck had nothing to do with it. Brutal, incompetent, secret operations of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, frequently manipulated by the military intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, caused the catastrophic devastation of this poor country. On the evidence contained in Coll’s book Ghost Wars, neither the Americans nor their victims in numerous Muslim and Third World countries will ever know peace until the Central Intelligence Agency has been abolished.
It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United States. In his memoir published in 1996, the former CIA director Robert Gates made it clear that the American intelligence services began to aid the mujahidin guerrillas not after the Soviet invasion, but six months before it. In an interview two years later with Le Nouvel Observateur, President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski proudly confirmed Gates’ assertion. “According to the official version of history,” Brzezinski said, “CIA aid to the mujahidin began during 1980, that’s to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: on 3 July 1979 President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.”
Asked whether he in any way regretted these actions, Brzezinski replied: “Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.'”
Nouvel Observateur: “And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?”
Brzezinski: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Even though the demise of the Soviet Union owes more to Mikhail Gorbachev than to Afghanistan’s partisans, Brzezinski certainly helped produce “agitated Muslims,” and the consequences have been obvious ever since. Carter, Brzezinski and their successors in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including Gates, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, and Colin Powell, all bear some responsibility for the 1.8 million Afghan casualties, 2.6 million refugees, and 10 million unexploded land-mines that followed from their decisions. They must also share the blame for the blowback that struck New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. After all, al-Qaida was an organization they helped create and arm.
A Wind Blows in from Afghanistan
The term “blowback” first appeared in a classified CIA post-action report on the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, carried out in the interests of British Petroleum. In 2000, James Risen of the New York Times explained: “When the Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Muhammad Mossadegh as Iran’s prime minister in 1953, ensuring another 25 years of rule for Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the CIA was already figuring that its first effort to topple a foreign government would not be its last. The CIA, then just six years old and deeply committed to winning the Cold War, viewed its covert action in Iran as a blueprint for coup plots elsewhere around the world, and so commissioned a secret history to detail for future generations of CIA operatives how it had been done . . . Amid the sometimes curious argot of the spy world — ‘safebases’ and ‘assets’ and the like — the CIA warns of the possibilities of ‘blowback.’ The word . . . has since come into use as shorthand for the unintended consequences of covert operations.”
“Blowback” does not refer simply to reactions to historical events but more specifically to reactions to operations carried out by the U.S. government that are kept secret from the American public and from most of their representatives in Congress. This means that when civilians become victims of a retaliatory strike, they are at first unable to put it in context or to understand the sequence of events that led up to it. Even though the American people may not know what has been done in their name, those on the receiving end certainly do: they include the people of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1959 to the present), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Vietnam (1961-73), Laos (1961-73), Cambodia (1969-73), Greece (1967-73), Chile (1973), Afghanistan (1979 to the present), El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua (1980s), and Iraq (1991 to the present). Not surprisingly, sometimes these victims try to get even.
There is a direct line between the attacks on September 11, 2001 — the most significant instance of blowback in the history of the CIA — and the events of 1979. In that year, revolutionaries threw both the Shah and the Americans out of Iran, and the CIA, with full presidential authority, began its largest ever clandestine operation: the secret arming of Afghan freedom fighters to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union, which involved the recruitment and training of militants from all over the Islamic world. Steve Coll’s book is a classic study of blowback and is a better, fuller reconstruction of this history than the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the “9/11 Commission Report” published by Norton in July).
From 1989 to 1992, Coll was the Washington Post‘s South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi. Given the CIA’s paranoid and often self-defeating secrecy, what makes his book especially interesting is how he came to know what he claims to know. He has read everything on the Afghan insurgency and the civil wars that followed, and has been given access to the original manuscript of Robert Gates’ memoir (Gates was CIA director from 1991 to 1993), but his main source is some two hundred interviews conducted between the autumn of 2001 and the summer of 2003 with numerous CIA officials as well as politicians, military officers, and spies from all the countries involved except Russia. He identifies CIA officials only if their names have already been made public. Many of his most important interviews were on the record and he quotes from them extensively.
