I hope anyone who listened to the Leonard Lopate interview enjoyed it – I continue to do more radio interviews with a two hour session tonight. Two hour interviews can get a bit tiring but hosts that do them are usually pretty lively and the discussion is broad so that helps.
Mr. Lopate asked some excellent questions and it was challenging to keep on top of them, dealing with deep questions in a span of 40 minutes is almost as much of a challenge as a two hour session. In responding to his questions I realized that while potential readers may view Shadow Warfare as a tutorial on covert operations – which it is – or as a weighty “tome” on the history of the evolution of clandestine action – which it is – that most would not think of it in terms of a political commentary. Of course knowing that my co-author is a political science and government teacher, just finishing up his Masters work, you might suspect that links between deniable action and “governance” might creep into a 600 page book.
Well they do, but not unintentionally. One of our goals for the book is to examine how the practice of deniable military action is linked to the American political system, not just in terms of the politics and personalities of the presidents who turn to it, and the trusted advisers who advocate it and persuade them to go covert, but in terms of the broader system. As things turned out, our focus on covert warfare offers a large number of insights into our our three part system of governance works events are occurring outside of the public’s view. Those insights are not especially comforting. One thing that becomes crystal clear is that the national security is brandished as a political weapon by all political parties and virtually all politicians far beyond the realm of logic or actual data. Perhaps my favorite is the speech by a Texas Congressman advocating the overthrow of a progressive but elected president in Guatemala becasue his land reform initiatives clearly suggested that the end result would be bombers attacking the oil refinements in his district; he was from Houston. I assume he meant Soviet bombers since Guatemala had none itself. Awarding him the lead in such things is difficult because there is strong competition, such as Henry Kissinger s remark that a country ought not be allowed to go Communist simply becasue its citizens voted for for it and were obviously too ill informed or just plain stupid to take care of themselves (Henry was exaggerating a bit there, again the country in question was leaning slightly socialist at most). Then again Henry has always been a person who felt he knew what was best, geopolitics being ascendent and collateral damage not being a primary concern.
After examining some 70 years of covert action, it becomes pretty clear that its largely driven by an administration’s calculus that it cannot build a case to take to Congress which would lead to anything other than a political fire storm. That makes some sense given that national security is probably the most frequent challenge offered by either party against the sitting administration. In a rather strange fashion this often severely constrains administrations in terms of their political response, simply because they cannot talk about the real state of national security without compromising projects or intelligence. In some instances, if they do try to do so confidentially, history shows that the Congressmen involved are not unknown to use that information for political purposes as opportunity permits. The reality of the situation is that presidents tend to isolate themselves – and become isolated by Congress – on national security issues simply because the subject is so commonly used for political jousting. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this I’m now aware of comes from my current book in progress rather than Shadow Warfare – where the Eisenhower Administration was literally forced to continue a huge bomber building program and an even more expensive air defense effort when it knew that the presumed “bomber gap” with the Soviet Union did not exist. Ike’s choices were either to expose the nations dramatic new intelligence assets or to let his administration be battered for being weak on air defense, he was basically forced into military spending he knew was not truly justified by reality. But to
While the issue of national security political gamesmanship may not surprise anyone today, I suspect the number of actual incidents we detail in Shadow Warfare will. But for those not surprised by the linkage between national security, Congressional hypocrisy and administration excess (Iran-Contra being only one example of that) perhaps the level of compromise of the third element of our system of governance, the legal element, may be a bit of a shock. Basically it all comes back to the national security acts of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the acts which restructured the military, created new intelligence agencies and which produced the legal code required to make a great number of actions that were illegal under civil code, legal for the intelligence agencies. The fact that the personnel of an intelligence agency, as fundamental to their primary mission, had to have legal protection for acts – carried out while the nation was not in a state of war – ranging from burglary, kidnapping and theft up to murder placed had the overall legal system in a real quandary. The decision that protection of sources and methods might override even legal violations of employees – doing things not approved by the mission – had to override legal prosecutions stretched it even further. And its possible to argue that the decision that protecting non-employees – assets, informants, surrogates – from prosecution for illegal activities, in the name of national security and to protect sources and methods, may well have stretched it past breaking.
Beyond that, the fact that Congress itself has not revisited the national security act of 1947, and the fact that it refuses to pursue legal challenges to a number of questionable opinions on national security matters provided by the staff of various Attorney’s General, says a great deal about the state of current governance. So does the fact that the only fundamental legislation ever passed to restrict deniable action merely calls on the President to inform Congress of the action speaks to itself. That leaves Congress in the enviable state of being able to simply sit and wait until the action goes wrong, using it as political fodder, or to quietly leak it to the media, hoping for political points on the front end. Not that Congress ever leads national security or intelligence information….
But enough of that, if you have the book this will all become clear – I hope – and I need to rest for that two hour interview, Larry