In looking at the broad picture of American covert and deniable warfare, there are a few major transition points which stand out and which we deal with at length in “Shadow Warfare”. One of the most significant transition points came with the Reagan Administration’s decision to turn to outsiders for funding the Contra effort in covert warfare against the Sandinista in Nicaragua as well as the Soviets in Afghanistan. That effort became increasingly pivotal when Congress restricted aid to the Contra’s to purely non-lethal support. However even before that restriction came into play, CIA Director Casey was obtaining weapons donations overseas and planning to solicit major cash donations from select Arab allies. Those allies were already stepping up to match – and later exceed American funding for activities in Afghanistan but eventually major overseas funds would come into support both covert operations.
Additional plans to covertly sell American military weaponry and divert percentages to covert warfare were wholeheartedly endorsed by senior administration figures. Of course if you saw the movie Charlie Wilson’s War you probably thought all the money for Afghanistan came from Charlie, but although he did work hard at getting allocations for far more than the CIA was even requesting at the time, immense amounts of money began to flow from both Arab governments and private Arab donations – many of them from fundamentalist religious groups. Of course it all seemed good at the time, with the focus simply on how many Communists could be killed in Afghanistan or Central America. Of course since many of the weapons for the effort were being purchased in Communist China there might have been a bit of dysfunction, but at the time it was all good.
The turn to extra-governmental funding was one major change; the Reagan era decision to essentially conduct field operations without direct control by the CIA operations directorate was another. Of course in Nicaragua, that was a requirement since Congress had ordered the CIA out of lethal operations. At the time most if not all CIA field personnel had accepted that order, some most definitely did not and continued to support the new covert lethal project handed off to the Joint Chiefs Staff, specifically to Oliver North. Removing the CIA bureaucracy might strike some folks as an opportunity for “streamlining” and to some extent that would be correct. However without the standard checks and balances, things can easily go out of control, especially on the financial side when you start simply transferring large amounts of cash into your surrogate’s Miami and Caribbean bank accounts. Opportunities abound for using those funds, especially when no real time accounting is in place. Its all quite a story.
But in the long term it turns out there are risks comparable to creating a friendly environment for escalating Colombian cartel drug smuggling into the U.S. And those risks would be turning over total control of all covert financing to a foreign government whose long term agenda is quite different from your short term goals. Outsourcing major financial support to Saudi Arabia and giving total control over all monies, supplies and weapons for aid going to the Afghan rebels to the Pakistani intelligence service turned out to be a mistake of monumental proportions – as America learned in September, 2001.
Of course both the Iran-Contra scandal and the rise of the jihadi terrorist network have been covered in detail in many books, but we found that there was much to be learned from considering them jointly, as part of an administration effort to essentially take the funding of covert operations away from Congress and bring it under total control of an executive clique within the White House. At this distance it seems amazing to read the quotes and memos enthusiastically advocating such practices. Of course it had all come at one of the few times when Congress had made at least some effort to oversee and even control covert warfare – but the push back from the White House was immense and for several years extremely effective. If things had gone as planned, Congress would have been effectively removed from any covert administration initiatives.
That didn’t happen, but to a large extent it was simply a matter of bad luck – and the failure of “deniablity”. That’s also a major subject in the book and I’ll save it for another post.