Thursday, 26 June 2014


Clandestine operations are an integral part of a country’s foreign policy, although the heavy reliance on such operations is a reflection of the authoritarian nature of the government carrying out such operations. The larger and more powerful the country, and the less inclined to respect national sovereignty of other nations, the more elaborate the clandestine operations. Naturally, governments always justify their clandestine operations on the basis of “national security”. They also justify torturing prisoners held without due process in violation of the UN human rights covenant. This is as true of the US in the contemporary era, as it has been of more authoritarian countries. Aside from the fact that clandestine operations are antithetical to democracy the execution and consequences of such operations in most cases have proved an embarrassment if not a disaster for the government authorizing them.  

There are many pitfalls in clandestine operations, largely because anything can go wrong during the operation, but also afterwards because of unforeseen intermediate and long term consequences of such operations. Obviously, President Kennedy was not happy with the immediate and longer term consequences of the Bay of Pigs operation. By contrast, Kissinger was probably elated with the CIA-backed military coup in Chile that ended the regime and the life of Salvador Allende. Of course, there were longer term consequences in Chile, though not nearly as bad as those of Cuba. In short, clandestine operations are not always immediate unmitigated disasters like the Bay of Pigs. However, even when they achieve the goal of regime change, there is no guarantee of any long term stability, as the case of Panama proved where the CIA chose Manuel Noriega to work with from the 1950s until the end of the 1980s, but then the marines removed him and the US placed a new government in power.

The lesson here for the 21st century is that such operations are problematic in a multi-polar world where China and Russia increasingly perceive a US-NATO threat as menacing to their interests, while they pursue cordial commercial relations. The best case demonstrating the disaster of clandestine operations gone seriously wrong is Iraq where the US and its NATO and Arab allies backed the rebels who have turned out to create a much larger problem than the regime of Assad they were trying to eliminate. The US and its allies created ISIS and then scrambled to apportion blame, including the Shia Iraqi government in the blame game for the Sunni ISIS Jihadists. Similarly, the Ukraine is another area of US-led clandestine operations gone seriously wrong with the potential of either a smooth political solution or a disaster. The question is whether the disasters of such operations really mean anything to the US, or do they simply see them as minor glitches, which is in essence the problem with the prevailing mindset in the US.     

The nature of clandestine operations
There is a big difference between intelligence collection and analysis that agencies, such as the CIA, and authorizing political assassinations through third parties, using economic or political blackmail to force individuals in a government to adopt a certain course of action. While everyone understands that foreign military aid and trade and investment are tools of influence over the aid/trade/investment recipient, it is a big leap of faith to comprehend how threatening heavy handed covert operations that would result in regime change is a legitimate part of a democratic country’s foreign policy.

Interference in elections, something the US did during the Cold War in many countries, including Italy, Greece, Vietnam, Chile, Colombia, among others. Destabilizing a country where there have been open and free elections, as has been the case in numerous areas, including Ukraine from autumn 2013 until spring 2014 constitutes foreign intervention that falls in the domain of imperialism because it demonstrate total disrespect for national sovereignty. Even worse than clandestine activity to subvert the electoral process, the use of influence with the military to bring about an end to civilian rule and install a military regime. This is something that was also common throughout the Cold War with US helping to overthrow elected regimes – among the more famous cases include not just CIA-backed coup in Iran and Guatemala in the early 1950s, but Greece in 1967 and Salvador Allende in 1973. 

Amid the frenzy of the early Cold War and the arms race, the Eisenhower administration authorized clandestine operations that were glaring violations of international law. For example, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Prime Minister of the then Republic of the Congo, was one of the most flagrant violations of international law that led to disaster for the people in central Africa. The dictatorship of Col. Joseph Mobuto proved one of the most corrupt in the continent, but the US had no problem with it because it did not ally itself to the USSR. That the dictatorship violated human rights and drove the country into bankruptcy was not a problem, as long as the regime was pro-US. 

There are many such examples of the US destabilizing a popular regime by clandestine activity and then backing a dictatorship in the name of freedom and democracy, often to discover that things are not working out as initially assumed. This happened with Manuel Noriega of Panama who was a CIA man, but then dared to strike out on his own, only to be arrested by US troops in what he believed was sovereign territory that cannot be violated. 

The latest such interference from behind the scenes is Egypt where the military overthrew Islamic Brotherhood’s President Morsi and proceeded to create a virtual one-party state backed by the US and its allies. In all such cases of course, there is a backlash that comes back to bite very hard simply because the absence of a popular mandate and imperial interference create multiple resentment in the broader population that realizes national and popular sovereignty have been surrendered.

