Springtime for Spooks?

The biggest source of speculation about President George W. Bush’s foreign policy in a second term is if it will continue on the same aggressive trajectory that marked the first, or whether, chastened by Iraq, it will be more restrained over the next four years.

Much will, of course, depend on who will get which positions in the new administration. If, as anticipated, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage decide to leave the government, a number of key posts will be up for grabs.

The capital’s odds-makers are already taking bets on the outcome, with early indications that neoconservatives and the hardline nationalists who led the drive to war in Iraq and now favor confrontation with Iran, Syria, North Korea, and other possible adversaries may actually extend control over key policymaking levers, especially in the National Security Council (NSC) staff and the State Department.

One close observer of the speculation, James Mann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), divides the major schools of thought into “doomsayers” – those who believe Bush’s second term “is likely to produce further military interventions overseas, along the lines of Iraq in 2003” – and “skeptics” – those who argue the second term “will turn out to be more cautious and less belligerent.”

Mann, author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, predicts in an article in the foreign policy section of the Web site of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that the skeptics are likely to prevail.

That is not because the administration will be less hawkish in temperament; indeed, everything Bush has said since his reelection would suggest the opposite – but rather because it faces “a series of constraints – military, diplomatic, political and economic – that will curb its ability to launch new preventive wars,” he argues.

Because the U.S. Armed Forces are so bogged down in Iraq with no discernible end in sight, asks Mann, “where is the administration going to come up with the troops for new military ventures in places such as Syria? … Any effort to commit U.S. forces elsewhere is likely to run into intense resistance among the uniformed military, from the joint chiefs of staff down to the rank-and-file.”

Mann sees these constraints as dictating a more “realist” and multilateral approach, such as that long urged by Powell and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, even if the more-aggressive vision of U.S. global military domination remains at the heart of the new team.

But he does allow that the administration may still try to “wield its military power in a way that doesn’t require a lot of troops, such as through air strikes,” an option that has already been contemplated for nuclear-related targets in Iran and North Korea.

Mann is clearly himself right on target, but he fails to mention another form of intervention that is poised to become the instrument of choice in the new term: covert action carried out by a reinvigorated and much more richly endowed clandestine service of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command (SOC).

The annual intelligence budget has reportedly increased from just under $30 billion four years ago to around $40 billion for fiscal year 2005. While most of that money is earmarked for Pentagon agencies that collect intelligence through satellites and other technical means, Congress has called for a major buildup in human intelligence and covert capabilities, which stands to benefit the CIA’s clandestine service in particular.

Moreover, the new CIA director, former Representative Porter Goss, is reportedly moving quickly to build up the clandestine service, apparently in hopes of returning it to its 1960s glory days, when he worked in its Latin America operations.

“The directorate of operation [DO] people are very pleased with his arrival,” said Melvin Goodman, a retired career CIA analyst who retains close ties to the agency. “He’s taking the line that covert action is important, that the agency has to be more imaginative, and that he feels there are plenty of opportunities [for covert action] out there.”

At the same time, added Goodman, Goss is purging the analytical ranks in the CIA who were thought to be too critical of, if not disloyal to, the administration’s policy line in the first term, and hiring as consultants former senior operations officers who were active in the 1980s, when former CIA Director William Casey was running several covert wars against alleged Soviet clients as part of the Reagan Doctrine (of former President Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989).

Also, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made it clear that the SOC, which currently manages close to 50,000 Special Operations Forces (SOF) worldwide, is to play a preeminent role in the military’s “transformation” to a 21st-century fighting force and especially in the “war on terror.”

Moreover, unlike the CIA, which is subject to fairly strict congressional oversight and can only carry out a major covert action if the president makes a formal “finding” authorizing it, SOF units, whose actions are not technically considered “covert action,” may operate with a much freer hand overseas, except when operating under the CIA’s control, as was the case during the agency’s Afghanistan campaign.

Rumsfeld has been pushing steadily for more money and greater freedom of action for SOC personnel, and he is succeeding in both. In just two years the SOC’s budget has almost doubled and now stands at close to $7 billion for 2005.

As for its freedom of action, the SOC has been upgraded from a “supporting” command – which lends out its personnel when regional commands demand them – to a “supported” command, which means it can act as the leading force during war.

And just last week the Pentagon secured new authority that allows SOF to spend $25 million a year providing “support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups or individuals” aiding U.S. efforts against terrorists and other targets, reported the Los Angeles Times. Until now, that kind of activity has been limited to the CIA.

While the total amount of money involved is fairly small – Rumsfeld had asked for $50 million – that it was approved by Congress is seen by some observers as a first step by the Pentagon chief toward greatly expanding the kinds of intelligence activities SOF may carry out, in part to marginalize the CIA.

“I think that the timing for a new emphasis on covert operations is favorable to the administration at this point because it has ramped up the covert capabilities within the CIA and the [SOF],” said John Prados, a prolific author on U.S. intelligence and foreign policymaking.

He added that the $25 million authorization for SOF to support irregular forces suggests “the administration has specific activities in mind.”

“Some aspects of the Reagan administration that lent themselves to the kind of manipulation that Casey performed are, in fact, present in the current administration,” he argued, citing “subordinate officials who are in effect executing their own agendas, considerable entrepreneurial laissez-faire in the bureaucracy, and the attitude that the only question is, ‘Can you get the job done?'”

If, in addition, Bush replaces Powell and other “realists” with individuals more in tune with the aggressive unilateralism that dominated policy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the new team will have a number of advantages in pursuing a covert agenda that Casey lacked, such as a Republican-led Congress, according to Prados.

“It will have a more sympathetic Congress, a president who is more conscious of what’s going on but fully supportive, and a top layer of policymakers who, instead of checkmating each other with bureaucratic stalemate, will be pushing in the same direction.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.