Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Covert Crypt: Mastering Misdirection

When past covert operations are exposed, officials and pundits are quick to claim that, as bad as it sounds, that’s "ancient history." Things were different during the Cold War, after all, and beating communism required extreme, sometimes unsavory, tactics. Yet, the same cynical manipulation and disregard for human life has characterized more recent US military engagements and operations around the world.

After the Soviet Union was gone, a credible new enemy was required. US policy makers quickly turned their eyes toward Iraq, fresh from victory after an eight-year war with Iran and well-equipped with modern French and Soviet weapons. Saddam Hussein was also at the peak of his regional popularity. Based on the theory that domination of the Gulf region by a Hussein-led Iraq could jeopardize access to oil supplies, Colin Powell, then chairing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called on General H. Norman Schwarzkopf in late 1989 to prepare a blueprint for combat. Schwartzkopf, who would lead Operation Desert Storm a year later, had just taken charge of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), an expanded version of the Rapid Deployment Force established under President Carter.

In May 1990, the National Security Council released a white paper that cited Iraq, and Hussein personally, as "the optimum contenders to replace the Warsaw Pact," using the claim as a justification for increased military spending. Meanwhile, at an emergency Arab summit held in Baghdad, Hussein called for a united front against outside aggression, more Arab coordination, and increased aid to the Jordan and the Palestinian Intifada. For the foreign policy establishment, these were fighting words. Four months later Bush drew his line in the sand.

Hussein may well have been suckered into the Gulf war by repeated assurances that the US felt no obligation to come to Kuwait's defense. On the surface, this may sound like just a conspiracy theory, but there is a transcript to support the idea. On July 25, 1990, eight days before the outbreak of fighting between Iraq and Kuwait, US Ambassador April Glaspie held a taped meeting with Hussein, who apparently hoped to make sure the US would remain neutral and not intervene. Obviously, he understood that Saudi Arabia was Washington's key Arab ally and hosted a significant US military presence in the Gulf. No credible evidence that Iraq planned to attack the Saudis has ever surfaced.

During their talk, Glaspie clearly suggested to Hussein that the Bush administration understood Iraq's point of view and didn't want to meddle in an Arab dispute. At one point, she said, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait...we see the Iraqi point of view that the measures taken by the U.A.E. and Kuwait is, in the final analysis, parallel to military aggression against Iraq." A week later, that proved to be a very bad tip.

Another case of misdirection, which at least sparked some outrage at the time, was the US training of Indonesian commandos accused of torturing and killing civilians. Despite a congressional ban in the 1990s, the Pentagon exploited a legal loophole that allowed "human rights training" to provide instruction in demolition, sniper techniques, psychological operations, and "military operations in urban terrain." The targets included workers who had lost their jobs during the country's economic crisis, students opposing President Suharto's military-dominated regime, and East Timorese who wanted independence. Nevertheless, until support for Suharto became completely untenable, the Clinton Administration defended its actions as "engagement with an important country" that served US national interests.

And then, of course, there was the so-called humanitarian war in Yugoslavia. On February 23, 1999, James Hooper, director of the Balkan Action Council, gave a revealing speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, at the invitation of its "Committee of Conscience." The Council was one of several think tanks that sprang up to justify the transformation of the former Yugoslavia into a NATO protectorate. The first item on Hooper's to-do list was to "accept that the Balkans are a region of strategic interest for the United States, the new Berlin if you will, the testing ground for NATO's resolve and US leadership."

Before and during that war, most of the mainstream media assumed the role of cheerleader for the Western military and Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), often repeating stories that turned out to be false. The fabrications began even before the bombing with the report of a "massacre" at Racak. The source was US State Department veteran William Walker, a former US ambassador to El Salvador and Nicaragua and player in the covert 1980s campaign to supply the Contras. Walker was US ambassador to Yugoslavia at the time.