Among the notable figures who agreed to be interviewed are Benazir Bhutto, who is candid about having lied to American officials for two years about Pakistan’s aid to the Taliban, and Anthony Lake, the US national security adviser from 1993 to 1997, who lets it be known that he thought CIA director James Woolsey was “arrogant, tin-eared and brittle.” Woolsey was so disliked by Clinton that when an apparent suicide pilot crashed a single-engine Cessna airplane on the south lawn of the White House in 1994, jokers suggested it might be the CIA director trying to get an appointment with the President.
Among the CIA people who talked to Coll are Gates; Woolsey; Howard Hart, Islamabad station chief in 1981; Clair George, former head of clandestine operations; William Piekney, Islamabad station chief from 1984 to 1986; Cofer Black, Khartoum station chief in the mid-1990s and director of the Counterterrorist Center from 1999-2002; Fred Hitz, a former CIA Inspector General; Thomas Twetten, Deputy Director of Operations, 1991-1993; Milton Bearden, chief of station at Islamabad, 1986 -1989; Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, head of the Counterterrorist Center from 1986 to 1988; Vincent Cannistraro, an officer in the Counterterrorist Center shortly after it was opened in 1986; and an official Coll identifies only as “Mike,” the head of the “bin Laden Unit” within the Counterterrorist Center from 1997 to 1999, who was subsequently revealed to be Michael F. Scheuer, the anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror.
In 1973, General Sardar Mohammed Daoud, the cousin and brother-in-law of King Zahir Shah, overthrew the king, declared Afghanistan a republic, and instituted a program of modernization. Zahir Shah went into exile in Rome. These developments made possible the rise of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a pro-Soviet communist party, which, in early 1978, with extensive help from the USSR, overthrew President Daoud. The communists’ policies of secularization in turn provoked a violent response from devout Islamists. The anti-Communist revolt that began at Herat in western Afghanistan in March 1979 originated in a government initiative to teach girls to read. The fundamentalist Afghans opposed to this were supported by a triumvirate of nations — the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia — with quite diverse motives, but the U.S. didn’t take these differences seriously until it was too late. By the time the Americans woke up, at the end of the 1990s, the radical Islamist Taliban had established its government in Kabul. Recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, it granted Osama bin Laden freedom of action and offered him protection from American efforts to capture or kill him.
Coll concludes: “The Afghan government that the United States eventually chose to support beginning in the late autumn of 2001 — a federation of Massoud’s organization [the Northern warlords], exiled intellectuals and royalist Pashtuns — was available for sponsorship a decade before, but the United States could not see a reason then to challenge the alternative, radical Islamist vision promoted by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence . . . Indifference, lassitude, blindness, paralysis and commercial greed too often shaped American foreign policy in Afghanistan and South Asia during the 1990s.”
Funding the Fundamentalists
The motives of the White House and the CIA were shaped by the Cold War: a determination to kill as many Soviet soldiers as possible and the desire to restore some aura of rugged machismo as well as credibility that U.S. leaders feared they had lost when the Shah of Iran was overthrown. The CIA had no intricate strategy for the war it was unleashing in Afghanistan. Howard Hart, the agency’s representative in the Pakistani capital, told Coll that he understood his orders as: “You’re a young man; here’s your bag of money, go raise hell. Don’t fuck it up, just go out there and kill Soviets.” These orders came from a most peculiar American. William Casey, the CIA’s director from January 1981 to January 1987, was a Catholic Knight of Malta educated by Jesuits. Statues of the Virgin Mary filled his mansion, called “Maryknoll,” on Long Island. He attended mass daily and urged Christianity on anyone who asked his advice. Once settled as CIA director under Reagan, he began to funnel covert action funds through the Catholic Church to anti-Communists in Poland and Central America, sometimes in violation of American law. He believed fervently that by increasing the Catholic Church’s reach and power he could contain Communism’s advance, or reverse it. From Casey’s convictions grew the most important U.S. foreign policies of the 1980s — support for an international anti-Soviet crusade in Afghanistan and sponsorship of state terrorism in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Casey knew next to nothing about Islamic fundamentalism or the grievances of Middle Eastern nations against Western imperialism. He saw political Islam and the Catholic Church as natural allies in the counter-strategy of covert action to thwart Soviet imperialism. He believed that the USSR was trying to strike at the U.S. in Central America and in the oil-producing states of the Middle East. He supported Islam as a counter to the Soviet Union’s atheism, and Coll suggests that he sometimes conflated lay Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian extremist organization, of which Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, was a passionate member. The Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami, was strongly backed by the Pakistani army, and Coll writes that Casey, more than any other American, was responsible for welding the alliance of the CIA, Saudi intelligence, and the army of General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator from 1977 to 1988. On the suggestion of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization, Casey went so far as to print thousands of copies of the Koran, which he shipped to the Afghan frontier for distribution in Afghanistan and Soviet Uzbekistan. He also fomented, without presidential authority, Muslim attacks inside the USSR and always held that the CIA’s clandestine officers were too timid. He preferred the type represented by his friend Oliver North.
