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The errant actions of the C.I.A. are by now so evident that they are a staple of Washington conversion. Like the weather, though, it is the topic everybody talks about, but does nothing about.
The drone revelations, and the administration’s stonewalling, that coincided with John Brennan’s confirmation hearings created a stir. That incident struck a nerve because the White House looked ready to extend its claim to a right to kill Americans abroad to the domestic scene. The prospect of moves to bring the Agency to heal quickly died down once he made a vague promise to downsize the drone program. Moreover, no elected official voiced concern about the implications of killing lots of foreigners – even innocent civilians – as we are doing routinely in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
That may change. Now we have the graphic account of a maverick C.I.A. conducting its own clandestine war against the government of Pakistan without a stipulated authorization. And doing so in a ham-handed manner that helped to ruin whatever small chance remained of extricating ourselves from Afghanistan and neighboring frontier areas of Pakistan without leaving behind a dangerous chaos on both sides of the Durand Line. The detailed picture painted by two authoritative accounts of the notorious Raymond Davis affair, and its clamorous aftermath, provides us with a fine-grained view of studied ignorance and appalling incompetence among C.I.A. leaders in Langley and Islamabad (Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife and Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars). It also describes National Security Council sessions for which ‘dysfunctional’ would be a generous term. The slanging matches among cabinet members on matters of sensitivity and importance took place with an absent Commander in Chief failing to exercise the policy guidance and operational oversight that are his mandate as President.
Raymond Davis was at first a Blackwater hireling sent to Lahore where he was immediately given delicate espionage missions by the C.I.A.’s chief of station despite no knowledge of the country, no serious training nor supervision. Later, he seems to have been on both the Agency and the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command (JSOC) payrolls. Davis was one of hundreds, of former military and espionage people who were shipped clandestinely to Pakistan as part of a campaign to identify and suppress any radical Islamist grouping we decided was a threat to the United States. That definition of ‘threat’ was so loosely drawn as to cover dozens of purely Pakistani groups who had no presence in or evident intent to attack the United States. Declaring the Pakistani Army and, especially its Inter-Service Intelligence unit (ISI), as itself an enemy rather than a partner, the C.I.A. planned a massive intelligence operation against them. The aims and purposes of this audacious plan were never spelled out nor, apparently, were they ever the subject of a dedicated, scrupulous policy review by the White House. It could be considered a rogue operation except that President Obama gave it some sort of tacit endorsement of which there is no record.
Davis turned it into a diplomatic disaster. Using thin Consulate cover in Lahore, he set out on some murky mission directed against the home-grown Lakshar-e-Taibi group based in the Punjab, far from the Afghan border. It had an ambiguous relationship with the Pakistani authorities who both feared its popularity in fundamentalist circles and sought to coopt it. Whatever the particulars, Davis wound up shooting and killing two low level ISI agents on a motor scooter who had trailed him on his way to and from a meet. Then, a civilian was run down by a C.I.A. car sent to rescue him from an enraged crowd. Trailing him wasn’t very difficult since he was in a big SUV packed with guns, ammo, spy equipment (including a make-up kit) and hung several official, if contradictory, credentials around his neck. He also had multiple passports of various vintage and identification.
This incident led to a noxious crisis that has poisoned US-Pakistan relations to this day – thanks to Washington’s bellicose reaction. Spurning repeated Pakistani attempts to finesse the matter, Leon Panetta as C.I.A. Director refused to acknowledge Davis’ true identity even in confidence to his counterpart, General Pasha, while issuing a barrage of threats against the Pakistani military leadership. He ran roughshod over the American Ambassador. Cameron Munter, who sensibly suggested ways to reach a modus vivendi. He insulted Hillary Clinton at a NSC meeting when she offered a few words in defense of Munter. His actions sparked massive anti-American riots across Pakistan. The accounts offered by Mazzelli and Scahill reveals Panetta, his senior deputies, and his chief of station in Pakistan as not knowing the most elementary facts about the Pakistani government, laws, judicial procedures or personalities. Or caring very much what they were.
