Monday, September 12, 2011

Covert operations and the mystique of 9/11

One of the things I learned from the recent reflections on the 9/11 attacks, both those of others and writing my own, is what a large role 9/11 plays as a reference point in our political discourse. And because that is the case the meaning of "9/11" in American political life cannot be separated from the practical applications of the official and unofficial understandings of 9/11. Including the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars and the state of permanent war in which we effectively entered with the invasion of Afghanistan.

Columnist David Ignatius, an enthusiastic cheerleader for invading Iraq, writes in The covert commander in chief Washington Post 09/08/2011, a puff piece for the White House, praises President Obama as our James Bond-in-chief which plays heavily on "9/11" themes like the killing of Osama bin Laden:

Obama is the commander in chief as covert operator. The flag-waving "mission accomplished" speeches of his predecessor aren't Obama's thing; even his public reaction to the death of bin Laden was relatively subdued. Watching Obama, the reticent, elusive man whose dual identity is chronicled in "Dreams From My Father," you can't help wondering if he has an affinity for the secret world. He is opaque, sometimes maddeningly so, in the way of an intelligence agent.

Intelligence is certainly an area where the president appears confident and bold. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who has been running spy agencies for more than 20 years, regards Obama as "a phenomenal user and understander of intelligence." When Clapper briefs the president each morning, he brings along extra material to feed the president's hunger for information.
The President wrapping himself in his role of Protector Of The Nation is nothing new. They all do it to some extent, and understandably so.

But the sprawling scope of intelligence and other activities on "the dark side," as Dick Cheney called it, is toxic to democracy and to a great extent to sound foreign policy as well. Most of those activities can be presented in the romantic mystique of Ignatius' column on when kept secret. That's especially true of "black ops." One of the most striking things about James Prados' excellent history of the CIA's covert operations - a distinct function from intelligence gathering and analysis - Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (2006), is how inept and dumbly risky even some of the greatest CIA covert-ops success story actually were, like the coups in Iran and Guatemala in early the 1950s. If columnists like Ignatius were actually researching and reporting on some of the current dubious activities of that sort instead of comparing the President to John Le Carré's fictional hero George Smiley, they would be doing the country a much greater service.

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