Exporting Democracy
– or Terrorism?

by , January 20, 2005

Iran’s defense minister was pretty cocky the other day:

“‘We are able to say that we have strength such that no country can attack us because they do not have precise information about our military capabilities due to our ability to implement flexible strategies,’ Shamkhani told reporters on the sidelines of a ceremony to present awards for the best military equipment. We can claim that we have rapidly produced equipment that has resulted in the greatest deterrent.”

If I were Ali Shamkhani, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I don’t know if His Excellency has a subscription to The New Yorker, but I would strongly advise him to read Seymour Hersh’s piece in the latest issue. From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, Hersh has consistently given us the inside scoop on what the War Party is up to, and this time he has a real blockbuster:

“The President has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia.”

Secret commando groups, heretofore unknown “findings” and “executive orders” given in the dark: reading Hersh, we are initiated into the secret mysteries of our rulers. He strips away the veil of “democracy” to reveal the naked coercion that is the essence of all states everywhere, but particularly the American state as it morphs from a republic into a full-fledged empire:

“The Administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer. Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical, and missile sites, both declared and suspected. The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids. ‘The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible,’ the government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon told me.”

Unrepentant in the face of failure in Iraq, emboldened by the election, the Bushies are doggedly sticking to their vision of a Middle East “democratic” transformation – and Iran is the biggest, most important, and most immediate target in their sights. Not only that, but they are moving against the mullahs with the covert support of Pakistan, whose nuclear scientists know much about the Iranian nuclear program. In exchange for this help, the administration is letting them hold on to A.Q. Khan, the nuclear scientist who apparently was the key figure in a Pakistani-centered black market in nukes.

Hersh’s piece generated lots of headlines. Plenty of people have been wondering where Bush the Conqueror would strike next. My own educated guess is – or was – Syria, simply because “it’s doable,” as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said of Iraq. Others thought that the day of the neocons was over and done with, and they would – finally! – be brought to account. The president, moving into his second term, was ditching them for good: this conclusion was reached by engaging in the Washingtonian version of Kremlinology, an inside-baseball scoreboard of who gets appointed to what, and who doesn’t. Who’s leaving? Who’s staying? The tea leaves told us the neocons were out, but Hersh contradicts this wishful thinking as clearly and firmly as the president did the other day when he was asked why heads weren’t rolling over the unfolding debacle in Iraq:

“We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election.”

The Bushies are going to continue their global rampage, and this news is hardly shocking. What makes Hersh’s revelations so sensationally newsworthy is that he’s not reporting on a plan that’s in the works, but one that is being carried out even as we learn of it. This horrifies David Frum, chief political commissar at National Review, who accuses Hersh of deliberately endangering American lives: as if the Iranians had no grounds whatsoever for believing the U.S. is using every means to discover the nature and whereabouts of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Given Frum’s premise, any publicity given to exposing the relentlessly aggressive foreign policy of this administration is tantamount to treason. That’s rich, especially coming from a Canadian. A reflexive authoritarian, Frum will seize on any pretext to make the argument that war critics must be silenced. But we don’t silence critics of the government in this country – at least, not yet – and if he’s going to live here, he’ll just have to get used to it: America, love it or leave it, bud.

On the other hand, we have Roger L. Simon, the sometime novelist and an unfailingly reliable barometer of neoconnish opinion, who is generally more good-natured and even genial than dour, unsmiling Comrade Frum. After getting in the requisite number of licks against his target – Hersh’s piece is “his latest infusion of goo” – and otherwise typifying the reporter without confronting the reportage, Simon just laughs it all off. While sounding annoyed, at first, because Hersh “has an open ‘leak line’ from disgruntled CIA agents and surly State Department officials permanently plugged into his ear,” by the end of his post he’s chuckling softly to himself, averring that Hersh has been taken. But of course the administration is developing a plan to counter Iran’s nuclear self-assertion, he avers:

“If I were someone in the government who wanted to announce that we were taking a tough line and had some nasty surprises for the mullahs (to scare them, of course), but didn’t want to make this an official public policy statement, what would I do? I’d leak it to Seymour Hersh and count to five. Am I wrong? The President of the United States has now essentially corroborated Hersh.”

It wasn’t enough that the president characterized Iran as a major spoke in the “axis of evil,” second only to Iraq. It wasn’t enough to emit ceaseless threats and refuse to negotiate. Even the widespread congressional support of an anti-government Marxist terrorist group known as the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), camped just across the border in Iraq, didn’t put the fear of God in the Iranian government. Only an article in The New Yorker could do that.