When finally Davis was freed after intractable dealings concluding with Washington paying blood money to relatives of the victims before a Sharia court, Panetta got his revenge by launching a drone attack the next day in Northwest Pakistan that killed 40 people – women and children among them. Equally distressing, this episode starkly reveals a United States government flailing about blindly unsure as to what it is trying to accomplish on the basis of what strategic conception of national interests. It reveals as well an unaccountable C.I.A. whose incompetent conduct at times bordered on the comic, and an Agency staffed by hyper-active egoists at all levels – from Raymond Davis on up. This is an intelligence agency that contracts with the notorious Blackwater to sweep up former soldiers and spies who are then dispatched to alien places where they are enlisted in security operations with little preparation and less discipline. And paid more than $200,000 a head – privatization at work.
Davis, who some months after his eventual release, was convicted of unprovoked assault against a minister in a Denver parking lot, seems to have been vetted by no one. Thousands of people of his background have been recruited and deployed to perform sensitive assignments because the C.I.A., despite its huge resources, is overstretched as it chases could-be bad guys of various types across the globe. One wonders whether other Davis types were in Libya where their presence may have contributed to the tragic fiasco at Benghazi.
What we see is the portrait of a semi-autonomous agency, poorly led and allowed unjustifiable independence by an absentee president – an agency that has done grave damage to the security and well-being of the United States. Yet nothing is changing or is likely to change. William Brennan is a creature of the C.I.A. where he sent his entirely career on its operational side. Brennan is imbued with the passions of a true believer in an unlimited and largely unrestrained “war on terror.” He displays the gung-go enthusiasm of those who somehow believe that if you move fast enough, all accidents will occur behind you. In short, he is the embodiment of all that explains why the C.I.A. is now a national liability.
The valuable analytical work done at Langley by responsible professionals is not the problem. In that sphere, the worrisome feature is the intrusion into their work of policy-makers who let it be known what answers they want to validate what pre-conceived purposes.
What can be done to remedy this painful state of affairs? Obviously, the first step is to recognize the seriousness of the harm that has been done and how deeply rooted the causes are. Once that prerequisite is met, we can consider the following measures. One, remove from the Agency all means and power to use force. The C.I.A. has proven itself too prone to abuse, too lacking in judgment, and too impervious to political control to place weaponry in its hands. As additional example, the CIA is running its own army of Afghan recruits, the O-4 units, who were responsible for the killing of children in Kunar province last week. Plans call for them to stay after 2014. Two, the use of unconventional weaponry generally should be narrowly circumscribed as a matter of principle with any deviation from that norm requiring explicit presidential approval. Simply to transfer the means and methods from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon’s JSOC under General McRaven is pointless in terms of practical effect. They are both reckless and literally out of control. Three, terminate the use of contract workers in combat or quasi-combat roles, and terminate their use by the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies. The risks and costs are demonstrably enormous; the gain is invisible.
Finally, the time is long overdue for a systematic critical review of the GWOT in all its aspects. The United States no longer is killing people in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a hunt for al-Qaeda terrorists. We are killing them to prevent the Taliban and affiliates from challenging the ramshackle regime we have installed in Kabul and the pliable one we aim to install in Islamabad. In short, we created a monster that itself now a greater problem than the boundless ‘enemy’ it supposedly is fighting.
It comes down to what you’re trying to do and matching personnel to mission. If we aim to crush Islamic fundamentalism around the world; if we aim to root out terrorism around the world; if we aim to police the Congo jungles; if we aim to search out and destroy drug dealers around the world because American society produces drug addicts in droves; if we aim to tell everyone everywhere how to conduct their domestic affairs – then we need a magnitude and range of personnel far beyond anything we now have. Of course, constituting it will wreak the American economy – and we will fail ultimately on every front anyway.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.