Besides paramilitary operations that are the heart of clandestine activity and have a direct impact, the use of mainstream media for propaganda purposes along with payoffs to politicians, military officers, trade unionists, and public officials are among the less innocuous forms of clandestine work. There is no doubt that propaganda to win the hearts and minds of a segment of the population is very important and deemed an acceptable part of foreign policy. The only question is the degree to which news organizations and reporters are no longer reporting news but rather delivering a point of view with the goal of convincing the public that “black is white”, for example. This practice goes back to the 19th century when European imperialists used everyone from newspaper reporters to clergy to convince Africans and Asians  that it was best for them to be under colonial rule. 

As part of clandestine operations, molding public opinion in the 21st century has become much more sophisticated, and not just because the NSA spies on millions of people around the world, as Snowden revealed to the world. For example, if the US government is interested in selling fighter planes to a government that is also looking to buy from the French, it will use its influence with the armed forces of the buyer but also plug in numerous paid stories in the media about the importance of buying the US-made planes. In additions, among the more sophisticated methods of molding public opinion are the NGO’s that present themselves as neutral parties, when in fact they could be funded from the government and carrying out its tasks, as the CIA clearly states in its web site.

NGOs and Clandestine Operations
While I expected the CIA web page to be recruiting personnel for clandestine operations worldwide, I was somewhat surprised when I saw a rather candid article about the agency’s use of high tech and NGO’s in intelligence operations, as the excerpt below reveals. “Over the past decade and a half, three phenomena have expanded dramatically: the availability of information through the diffusion of information technology; the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as important players in international affairs; and the demand for international engagement in failed or weak states, some having suffered from devastating conflicts. These three facts interact and raise a number of issues for US policymakers and for the Intelligence Community.”

As the CIA acknowledges, modern technology has meant radical changes in how clandestine operations are conducted, given that the web, cell phones and more sophisticated surveillance technology have created more possibilities for covert operations to be carried out by governments at the expense of other governments, businesses, private organizations, and individuals. Besides modern technology from satellites to drones, there is another vehicle that has been used to carry out clandestine operations, namely, hundreds of NGOs that are mere fronts for covert operations intended to destabilize a regime or to bring about regime change. This has been the case in Ukraine, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Egypt, Syria, among some of the more notable examples in news headlines. In fact, the covert role of NGOs in Bolivia, Ukraine, and Venezuela has been very controversial and an open secret to the degree that there is a great deal published on the subject.

Arguing that the only goal is to deliver “freedom and democracy”, as though these are commodities like tomatoes to be delivered from the producer to the reluctant consumer and not rights to come from the grass roots of the people involved, the US also argues that its actions are intended to fight terrorism in all its forms. Needless to say, the definition of terrorism is one that constantly shifts. For example, the freedom fighters that the US supported in Syria in the last two years are today’s terrorists known as ISIS and causing massive damage to Iraq. The same holds true for Ukraine where neo-Nazis become freedom fighters, while pro-Russia separatists are baptized terrorists because they oppose of pro-West regime in Kiev.

As a constructed political phenomenon with social and economic dimensions, ‘the war on terrorism’ fills the void left by the Cold War in the East-West confrontation needed to maintain the sociopolitical status quo and the existing economic order that relies to a certain extent on defense sector-related public spending.  That the US chose to make ‘terrorism’ the cornerstone of its policy was well planned and calculated in order to maintain the institutional structure that had been built since the Truman administration.  Moreover, the global anti-terrorism campaign provides the US with the rationale to keep the goal of Pax Americana, namely, an imperial foreign policy rooted in very large defense sector and intelligence operations spending.

Not to take away anything from the late great scholar Sam Huntington who developed the clash of civilizations theory, but there is no "clash of civilizations" objectively speaking, as though by nature or simply because cultures are different. After all, there is a very long history of Medieval Islam from the Iberia to the Ottoman Empire proving that harmonious co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims were very fruitful. Indeed, the essence of progress in any society at any epoch in history is rooted in cultural diffusion and this is something that Muslims appreciated long before the Age of the Enlightenment in 18th century France. 

There is no clash between Western Christendom and Islam today any more than it was during the crusades. Just as with the crusaders interested in land, trade routes, gold, and glory of power that conquest injects into disturbed minds, similarly today there are those who think like crusaders and must manufacture crises. If indeed there is no “class of civilizations”, other than a manufactured one, the question is how imperial regimes create such clashes to justify their policies and ambitious goals.
The national sovereignty issue along with social justice is also at the core of the global terrorism campaign. There is something very disturbing indeed when regimes use the terrorism card as a mass distraction from social, economic and political problems, but above all to crush all voices demanding national sovereignty.