But Simon is right about the Iranian game plan being no big surprise. The neocon policy wonks have been wonking about this for years: Michael Ledeen has made a career out of it. “Faster, please!” Ledeen tirelessly exhorts the U.S. government to fund a political movement that will rise up all on its own – if only Uncle Sam will give them a sign. As Hersh describes it:

“The government consultant told me that the hawks in the Pentagon, in private discussions, have been urging a limited attack on Iran because they believe it could lead to a toppling of the religious leadership. ‘Within the soul of Iran there is a struggle between secular nationalists and reformers, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the fundamentalist Islamic movement,’ the consultant told me. ‘The minute the aura of invincibility which the mullahs enjoy is shattered, and with it the ability to hoodwink the West, the Iranian regime will collapse’ – like the former Communist regimes in Romania, East Germany, and the Soviet Union. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz share that belief, he said.”

If this “government consultant” isn’t Ledeen, it is someone remarkably Ledeen-like. In any case, this is hardly news: as the president will no doubt reiterate in his inaugural address, the “global democratic revolution” and our neocon grand strategists are still in the drivers’ seat. So what else is new?

What’s new is the horror at the heart of Hersh’s article, a depth of evil I never thought any American government would sink to, which, if true, signals our passage into uncharted territory.

Hersh is very much focused on the bureaucratic internecine struggle of various factions within the government, with the CIA and old-line Pentagon generals on one side, and the neocons atop the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and swarming all over the office of the vice president. If the rest of the country is divided into red states and blue states, then the inside-the-Beltway crowd comes in shades of yellow and green: the former are the infamous chickenhawks (a synonym for neocons), and the latter are the Old Guard, green with envy over the triumph of their factional rivals. The monarch is himself a very bright yellow, and, as a consequence, the greens are being purged. At the CIA – Green Central – plenty of top-tier analysts are being put out to pasture.

These are the anonymous former intelligence officers and about-to-be-former government officials who provide a constant supply of grist for Hersh’s mill, and they have their own agenda. But that doesn’t mean anything if what Hersh reports is true. Furthermore, Hersh’s emphasis on the bureaucratic turf wars is not just inside baseball, or evidence that he’s being manipulated by his sources. Because the whole point of this intra-bureaucratic struggle is that the War Party is doing an end run around the Constitution, the Congress, and the American people. The president and Rumsfeld intend to

“Run the [secret] operations off the books – free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A. Under current law, all C.I.A. covert activities overseas must be authorized by a Presidential finding and reported to the Senate and House intelligence committees. (The laws were enacted after a series of scandals in the nineteen-seventies involving C.I.A. domestic spying and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders.) ‘The Pentagon doesn’t feel obligated to report any of this to Congress,’ the former high-level intelligence official said. ‘They don’t even call it “covert ops” – it’s too close to the C.I.A. phrase. In their view, it’s “black reconnaissance.” They’re not even going to tell the cincs’ – the regional American military commanders-in-chief.”

Hersh’s remarkable series on this war – the whole saga of Abu Ghraib, the “Copper Green” project, the creation of a parallel intelligence unit that bypassed the CIA and fed the White House forged documentary “evidence” of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions – takes place in a dark, shadowy world of night predators, where stealth and deception are cherished virtues. All these outrages against the Constitution, against the very concept of decency and any sense of morality or human dignity occurred in darkest secrecy. Torture, assassination squads, a campaign of lies culminating in a horrific war – the people wouldn’t put up with it if they knew. Not the American people: not for a moment.

Rumsfeld is at the center of each and every scandal, and the centralization of power in his hands is what concerns Hersh greatly. From the beginning, the truculent old troll has been annexing vast territories to add to his bureaucratic empire, encroaching on the CIA and various other bureaucratic fiefdoms, absorbing them or their functions into the Great Borg of the DoD.

The purpose of this, aside from the Law of Bureaucratic Expansionism – it’s exponential if left unchecked – is to achieve a level of secrecy supposedly required by the circumstances of the post-9/11 era. The law forbids the CIA from running death squads, overthrowing governments, dealing dope, or engaging in various other morally indefensible activities without at least some kind of congressional oversight. But the DoD can literally get away with murder, without reporting to Congress except in the most general terms, simply by invoking the presidential power in wartime. Like any dictator, George W. Bush’s authority as commander-in-chief overrides Congress, the courts, and the laws of God and man– at least according to White House legal theorists.