Over time, Casey’s position hardened into CIA dogma, which its agents, protected by secrecy from ever having their ignorance exposed, enforced in every way they could. The agency resolutely refused to help choose winners and losers among the Afghan jihad’s guerrilla leaders. The result, according to Coll, was that “Zia-ul-Haq’s political and religious agenda in Afghanistan gradually became the CIA’s own.” In the era after Casey, some scholars, journalists, and members of Congress questioned the agency’s lavish support of the Pakistan-backed Islamist general Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, especially after he refused to shake hands with Ronald Reagan because he was an infidel. But Milton Bearden, the Islamabad station chief from 1986 to 1989, and Frank Anderson, chief of the Afghan task force at Langley, vehemently defended Hekmatyar on the grounds that “he fielded the most effective anti-Soviet fighters.”
Even after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, the CIA continued to follow Pakistani initiatives, such as aiding Hekmatyar’s successor, Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban. When Edmund McWilliams, the State Department’s special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1988-89, wrote that “American authority and billions of dollars in taxpayer funding had been hijacked at the war’s end by a ruthless anti-American cabal of Islamists and Pakistani intelligence officers determined to impose their will on Afghanistan,” CIA officials denounced him and planted stories in the embassy that he might be homosexual or an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Afghanistan descended into one of the most horrific civil wars of the 20th century. The CIA never fully corrected its naive and ill-informed reading of Afghan politics until after bin Laden bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7, 1998.
A co-operative agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan was anything but natural or based on mutual interests. Only two weeks after radical students seized the American Embassy in Tehran on November 5, 1979, a similar group of Islamic radicals burned to the ground the American Embassy in Islamabad as Zia’s troops stood idly by. But the US was willing to overlook almost anything the Pakistani dictator did in order to keep him committed to the anti-Soviet jihad. After the Soviet invasion, Brzezinski wrote to Carter: “This will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our non-proliferation policy.” History will record whether Brzezinski made an intelligent decision in giving a green light to Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons in return for assisting the anti-Soviet insurgency.
Pakistan’s motives in Afghanistan were very different from those of the U.S. Zia was a devout Muslim and a passionate supporter of Islamist groups in his own country, in Afghanistan, and throughout the world. But he was not a fanatic and had some quite practical reasons for supporting Islamic radicals in Afghanistan. He probably would not have been included in the U.S. Embassy’s annual “beard census” of Pakistani military officers, which recorded the number of officer graduates and serving generals who kept their beards in accordance with Islamic traditions as an unobtrusive measure of increasing or declining religious radicalism — Zia had only a moustache.
From the beginning, Zia demanded that all weapons and aid for the Afghans from whatever source pass through ISI hands. The CIA was delighted to agree. Zia feared above all that Pakistan would be squeezed between a Soviet-dominated Afghanistan and a hostile India. He also had to guard against a Pashtun independence movement that, if successful, would break up Pakistan. In other words, he backed the Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan on religious grounds but was quite prepared to use them strategically. In doing so, he laid the foundations for Pakistan’s anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir in the 1990s.