US Clandestine Operations and the Web
From the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation in 1961 until today, the US has tried different ways to undermine the Cuban regime. This is hardly because the tiny island of Cuba poses a threat to the US as many varieties of ultra-right wingers who have lost claim to their senses claim. However, these fire-breathing ideologues have a point when they insist that Cuba is a symbol of resistance to the hegemonic vision of Pan-Americanism that Washington has imposed from Presidents Monroe to the present. In short, Cuba is a thorn, much more so than Venezuela recently, and the US simply wishes to impose its will on the island to complete the picture of a US-dominated Western Hemisphere.

In 2009, the U.S. government created a “Cuban Twitter” (dubbed ZunZuneo) intended to sabotage the whose money trail is difficult to trace, the project tried to circumvent Cuba’s control of the internet, appealing to young people interested in voicing dissent, but totally unaware that behind the scheme was the US State Department gathering data on users for political manipulation. The US set up this project after the Cuban government arrested and imprisoned Alan Cross for running a clandestine mission using highly sensitive web technology. The US-AID program for which Cross was working insisted that it was on a “humanitarian mission”, trying to deliver freedom and human rights to Cuba, the same island where the US has been hosting political prisoners without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

Although some Senators expressed concern for such operations violating US laws, the Obama administration ostensibly more committed to respect of the law than Bush, did not back down from the clandestine activity. Setting the issue of legality aside, given that anything is legal including torturing prisoners held without due process, US Agency for International Development (USAID), which has a wide array of overt and covert projects under its umbrella, ran the program. It makes perfect sense that USAID would run the program, given that it has a longstanding history of running clandestine operations worldwide, everything from subverting trade unions to media outlets. It also makes sense that the money trail is almost untraceable, running from earmarked finds for Pakistan, but involving centers of operations in Spain and the Caribbean.

Ironically, the Obama administration that had presented itself as more open and democratic resorted to clandestine activities just as reminiscent of the early Cold War as Reagan and Bush. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton justified such clandestine activity, saying that the U.S. helps people in “oppressive Internet environments get around filters.” That she made a point to bring up Arab Spring, revealed the extent of US clandestine operations in those popular uprisings where the masses were manipulated, just like the Cubans, without knowing the source.

Will there be a pullback from clandestine operations because of the disasters in Ukraine where there is no military solution or Iraq under ISIS threat? My hope is that common sense and sanity may prevail in Washington, but that is optimistic. On the contrary, all evidence indcates that the contradictions in US foreign policy abound. For example, despite the massive problems that the Jihadist ISIS rebels are causing for the West, including rising oil prices, the Obama administration is actually increasing its financial assistance to Syrian rebels, further destabilizing the entire region. One could argue that the move makes sense because Syria relies on Russia for support and it seems that Iraq has also been looking to Moscow for military assistance; a move that apparently does not sit well with Washington. Although the logic here is to assist the enemies of my enemy, those enemies of my enemies can all turn against me as well in due course. This is a lesson apparently lost on US policy makers who rather not worry now about longer term consequences.

I see that the smooth-talking Obama administration projecting an image of multilateralism and legality to the world is in essence not very different than any Cold War administration Democrat or Republican. The polished façade of consultation with allies and seeking political solutions to crises conceals a long-standing policy of clandestine operations that include everything from USAID to NGOs and mysterious money trails that circumvent congressional oversight. 

Beyond the question of ethics that does not enter into the domain of clandestine operations, there is the question of risks/rewards. As long as the US was the number one superpower, it could engage in clandestine operations even if they went really badly as the Bay of Pigs. In the early 21st century, the world is not the same as it was in the early 1960s, but the US uses the same tactics as though nothing has changed. Just because the Communist bloc collapsed does not means that Russia and China are not rivals to be taken seriously. Nor is Latin America the same now as it was in the mid-20th century when regimes were in the backpocket of the US. As far as the Middle East goes, no matter what the US does other than to pursue multilateral policy and political solutions to conflicts, the end result will not be favorable for the US.  

In a wolrd flooded with information overflow, clandestine operations are risky affairs and there is a price to be paid, just as we see in Ukraine and the Middle East. Determined to escalate clandestine operations in the face of a declining Pax Americana and rising Asian economic influence in the world, Washington will actually resort to even more risky measures in the future as the reality of decline becomes clearer. After all, US-based multinational corporations have moved assets abroad and increasingly are seeking to avoid paying the IRS, thus contributing to the budgetary deficit. 

With the role of multinational corporations increasingly less rooted in the US where they would be contributing to the US economy, the government will be making desperate efforts to secure market share and influence, but toward what end?  While the US is engaged in all kinds of expensive and risky clandestine operations that would presumably strengthen the US economy and the dollar as a reverse currency, the enemy from within is undermining those efforts, to say nothing of the unpredictability of the clandestine operations themselves. The decline is already here for the US and the only question is the delusional manner that policymakers are handling it.
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