Antiwar Reporting on the National Security State

Respected journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote an article on Feb. 4 for The Nation titled “The Expanding U.S. War in Pakistan.” In his article he presented as fact several assertions about the CIA and U.S. military special operations forces.

In this article I will challenge those assertions.


Because many readers of The Nation, and other public sources of information where the article appeared, accept without question the veracity of these assertions.

Therein lays my motive for writing this article. It is not a personal attack. It is an effort to counter the thesis Scahill presents in his article: that the CIA has ceded control over its operations in Pakistan to the Joint Special Operations Command.

Scahill’s thesis, I believe, is indicative of a general lack of critical analysis of national security matters within the antiwar movement. Antiwar spokespeople talk endlessly about the effects of national security policy. But they rarely discuss how it works from within.

This is not entirely their fault. The National Security State is the province of the pro-war right. To get inside and rise to a position of expertise, one must usually submit to years of political indoctrination calibrated to a series of increasingly restrictive security clearances.

The National Security State – the National Security Council, the military, the CIA, the FBI, the DEA, etc. – is designed to keep antiwar activists out.

As we saw during the Bush Administration, antiwar activists are even, in some cases, considered terrorist sympathizers and equated with “the enemy” within.

This is the daunting challenge facing antiwar voices like Scahill. It’s tough, but at a minimum they need to check their facts.

In this particular case, Scahill reports that three people killed in Pakistan last Wednesday were “special forces soldiers” training a paramilitary force run by Pakistan’s Interior Ministry. By his account, this confirms “that the U.S. military is more deeply engaged on the ground in Pakistan than previously acknowledged by the White House and Pentagon.”

But how does this assertion confirm that the military is more deeply involved in Pakistan than previously acknowledged (which certainly may be true) without first proving that the three people killed were, in fact, working for the military and not the CIA?

Indeed, Special Forces soldiers detailed to the CIA have deniability, and there are several reasons to believe the three people killed were deniable assets working for the CIA, not the military.

To begin with, correspondent Eric Schmitt at the New York Times told me in July 2009 that Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces “have operated closely with CIA paramilitary teams in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.   The typical covert arrangement is that in Afghanistan, the team leaders are military; in Pakistan, the CIA takes the lead.”

Schmitt’s assertion is supported by the fact that, historically, the CIA goes where the military cannot legally go. If Pakistan has not officially invited U.S. military forces onto its sovereign territory, the CIA would likely get the job. If the legal arrangements have changed, that needs to be demonstrated, not asserted.

Next, in describing the appearance of the three soldiers, Scahill cites an unidentified Pakistani journalist as saying that “some” of them were dressed in civilian clothes and were pretending to be journalists. He also cites sources as saying the three people were in Pakistan at the invitation of a private company (giving the government deniability), as civil affairs trainers, and were not involved in combat missions for the JSOC.

Granted, military special operations forces may disguise themselves as civilians and pretend to be journalists while training paramilitary forces. They are also known to work under cover of civil affairs. But given the fact that the paramilitary force (the Frontier Scouts) that was being trained is part of the Interior Ministry, not the Defense Ministry, it is also more likely that people killed were working for the CIA.

In expanding on the assertion that the soldiers were military personnel with the JSOC, Scahill, in the style of Seymour Hersh, turns to an anonymous source he identifies as “a member of CENTCOM and U.S. Special Forces with extensive experience in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre.”

“Any firefights in Pakistan would be between JSOC forces versus whoever they were chasing,” Scahill cites his source as saying. “I would bet my life on that.”

But is the source’s life at stake? And while citing an anonymous source does not lend any credibility to anyone’s assertions (even a national security “beat” reporter like Hersh or Schmitt), such melodramatic statements serve only to undermine the source’s credibility – and the thesis Scahill bases on his source’s assertions.

The thesis Scahill advances, as informed by his anonymous source, is that General Stanley McChrystal, who commands some 200 military personnel in Pakistan, has “unprecedented influence on overall U.S. military operations, opening the door for an expansion of secretive, black operations done with little to no oversight.”

According to Scahill’s anonymous source, this turning of the CIA’s traditional prerogatives over to the military indicates “battlefield preparation” for U.S. military combat operations in Pakistan.

This is a “paradigm shift,” the anonymous source asserts. “Everything is one echelon removed from before: where CIA was the darkest of the dark, now it is JSOC. Therefore, military forces have more leeway to do anything in support of future military objectives. The CIA used to have the ultimate freedom — now that freedom is in JSOC’s hands, and the other elements of the military have been ordered to adapt.”

In advancing this “battlefield preparation” thesis, Scahill’s anonymous source asserts that the CIA is “legally required to brief” Congressional intelligence committees on covert operations, but the JSOC is not. This allows the JSOC “freedom to expand or absorb traditionally CIA missions.”

According to Scahill’s anonymous source, President Obama and his Defense Secretary Robert Gates think this new arrangement, in which the JSOC pre-empts the CIA, is fine, despite “deep resentment” it has generated among those who have been excluded.

Refuting this thesis is national security expert John Prados. As Prados explains, “This is [Seymour Hersh’s] thesis. But so far as I know, Sy has not been able thus far to document that charge, in spite of a trip he made to Pakistan last year.