Zia died in a mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988, four months after the signing of the Geneva Accords on April 14, 1988, which ratified the formal terms of the Soviet withdrawal. As the Soviet troops departed, Hekmatyar embarked on a clandestine plan to eliminate his rivals and establish his Islamic party, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, as the most powerful national force in Afghanistan. The U.S. scarcely paid attention, but continued to support Pakistan. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the USSR in 1991, the U.S. lost virtually all interest in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar was never as good as the CIA thought he was, and with the creation in 1994 of the Taliban, both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia transferred their secret support. This new group of jihadis proved to be the most militarily effective of the warring groups. On September 26, 1996, the Taliban conquered Kabul. The next day they killed the formerly Soviet-backed President Najibullah, expelled 8,000 female undergraduate students from Kabul University, and fired a similar number of women schoolteachers. As the mujahidin closed in on his palace, Najibullah told reporters: “If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years. Afghanistan will turn into a center of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned into a center for terrorism.” His comments would prove all too accurate.
Pakistan’s military intelligence officers hated Benazir Bhutto, Zia’s elected successor, but she, like all post-Zia heads of state, including General Pervez Musharraf, supported the Taliban in pursuit of Zia’s “dream” — a loyal, Pashtun-led Islamist government in Kabul. Coll explains:
“Every Pakistani general, liberal or religious, believed in the jihadists by 1999, not from personal Islamic conviction, in most cases, but because the jihadists had proved themselves over many years as the one force able to frighten, flummox and bog down the Hindu-dominated Indian army. About a dozen Indian divisions had been tied up in Kashmir during the late 1990s to suppress a few thousand well-trained, paradise-seeking Islamist guerrillas. What more could Pakistan ask? The jihadist guerrillas were a more practical day-to-day strategic defense against Indian hegemony than even a nuclear bomb. To the west, in Afghanistan, the Taliban provided geopolitical ‘strategic depth’ against India and protection from rebellion by Pakistan’s own restive Pashtun population. For Musharraf, as for many other liberal Pakistani generals, jihad was not a calling, it was a professional imperative. It was something he did at the office. At quitting time he packed up his briefcase, straightened the braid on his uniform, and went home to his normal life.”
If the CIA understood any of this, it never let on to its superiors in Washington, and Charlie Wilson, a highly paid Pakistani lobbyist and former congressman for East Texas, was anything but forthcoming with Congress about what was really going on. During the 1980s, Wilson had used his power on the House Appropriations Committee to supply all the advanced weapons the CIA might want in Afghanistan. Coll remarks that Wilson “saw the mujahidin through the prism of his own whisky-soaked romanticism, as noble savages fighting for freedom, as almost biblical figures.” Hollywood is now making a movie, based on the book Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile, glorifying the congressman who “used his trips to the Afghan frontier in part to impress upon a succession of girlfriends how powerful he was.” Tom Hanks has reportedly signed on to play him.
Enter bin Laden and the Saudis
Saudi Arabian motives were different from those of both the U.S. and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the only modern nation-state created by jihad. The Saudi royal family, which came to power at the head of a movement of Wahhabi religious fundamentalists, espoused Islamic radicalism in order to keep it under their control, at least domestically. “Middle-class, pious Saudis flush with oil wealth,” Coll writes, “embraced the Afghan cause as American churchgoers might respond to an African famine or a Turkish earthquake”: “The money flowing from the kingdom arrived at the Afghan frontier in all shapes and sizes: gold jewelry dropped on offering plates by merchants’ wives in Jedda mosques; bags of cash delivered by businessmen to Riyadh charities as zakat, an annual Islamic tithe; fat checks written from semi-official government accounts by minor Saudi princes; bountiful proceeds raised in annual telethons led by Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh.” Richest of all were the annual transfers from the Saudi General Intelligence Department, or Istakhbarat, to the CIA’s Swiss bank accounts.
From the moment agency money and weapons started to flow to the mujahidin in late 1979, Saudi Arabia matched the U.S. payments dollar for dollar. They also bypassed the ISI and supplied funds directly to the groups in Afghanistan they favored, including the one led by their own pious young millionaire, Osama bin Laden. According to Milton Bearden, private Saudi and Arab funding of up to $25 million a month flowed to Afghan Islamist armies. Equally important, Pakistan trained between 16,000 and 18,000 fresh Muslim recruits on the Afghan frontier every year, and another 6,500 or so were instructed by Afghans inside the country beyond ISI control. Most of these eventually joined bin Laden’s private army of 35,000 “Arab Afghans.”