His version of Racak was soon challenged by documentary film footage. But the disinformation continued, complete with inflated casualty and refugee figures, silence about KLA attacks and atrocities, and the claim (later proven false) that Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova had been assassinated. That actually may have been a case of wishful thinking, much like the premature announcement that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a thorn for US oil companies, had been overthrown in April 2002; Chavez was back in his office within two days of an attempted, US-sanctioned coup. In Rugova’s case, the US/NATO concern was that he had condemned the attack and seemed more willing to negotiate with Milosevic than those claiming to defend Albanian interests.

What really happened in Rajak? According to a team of Finnish pathologists sent in to investigate, Serbian police entered the village, a KLA stronghold, on January 15, 1999. Observers from an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Verification Mission and an Associated Press video team tagged along. In the ensuing fire fight, Serb police bested their attackers. The next day, however, KLA combatants led international media and Walker, who also headed the OSCE mission, to a gully at the edge of town littered with corpses.

After the KLA showed the group the bodies of about 40 people, Walker immediately cried "massacre" and accused Serbia's security forces of killing "unarmed civilians." The story went global. Describing the incident as "a deliberate and arbitrary act of murder," President Clinton issued a harsh condemnation. The German foreign ministry agreed, warning those responsible that "the international community is not prepared to accept the brutal persecution and murder of civilians in Kosovo."

The Yugoslav government denied the accusation, accusing the KLA of gathering the corpses of its own fighters and arranging them to resemble a mass execution. But hardly anyone believed that. What soon became known as the "Racak massacre" had made NATO intervention a virtual certainty. The Washington Post later reported that Rajak "transformed the West's Balkan policy as singular events seldom do." Soon after January 15, NATO held an emergency meeting, during which US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recommended bombing Yugoslavia as "punishment." But before the punishment could be administered, Washington had to go through the charade of "peace talks.” The strategy was apparently to issue demands that the Yugoslav regime couldn’t accept.

In February, forensic experts arrived from Belarus and Finland. The Belarus team said there was no massacre, but the Finnish spokesperson issued a vague report that allowed Walker's charges to stand. A year later, the same team was no longer so sure. According to a May 2000 CBC Radio News report, a Finnish pathologist's autopsies revealed no evidence that the 40 bodies were intentionally mutilated. Only one of them showed signs of murder at close range. The most plausible explanation turned out to be that KLA fighters were killed in a fire fight. But the truth had been suppressed long enough to help shape public opinion.

By identifying Albanians as "victims" and Serbs as villains from the outset, the US and its allies were able to effectively short-circuit debate. The Clinton administration also insisted that the Kosovar Albanians only wanted US-style democracy (their actual goal was control over territory), and that democracy, combined with a free market economy, would ultimately solve their problems. But NATO/US intervention was meanwhile making a bad situation worse, in effect creating the humanitarian catastrophe it was supposed to avert.

Behind the scenes, a Brzezinski-style geostrategy was being played out: successful prosecution of the war would help to secure potential pipeline routes to Caspian oil, while expanding NATO's role as a tool of Western hegemony over Eurasia. The result was a convenient fiction that made reality virtually impossible to detect.

In 1998, the Council on Foreign Relations suggested that the CIA should be allowed to use journalists and clergy as cover – as if they didn't already. Since then the Agency has moved into economic intelligence and computer-age information warfare. Assisting the CIA, the National Endowment for Democracy has funneled funds to hundreds of so-called non-governmental organizations that actually front for its operations, particularly in Africa and Latin America. Since declaring Islamic fundamentalism the post-communist global menace, the Agency is known to have run Endowment-fronted covert operations in Venezuela, Haiti, Iran, and the Sudan.

On the other hand, growing public skepticism about the accuracy of news reports suggests that not everything has proceeded as the military-intelligence establishment would like. The public still isn't getting the whole story. But no surprise there. After all, the more people know, the less likely they are to swallow slippery explanations.

Next: Kissinger, Chile, & Déjà vu in Georgia

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