“Part of this is true. That is, back during the Bush years, when Rummy was concentrating power in DOD, he got unprecedented authorities for [military intelligence] to “operate” (with JSOC an action agency) for the ostensible purpose of “intelligence preparation of the battlefield,” and that he then refused intel oversight on the grounds these were military ops, creating a loophole for JSOC Intel activity. And McChrystal was in charge.

“But Gates went into DOD declaring he was going to tune back Pentagon Intel ops, fired the asst sec for these activities (Cambone), and had DOD negotiate a new agreement with CIA. I believe Gates did not go as far as necessary, but I also think he clipped the wings of some of this activity. That it has not ended is indicated by scattered mentions of [JSOC] ops worldwide – e.g., Somalia – but is yet to be demonstrated for Pakistan.

“Given his proclivities,” Prados says, “I’d not be surprised if McChrystal pushed for a “parallel operation” now in the field, but we don’t know anything concrete.”

Prados adds that the CIA is at a minimum represented at JSOC, if not, as Eric Schmitt asserts, actually in command in Pakistan. Thus, if “battlefield preparation” conniving is going on behind the CIA’s back, “it involves,” Prados says, “some element of internal deception, probably rationalized as stove-piping.”

Internal deception in Washington is divisive at best; in the field it is a matter of life and death. For example, Scahill cites an anonymous “military intelligence source” as saying that JSOC “conducts targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives.”

If the military element of JSOC targets an individual for assassination, how do they know that particular individual is not a CIA informant or double agent, unless they check with the CIA station in Pakistan? 

There are several others good reasons to believe the JSOC is subordinate to the CIA in Pakistan.

1) Gathering political intelligence is the bailiwick of the CIA. And while General McChrystal and his JSOC chief Vice Admiral William McRaven are certainly briefed on political developments, it is unlikely they have the power to secretly, apart from the CIA or State Department, forge the political agreements that are needed for U.S. paramilitaries to assassinate people and recruit agents in Pakistan.

2) The CIA is concerned with strategic intelligence, while special military units like JSOC are concerned with tactical intelligence. And yet low level intelligence – the type gathered by paramilitaries advising Frontier Scouts – often reflects a high-level directive, which is why the CIA station in Pakistan would need to know about captured documents and intelligence reports generated by JSOC. That “need to know” implies oversight.

3) Special activity military organizations like the JSOC want to win a battle. The CIA has broader responsibilities in this area of operations, including spying on the Pakistani intelligence agencies, and monitoring their involvement with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, drug smuggling, and opposition political parties.

4) The military, historically, is obligated to provide personnel slots to the CIA, so CIA officers can operate under cover. CIA officers like Edward Lansdale have been known to pose as generals. With the CIA, anything is possible. It is even possible that Stanley McChrystal was recruited by the CIA. Indeed, what better place for the CIA to have an asset, in an era like ours, now, when military special forces are in the ascendant?

5) As Ron Paul says, “There’s been a coup, have you heard? It’s the CIA coup. The CIA runs everything, they run the military.”

And yet, perhaps, as Jeremy Scahill asserts, all this has changed. Perhaps JSOC is now more secret than the CIA, and is absorbing traditional CIA missions. Perhaps President Obama is fine with all this, as well as with the resentment McChrystal’s power grab is causing.

But shouldn’t Scahill, at a minimum, check with his White House, Congressional and CIA sources to see if they agree? Isn’t some corroboration required before advancing such a thesis?

And perhaps, as Scahill concludes, the killing of the three soldiers is an indication that the U.S. military is becoming increasingly entrenched in Pakistan, and that, as the “U.S. military presence in the country expands, it will become increasingly difficult for the Obama administration to downplay or deny the reality that a U.S. war in Pakistan is already underway.”

But shouldn’t he be more careful with how he presents the assertions that support this thesis? Presentation matters. Scahill wrote the article in the Seymour Hersh style, mixing anonymous sources with dramatic statements and phrases like “The Nation has learned” this or that, suggesting that his evidence is authoritative.

But is it authoritative, when compared to what Schmitt and Prados say?

There is not much difference between disinformation and misinformation, and often the difference is subtle and stylistic. One intends to deceive; the other does so without trying. Writing in an authoritative style when one is not an authority is an attempt to deceive, and that’s why the question arises, “Is this article an example of deliberate disinformation?

Was it stylistic disinformation, for example, to omit the fact that the three dead soldiers were killed while attending the opening of a girls’ school in Pakistan?

I doubt it. But it does need to be emphasized that the CIA places its paramilitary political action cadre in “civic action” programs designed to foster democracy (a girls’ school) while forming self-defense forces (the Frontier Scouts) as a means of “protecting the people from terrorism.” Often these people are special forces personnel.

The CIA performs these civic action and self-defense functions to cover its actual purpose, which is to recruit agents to identify enemy cadre, and capture or kill them.

Apart from what Schmitt and Prados say, the fact that the three dead Americans were in that situation is reason enough to think they were the CIA employees, and not jump to the conclusion that they were JSOC “soldiers.”

In both reporting, and covert actions, omission indicates an intention to deceive. I think the intention in this case is to deceive the reader into thinking the writer is an authority, not to cover for the CIA. But the effect is the same: people are deceived about the CIA.