Much to the confusion of the Americans, moderate Saudi leaders, such as Prince Turki, the intelligence chief, supported the Saudi backing of fundamentalists so long as they were in Afghanistan and not in Saudi Arabia. A graduate of a New Jersey prep school and a member of Bill Clinton’s class of 1964 at Georgetown University, Turki belongs to the pro-Western, modernizing wing of the Saudi royal family. (He is the current Saudi ambassador to Great Britain and Ireland.) But that did not make him pro-American. Turki saw Saudi Arabia in continual competition with its powerful Shia neighbor, Iran. He needed credible Sunni, pro-Saudi Islamist clients to compete with Iran’s clients, especially in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have sizeable Shia populations.
Prince Turki was also irritated by the U.S. loss of interest in Afghanistan after its Cold War skirmish with the Soviet Union. He understood that the U.S. would ignore Saudi aid to Islamists so long as his country kept oil prices under control and cooperated with the Pentagon on the building of military bases. Like many Saudi leaders, Turki probably underestimated the longer term threat of Islamic militancy to the Saudi royal house, but, as Coll observes, “Prince Turki and other liberal princes found it easier to appease their domestic Islamist rivals by allowing them to proselytize and make mischief abroad than to confront and resolve these tensions at home.” In Riyadh, the CIA made almost no effort to recruit paid agents or collect intelligence. The result was that Saudi Arabia worked continuously to enlarge the ISI’s proxy jihad forces in both Afghanistan and Kashmir, and the Saudi Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the kingdom’s religious police, tutored and supported the Taliban’s own Islamic police force.
By the late 1990s, after the embassy bombings in East Africa, the CIA and the White House awoke to the Islamist threat, but they defined it almost exclusively in terms of Osama bin Laden’s leadership of al-Qaida and failed to see the larger context. They did not target the Taliban, Pakistani military intelligence, or the funds flowing to the Taliban and al-Qaida from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Instead, they devoted themselves to trying to capture or kill bin Laden. Coll’s chapters on the hunt for the al-Qaida leader are entitled, “You Are to Capture Him Alive,” “We Are at War,” and “Is There Any Policy?” but he might more accurately have called them “Keystone Kops” or “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”
On February 23 1998, bin Laden summoned newspaper and TV reporters to the camp at Khost that the CIA had built for him at the height of the anti-Soviet jihad. He announced the creation of a new organization — the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders — and issued a manifesto saying that “to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilian or military, is an obligation for every Muslim who is able to do so in any country.” On August 7, he and his associates put this manifesto into effect with devastating truck bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The CIA had already identified bin Laden’s family compound in the open desert near Kandahar Airport, a collection of buildings called Tarnak Farm. It’s possible that more satellite footage has been taken of this site than of any other place on earth; one famous picture seems to show bin Laden standing outside one of his wives’ homes. The agency conceived an elaborate plot to kidnap bin Laden from Tarnak Farm with the help of Afghan operatives and spirit him out of the country but CIA director George Tenet cancelled the project because of the high risk of civilian casualties; he was resented within the agency for his timidity. Meanwhile, the White House stationed submarines in the northern Arabian Sea with the map co-ordinates of Tarnak Farm preloaded into their missile guidance systems. They were waiting for hard evidence from the CIA that bin Laden was in residence.
Within days of the East Africa bombings, Clinton signed a top secret Memorandum of Notification authorizing the CIA to use lethal force against bin Laden. On 20 August 1998, he ordered 75 cruise missiles, costing $750,000 each, to be fired at the Zawhar Kili camp (about seven miles south of Khost), the site of a major al-Qaida meeting. The attack killed 21 Pakistanis but bin Laden was forewarned, perhaps by Saudi intelligence. Two of the missiles fell short into Pakistan, causing Islamabad to denounce the U.S. action. At the same time, the U.S. fired 13 cruise missiles into a chemical plant in Khartoum: the CIA claimed that the plant was partly owned by bin Laden and that it was manufacturing nerve gas. They knew none of this was true.
Clinton had publicly confessed to his sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky on August 17, and many critics around the world conjectured that both attacks were diversionary measures. (The film Wag the Dog had just come out, in which a president in the middle of an election campaign is charged with molesting a Girl Scout and makes it seem as if he’s gone to war against Albania to distract people’s attention.) As a result Clinton became more cautious, and he and his aides began seriously to question the quality of CIA information. The U.S. bombing in May 1999 of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, allegedly because of faulty intelligence, further discredited the agency. A year later, Tenet fired one intelligence officer and reprimanded six managers, including a senior official, for their bungling of that incident.