The president, you’ll remember, believes he has been chosen by God, and Rumsfeld is his prophet, his instrument, the leader of the Bushian Church Militant in its fight against the forces of Satan. But the terrible secret of these heavenly hosts is that they’ve decided to go Satanic, so as to beat Satan at his own game:

“Under Rumsfeld’s new approach, I was told, U.S. military operatives would be permitted to pose abroad as corrupt foreign businessmen seeking to buy contraband items that could be used in nuclear-weapons systems. In some cases, according to the Pentagon advisers, local citizens could be recruited and asked to join up with guerrillas or terrorists. This could potentially involve organizing and carrying out combat operations, or even terrorist activities. Some operations will likely take place in nations in which there is an American diplomatic mission, with an Ambassador and a C.I.A. station chief, the Pentagon consultant said. The Ambassador and the station chief would not necessarily have a need to know, under the Pentagon’s current interpretation of its reporting requirement.

“The new rules will enable the Special Forces community to set up what it calls ‘action teams’ in the target countries overseas which can be used to find and eliminate terrorist organizations. ‘Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?’ the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. ‘We founded them and we financed them,’ he said. ‘The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it.’ A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon’s commando capabilities, said, ‘We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.'”

I’m going to resist citing Nietzsche, and confine myself to the obvious point that if you ride with the bad boys you are one of the bad boys. I note, also, that the use of the word “boys” gives this whole fantastic scheme a frighteningly adolescent air. Are these adult youngsters out on a lark about to bring total discredit and even shame on us all? They already have at Abu Ghraib, but this, if it’s true, is worse: the idea that we would attempt to infiltrate the terrorist “network” by setting up a terrorist network of our own – that we would deploy “action teams” to engage in combat and “even terrorist activities” – leaves one breathless. All sorts of questions arise, like vampires at sunset: Where would these “terrorist activities” take place – and how could the authors of this crazed scheme guarantee they would never occur on American soil?

So now we have the ultimate irony: the U.S. government wants to create terrorist groups in the name of the “war on terrorism.” Just as the “War on Poverty” created more poverty, and the “War on Drugs” created more drug users and enriched drug dealers, so our commanding officers in the War on Terrorism (in U.S. government parlance they call it the Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT) are now yearning to be in the business of creating more terrorism. Rummy wants to ride with the “bad boys,” but he doesn’t want the American people – the taxpayers – to know about it. This government is operating under the “new rules,” drawn up by them, without any accountability or even the knowledge of anyone outside the circle of power.

Yes, we remember the death squads of El Salvador. They want to do the same in Iraq, as last week’s headlines attested. But this business of setting up terrorist guerrilla groups, possibly “false flag” operations, in an attempt to draw the real terrorists into our net, is playing with fire. The FBI did this in their campaign against the Ku Klux Klan, and domestic law enforcement agencies regularly infiltrate criminal gangs, but the great danger with this tactic is that, very often, these agents go over to the dark side. They spend so much of their time in a criminal milieu that they eventually become criminals, crossing over the very thin line between cop and thug.

If we take this up to the level Rumsfeld proposes, we’ll be asking for blowback of potentially massive proportions. If the government itself engages in terrorism, and deploys “fake” terrorist groups as decoys, after the next 9/11 will we have to wonder if our own government was somehow involved in it?

In that case, I throw in the towel. I give up. I could take the threat of a foreign terrorist menace, and live with the reality that bad guys from some unpleasant and obscure corner of the globe are on the loose and want to kill us. But when the bad guys are Americans – or, worse, foreign bad guys working under American direction and at American taxpayers’ expense – that just isn’t playing fair. These are the “new rules” Rumsfeld wants to institute, but you know what? I ain’t playin’. Any country that allows this monstrous immorality isn’t worth saving.

The worst part – aside from the sheer juvenility of this crack-brained scheme – is that they think it will work. One official cited by Hersh boasts that they’re going to win the “war on terrorism” by the end of Bush’s term. And here we’ve been routinely assured that we wouldn’t see the end of it for at least a generation or so. Sidney Blumenthal makes the trenchant point that the president and his circle live inside a very well-insulated cocoon, and Hersh confirms the delusional nature of this narrow, war-maddened clique. These people are capable of anything – and that’s what makes them so dangerous.

Hersh’s big scoop isn’t that George W. Bush is going to carry his crusade to every continent – because the president proclaims it at every opportunity. Nor is it that we have agents on the ground in Iran – the Iranians already knew that. Our ex-friend Ahmed Chalabi no doubt let them in on most of the details. The scoop is that we have decided to join the Axis of Evil ostensibly in order to fight it. If I thought for a moment that Americans can live with that, then I’d wear the “anti-American” label like a badge of honor.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I‘ve taken to blogging, and a lot of items I had saved up for “Notes in the Margin” I’ve recently posted on the Antiwar.com blog. I’m not as good as Tex, or Matt, but I’m having a good time, so go check it out.

Read more by Justin Raimondo