The Clinton administration made two more attempts to get bin Laden. During the winter of 1998-99, the CIA confirmed that a large party of Persian Gulf dignitaries had flown into the Afghan desert for a falcon-hunting party, and that bin Laden had joined them. The CIA called for an attack on their encampment until Richard Clarke, Clinton’s counter-terrorism aide, discovered that among the hosts of the gathering was royalty from the United Arab Emirates. Clarke had been instrumental in a 1998 deal to sell 80 F-16 military jets to the UAE, which was also a crucial supplier of oil and gas to America and its allies. The strike was called off.
The CIA as a Secret Presidential Army
Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration devoted major resources to the development of a long-distance drone aircraft called Predator, invented by the former chief designer for the Israeli air force, who had emigrated to the United States. In its nose was mounted a Sony digital TV camera, similar to the ones used by news helicopters reporting on freeway traffic or on O.J. Simpson’s fevered ride through Los Angeles. By the turn of the century, Agency experts had also added a Hellfire anti-tank missile to the Predator and tested it on a mock-up of Tarnak Farm in the Nevada desert. This new weapons system made it possible instantly to kill bin Laden if the camera spotted him. Unfortunately for the CIA, on one of its flights from Uzbekistan over Tarnak Farm the Predator photographed as a target a child’s wooden swing. To his credit, Clinton held back on using the Hellfire because of the virtual certainty of killing bystanders, and Tenet, scared of being blamed for another failure, suggested that responsibility for the armed Predator’s use be transferred to the Air Force.
When the new Republican administration came into office, it was deeply uninterested in bin Laden and terrorism even though the outgoing national security adviser, Sandy Berger, warned Condoleezza Rice that it would be George W. Bush’s most serious foreign policy problem. On August 6, 2001, the CIA delivered its daily briefing to Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with the headline “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.,” but the president seemed not to notice. Slightly more than a month later, Osama bin Laden successfully brought off perhaps the most significant example of asymmetric warfare in the history of international relations.
Coll has written a powerful indictment of the CIA’s myopia and incompetence, but he seems to be of two minds. He occasionally indulges in flights of pro-CIA rhetoric, describing it, for example, as a “vast, pulsing, self-perpetuating, highly sensitive network on continuous alert” whose “listening posts were attuned to even the most isolated and dubious evidence of pending attacks” and whose “analysts were continually encouraged to share information as widely as possible among those with appropriate security clearances.” This is nonsense: the early-warning functions of the CIA were upstaged decades ago by covert operations.
Coll acknowledges that every president since Truman, once he discovered that he had a totally secret, financially unaccountable private army at his personal disposal, found its deployment irresistible. But covert operations usually became entangled in hopeless webs of secrecy, and invariably led to more blowback. Richard Clarke argues that “the CIA used its classification rules not only to protect its agents but also to deflect outside scrutiny of its covert operations,” and Peter Tomsen, the former US ambassador to the Afghan resistance during the late 1980s, concludes that “America’s failed policies in Afghanistan flowed in part from the compartmented, top secret isolation in which the CIA always sought to work.” Excessive, bureaucratic secrecy lies at the heart of the Agency’s failures.
Given the Agency’s clear role in causing the disaster of September 11, 2001, what we need today is not a new intelligence czar but an end to the secrecy behind which the CIA hides and avoids accountability for its actions. To this day, in the wake of 9/11 and the false warnings about a threat from Iraq, the CIA continues grossly to distort any and all attempts at a Constitutional foreign policy. Although Coll doesn’t go on to draw the conclusion, I believe the CIA has outlived any Cold War justification it once might have had and should simply be abolished.
Chalmers Johnson’s books include Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, which make up his Blowback Trilogy, and his last book Dismantling the Empire. From 1967 to 1973, Johnson, a TomDispatch regular, served as a consultant to the CIA’s Office of National Estimates.
Copyright 2004 Chalmers Johnson
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This piece is adapted from and printed thanks to the permission of the London Review of Books where, in slightly altered form, it appeared on 21 October 2004, pp. 25-28.